Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Bare-Knuckled Gospel (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: The World-Tilting Gospel: Embracing a Biblical Worldview & Hanging on Tight, by Dan Phillips. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2011. 315 pgs. (including notes, prefaces, introductions, afterwords, and indexes)

Introduction: There is a grave inconsistency marking the western Christian church. It is not (as some would muse) an inconsistency between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between what we believe and what we do (though that does touch upon it). Nor is it (as others sagaciously theorize) an inconsistency between our overblown shadows and underwhelming substance (though that is addressed within it). The true grave inconsistency of the western church is historical, viz., between the church of the 1st century and the church of the 21st century. What did the world say about the 1st century church? According to scripture, we were the ones who had "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). What does the world say about the 21st century church? According to author and pastor Dan Phillips, nothing good (if it says anything at all). The world may compliment us and occasionally grant us an approving nod, but never that we are the ones who are turning the world "upside down"; and for Mr. Phillips, that's a problem. A problem that has a very simple cause: we no longer view all things through the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel. It is that lack of a gospel-centric vision that Mr. Phillips seeks to address and amend in The World-Tilting Gospel.

Summary: Overall, this book is similar in scope (and even structure) to John Calvin's Institutes, viz., it unpacks Christian orthodoxy and explains (1) what it means and (2) why it matters, i.e., why it is "world-tilting". As such, it makes writing a summary of the book paradoxically both impossible and simple. "Impossible," because there is so much packed into such a relatively tiny space. "Simple," because all that it is is the Christian Faith unpacked, analyzed, and illuminated (and backed by tons of scripture references). In short, not only is its like Calvin's Institutes, it is also like Lewis' Mere Christianity. It is just the facts, though it is in no way either derivative or boring and unengaging (as you shall see below).

Review: Dan Phillips is angry. Very angry. He is angry at the church. Angry at its pathetically weak-kneed and limp-wristed approach to the world. Angry at all the slipshod shenanigans that have been dumped on top of the gospel. Angry at the protestant pseudocelebrites that perpetrate and bulwark those shenanigans. Angry at the fads and fashions that attempt to shanghai the gospel to their fading lunacies. And angry at the evangelical culture that unquestioningly absorbs all of this and proceeds to saturate you and me with it. Therefore, Dan Phillips is an angry man. But it's a righteous anger.

Every since I began reading his blog posts a couple of years ago (at both his blog and Pyromaniacs), I became quickly aware that Dan was a fighting blogger. Not mean or brutish, just a fighter. "Bare-knuckle," as he put it once. He is (as he himself admits) the least nuanced of the contributors to Pyromaniacs, and I mean that in a good way. He's the one with the sleeveless, hairy arms and grim expression with a sledgehammer slung over his shoulder. When he steps up to the mike, his voice is a chainsaw, making postmodernists raw. Whether that is a proper rhetorical strategy or not, one thing is crystal clear, and that is him: you always know exactly where he is coming from and what he is after. No doubts. No questions. No way to effectively obfuscate. You have been punched squarely in the jaw, and you know exactly from who and why; and just like "the most interesting man in the world," when he punches you, you have to fight the urge to thank him.

The book is the same. It is a fighting book. From page one onwards, it comes out swinging and doesn't relent. This can make for exhausting reading, and yet you will never find yourself moved to put the book down. Even during parts that you already know backwards and forwards (thanks to prehistoric Sunday School lectures), you will find yourself engaged and engrossed. Often his tone and candor will irritate you, but then he will smack you with a truth you were unaware of or refresh you with a truth you had forgotten. It's like being constantly doused by oscillating bursts of hot and cold water: an annoyance, sprinkled with the threat of drowning, and yet you are more awake and alive than you have ever been.

It's that oscillation that makes the book great. You will find yourself equally astounded and aggravated from part to part, chapter to chapter. Your results will vary on which parts/chapters astound/aggravate you, but one constant theme will garner the most responses (whether positive or negative), and that is the theme of the entire book. The World-Tilting Gospel is not simply a primer on Christian belief (though it could serve as that). It is a primer on why Christian belief (as a whole: from Genesis to Revelation) is necessarily counter-cultural on an ultimate level. It is by its very nature and creed not an accommodater or compromiser; rather, it is the straight shot to the jaw of the world, meant to leave it dazed and amazed.

Make no mistake: you will disagree with Dan at times. I did (and still do), especially in regard to his Calvinism (e.g., his incorrect view that regeneration precedes faith), a theology that I find as equally "close-but-no-cigar" as Arminianism. To that virile declaration of mine, I add this: So what? Dan may not be nuanced, but he is wise; wise enough to know that no-one is 100% right except for God, and that is his point: God is right. We are wrong. Jesus saves. That is world-tilting. That is the gospel, given once for all time. I will proudly and staunchly disagree with Dan all day, everyday as long as we are both standing on that firm foundation.

Recommendation: Get this book. It will stir you, inspire you, aggravate and offend you. Like all good books ought to. The only truly bad review that a book can receive is that it is too uninteresting to take seriously. This is not that book. At some point (perhaps multiple times), it will hit you hard. You may even feel the urge to thank it (or hit it back); but whatever you do, you won't say that you can't take it seriously.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011


  1. Thank you for such a thorough and thoughtful engagement with the text, Jon.

    It is a primer on why Christian belief (as a whole: from Genesis to Revelation) is necessarily counter-cultural on an ultimate level. It is by its very nature and creed not an accommodater or compromiser...

    Amen, well-said, and glory to God.

  2. Thank you, sir! And thank you for commenting.

    Now do us all a favor and keep thrownin' those punches. 8^)