Ideas have consequences and history often provides some interesting examples. The book review below was written in 2009 and there have been several ironic turns in the intervening years. The author of the book, Jason Stellman, was a PCA minister in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery and served as the prosecutor at Peter Leithart’s trial over teaching “heresy.” Leithart was acquitted and remains a teacher and ministry leader to this day, while Stellman has abandoned the pulpit and the Reformed faith for Catholicism. His latest endeavor is co-hosting a podcast called “Drunk Ex-Pastors” with his best friend (an agnostic).
American Vision has been saying for years that eschatology matters. What you believe about tomorrow affects how you live today. While we can’t know for certain, it seems clear that the dichotomy Stellman was experiencing between his eschatology (amillennialism) and the rest of his theology was part of the reason for his “conversion” to Rome. Believing that God has called us to work out our salvation in the world around us, while also believing that it is all a waste of time will eventually drive a thinking person mad. They must either compartmentalize their faith (as most Christians have done) or find a different one (Catholicism for Stellman and agnosticism for his drunk friend).
Although Stellman may have moved on from what he wrote a decade and a half ago, his book is still applicable for many in Christendom. Much of modern Christianity teaches that God calls us to make a difference beyond simply praying the “sinner’s prayer,” and yet also teaches various end-time schemes where God is going to burn the whole thing down anyway. It’s a difficult place to find balance, as Stellman’s book reveals but can’t solve.
This is the first part of the review. Part Two will run next week.
Jason Stellman makes the following observation at about the mid-point of his book, Dual Citizens: “Perhaps you’ve been haunted by the inexplicable feeling that your very environment, the only environment you have ever known (namely, time) is foreign. Could time, the very stuff of life and building block of society that greets us every morning with the buzzing of the alarm clock, then pushes us through each day, actually be an enemy? As bizarre as it sounds, I suggest that it is, and as the Preacher argues in the book of Ecclesiastes, this enemy adversely affects all of our toil under the sun. In a word, time renders all of man’s earthly pursuits utterly pointless” (emphasis in original).
One would be forgiven for asking, as I did, “Why didn’t Stellman put this paragraph on the first page? Why did he wait until page 104 to tell me that all earthly pursuits—and this would include reading his book—are utterly pointless?” Unfortunately, this question is never answered. In fact, this is a recurring theme in Dual Citizens—it raises more questions than it answers. When I finished the book I wanted to turn it upside down and read it backwards, hoping that—like a cassette tape—the end was really only the middle. But, alas, the end was the end, and no further insight was to be found.
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This is not to say that the end wasn’t a good end; it certainly was. It was inspiring, encouraging, and orthodox. It would actually make a great prayer with which to begin each new day (of pointlessness). The only problem with it is that, like the rest of the book, it is all style and no substance. Judge for yourself:
May God give us the faith, therefore, to walk as pilgrims and exiles through the wilderness of this world, strengthened by an assurance that this passing age, despite its manifold temptations, will never win the battle to define us. It is God who provides us our narrative and tells us our story, for it is His story, the history of redemption, the divine drama according to which man was made and then lost, found and then remade in the image of the second Adam, whose faithful obedience insures our acceptance by God and whose glorious resurrection guarantees our own. (p. 176-177)
Theologically and historically, this paragraph is dead-on-center. It is absolutely true that the history of redemption is God’s unfolding narrative of covenant faithfulness to His children. In fact, God’s story of redemption is THE true history. Man’s telling of history as a series of causes and effects is a lie; God rules this world sovereignly, by ordaining whatever comes to pass. It is only because of God’s sovereign control that history has any meaning at all. But unlike how Stellman ends his book, our own personal redemption is not the end of the story, it is only the beginning.
God redeems us to redeem. He expects us to build homes and cities in the “wilderness of this world.” He commissions us to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The sanctification process is not simply a prep-course for heaven. In order to “make disciples” we must first have been discipled ourselves. In fact, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes makes this point, even after declaring “all is vanity”: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12: 13–14).
This does not mean that Stellman believes that the Gospel has no ramifications for life in this world. He writes:
It is not that Christianity is irrelevant and has nothing to say to contemporary culture, for it certainly does. The problem is that contemporary culture is deaf to the things that Christianity has to say, and deaf ears must be unstopped not with drum sets and drama, but with “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11). (p. 27).
In this quotation he is being critical of the megachurch mentality of making worship more “relevant” by making it more worldly, but his thought process is right on: Christianity is relevant to contemporary culture. But this relevancy should not stop at the four walls of the church building. When Christians are “out” in the world, shouldn’t their conduct, attitude, and view of history be making a difference? Apparently not, because in the very next chapter, Stellman writes this:
Therefore, the insistence that our religion is valuable only insofar as it makes an easily discernible difference in the affairs of everyday life is false. Demands for “Christian” art, music, or dentistry are both an elevation of those legitimate pursuits above their proper station and a debasing of the label Christian by applying it to areas concerning which it has little or nothing to say. Hence, culture is sacralized and cult is trivialized, all in the name of a notion of relevance that God has nowhere promised to bestow. (p. 32)
Aside from the fact that this is a complete straw-man argument, the Bible also never calls dentistry a “legitimate” pursuit. How does Stellman know that dentistry is legitimate? I agree with him, it is legitimate, and so are plumbing, auto sales, and TV repair. But Stellman paints with such a broad brush that the reader is left to assume that the Bible has nothing to say about how dentists, plumbers, artists, or musicians should live their faith out in the workplace. Should we visit a particular dentist just because he has a fish emblazoned on his business card? Absolutely not. But a dentist who is a Christian should be the best at what he does, making everybody in the town WANT to go to him. The Gospel should not only be irresistible when it comes to salvation, but when it displays itself any number of ways through the daily activities of Christians “out” in the world.
In fact, Stellman seems to agree with this: “If it is true that all men and women share an inexplicable ache for eternity, how much more ought the believer to recognize this longing and give expression to it?” (p. 119). This is how God unstops deaf eras: with the truth of His Word being translated by His children to those around them, both in and out of the church. If Stellman believes that God’s Word is only truly effective when it is preached, it may be revealing a bit of bias about his own profession.
Ironically, Part Two of Dual Citizens takes a completely different approach to the “world.” The dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical world is exactly what has modern Christians so completely confused about just what being a Christian means. While Part One seems to be a holy condemnation of being “worldly,” Part Two acts as the corrective, focusing attention back on the world and how Christians should “now live.” I found myself tearing my hair out as I read Part One, mentally screaming “Why don’t you get it?,” but as I read Part Two I began to realize that Stellman does get it. The problem is his eschatology.
As an amillennialist, Stellman finds himself trapped in a world of frustration and “pointlessness,” yet can’t quite square this with a Bible that seems to place great emphasis on what we do with our time here on Earth. In the “Preface,” Stellman lauds “John Terranova for being the most consistent amillennialist I have ever met.” This is telling and I would venture to guess that Terranova had the most influence on Part One. Michael Horton’s “Foreword” to the book assures the reader: “Digesting this book will lead you to sing with greater gusto those closing words of another hymn: ‘Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know.'” Thankfully, Stellman offers the reader something more substantial than “gusto” in Part Two—however at odds it may be with his amillennialism.
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