Unless you have just emerged from a long hibernation, you know that we are living in some interesting times. Much of the world has faced a difficult challenge with the Covid-19 pandemic and all the repercussions that have followed. At the same time, there is a lot of reckoning taking place as evangelical Christianity faces scrutiny in regards to some highly publicized church scandals, Trump politics, and a past that includes racism, misogynism, and other problems that undermine their witness to the gospel.
In response to this reckoning, there is a growing number of evangelicals saying that enough is enough. Some of them are shedding their conservative understanding of the Christian faith for a progressive expression, while others are renouncing their Christian faith altogether. This is a process called deconstruction, which I am sympathetic toward but also concerned with pastorally. Is it possible to deconstruct an evangelical Christian faith and eventually discover a reconstructed faith that is neither conservative nor liberal but still within the historical stream of orthodox Christian faith?
I believe so and so does pastor Brian Zahnd. This is the reason for his latest book When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes, which was published in late 2021 by InterVarsity Press. The book is currently available in both Kindle and hardback format, with the latter for a cost of $15.44. Brian Zahnd, for those who do not already know, is both a pastor and author. He has served in ministry for over thirty years, serving as the Lead Pastor for Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri.
The book is 183 pages and is divided into two sections with a prelude, followed by eleven chapters, and then a conclusion. Although Zahnd is quite capable of intellectual engagement with various theologians and philosophers, the book is very easy to read. Drawing on thoughts from people such as Frederick Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Chrysostom, and Paul Ricoeur, Zahnd engages scripture and Christian tradition. Writing as both a pastor and theologian, Zahnd describes what he believes is the essence of the Christian faith while disentangling that from the empiricism of modernity that evangelical Christianity has been embedded within.
Understanding the way modernity shaped evangelicalism is important because that has impacted the way the Bible is read and regarded as the foundation of faith. Zahnd rightfully critiques this by returning to scripture to show that Jesus, and not the Bible, is the foundation of the Christian faith. “Christianity,” says Zahnd, “is not a series of proofs; it is the confession based on the revelation that Jesus Christ is Lord” (p. 91). The foundation of the Christian faith is God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ which is known to us first through the witness of the church (tradition) who passes along a collection of canonical writings we know as The Bible. So we begin with Jesus rather than the Bible, or as Zahnd says, “First Jesus, then church, and finally the Bible” (p. 97).
Of course, both Jesus and the Bible are indispensable to the formation of our Christian faith, which is why Zahnd believes that mysticism and a mystical reading of scripture are necessary. For those unfamiliar, this might sound suspicious but mysticism is about seeking God. Thus Zahnd says, “We too can be mystics who encounter God, follow God, wrestle with God, speak to and for God, compose prayers, open new doors, heart the divine heartbeat, proclaim the gospel, and, most importantly, give flesh to the Word of God in our own lives” (p. 130). Then in reading the Bible as a mystic, we are seeking a “second naiveté” (a term coined by Paul Ricoeur) that allows the Bible to be heard in new ways as we enter the narrative of scripture.
I enjoyed reading this book and believe it has much to offer Christianity in North America. And this is especially so in helping us move beyond the challenges of deconstruction. As one who deconstructed from a conservative-fundamentalist faith, a process that was initiated through the existential crisis that followed the death of my oldest son, I identify with the concerns of this book. Like Zahnd, I see problems with the conservative-evangelical understanding of Christian faith but I also see problems with the opposite, the reactionary progressive understanding of Christian faith. So I appreciate Zahnd wisely saying,
When people from a conservative tradition begin to question some tenants [sic] of theological conservatism, they often find a way forward through a more progressive theology. But it should not be assumed that a progressive move is in every case the way forward. It’s important to understand that progressive fundamentalism is just as false and destructive as conservative fundamentalism. We seek to discover God as revealed in Christ, not in an ism, be it conservative or progressive. (p. 56).
He’s right. In discovering God, we follow Jesus Christ regardless of whether doing so appears to be conservative or progressive in the eyes of others.
One slight nuance I would make has to do with the way Zahnd describes his view of scripture. He says,
I don’t have a low view of scripture; I have a high view of Christ. I hold the Scriptures as authoritative in informing and shaping the Christian faith. …I faithfully affirm the Bible as authoritative in the Christian faith, but the Bible is now where we begin—the Bible is not self-authenticating. (p. 96).
I agree with Zahnd. He does hold a high view of scripture and this should be easily apparent to anyone who listens to his sermons or reads his books. Also, with Zahnd, I believe that the Bible is authoritative in informing and shaping our faith as Christians. That’s the reason we have scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17) but I believe we should retain the phrase “inspired by God” in our description of the Bible. I believe that Zahnd regards scripture as inspired by God but I’m mentioning this because I wish he would have explicitly said so.
Like Zahnd, I understand that scripture is given to us by the church, who decided which writings should be included in our canon of scripture that we call the Bible. But I also believe that God was providentially at work guiding the authors of scripture to say what was necessary for the formation of our faith as well as providentially at work in the canonization process (and I’m sure Zahnd believes this too). This is what makes scripture inspired by God and that’s important because when we read the Bible, we are reading God’s word to us. Hence, the response of the assembly after the reading of scripture, “The word of the Lord.”
Needless to say though, if you’re looking for an enjoyable and invigorating read, go by this book. If you’re asking yourself how do Christians move beyond deconstruction, add Zahnd’s book to your library and consider what he has to say as you read.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.
2 thoughts on “When Everything’s On Fire: A Review of Brian Zahnd’s Book”
Thanks for this post!! Very well written and documented. Tod Vogt, are you the author?
Just want to thank you for these reflections and the source to which you have directed us!
Thanks Gailyn. I, Rex, wrote this review.