Book Review: Chaos and Grace

Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit

Mark Galli

Baker Books, 2011

                In this book, Mark Galli, noted Christian author and senior managing editor at Christianity Today gives us a narrative account of the person and work of the Holy Spirit organized around the poles of chaos and control.  In the first half of the book (the first 10 chapters), Galli moves us through Genesis, the Psalms, Prophets,  Gospels and Paul, tracing the theme of liberation or chaos. The second half is a fusing of horizons—the contemporary world and the book of Acts. It seeks to interweave our narrative and the biblical one, wondering what might happen were churches and disciples bowled over by the holy chaos that the liberating spirit of God brings.

 His exegesis in these chapters is “loose” (I think he would agree with that description) and uncritical (i.e., lacking notes or other scholarly apparatus). This approach is undertaken for two reasons. The first—he is aiming at a popular audience and while he hopes his exegesis is sound (as far as I can see, it largely is), he is not addressing the scholar and therefore doesn’t use the scholar’s tool kit. The second is more substantive. He wants to write in a way that supports his argument. And his argument is that living in surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit is about surrendering control to another, to set loose holy chaos in one’s life. And Galli fears that scads of notes, references to commentaries and controversies about sources and authors , etc., would actually undermine that argument by trying yet again to control the biblical witness.

Much of this book is edifying and parts of it are brilliant. My personal “aha” moment came on page 112 where Galli talks about the strange disconnect or lack of integration between the vertical (our relationship with God as expressed in the great truths of mercy and grace) and the horizontal (our relationship to our brothers and sisters as expressed in the great call to discipleship and the pursuit of justice).  The result of the disconnect is a harsh Pelagianism that browbeats Christians with guilt, fear, shame, and moralism. This astute observation is not limited to this or that end of the evangelical ethical spectrum. One could easily evaluate the writings of, say, Jim Wallis and Ralph Reed here and see easily what Galli is driving at. The book is full of such insights—sometimes small, sometimes larger—that make one put it down, ponder a while, and then want to take it up again.

Still, I am not without my quibbles. There are two and both have to do with the notion of chaos. First of all, I don’t think chaos is a really helpful metaphor for helping us to understand the work of the Spirit. A garden, for example, even a very well-tended one, will, if it is thriving, look chaotic. But only at first or second glance. Beneath the apparently haphazard hum of insects and weeds and ripening fruit there is a deep harmony and order. It seems to me, the work of the Spirit is like that. It is not chaos all the way down. It feels chaotic only to those so addicted to control that they cannot trust the Spirit to do his own ordering work in his own way and at his own pace. On the other hand, and to use a different metaphor, rapid, random and finally chaotic cell growth is not a sign of life, but of death. Such chaotic and finally purposeless growth is, literally, cancer.  Galli does recognize this and helpfully talks about obedience and discipleship in the second half of the book, but there did seem to me to be a disconnect between the halves here and I think it is embedded in the controlling metaphor. Could a metaphor that suggested uncontrollability, life, and trustworthiness and order (which is not the same as control) be found?

Second, I find chaos to be unhelpful because there’s chaos, and then there’s chaos. Theologians often have ecclesiological debates that reduce to a chicken or egg kind of question. One the one hand, there are those who say, “Where the Spirit is, there is the Church,” and on the other, there are those who insist, “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit.” I don’t want to enter into this debate right here, but I don’t think it will be settled with what I take to be Galli’s reframing of the dictum as, “Where the Spirit is, there is chaos.” Here, my objection might have something to do with audience.  Standing in a liberal tradition that has, by and large, lost its way, I can say to Galli that not all that is chaotic is of the Spirit and to embrace chaos is not necessarily the Spirit. Or another example (Can I name names?): Todd Bentley has recently claimed the Holy Spirit told him to kick a woman in the face . Now that’s chaotic. And I will tell you categorically and without apology that the spirit Bentley is listening to is not Holy. The point is, many of us—who are not coming from straight-laced evangelical congregations—need help to discern the ordering work of the Spirit beneath the chaos so that we can discern just what chaos is His and what is not.

But these are not reasons to avoid the book. I am better for having read it. It is wise and wild and stretching. Ideal for an adult bible study class.

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