SOLOMON'S Porch


Book Review: SoulTsunami

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Anyone asking themselves, “How should Christians respond to the emergence of postmodern culture?” should read this book at least once. It is an up-to-date, non-technical, comprehensive guide to postmodernity, thoroughly researched and richly documented. But the author is interested in more than just academic analysis. He is a theologian thoroughly dedicated to the vitality of what he calls the Postmodern Reformation Church. He longs for faith-filled, well-informed action, and therefore the book “is designed and dedicated not only to helping you predict, but to helping you intervene spiritually and socially to invent and prevent the future” (p. 55).

SoulTsunami is the latest work by Leonard Sweet, Dean of the Theological School and professor of postmodern Christianity at Drew University in New Jersey (author of the much-heralded FaithQuakes). The book’s title indicates the main thesis: “In your lifetime and mine, a tidal wave has hit… A sea change of transitions and transformations is birthing a whole new world and a whole new set of ways of making our way in the world. We have moved from the solid ground of terra firma to the tossing seas of terra aqua” (p. 17).

Sweet sketches three possible responses: sheer denial, “the hunker-in-the-bunker” approach, and his own preferred answer: “hoist the sail and catch God’s wave” (p. 21). The “patron saint” of the book, we are told, is Noah, because he “built new structures and adopted new strategies in the midst of a sea change for his day” (p. 22).

Everything about this book defies convention and signals the arrival of postmodernity. The book has its own website (www.soultsunami.com) and is available in an audio-cassette version. The title deliberately runs together two words. Its structure is provided by “10 life rings for you and your church” as you “sink or swim in the new millennium culture.” (The book starts with Life Ring #10, and counts down to #1, each ring represented by a chapter.) Sweet’s tone is highly sermonic, tremendously readable, sometimes humorous and often pointed.

Postmoderns will love it for being cheeky, creative, passionate, and user-friendly. The author expounds postmodern neologisms such as chaordic” (a hybrid of chaos and order) and “glocal” (global and local). Here is a good example of Sweet’s informality and poignancy: “Two political philosophers recently introduced their reference volume by arguing that theism plays only a marginal role in the contemporary world. Hello?! What planet are they living on? What lead-lined cave have they just crawled out of? Have they never heard of Bosnia, or Lebanon, or the West Bank, or Tagorno-Karabakh, or …” (p. 408).

The text’s layout makes the reader take notice. For example, there is a liberal scattering of short quotations, in bold print, positioned at various places on a particular page. (The pithy blurbs are taken from everyone from Yogi Berra, Garrison Keillor and Peter Drucker to Gandhi, Erasmus and Plutarch.) There are also sprinklings of italicized “wiwak” markers to start sentences, short for “When I was a kid,” a device that Sweet uses to highlight the extent of the cultural differences between his boyhood world of the 1950s and ’60s and current culture.

Each chapter has a particular structure. The opening section called “Or what?” is an exposition of cultural transformation as sea change. “So what?” explores some specific implications of the analysis for local faith communities. “Say what?” is a hands-on section including a list of topics for discussion and some practical exercises that would test his hypotheses in your own contexts. His proposals are practical, often gauged as rhetorical questions: “What if the church…?” Finally, “Now what?” directs the reader to a website for further interaction on the topics at hand.

I found that the cleverness of Sweet’s rhetoric and structural gimmicks did not get in the way of the text. Rather, these features helped make the text accessible and provided some handles for taking hold of an enormous wealth of information (supplied by an army of loyal research assistants). Even so, the book is fairly overwhelming. It aims to open the church’s eyes to what is happening around us. It should be required reading for pastors, Christian educators, seminarians and thoughtful laypeople. But some discomforted or bewildered non-pomo readers might well be left shaking their heads, concluding that they will never catch up with all these sea changes, or that they never will catch on to this sort of postmodern worldview.

The book covers such a wide sweep of mind-boggling topics that it defies easy summary. Central themes surround the impact of technology, the postmodern quest for community and for experience, and the changing demands on leadership. What makes this study so valuable is that Sweet resists any temptation to oversimplify. Sweet’s sophistication as an interpreter is exemplified by his notion of “double rings,” the idea that in postmodernity “opposite things happen at the same time without being contradictory” (p. 27).

Sweet depicts the postmodern world as marked by its “and/also” character, as opposed to modernity’s “either/or” mentality. We now live in a culture of paradox. For instance, information technologies are simultaneously pulling us together and driving us apart. Various "double rings" are expounded throughout the volume.

Readers should resonate with Sweet’s theological orientation. He is an evangelical Wesleyan, with a deep commitment to Scripture and to orthodox Christian tradition. He believes that “postmodern leaders keep the past and the future in perpetual conversation” since “to abandon the past is to forget what we know” (pp. 89, 90).

He tells us that he is someone who defies categorization: “The left doesn’t want me, since I critique liberal theology as sheer ideology. But the right doesn’t want me either, since I critique conservative faith as religiosity more than piety” (p. 390). I found that Sweet’s interpretations, opinions and recommendations are unusually perceptive and almost always worth taking seriously, even when I disagreed with some views along the way.

One factor that makes SoulTsunami quite attractive for evangelicals is that Sweet has high hopes for the recovery of a missional church in the postmodern world. The author is another contemporary thinker influenced and inspired by the work of Lesslie Newbigin to rethink the relationships between the gospel, the local church and contemporary North American culture. Sweet is eager to recover the local church’s evangelistic witness, in word and deed, in ways that reach non-churched postmodern pagans, and there is much for evangelicals to learn here. (The book includes an appendix that lists “edge-churches” struggling creatively with the sorts of issues raised by the book.)

Sweet believes that our culture demonstrates “a huge spiritual hunger and at the same time a rejection of Christianity as the kind of spirituality that can slake the spiritual hunger” (p. 409). To understand the cultural dynamics at work in creating this situation, how the Gospel speaks to postmodern spiritual hungers, and how local Christian communities can respond, read this book. At least once.

Reviewed by Johnathan Mills of Regent College


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Last Updated: June 7th, 2000