Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Write-Up: Ordinary, by Tony Merida

Tony Merida.  Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down.  Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Tony Merida pastors Imago Dei church in Raleigh, North Carolina.  The back cover of the book states that “Tony Merida wants to push back against sensationalism and ‘rock star Christianity,’ and help people understand that they can make a powerful impact by practicing ordinary Christianity.”  Ordinary Christianity includes love of neighbor, hospitality, caring for orphans, and using one’s voice against injustice.

Here are some thoughts about the book:

1.  The Gospel of God’s grace is significant in Merida’s book.  For Merida, if Christians believe that God accepts them and that Christ died for their sins when they were weak, they will be brave and humble in the pursuit of justice and able to identify more with the vulnerable.  Merida makes a case that Jesus in some of the Gospels teaches that human beings are unable to obey God’s law fully (including the law of loving their neighbor) and thus need God’s grace.  These parts of the book are interesting and worth the read, even if one concludes that Merida unsuccessfully attempts to reconcile the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels with Martin Luther’s version of Paul (though Merida does not mention Luther).  In addition, appealing to the Book of James, Merida states that the evidence of Christian faith is good works.  In my opinion, that sort of attitude can make Christians insecure about their salvation, as they wonder if they are doing enough good works, or they try to do more good works to convince themselves that they are truly saved.  That seems to me to run contrary to the sort of security that Merida thinks Christians should have.

2.  My reaction to Merida’s comments on hospitality and orphan care are mixed.  Merida does well to note that the care of widows, orphans, and the poor is a significant theme in the New Testament and to refer to organizations that readers can contact if they are interested in helping.  Moreover, in discussing hospitality, Merida refers to a couple of introverts who have written about the subject, and he says that hospitality does not mean being the life of the party.  That resonated with me, as an introvert.  I think that Merida should have expanded on that, however, and I often felt in reading the section about orphan care that I needed to sign up for a bunch of causes in order to please God.  Merida also said that raising orphans can be difficult and challenging, and my thought in reading that was, “But I don’t want to adopt anyone in the first place!”  I felt as if I were being pressured to do something I did not want to do, then being warned that the task would be difficult.  Still, what I got from Merida’s discussions on orphan care is that people should do at least something: they should be concerned about orphans, and they should take practical steps to make orphans’ lives easier, even if they choose not to adopt or provide foster care.  I agree with that.

3.  I was impressed with what Merida said about the International Justice Mission.  The International Justice Mission addresses human-trafficking and seeks to help people in the Third World who have been unjustly treated and struggle to get justice from the authorities.  The IJM not only gives a voice to people who struggle to be heard, but it also emphasizes and practices prayer, and it offers advice on how people can help others smartly.  When Merida wrote about towns where he saw the effects of human-trafficking, for example, the IJM helped him revise what he wrote so that he did not identify and reveal the locations of the towns, since that could attract predators to them.  Merida’s discussions about the IJM overlapped with key themes of his book: social action being accompanied by prayer and Christian devotion, and the importance of conducting social action intelligently.

4.  I appreciated something that Merida said on page 12 because that made the rest of Merida’s book look reasonable to me: “If we believe that everyone is made in the image of God, then everyone is worthy of dignity, love, basic human rights, and hearing biblical truth.”  There were times when I was reading Merida’s book and wondering, “Why bring preaching into this?  Just help people!”  Merida was criticizing both the tendency to emphasize preaching at the expense of social action, and social action at the expense of sharing the Gospel, and I tended to lean towards the latter.  Merida offered a defense of sharing the Gospel, but what he said on page 12 especially resonated with me.  I do believe that people have the right to hear the Gospel.  Whether or not they accept it is up to them.

5.  Merida argues that the Exodus demonstrates that God wants justice for all nations.  Against those who argue that God at the Exodus liberated Israel and that this is irrelevant to other nations, Merida points to Isaiah 19, where God promises to send Egypt a savior to rescue the Egyptians from oppression.  I appreciated Merida addressing this issue, on account of debates about liberation theology and whether the Exodus was a paradigm of justice that was relevant to other oppressed peoples.

6.  Merida’s chapter on William Wilberforce, the English politician whose Christian convictions led him to confront the slave trade, was excellent, overall.  Merida says that Wilberforce was a small, ordinary man who accomplished great things.  I did not care, however, for Merida in that chapter lamenting the “overall feminization of men” (page 107).  I agreed with Merida that men should be neither bullies nor cowards, but I wondered why he was focusing on men in that section: Should not women, too, stand up against injustice?  Moreover, up to that point, I did not get the impression that the book was written primarily for men; Merida’s wife Kimberly contributes to the book.  And why is cowardice in the face of injustice “feminization”?  Merida talks about his wife’s work against injustice, so cowardice is obviously not a trait that is inherent to women!

Overall, though, I found this book to be challenging and insightful.

I received this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.

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