Saturday, October 01, 2011

Book Review: The Upside-Down Kingdom

It took me a while but I finally finished Donald Kraybill's The Upside-Down Kingdom. Kraybill is Distinguished College Professor, and Senior Fellow of Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, which is a pretty impressive title, at least for its length, and one of the foremost experts on Anabaptism and especially the Amish in the world. The Upside-Down Kingdom (UPK for short) is not a book on Anabaptism per se but rather a look at the way that Christ's Kingdom is in every respect the exact opposite of what the world values. Up is down, great is least.

UPK is a fascinating book and challenging to boot. Some of the background information that Kraybill shares is absolutely incredible and really fleshes out portions of Scripture. He does a great job of drawing out from Scripture some crucial points regarding status, power, wealth, etc. that we take for granted and showing the reader where we have strayed far from the intent of Scripture. It is a pretty devastating indictment of our traditional church culture in the West and should make any open-minded Christian ask some serious questions and take a deep introspective look. There are a few slow points but the book as a whole flows beautifully and reads easily while still be meaty.

That isn't to say that I don't have concerns. I do with every book but UPK has some issues that are especially concerning. First Kraybill seems pretty comfortable with traditional church structures. He certainly has criticisms of them but he seems to miss in places that the very traditions we cling to in many ways hamper living as citizens of the Upside-Down Kingdom. He also takes great liberties in assigning motivations and emotions, especially to Christ, that are absent from the text. What Jesus, the eternal God, is thinking in a situation is not a topic I am comfortable making definitive statements about.

My bigger concern has to do with how Christ is represented and how His cross is understood. The language about the deity of Christ and the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is a bit sloppy and imprecise. Someone could read this book and perhaps get the impression that God is the Father is God and that Jesus is something less than God. His treatment of the cross is even more troubling. Statements like this for example...
“…Jesus demolished the entire sacrificial system when he announced full forgiveness, direct from God – any time, any place without a bloody sacrifice.” (The Upside-Down Kingdom, pg. 248)
Kraybill seems to be saying that the sacrificial system was overturned symbolically and finally when Jesus overturned the money changers tables in the temple and that the cross is primarily the result of the social unrest caused by a life of radical service. The problem is that this is doesn't match Scripture which tells us that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb 9:22) and that Jesus brought peace between man and God by His shed blood on the cross (Col 1:20). So there are certainly some places where red flags popped up in an otherwise outstanding book.

So in summary I would absolutely recommend The Upside-Down Kingdom to most Christians but I would add a note of caution. Read with your eyes (and Scriptures!) wide open and be discerning in places where Kraybill starts to stray from orthodox teachings. I would caution a newer believer who is not solidly grounded in the Bible to be very cautious here. Perhaps read in the context of a study group UPK would work but I would be concerned that a new believer would miss some of the red flags I saw. I don't want to give the impression that this is not an outstanding book because it absolutely is and one I highly recommend. Just read with caution, which is good advice for any book!

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