I can’t remember how I first came across Brian Zahnd, who pastors Word of Life church in Saint Joseph, Missouri. All I know is that, since I discovered him last summer, I’ve listened to pretty much every one of his sermon podcasts. Regular readers will also know that I’ve referenced him a number of times on the blog. So yes, I’m unashamedly a fan of Brian’s, and I make no apology for that. When you find something good and wholesome, you want to soak it up and share it as widely as possible.
Brian has an interesting biography. By his own admission, he was for many years a proponent of an uber-positive, triumphalistic, word-of-faith-type message – a message that made Word of Life one of the top ten fastest-growing churches in America. Then, ten years ago, following an intensive period of prayer and fasting, God challenged him and he experienced a radical re-envisioning of what it means to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. In particular, he began to understand the radically peaceful nature of the gospel and the kingdom, and chose to faithfully proclaim it – even when people began to leave his church in protest. Thankfully for you and me, he has been faithful to that message ever since.
In essence, A Farewell To Mars is an account of Brian’s journey from being a war-supporting Christian pastor to being a passionate believer in Jesus’ radical way of non-violence.
Let me point out right off the bat that this book is primarily addressed to American believers. America, it would seem, has a unique relationship with weapons and armed violence, as statistics on mass shootings all too sadly affirm. However, before my non-American readers dismiss it, I’d like to point out that, while Americans might have a unique relationship with guns, the inherent tendency towards and embrace of violence is something that is deeply embedded within most western cultures and psyches. And the most obvious and attention-grabbing uses of violence – such as military conflicts and mass shootings – all begin with a penchant for violence in the individual heart. As such, this book carries a message that every believer needs to hear.
A Farewell To Mars is a radical book in the sense that it challenges something very close to our hearts and absolutely central to our cultures. Now, like me, you may be tired of radical messages peddled by angry and/or arrogant preachers. What sets Brian’s message apart from many others is that he is honest and vulnerable about the bad prayers he prayed and the bad sermons he preached before God removed the scales from his eyes and showed him that collective violence is the route to hell. What gives his message weight and credibility is the fact that this is his own story.
Brian’s book is also unusual in that it doesn’t, like so many Christian books, deal with the purely spiritual aspects of how to live safely and serenely within the Christian bubble. On the contrary, it is a direct and uncomfortable challenge to the world’s culture of might is right and, as Christians, our collusion with that culture. He manages to pull off the daunting challenge of speaking to issues that inevitably have major political consequences without ever appearing partisan or preachy.
At the core of this book’s message is the belief that the salvation offered by Jesus is not simply the individual, spiritualised affair that we have often tended to make it. Jesus wants to save the world, not merely in some distant, ethereal future but in the here and now; and Jesus does this by showing that violence in all its forms, however subtle, always leads to destruction and death. His offer of salvation is not simply an invitation to pray a private prayer; it is an invitation to turn away from violence in all its guises and embrace Jesus’ radical way of peace, which is the narrow way that leads to eternal life. Make no mistake, this is a challenging read, for it exposes the absolute incompatibility between the world’s blood-soaked culture of violence and Jesus’ way of forgiveness and self-sacrifice.
A Farewell To Mars is also well written: the ideas are articulated confidently and clearly, and the prose zings along at a compelling pace. It’s a very accessible and readable book – no one need be put off by the fear that it might be too heavy or complex. I thought about including some excerpts in my review, but honestly, there are so many quotable sentences and paragraphs that I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Given the staggering death toll of wars waged in the past hundred years, you would have thought we humans might have finally laid down our swords and looked for a better way. Sadly, the dawn of the twenty-first century, with its invasions, overt and covert brutality and “war on terror” proves that we have still not learned our lesson. That is why this book is one that every Christian should read – and one that is probably unlike any other Christian book you’ve ever read. It is both hard-hitting and winsome, challenging and appealing, unashamedly radical and endearingly heartfelt. I believe Brian Zahnd has succeeded in issuing a prophetic clarion call without falling into the trap of sounding strident, grating or impossibly idealistic.
Ultimately, A Farewell To Mars is not an angry condemnation of the ways of the world; rather, it is a hopeful invitation to a future filled with life and possibility.