I’ll be honest: I’m always a little nervous when I start reading books with words like “radical” or “manifesto” or “secret” in the title. Or, while we’re at it, words like “subversive.” I don’t get nervous because I’m particularly afraid I’ll find the book too challenging; I get nervous because I’m afraid the book can’t live up to the hype.
I recently threw caution to the wind and decided to read Ed Stetzer’s latest, Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation (B&H). I follow Ed on Twitter, generally enjoying what he has to say, and having not read any of his previous works, I decided it was about time.
The first section of the book is called “A Subversive Way of Thinking,” which, as you can imagine, has a lot to do with setting the theoretical framework for what’s to follow. He begins the book with a historical anecdote, about how the people of East Tennessee were loyal to the Union during the Civil War, even though they were surrounded by those who made up the Confederacy. They were, in effect, “rebelling against the rebellion.” That’s the metaphor he uses for us: we’re citizens of the Kingdom of God, called to live by a different set of priorities from those around us.
Part two, “A Subversive Way of Life,” is where Stetzer seeks to get practical. The first step in becoming agents of gospel transformation, he says, is to be transformed ourselves and to eliminate our many idols. This is only possible, of course, through Christ’s transforming work. While we’ll encounter many in the world who are “commonly bad” and a few who are “uncommonly bad” Christians are called to be not just “commonly good” but “uncommonly good.” Stetzer points to the Sermon on the Mount as our “rules of engagement” for subversive living.
The book concludes with part three, “A Subversive Plan of Action.” Stetzer reminds us that while God uses us to fulfill his mission on earth, it is ultimately his mission, not ours. We are not at the center of the story. The kingdom that was inaugurated at the birth of Jesus will come in fullness some day. In the meantime, our lives are to point to that already-but-not-yet kingdom, both individually and as the church, the changed community of God’s people.
I follow Stetzer’s basic arguments, and I’m on board with what he has to say. But there’s not a whole lot of groundbreaking stuff here, at least in my reading of it. Then again, it’s of course good to be reminded from time to time of what we think we already know. After all, God knows we all struggle to live accordingly.
Unfortunately, the book failed to live up to its “subversive” claim, in my opinion. As another reviewer aptly put it, this book is just too safe. While Stetzer hit all the right biblical themes, perhaps his biggest failure was his tendency to steer clear of any specific “subversive” application. What does being subversive look like, exactly? We live in a world of war and grinding poverty and sex trafficking and broken marriages and drug addiction and loneliness and greed and pride and ugly incivility in political discourse, all of which present us with real ethical and moral dilemmas. For a book like this to be truly practical, much less “subversive,” it would need to really get into these issues, or at least give us something to work with in navigating those troubled waters on our own. And in my reading of it, it didn’t go nearly far enough.
My second complaint is related to the first. The book has a lot of anecdotes and illustrations from what we might call “the real world,” but these are quickly spun into applications that are too seldom grounded in that same real world. Maybe there’s a place for drawing personal and “spiritual” applications from world events, so take this critique with a grain of salt. But before D-Day and VE Day were illustrations of the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom of God, they were actual days in history in which real people in real places experienced the full force of brutality of war, in which wives and mothers lost their husbands and sons, and in which others, reunited with loved ones, rejoiced with tears of joy. I wish this book would have dealt more honestly with those kinds of realities that people continue to experience in one way or another every single day, rather than using those stories as jumping off points for “spiritual” applications.
Stetzer is right that Christians are called to be agents of gospel transformation, and he’s right that living lives that point to the already-but-not-yet kingdom will be subversive in all kinds of ways. And maybe this book was merely intended to gently encourage readers rather than provoke. It’s great if that was Stetzer’s intent, and I trust many will be encouraged by his thoughtful reflections. But it’s a stretch to call subversive what is, in this case, for the most part safe.
I received a copy of this book from the author/publisher for free in exchange for this review.