Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Review: Life Work by Randy Harris

Randy Harris.  Life Work: Confessions of an Everyday Disciple.  Abilene, TX: Leafwoord Publishers, 2014.  157 pp.  $13.99.

Ethics is rarely a fun subject.  Regardless of whether it is at a state university or a seminary, there is something inherently dreadful about having a discussion with other members of humanity about living well.  This is not simply a matter of living in a pluralistic or secular society; it is genuinely difficult to tell someone else how to live.  Why?  This simple reason: none of us are completely capable of being ethical 100% of the time.  We break our own rules, not to mention how often we break the ethical imperatives of scripture.

Randy Harris, in this final volume of his “work” trilogy (Soul Work, God Work and now Life Work), lets us in on a little secret about why we dread ethics so much—we get wrapped up in keeping the rules than focusing on how to life ethically.  He says that the problem is that we have made living ethically too difficult, and his goal in Life Work is to offer “a particular way of doing ethics from Scripture that makes sense” (p. 13).  That particular way, according to Harris, is pluralistic deontology, which is basically an approach that says there are some actions that are always right or always wrong and that we have multiple duties to fulfill.  The problem, Harris says, occurs when these “duties come in conflict with each other” and we “have to decide which of those duties is going to trump the other one” (p. 31).  However, Harris believes firmly that this approach to ethical living and Christian practice can be accomplished and lead to a meaningful life.

Harris sets forth his argument in four units of thought—ethics (chapters 1-4), cruciformity (chapters 5-9), learning from other Christians (“fellow travelers,” chapters 10-12), and shalom (chapters 13-14).  The chapters in the book, according to Harris, are presentations that have been reworked for this volume.  As such, Harris’ folksy, humorous speaking style flows through the pages of each chapter.  If you have ever heard him speak, you can close your eyes and almost see him in his black t-shirt and black jeans with his pocket Bible in hand speaking with a big smile on his face.  The opening chapters look at various approaches to ethics, boiling relativism and utilitarianism down to their base parts and then discarding them in favor of the basic principles of what Harris calls “a minimally decent ethic.”  He then unpacks his concept of pluralistic deontology in the next section by focusing on how Christians can live a “cruciformed” (or cross-shaped) life by practicing the disciplines of not being easily distracted, not reacting, and dying happy.  This section is followed by a series of examples of both living and dead Christians who have lived according to these various principles.  I found chapter 12 especially challenging because Harris lays himself bare for the reader by giving us his personal ethic.  The book concludes with a couple of chapters devoted specifically to developing and implementing the Old Testament concept of shalom in contemporary culture.  The book is marvelously engaging at every turn.  You may not always agree with Harris, however you cannot ignore his ardent devotion to his faith.  As a result, you will be enriched by reading this volume.

As fine as this volume is, there are, however, a couple of minor flaws that need to be highlighted.  As a reviewer, it is my responsibility to point on problems, great and small, that I see with the volume.  In some cases, the theological argument is so flawed it is almost heretical.  In some cases, the research conducted does not justify the author’s conclusions.  In the case of Life Work, my critique comes more on the technical side.  His content, as noted above, is marvelous engaging.  His comments are challenging and pastoral at the same time, much like his preaching (and I would imagine his work with college students).  My issue, then, is small yet necessary: there’s no bibliography!  There are several places where Harris will reference an author or a work (without naming the author), tell us how wonderful the book is and how it relates to his discussion, then move on to his next topic without even so much as a footnote.  For example, Harris writes, “One of my favorite recent books is Punk Monk by these guys in England who have a prayer renewal think going among young people” (p. 128).  As one is always looking for something good to read, it would have been helpful if just a simple list of cited works had been included. 

Other than this technical matter, I thoroughly enjoyed Life Work, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good book on Christian spiritual formation.  Specifically for college educators, I think this would be a wonderful addition to either a college-level spiritual formation or basic course in Christian ethics.  It would also make an excellent resource for a small group study (to which I would also add Harris’ previous book Living Jesus, from ACU Press).  There is plenty here to have a good discussion on.

Rob O’Lynn, ABD
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ministry
Kentucky Christian University

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from ACU Press/Leafwood Publishers as part of their ACU Press Bookclub Program.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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