The late American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace tells the story of two young fish swimming along when an older fish passes them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The two young fish continue on until one eventually asks the other, "What the heck is water?"
As a young bi-vocational pastor in a missional church, I find myself in the position of that young fish, swimming along "doing" ministry—writing sermons, meeting in small groups, connecting with my neighbors—when every so often an old fish swims by and reminds me that I don't know what I don't know, and I have to discover everything I'm unaware of. The church needs wise, seasoned practitioners who can see clearly and speak prophetically to a church mired in pragmatism and cynicism.
Though they may not like the mantle of "old fish," Alan and Debra Hirsch are just that in their new book Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship. Mixing personal stories with biblical exposition and application, they identify the primary ways our theology, understanding of culture, and personal identities have been tamed in the waters of American Christianity.
While some authors these days write about "the water" without getting wet, Alan and Debra are immersed in the realities they write about. Having lived among the poor and marginalized in their native Australia, Alan now directs the Forge Mission Training Network, while Debra ministers with the Tribe of Los Angeles, "an eclectic bunch of missional artists and vagabonds in downtown L.A."
The couple's primary concern throughout the book is to link missional activity with robust, incarnational discipleship. Discipleship, they emphasize, is the missing piece of incarnational mission. They propose replacing a "hit and run" evangelism program with pre- and post-conversion discipleship. This includes biblical teaching that is contextually embodied so that faith in Christ is taught and caught.
Recent studies have argued that consumer culture in America changes not so much what we believe as how we believe it—that is, how our beliefs function in our lives and how we live in light of them. Perhaps this is where the water metaphor is most apt to describe what the Hirsches accomplish in Untamed; they identify those aspects of reality that American Christians accept as "normal" and ask how these things impact what and how we believe. For example, in what ways do shopping and advertising shape the collective imagination of a culture that has vacated a Christian worldview? And, has the nuclear family in American Christianity become an idol that compromises God's design for his family, the Church?
To address questions like these, the book is organized into four sections: Untaming God, Untaming Culture, Untaming Self, and Untaming Mission. Their model of missional discipleship is rooted in a proper reorientation in the Triune God, which includes uncovering the ways we've domesticated God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to comport to our own needs and desires. I found myself nodding in agreement and wincing with conviction. It's not an easy read, but a necessary one.
Turning to questions of identity and personhood, Alan and Debra characterize humanity in ways similar to Dallas Willard, who calls us a "splendid ruin." They reorient Christian identity around Genesis 1 (the imago dei) in light of Genesis 3 (the Fall), rather than vice versa.
In the final section, Alan and Debra lay out their "6 P's of Incarnational Discipleship" (presence, proximity, powerlessness, prevenience, passion, and proclamation), which alone are worth the price of the book. Anyone looking for a thoroughgoing Anabaptist understanding of missional discipleship would be hard pressed to find a better summary.