Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review of Embracing Obscurity

If there is one universal mindset, it is that each of us wants to be important, to be significant, to have our names known; to be known for something--anything. It is a frame of mind that, admittedly, is vigorously self-glorifying. Some sectors of the modern evangelical church have hijacked this mentality and attempted to redeem it without changing the locus. They have tried to justify the shadiness of self-aggrandizement of significance seeking by making it about entitlement--God's way of reward for piety.

The author of Embracing Obscurity turns that idea on its head by making a solid case that, as Christians, we should marvel and imitate Christ's disposition of humility, service, sacrifice, suffering, and mystery and surrendering our own to God's glory.

The first thing to note is that the author of the book is anonymous. He (I assume it's a male author based on the tone and content and will, for sake of ease of reading, use the masculine pronouns in this review) explains in the introduction that it is the height of irony to write a book about how Christians should not pursue the spotlight of fame or recognition. Consequently, the author chose to not attach his name to the book. He even said that he hid the writing of the book from family to  prevent anyone from "accidentally" giving him recognition.

The author first spells out the chronic condition of significance. He writes, "We're intoxicated with a desire to be known, recognized, appreciated,  and respected. We crave to be a 'somebody' and do notable things, to achieve our dreams and gain the admiration of others. To be something--anything--other than nothing."

If, in moments of reflection and conviction, we are honest with ourselves, our hearts resonate with this truth. Even as Christians, called such because we profess and declare to pursue the character of Christ, must admit that we want to be known in some way even if it's by a small group of people with home we associate or have influence.This is evidenced by the number of us who have Facebook, Twitter, and other social network accounts. These accounts, with their regular updates, are about us, our thoughts, our activities, our pet causes, and our demonstration of how intelligent and socially savvy we are. We are, as much as anyone, about self-promotion.

The author says this is sin and that it's serious. "[It's serious because] it kills with the same force as the 'big sins' from which we distance ourselves."

The solution: embracing obscurity. "Embracing obscurity is not about wiping ourselves from existence but rather, voluntarily, becoming nothing in light of everything God is and has promised us. Why? So we can bring Him greater glory. It's about making Him, not ourselves, look good."

The author rebukes the church because it "has come so fair in imitating the world's tenets of success that we can barely distinguish the two. There's a sense of urgency in our condition I think few of us us realize. And unless we find the antidote soon, we'll live and die in our self-deception."

The scriptural reference used throughout the book is Philippians 2:5-11
 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The book is divided into ten chapters. In the first chapter, the author strives to humble the reader by pointing out that that each of us is only one in over 7 billion people on the planet and only one of a many of God's innumerable creations both on earth and outside of earth (though man was the "very good" creation in His own image). In the context of sheer numbers, we are almost nothing.

Having taken the reader down a notch, he goes on in the remaining nine chapters explaining some of the implications and outworkings of embracing obscurity.One of the notable chapters is Chapter 7, Embracing Suffering. The author explains that many Christians live according to what he calls the Joseph Principle: the idea that if I am suffering today, God must be preparing me for something better. He points out, rightly, that we like to view every setback through the lens of inevitable success. The reality is that this is rarely true. Our suffering does not buy us privilege or obligation for future success. Suffering is most often unending. There is no change of fortune "just around the corner." His point is that we shouldn't simply endure it, but embrace it, allowing God to use suffering to shape us more and more into Christ's image.

Another notable chapter is Chapter 9, Embracing the Spotlight.There are times when God gives certain people a position of influence, authority, or notoriety. If we are given such a time in the spotlight, we must decide whether to use it for God's glory or our own. The spotlight isn't itself evil, but how we steward the gift can be. Three purposes are identified for one's time in the spotlight: 1) to make God's name great; 2) to advance His kingdom on earth; and 3) serve others.

Throughout the book, the author drives home the point that obscurity is of both heart and position. He concludes soberly:
Obscurity in this life--either assigned or chosen--is actually a great gift.a great gift. Our anonymous sacrifices get touched with immortality. By serving others now, we get credited with serving Christ later. By choosing to live mysteriously in this life, we'll live like kings for eternity...The imminence of eternity must outshine the lure of fame today. Forever has to eclipse the day-to-day desires and pursuits of our ordinary lives.
I found Embracing Obscurity to be convicting. I've long sought to be more than I am; more than an average guy, with an average job. I've squandered time and opportunities to utilize the gift of insignificance in anticipation of significance I knew would likely never come. This book was a good wake-up call to use the time given on earth to quietly, humbly, serve others, and serve God.

The content of the book is solid. Some might make the accusation that the author proclaims law not grace.However, this charge is unfounded.There is a clear focus on the dependence on Christ's grace to make changes to the reader's heart regarding obscurity. Also, the only works the author encourages are the same that are exhorted in the Bible: to seek to be Christ-like.

I can only identify two critiques of the book, both being form rather than content. First, the narrative is written in a verbal style almost as if transcribed from a series of teachings. While this style would work well if listening to an audio book version of this book, it caused a lack of fluency in reading. Secondly, there was in my view, an inordinate use of cliched colloquialisms and phrases that were, at times, almost flippant. Undoubtedly, these were included to provide a sense of levity to an otherwise weighty discussion with great gravity. Despite these minor quirks, I would commend this book to all.

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