Book Review: Carson's Call for Spiritual Reformation

by Matthew Raley D. A. Carson. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his PrayersGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

D. A. Carson’s enriching book is more than a manifesto for revival. It is a searching meditation on the imperative, the power, and the generative attitudes of prayer. First published in 1992, the book may be an even more sobering read today, more than twenty years later. The decline of the American church has continued without interruption, and the contributing factors and cultural symptoms of our decline are now worse. Carson’s exegetical depth, however, gives me fresh hope.

Carson opens with an analysis of the American church’s prayerlessness (Introduction), the conclusion of which is that we do not know God well enough. He opens the nature and focus of prayer in a series of chapters drawing on the example of other Christians (Chapter 1), the model of 2 Thessalonians 1 (Chapters 2 and 3), the overall burden for people in Paul’s prayers (Chapters 4-5), and the model of Colossians 1 (Chapter 6). Carson pauses to examine various excuses for prayerlessness and to expound the motivations for overcoming them (Chapters 7-8). He then develops much-needed theological rationales for prayer, dealing with the nature of God (Chapters 9-10), the nature of spiritual power (Chapter 11), and vision for ministry (Chapter 12).

In order to find fault with any of Carson’s exegesis, one would have to marshal detailed technical objections. Even where that might be possible, his devotion to expounding the Scriptures accurately is displayed on every page. Carson’s examination of 2 Thessalonians 1 is rich with applications derived meticulously from context (Chapter 3). On page after page, Carson gives appropriate details about Paul’s inferential and referential particles to clarify why Paul prays and what he prays for. In fact, one of the most edifying features of Carson’s book is his frequent reproduction of lengthy passages that the reader can mull over without any commentary.

Many books are filled with solid exegetical details that nevertheless clutter big themes. Carson’s book is not one of them. He shows the Bible’s big picture of prayer.

In particular, the book corrects the overly individualistic concept of prayer many evangelicals have. Carson doesn’t belabor the inadequacy of a prayer life that is exclusively private, or attack individualism outright. Instead, he shows the communal prayer life of Paul in high definition. And that is rebuke enough. In chapter 4, Carson reproduces prayers from all of Paul’s letters to show how immersed he was in the lives of his fellow believers. Chapter 5 is devoted to an even more detailed treatment of this theme, unpacking 2 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Also, Carson demonstrates that this relational aspect of prayer, taught so exhaustively in the New Testament, was a feature of God’s people more recently. He tells many stories of how the people in his life influenced his praying in chapter 1, and he consistently draws on the history of revivals throughout the book.

This emphasis on human relationships in prayer continues to be neglected, and Carson’s faithfulness to the biblical model remains urgently needed.

There are issues about which I would like to learn more from Carson. For example, he addresses spiritual warfare briefly in chapter 12, which focuses on Romans 15. Prayer in this connection is almost exclusively the preserve of charismatic believers, as it was when Carson first wrote the book. The role of angels and demons in the life of Christ and the growth of the church is a prominent theme of the New Testament. I would like to have seen more about such issues in relation to prayer, especially in light of the mainstreaming of New Age spirituality that has occurred in the last twenty years.

Still, Carson’s book is a powerful antidote to the prayerlessness that has poisoned our spirits.

Jesus Projection

by Matthew Raley The name "Jesus" has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that "Jesus" is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.

Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our "Jesus."

We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive "Jesus" who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist "Jesus" who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting "Jesus" of "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Last Temptation of Christ," molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we've inveighed against the gnostic "Jesus" who had a child with Mary Magdalene -- a savior for conspiracy theorists.

Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We're right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can't seem to reject the blank screen itself. We've profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we'd undermine our salesmanship.

For the last forty years at least the evangelical "Jesus" has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.

In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he's way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn't lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, "Dude!"

This "Jesus" can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for "Jesus," maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice "Jesus" is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.

The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.

The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible's words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.

Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can't abide: "God's plan isn't all about you."

But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.

Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus "did not entrust himself to them." (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, "Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6.15)

So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he's still commanding, "Follow me."

Vertigo: The Ink-Blot Problem

by Matthew Raley Interpreting art has always been a problem. Can a painting have a theme? When does a novelist cross the line between portraying wrong actions and endorsing them? Can you be morally or spiritually corrupted by listening to a song?

These questions are more emotional when they involve cinema, partly because of its sheer popularity over the last 80 years, partly because of the visceral power of the medium itself. Christians want to engage films spiritually, but they get tripped up by the moral quandaries they find.

These are important issues, but they make a poor starting-point for a spiritual discussion of film -- or of any art. Before we dive into Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, I want to explain why I will address the moral and spiritual issues last.

It is a rare work that has both greatness and a "message." Great artworks focus questions pointedly and show experiences palpably. They do not provide many answers. By contrast, works that convey a message are not usually art, but propaganda. Before we can approach the issues raised by films, then, we have to think in a more filmic way.

In evangelical entertainment today, sadly, there is almost no art. The expectation of both producers and consumers is that "Christian" books, music, and films will have a "good message," and the message itself removes the works from consideration as serious art. Evangelicals rush to give answers almost as a matter of principle. If they thought more carefully about art, they might see the value of provoking the right questions.

There is a more specific problem for Christians who want to engage "secular" films.

For pastors, using a film as a sermon illustration has become a popular way to make a point, with certain films like The Matrix (1999) or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) attracting almost permanent enthusiasm. The retelling of films as spirituality tales is a branding device for some authors.[1] Medieval allegorizing is even recommended by some academics as a hermeneutic for engaging film spiritually.[2]

Such uses of film seem less like dialogue than monologue. Not every self-sacrificing character is a Jesus figure.

Vertigo has incited a great deal of moral discussion, but has been especially open to agenda-driven interpretation.

One of the most influential concepts of feminist film theory, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” was formulated using Vertigo as an illustration.[3] Mulvey famously psychoanalyzed the film in terms of Freudian scopophilia. It has also been read as an allegory of existential psychology,[4] and an opportunity for theological study of human motivations.[5] More whimsically, critics have used it as a point of comparison with Shakespearean characters,[6] and even as a metaphor for Kim Novak’s entire film career.[7]

Vertigo starts to look like an inkblot test.

There are ways to address the spiritual issues raised by this film that go beyond the brain candy of allegorizing, or reading the film in terms of a favorite construct. We can embrace the complexity of what Hitchcock created, and we can let the rich layers of meaning guide us to the issues.

But we have to do good work first.


[1]John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).

[2]Robert K. Johnston, “Transformative Viewing: Penetrating the Story’s Surface,” in Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 304-321.

[3]Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.

[4]Kirk Schneider, “Hitchcock’s Vertigo: An Existential View of Spirituality,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 33, no. 2 (1993): 91-100.

[5]Neil P. Hurley, “Mutability of Motivation: Hitchcock’s Films,” Theology Today 35, no. 3 (O 1978): 326-328.

[6]Wendy Lesser, “Hitchcock and Shakespeare,” The Threepenny Review, no. 11 (October 1, 1982): 17-19.

[7]Vincent L. Barnett, “Dualling for Judy: The Concept of the Double in the Films of Kim Novak,” Film History 19, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 86-101.