Fear Not (Eric Law) - A Review

FEAR NOT: Living Grace and Truth in a Frightened World.By Eric H. F. Law. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019. Xiv + 146 pages.

Fear is a potent and powerful emotion. It can have destructive consequences for ourselves and others. It is easily manipulated for political and even religious gain. We all experience fear, and we may even use it from time to time to our advantage. Fear is real, so how do we deal with it? For Christians, what does Scripture have to say about fear and our response to it? Consider that we often read the call to fear God, even as we hear Scripture tell us that there is no fear in love. So, which is it? Definitions seem to matter in answering that question.

Eric Law invites us to address these questions in his appropriately titled book Fear Not, which is an updated edition of his earlier book Finding Intimacy in a World of Fear. Law is an Episcopal priest and founder and executive director of the Kaleidoscope Institute. He has written several books on inclusion, multicultural communities, and stewardship. I met him years ago at the annual young clergy conferences sponsored by what was then the National Conference of Christian Jews. He was one of the facilitators at the two conferences I attended back in the late 1980s.   

Law wrote this book in the hope that it would help us address our fears and live more constructive lives. The first version of the book was written in the aftermath of 9-11, thus much of the book draws from Law's experiences in ministry during the five years following the events of September 2001. He notes in his preface that he was disappointed in the impact made by that first edition. He wrote the book in the mid-2000s hoping that he could encourage mainline congregations at the very least to try to reverse the trends of fear present at that point. Yet, a decade later he found himself still “living in a world in a world where fear reigns supreme, regardless of one’s political or ideological perspective” (p. xi). Whether we will be able to reverse the trend now is uncertain, because it appeared in the aftermath of the 2016 election that led to the presidency of Donald Trump. In the revision, he addresses some of the challenges posed by the current President. While it was written and published before the current coronavirus pandemic of 2020, what he has to say here about the Trump administration certainly applies to our situation. The task of reversing this trend continues to be herculean, but it is a task worth pursuing so that fear does not define who we are and how we live.

The first seven chapters are mostly drawn from the earlier edition of the book, but the information provided in these chapters is easily transferable to the current situation. Law deals with the nature of fear, how it is used by marketers, politicians, and others to further their agendas. He also writes about how rituals and rules (and a color-coded threat-level system) are designed to help people deal with their fears. Chapter four is especially helpful in that he speaks of three ways of engaging fear:  the fear conqueror (the fighter/hero), the fear-bearer (victim), and finally the fear-miner. Law suggests that Jesus offered this third option, that of being a fear-miner. That is, Jesus encouraged fearful people to mine their fears for "wisdom and knowledge of grace, forgiveness, justice, and the seeds of ministry" (p. 59). This last piece is the key to the book—out of our fears can come the seeds of ministry, but we must address them to get there.

Even as Jesus calls us to be fear-miners, he warns us against fear-exploiters. Law suggests that "fear exploiters try to replace God with their own images. They give the illusion that they are powerful by evoking fear. Through fear, they manipulate others to become fear-conquerors using aggression and punishment to instill fear on others. Through fear, they turn others into fear-bearers who will submit to their control" (p. 67). In response to fear-exploiters Law offers an invitation to intimacy with God. Then in chapter 6, Law explores how intimacy with God is experienced in the intimacy of community. This invitation is given in the context of a world living in fear, something many are experiencing at this moment when a pandemic is sweeping across the world. The choice then is ours whether we will embrace community and intimacy with others. Chapter 7 is rooted in the challenge of navigating racial diversity, which is often understood in binary ways. Being that Law is Chinese, he has experienced his own forms of exclusion. So, in a chapter titled "What Are You Doing Here?" he addresses some of these questions, sharing how he was able to move into a ministry of diversity training, with a focus on intercultural sensitivity, as a result. While the question that forms the chapter title has its origins in questions asked of him, it was also a question he asked of himself. That is rooted in fear, but he sees this fear as a gift because it helps him focus his energy. When we’re able to answer this question, then, he writes, “we can reclaim our status as children of God” (p. 97).

If the first seven chapters are rooted in the post-9-11 situation, chapter 8, which is titled "I need your light," brings the conversation into the current situation. He speaks to the growing polarization and division that has resulted from the results of the 2016 election. This polarization, he suggests, is fueled by grievance and bigotry, both of which are rooted in fears of being displaced. Wrapped up in this discussion of grievance and displacement is the reality of social media, something that was not as prevalent in the years immediately following 9-11. The divisions are more easily fueled today than in earlier years, and that needs to be addressed. While he offers this word of analysis, what Law wishes to do in this chapter is describe a process by which bridges can be built across the divide that exists in our culture so that fruitful conversations can occur. To further this work Law created a process of guided conversation titled "Building Bridges Now: Dialogue on Race and Other Important Issues of Our Time." This resource covers several key social issues and is designed to be used by facilitators that follow a precise script. The appendix to the book provides the reader with one of the sessions, which is titled "Prep for the Holidays." The purpose of this session is to prepare participants for those often tension-filled holiday gatherings, in the hope they can be more generous and productive.

It's amazing how much of a book written in the aftermath of 9-11 can speak to the situation we currently find ourselves in. As he notes in his preface, the challenges posed by fear are as strong today as they were when he first began writing the first edition of the book. Instead of things getting better in the years since 9-11, the world continues to be in disarray. Fear continues to be rampant and divisions are widening. But perhaps this time we’ll listen to the wisdom offered by this book. At least, we can try to build bridges instead of burning them down. Is this not what Jesus would have us do? If so, then Fear Not is a book for our times.


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