It isn't often that a book arrives by post penned by an anonymous author. The last time that happened? Well, never. So when I was asked to review Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God's Everything (B&H Books), I was intrigued, for we exist within a Christian subculture in which those who produce media want to be noticed, whether we are wordsmiths (written or spoken), film makers, or musicians. Bloggers are not immune. In fact, in the blogosphere, vainglory reigns supreme. Platform building, audience, click-throughs, exclusive interviews, and "first reviews" take pride of place. Everyone wants to be famous. In this respect, we aren't much different from the world, and I must confess I know these pains firsthand.
EO begins with a strong declaration of our problem, and a little bit of math. The author writes, "We're intoxicated with a desire to be known, recognized, appreciated, and respected. We crave to be a 'somebody' and do notable things, to achieve our dreams and gain the admiration of others. To be something--anything--other than nothing." Yet, the author notes, on a planet of "Seven billion, twenty five million, four hundred twenty thousand, three hundred ninety," it is difficult to stand out. We are all relatively obscure.
The author names up-front that remaining anonymous in publication is not a gimmick or a hoax, but is a genuine effort to live in accordance with the primary message of this book: embracing obscurity. Humility and lowliness are supreme values for the author, as well as the intention of deflecting glory to a greater source, God himself. The author writes, "It's about making Him, not ourselves, look good." Yet this is a paradox, one that can be seen in the life of Jesus himself, who in his very life gave glory to God in all things, and in succeeding, was elevated to the highest place.
Following a diagnosis of glory-seeking and a declaration of our relative unimportance concerning the broad numerical scope of humanity, EO explores our notions of identity and definition, and our understanding of Jesus as a humble, servant king. EO then expounds a liberating Christian approach to true significance, success, servanthood, and suffering. Lastly, the author examines important concerns such as the mysterious nature of Christian witness, a pastoral admonition for a humble posture if recognition does come, and a brief treatment of our ultimate hope in Christ. Throughout, EO illuminates every point through exposition of the Bible, and remains close to the text.
The overall structure and primary theme of EO is sound and pastorally helpful. If I may borrow a medical analogy, if the diagnosis is obsessive glory-seeking and idol-worship at the altars of fame, success, financial security, beauty, or countless other false gods, this book has the ability to point to the cure of many ills. Why? Because this book points to God as the source of all we have, the one deserving all our glory, and the fount of all dignity and worth.
God is great, and we are but bit-players in his grand drama. Granted, that is an overstatement. And perhaps this is where EO exhibits its shortcomings. In an effort to demonstrate just how obscure, how insignificant and how small we are in comparison the largesse of our world, EO whittles us down too far. When John the Baptist was approached by his disciples concerning the crowds that were leaving him and gravitating toward Jesus, he replied, "He must become greater; I must become less." Not nothing, less. And Jesus, by virtue of his "obedience unto death--even death on a cross" was not relegated to the obscure, but was instead lifted to the highest place, as Paul says in Philippians 2. These themes are explored by EO to a degree (Phil. 2 is a key text for Chapter 3), but the implications for us are not drawn out as well as they could've been.
Human beings have dignity and worth not because of what we do or achieve, but because we are first created in God's image (Gen. 1:27) and are being restored by virtue of Christ's work on the cross (2 Cor. 5:17, amplified by the argument in 2 Cor. 1-4). We are being "made new" by virtue of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and through the power available to us through faith in him. We are, therefore, of inestimable worth.
We may be obscure in relation to the relative population of the earth, but we are not obscure to the One who really counts (a point made in Chapter 4, "Embracing Significance", but not carried strongly enough throughout). We are being redeemed and remade in to something that exceeds all we dare imagine. Instead of "embracing obscurity," we are called to embrace Christ, in whose eyes we are already famous, not because of anything we have done, but because of what he has done so that we might be made his possession (Hebrews 12:1-2). Embracing Christ leads to a life of humility, of lowliness, of service to others, for we have first been humbled and brought low in our calling to serve Christ the King.
Humility, hiddenness, full commitment, service to others, secrecy, peace, and contentment are all needed in greater supply for those in Christ. The writer of EO and I are in agreement that those resources are available. This book points a way, and should be read critically and with care. As I said, many admonitions here can be helpful, but need further nuance.
It may be that my differences with the author of EO boil down to semantics and rhetorical presentation, and are therefore differences of degree, not kind. As a charitable reader, I would like to think so. But in charity, I also must say the points emphasized above were not made strongly nor consistently enough. I believe that "becoming nothing" or "embracing obscurity" are themes that depart from robust thinking on what it means for us to be redeemed and sanctified, and thus are in need of redefinition, or a different scaffolding, if they are to stand.
This does not mean that another book must be written, but that this book must be complemented by the witness of a community, a group of friends. Pick it up and discuss it with other Christians, and you will profit.