Review of The Body Broken

Reese, Jack R. The Body Broken: Embracing the Preaching of Christ in a Fragmented Church. Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2005.

“My thesis is simple: Christians ought to be able to talk to one another,” writes the author (3).  Jack Reese is the Dean of the ACU Graduate School of Theology.  Contrary to the expectation that his title might engender, this is a pastoral book, not an academic one.  Reese is clear about this in the introduction and says, in fact, that his intention is “to write as I talk, or at least as I preach” (4).  Though it may pain homileticians to say so, it is true that in the US, at least, style counts as much as content, if not much more.  As an introductory remark to this review, that statement requires two clarifications.  Style may, in some sense, count for just as much in academic writing, though it seems true that academic works must be judged by their content, whereas sermons often are not.  The difference appears to lie in the author’s intent, which gets to the heart of my comments below.  Secondly, to start this way is not to say that the present work lacks content.  Rather, it is to say that Reese seems to have given equal or greater importance to the presentation of his thoughts, even if the content of his work is significant.  The purpose in making this observation is to introduce my basic assessment of the book: its primary contribution may be found not in what it says but in what it teaches us about how to say what must be said.

Reese effectively begins by describing five specific stylistic goals: (1) tender language; (2) a confessional posture; (3) a playful tone; (4) candid speech; and (5) balance (5-6).  These seem to embody the communication he envisions for the church.  Chapter one employs two wise moves.  After briefly laying out the context from which he writes, he highlights four factors that are “not the causes” of division but rather that make dialogue difficult.  By considering these meta-factors of discord, he quickly opens the reader to the complexity of church conflict.  It is not as simple as two mutually exclusive doctrinal opinions.  Two, writing from a university associated with the “liberal” side of Churches of Christ, Reese is also wise to preface the rest of the book with his very positive childhood experience of “conservative” church.  His candid lack of resentment or disappointment is equally as disarming for conservatives grown weary of facile caricatures of “legalism” and “sectarianism” as for “liberals” expecting empathy with their own past experiences.  Balance indeed.  Chapter two also makes two basic moves.  Reese considers first the cultural shifts that form the context of the discussion, which allows him to claim that “What is most distressing is how we are responding to the current unrest, at a level of maturity that, in many cases, does not reflect grown-up faith” (35).  Then, he lists four reasons that young people are leaving the Churches of Christ.  The fourth he describes as “one that prompts the writing of this book,” listing a variety of mean-spirited, childish, and divisive attitudes and behaviors.  “A generation is growing up,” he asserts, “that doesn’t believe this is what church should be about” (45).

Chapters three through six form the substance of Reese’s corrective.  Each chapter begins by discussing a dynamic (“tyranny of the proximate,” dividing walls, perceptions of baptism, table fellowship) and then transitions to a Pauline text (Phillipians, Ephesians, Romans, and 1 Corinthians respectively) in order to connect the introductory point with Scripture.  Adopting baptism and the supper as points of departure strikes me as particularly wise and legitimate contextualization.  Chapter seven concludes the book’s argument by critiquing a posture of fear and offering three alternative “attitudes and commitments”—an apt summary of the book’s concern.  The section on fear yields one of the most quotable quotes I’ve read in a while: “While perfect love casts out fear, fear unrestrained by love casts out people” (160).  Lastly, Reese includes a prologue that offers another anecdote and a lamentably redundant call to be accountable for the present.  A study guide by Jeanene Reese and Gary Holloway is appended.

Personal stories and anecdotes constitute much of the body text.  Though there is a good deal of biblical reference as well, paraphrasing is the primary means of communicating various passages’ relevance to Reese’s argument.  This is one of the most bothersome aspects of the book, for the assumption seems to be that merely repeating a text “in other words” leaps the theological gap between the biblical context and our own.  Furthermore, as paraphrasing so often encourages, Reese takes a good deal of liberty in order to make texts especially relevant.  He claims to have done his spadework (4), and there is no reason to doubt that he has.  There are even some instances of exegetical backgrounds deftly presented for a general audience (e.g. the discussion of the Claudian edict, 109-10; or the symposium meal, 142-43).  Yet, application of Scripture seems forced at times, awkwardly hitched to the earthy truth of this anecdote or that at others.  Of course, this is to be expected when four entire books of the NT are presented as pertinent to Reese’s single, tradition-specific, admittedly simple thesis.  Another feature I disliked was the sustained reference to race issues.  In part, it was necessary and appropriate to consider both the role and dynamic of racial division.  At times, though, I felt as though I was reading a preacher’s ploy to gain emotional traction.  That is not wrong, per se, but it is irritating for my taste and arguably distracting.

Returning to my basic assessment, all of the storytelling and paraphrasing that makes up The Body Broken amounts to a single, sustained argument that Christians should be nice to each other (which I believe more elementally describes Reese’s argument than “ought to be able to talk” does).  To put it that way may seem trite, but that is truly what the book effected for me.  We might pick other words—sweet-spirited, gracious, forgiving, generous—but “nice” strikes me as adequate.  And the reality of our situation is that neither elaborate conflict-management strategies nor profound theological exposition can compensate for the baseline niceness deficiency that plagues Churches of Christ.  Reese states clearly, “I have not set out to write a systematic or comprehensive theology of unity,” (4) and “I have been determined not to offer simple steps for becoming peacemakers” (161).  Well into the book, I was doubtful of the need for an extended, published plea to be nice.  By the end, however, I was convinced that the best parts of Reese’s book serve as a necessary preface to the comprehensive work he did not write.  While it may gloss the legitimate hard-nosed style to which Paul himself resorted at times, there is much greater need in our context to advocate the Spirit’s fruit (peace, patience, kindness . . . niceness), which is prerequisite to whatever path we may take to unity.  Congregations will gain much by reading The Body Broken and working through the study guide, especially if they pay attention to how Reese himself communicates.

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