Even Robin Williams needed more than love

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Robin Williams died. I was shocked, and still that shock remains with me. I wasn’t sure why Williams’ death affected me so much—in fact, just earlier this year, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, another actor that I adore, died (under very similar circumstances, both surrounding their addictions), and though it was sad, it didn’t feel personal.

I had to do some personal exploration. As I watched videos of Robin Williams’ comedy, famous scenes in movies, interviews, and even Ocarina of Time commercials (which warmed my heart the most, since that particular Zelda game means a lot to me), I was struck by how meaningful this man’s life was to me and many others. The community of comedians and actors surrounded him with tribute on Twitter, and even as I observed it, their compassion and love was so palpable. I’m not always so sure how honest the celebrities are being, but in their isolated positions it isn’t surprising that they long to connect with others, just like the Body of Christ fosters for me. Even surrounded by such love and connection, that was not enough to sustain him.

For me, Robin Williams literally grew me up. I didn’t grow up with him like Letterman did, of course (he aired a pretty great tribute). Of course, he was the Genie in Aladdin. I still love that movie even if it did stereotype Arabs like me. Great soundtrack, and a great song by Robin Williams. What a fun moment in my childhood.

When I was nine, on vacation in Williamsburg, Virginia, I had a really bad bout of the flu. My parents’ in their Middle Eastern conservatism had previously forbid us from going to movie theaters. All of the stereotypes of theaters being bastions for making out were reinforced by my parents, so going to the movies was a no-go. As my dad would do often, he merely changed his mind, so we all went to see Jumanji together. I was sick-to-my-stomach before and after the movie, but during the movie I was mesmerized. I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, but again, in a sense, he introduced me to movies and showed me something really special.

I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire with my Canadian cousins and parents. It’s funny, because it was also a first of mine, the first PG-13 movie I watched. I’m not sure I totally understood it, but I laughed and cried even, as we watched that infamous court room scene and the disaster in the restaurant. Robin Williams really struck me in this movie as a great comedian and actor. He is always so heart-breaking in his roles—and even in this one, we might be able to gaze more deeply into his soul. One scene in particular showed him frustrated at the simple cartoon roles he was getting and the messages they were sending kids.

Robin Williams blessed more than one generation and offered them his great gifts and talent. The nation, and the world in part, was beside itself when it found out the news. But even in that storm of success, lied a man with deep sins that enslaved him. He was open about them, too. Addiction ransacked his life more than one time. Stuck between the prison of addiction and the prison of a career that never seemed to be good enough, Williams took his own life. It really is unbelievable. That even in this world, after even our great empty basins are filled with material and career success, there is still despair that can haunt us to the point of taking it all away. Williams wasn’t just interested in his own success either, he raised money for homeless people with Billy Crystal, he was known for visiting soldiers in Afghanistan too.

Robin Williams, who was often vulnerable in front of the screen, was caught in his own storm.  This was no more clear than in a movie that, to this day, impacts me greatly: Good Will Hunting. A great collage of the trouble of youth in poverty and their lack of poverty; the importance of talking about how you feel and who you are in order to heal; the power of friendship and connection; and even the significance of love and doing something greater than yourself. The movie touched me in college, and after we just viewed it again the other night in honor Robin Williams it touched me again in all sorts of new ways.

Even as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, we get a glimpse of the inner-turmoil that Williams must have felt as an addict. Look at how Will Hunting tears him apart in this scene, where he calls him out on the false ways he has tried to solve the trauma of the death of his cancer-stricken wife. Sean tries to get out of his storm through his career, or at least Will makes that argument. He leads a meaningful life, but he needs more. So does Will. Sean offers Will a listening ear and a path to a greater life, away from Southie and the pain of his childhood, but even then Sean needs more than a career to fill him up—he needs love. But not just the fleeting love of a romance, or the trying love of marriage.

How much deeper does our hope need to be than that? Can any of us expect to influence as many people as Robin Williams did? Is success the stick by which we measure who we are?

But I am comforted by the trouble I feel in my daily life because I know Jesus felt it too. Jesus gives me hope in the middle of my storm. It is hard to believe that when you’ve been told that your faith might just take away all of the negative feelings you have. It takes more than just a cerebral acknowledgement of the facts of the Gospel to find the true hope of Jesus. Partnering with Jesus to explore your inner self is a crucial step to overcoming the trouble the world will offer us. It’s a journey and a process.

The inevitability of influence

I was thinking about the theology of influence last week. Our third Doing Theology time was all about influence. We actually sought to answer the question “Am I worthy of influence?” Furthermore, the question the pastors tried to answer in their weekly podcast last week: “Why are we so Jesus-y?” Both questions are linked, so I’m going to talk about them together.

For me the question of influence was born again when one person told me that they were unfit to lead—they actually thought that we shouldn’t be leading each other because leadership itself involved a power difference that undermined equity. I can understand the argument, since so many leaders are narcissistic and grandiose. Leaders can be holier than thou and pompous in their piety. But I know so many who are not! Leadership is not just about power and hierarchy. In fact, Jesus said that the last would be first and the first last. He came to serve and not to be served. He really does flip everything upside-down.

But Jesus wasn’t afraid of leadership. In fact he came to reveal the Father and to influence the whole world. For Jesus, his “backward” leadership may have flipped the world’s structures upside-down, but he was still a leader. Leadership is just the reality of the world. Inevitably, we influence people and we are influenced.

In her great book, Real Power, Janet Hagberg writes about leading and leadership as she outlines stages of power. We move from powerless people, to people who are powerful because of our associates, then achievements. Power by achievements is Hagberg’s third stage and it is where most men end up getting stuck (women get stuck at power by association—but once they pass that stage they excel past power by achievement and onto the other stages). That third stage of power is all about our accomplishments, our acquisitions, our titles. Jesus is leading beyond that level, and according to Hagberg, power by reflection, purpose, and wisdom are all higher levels of leadership that involve leading from the middle and behind. They in fact aren’t upside-down at all. Humble, servant leadership is simply better, more advanced leadership. If we’re stuck on our ego and power, we might think we are influential but our bloated sense of self (and our damaged self-image) may cause us to be less effective ultimately. You might not think it’s important to consider how effective of a leader you are, but as you explore yourself and become a more whole person, your leadership will be affected too. We lead and influence no matter what.

When we are confronted with an untruth—like we were discussing last Monday—how do we influence people who may be preaching a message contrary to ours? How do we influence people who think that influence, by definition, is coercive and imperialistic? What would Jesus do? What would Paul say?

The book end to the idea that we are all going to be leaders and we are all going to be influential is that we are all purposely influenced, too. Watch an episode of Mad Men to see how the advertisers are doing it, watch Obama sell his war to you, read a syndicated columnist. The world is filled with people who want to change our minds, sell us something, and convince us to follow them and their way. I don’t want to be just another voice in a loud room, but I have a way I want to influence people too. Though I am not always accused of being “Jesus-y,” for me the center of how I want to influence people starts and ends with Jesus. I think the Christian subculture sometimes wants to influence people in “Jesus-y” ways, as if Jesus is just someone you occasionally follow, or a costume you can sometimes where. That’s trouble because life in Christ is one whole cloth, not just a part of our culture or part of our personality.

When people simply want to make people “like the cultural Christians,” as opposed to real followers of Jesus, our influence is undercut. Josh Crain, of Carlisle BIC, was telling us the other day (start at 41:43) that Christian doesn’t make a very good adjective. Who would want to just decorate someone with Jesus? Jesus transforms us so significantly, that we can’t help but exude him. But I channel Paul when he is “all things to all people” to win them for Christ. Or Jesus, when he gently relates to the women at the well, when he tells her he’s the God for which she has been looking. What Paul and Jesus do is find common ground to relate and know a person, but they aren’t afraid to lead them to follow.

I suppose that’s the whole point of the incarnation of Jesus: Jesus entered the world to relate to us. That’s the ultimate common ground: he became a person, just like us, to show us that he loves us and to help us follow Him. Today, when we influence people, we do it best incarnationally. We do it in relationships, face-to-face. It isn’t just a cerebral issue nor is it just emotional, it’s a body-to-body, spirit-to-spirit too. We influence people, inevitably, by what we are doing, how we are acting, what we are saying, and what we are teaching. I hope that we can own that, instead of avoiding it, because if we are not intentional, who knows what we will unconsciously lead people to do?

Clinging to Jesus when the U.S. bombs Iraq

My heart sank the other day when I read the headline that the U.S. had authorized airstrikes in Iraq. It was a personal blow. I was in the mountains all week, fairly unplugged from everything, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was like I was reading a ten-year-old paper. How could this be happening? I’ve written about Obama’s interest in Iraq before, but this really was a surprise. The Nobel Peace Prize president bombing Iraq. And he can justify because he isn’t using ground troops. I’m so frustrated that that makes sense to anyone. You can’t risk American lives to kill Iraqis? That’s so backward. And for me, who pretty much looks just like an Iraqi, the message is clear.

Why Iraq again? What’s so special about it? Why not Syria? Why not Israel? The Congo? Why is the humanitarian crisis always so important where the U.S. has the most oil interest? According to Forbes, “Exxon, Chevron, Total and many others have invested billions there to explore and drill virgin fields in concessions doled out by the Kurdish Regional Government.” It’s the same argument: genocide, atrocities, civil war, incompetent local leadership (like the U.S. has competent leadership?). We need to strike the country.

But what do you do? ISIS (or is it IS or ISIL?) is killing Kurds and killing Christians. The President calls it genocide. And that justifies more military action. I met a Kurd the other day who said peace just wasn’t an option! People are dying and God’s shalom seems so impractical. I really am dumbfounded sometimes and I have to turn to God, whose peace surpasses understanding.

I’m thankful that Christians can show another way. Donald Kraybill in his excellent 1978 book The Upside-Down Kingdom are thinking of new ways to apply the Gospel and actually have a real response to the war machine. Kraybill’s book is all about Jesus changing the whole world. Jesus came to level the playing field, to include new people into his Kingdom, to spread the nonviolent agape love, to redistribute wealth. For Kraybill, ISIS’ disdain for Kurds and Christians in the area is evil. The U.S.’s oil interest? A product of material worship. But peace is possible. Here’s what I wrote about Kraybill’s chapter on agape love in an essay I penned recently:

In his chapter devoted to nonviolence, Kraybill surrounds his ideas with the notion of agape love, a radical love that comes from God. His example of it is in the Good Samaritan story. The division between the Samaritans and the Jews was so significant that the Good Samaritan’s action of charity was revolutionary. Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is a crucial Christian principle rooted in agape love. Christians do not love for a transaction, it is not merely reciprocity; it is in fact generosity. It is excessive. It is so radical that it transforms people into followers of Jesus, it does not fulfill the sense of entitlement that they might feel if love was merely transactional. Similarly, it does not return violence with violence. Jesus’ famous dictum of “turning the other cheek,” profoundly and succinctly illustrates this concept of nonviolence. In Luke’s Gospel in particular, Jesus lists seven different ways the Kingdom response to an offender is the opposite of the world’s response. Forgiveness is at the heart of this love. Jesus demonstrates this on the cross. The ultimate action of nonviolent resistance, Jesus asks God from the cross to forgive his murderers. The U.S. is among the most violent empires in history, so it is not surprising that Kraybill notes detours and the myth of redemptive violence as he defends Jesus’ nonviolence. But more than just being a peacekeeper, Jesus is a peacemaker, shalom is an active and holistic peace. It is more about presence, than absence.

Kraybill’s idea are practical and helpful. For a radical Christian, his book is definitely recommended reading. But what does a Christian do in a time of war like this? I’m always encouraged by the work of the Mennonite Central Committee in times like this. I work with them and so does our whole Network and our two successful thrift stores. My partnership with them helps me feel active in the work that they are doing in the Middle East and the advocacy in Washington for peacemaking policy. They are not isolationists, but are deeply engaged in the work. Here’s one article about U.S. militarism in the Middle East, for example. Want to write your legislators about the egregious action in Iraq? The Washington office always has opportunities for such action.

I am thankful for how Jesus made me and the sensitivity I have toward the Middle East because of my heritage. Kraybill and the Anabaptist tradition is beautiful to me and has formed the way I’ve thought. And in moments where I need peace that surpasses understanding, I’m glad I have MCC and the church on the side of peace.

Connected without community, alone without solitude

Is there a spiritual cost to the technology that many of us have consumed? Although Sherry Turkle didn’t specifically answer that question in her 2011 book, Alone Together, she gave me a lot of material to consider. How does technology affect our souls? Is it just a tool? Or is there more to it? I’ve written a lot about this subject, so Dr. Turkle’s book was especially compelling to me. (Also, if you are so stuck in technology and can’t get through her 300-page book, try her TED Talk.)

I bought Turkle’s book in March and I dredged through the first half of it. I was actually feeling a little disappointed that I bought it at all. The first half of her text is fascinating, but it is rather abstruse since it refers to at least a dozen high tech robots that have come out of MIT (where she works). Her basic thesis is truly spiritual, however—she even uses the word communion. We long for communion, connection, as kids with our Tamagotchis and Furbies and even as older people with robots that actually help us survive. Has artificial intelligence replaced that community that we want? That we truly desire? Turkle asks these questions and provides a compelling spiritual narrative for the consequence of our preoccupation with robots. Robots are often the solution to our problems, even the problems that the technology itself has brought to us. As our technology has grown us apart even more, we have robots and other means of communication and connection that now facilitate that human connection that we have totally replaced.

What does it mean that our elderly are now cared for by robots instead of nurses or family members? What’s the economic cost? What’s the social cost? What are we left with?

When I moved on to the second half of Turkle’s book, it became much more relatable. I mean, as a kid I did have a Tamagotchi, and I took care of Pokémon on my Game Boy Color, but I never really had much interaction with robots. But the world of Email, Facebook, cell phones? I’m totally enmeshed with it. Even as I was reading the text on the shore of a lake in the Poconos, I was checking my phone to keep up with Emails and taking phone calls with the contractor that was insulating my home. I was frustrated that I only had a 3G connection and I couldn’t download the videos that the contractor sent me!

Turkle makes the argument that we’ve grown increasingly apart. The advent of telephones made long distance communication possible, answering machines meant we were always accountable for our phone calls (eventually we would “let the machine get it”), cell phones changed that (my wife and I don’t have never had a land line), texting even more so, smart phones are even a bigger change. Now teenagers don’t prefer to talk on the phone—only texting. They can’t seem to even let a text sit still for ten minutes. We’ve created online projects of who we want to be on using technology like Second Life and Facebook. For teens it has increased anxiety while benefiting them marginally. It is amazing to be connected and so alone. To be constantly available, but never intimate.

We’ve turned to all sorts of other things for intimacy: dating websites, hook up services (Tinder anyone?), and even anonymous message boards

My personal experiment with Facebook resistance this summer has paid off. I was worried I’d lose connection with people, that I wouldn’t be able to do my usual inclusion as well, and that I’d miss out on all the parties. Maybe I did miss some of the parties (whose social connection seems to be limited anyway), but I’m not sure I personally suffered or was damaged. For one, I lost my instinct to check my phone all the time. I learned that people actually read what I write and want to connect with me—a few people even said they missed me on Facebook and missed my comments and likes on their stuff!

But still, I learned that I’m way too attached to my device. I’m like a cyborg, I’m way too tethered. I return texts and Emails promptly. I have a reputation for meticulously organizing my messages too—I almost always have a zero inbox. Turkle encouraged me to actually consider the spiritual consequences of nearly always being connected. It may in fact be affecting my anxiety level, attention span, and ability to respond relationally. How often am I sending a text or an Email because I’m anxious about a phone call?

For Christians, Turkle hits a bit dilemma: we are so connected we can never be in solitude with God. We are so isolated because of our technology, we can never be in true community! In one sense, our connected culture could be killing the whole church!

The answer to these problems isn’t in being a neo-Luddite, nor is it in being super connected. I’m not sure a balance is good either. I think we should be masters of technology, but critical about each new incarnation. I think Jesus would have had a cell phone. But I think he would really prefer to have just as much of a face-to-face connection as he did 2,000 years ago. There’s really nothing like it.

Does going to church undo the Gospel?

I borrowed a lot of my speech last night from these two blog posts: Worship as transcendence, Why make a speech?. Here’s a summary of some theology about being the church:

The public meeting in Circle of Hope is an expression of our church. It isn’t church. You might notice that sometimes our leaders are holding back a cringe when someone says, “See you at church.” Or “Are you going to church?” That’s because we don’t want people to just come to church. We want to be the church. This is a really big deal. If we don’t emphasize this, and I’m not just being melodramatic, we undo, in our minds, what God did through the person of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection.

In the Old Testament, God dwelled in a Temple. While the Israelites were wandering around the desert, God instructed them to make a portable dwelling place where he would reside: we call it a Tabernacle (which literally means “dwelling place”). This Tabernacle was eventually “superseded” by the First Temple of Jerusalem. It was destroyed, and Herod, the Roman puppet King of Judea, built the Second Temple, the great center of culture, worship, and identity for the Jewish people under Roman captivity. Herod didn’t resist the “Hellenization” of Jewish culture as much as the conservative Jews wanted him to, but he did give them a Temple (after taxing the heck out of them). That was a great source of pride and identity for this group of people.

Jesus’ life and death and resurrection brought a revolution to this whole Temple mentality. In one occasion, he was interfering with Temple business and the people around him weren’t taking to it too kindly. Jesus typically does this kind of thing, he makes large statements because he isn’t afraid of death and he has a mission. His detractors asked him what authority he had to do all of this. And he told them back: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

Jesus changes everything. The entire world of the Jewish people is altered by their Messiah. God no longer dwells in the Temple, he dwells in us. John writes, “The temple he spoke about was his Body!” Not just his physical body, which was indeed going to be resurrected, but the Body of Christ. That’s US! We are now the dwelling place of Jesus.

So, you can see why saying “Are you going to church?” is something I really want to teach against. We aren’t going to church. We are the church. We aren’t going to the dwelling place. We are the dwelling place.


Wes Anderson and the power of aesthetic

I moved to Philadelphia from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania almost exactly ten years ago. I did not know the world I was entering, but one surprise of my new life was how familiar I became with very popular independent film makers. Wes Anderson, who some of you may scoff at me calling independent, was one of them. Then, I think he had only made Bottlerocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums (still my favorite). I didn’t know what to think of his movies. They were loosely driven by plot, the dialogue wasn’t particularly engaging but it was cute, and the characters often seemed more like caricatures. I was at peace with it because of how beautiful it was. I did not think of the social and spiritual consequences beauty without substance then, but that particular fact struck me when I was enjoying his latest movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I know it came out months ago, but life with a toddler means we watch movies a few months after everyone else.

Nevertheless, the $31 million movie, which features a star-studded cast (Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Warris Alhuwalia), is an aesthetic wonder. My personal preoccupation with symmetry is mirrored in Wes Anderson’s perfectly framed shots. His movies are often broken up into acts, too, which makes something that can be esoteric rather approachable. The use of color, costume, and placement all seems immaculate. Everything counts and Wes Anderson gives his undivided attention to every on- and off-screen detail. This may be melodramatic, but at times, it is breathtaking.

The plot itself is whimsical and entertaining, but not nearly profound. It tells the tale of the rise and fall and subsequent rise again of a hotel concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) during World War II, when his native Republic of Zubrowka gets occupied by the Nazi-like Zig Zag party (their logo mimics the SS’ double lightning bolts). Gustave befriends the lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori) and they adventure together. A visitor of the hotel, Madame D., (whose family owns the place) who becomes intimate with the concierge, but she, like all of the other work who frequent the hotel to sleep with Gustave, departs. After which, she is murdered, most likely by a distant family friend (Willem Dafoe) and the concierge is accused of it. What makes matters worse is that the Madame wills him a valuable piece of her art collection, Boy with Apple (which, by the way, he stole before the original will was verified as authentic). He goes to prison, escapes (with no consequence?) and is pursued by the murderous family. As the story goes on and his friendship with Zero deepens, we find out that the will that gives the concierge the painting wasn’t the one that the Madame intended in the event she was murdered. The second will gives the concierge everything she owns. In the end, the fake Nazis end up killing him, and he in turn wills everything to Zero.

The story’s plot isn’t so compelling as much as the unlikely relationship between the concierge and lobby boy is. Anderson relies on his excellent eye for film to make the movie very easy to consume; the dialogue swims out of the actors’ mouths too (this cast is so stellar, it’s not surprising). Anderson was not just endearing to freshman at Temple when I went, the cast of big names showcases that the man with style has befriended many great actors and actresses (although, this was a surprisingly male dominant cast) who are willing to play humble parts to be a part of something greater, or more beautiful, then themselves.

It might be surprising, but the comfort the celebrities provide the audience is palpable. The room I watched it with chuckled as famous names just kept popping up. There is something special about watching something familiar, as if we can really relate to the actors we have come to admire. Wes Anderson reminds us of the power of community even as we look into the silver screen. There’s power to moviemaking that improves with age because we are growing old with the recurring actors. His admirers have come to expect Bill Murray, for example, to at least make a cameo in his films.

However, the actors themselves, playing such small parts at times, are often merely a part of that aesthetic excellence. So what does it say that the art in an artform is what we value most in a film? How shallow can entertainment be in order for it to be successful?

I asked my viewers what they thought of the movie after we watched it; we didn’t get very far. One noted that the film was cute until one particularly bloody scene. We enjoyed it and consumed it, but I’m not sure it is going to be deeply remembered by any of us.

It seems to me that our lives are so often filled with these short encounters that satisfy a need that I think only Jesus can. Just like Gustave’s numerous sex partners, is a Wes Anderson movie a hook-up when we really want a relationship? Is it like one of those delicious Mendls’ pastries featured in the movie, when what we really want is a real meal?

The comfort the movie gives us, Jesus endlessly does. The good feelings that the beautiful cinematography and colorful sets give us, are also offered in community. We don’t need to pretend like we actually know actors and actresses because we see them in enough stylistically similar movies, we have a covenant for real connections.

And maybe that’s the point of the movie. Gustave gave Zero everything, but perhaps the most valuable thing he gave him was what he chronicled as he narrated the film: a relationship. God gave us that very thing to, in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Brethren in Christ’s greatest strength is also their greatest shortcoming

An excerpt of a paper I wrote about BIC history, based on The Quest for Piety and Obedience by Carlton Wittlinger.

The Brethren in Christ, in their ability to adapt to new discovered perspectives without diluting who their distinction, is their greatest strength. They hold a dialogical, humble posture, while also exhibiting an eagerness to follow Jesus in an earnest way.

But their willingness to adapt is also a shortcoming. The most significant influence on the BIC in the 19th and early-20th centuries is that of Holiness. The brotherhood, as listed above, debated the tenets of the movement arduously, primarily so that it could not lose itself among its positive influences. The same held true for how it treated, and ultimately rejected, the charismatic movement (although, one could argue that many of the Latino, Spanish-speaking churches in the Southeast Conference now embody that charismatic stream). In the first fifty years of the 20th century, however, the Brethren in Christ, simply did not adapt fast enough to the rapidly changing United States. In fact, its removal from society may have slowed its progress. The United States, during that time period, underwent massive changes, moving along through the Gilded Age, throughout the world in imperialism, World Wars I and II. The Brethren in Christ, resisted technological and cultural changes that would undermine the reliance on God that was practically exemplified in their day-to-day life. The culture changed quickly, however, and in the middle of the 20th century it would seem like the Brethren in Christ faced extinction. Their conservatism, for lack of a better term, toward plain dress, jewelry, how men might style their facial hair, life insurance, Social Security, the use of musical instruments, and other issues is admirable, but ultimately was damaging. The Brethren in Christ needed to be conscious that the culture was eventually going to demand alterations to these historic positions and they needed enough foresight to change with care.

The Brethren in Christ needed to adapt as the culture changed, and it seems that by the middle of the 20th Century, they needed to adapt too quickly. They could not conceivably adapt as slowly and as intentionally as they did, for example, with the doctrine of sanctification. Part of the reason is that the general public, and the people attending Brethren in Christ churches, were more likely significantly more ambivalent toward esoteric doctrine, then they were to an issue like how to dress, for example.

While the United States was undergoing major changes throughout the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, the Brethren in Christ joined the National Association of Evangelicals. Some historians now consider this the “fourth” theological stream that influenced the denomination. But rather than adapt Evangelicalism to the brotherhood, the Brethren in Christ adapted themselves to Evangelicalism. By the 1950 NAE convention, the brotherhood was disillusioned. In an era of loud voices, the Brethren in Christ, was unfortunately quiet. This troubled the brotherhood and convicted them to change. By the 1953 General Conference convened, the church was already radically changing. Convicted by the Spirit to change, the Brethren in Christ, diluted themselves. The hard work of adapting to new perspectives, and experiences, was undone so quickly that unfortunately what the Brethren in Christ is left with today is a mere frontage of a great past.

In a panic, the Brethren in Christ exchanged their longstanding marriage of faith and obedience, to a mere “profession of faith.” Though the Brethren in Christ would not disagree with the former, when the latter is removed, it eliminates the careful distinctiveness that the brotherhood built over centuries. The Brethren in Christ, who have meticulously married pietism and obedience, submitted almost entirely to the emotional, heartfelt experience in contrast to coupling it with disciplined obedience.

The Brethren in Christ’s greatest importance is their emphasis on new birth. They have repeatedly applied new ideas to this concept as they adapted throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The turmoil and difficulty in the first half of the 19th century understandably caused anxiety in the Brethren in Christ. How they responded, though, with a complete undoing of their identity in a quest for a new one, is greatly costly. The Brethren in Christ tried to adapt to Evangelicalism to grow into something new. In fact, they succeeded. Unfortunately, with their adaptation, because it was so thoroughly untested, they lost much of what they had built previously. Rather than being a distinct denomination with a communal hermeneutic, the Brethren in Christ just became another generic Evangelical one.

Wittlinger’s book does not tell the story of the Brethren in Christ to the present because it ends in the mid-1970s. If one were to write the story of the last forty years, it startling how much further the Brethren in Christ have gone down this path. At this point, the denomination is made up of a “mosaic,” as the General Church Leader calls it. With the removal of the General Secretary, Moderator, numerous boards, possibly World Missions, the entire Canadian Conference, with more and more roads leading to the Leadership Council, less and less theological accountability in a sprawling church that spans from sea to shining sea, the future of the brotherhood is seriously threatened. What do all of the changes in the last seventy-five years portend for a movement that has, up until this point, delicately changed? Every movement and denomination has its strengths and shortcomings, but for the Brethren in Christ, their shortcomings are so egregious they may in fact threaten their entire existence.