Friday, December 26, 2008

Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear

I got a chance to briefly meet and hear papers from some wonderful scholars at the Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture held at North Park Theological Seminary early this fall. The theme of the symposium was "The Idolatry of Security." Different presenters took the topic in different directions, some focusing on national security, others on personal security, and still others on eschatological security. I found Scott Bader-Saye from the University of Scranton to be particularly engaging. Ironically, Bader-Saye presented on a Thursday night, causing me to miss my weekly viewing of a new episode of The Office (which takes place in Scranton, PA).

Well, now that I'm done with seminary, I have finally been able to dig into Bader-Saye's 2007 book from the Christian Practice of Everyday Life series, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Bader-Saye does a remarkable job of maintaining balance in his treatment of a very touchy subject. He manages to look at fear from many angles without losing focus on the primary goal, which is to help his readers " into the joyful freedom of those children of God who have learned to put fear in its place."

Bader-Saye argues that fear is the shadow side of love; all fear is somewhere rooted in a love for something or someone. So in a sense, in order to squelch all fear, we would have to squelch all love. Most of us can agree that this is a bad idea. Following the wisdom of Aquinas, Bader-Saye urges us not to become fearless, but to make sure our fears are rightly ordered. We must question whether our fears are imminent, powerful, threating, and legitimate. We need to question whether we're overrreacting to the objects of our fear. Are we lashing out, closing up, and losing the joy of life? Are we opening ourselves up to manipulation?

Our fears can be properly ordered when understood within the right narrative, and when they don't paralyze us from doing good. Bader-Saye suggests three virtuous practices to help us properly order our fears: hospitality, peacemaking and generosity. All three of these ask us to risk, and all three of these can be potential threats to our security, but all three of these help us to truly preserve the love which our fearful instincts fight so hard to protect.

I've laid out some of the nuts and bolts, but it must be noted that Bader-Saye writes in a very engaging way, using plenty of examples from pop culture and stories from real life to narrate his points. He quotes lyrics from U2, Dashboard Confessional, Bruce Springsteen and Tim McGraw, analyzes films like the Star Wars saga and Pieces of April, and engages the literature of Elie Wiesel and C. S. Lewis. And of course he deals throughout with the political landscape and its relentless use of fear as a motivational tool to mobilize Americans on the right and left.

Bader-Saye deals with the doctrine of Providence, a doctrine largely (and sadly) forgotten outside of the Reformed tradition and sadly distorted in the great injustices of Manifest Destiny, etc. Yet the author insists that the providence of God is precisely what we must trust if we are to put fear in its place. He writes, "Providence is the conviction that through it all God's story cannot be lost, and thus God's hopes for the human story cannot be thwarted."

I think he's on to something. So buy it, read it, and have your friends read it so you can discuss it and together change the world.

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