Book Review: The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, by Jamin Goggin & Kyle Strobel

Review
05.25.2017

Jamin Goggin & Kyle Strobel, The of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that Has Abandoned It. Thomas Nelson, 2017. 256 pp, $16.99.

 

Have you noticed this strange new trend at the top of evangelicalism?

Pastors are stepping down, or more often being defrocked by their churches. High-profile ones. Of course, that’s nothing new. Pastoral disqualification is as old as the Epistles (see 1 Timothy 5:19–20). What is strange, and perhaps new, is the category of scandal that has become somewhat common. Consider the following:

  • Pastoral Bullying
  • Isolationism, Lack of Accountability
  • Authoritarianism
  • Platform Building, especially through social media

Of course, the original “Big Two”—moral failures that involve either money and sex—are as present as ever. Yet just as destructive—in some ways more so because it’s more subtle and can continue for years unaddressed—is the misuse or abuse of power.

These high-profile “falls” are but the tip of the iceberg—and unfortunately, they aren’t outliers, nor are they merely examples of Christianity’s version of an inability to handle celebrity. Instead, the problem runs deeper than this. There’s something bad in the water—and most of us drink it unaware.

THESIS

Perhaps this is why we need a book like The Way of the Dragon or The Way of the Lamb and its offering of a new but old vision for the Christian life and ministry. The title and premise for the book come from James 3:13–18, where the Bible presents two alternative approaches to power:

  1. The Way from Below, whose source is the Devil, whose fruit is control, whose path is through strength, and whose end is death.
  2. The Way from Above, whose source is God, whose fruit is love, whose path is through weakness, and whose end is life.

The basic thesis of the book is that much of evangelicalism has unwittingly given themselves over to the Way from Below. That’s the water we’re all drinking, and therefore the book serves as a manifesto, calling evangelicalism back to the Way from Above.

TOUR OF SAGES

Working off that foundation, the authors (Jamin Goggin & Kyle Strobel) spent five years venturing around the world to interview seven “sages” (101)—that is, seven Christian leaders who have embodied the Way from Above and have lived long lives in which they stewarded their power well. I won’t spoil all the good, but below is a brief biographical sketch of each, along with the topic of discussion for their respective interviews.

J.I. Packer – A renowned theologian, Packer’s long and fruitful academic career has only been outshone by his writings. He discussed weakness as “the only truly Christian way of life” (23).

James Houston – Houston, now retired—and 94!—left academia in Oxford to help start Regent College in Vancouver (to which he then recruited Packer). Like Packer, the conversation with Houston focused on weakness, and discovering our truest selves through the path of weakness.[1]

Marva Dawn – Another academic, Dawn has taught all over the world and authored many books. Dawn’s interview brings home the truly demonic source and nature of the misuse of power, which so plagues evangelicalism.

John Perkins – Perkins is well known for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement, during which he carved out his own ministry through Bible studies and nonviolent activism. Perkins’ conversation is about non-violent resistance and the distinctively Christian way of exposing the Way from Below.

Jean Vanier – Vanier founded and gave his life to the work of L’Arche, a system of communities dedicated to caring for those with intellectual disabilities. Vanier discussed the difficult beauty of true Christian community, which is lost on many Christians and churches who prefer groups to true communities (118–120).

Eugene Peterson – For decades, Peterson has both pastored and taught in seminaries, but he’s best known for his voluminous writings, especially on spiritual formation and pastoral ministry. Peterson emphasized a recovery of the biblical idea of pastor—less like a front man with the “It Factor,” more like a shepherd.

Dallas Willard – Willard, who passed before the publishing of the book, taught at the University of Southern California for nearly five decades, and like Peterson is best known for his writings on spiritual formation. Willard’s interview focused on evangelicalism’s desperate need to redefine success along the lines of faithfulness.

SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTIONS

Rather than tracing the argument, because I found this book so personally impactful, I’m going to highlight four of its most significant contributions, with the hopes that these might encourage you to pick up the book for yourself.

(1) Removing the Mask

To be clear, the primary purpose of the book is not to critique evangelicalism. The outlook is more positive than that. And yet, as the authors unfold the Way from Below, the book inevitably unmasks and exposes so much of the inner-workings of modern evangelicalism in general, and pastoral ministry in particular.

Whether they’re discussing our inability to speak coherently on morality (73) or the gospel-denying tenets of the Homogeneous Unit Principle and its unquestioned adoption by many churches (203–204)—in so many ways evangelicalism operates according to the Way from Below. This book implicitly illustrates how—and in doing so is convicting for any pastor.

(2) Redefining the Ministry

The interviews of Peterson and Willard were highlights of the book for me because their alternative biblical vision is clearest. From Willard, we encounter an alternative vision for success: “If you go back several decades, you will see that people didn’t think about ministers . . . in terms of success. The whole idea of being a success was more in terms of being faithful to a calling. . . . You could be a minister who wasn’t a very good speaker and be regarded as someone who was faithful to their calling, someone of character” (152).

From Peterson, we encounter an alternative vision for pastoring: “The primary tasks of the pastor are not determined by personal interests or affinities. . . . The pastoral vocation is a call to embrace weakness, not to actualize our abilities. . . . When pastoral ministry is something the pastor gets to define, the task of shepherding quickly digresses into a ministry of power” (141).

(3) A Call to the Ordinary 

I loved how the authors chose to end the book. Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism unmasks and exposes liberalism, but concludes significantly with a basic vision of the local church. Similarly, after unmasking the Way from Below and its role in much of modern evangelicalism, Strobel and Goggin return to a basic vision of the local church as God’s ordained path.

Specifically, they focus on the rhythm of the ordinary means of grace: baptism, Lord’s Supper, corporate singing, and the reading and preaching of the Word. They give each discipline brief but beautiful theological treatments in Chapter 9. Have you considered how the church service is a reenactment of the Exodus? Saddle up.

(4) A Call to the Cross

The book concludes at the cross, with a call to embrace suffering. That’s the stinging reality of what we’re rejecting when we sinfully misuse power: “To reject suffering is a subtle acceptance of a vision of the Christian life without the cross” (217). In other words, to reject suffering is to embrace the Way from Below. To follow Jesus is to embrace the way of the cross.

CONCLUSION

As with any book, this one’s not without a few flaws. The differences between Parts 1 (“Discovering the Way”) and 2 (“Embracing the Way”) aren’t all that clear. And while the constant transitioning from one coauthor to the other, from one interviewee to the next, keeps you on your toes, it doesn’t lend itself to a smooth reading experience.

Finally, I felt the book could have packed the same punch in fewer pages. For those without time to read the book in its entirety, I recommend you read the Introduction & Chapter 1 for the basic theme; then go straight to Chapter 7, and finish out the book from there. Chapters 7 and 8 expose evangelicalism’s dirty laundry most clearly, whereas Chapters 9, 10, and the conclusion cast the perfect way forward. Simply put, the book ends beautifully.

Those quibbles aside, this book gets after something really important. It is, indeed, a prophetic voice for the times. Evangelicalism desperately needs friendly and loving critiques from the inside, and even more to be shown a better way. Thankfully, this book provides both.

Pastors and aspiring pastors need regular checkups; after all, the work of pastoring is the work stewarding power. I needed to read this book, especially as a younger pastor. You probably do, too.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] I must recount the brief story of a conversation between James and his wife Rita (who has since passed), as it was probably the most impactful line of the entire book. James said of Rita (who was struggling with dementia) to the authors, “You see, Rita is worried that as she loses her memory, she will forget Jesus. So I remind her, what matters is not that you remember him, but that he remembers you” (56).