A few weeks ago, I reviewed a book by Brian Zahnd - Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity. Some pastor friends quickly connected me to Brian, and in our subsequent conversations, I discovered how interesting his theological pilgrimage has been. One friend said Brian used to preach like Joel Osteen but now sounds more like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I invited Brian to the blog to talk about his journey and how it has affected his congregation.
Trevin Wax: Brian, you’ve had an interesting theological journey in ministry – from Word of Faith type teaching to a celebration of Christianity’s core teachings throughout history. First, tell us about your ministry at the outset - what you were about as a preacher of God’s Word and the vision you had for your local congregation.
Brian Zahnd: I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in the -60s and -70s but was most influenced by the Jesus Movement. I experienced a rather dramatic conversion when I was 15, and within a couple of years, I was leading a coffeehouse ministry; it was primarily a Christian music venue with an emphasis on evangelism. By the time I was 22, the coffeehouse ministry had become a full-fledged church (Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri).
From my earliest days as a teenage Christian leader, my passion was to call people into a life of following Jesus. That passion has remained consistent over the years. Because the Jesus Movement was closely associated with the charismatic movement, our church took on many of the aspects of charismatic Christianity.
By the late -90s, our church had grown to several thousand, and my primary emphasis in preaching could be described as “faith and victory.” Though I think I can honestly say I eschewed the more egregious forms of “prosperity teaching,” I was certainly identified with the Word of Faith movement. The common thread from the Jesus Movement to the Word of Faith movement (whether I was being influenced by Keith Green or Lester Sumrall) was a deep desire to bring people into a vibrant and authentic Christian experience.
Trevin Wax: What initiated your movement away from Word of Faith teaching to something more in line with historic Christian orthodoxy?
Brian Zahnd: Eventually I just found it too thin. It simply didn’t have enough to say. Despite its alleged emphasis on “the Word,” the text actually used in the Word of Faith movement could be reduced to a pamphlet; it’s a highly selective reading of Scripture. It also became apparent that Word of Faith teaching lacked any serious theological reflection.
Disillusioned with an anti-intellectual, paper-thin, contemporary Christianity, I felt a need to discover the historic faith. Almost in desperation, I went searching for my spiritual heritage—like an orphan in search of his family. Not knowing where else to start, I began by reading Augustine (Confessions and The City of God). Later I read The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Bruce Wilken, and without trying to sound overly dramatic, it changed my life.
Eventually, I purchased the 38-volume set of The Early Church Fathers and began to explore the theology of Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, etc. Now there was no going back. I had emerged from the tiny closet of contemporary American Christianity into the vast cathedral of the Great Tradition.
Trevin Wax: How did that journey begin to affect your preaching and teaching? That’s quite a shift.
Brian Zahnd: Quite a shift, indeed! (Although it didn’t happen all at once.)
In August of 2004, I announced I was packing my bags from the charismatic movement. By “packing my bags,” I meant that I was taking certain things with me—for example, a belief that the miraculous is part of normative Christianity and should be expected. But I was moving beyond the sensationalism, the shallowness, the celebrity that characterized what I was now calling “easy-cheesy-cotton-candy Christianity.”
Trevin Wax: How did your congregation respond?
Brian Zahnd: There’s no one answer. Initially, not much happened, but as time went by, some members just couldn’t move on with us, so they left. Later, when I began to back away from the politicized faith of the religious right, more members left. Eventually, we lost more than a thousand people.
Of course, this is painful for a pastor, but I understand and bear no animosity. If a pastor has the courage to make significant changes in his preaching for the sake of theological integrity, he has to be willing to endure the pain of misunderstanding and rejection. I accept that. And besides, I’ve been so encouraged by those who have remained and by those who have joined in recent years who are so enthusiastic about the direction and emphasis of Word of Life.
I tell people all the time that I’ve never been more excited about being a Christian than I am now. I’ve always understood the Christian life as a journey, and the journey continues.
Trevin Wax: Explain how this shift affected your move away from a politicized faith. You mentioned it momentarily, but I see in your book that this aspect has been especially formative for you in your leadership. What are the dangers of a politicized faith? And does moving away from that lead us into quietism?
Brian Zahnd: During the first few years of my “big shift,” I was reading widely on the kingdom of God (George Ladd, Russell Moore, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, etc.). As I came to understand the kingdom of God as an alternative society formed around Christ, I began to reject the church’s acquiescence with political partisanship, which is what I really mean by a “politicized faith.”
Christianity is an intensely political faith and as such can never be compatible with quietism. The church should be a prophetic witness within the body politic—the church is to embody the politics of Jesus. But when the church settles for cheap partisanship, it forfeits its prophetic voice. Once the religious right became the de facto religious wing of the Republican Party, it ceased to be prophetic. To the Left, it was a partisan enemy, and to the Right, it was a partisan tool—but it was prophetic to neither.
Unfortunately, in our polarized partisan culture, if I pull away from a carte blanche endorsement of the Right, it is perceived as an endorsement of the Left—which is not the case at all! For example, as I allow my politics to be informed by Christ, I try to be consistently pro life—so I’m opposed to abortion and the death penalty. As you can see, that doesn’t make for a nice alignment with either the Left or the Right. It’s not political engagement that I’m opposed to but partisan allegiance. Ultimately, political parties are interested in power, but the church is called to transcend the politics of power and embody the politics of love set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.
Trevin Wax: You write about the cruciform nature of beauty. How does the cross influence our understanding of the world and our role in it?
Brian Zahnd: I talk about beauty being an interpretive lens for Christianity. The Greek philosophers spoke of the prime virtues of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Later, the church fathers identified these with attributes of God. But during late modernity, these prime virtues have been under pressure—modern man is skeptical about absolute claims pertaining to truth, goodness, and beauty.
In defending truth, the church has created Christian apologetics, and in defending the good, the church has created Christian ethics. But by and large, we have ignored the virtue of beauty, relegating it to the demoted status of mere adornment. Yet the recovery of beauty as a way of interpreting and expressing the Christian faith may be just what we need at this time.
Along with Christian apologetics and ethics, we need some Christian aesthetics. In a culture that is suspicious of our truth claims and less than impressed with our claim to a superior ethic, beauty may be a fresh way to communicate our message. Beauty has a way of sneaking past defenses.
But for us to adopt a presence of beauty, we need a form that we can look to as a guide. Whether it’s a painting or a poem, a sculpture or a song, it’s the form that gives a thing its inherent beauty.
So what is the form of Christian beauty? I think it has to be the cruciform—Christ upon the cross, arms outstretched in offered embrace, forgiving the sins of the world. What I’m suggesting is that the body of Christ should be in the world as the beauty of the cruciform. What we say, what we do, what we demonstrate should be in some way an expression of cruciform beauty.
We should ask ourselves, does this stance, this position, this project, this action, this attitude look like Jesus upon the cross? If not, maybe we should rethink it. This would be a helpful step in getting rid of some of the ugly ways we react to what we perceive as wrong with the world.
Trevin Wax: What would you say has been the most revolutionary insight you’ve come to since you started this journey?
Brian Zahnd: Wow, that’s a great question! The revolutionary insight that’s been central to my theological journey is a deeper understanding of what the kingdom of God actually is.
I remember telling my church eight years ago that seeing the kingdom of God has given me “new eyes.” Reading the Bible with “kingdom eyes” made Scripture brand new to me. I came to realize that the kingdom of God was virtually the sole topic of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The gospel of the kingdom is what the apostles were announcing in the Book of Acts. And even though Paul doesn’t use the term “kingdom of God” often in his epistles, I came to understand that what Jesus tends to call the kingdom of God, Paul tends to call salvation, but they’re talking about the same thing!
Back in 2006, I worked on a single question for several months: What is salvation? I finally concluded the best answer is this: Salvation is the kingdom of God. Our personal experience with the kingdom of God (including forgiveness) is our personal experience of salvation, but the kingdom of God is much bigger than our personal experience of it.
The problem we have today is that the term “kingdom of God” is archaic and obscured under layers of religious veneer. “Kingdoms” went out with the Middle Ages, and we tend to think of the “kingdom of God/heaven” as privatized Christianity experienced in our personal spiritual lives.
But Jesus was announcing that the government of God was at long last being established in the world through what He was doing. The apostolic gospel was a proclamation that Jesus is now the world’s true King; in light of this, we need to rethink our lives and begin to live under the administration of Christ.
This kingdom paradigm revolutionized my theology—soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and political theology all had to be reworked under the rubric of the kingdom of God. So today when I make the seminal Christian confession “Jesus is Lord,” I’m not just expressing something about my personal spiritual life; I’m also making a revolutionary political statement. And that’s a game-changer!