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Book Notes: Live to Tell

Kallenberg, Brad J. Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58743-050-9. 138 pages.

One of our pastors handed this book to my wife because of her interest particularly in discipleship. You may ask why one should give a book on evangelism to someone primarily concerned with discipleship, but in this case the choice was good. This book combines discipleship with evangelism so that they are practically one topic.

Kallenberg has a certain amount of courage just writing a book right now with the word “evangelism” in the subtitle, and perhaps it becomes even more of an act of courage when the word “postmodern” is also included. That combination can be a bit intimidating.

My wife found the postmodern vocabulary and the style of the book in general just too much to plow through. She’s practical, writes and speaks briefly, and likes to get down to the point where the rubber meets the road. Kallenberg doesn’t write that way at all. Since she also wanted to honor her pastor’s request to read the book, that made things a bit difficult.

But a solution was lurking right around the corner, in the person of her husband who will read practically anything–me! We try to get together at least once a week to do some kind of joint study, generally studying from a book one of us has chosen, which we then discuss. In this case I read the book, summarized the chapter and then read selections, after which we discussed the content.

The content of the book is really quite good, though the presentation and also some of the examples remind me of much that I don’t like postmodernism, especially as popularly conceived. That’s another concept, but I would simply note that it seems very easy for postmodernists to get mired in a slough without map or compass, without any idea of where to go.

That very miring seems to provide Kallenberg with his “hook” to reach a postmodern generation. He is by no means rejecting postmodernism–the whole miring thing is my comment. Rather, if I may use my own metaphor, he aims at leading people out of the mire they’re in by example, rather than teaching them all about how to get out of mires, where the edges are, where the dangers are, and so forth.

If we find someone in the postmodern age who doesn’t know where to go, he suggests we avoid the “teach them what is right” approach and try a “show them how to live right” method. I know I am summarizing a great deal here, but that is the essence of the subject as I read it. And since Kallenberg (and I) believe that Christianity has a story that is truly efficacious, that approach is best. If people are looking for stories, bring them a good story. Even better, show them a good story.

Of course, this story idea isn’t anything new to Christianity. When God needed to tell us about himself, he didn’t send a systematic theologian. He sent his Son, who showed us in person and in story form just what God was getting at. As I read it, Kallenberg is simply grabbing a page from God’s play book and applying it to the life of the church today.

Kallenberg presents this in the vocabulary of postmodern philosophy. Even where I find that postmodernism correctly criticizes modern thought, I find that vocabulary annoying at best. But the book isn’t really aimed at making me like the vocabulary. If I’m to communicate with people steeped in that very vocabulary, I’ll need to learn to understand it. In fact, Kallenberg uses this very metaphor of language learning for the process of conversion and discipleship.

At the same time, he manages to erase the gap between the concepts of conversion and discipleship. Most of the people he uses as examples do not become Christians at some instant in time. The modern conception of conversion is that people becomes convinced that Christianity is true, that they are sinners, that Jesus is the one way to salvation, and then at some instant they pray a prayer and surrender their lives to Jesus. At that moment, discipleship begins, or at least should begin.

In Kallenberg’s examples, it is much more likely that one will go to church and even participate in the life of the church before any specific “conversion” experience. What brings the person to Christ is their becoming a participant in the life of the church. In one case what convinces someone that God is personal is not theological argument but observing the congregation worshiping a personal God.

I could wish that the many good points that are made in this book were divorced from some of the philosophical vocabulary. Perhaps there should be a Reader’s Digest version for practical people, but I’m not sure how one would write such a thing. There are so many elements of what Kallenberg is teaching that are simply good, practical ideas on being a good neighbor.

But we have what we have, and for anyone who can make it through the first chapter, and occasional detours along the way, this will be a book well worth reading.

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  1. It sounds to me as if the simplified version of this book that you are looking for is “More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix” by Brian McLaren (2002), which I recently read courtesy of Graham Old’s sale. This covers similar subject matter to Kallenberg’s book but in a very readable style, based on the kind of story format that appeals not to academics discussing postmodernism but to real postmodern people.

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