A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Mark Warnock
We live in interesting times.
The digital revolution has broken out with ferocity, disrupting everything from retail to finance to dating. The overripe sexual revolution staggers onward like a zombie, fetid with decay, infecting everything it touches. Politically, it is a season of unrest, hyperpolarization, and caustic incivility. Most of all, in the West, Christianity has been knocked off of its centuries-long perch in the cultural center and has been thrust to the margins.
Trevin Wax’s book Eschatological Discipleship could not come at a better time. It reframes Christian discipleship in relation to time, urging us to consider our cultural and historical context as we live out lives of faithfulness to Jesus.
It’s helpful to know that this book does not advance a particular eschatology. Nor is it a guidebook for spreading preterism or pre-millennialism. Instead of puzzling over the identity of the antichrist or debating interpretive approaches to Daniel and Revelation, the book reframes eschatology more generally as a set of expectations regarding time and history. Eschatological Discipleship exhorts followers of Jesus to be aware their location in the Bible’s framing of time and history, and to build lives of faithfulness commensurate with their place in God’s redemptive plan and to defy the rebellious world’s temporal frames.
Moreover, Eschatological Discipleship shows that the Christian life is inherently temporal. Christianity’s founding events occurred in history, and it projects a timeline for the future—a timeline that informs what faithful obedience and discipleship looks like in the present.
The first chapter lays the groundwork by explaining discipleship, eschatology, and wisdom, and the relationships between them. It concludes with this rich definition of eschatological discipleship, which gives a sense of the scope of the book: “Eschatological discipleship is spiritual formation that seeks to instill wisdom regarding the contemporary setting in which Christians find themselves (in contrast to rival conceptions of time and progress) and that calls for contextualized obedience as a demonstration of the Christian belief that the biblical account of the world’s past, present, and future is true.” (ED, 41.)
Wax’s emphasis on contextualized obedience is timely. Obeying Christ today is challenging in ways that it would not have been twenty years ago. Our cultural and historical context necessarily shapes what faithful discipleship looks like. The famous battle quote (misattributed to Martin Luther) captures this idea:
“If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.” Faithfulness is contextual and responds to the challenges of the cultural moment.
Wisdom, Wax points out, also contains a temporal element. Wise choices are wise because of how they will play out in the future. Thus, believing the truth about the future is part of wisdom. Wax refers to the men of Issachar, “who understood the times, and knew what Israel should do.” (1 Chronicles 12:32) Wisdom orients actions so that they will play out well, i.e. accrue to one’s advantage, in the future. By contrast, fools, either live entirely in the moment or make choices based on false beliefs about the future.
In chapters two through four, Wax walks through the Old and New Testaments, pointing out embedded eschatological frameworks. The Old Testament section is very brief, referring only to the men of Issachar reference and Jeremiah’s instructions to the exiles. The New Testament section is richer, beginning with the eschatological implications of the Kingdom and highlighting Jesus’ parables that warn of impending judgment. The section on the epistles draws attention to the already/not yet aspects of Christian faith and the recurring theme of future hope in light of present suffering. Wax points out several exhortations of Paul to the churches that are entirely eschatological in their framing. This section made me notice a tendency in myself to view the gospel as a set of transcendent truths that one ought to know and assent to, but which are not connected to the times or moods of contemporary culture. Wax corrects me: the Christian life is lived publicly, in a specific cultural context, and requires one to defy the idols of the day, which compete for our souls’ allegiance.
Chapters five through eight are philosophically rich, as Wax contrasts the Christian view of history and time with “rival eschatologies” found in Western culture: the Enlightenment, the sexual revolution, and American consumerism. This section is the best part of the book.
The Enlightenment, the program of secularism and humanism of the 17th and 18th centuries, contains an eschatological narrative of progress away from the hidebound authoritative traditions of the past into increasing freedom, autonomy, and human self-determination. The Enlightenment seeks to ground human morality in universally accessible reason, and sets itself against traditional religion, which previously had spoken with the authoritative voice of morality.
Enlightenment thinkers laid out a narrative of progress which became so widely accepted as to be unquestioned. Their partisan terminology refers to the Middle Ages as the “Dark Ages” which gave way to a new dawning of reason in an “age of Enlightenment.” Maintaining this rose-colored narrative, however, requires one to distort the historical accounts of these eras. Although many thinkers have challenged the premature triumphalism of Enlightenment thought, the trope persists today in schools, universities, and in common parlance. For instance, when people charge others as being “on the wrong side of history,” or express disbelief that, for instance, racism can still be a problem “in this day and age,” they betray the influence of Enlightenment eschatology.
Faithful discipleship requires challenging the Enlightenment narrative and its myth of progress. Christians ought to both embrace the wisdom of the past and reject progressive “achievements” which are morally innovative or based on lies about human nature.
The second rival eschatology, the sexual revolution, applies the Enlightenment’s rejection of religion and expansion of autonomy to the areas of sexuality and self-identity. The sexual revolution rejects any authority outside the omnicompetent self. It boasts, “No one can tell me what I ought to desire, or indeed, who or what I am—no one, that is, but me.” William Reich, a disciple of Freud, famously argued that restrictions on sex (like marriage or fidelity, for example) result in manifold neuroses from which humanity groans to be delivered. This thinking inverts traditional morality—breaking traditional sex rules is liberation, and continuing to advocate for them is oppression of the worst kind.
Wax deftly traces the connection between the sexual revolution’s discarding of ethical boundaries and its deification of the self, which will brook no other authority. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the way sexual revolution ideologues conceive of gender identity. Whatever a person feels on the inside determines his (or her, or “zir”) identity, no matter what society, tradition, biology, genetics, anatomy, or science might say. The self trumps all.
As with the Enlightenment, there is an embedded eschatology in the sexual revolution. It regards the societal march away from traditional concepts of sex and gender as a one-way trip, from which there can be no turning back.
I saw a startlingly clear example of this confident eschatology recently, when I spent a couple of days talking with a 21-year-old man who was about to begin his gender transition and live as a woman. He told me that while gender transitions like his may be controversial now, in ten or twenty years, he is confident that transgender people will be widely accepted with complete nonchalance, much as we accept left-handed people today. He has completely bought into the progress narrative of the sexual revolution, and in many ways is banking his future and his faith upon it.
Wax argues that Christians must oppose the sexual revolution narrative, first, by taking sexual sin much more seriously than our culture. Christians, for example, must cease ignoring or minimizing sexual sin in our churches and our leaders. Our failure to do so has been a severe blow to our moral credibility. On the other hand, Christians must take sexuality in general less seriously than our culture does. The sexual revolution teaches that a person’s sexual identity is everything. Our more balanced anthropology will view sex as only one of many facets of a rich and full human life. In particular, Christians must resist the connection between identity and sexual attraction. Our identity and our fulfillment is found in Christ, not in sex. Finally, Christians regard the self not as the highest authority in need of expression, but as broken and in need of redemption.
The final rival eschatology, more pernicious than the first two, is consumerism. A consumer eschatological narrative tells the story of an individual who journeys from poverty to wealth, rags to riches, from depression to happiness through consumption, from anomie to satisfaction. The American Dream is an example of this cultural narrative. This narrative is so well developed that it functions as a source of identity. Consumerism “provides a system of meaning though which we interpret ourselves as individuals, define ourselves by the brands we purchase, and then assess our value in terms of economic and social statues or whatever we are able to accomplish in the workforce.” (ED, 165)
Brands, which once were preferred solutions to ordinary needs, now have become sources of personal identity. Think of how teenagers gravitate to brands that project an image of sophistication or coolness or sexuality: Axe body spray (irresistible masculinity), Red Bull (energetic intensity), Apple computer (hip unconventionality) or Hollister (breezy sexuality). Adults, of course, are not immune. I can think of no brand that has become an identity more than Crossfit. Far more than one fitness methodology among others, its devotees are “Crossfitters,” famous for braying their identity in public at every opportunity. We purchase vehicles not for transportation, but to reflect who we think we are. When you see a man driving a Chevy pickup, a Jeep, a Buick LeSabre, or a Mini Cooper, you can make assumptions about his identity or personality that are likely to be true.
As James K. A. Smith pointed out in You Are What You Love, consumerism has transformed shopping into a liturgical practice, the store into a temple. Wax, in the same vein, points out that the American calendar is organized entirely around consumption. The medieval calendar was ordered around the church year and religious feasts, but in America every holiday is best known for its sales. Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s, graduation, fourth of July, back to school, Labor Day, and Halloween are a gradual crescendo of shopping opportunities that explode into the Christmas spending maelstrom which annually rescues American retail from bankruptcy in a shower of clothes, watches, cologne, toys, and electronics.
Wax shows how devastating consumerism has been to the American church, as everything has been commoditized. We “shop” for churches, hunting for the best set of features—engaging preaching, entertaining worship, and cool kids ministry. We abandon small groups that aren’t “my kind of people” or aren’t “meeting my needs.” Consumerism commoditizes everything: relationships, church, and even the gospel.
Wax proposes several antidotes, urging first that Christians pay attention to how culture influences their imagination, and thereby, their hearts. The goal of becoming wealthy has usurped the central aspiration of the Christian life, which is to be like Christ. Emphasizing proper stewardship is the correct response, seeing God’s gifts as trusts to manage and enjoy. Beyond wealth, the church should respond to the consumerist demand for freedom of choice by emphasizing belonging to the body, a community of diverse individuals, in which demands for individual satisfaction are put aside in favor of serving one another. Christians can reclaim the calendar from the treadmill of consumption by recovering the rhythms of the ancient church calendar and ordering their worship and liturgy around it. Too often, the man-centered demands of Mother’s and Father’s Day, graduations, and patriotic holidays have usurped the worship of Jesus and the oriented our communities around ourselves.
I was struck with how Eschatological Discipleship sounds themes similar to Rod Dreher’s much-discussed book, The Benedict Option, which prescribes a regime of renewal and internal reinforcement for the church in the face of a hostile and unwelcoming culture. Dreher proposes that to survive, the church will have to withdraw (at least in part) from the wider society, and nurture an alternate culture safe for Christian conviction. Dreher’s prescriptions have engendered a fair amount of protest and disagreement. He is right, however, that the tide has turned, and the church is sailing into darker waters. Some strategic thinking is surely in order.
Wax, on the other hand, gives us not a political or ecclesiological strategy for these times, but a new frame for faithful discipleship that is relevant in both good times and bad, along with a robust application of that way of thinking to our current milieu. His instruction is both welcome and timely.
When I gave a talk on the themes of Eschatological Discipleship to a group of college-age interns at my church, they leaned into the topic with earnest attention. They feel the tensions between Christianity and its rival eschatologies. A 20-year-old Christian man who is a virgin, for instance, feels both affirmed and ashamed; Christian eschatology reassures him, while sexual revolution eschatology berates him. More than that, young Christians feel the rising societal disfavor toward Christianity. They find their convictions ever more distant from those of non-Christian peers, and the backlash from publicly stating those convictions is ever more severe. They know what is coming.
Eschatological Discipleship rescues eschatology from the weird world of charts and anti-Christ identifiers, and brings it back with fresh relevance to the task of disciple making and the central mission of the church. More importantly, it articulates a blueprint for faithful discipleship in the face of a strengthening anti-Christian headwind.
Mark Warnock serves as the administrative pastor for the worship ministry of Family Church, a network of churches in South Florida.
The quote comes from a 19th century novel about Luther, written by Elizabeth Rundle Charles, called The Chronicles of the Schoenberg Cotta Family. Bob Caldwell, “If I Profess: A Spurious, if Consistent Luther Quote?” Concordia Journal 35(4):356–359, 2009.
Buy the books
Eschatological Discipleship: Leading Christians to Understand their Historical and Cultural Context