I was introduced to Michael Hardin on Facebook a couple of months ago. I have since enjoyed much fruitful dialogue with him (proving that social media are not necessarily nothing but a huge time suck), and look forward to meeting him when he visits the UK for a series of teaching seminars this autumn.
Michael is an established, peer-reviewed American theologian based in Pennsylvania who combines the intellectual rigour of a serious theological thinker with a surprisingly refreshing view of how we should properly conceive of God and the life of faith. Those wanting a more structured view of his theology might prefer to start by reading his previous book The Jesus Driven Life (links to Amazon UK and Amazon US). I began with What the Facebook? simply because it was released shortly after I made Michael’s virtual acquaintance and I wanted to support its release. The Jesus Driven Life is now sitting in my Kindle and will doubtless be the subject of an upcoming review on this blog.
I won’t dwell on the biographical details of Michael’s life, except to say that he was raised a Roman Catholic before spending time in a fundamentalist “born again” tradition. He then spent several years in pastoral ministry before crashing and burning and going on to focus more on theological study, writing and development. He is one of the world’s foremost scholars and proponents of French anthropologist René Girard’s mimetic theory and scapegoating mechanism. He is currently working on a doctoral dissertation while regularly teaching seminars both in the US and around the world.
So, what can I say about What the Facebook? Perhaps the first task is to explain its title, which you may consider a little unlikely for a theological work. There are a couple of aspects to this. First, for roughly a year from February 2013 to January 2014, Michael decided to try an experiment of taking theology out of the academy and into the rough-and-tumble world of Facebook. During this period, he posted often daily posts (and sometimes more than one a day) on a plethora of theological matters and invited discussion and engagement. What the Facebook? is a compilation of these posts. Some are standalone mini-essays, while others are five-, ten- or even sixteen-post series delving into a particular topic (such as satan or hermeneutics) in much greater detail.
But why the subtitle, Posts from the Edge of Christendom? Michael’s conviction, which I increasingly share, is that Christendom – i.e. all the many and varied religious trappings and culture that have accumulated around Christianity over the centuries – is in the process of decaying and cracking apart. While this is a painful fact for many, for those who have eyes to see, this deconstruction prepares the way for reconstruction on a much healthier and more coherent foundation. It is this renewed foundation that Michael is seeking to build, document and explain.
So, what about the subject matter? What the Facebook? covers a huge amount of theological ground. Subjects explored include, but are not limited to, the doctrine of scripture, the atonement, the Holy Spirit, the nature of the gospel, politics (though only tangentially), the kingdom of God, the psychology of belief… and I could go on.
What is distinctive about Michael’s approach to theology? I would summarise the defining points as follows:
1. Jesus should be our predominant hermeneutic when engaging with scripture; in other words, all scripture is subservient to and should be seen in the light of the revelation of God in the person and work of Jesus.
2. The atonement has been widely misunderstood, especially in the last few centuries, as God pouring out his wrath against sin on his perfect son so that we could obtain forgiveness and eternal life. Michael is one of an increasing chorus of voices who are working to rehabilitate our understanding of the atonement as an act of all-encompassing love expressed in forgiveness rather than an expunging of retributive justice. As such, the defining notion in the gospel is not that of narrowly escaped punishment but the eschatological word of shalom, peace.
3. The above two points have radical implications for how we should read and engage with scripture. Embracing them means we can no longer approach scripture as a flat, one-dimensional collection of equally authoritative voices. We must instead read scripture through an anti-sacrificial lens and understand that it contains a multiplicity of voices, only one of which is the authentic voice of God.
From these three points alone, it should be clear that this is not a book for the theologically faint of heart. Those who hold rigidly to an infallible/inerrant view of scripture will likely have a hard time with it. But those who have an open mind and are willing to be challenged by perspectives which, while falling firmly under the umbrella of Christian orthodoxy, are radically different from those that prevail within western evangelicalism, may just come away inspired and invigorated.
Michael Hardin is a theological force of nature, and I would describe this book as a theological roller-coaster ride. Michael writes with passion, conviction and a welcome though sometimes uncomfortably sharp edge that might even be described as prophetic. Often inspiring, sometimes puzzling, frequently amusing, occasionally confounding and always thought-provoking, What the Facebook? is an exhilarating journey through the ups and downs of theology both conceptual and practical. As a work of theology, those who prefer to limit their spiritual reading to popular-level books may struggle with its depth and complexity; at the same time, it does a fantastic job of opening up to the relatively uninitiated richly complex areas of theological thought that would otherwise likely remain off limits to all but the most determined and erudite. I should also add that the fact that it is structured into bite-sized chunks makes it an ideal book for those who prefer to dip in and out as time allows, or perhaps even to use it devotionally as a source of daily doses of mental and spiritual stimulation.
Rarely have I enjoyed a theological book as much as this one. It has whet my appetite to want to explore further and deeper, and I look forward to reading more of Michael’s work in the future. You can buy it from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here. For more information about Michael’s work, visit his website Preaching Peace, which contains a huge treasure trove of articles, links and other resources.