“Primal: A Quest For the Lost Soul of Christianity” by Mark Batterson. Published 2009 by Multnomah.
So first I need to start off by saying that Mark Batterson is not my particular box of rocks. I would say that a lot of what he has to say is probably quite a bit more conservative than I would normally go, but that’s ok! If we just read and learn from people who think exactly the same way we do, then we get caught in an intellectual echo chamber and never expand our horizons. I’ve seen some videos of him preaching and read some bits and pieces of things he’s written, but this is the first book of his that I’ve read.
There was a lot for me to like and agree with in the book, in fact I dare say that I agreed with him far more often than not. Batterson clearly has a heart for the Kingdom of God and bringing that Kingdom to Earth, and he’s very passionate about that. I think we as Christians in the USA need a lot more people like that. I highlighted a ton throughout the book and got several ideas for blog entries!
There were also some things that were….yeah, kind of a no for me. None of these things were big theological deal breakers for me, they were mainly stylistic things that rubbed me the wrong way. There was also one particular illustration he used toward the end of the book that was really off putting, and I’ll get to that in a bit. I will say this though, you have to be careful when you write pieces like this. I think a lot of Christian bloggers (big time or small time) like to throw out the names of prominent Christians and then light them up in a blog entry hoping to garner a few hits. That’s not at all my intention here.
So let’s talk about the things I liked. First off I agree with Batterson’s basic premise that the “Great Commandment” is at the “primal” heart of the Christian faith. Christ makes it clear that we are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Batterson believes that we’ve kind of lost sight of that and added way too many layers of religious trappings on top of that primal foundation. Again, I agree. Batterson cites theologian Rupertus Meldenius’s quote: “In essential things, unity. In nonessential things, freedom. In all things, love.” Batterson believes that the Great Commandment is the most essential of the essentials, and I couldn’t agree more. I wish more Christians would be willing to get back to the basics.
I also enjoyed the emphasis Batterson puts on actually getting out and DOING things. Too often we Christians are all too happy to sit in our theological ivory towers and argue nonessential points of theology while the people that Christ called us to serve continue to suffer and struggle. Batterson talks a lot about putting “sweat equity” into God’s Kingdom. At one point he even says that God “loves the smell of our sweat” when we work for the Kingdom. I don’t doubt that at all, but I had never heard it put quite that way before! You know what though? I’ll never forget that idea, so he can count his job well done!
Most of all I enjoyed the emphasis he put on awe and wonder. As I write this, it’s the closing hours of October 31, 2017. This is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, ignited by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Germany. Since then we Protestants especially have gravitated away from believing in the mystery of faith and moved toward a need to “prove” our faith intellectually. While there is certainly nothing wrong with apologetics and being able to articulate and defend your faith, I feel like our western mindset has sucked all the wonder out of it.
When I go to my family’s cabin in the summer I look up into the sky and see a field of stars that I can’t see in the city. I’ll get up early in the morning and go to my favorite fishing hole and marvel at the beauty of creation around me. As Batterson mentions, all of that and everything else that is, has been, and ever will be is the result of the voice of God saying just four words: “Let there be light!” Do you ever stop and ponder that? Do you ponder the power that voice, that force must have to unleash EVERYTHING that has ever been? Have you ever thought about the power it took to bring Jesus back from the grave after three days? Do you stop and think that that same power, that same spirit, that same creative energy is still with us? If you don’t wonder about those things, try it! It’s awesome.
Now a few final words about some things that made me uncomfortable. In the first section of the book Batterson talks about saying a “multiplication anointing” over his…..book sales. Then he gushes about how many copies his first book sold. When I read that I put the book down and did not pick it up again for a week. Yes, he says the reason he did it is so he would have more resources to use to serve God, more to give away. I’m not questioning his motives at all, but it just kind of made it seem like there was a certain lack of humility. He does give the credit to God, but it still came across, to me, like he was pretty impressed with it all.
And while that was the worst instance of it, it kind of kept cropping up throughout the book. He seemed to name drop in places where it really wasn’t called for. He tells a story about how the spirit convicted him at a conference, so he and his team ditched their dinner reservation to stay at the conference and work through it. That’s fine, that’s even admirable, but I didn’t need to know he was supposed to go to PF Chang’s. He does that kind of thing a few times, dropping names of cool, trendy places and trendy Christians. If he had mentioned the fact that his church ran the most popular coffee house in DC one more time I think I might have thrown the book into the path of an oncoming semi truck.
I get it, your church runs coffee houses. All the profit goes to missions. Awesome, may the Lord bless your efforts. Next time I’m in DC I’ll hit you up, but you don’t need to remind me every chapter. I just couldn’t help but feel like I was taking a course in hipster Christianity 101, especially after watching some of the video sessions. Again, not that it’s bad, it was just kind of off-putting to me as a reader. If Christian coffee houses are your speed, you’ll dig it.
The thing that made me most uncomfortable came in the second to last chapter. While attempting to make an illustration of the power of God, Batterson spends several paragraphs gushing over the details of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. He talked about how long it took the bomb to fall, the barometric switch that detonated it and started the subatomic reactions, the regeneration of those reactions, and about how the bomb reached the temperature of the core of the sun. He then kind of stands in awe about the four miles of Hiroshima that were instantly wiped out, the buildings destroyed six miles away, and the broken windows 12 miles away. It’s like listening to a kid describe his favorite video game or a chef talking about his favorite meal.
He left out a couple of details though. He left out the fact that those bombs killed 129,000 people. He left out the fact that most of those people were civilians. He left out the fact that countless others experienced the effects of those blasts physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives. He left out the fact that those bombs inaugurated an arms race that could still, to this day, bring the world to the brink of destruction.
I don’t know that Christ approves of that, or that it’s the kind of “awesome” God wants to be equated with. Unfortunately, positioned near the end of an otherwise pretty good book with a good message, it just made Batterson seem kind of tone deaf. We Christians in America are so caught up with being strong and powerful that we forget that Christ came to earth in a manger destined to serve and die, not rule and destroy.
So unfortunately, it kind of blunted his message for me. I don’t know that you can talk about love in one breath and then marvel at violent power in the next. I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way, but come on. He could have used the exact same illustration and talked about the reactions that take place in nuclear power plants that power our cities and gotten the same point across.
One of these days I’ll check out one of Batterson’s later books and see what I think.