Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, by Paul F.M. Zahl, 2007.
This is the most aggravating book I have read this year. It is also the most profound book I have read all year. At the Mockingbird Conference in September, people kept telling me about this book and how it convicts and challenges, but, I admit, I was skeptical. Not anymore. I feel like I got into a violent bar fight with myself; broken bottles, fists, slobbery blood and all. I have not felt that way since I saw Modest Mouse in concert at Sasquatch in 2011. Isaac Brock’s affinity for Bukowski, Nietzsche, and everything nihilistic and his gradual drunkenness giving an edge to his venomous lyrics as the two hour concert proceeded, made for a painful but highly effective concert. This was an example of the world without grace and I felt bloodied. This book, however, was attempting to show what grace looks like in everyday life and, again, I feel bloodied. Maybe Flannery O’Connor was more right than even I could guess, that violence precedes and follows the grace of God.
Paul Zahl, I have decided, is not out to agree with people’s systems of thought. He is out to unsettle them from their very foundations. The first third of the book, or so, is the theological foundations for a “theology of everyday life” or a practical theology of grace. He starts out with four pillars of his theology: the human condition (original sin, total depravity and the un-free will), Soteriology, Christology and the being of God. Setting this down firmly, but with great wit, he then moves on to three areas of everyday life and how grace invades those areas: family, society and church.
I said this was an aggravating book in part because elements of what he says are edgy and are on the surface going against my own viewpoints. However, as he continues, its hard to not, at least, see where he is coming from and recognize the direction of his critique. In the first part of the book (the theological foundations), I did take offense to his naming of elements of the book of Amos as Semi-Pelagian. If there is a single book of the Bible that works me over more and more, it is Amos. And, though, I am not sure that, in the end, I agree with this accusation, I could see where he was coming from. That is the magic of Paul Zahl. He will say something to knock you out of your self-made complacency to think about things in another direction. Doesn’t mean you will agree with everything, but you will, at least, agree with why he makes those claims.
In the largest portion of the book, he drops one bomb after another, reshaping and rethinking relationships with people, with the state and with the church under the realm of grace. If you are not in a wrestling match with yourself during the majority of this book, then I am convinced you may be too far gone to be reached. The most bloodying part of the book for me was Zahl’s view of the church, or a Christian’s ecclesiology. Part of me was thinking that his critiques were just a product of post-modern critiques of institutions that is so cliche in the broader realm of Christendom. However, by the time you have made it to that point and learned the theological foundations, learned how it works in the family and society, it is hard to leave that critique to stand on its own. A lot of what he says about the church is true, too true. And though I am still giving myself right hooks and cutting myself with a broken Shiner Bock bottle over that last part of the book (and various other elements of the book, as well), I find more and more validity to his concerns and his critiques. Once again, will I ultimately agree? Maybe, maybe not. But he delivers the blows that need to be delivered.
That being said, there were parts of the book that were like, “Finally, someone sees it the way I do.” Especially when it came to grace in society. I have already come to a position that is largely pacifist and pro-life in all instances (as in death penalty, self-defense, etc., not just abortion). However, Zahl even unsettled me there too. He checked the idealistic nature of my pacifism. His understanding that idealism usually accompanies a high view of human anthropology (or, high view of the human condition) is largely true. The “If I am a pacifist in my life, and others are too, then the world will be better and will progress toward a greater good” argument is a misunderstanding of the world and humans. Living in grace means failure, suffering, loss and losing the battle most of the time, if not all of the time! Being a pacifist should not give us high hopes of progress and human empowerment, but, instead, should prepare us to lose, so that God can then work in our powerlessness.
All of this, the challenges and the agreements of this book are like the scene in The Dark Knight Rises when Bane breaks Batman’s back and Batman has to learn how to walk again. It is the same thing for me in reading this book. Paul Zahl has broken my back, and started breaking my control, my will (though that will be a life-long affair), so that I might see my life and my life in relation to others through the lens of grace instead of the law. Grace engenders what the Law couldn’t. The Law only multiplied sins, but the grace of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, brought about the obedience to the Law that the Law couldn’t produce. Just like Abraham believed in the promises of God, first, and then was obedient, we, too, need to allow grace to break our backs, so that we may start to be obedient to God and his will. O’Connor was right when, time and time again, she proclaimed that it took violence to break our wills so that God could then do his will in us, which, too, was violence in the mortifying of the flesh; the justification and sanctification of his people.
Kudos to Paul Zahl for making me have the internal, bloody, conflict with myself. At the end of the day, whoever wins, I still lose. And I thank God for that.