The Discipleship of Fear: A Review of "Following Jesus In a Culture of Fear"

(I wrote a substantial chunk of this review about nine months ago as an assignment from Bob, but it’s crept back into my heart this past week as I’ve had to confront my fears in a couple big areas. I’ve tried to polish it some and make it less eggheaded and perhaps even slightly readable. It’s sortuva long’un but hopefully a good’un. Enjoy!)

Scott Bader-Saye’s Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear is a Heimlich maneuver of grace intended to clear American Christianity’s esophagus of the fearful gunk which chokes our everyday lives. The book is a call to confront the countless irrational fears which plague our culture and seem to magnetize and conglomerate into one oppressive heap of hopelessness. Every citation in the following summary is from Bader-Saye’s book so only page numbers will be given after the citations.

Fear is a basic instinct in human beings but it can poison many emotions and activities when it is given in to as a ruling force. Letting fearfulness rule our hearts and minds leads to us “thinking primarily about what we want to prevent and avoid rather than what we want to encourage and develop” (14). Fearfulness will squelch the desire to robustly engage the world and pursue a dynamic relationship with God. Moreover, our fears often don’t even correspond to our actual level of risk. “Clearly, the risks that kill you are not necessarily the ones that provoke and frighten you,” Bader-Saye writes, citing a recent study on fear. “Although we may be experiencing a heightened level of fear and insecurity, the truth is that our world is no more dangerous now than 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or 1,000 years ago” (15). Our anxieties are embarrassingly out of whack! No one disputes that the species of danger have morphed over the years, but the truth that emerges from the data is that the world’s dangers have not exploded exponentially in the past half century, contrary to what many people assume.

Why would people think that though? Because they are consumed with fearfulness. Take note: two-thirds of Americans believed crime rates were rising in the 1990s when in fact they were dropping! Researcher George Gerbner calls this perception the “mean world syndrome.” Researching TV violence, he found a link not between violent acts committed and television viewing but rather between exaggerated fearfulness and television viewing! “Gerbner found that ‘people who watch a lot of TV are more likely than others to believe that their neighborhoods are unsafe, to assume that crime rates are rising, and to overestimate their own odds of becoming a victim’” (15).

Unfortunately, because fear is such a powerful motivator, politicians, marketers, and news agencies are happy to exploit it when they have no objective data to offer. It’s a convenient emotion to fall back to when you can’t give someone a reason to vote for you, buy your product, or watch your show. Though it is natural to fear to some degree, this does not let us off the hook from giving in to fearfulness. Though we are born with the capacity to fear, “the specifics of what we fear, when we fear, and how much we fear are largely learned” (26). “Fear is not evil. It is not a vice. It is not wrong to fear, but excessive or disordered fear can tempt us to vices such as cowardice, sloth, rage, or violence. It can also inhibit virtuous actions such as hospitality, peacemaking, and generosity” (26). Proper character shaping for the believer necessarily includes the proper ordering of his or her passions, including fear. Developing courage and hope (necessary traits for the Christian) necessarily means learning what to fear and to what degree it should be feared.

Bader-Saye draws on the work of Christian ethicist H. Reinhold Niebuhr who said that the first question of ethics is not “What is right?” or even “What is good?” but rather “What is going on?” If this seems unusual, Bader-Saye clarifies: “Before we can apply a law or seek a goal, we must first interpret what is happening around us. Thus, reading the signs of the times is itself a moral act. In order to live well, we need to know how God is involved in history” (26). Niebuhr writes that when we are unable to see God at work in the world or when we sense that chaos threatens His plan for the world, “the color of our lives is anxiety and self-preservation is our first law” (quoted on 27).

“In a culture of fear, the short answer to ‘What is going on?’ is ‘We are at risk’ or ‘We are in danger.’ Insofar as we accept that answer as our dominant description of the world, our lives will be shaped by the self-preservation of which Niebuhr speaks. Our moral vision becomes a tunnel vision. Fear becomes the ambient background to our lives rather than a proper response to a concrete and passing threat” (27). When we are afraid, we tend towards the natural, animal responses of fight or flight. We either attack threats that we perceive or we try to withdraw from the danger completely. Christians are the only creatures with a third option in the face of fear but unfortunately we often sidestep it and instead opt for withdrawal. Unwarranted fear has a contracting effect which tempts us to draw into ourselves and retreat from the world and engagement with it. In an examination of Thomas Aquinas’ analyses of fear, Bader-Saye describes this contracting effect as something like a digging into ourselves and shrinking our hearts. It’s so easy to do this when we have been burnt by betrayal or exploitation, to bend and buckle under the crippling weight of the doubt that you will be able to survive it again. “Fear,” he says, “is produced, in part, by our judgment that we are not strong enough to fight off a threat. Lacking power, we contract, we withdraw into ourselves to conserve what strength and energy we have in order to fend off the danger… By imagining some future evil, fear draws us in on ourselves so that we ‘extend’ ourselves to ‘fewer things.’ This, in turn, becomes a hindrance to Christian discipleship, which calls us not to contract but to expand, not to limit ourselves to a few things but to open ourselves charitably and generously to many things, not to attack that which threatens us but to love even the enemy” (28). His threading together of Aquinas, Star Wars, and Dashboard Confessional to frame the discussion and give it emotional wallop caused me to pause and ponder whether perhaps we each had half of the other’s brain- that’s the type of pop culture compound I never thought anyone else would concoct to clarify a theological point! But I digress…

When we make room for fearfulness in our hearts we are tempted to make safety and self-preservation into our highest goals and thus, into idols. Bader-Saye laments the abandonment of Christian virtues that such a culture of fear necessarily encourages. “Disordered and excessive fear has significant moral consequences. It fosters a set of shadow virtues, including suspicion, presumption, and accumulation, which threaten traditional Christian virtues such as hostility, peacemaking, and generosity” (29). It even twists our view of morality, as seen whenever we caution teenagers to avoid premarital sex not because it is displeasing to God first and foremost but because of the dangers of pregnancy and disease (30). “When our moral lives are shaped by fear, and safety is worshiped as the highest good, we are tempted to make health and security the primary justifications for right action” (31).

Fearfulness actually threatens our very discipleship as followers of Jesus: “The relentless pursuit of safety leads to uncharitable hearts, for we fear letting go of the goods that might protect us against an uncertain future. In the name of security we refuse to love our enemies, because we assume that if we do not answer violence with violence, we will be forever victimized. Because we wish to be careful, we do not open our lives to strangers, fearing they will take advantage of our hospitality. It is fear that constricts out hearts and thus fear that makes Jesus’ ethic of risky discipleship look crazy, unrealistic, and irresponsible” (31). We become suspicious of others because every stranger is a potential threat. We preemptively take hasty action, whether in fight or flight- cutting ourselves off from others before they can do the same to us, or inflicting violence on others before they can do it to us. We hoard possessions to ensure our safety against the day of trouble, not trusting in God’s provision and turning into greedy possessors, unwilling to share.

Perhaps you think that the answer is fearlessness then? No- fear and love are not total opposites. We fear evil because it threatens things we love. The only way to purge yourself of fear completely is to love nothing which no one would say is a good or desirable thing. “Our response to living in a dangerous world ought not to be an attempt at fearlessness but an attempt to feel fear in the right way, at the right time, and to the right extent” (40). Fear can have the effect of refocusing our priorities by fixing our attention back upon our lives- fear can be a rude awakening that we have not loved as we ought to have. “Fear awakens us to our loves because in fear we imagine our loves lost” (42). The fear of God is a helpful concept here because Scripture tells us repeatedly not to be afraid but to fear God; not in some slavish kind of fear but in a parental, reverential fear that makes us stop fearing the wrong things. God converts our fear by turning away our fear from worldly things that control us and redirecting it to Him, because He does not threaten our true good- He does all things for our ultimate good (Rom. 8:28). “Because we love God, we fear anything that would harm a our relationship with God. So, filial fear can turn us from bad choices, because we recognize that what could be lost is something we love greatly. Understood in this  way, the ‘fear of God’ is a gift of the Holy Spirit that can help us resist evil and pursue the good” (44). Fear then can be a gift when God uses it to make us fear as we ought.

The community of the church bolsters our courage by teaching us this virtue and helping us live it. We see the virtues at work in our brothers and sisters and together implement them in our lives under mutual accountability and love. We pool our resources in this way and become stronger than we would left to ourselves.

As mentioned previously, much of our fear stems from our sense that something in the world is threatening God’s plan for our lives and for history. We fear the chaos and randomness that opposes God’s design and purposes for the world. We must learn again to participate in the unfolding of God’s direction of the world theater and lean upon the conviction that God is driving that story toward its proper conclusion and that evil will not have the final say.

Finite and fallen human beings cannot see the overarching structure of this story- this is a higher perspective which God alone has because from the ground level our view is limited and partial. God’s direction of His plan transcends the category of causality. His guidance of history showcases connective patterns between events which could not be filled with meaning merely through human action. Therefore we see disconnection and randomness intruding into and disrupting the development of the story. God, however, is at work directing all things into the totality of His rescue mission for His creation. Thinking biblically allows us to see these vertical connections which reach between seemingly disconnected horizontal events and therefore see God at work. The temptation we have is to tidy up the parts that don’t fit into how we think the world would make sense- in trusting God’s providence we must acknowledge how things actually are and trust God to make good of what actually is. We never have warrant to steamroll out the bumps in the road and pretend that they don’t exist. To do so would be to bear false witness but also to presume to have a better plot and management style than God. “Any attempt to suggest that we have put all the pieces together would force us to distort or exclude the pieces that do not seem to fit, pieces that might, themselves, be hints that we need to figure the pattern differently, perhaps more truthfully” (83).

Providence promises us that there is an invincible story being told which through faithful improvisation we can be a fruitful part of (the harmony with Kevin Vanhoozer’s theodrama model here set my heart a-thumpin’!). By engaging the world according to the patterns of Scripture’s story we can contribute in a God-directed way to this unfolding drama. Through the eyes of faith we can see God at work fulfilling His promises and bringing the story to a climax in the Messiah. Through Jesus’ example we can vividly see that providence does not promise us absolute security against all the world’s evils- rather, it promises us that tragedy will not be the final word. “Once we begin to see our lives this way, we can begin to welcome the surprising and unexpected without fear, since we know that God can weave even the darkest turns of history into the ultimate unfolding of God’s good end” (86). Placing our suffering within the narrative of God’s plan for history kills the fear that our suffering will be meaningless or that God’s purposes for us will fail or be brought to naught. It doesn’t guarantee absolute protection of our lives or physical health or our possessions: “…rather, it assures us of God’s provision (making a way for us to go on) and redemption (restoring what is lost along the way)” (92).

Why are we so regularly not satisfied with this promise? It is because we in the modern world long for the thing that providence does not itself guarantee, i.e. absolute security. In the political realm we search for this security through the power of strength and wealth, but the Scriptures pull the rug out from underneath us by telling us that this sort of power isn’t power at all (1 Cor. 1:27). Relying on God’s supernatural strength as it is manifested in our own weakness is the only way that we find real strength. It is ironic that our attempts to find security through power fail because we make ourselves weak through them. God works completely contrary to the world’s beliefs by “entering into the fray of human history and transforming it from within” rather than by “conventional power (that is, control or domination)” (93). We see this through God’s actions in history which rise above the simple human categories of response.  God does not accept conditions and events which take place in the world as though He approved of them in themselves (i.e. as though they were “good”), nor does He react to (“block”) conditions and events by swooping in to rescue the innocent and immediately punish the wicked. Both of these scenarios are too human and leave the initiative with beings other than God. Rather, God “overaccepts” (a term from theatrical improvisation, and, again, syncing up nicely with my boy Dr. Vanhoozer) the world’s offers yet refuses to do so on their own destructive terms. God plugs these overaccepted offers into the narrative of His story of redemption and thus overwhelms their evil with a bigger story and a redemptive hope. Bader-Saye writes, “Christian trust in God’s providence tells us that if things haven’t ended well, then, well, they haven’t ended” (99). We have the assurance that God’s purposes will ultimately be fulfilled. Knowing that the story has not yet ended because God is working at this very moment helps us make sense of the disconnect we see between God’s goodness and the world’s badness and comforts us in times of trouble. However, Bader-Saye writes, “Providence, first and foremost, names the conditions in which we can, with courage and hope, follow Jesus in a dangerous world. Thus, it ought to shore up our resolve to live the risks of Christian discipleship in a culture of fear” (100). Bader-Saye believes that a sturdy understanding of providence will aid us in dismantling the machinery of fear that dominates our lives individually and corporately.

The culture of fear cultivates the virtue of suspicion and simultaneously strangles the Christian virtue of hospitality. In defiance of the culture’s call to not trust the stranger, we are called to a radical hospitality similar to the Church’s acceptance of Gentile believers in the first century. We must understand our identity is defined in the person of Jesus and our closeness to Him and not first and foremost by distinctives of tradition and culture. By doing this we open ourselves up to the fact that God may speak to us through others who are not exactly like us; we will learn “that hospitality to the excluded other will mean opening ourselves to the possibility of learning something new about what it means to follow God in Christ” (108). Our unity in difference mirrors the joyful co-existence of the three persons of the Trinity who live in perfect harmony with one another. If we faithfully live out this virtue we will find new life swelling into our body through this ancient principle: “In God’s abundance, hospitality does not drain us of what we have but adds to our resources” (114).

The culture of fear keeps in a state of emergency which precludes patient analysis and discussion of options. We see this in the post-9/11 world which feels it doesn’t have time to deliberate- we must respond with force as quickly as possible. One of the gifts of courage is patience, which is itself an outworking of providence. When we are fearful we resort to the very shows of power which the world believes are strong but God assures us are weak. We seek invulnerability and too often resort to coercion and domination to secure that elusive feeling. Bader-Saye writes, “If we trust that Christ reveals the truth about God, then we must assume that God does not wield power to dominate, coerce, or destroy (since Jesus did not do any of these things). Thus, God’s providential will for the world cannot be read off of the triumph of regimes that dominate, coerce, or destroy” (123). We must patiently pursue wisdom, trusting in God’s abundance and provision, to supply us with what is necessary to effect peace and reconciliation.

Fear takes advantage of our fallen inclination to believe that God isn’t enough and that if we don’t take care of ourselves no one else will. Believing this, we think we can make ourselves secure by accumulating wealth. Though capitalism is not in itself an evil, the unrestrained power of the free market has enabled Western man’s inborn instinct towards greed and hoarding. This instinct is directly opposed to the promises of providence. Providence assures us that God’s provision for His people will continue and that therefore we can generously share with others. “Following Jesus means embracing an ethic of risk; it tells us to imitate God’s radical generosity, trusting that the rest will be provided to us” (138). “Trusting providence means trusting God’s provision, and trusting in God’s provision allows us to embody generosity” (139). We are shaped through depending upon God’s provision to only need what it is that God provides and to delight in what He graciously grants us. Providence also trims the fat of our hearts to teach us to need appropriately. We are then enabled to give generously to others who are in need, thus perpetuating God’s providential care of others. The Sabbath is an opportunity for the church to live out this principle by devoting an entire day to not providing for ourselves and thus witnessing to and rejoicing in the reality of God’s provision.

Bader-Saye’s book effectively illustrates what trusting God to overcome our fearfulness looks like in real life rather than simply chiding us for our faithlessness and telling us to knock it off. Instead, he shows us concrete ways to appropriate faith in the fight against fear. Our fearfulness must be tackled head-on for what it is: an egregious lack of trust in God which causes our witness to the world to suffer. This book will minister mightily to you if you come to it with a spirit of humility and ask God for a merciful dose of courage.

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