It’s rare for me to impulse buy a brand new book the year it comes out. But it was hard to resist the minimalist cover and absurdly long yet awesome title The Way of the Dragon or The Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church that has Abandoned It. Provocative? Yes, but underneath the stark claim is a gentle, thoughtful, and essential message to a church culture that can easily fall into a power-driven, celebrity-loving trap.
“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic… But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” James 3:14-17
The Way of the Dragon is part theological inquiry, part travelog, and part friendly wisdom to anyone in ministry. Pastor Jamin Goggin and theology professor Kyle Strobel begin with a question — What does Christian power look like? As they confronted their own temptations to leverage the world’s way of power, new questions arose: “What happens if the church rejects the power of Christ? What happens when Christians embody a worldly approach to power and try to use that to advance Christ’s kingdom?” Scripture calls us to reject selfish ambition and boasting and embrace the humble “wisdom from above,” but how does that work in a world of social media maneuvering and rock star pastors?
Weighty questions, for sure. And who better to ask than people who don’t look like powerful leaders, but who have have lived and served in relative obscurity and humility for decades? Rather than fumble for an answer themselves, Jamin and Kyle spent five years traveling the world to interview seven “sages” of the faith, people 70 or older who have quietly and faithfully lived the way of Jesus.
Some are well known, like Eugene Peterson, J. I. Packer, and the late Dallas Willard, and some have lived behind the scenes of larger movements, like John Perkins and Jean Vanier. As they introduce us to the quiet wisdom of these sages, Jamin and Kyle explore power found in weakness, and how that revolutionary humility can change the world.
“We choose: we follow the dragon and his beasts along their parade route… taking on whatever role is necessary to make a good show and get the applause of the crowds in order to get access to power and become self-important. Or we follow the Lamb along a farmyard route… in order to become, simply, our eternal selves in an eternal city.” – Eugene Peterson
If you’re looking for writing that criticizes evangelicalism, calls out bad leaders, or laments shallow faith, well, there are plenty of blogs and books to scratch that itch. The beautiful thing about The Way of the Dragon is how the authors refuse to take cheap shots, maintaining love and hope for the church. Learning about these sages is an encouragement that lifelong faith and hope is possible, whether in John Perkins choosing non-violence over hate in the fight for civil rights, Jean Vanier’s gentle recollections of serving the disabled, or the tenderness exchanged between James Houston and his beloved wife Rita as she struggled with dementia.
In this spirit of love are sobering warnings though, exposing the power structures lurking behind business-like church culture and calling us to give up control to embrace humility and suffering. While especially aimed at folks in pastoral ministry, anyone who loves the church enough to know how good intentions often go awry will find plenty to think about in these pages.
Readers of Slow Church by John Pattison and Christopher Smith will find a similar mix of convicting insights and generous spirit. You might even say the vision for “slow church” begins with humility and service. I’m also currently reading Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, and though they have little in common, Rohr’s exploration of hitting the bottom of yourself before you rise and grow resonates in a similar way for me.
Jen Rose Yokel is a poet, freelance writer, and spiritual director. Her words have appeared at She Reads Truth, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms in 2015. Originally from Central Florida, she now makes her home in Fall River, Massachusetts with her husband Chris, where you can find her enjoying used bookstores and good coffee.