What voices are loudest in my life?
Last fall, I wrote this question on a sticky note and posted it near my desk as a reminder to examine who I’m listening to and what I’m being formed by. Between the endless streams of social media posts, the cacophony of podcasts and playlists, and the ever-expanding pile of books on my nightstand, I had no shortage of distractions from the voice of God in my life.
What we listen to forms us. The most persistent voices—including the quiet ones whispering lies we’re too distracted to notice—can indelibly shape who we are, changing our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We can say all the right words on Sundays and in small-group settings, but when the explicit spiritual agenda has been lifted, how do we live? Are we being shaped into the image of Christ or the image of the world?
In Beautiful Resistance: The Joy of Conviction in a Culture of Compromise, Jon Tyson, pastor of Church of the City New York, challenges believers—particularly those in the United States and other Western contexts—to resist the cultural syncretism of our age. Identifying heart postures, attitudes, and actions that our culture drives us toward, he leads us back to the countercultural, higher call of Christ.
What does it look like to live as a Christian in the world? What does it look like to model the way of Christ, moving beyond spiritual talk to actually walking as one shaped by the gospel? These are the underlying questions Tyson poses.
A Stirring Gospel
I came to Beautiful Resistance familiar with Tyson’s teaching. I listen to Church of the City’s sermon podcast on a near-weekly basis, and I appreciate how Tyson relates the gospel to our current moment, especially as it bears on New York City, where he lives and serves. He deftly weaves together scriptural truth with revival history, current events, and a spiritual hunger to see God launch fresh waves of faith. Tyson doesn’t teach an overly individualistic self-help Christianity or a sleepy moralism that quotes Scripture but lives as if the Holy Spirit is no longer active. Rather, he preaches a stirring gospel, true to its source and confident that God is at work in the world today.
Beautiful Resistance exemplifies this sort of teaching. Developed from a series of sermons Tyson preached in 2018, the book is a call to counteract the discipleship of our culture with a deep spiritual formation founded in the way of Jesus. It’s a call to devote ourselves to the way of Christ—through worship, rest, fasting, hospitality, honor, love, sacrifice, and celebration—so that the church can shine like a city on a hill.
Tyson frames his book with the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose commitment to Christ compelled him to boldly oppose Hitler and the Nazis—the dominant forces of his day. As Bonhoeffer witnessed German churches capitulating to Nazi powers, he determined that believers needed a deeper discipleship, one that cultivated what Tyson describes as an “unflinching loyalty to the cross.”
Tyson doesn’t draw direct parallels between Nazi Germany and the United States, and he doesn’t explicitly name any recent controversies involving evangelicalism and partisan politics, but he is clearly concerned with how such compromises harm the church that God loves. And he’s concerned that our culture is doing a better job discipling us than the church is.
As the world becomes more polarized, the church seems to become more polarized with it. As the world lashes out in contempt and vitriol toward political and cultural opponents, the church does the same—despite the fact, Tyson reminds us, that Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies. As the world embraces fear and hate and stubbornly clings to any power it can grab, the church too easily and too often follows suit.
In eight of his nine chapters, Tyson identifies a worldly posture or attitude that he sees the church easily falling into and fleshes out the Christian alternative. His examples include idolatry (both of religious moralism and of cultural values), busyness, fear of those who are ethnically or culturally different, and contempt for those with different beliefs. He points out that unless we’re paying attention, we’ll naturally follow the paths our culture is shepherding us down.
None of the attitudes or practices that Tyson recommends are new to the teachings of Christianity, but setting them alongside their worldly counterparts provides a convicting heart check. How have I idolized morality or religiousness? How have I drowned out God’s voice with constant busyness? How have I harbored fear or contempt toward those different from me?
Christians in the West don’t lack Christian content. We have plenty of resources for digging into doctrines like the Trinity, the imago Dei, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and so on. But ideas and doctrines, while essential, are not compelling apart from lives that emulate Christ. The way we carry ourselves in the world is just as important as the creeds we profess. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love, I am nothing.”
This gap—a lack of love, for God and for neighbor—is what Beautiful Resistance seeks to address. And although it takes a careful look at the way culture is forming and shaping us, it’s not a book about what’s wrong out there. It’s about what’s wrong or off-balance within the church. It’s a mirror to see the mote in our own eye, a test to learn whether we are salt that’s lost its flavor.
Before Tyson tackles the loves and loyalties that compete for our devotion, he spends a chapter homing in on the church. He writes briefly about the church’s failings in recent years, but he doesn’t stay there for long. Instead, most of chapter one focuses on the church’s three core identities as the bride of Christ, the temple of God, and the body of Christ. This grounding is crucial for readers in a culture that elevates all manner of rival identities—professional, socioeconomic, sexual, political, and everything in between. Digging into the church’s true identity helps us define ourselves solely by our relationship to God.
This realignment is the first step toward countering our cultural formation. If we’re the people of God, if we’re his church, then the way we live should reflect that.
A Shining Light
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus illustrates the hypocrisy of the religious elite by presenting the Samaritan, an outcast from Jewish society, as the one who best embodies the command to love one’s neighbor. While the priest and Levite cling to fear and self-preservation, the Samaritan risks his safety to help the beaten-down traveler.
The blindness of the religious elite in this story should catch our attention. Roads at the time were notoriously dangerous, and there were strong cultural and contextual reasons for the priest and Levite to avoid stopping to care for a stranger left for dead. Their actions are logical. But they aren’t actually right.
Every culture has conventions and norms that shape default attitudes and behaviors. Some of these norms develop in response to legitimate fears and dangers. But what happens when they put our own needs or desires at the center, rather than God and his love for the least and the lost? What happens when cultural norms take stronger root in the church than the call to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) and to love your enemies? During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt. 5:46).
There are parts of gospel living that sit well in our cultural context, and those parts are important, but it’s the parts that run counter to our culture that demand the firmest degree of commitment. Where our culture holds those different from us at arm’s length, we need to show hospitality and honor. Where our culture drives us toward spiritual apathy and cynicism, we need to foster a hunger to see (and celebrate) God’s work in the world. Where our culture drives us to cling to power and privilege, we need to sacrifice for the good of others.
Yes, these things are always important for Christians to do, but in a cultural context that normalizes the opposite, countercultural faithfulness is what enables the gospel to shine.
Without ragging on the church or the culture, Beautiful Resistance candidly confronts the ways God’s people are being shaped for compromise, with or without their knowledge. Tyson’s heart is clearly for God’s people to catch a vision of God’s work, in and through us, as we joyfully devote ourselves to the way of Christ in a world that desperately needs a shining light.
Meredith Sell is a freelance writer and editor living in Denver, Colorado.