So Beautiful book review

June 21, 2009

So Beautiful by Leonard Sweet

What if there were a single design that explained the meaning of life — the universe — everything? What if it pulled together the nature of God with the mission of humanity? What if it were so simple that, when sliced and labeled, many will brush it off saying, “That’s obvious. So what?” That was my initial reaction when I saw that the front cover of Leonard Sweet’s new book So Beautiful has the words, “Missional — Relational — Incarnational: Divine Design for Life and the Church.” Because those concepts are already important to me, I was inclined to respond, “That’s cool,” shrug, and dismiss it as something I already “get.”

Friends, do not dismiss this book.

I pressed beyond my initial dismissal because the author, Leonard Sweet, had already impacted my life before. When I made the transition out of modernistic Christianity, it was a very scary and painful time; I was afraid I was losing my faith. Three things saved me:

So Len Sweet helped me get reoriented when I needed it. His latest book again catches me at just the right time. When I read SoulTsunami, I characterized Len as a Christian futurist. But in So Beautiful, I see that he is a preacher, a wordsmith.

It could be that Len Sweet has created the perfect bathroom reading.

One of the first things that struck me about this book was the playful way he uses words. He is not just being flippant or injecting illustrations; there is a method to his mad wordplay. His goal is to take you beyond words and labels, which is quite a trick when your tools are words and labels. Like an Impressionistic painting, you have to step back and not look at the individual dots (words), but let them blend until something larger pops out. (You have seen this before in the parables of Jesus, though you may not have recognized that that is what Jesus is doing — using words to take us beyond the words. So Beautiful also serves as an example of this kind of teaching.)

Having said that the book takes you beyond labels, let me quickly highlight the key words to whet your appetite. One great way of clarifying a concept is by describing an opposite idea:

Missional. Opposite: Attractional. We’ve heard this before, but I’m afraid my understanding grew utilitarian, focused on “different ways of doing church.” No, no; it’s much deeper than that, rooted in the very nature of God.

Relational. Opposite: Propositional. Do we commit ourselves to a set of ideas, or to a Person? Do we call others to a set of ideas, or to a Person?

Incarnational. Opposite: Colonial. For the sake of expedience, have we attempted to create a one-size-fits-all gospel, and in so doing, deprived both “the lost” and ourselves of the gospel?

Len is careful to state that MRI does not mean we stop attracting, stop using propositional statements, or stop colonizing the earth with heaven. But if we do not get the order and emphasis right, our outcome will be all wrong. As he says in the book’s Introduction:

Attractional Christianity creates members.

Propositional Christianity creates believers.

Colonial Christianity creates consumers.

Members, believers, consumers. Yup, that’s largely “church as we know it.” Len argues for (or more accurately, does Impressionistic word paintings of) an alternative vision, not just of church, but of life.

The book is organized into three parts — The Missional Life, The Relational Life, The Incarnational Life — with an Introduction setting the stage, and an Epilogue tying it together. Each of the three major parts is divided into small chunks too short to be called chapters. Perhaps they are Len’s way of casting his message into short “blog posts” for an electronically ADD-ized tweeting culture. Personally, I think of them as “meditations” to be read in small bites and pondered throughout the day. It could be that Len Sweet has created the perfect bathroom reading!

I am writing this review when I am just halfway through the book. Based on my experience so far, I anticipate a few things happening when I finish reading it:

  • I will reread the book, probably using random access rather than a linear sequence.
  • I will reread the Bible with new eyes. (It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that made me want to reread the Book.)
  • I will “reread” my personal missionary context, looking for ways to live out MRI communally.

I encourage you to check out the online sample. If anything I have described — the key terms, or the curious structure of the book, or the things it is doing in me — has caught your attention, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of So Beautiful. I am sure Len won’t mind if you place it in the bathroom.

(Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.)

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

4 responses to So Beautiful book review

  1. I’m not sure how I haven’t heard of this book yet but you gave a very compelling review and as soon as I’m done with my seminary classes I will buy it and read it. Sounds like a great book. On the other hand, if the first thing I had seen about it was the video you linked to I probably wouldn’t have given the book a second thought. Thanks for directing us to this resource…looks great!

  2. Jon, thanks for this helpful review. I have come across this book many times and most recently at a coffee shop. The person I was meeting there was reading it while waiting for me to arrive. Like you, I had kind of dismissed as something “I already knew about”. But it looks like you are saying I should not dismiss it and read it. OK then, maybe I will!

  3. Nathan, compared to your seminary reading, this book may seem like fluff. Just let the fluff blow around between your ears and do its thing. 🙂

  4. Joel, that’s funny about your initial reaction! I encourage you to check it out. The short not-quite-chapters are like a continuing conversation that takes place over many, many cups of coffee.