I got this book from a pal who handed it to me saying: “Not quite sure what this was all about. Have a look and let me know.” Let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement!
What I discovered was a book about leadership, influencing and“creating in a cultural storm” that opens with Adolf Hitler in pre-war Paris. We have quotes from Victor Hugo (Les Mis), a bloke called Hans, various explorers and, eventually, the Bible. This is a book that means cultural business as we lean into The Enlightenment (the daddy of mechanical leadership) and Romanticism (the daddy of organic leadership). We even get to touch on Wiccan and Pagan influences in modern leadership values. Along the journey we meet drug addicted, alcoholic, homosexual French teen poet prodigies. All by page 40!
The author’s point, I think, is to highlight that the current culture wars in 21st Century society (USA?) can be traced back to France (Paris) in the 19th Century. It was here that the mechanical and the organic first waged war against one another and “are still at battle in our day, shaping our contemporary world.” (p.45) He goes on to clarify: “. . . it is also an ancient battle. It is the vocation of two great ancient heresies, one rooted in an attempt to reach for heroic godlikeness, the other a bowing before the sea monster of the chaotic deep.” (p.46) I know. It left me scratching my head too.
The opening chapters of this book were a bit confused. I was annoyed at the attempt at coolness as the author moved toward whatever point he was hoping to make. But then I entered “Paris: The First Society Of The Spectacle”and my attitude changed from cynical hostility to weird fascination. It was like flicking through the TV channels and finding one of those Hospital programmes with some dude who has a golf club sticking out of the back of his head. I became hooked almost against my will. I digress.
Apparently, 19th Century Paris began as the centre for revolution, but by the end had become the centre for amusement, titillation, and passive consumerism. People had more, knew more and wanted more and yet, in reality, they had nothing. Social isolationism increased along with a general ennui (great word). People were no longer participants in life. They became (often bored) spectators looking for newer and better forms of entertainment. This began to effect how people lead and were lead. The author explains:
“For those whom wish to lead, influence and create, the society of spectacle is one of our getaway adversaries. It ultimately creates spectators and consumers rather than activists and creators. It fuels distraction and passivity.” (p.59)
What church leader does not feel the truthful force of these words. If leaders are those who hope to envision, communicate, and embody a better future then this present age offers us some distinct challenges. People often don’t want to lead. They want to consume. Nor do they want to follow one voice. They want to choose from the many.
Sayer reminds us that Christianity was born within this arena of Roman rule. Then the Coliseum was the reality TV of the day. Thousands watching the blood sports and baying for more. What are we to do? We must stand up and lead. But we must do it knowing there will be a cost.“When today's leader rejects the culture of distraction, she must then encounter the pain and brokenness that was present all along - drowned out by reality TV, social networking and the constant hum of advertising. This is profoundly counter intuitive but it is the true call of a leader.”(p.62)
Then, about a third of the way in, we get to the Bible—Jonah in particular. Although, to be honest, this chapter seemed like little more than a side show as he moved quickly on to the African continent and the world-famous missionary reporter Henry Stanley (of David Livingstone renown). And, of course, where would we be in a book about culture without Abraham Kuyper, who makes his first appearance half way through.
On page 109 we encounter the chapter: “Platform v Spiritual Growth”. It was here that I was stopped in my tracks. He challenges us to ask ourselves if and how we are allowing the media (in all its forms) to feed our monster (the eponymous Leviathan) within? Are we more concerned with building our brand as leaders than anything else? Now at this point my mind briefly flitted to Mark Driscoll (this was pre the Acts 29 announcement) when, in fact, the hard truth hit home. What is 20schemes? Is it about the gospel and kingdom building or is it about self-promotion? This had suddenly taken an unexpected turn. A deeply challenging one. I was here to critique an airy-fairy book not be challenged to the core. Yet, here I was, stopped in my tracks as I put the book down and looked deep into myself. Sayers says this: “As leaders, influencers and creative we all have dreams. Would we be satisfied if God made those dreams come true but we received no personal recognition?” (p.112) It didn't stop there. He goes on:
“We must exonerate the ways in which we have attempted to turn our own ministries, workplaces, and mission fields into the playgrounds of our own personal struggles. We must search our hearts for the ways in which our own insecurities and wounded egos sabotage the gospel message that we have been entrusted with. We must become leaders who are deep in a society of the spectacle that produces shallowness.” (p.115)
This is a book that drives at the heart of leadership. Our mixed emotions and motivations are stripped bare. Toe-curlingly painful in places as it succeeds in doing deep heart surgery while not feeling condemnatory or overly legalistic. Ultimately, though, this is a book about man who battled with his own demons and saw through the superficiality of the emerging church he loved so dearly and its failure to really engage and change culture. He was brought to a place where he finally had to admit that his trendy attempts at church merely attracted disillusioned Christians. In his own words: “A liquid church in a liquid culture simply washes away.” (p.216)
I went to see an Arthouse film once. I can’t remember its name. Something pretentious probably. I remember sitting in the cinema at the end wondering what I had just witnessed. Some of it was immensely moving, some of it was trite, some of it confused and, perhaps, a little too clever for its own good. It took me a while to decide that I quite liked it, enjoyed it even. I would have to say the same for this book. It is, without doubt, a simply stunning piece of work. A beautiful voyage of culture, discovery, and leadership. It won’t appeal to everybody. Indeed, many of my more conservative friends will find it overly arty and angst driven. But I loved it. Should you buy it? I think so. Will you like it? I don’t know. A bit like Marmite this one. There will be lovers and haters. I am definitely in the former camp.