A Review of "When Everything's On Fire"
On The Deconstruction and Reconstruction of the Christian Faith
I wrote a book review of Brian Zahnd’s book When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes for the Mission Alive blog last January. The book was one of my favorite books to read in 2022, and I believe it’s a good book for you to read if you haven’t already done so. Therefore, I’m reposting this book review with a few changes.
As you know, we are living in some challenging times. The Covid-19 virus is still a big health threat to people. At the same time, a reckoning is taking place among evangelical Christianity in regard to some highly publicized church scandals, Trump politics, and a past that includes racism, misogynism, and other problems that undermine their witness to the gospel.
In response to this reckoning, there is a growing number of evangelicals saying that enough is enough. Some are shedding their conservative understanding of the Christian faith for a progressive expression, while others are renouncing their Christian faith altogether. This is a process called deconstruction, which I am sympathetic toward but also concerned with pastorally. Is it possible to deconstruct an evangelical Christian faith and eventually discover a reconstructed faith that is neither conservative nor liberal but still within the historical stream of orthodox Christian faith?
I believe so, and so does pastor Brian Zahnd. This is the reason for his book When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes, which was published in late 2021 by InterVarsity Press. The book is currently available in both Kindle and hardback format, with the latter costing $21.90. For those unfamiliar with Brian Zahnd, he is both a pastor and an author. He has served in ministry for over thirty years, serving as the Lead Pastor for Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri.
The book is 183 pages and is divided into two sections with a prelude, followed by eleven chapters, and then a conclusion. Although Zahnd is capable of intellectual engagement with various theologians and philosophers, the book is very easy to read. Drawing on thoughts from people such as Frederick Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Chrysostom, and Paul Ricoeur, Zahnd engages scripture and Christian tradition. As both a pastor and theologian, Zahnd describes what he believes is the essence of the Christian faith while disentangling from the empiricism of modernity that evangelical Christianity has been embedded within.
Understanding the way modernity shaped evangelicalism is important because that has impacted the way the Bible is read and regarded as the foundation of faith. Zahnd rightfully critiques this by returning to scripture to show that Jesus, and not the Bible, is the foundation of the Christian faith. “Christianity,” says Zahnd, “is not a series of proofs; it is the confession based on the revelation that Jesus Christ is Lord” (p. 91). The foundation of the Christian faith is God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ which is known to us first through the church's witness (tradition) and passes along a collection of canonical writings we know as The Bible. So we begin with Jesus rather than the Bible, or as Zahnd says, “First Jesus, then church, and finally the Bible” (p. 97).
Of course, both Jesus and the Bible are indispensable to forming our Christian faith, which is why Zahnd believes that mysticism and a mystical reading of scripture are necessary. For those unfamiliar, this might sound suspicious, but mysticism is about seeking God. Thus Zahnd says, “We too can be mystics who encounter God, follow God, wrestle with God, speak to and for God, compose prayers, open new doors, heart the divine heartbeat, proclaim the gospel, and, most importantly, give flesh to the Word of God in our own lives” (p. 130). Then in reading the Bible as a mystic, we are seeking a “second naiveté” (a term coined by Paul Ricoeur) that allows the Bible to be heard in new ways as we enter the narrative of scripture.
I enjoyed reading this book and believe it has much to offer Christianity in North America. And this is especially so in helping us move beyond the challenges of deconstruction. As one who deconstructed from a conservative-fundamentalist faith, a process initiated through the existential crisis that followed the death of my oldest son, I identify with the concerns of this book. Like Zahnd, I see problems with the conservative-evangelical understanding of the Christian faith, but I also see problems with the opposite, the reactionary progressive understanding of the Christian faith. So I appreciate Zahnd wisely saying,
When people from a conservative tradition begin to question some tenants [sic] of theological conservatism, they often find a way forward through a more progressive theology. But it should not be assumed that a progressive move is in every case the way forward. It’s important to understand that progressive fundamentalism is just as false and destructive as conservative fundamentalism. We seek to discover God as revealed in Christ, not in an ism, be it conservative or progressive. (p. 56).
He’s right. In discovering God, we follow Jesus Christ regardless of whether doing so appears to be conservative or progressive in the eyes of others.
One slight nuance I would make has to do with the way Zahnd describes his view of scripture. He says,
I don’t have a low view of scripture; I have a high view of Christ. I hold the Scriptures as authoritative in informing and shaping the Christian faith. …I faithfully affirm the Bible as authoritative in the Christian faith, but the Bible is now where we begin—the Bible is not self-authenticating. (p. 96).
I agree with Zahnd. He does hold a high view of scripture, and this should be easily apparent to anyone who listens to his sermons or reads his books. Also, with Zahnd, I believe the Bible is authoritative in informing and shaping our faith as Christians. That’s why we have scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17), but I believe we should retain the phrase “inspired by God” in our description of the Bible. I believe that Zahnd regards scripture as inspired by God, but I’m mentioning this because I wish he would have explicitly said so.
Like Zahnd, I understand that scripture is given to us by the church, who decided which writings should be included in our canon of scripture that we call the Bible. But I also believe that God was providentially at work guiding the authors of scripture to say what was necessary for the formation of our faith as well as providentially at work in the canonization process (and I’m sure Zahnd believes this too). This is what makes scripture inspired by God, and that’s important because when we read the Bible, we are reading God’s word to us. Hence, the response of the assembly after the reading of scripture, “The word of the Lord.”
Needless to say, though, if you’re looking for an enjoyable and invigorating read, go by this book. If you’re asking yourself how Christians move beyond deconstruction, add Zahnd’s book to your library and consider what he has to say as you read.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura, and together they have three children.