Augsburger, professor of pastoral counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary, contributes a unique perspective to modern Christian spirituality. He writes from a historically informed, spiritually instructed position, openly identifying himself with the Anabaptist tradition and quoting from authors such as John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Leo Tolstoy, Soren Kierkegaard, Madeleine L'Engle, Jim Wallis, and Brian McLaren.
Some may find the title somewhat provocative, perhaps even disturbing. Personally, I find it perceptively subversive. Everything about the book, from the cover art to the index, screams "I am not mainstream!" This is not Osteen, folks. If you're looking for more of the cotton-candy Christianity so prevalent in the western Church, I suggest you look elsewhere.
So what is a dissident, anyway? Looking through some definitions, I found one that I thought suited the sense in which Augsburger is using the word:
characterized by departure from accepted beliefs or standards
Dissident Discipleship is bold, original, and Christian, three adjectives not often seen in company these days. It is not dissident merely for the sake of dissidence, but rather for the sake of true discipleship, which has been hijacked and distorted by the Christian status quo.
The book's subtitle crisply encapsulates a concept Augsburger calls tripolar spirituality: "self-surrender, love of God, and love of neighbor." This is the central theme of the book: exploring tripolar spirituality as a process of discipleship.
Whenever there is a fresh return to a spirituality of the imitation of Christ, there is usually a recognition of these roots in the sixteenth century, of those who sought to move the Reformation toward a spirituality of following Jesus in daily life. Such spirituality, in the Anabaptist tradition, is lived out in a distinctive cluster of traits or practices expressed in daily life, in work and in play - all experienced as worship. These seven are radical attachment, stubborn loyalty, tenacious serenity, habitual humility, resolute nonviolence, concrete service, and authentic witness. (20)
These seven practices are organized into seven chapters, followed by a summarizing chapter on Subversive Spirituality. The focus of the book is not dogmatic - "thou-shalt" and "thou-shalt-not", but descriptive - "here's what the story of spirituality looks like."
It is a cluster of practices of dissident discipleship, not a set of disciplines. (9)
We know him on the way. True spirituality is a spirituality of the road. We know him by following as we make the road by walking it, discover the way in obedient imitation, and participation in his life with us. (21)
The first chapter, Radical Attachment, could also be called Personal Abiding. Augsburger challenges us to internalize the life of Christ and think beyond the particulars. "Our lives will come not to repeat Christ's life but to rhyme with it." (32) Following Jesus is literal, but it is also "likewise," and if we are dogmatically preoccupied with the former we may make Jesus's life into a method instead of a model and miss the point entirely.
Augsburger's observations on the subject of community (found in the chapter entitled "Stubborn Loyalty") are particularly insightful. He begins by providing a superb definition of community- "Christian community is a web of stubbornly loyal relationships, knotted together into a living network of persons" (60) - and then goes on to contrast true community with false community, showing how easily and how often true community is misunderstood. Ultimately, the ideal is "a community of judgment that is not judgmental, of discernment that is not exclusionary, of direction that is not authoritarian." (70)
Tenacious Serenity is about trust. Serenity, along with humility, chastity, and a host of other virtues, is generally understood as being primarily passive. As Augsburger shows, nothing could be further from the truth. "The practice of self-surrender is not separated from stubborn commitment. A yielded will is a resolute will." (88) Compare this with what blogger John Mark Reynolds, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, says about chastity: "Chastity is a positive thing, not the lack of something. It is, I think, the active nourishment of love to prepare it for the appropriate beloved." (Longing for Love) Christian discipleship, therefore, is characterized by tenacity, not timidity.
Humility is a slippery subject, a fact that Augsburger readily admits. The chapter on Habitual Humility opens with a pithy warning: "Humility claimed is pride renamed." His analysis, far from a long-faced programme of self-castigation, centers instead on simply not taking ourselves so seriously. "Honest, selfless laughter is the effervescence of humility; it is carbonated simplicity. Laughter is the champagne of the Spirit." (102) As G. K. Chesterton said, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." Honestly, humility has never been so much fun.
I especially appreciated the calm and balanced discussion of Resolute Nonviolence, as this is a subject that I have handled much too violently in the past. Yes, that's a confession, and yes, it's quite ironic.
The chapter on Concrete Service contains an extremely helpful distinction between naive and strategic service:
Naive service sees the human need, recognizes that there are many levels of responsibility, refuses to get caught up in the ambiguities, and simply goes ahead and does the right thing. Calculated, strategic service is more astute. It examines all the factors contributing to the dilemmas of human pain, projects the statistical likelihood that the assistance being contemplated will have long-term effect, and proceeds with strategic selectivity... Each possesses a unique genius for caring, each has a spirituality of concern for the other. (155-156)
Compassion is not competitive, and neither for that matter is spirituality. The abiding concern our lives should be loyalty to Jesus, and it's astounding how liberating that is. When we are abandoned to Him, He gets the work done in His time and in His way.
Evangelistic methodology in the church today is in need of some serious spring cleaning, or a massive defragmentation, if you prefer a more contemporary metaphor. Christianity's self-appointed post as society's moral watchdog has in many respects left the gospel out in the cold. Christians - refusing human solidarity with sinners on a false pretext of holiness - have abandoned the essentially positive message of the gospel, and as a result the gospel is no longer perceived as good news, but bad news. This is outrageous! As John Maxwell says, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Only authentic discipleship that repudiates any claim to spiritual superiority will enable us to offer an Authentic Witness:
Stories of Jesus are historical information. Beliefs about Jesus are personal conviction and opinion. Theologies of Jesus are thoughtful interpretations. But encounter with persons who embody Jesus's character - his compassion, concern, honesty, courage, selflessness, and above all, God-centeredness, is more than encounter with story or belief or theology. It is authentic witness to the Jesus who is now among us. (176)
Augsburger is a talented writer, possessed of that rare ability to say exactly what he means to. The book is not difficult to read, and I am confident you will be challenged, encouraged, and refreshed in your walk with Jesus, as step by step you blend your story into His.
Spirituality is celebrating the dawn. Discipleship sings in the dark.
Spirituality is sitting in awe by the seashore. Discipleship joins the dolphins.
Spirituality is dreaming of flying. Discipleship walks the distance.
Spirituality is loving the good neighbor. Discipleship loves the enemy.
Spirituality is knowing God's plan. Discipleship trusts when nothing makes sense.
Spirituality is turning life sunny side up. Discipleship turns the world down side up.
Spirituality is finding inner peace. Discipleship is making peace.
Spirituality is integrative. Discipleship is subversive. (189)
All quotations from David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006)
Image courtesy of menno.org.uk