Lyndon's Reviews > Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear: Christian Practice of Everyday Life

Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear by Scott Bader-Saye
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Jun 17, 08

bookshelves: theology

St. Thomas Aquinas thought that fear was a ‘passion of the soul.' What he meant was that, unlike a broken finger or a suntan, fear was an experience that referenced the whole activity of a person. A doctor could bandage your broken finger without regard to your emotions, and lotion could help the results of a suntan; but you cannot address fear without addressing the entire person. Aquinas taught that fear is a ‘bodily response of the soul'; it has a way of shaping how a person thinks, behaves, interacts, and prays. The question becomes: what hope do we have if fear has so much influence over us?

This question provides an implicit starting point for Scott Bader-Saye's, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. In short, Bader-Saye wants to put fear in its place. Following Aquinas, Bader-Saye reasons that responding to fear is a matter of learning how to fear and when to fear and what can truly be feared. In other words, fear, like anger or joy, is a ‘passion of the soul' that one learns to do well or to do poorly. How are we to learn to fear well? According to Bader-Saye, we are to live lives of trust in a God who offers provision and redemption as an alternative to a culture of fear.

The opening chapters of Following Jesus provides a deft appraisal of fear as experienced and created through politics, the media, the market, and even the church. “Just as “sex sells,” so does fear” (p. 16), Bader-Saye declares. Whether it is post-9/11 policies, parenting manuals, safety products or even the “repent or perish” sermon, the use of fear to motivate or make a profit has become a standard practice in the contemporary, North American culture. Bader-Saye obverses that, “We spend our money based on fear rather than stewardship. We make political decisions based on fear rather than the common good. We participate in religious life based on fear rather than love” (p. 21). Accordingly, our experience of fear has become disordered; however, Bader-Saye recognizes that we are not without an alternative. The church, Bader-Saye argues, has within its own theological resources, a faithful and hopeful response to disordered fear.

Central to the argument of Following Jesus is the conviction that fear is a moral issue, insofar as it shapes the kind of people we become. In other words, fear, like the other passions, shapes character. Bader-Saye names the prevailing character formation related to fear as the “new ethic of safety”: the post-9/11 suspicion of strangers, the desire to “do unto others before they do unto you”, and the fear of scarcity. These “shadow virtues”, according to Bader-Saye, promote excessive fear that, “threaten traditional Christian virtues such as hospitality, peacemaking, and generosity” (p. 29). Yet following Jesus, Bader-Saye notes, is about being a community that practices hospitality, peacemaking, and generosity. As such, these virtues are in need of recovery. They are, argues Bader-Saye, constituent practices of a church that is learning to tell the stories of God's provision as the governing story of our lives, our community and the world.

The analysis of our ‘culture of fear' and the promise of Christian practices opens the way for Bader-Saye to recover a theology of God's providence. Notably, there is a fair amount of unlearning that Bader-Saye recommends as a result of a theological decline in the theology of providence indicative to the modern period. And the unlearning is worth it. Drawing from Aquinas, John Calvin and contemporary Anglican theologian, Sam Wells, Bader-Saye provides a renewed definition of providence that is narrative in nature, and hopeful in content. “Providence,” Bader-Saye maintains, “has to do with the conviction that our lives and our world constitute a coherent story, a drama, in which God and humankind, together, drive the story toward its proper conclusion” (p.79). This narrative rendering of providence focuses less on explaining how God is (or is not) active in the world, and more on the learning of skills to “read” history as a story which has its ultimate telos in God's provision and redemption. What this “reading” will teach us is that at the end of the day, “God's hopes for the human story cannot be thwarted” (p. 79).

Bayer-Saye's narrative theology of providence organizers the church's thinking on the agency of God around a pattern of learning and practices that receive coherence in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Providence,” notes Bader-Saye, “names the conditions in which we can, with courage and hope, follow Jesus in a dangerous world” (p. 100). Fear, suffering and difficulty do not evaporate in the practices of discipleship; rather, the stories of fear, suffering and difficulty are placed within the framework of the agency of God who enters human history and transforms it from within. Drawing from the witness of Israel, the incarnation of Jesus, and the lived confession of the church, Bader-Saye encourages Christians to view the pattern of God's self-involvement in the world as a sign of God's ultimate goal to secure all creation unto God's self. Fear, suffering and difficulty may arise in our experience; but the final word belongs to God alone.

To avoid creating an abstracted God who works in generic ways, Bader-Saye infuses the pages of Following Jesus with stories of friends and the departed faithful who have embodied the kind of courage and hope that highlight what it looks like when the pattern of God's provision and redemption governs the experiences of fear. “I am convinced,” Bader-Saye comments at the opening of his chapter on the risk of hospitality, “ that trust in God's providence makes possible the development of the virtues, such as courage, hope, and patience, that are necessary to negotiate a broken and sometimes dangerous world in ways that are expansive, life-giving, and even a bit risky” (p. 101). As is true throughout this work, Bader-Saye is careful to point to the lived, human expression of these virtues as a way to anchor them in the actual practices of the church.

The final chapters on the risks of hospitality, peacemaking and generosity, is where Bader-Saye develops the Christian alternative to the “shadow virtues” of suspicion, preemption and accumulation. These are rich chapters laden with careful critique and insight. Bader-Saye is concerned that Christians embody these virtues, not only because they provide faithful practices in a culture of fear, but because they are foundational to being the church. Bader-Saye has another name for these practices, namely: discipleship. As the title of this work indicates, following Jesus as disciples is the basis for any Christian response to living at a time of disordered fear.

Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear is a book written in and for the church. Bader-Saye, a lay Episcopalian and professor at the University of Scranton, strives to narrate the hope of God's provision and redemption as good news for people awash with fear. Equally comfortable in the arenas of popular music and film (his reading of the Star Wars saga is particularly helpful), pre-modern theology and postmodern analysis, Bader-Saye has written an accessible study appropriate for individual and group reflection. When I used this book as a Lenten study, the initial response was mixed. For instance, Bader-Saye's critique of the Bush Administration became a little tiring for some, while several group members struggled to follow his argument for a narrative theology of providence. By the end of the study, however, the response to this work was unanimous: this is a timely volume for the church. I concur. Taken as a whole, I am confident that this work will become an important resource for a church looking to follow Jesus when the prevailing alternative is fear itself.
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