Beckett: Review – Christians in the Age of Outrage

Author: Ed Stetzer
Publisher: Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum

Rating: 4 out of 5.


We currently live in an age where Christianity is losing its cultural dominance at an alarming rate. Our response to this has been outrage, which is not a fruit of the Spirit. Our outrage manifests itself in how we treat those who have “stolen” the culture from us, both online and in person. What might be a better and, furthermore, genuine Christian response? Stetzer begins the conversation by discussing church attendance statistics and tribalism in chapter 1 and how these contribute to the outrage culture. Chapter 2 covers the issue of how our behaviour on social media contributes as well and, furthermore, damages the witness of Christ and His mission in the Church. Here, it is informative as well as convicting of how the reader themselves may have contributed to the sin of outrage online. Unfortunately, Stetzer doesn’t say anything about the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins for these people (i.e., all of us). Chapters 1 and 2 make up part one of the book.

Part 2: Outrageous Lies and Enduring Truths

In part 2, Stetzer helps the reader remove the log from their own eye before discussing how we properly engage the outrage as Christians in part 3 by addressing four lies we may tell ourselves to justify our sinful behaviour. I’m glad he talks about this first since, as just alluded to, this is a biblical response. The lies are as follows:

  1. Christians are hypocrites. But he contradicts himself in part 3 when he talks about Christians actually being hypocrites, so it’s not clear why this is supposedly a lie.
  2. Outrage as “righteous” anger. I disagree with his premise that Christians can truly have righteous anger. No matter how pious we are, our anger will always be tainted with sin, whereas God is holy and therefore only He can have righteous anger. I strongly encourage you to read Rev. Dr. Jeff Gibbs on The Myth of “Righteous Anger.”
  3. False saviours (idolatry).
  4. Rejection of the missio Dei (though his theology on John 20:19-23 is myopic, likely because it has to do with the Office of the Keys and Stetzer is a Sacramentalist).

Part 3: The Outrageous Alternatives to Outrage

Here, Stetzer provides solutions for Christians to better witness in this age of outrage.

  1. Have a Gospel-shaped worldview rather than having your worldview be uncritically shaped by media. Yet what he calls “gospel” is really just the 3rd use of the Law, or “spiritual disciplines” as he calls them, so he confuses Law & Gospel (more on this in my final thoughts below). I don’t have a problem with the content here, but it cannot be properly called “Gospel-shaped” if it’s about what we do, which is Law, whereas the Gospel is about what Christ has done and is doing for you.
  2. Be “kingdom ambassadors in a foreign land” of outrage, i.e., how the local church engages the culture with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). His error here, however, is that he takes a text about apostolic ministry and, furthermore, the Office of Holy Ministry, and erroneously makes it about every Christian (the “we” in the aforementioned Scripture is Paul and the apostles, not the royal “we” of every Christian, though I recognise there is exegetical disagreement here, which is beyond the scope of this review).
  3. Be winsome with love for others. I actually like this one a lot. Drawing on the basic human need of being loved, Christians should be winsome as they respond to hostility against Christianity rather than being offensive. It is “a quality that draws people in rather than repulses them” (p. 201). Being winsome is to be empathetic, humble, respectful (“image bearing”), and sacrificial (i.e., boldness to confess, but not being a jerk about it). If I can add my own cheesy twist, to be winsome is to win some rather than lose some. #sorrynotsorry
  4. Our online activity should be “aligned with Gospel mission” rather than engaging in mob mentality. Here, Stetzer adequately discusses poor online behaviour before divulging good principles for Christians to practice as they interact with others online. The poor behaviours to avoid are hollow advocacy, anonymous trolling, and overplaying Matthew 18 (i.e., using Matthew 18 to silence constructive criticism). For example, it would be like someone reading my critiques of this book in this review and posting a comment, “Did you follow Matthew 18 before making your criticisms public?” It’s a book written for the public. Matthew 18 is a misapplication of Scripture here since Jesus was talking about how the local church community deals with private sin. Conversely, good principles for Christians to practice are: remember everyone is watching (pastors, seminarians, and vicars, take heed!), choose investment over consumption (are you investing in genuine relationships or merely consuming mindless entertainment?), see people instead of avatars (we often forget we are dealing with real people and so we treat them as less than human), make grace your default mode of operation (i.e., be kind and understanding), resist the urge to fight every battle (you don’t have to speak on every issue), and value authority over freedom (respect those in authority over you more than your freedom to speak). He spends the remainder of the chapter discussing five principles for those in leadership positions in the Church as well as five “characteristics Christians should look for in leaders and influencers they follow on social media” (p. 231). All these principles are quite good and should encourage discussion with the fellowship of believers.
  5. Finally, the last bit is neighbourly engagement, moving the reader from online engagement to necessary face-to-face engagement. Being neighbourly is not done in isolation but is the communal activity of your local church. One caveat here, however. In rightly encouraging the reader to get involved at a local church in order to properly be neighbourly, he says, “We have eternity to get it right. Although there have always been problems in churches, the solution is always more of Jesus, and we can’t screw that up” (p. 260). I disagree with this (except for “the solution is always more of Jesus”). We can’t get church right. That’s why there have been problems in the Church and there always will be on this side of the eschaton because it’s full of people who are simultaneously saints and sinners! Christ is the cornerstone, not us (Ephesians 2:20). Christ gets it right; that’s why it’s His body (1 Corinthians 12). While it is true that there have always been problems in churches, and there always will be, I don’t like his challenge that “we can’t screw that up” because we will screw it up, no matter how hard we try. That’s why we constantly look to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). This puts the missio Dei completely on us rather than on Christ, who has already accomplished it for us in His death and resurrection. It’s the missio Dei (mission of God), not the missio hominis (mission of man). That we always screw it up is why we always gather to Christ in the local church to receive His forgiveness through His means of grace in the Word and Sacraments. In essence, his discussion on neighbourly engagement is about vocation. The end of the chapter, and therefore the book, could be strengthened with the Lutheran theology of vocation. That being said, his three final bits of practical advice in the book in how we engage our neighbours seems a bit overreaching. While I have nothing against a Christian being a good neighbour to their literal next door neighbour, it seems a bit much to map out your entire neighbourhood or subdivision to essentially be the pastor of that neighbourhood. It’s probably best to do that on a much smaller scale with your immediate neighbours. Or maybe that’s just me being the introvert who’s terrified by such a prospect. I do like the idea of having a “prayer card” of a small list of people in your Bible with whom you interact daily to remind you to pray for them, engage them, and invite them (I assume the latter is invite them to church; he doesn’t say what that part means).

Final Thoughts

While the book is quite helpful and informative, it could be deepened with a Word & Sacrament theology as well as proper Law & Gospel distinctions, which are sorely lacking. He also mentioned the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit” a lot without explaining what he means by that. Perhaps he expects his target audience (evangelicals) to know what he means. As a former evangelical, I suspect he means God taking up permanent residence in the believer’s body and empowering them for service. He could just say sanctification, but he hardly uses this more biblical word. The problem with this language is that it focuses too much on the person’s ability to “surrender” to Jesus. It says nothing of what the Holy Spirit does, and while it rightly acknowledges faith that receives the Holy Spirit, it downplays Baptism. In fact, it’s not even mentioned once in the whole book (or any Sacrament, which shouldn’t be surprising of a Sacramentalist).

For example, in his discussion on the importance of viewing others in the image of God as the basis for which we respect them as fellow image bearers in chapter 9, he missed a giant opportunity to talk about how Baptism restores God’s image to us through Christ, who is the perfect image of God (Colossians 1:15). It’s great to recognise the image of God in our fellow humans in how we treat them, but remember that we are post-Fall creatures; the image of God is broken in us. How does God restore this image in us and, furthermore, how does that fuel how we love our neighbour? The answer is Baptism. A discussion on the imago Dei is incomplete when it leaves out Baptism, whether done intentionally or in ignorance. I by no means expected a Sacramentarian to use sacramental language, but it cannot be ignored that there were just so many missed opportunities of bringing in what God does through the Gospel and His means of grace. It is true that God uses us as His means (i.e., stewards) by which we make disciples (just as Christ called His disciples to baptise and teach in Matthew 28:18-20), but we are not the means of grace; these properly belong to God’s Word and Sacraments.

The biggest problem in the book is that there’s more of Jesus as model than Jesus as Saviour. A stark example of this is on page 268 where Stetzer says that “denying ourselves something we have a right to for the betterment of another… is what Jesus modeled for us in his incarnation and death.” His cross is a model rather than the altar of His atonement. How far can we push this model paradigm? If you really want to model Jesus, you should be crucified! He does talk about Jesus as our Saviour, specifically saving us from God’s outrage (His wrath), but that’s not until the end of the book and by then it’s too late to be redeemable in this respect. Better to bathe the entire book in soteriology than to save it until the end, especially because it highlights so many of our failures, that is, our sins. Jesus as Saviour is mentioned here and there, but only as an afterthought.

The problem with Jesus as model is that we can never live up to Him. His example becomes another Law rather than His incarnation being the Gospel, i.e., what He did for us in His life, death, and resurrection, and continues to do in His ascension; which is ironic when Stetzer extols a “Gospel-shaped worldview” and “online activity aligned with Gospel mission.” We cannot live up to the expectations of the Law. Jesus fulfilled it on our behalf (Matthew 5:17). So, how can we expect to live up to the one who fulfilled the Law? Does Jesus show us what love looks like, specifically God’s love? Absolutely. Is that a model for our behaviour? Well, yes and no. His love does leave us an example (1 Peter 2:21-23), but it’s not one we can fully live up to, His example is not all He is, and that’s not the telos of His love. Christ is God’s display and fulfilment of His love for us. Is sanctification (or “the indwelling of the Holy Spirit”) becoming more like Jesus? Yes. Is it our work? No; it is God’s work.

Again, I like most of what Stetzer writes in the book. My main gripe though is that he calls it Gospel when, strictly speaking, it is the 3rd use of the Law. A stark example of this is also on page 268 when he says “Jesus calls us, as his missionaries of grace, to go further than even lex talionis [the law of revenge in Exodus 21:22-25] requires” in the Sermon on the Mount. This is problematic because missionaries of grace implies the Gospel, but the Sermon on the Mount is Law! Yes, Jesus does make the Law harsher in His sermon, but this is not grace; this is Law! All the uses of the Law are in vogue in Jesus’ sermon, but insofar as Jesus is telling us how to live as His blessed people in the world (the preface of the Beatitudes), this is the 3rd use of the Law. In short, this is the Law as a guide. It means we don’t have to do the Law, but because we’ve been freed from the Law and our sin by the Gospel, we get to do the Law for the sake of our neighbour who needs our good works. In other words, the Law tells us how to live holy lives as Christ’s redeemed people. It does not merit salvation; it simply tells us how to live in the world, which is largely what this book is about in a world filled with outrage.

Since the book largely addresses how we conduct ourselves online as Christians, I recently posted a photo on Instagram (which directly posted it on Facebook as well) of my brief review on Gerhard Forde’s Theology Is for Proclamation. If you’re not familiar with Forde, mention of this Lutheran theologian often leads to heated debates among Lutherans. He denies the vicarious and substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross, both of which are foundational to Lutheran soteriology. So, the question becomes: should we bother reading anything else by him because of this error? Likewise, then, should you read Christians in the Age of Outrage and anything else by Stetzer despite his own errors? My Facebook post inspired others to comment on it, some in favour of Forde, others not. All recognised his shortcomings on the atonement, however. It was a cordial discussion, and I’m still friends with everyone. I’ll leave you with my concluding thought on the post, albeit revised: No matter the theologian, we always need to read through a certain filter (for us it’s a Lutheran filter—a cross-shaped one!). But when it requires too many filters, it’s best not to read them.

With that in mind, I do encourage all Lutherans to read this book as it is through a Lutheran lens to see our own failings in how we have contributed to the culture of outrage rather than extending the hand of Christ’s grace to outraged people in dire need of Him. As I read the book, the entire time I couldn’t help but think how we Lutherans excel in contributing to the culture of outrage. This is problematic, so Lutherans can benefit largely from this book despite some of its shortcomings. I might have a lot of critiques (and you might think I’m outraging, but I’m just passionate), but I did learn a lot and it even helped me with an adult Bible study I’m teaching on 1 John, which is a great epistle to read and study in an age of outrage. I commend Stetzer for having the fortitude to call out outraged people—Christian and non-Christian alike—in their sinful anger. It helped me realise some of my own sins, encouraged me to be a better pastor, and to teach my people better. I pray it is of similar benefit to you should you choose to purchase your own copy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close