The emotion of orthodoxy:
Rediscovering the adventure of the Christian faith
by trevin cera
intervarsity press, 240 pages, $24
FFifty-six percent of American evangelicals “strongly agreed” that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God,” according to a poll results published by Lifeway Research in September. Not a few ministers and theologians were troubled by this evidence that more than half of American evangelicals are convinced Arian heretics.
The problem is endemic to American Christianity in general: The survey found that similar percentages of Catholics and mainstream Protestants also called Jesus a created being. According to some commentators, this suggests that sincere believers with little taste for theology may have been misled by such a metaphysically charged question. Labeling them “Arians,” they argue, misinterprets the situation and looks down on ordinary brothers and sisters. sisters. Their confusion, we are told, is itself inconsequential and entirely predictable.
We have every reason to believe that God desires loving obedience far more than doctrinal ducks in a row. Still, heresy is rarely, if ever, harmless. At best, calling Jesus a created being alters the way we articulate the gospel, renders creeds meaningless, eviscerates orthodox soteriology, and thus creates roadblocks in our witness. At worst, it draws people into sin and unbelief. Just as tremors on the ocean floor create tsunamis that become more destructive the farther they travel from their source, so too are erroneous beliefs that can cause much damage beyond their specific doctrinal origins.
Step into Trevin Wax’s new book The thrill of orthodoxy. “The Christian life,” Wax writes in the first pages of the book, “begins with spiritual wonder at the glory of the gospel and the goodness and beauty of Christian truth, with the wide-eyed wonder of the child being led into a new world of grace .” The gospel is not just true. It is sublime, the final triumph of beauty.
Wax believes that rediscovering the “thrill” of gospel truth will remedy the habit of his fellow evangelicals straying from orthodoxy. The Christian life begins with a burst of beauty, but “over time, our eyes grow heavy and our taste buds darken, and that’s when the bugs show up,” Wax writes. “Why do we so easily lose our awe at the truths that have informed and inspired Christians for generations?”
Here we have the question that keeps Wax and so many evangelical ministers awake. Why are so few of our people interested in the Bible? How can someone warm a bench for years and gradually lose the sense that their life should be different from their neighbor’s? Why do so many of our children leave the church?
Wax’s response focuses on the negative cultural influences that reduce faith: Disdain for Biblical sexual mores, temptations of money, confusion about the truth, and more. But mostly he cares about complacency. “The thrill of orthodoxy,” he writes, “is in its defiance.” Consequently, contrary to what one expects from the book’s opening, Wax pushes his readers from behind with admonitions and moralizing instead of calling them to orthodoxy with the charm of the beatific vision.
For example, Wax begins the chapter “The Exhilarating Vision” with two metaphors for the Christian life: climbing a mountain to get to the top, and his own efforts to master the Beatles’ “Blackbird” on guitar. Exhortations to sexual purity and “radical generosity” follow, and the chapter concludes with a discussion of Augustine’s confrontation with the Donatists to demonstrate that within orthodoxy, those who fall can, by God’s mercy, rise again. . The chapter is heavy on obedience, but light on the heavenly ends that obedience serves. As Wax tells us, “The thrill of orthodoxy comes through the moral mandate, ‘Get up and walk.'” The subtext couldn’t be clearer: complacency presents the most pressing problems among evangelicals.
We all need regular warnings against sin and encouragement to keep running the race. But by themselves, such warnings and encouragements cannot sustain our faith. Unless we have a clear vision of where the Christian life leads, all the cautionary tales and pep talks in the world will not keep many of us orthodox. “The adventure,” Wax tells us, “is not in adapting but in applying orthodoxy for a new age.” But to apply orthodoxy, we must more deeply appreciate the goal of the orthodox Christian life, and this requires that we rehear the Christian story in terms that confront us both with its narrative logic and with its beauty.
Evangelicalism desperately needs a beautiful new articulation of the gospel story. The thrill of orthodoxy it will have less of an effect than it should because many evangelicals don’t understand the narrative arc of that story well enough to recognize their own complacency.
At the end of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer feared that the words used by his fellow German ministers to convey the gospel message had “lost their power.” The same, I believe, is true for American evangelicalism today. We need a new theological language if we hope to once again understand the importance, and therefore the emotion, of the old, old story.
Trevin Wax could become a major contributor to this renewal. Few evangelical authors match their level of scholarship with such captivating prose. Nevertheless, The thrill of orthodoxy it does not live up to its title, especially since the thrill of defiance of orthodoxy is but a foretaste of the thrill that awaits us when we see our savior face to face.
Joel Looper is an adjunct professor at Baylor University’s Baylor Interdisciplinary Center.
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Image by National Museum of Stockholm licensed through Creative Commons. Image cropped and lightened.