BE HOLY: Find Identity/Find Belonging/Find Purpose. By Brian Christopher Coulter. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2014. X + 150 pages.
What is your identity and purpose in life? Where and to whom do you belong? These are questions we all ask as we make our way through life. Although my days as a young adult are further back in time than I’d like to admit, I know that I asked those kinds of questions as I emerged from adolescence into adulthood. It was an exciting time, but it could also be anxiety inducing. So, where might holiness fit in to this conversation?
Brian Christopher Coulter is a Presbyterian Pastor and a young adult who has chosen to address the question of identity, belonging, and purpose in the context of the call to “be holy.” Coulter notes that churches don't always prove helpful to young adults as they make their transition from adolescence into adulthood. He writes: "Rather than focusing on who-what-why we are, the church all too often points to who we should not be and what we should not do, all the while hoping that we never ask 'Why not?'" (p. x). Perhaps the church is better at setting boundaries than instilling a sense of purpose for life that is positive rather than negative.
Coulter's book is divided into four parts, each with three chapters. It moves from calling -- "be holy" -- to being "set apart from . . . find identity" -- on further to "being set apart with ... find belonging" -- and finally to being "set apart for ... find purpose." Each chapter develops the theme, addressing the hopes, dreams, and challenges that face Christians as they mature in life. The direction of the book is signaled in the first chapter – “yearning.” Is this not what we start our adult journey with, a yearning for a fulfilled life, to be something more, to experience life in its fullness? The book closes with a chapter titled “embrace.” That is – the journey leads us to embracing our sense of purpose and sense of belonging. That is what it means to be holy.
The call is to “be holy” not work on being holy. It is ultimately a call to embrace the purpose of God for our lives in the world. In the closing paragraphs, Coulter writes:
Our Holy God has some holy plans for this world. Our Holy God is action-oriented. Our Holy God is on the move. Our Holy God is renewing, restoring, and reconciling all things. And our Holy God invites us to join in – to be wholly invested in these holy plans (p. 141).
As a young adult, I was idealistic. I had dreams. Some of those dreams have transpired. Others have been transformed or evolved. I’m more “realistic” today than perhaps I was back then. At a time when surveys suggest that millennials are somewhat cynical and even jaded about life, Coulter offers a different vision. It’s not a “dreamy” unrealistic vision, but is instead a vision of participating in God’s presence in the world, allowing God’s holiness to transform and empower.
Coulter writes for readers who embrace story and narrative. The twelve points he makes, from yearning to embrace (including these premises: yearning, become, reflection, lost, beloved, identify, loneliness, communal, connect, aimless, balance, embrace), seek to move us beyond the malaise of contemporary Christendom that has been defined as “Moral Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). That is, we have by and large embrace a form of Deism that assumes that God is far off and disengaged, one that suggests that we are generally good people that may need a bit of moral guidance to live appropriately. Coulter finds such a theology uninviting and unfruitful. Instead, in this book he offers us a call to live into God, so that we might find our place of belonging, and our identity and purpose in life. In the course of doing so, he wants to say to young adults (and to all of us) – your lives matter to God and therefore matter to the church. As for the former, there is sufficient witness in Scripture to affirm it. The question is: does the church believe it? Does the church have the capacity to be a place where identity and purpose in God can be discovered and developed?
This is a very a good book, one that is well written, engaging and thoughtful. While it is addressed to young adults, many of those of us on the more "mature" side of the journey can also benefit from reading it – not just so we can understand young adults, but so we too can discern our identity, purpose, and belonging! Of course, if you’re not a young adult, you’ll have to remember that this was written with young adults in mind. That is, the stories and even the style of presentation reflect current writing styles familiar to young adults. There is a similarity to the way blogs are written – each chapter having relatively brief sections that are marked off, and that build off each other. Stories are told and then a reflection on scripture will emerge. There is also the regular use of hash tags to provide one word responses to the ideas put forth in the sections or even paragraphs.
Written for young adults, in the hope that it might help guide them to a life in God, perhaps this is also a clarion call to the church to take up its own calling to be a place that nurtures faith and purpose. Theologically, this is written from what some might call a "generous orthodoxy." It is deeply rooted in Christian theology, but with a very generous perspective. Perhaps a good guide to its perspective is to note some of the figures endorsing the book -- from Carol Howard Merritt to Walter Brueggemann. Take and read and embrace God’s holiness!