Cover Image: When Everything's on Fire

When Everything's on Fire

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Brian Zahnd is a Poet and a Prophet who writes with beauty and passion. I have followed Zahnd's journey away from North American Fundamentalism and into a dynamic embrace of the historic Christian faith since he wrote "Water to Wine". Fundamentalism is a burdensome and superficial mistress that captured a significant portion of the Church as a reaction to the Enlightenment and theological modernism. Sadly, after waking up to fundamentalism's fatal flaws, many of her captives deconstruct their faith and end up walking away from Jesus. Zahnd shows that this is a false dichotomy and presents a way forward. The way forward he suggests is reconnecting with the mystery and majesty of the historic Christian faith - it is like comparing wonderful, rich, aged fine wine vs this month's artificially flavoured juice! The vision and encouragement of this book is for the renovation of our faith rather than deconstruction. One of my favourite quotes, speaking of Christian faith, from the book is "Renovate what needs to be renovated, throw out what needs to be thrown out, deconstruct what needs to be reconstructed, and even let some of it burn, but don't burn it all down." As the Western world burns, we need a faith that has been tested by fire and stood the test of time and that is exactly what the writer is pointing too. Zahnd's writing is intelligent but entirely accessible. I highly recommend this book - get it, read it, give copies to friends!
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Oof, what an important question and topic for 2021! I love this cover too, just sayin'. :) Thanks for adding this to Netgalley! I'd love to see more books like this posted.
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An unapologetic book on what the author believes, not based on the state of the church today, but based on divine revelation in his own life, and the historic Church tradition. Full of examples and scriptural exegesis.
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When Everything's on Fire by Brian Zahnd is about Christians keeping the faith even during times of unbelief.  Zahnd talks about how natural it is for Christians to have doubts, and he even quotes some famous philosophers throughout this book.  When speaking of some of Christian history and traditions he says, "Sometimes we need some old things to burn down before we can have new growth.  We don't always realize that some of what we cherish is just the wood, hay, and straw of dead religion that we would be better off without."  I really appreciated this quote by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo:  "When religion collapses into an ideology it is no longer faith.  Religion itself becomes lust when what you call love is motivated by lust."  This book was well-though-out, deep, and just what I needed.  Thanks to NetGalley for the free digital review copy.  All opinions are my own.
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In When Everything's on Fire, Brian Zahnd takes a hard look at deconstruction and how to avoid burning your faith to the ground. He speaks from firsthand experience, as a pastor who went through this process while a pastor, and stayed a pastor. Jesus was his focus while all else burned to the ground and because he had that centering, he was able to renovate his faith from the ground up. The book goes into great detail about reframing your experience through the eyes of love, rather than fear.

Thanks to IVP and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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When the dark leads to emotional gloom and thoughts of doom, any light helps. For author and pastor Brian Zahnd, he notices how the pandemic has turned the world upside down. The economy is in upheaval. People's lives are uncomfortably rocked. Christians struggle with political views. Churches are mired in scandals. In times like these, it is easy to become discouraged amid the challenges of theological deconstruction. Yet, even when everything seems to be on fire, BZ reminds us that fire has one more quality: The purification of our faith. How do we recover from the ashes and be renewed in the Truth of living in the hope of the Resurrected Christ? Is Christian faith still viable in a secular age? BZ affirms that it is not only possible to survive, one can also flourish. Acknowledging the reality of skepticism, the challenges of cynicism, and the opposition of secularism is the first step to making sense of faith. Not only that, BZ identifies with the critics of past philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, and in an imaginary conversation with the late German philosopher, BZ agrees with Nietzsche's sentiments but not necessarily the conclusions. BZ appreciates the struggles of life but not the dumbing down of faith. When everything is on fire for Nietzsche, the famed atheist declares that God is dead. BZ shows us that many critiques of Christendom while valid do not mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, Christians ought to learn how to critique so as to refine the faith, just like how fire refines. Otherwise, one might end up like a pastor who turned to atheism when he could not distinguish the historic Christianity faith from modern fundamentalist beliefs. One of BZ's key convictions is to nurture a culture of sustained belief for his grandchildren and their generation. Reasons to believe are not enough. The beauty of the gospel is better. BZ shares about an experience in Paris talking with a young man who had lost his faith, only to be renewed once he is able to see the beauty of Christ. 

Specifically, what is the "everything" that the author is talking about? He begins with belief amid an atheistic climate that is threatening to weaken the faith of believers. Instead of capitulating to the skeptics, BZ sees doubts as a "furnace" to refine what we believe in. He recognizes the harm of "rigid, defensive fundamentalism" and seeks a way forward to shine hope for the disillusioned. Deconstruction of modernist fundamentalism does not necessarily mean jettisoning faith altogether. For instance, God gave us Jesus but the church created a form of Christianity not in the image of Christ but in the structure of Christendom. 

My Thoughts
BZ is pretty well-read in the classics, especially on European novelists like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Pascal, and other spiritual classic writers. For anyone accusing Christians of kissing their brains goodbye, BZ is a testimony against that. With gentleness and reason, we get to understand the problem and the suggested way forward. Each chapter contains an observation of the challenges facing Christianity and the Church. BZ diagnoses the major problem as follows: The reason why many believers are facing a crisis of faith is that they are unable to distinguish True Historic Christianity from the modern fundamentalist movements. He builds for us several ways to mentally reconcile our doubts honestly, without necessarily abandoning faith altogether. For instance, by showing us the beauty that saves the world, we are reminded that the gospel is first and foremost beauty and not some kind of a religion based on logic and technique. For the realm of faith goes way beyond normal rationalization. Love for example is non-rational. How do we logically explain why Christ would choose to die for us? Distinguish between Church statements and Christ commandments. The Word of God is the foundation of the Church, not the interpretation per se. He frequently engages with critics and doubters with an honest conversation to point out that Christianity is reasonable. Compared with a faith that is largely untested, a faith that has gone through the fires of trials will come out more refined. BZ has experienced it and together with that conviction, believes that we too can grow strongly despite the cultural opposition of Christianity in the Western hemisphere. 

The second part of the book takes a more apologetics stand. From the beauty of the gospel, we learn of grappling with the mysteries of the gospel. many of the past spiritual masters were mystics. Their practice of faith had led to a profound discovery of joy and spiritual revival. The modern charismatic movement has managed to recreate some of that mystical experience. Unfortunately, the rise of consumerism has blunted its growth. Before one goes on accusing him of telling us to be mystics, BZ also reminds us that Jesus Himself had shown the way. The resurrection is one great example. This reminds me of one common spiritual purpose by the desert fathers: To become all fire. BZ may have begun like a spiritual fireman trying to help us douse the flames that are threatening to burn up our faith. He does more than that. In fact, he is trying to assure us that flames for refinement are a good thing. He then takes us beyond by showing us that there is the beauty behind the fires of redemption. There is the presence of Christ to guide us through the flames of the world. As we encounter more of God, we pray that our faith will become all fire, that just like the song "Pass It On"goes, may our little fires in our hearts light up other candles and pass on the good news and beauty of the gospel. 

What a powerful metaphor that we can take away from this book!

Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. Known for his theologically informed preaching and his embrace of the deep and long history of the church, Zahnd provides a forum for pastors to engage with leading theologians and is a frequent conference speaker. He is the author of several books, including Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, A Farewell to Mars, and Beauty Will Save the World.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.

This book has been provided courtesy of InterVarsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
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I would rate this book in my top 3 favorite books of 2021 so far. There was so much to take in that I may just purchase a copy to highlight and use for reference in the future. 

I have been very curious as to why so many Christians are leaving their faith behind. I realize the answer is different for every person, but Brian Zahnd has offered his thoughts on the matter. So much of it resonated with me. 

This first reason Brian mentions is, “People often live as practical atheists before they come out of the closet as professed atheists. In the 1880s, Nietzsche was saying that western civilization had already in practice become atheistic, even if most people didn’t know it yet.” The western world has slowly been turning their back to God. The creep has been slow, so it’s been easy to miss. Life has been relatively easy and therefore, peoples’ faith has been relatively untested. But now that we’ve got an extremely contentious political atmosphere, a pandemic with fear mongering, a country divided, love of neighbor growing cold and an upset of our comfortable lives, our drift has become glaringly obvious. So many people say they are people of faith, but then don’t really live in a way that exemplifies that faith. They don’t work out their faith. They just wear it like an accessory, something they can wear or discard based on how they feel that day. Or perhaps they are wearing it like a campaign button to declare, “I’m on God’s team!” 

I know people who’ve moved from fundamental faith to fundamental atheism. They just trade one kind of certainty with rules for living for another. Their duality remains and they are unable to live into life’s complexities. This exchange from one type of set-in-its-ways theology for another is a second example why people turn their back on their faith. “When Fundamentalism is the dominant paradigm, It is all too easy to suddenly careen from Christian fundamentalism to atheistic fundamentalism”.

I am personally drawn to the historical faith mystics. Those who do not claim to know all the answers, but seek to sit at God’s feet in one on one communion and communication. “Historic Christian faith in its healthiest forms has always been comfortable with mystery and nuance, metaphor and allegory, candid questions and honest doubts. Because in the end, Christianity has suffered more casualties from feaux faith than from honest doubt.”

“Deconstruction seems to be a methodology that has no real end game. At times, it feels like an invitation to endless cynicism.” Many seem to believe deconstruction is an end. An end of faith. What is an end, except an opportunity for a new beginning? It is one step forward in the work of throwing off something that has entangled. And when one continues to work out what they believe, it is just a temporary stopping place on the road to a regenerate faith. This is why “The center of the Christian faith is not theology but Christ.” Zahnd says, “Doubt is the doorway to better faith….I doubted my way to a better faith.”

Brian gives his thoughts on moving forward from deconstruction. “There is a remarkable degree of flexibility and capacity for change within the Christian religion. Among other things, this means that we can rethink and even modify christianity without losing Jesus.”

“Christianity is an ongoing project to understand God as revealed in Jesus Christ, but Jesus is not a prisoner to Christianity…Christianity seeks to understand Christ…And the radical freedom of Christ is such that he can show up in unexpected places and surprising ways - even among those who are attempting to control him for their own purposes.”

“Spiritual maturity is found in patience, not in rash actions.” For those who struggle to keep grounded in their faith, I encourage you to pray for an encounter. I think it’s easy for faith to feel stale or constricting when not a lot of time is invested in being with God. Pray for eyes to see and ears to hear God. Keep praying until you feel like God is telling you something or showing you something.  And do it again and keep doing it. It’s more about sitting at Jesus’ feet, getting to know the God of the universe, than it is about keeping some rules and being sure one gets their quiet time done. 

Another way to keep learning and challenging your faith is to “Open up to the whole body of Christ. Those beliefs most in need of deconstruction and remodeling are usually the product of isolated and sectarian camps. The theological dead end you have arrived at may only be a dead end in a relatively small neighborhood in the vast kingdom of Christ. It’s highly unlikely that the theological problems you are struggling with are unique to you. It’s more likely that Christians have wrestled with similar questions for centuries and that there are dozens of good books to help you navigate your theological conundrum. But you may not find them in your particular denomination or movement…The solution may be to become more ecumenical and try to read more widely. Seek out those who are regarded as the best thinkers and teachers within various traditions - Eastern orthodox, Roman catholic, anglican, mainline protestant, Anabaptist, evangelical, and Penecostal. I’ve benefited greatly from Orthodox soteriology, Catholic practices of spiritual Formation, Anglican liturgy, mainline Scholarship, Anabaptist peace studies, evangelical energy, and the Pentecostal emphasis on the Holy Spirit.”

“If the Christian faith is to survive the tsunami of secularism, it will be because Christians have their own experience with God. The faith of the future will be sustained by an experience, not an argument. As the old saying goes, a person with an experience is not at the mercy of a person with an argument.”

“The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do but to be properly formed.”

“In Genesis, the new day doesn’t begin at sunrise or at midnight, but at sunset. Reflecting this, the Jewish Sabbath does not begin at sunrise on Saturday but at sundown on Friday. Each new day begins with a new darkness. Newness is not heralded by the rising sun but by enfolding darkness. This is counterintuitive. The new day does not begin with being able to see, the new day begins with being unable to see. Newness is born in nothingness. God creates ex nihilo. Darkness is the canvas for the new light of creation.”

I’m sure all these quotes are overkill, but I couldn’t narrow them down any further. You will definitely want to grab your own copy so you can highlight or mark it up. I received this arc copy from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
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Our faith is a journey from our mind to our heart. Sometimes this journey will take us on a dark night of the soul. That is not the end of the journey but an entrance into a deeper, powerful and more intimate relationship with God. Brian’s newest book encourages us to keep our eyes on Jesus as we find Jesus, lose Jesus and rethink Jesus. It reminds us to experience God in our heart just like the mystic writers of the Bible. We are all meant to be mystics. As Brian says, “The mystical life is the normal Christian life.” The mystical life is how we experience the wonder, the mystery and unconditional love of the Divine. I will take a second read to mine for more nuggets. Highly recommended!
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Brian Zahnd's "When Everything's on Fire" is an incredible resource for any Christian going through a faith shift and "deconstructing" and "reconstructing" their religious beliefs. Brian is beautifully pastoral, exceptionally wise, and writes as a fellow journeyer as opposed to a know-it-all expert. His deeply compassionate and challenging approach will be just the guide that folks need to keep their spiritual sanity on the disorienting journey toward burning away what is not of God, while keeping the gem of Christ. I highly recommend this book!
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