Book review: Flourishing in Tensions

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Michael Bräutigam, Flourishing in Tensions: Embracing Radical Discipleship (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2022)

reviewed by James Butler, Church Mission Society

This book caught my attention because of the language of discipleship. This has become something of a buzzword and a catch-all term for thinking about growing and enabling faith and about learning in recent years. I was interested to see whether this gave a different perspective, particularly due to the language of flourishing, tension and radical. I confess that having read it, I struggle to identify who it was aimed at. It is a bit too deep and technical to work at a popular level, and yet I’m not sure whether it offers much in the way of new insights or developments at a more academic level. Perhaps it operates at more of a textbook level for students, and there are certainly indications that much of the discussion and reflection comes from Bräutigam’s own teaching. The fact that each chapter ends with some practical reflection questions probably backs this up.

The book explores following Christ today in a society which, according to the author, trivialises following Jesus, domesticates God and distorts the gospel. In Chapter 1 Bräutigam offers a framing through psychology and the work of Daniel Kahneman. He identifies two systems of thinking. System one sees the world as predictable and coherent, offering quick solutions to problems. System two thinking is a slower system which explores the details and engages with tensions and uncertainty. Bräutigam suggests the problem with discipleship has been system one thinking when actually we need system two thinking. This all sounds well and good, but I wonder whether his somewhat uncritical imposition of this system gives a clue to the problem with the whole book. He assumes that the issues of discipleship he identifies are system one thinking, whereas what he is doing is system two thinking. However, he provides no evidence for this. In fact, throughout the book the voices he engages align well with his arguments and critical voices seem to be missing. I am led to ask the question, is this actually system one thinking posing as system two thinking, and does this therefore call the whole system into question?

The book is made up of three parts focusing on three “stages” of discipleship: Deny Yourself; Take up your Cross; Follow Me. Each section is split into three chapters. I found so much of the book to be familiar ground. It does draw together a wealth of theological voices, Bible passages and some reflections on contemporary culture and life, and there are certainly some nuggets and challenges along the way. There are some turns of phrase which got me thinking, and challenged my own faith practice. Scripture plays a key role in the book and I certainly appreciated being brought back to these passages in the context of discipleship.

My favourite chapter was actually the last, entitled “Seeing the Friend’s Face’, encouraging an encounter with Jesus and offering Lectio Faciem as a model for contemplating the face of Jesus. I found this chapter compelling with the potential to offer a new perspective, and it made me think of the importance of desire within the journey of following Jesus. I wondered whether the book would be improved by starting with this evocative image – it certainly would have taken the focus of the book away from the one following and onto the one being followed. There is a tendency within discipleship material to put the focus on human agency despite advocating for the work of Christ and the Spirit in the disciple. I did at times feel I had a list of the things I had to do as a disciple, and, despite being told that it wasn’t in my own strength, it wasn’t until Chapter 10 I felt I was offered a clear picture of what that might look like in practice.

The book has an interesting set up, framing discipleship as a creative tension, but I don’t think the idea is really carried through in the foreground of the book and often feels like a bit of an afterthought. You can probably guess that I struggle to recommend the book. I think there are similar books which are more accessible and theological accounts of discipleship which offer more in the way of insight. That said, there are things which got me thinking, and I will be returning to Chapter 10 in the future.

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ANVIL 39:2, November 2023

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