Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Review: The Challenge of Desire

Desire can be controversial in the Christian world. The ascetic movement shunned desire, and a lot of American Protestantism followed the lines of Puritanism and the Victorian Era of strict self-control. There's something to be said for self-control, of course. Psychology, as well, has a lot to say on desire, with many theories focused on how to shape desire and how drives create problems. Yet modern psychological and theological research and trends have focused on the importance of desire as part of our lives that should not be ignored.

Wanting, longing, and ambition can be great drivers of progress toward God's will. They can also wreck great havoc throughout our lives and the world, of course. Balance is the key. Jen Pollock Michel's book, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith, appears on the surface to follow this line. In many ways, modern American Christians need to be taught to want. Or more accurately, taught to recognize their desire. As it was recognized as Christianity Today's 2015 Book of the Year, I had high hopes.

I firmly believe that God places desire in our hearts for a reason, but identifying the desire and pursuing it with balance can be a major challenge. Unfortunately, I didn't hear this in Michel's words. Rather, much of the book is comprised of lessons about who God is and the things God wants. There was a strong neo-Calvinist refrain throughout, emphasizing the importance of seeing God's sovereignty. Frankly, not much focus on true desire around here.

Toward the end of the book, she finally explicitly said what I had suspected was her thesis: "Holiness... will revise our personal desires." Like many of the neo-Calvinists of today, there is a focus on behavioral "holiness," conforming to certain beliefs about how God wants us to act. This explains her long theological diatribe--set our strong doctrine with which to align ourselves, then our behaviors will follow as holiness, and then our desire will be conformed to God.

This book is not really asking God to teach us to want, but rather to want what he wants. Wanting what God wants is not bad, of course; it is the prayer of many (most? virtually all?) followers of the Lord. However, there is a danger to emphasizing this approach in American Christianity--we've been consistently told our desires are bad, and we must ignore them and want what God wants, which usually matches certain rigid doctrinal statements.

The problem is that this leads to us ignoring, avoiding, and repressing our honest desires. This is not how to appropriately manage them, even if they're problematic. Rather, honestly acknowledging desire is the first step in evaluating whether we should act on it. And what about the possibility that God placed a desire and passion in us to move the world forward? Isn't that part of the role of the Holy Spirit? The answer is not necessarily to reshape our desires, but rather identify true, gut-level, core desire that drives our hearts and souls. These are not impulsive desires, but rather the soul longing. That is the want we need to be taught to recognize.

The saving grace of this book is the narrator, Karyn O'Bryant. She read it with emotion and inflection as if it was her own argument. She made the audiobook engaging.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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