STRANGER GOD: Meeting Jesus in Disguise. By Richard Beck. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017. 245 pages (Kindle Edition).
An ancient belief suggests that when one entertains strangers one might be entertaining angels (gods) unaware. One of the best expressions of this is found in Genesis 18, where Abraham entertains three strangers, who are identified as "the LORD." These same three strangers visit Sodom, and are while they are welcomed by Abraham's nephew Lot, the community at large chooses not to welcome them, but instead seeks to assault them. This leads to the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, who become symbols of xenophobia and the absence of hospitality. In the New Testament there is no better example of this vision of welcoming the other than in Jesus’ description of the day of judgment, when the king will judge between sheep and goats based on their having served the king in the form of the naked, the imprisoned, the hungry—that is, the stranger (Matthew 25).
In an age where fear of the other has taken hold, when the immigrant and the refugee becomes the new leper, it is time to hear a different word, a word that speaks to the hearts and minds of Christians who claim to be disciples of Jesus, but who struggle to welcome the strangers, and therefore fail to welcome Jesus in disguise. Such a word for our times is found in Richard Beck’s most recent book titled Stranger God. Generally, the reviews I post on this blog are of books that have been sent to me by publishers for reviewing. For some reason, I couldn’t obtain a review copy of Stranger God, so I used some Christmas money to download the Kindle version of the book, because I find Beck’s books to speak powerfully to my life. I am publishing this blog review, because this is the kind of book that I believe needs to be read widely by all who claim to follow Jesus.
Richard Beck is by profession a teacher of psychology at Abilene Christian University, a Church of Christ related university in west Texas. I have gotten to know him over the years through his visits to the local Church of Christ related college. I have found him to have a unique ability to integrate theology and psychology, allowing him to speak to important practical forms of Christian life.
In this book, Beck invites us to meet Jesus in disguise. By that, he means meeting the kind of people he meets at a local prison where he teaches a Bible study, or the homeless person who frequents his church. This is a book about hospitality, but with a twist. You won't find any recipes or guidelines for proper etiquette. Instead, you will encounter the Jesus of Matthew 25, who "comes to us in disguise, in foreigners and refugees, in the homeless and the outcasts, in the prisoner and the hungry. This is a book about the strangeness of a God who comes to us in strangers" (pp. 1-2). Martha Stewart will be of little help with the kind of hospitality envisioned here. With Matthew 25 in mind, Beck suggests that we tend to act as goats because "strangers are strange. And that makes God strange" (p. 6). Such a God makes us feel uncomfortable. The reason why Beck isn't offering us a Martha Stewart manual on Christian hospitality, is that the kind of hospitality he envisions is not wrapped up in a program, but is rooted in the heart. We can have programs and pass laws, but nothing really changes until hearts are changed.
Stranger God is divided into five parts with seventeen chapters in all. Part one is titled "Entertaining Angels," and in the three chapters in this section of the book, Beck lays out the theological and practical foundations, including focusing on the nature of our circle of affections. In this chapter he reveals a key to our struggle to be truly hospitable to the stranger, and that is our desire to connect with our friends. This is the question that is firmly planted in our minds when we go somewhere, including church—are my friends here? When we look for our friends, which is only natural, we will likely miss seeing the stranger in our midst. But it is in the stranger, the one who is ignored and marginalized, that Jesus is to be encountered. Consider this word:
But as these Bible stories show, we don’t show hospitality to be like Jesus. We show hospitality to welcome Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus isn’t the one doing the visiting. Jesus is the one being visited. In these stories, God isn’t the host. God is the stranger. Hospitality isn’t being like God but welcoming God into our lives. As Jesus says in the book of Revelation, “I’m standing at the door, knocking.” Hospitality is opening the door to let Jesus in. (p. 27).
In our hospitality, we’re not acting like Jesus, we’re welcoming him.
In Part 2 of the book, titled "The Emotional Battlefield," Beck takes up the elements of our lives that tend to keep us from fully recognizing and welcoming the stranger. Much of this section is rooted in Beck's earlier book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. In these chapters, he deals with issues of disgust, death, contempt—here is a difficult word to hear: "hospitality isn't just about welcoming sinners; it's also about welcoming people we think are idiots" (p. 98). There is a powerful chapter here about building walls, that is, when fear captures our hearts. We know how that works at this moment in time. Some of those walls are present in our churches—when "those people" show up, whoever "those people" might be.
Part 3 is titled "I shall be love." Here he writes about the nature of love and how it is the heart of the church. Here in this section, he brings into the conversation his reading of Thérèse of Lisieux's "Story of the Soul." From Thérèse he discovers a form of radical hospitality that is not meant to fill our schedules with more things to do, but opens us up to doing the little things that make a difference. Then in Part 4, "Practicing Hospitality," he writes about seeing, stopping, and approaching, all concepts and practices that flesh out what he learns from Thérèse. In the chapter on stopping, he reminds us that too often we fail to notice the stranger, because we're too much in a hurry. It is a time thing. The Samaritan helps the wounded person, because he took the time to see and stop, and then approach.
Finally, in part 5, he explores our desire to "save the world." To do this, he suggests we love locally. This is, he suggests, the "little way," of St. Thérèse. The key here is "breaking down affectional barriers so that surprising and unexpected friendships can happen (p. 211). Until we can expand our own circle of affections, we will not be in a position to save the world. Saving the world involves doing for, but loving locally involves doing with. There is a difference. Beck's conclusion will come as a surprise to many. I think I'll leave that closing word unrevealed, because you need to read the book to be prepared for his rather simple recommendation.
This s a book that needs to be read and taken to heart. Yes, I have become a bit of Beck fan, but that's because I have found him to be a person of profound insight. I have also found him to be very down to earth. Fortunately, I've had the opportunity to get to know him through my local connections, but I think that humility and earthiness comes through quite well in his books. So, even as I found his previous book—Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted—to be essential reading, I would say the same for this book. In fact, I would recommend reading this book very closely before you begin your next Facebook or Twitter spat. It might change the way you view the other! Remember, we’re to welcome even those we might consider to be idiots, for they may be Jesus in disguise.