Reacquainted With a Dear, Old Friend: Mark Buchanan
No, I do not know Mark Buchanan, however, I made his acquaintance several years ago nonetheless, when his book, « Your God is Too Safe » absolutely rocked my world. I lent my copy out years ago (I believed then as I do now that every Christian in the world should read this book!) and have only recently invested in a new copy. As I am re-reading this wonderful modern-day classic, I am realizing all over again what a vitally important truth Buchanan is communicating in this book, and I am also realizing again how foundational this book has been in forming me own walk and theology. Although I have said this (probably truly) about many books and people, ‘I simply do not know where I would be today without Mark Buchanan’s book!’
Mark begins where so many popular books (especially those of an Emergent bent) begin: Mark was frustrated. He felt « stuck. » In his own words, « I had begun well. [after my conversion] I hit the ground running. Immediately, I volunteered for everything, anything that I felt vaguely interested in and marginally qualified for…But something, somewhere went awry. The zeal fizzled. The fire in my bones became an ache in my joints….I joined the ranks of the murmureres and the faultfinders – those who didn’t like the music or the sermon or the color of the azaleas behind the church – and I found their number legion. …I was stuck. And though I was often lonely, I was not alone. » (Buchannan, 9-11)
That « stuck-ness » is the central problem which Mark seeks to examine and resolve in this book. He uses the metaphor of the « no-man’s-land » between Kenya and Uganda. Not claimed by either country, an in between place, a lawless place, a place of transition, a place of crossing. And yet, mysteriously, a place where dozens, even hundreds of people had chosen to live. Not in Uganda, not in Kenya – stuck in between. Buchanan thinks our Christian life can be like that sometimes.
« This book is about moving off the borderland, » writes Buchanan, « But it is also about mapping the borderland, naming its contents and discontents, tracing its contours, cataloging its life forms and its deadliness. It’s an attempt to try to understand the borderland’s lure and its hold. Because often, very often, our experience of Christ and our life in Christ is a stunted, wizen-up thing. It does not live up to the rhetoric. It’s like hearing music muted through water, kissing through canvas. It hardly seems worth the effort. We don’t want to go back. But neither are we particularly motivated to go forward. We’re stuck on borderland. » (Buchanan, 21)
So far, Buchanan sounds much like a typical Emergent writer (although he was writing too early to really be a part of that craze). However, unlike so much Emergent mush of today Mark does not point the finger at « the institutional church, » at an insufficiently global vision, at traditionalism, or, in short, at any other human failing in others. He goes much deeper, and cuts to the heart of the issue: the problem is a god who is too safe.
Very correctly, Buchanan writes, « bad theology always produces bad living. If we get stuck, if we stay stuck, the root is almost always theological and spiritual: how we see God or don’t see God. It comes from wanting a god other than God – a god who is nice, innocuous, pampering, who forgets not our confessed sins, but our besetting ones. …we want Him to be peaceable, to keep His peace, to be docile, rather than to be peacemaking and peace giving. And instead of being our hiding place, we prefer that God be our ace in the hole. And if that doesn’t work we’d prefer to hide from Him. » (Buchanan 14)
The problem, of course, is that God is not like that. He is not like that at all. But necessity is the mother of invention: in our own image, we create a god which serves our cowardly needs here in borderland. « The safe god never whispers in our ears anything but greeting card slogans and certainly never asks that we embarrass ourselves by shouting out from the rooftop. » (Buchanan, 31), « He just putters in his garden, smiles benignly, waves now and then, and mostly spends a lot of time in his room doing puzzles. Who would leave borderland for another kind of God? The excuse I hear most often when people continue in a confessed sin is: ‘I thing God understands. The kind of God is worship isn’t all hung up about this.’ it’s as though God were a half-daft old uncle, hair sprouting from his ears, a bit runny about the eyes, winking at our little pranks and peccadilloes. » (Buchanan, 33) « And there’s a kind of self-perpetuating downward spiral in all this. We often get stuck because e want a god who is too safe. And then we find, in the soft logic of our half-baked theology, that a too-safe god has no power to get us unstuck. His arm is too short for that. And He doesn’t care anyway: He validates our borderland dwelling. He’s the household deity of lapsed disciples. he’s the god of our understanding, the god who always understands. He doesnt’ so much forgive sin; He accommodates it. he’s the god who makes anything more than living on borderland seem imprudent, fanatic, ill advised. » (Buchanan, 15)
Buchanan goes on to very accurately and poignantly describe borderland, the « safe god, » and then to describe the god who « is good, but not safe, » and the « holy wild » which He is calling us into. But then, you will need to buy the book to learn what Buchanan has to say about that!
I bait and hook you thus for one reason: this book will change your life. Absolutely rock your world, shatter your assumptions and set you right side up into a new passion for God and a reality you only dreamed was possible.
If you let it, that is.
I want to conclude this short post with a contemporary application, and an appeal. Many people who are my age know very well this borderland of which I speak. It was our childhood, our college, our present situation. Or so we think. I have an observation which Buchanan does not mention, but which is very true: when you are stuck on borderland, it appears that everybody else is stuck too. The saying « It takes one to know one » rings double-true in spiritual matters. If you can see nothing but hypocrites and lukewarm Christians in the world, look to your own soul. God may be merely holding up a mirror to your own face.
For those living on borderland – and I believe there is a whole generation coming to terms with the fact that it is now, presently, living on borderland – there are two options available.
On the one hand, there is the « Liberal Emergent » (See my definition for this here), who loves, adores, falls down and worships before the graven image of the safe god. According to these people, there are many problems with the church. At heart, there are inconsistencies. In many ways, the church is incongruous with the god which they worship. For example, these people will ask, how can a god of love can send people to hell, get angry in the Old Testament, be intolerant of sexual preferences, and squelch personal expression? According to them, the answer is to find ways of molding the world and theology around the idolatrous image of their safe god, and to mute or ignore all of Christianity which does not fit under the safe god. Any hint of a God who is really in control, who has an opinion on morality, who reserves the right to judge, who is able to create hell, who is to be feared, must be categorically rejected. If you rid your mind of all trappings of the God who is to be feared, you will certainly accomplish something. There will be no more inconsistencies in your theology! You will be quite at home and at peace within yourself. You will have finally made it off of the Borderlands. I only have one bit of bad news for you: you will have left by the back-way. You will have fled backwards, into non-Christianity.
And this is, I fear, the path that many a pied piper of the Liberal-emergent crowd is leading many an undiscerning sheep.
There is, however, a second option. This option is also being presented (confusingly enough) by many who call themselves « Emergent. » This option is to push forwards. To dare to listen to the voice of a God who may actually be bigger than yourself, who may call you to sacrifice, to take up your cross daily, to follow Him. Does hypocrisy, lack of compassion, antiquated authority-structures, and luke-warm living drive you nuts? Follow God. Pursue Him into the holy wild of His unexpected blessings and challenges. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because of your age, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity show yourself an example to those who believe,” (1 Tim. 4:8). Does hypocrisy, lack of compassion, antiquated authority-structures, and luke-warm living drive you nuts? Be the one who is different! You say that churches make the gospel feel too narrow, too constricting – I say it is time for someone, someone like you, to barge on through, to shake people up, to widen the opening for those who would come after (Mat. 11:12).
It is time to see what God can do with a heart as terrified as it is enthralled: it is time to see what God can do with a heart which is completely His (2 Chron. 16:9).
It’s time to walk with the God who is not safe, and see what heights and depths He will take this generation, into the untamed wilderness of His Holy Wild.