Book Review: Holy Subversion

HOLY SUBVERSION by Trevin Wax. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

The idea of subversion is undermining. God wants to undermine power structures, to subvert conventions, and undercut assurance. The attitude of any man or woman who allows God to subvert the norms in their life is surrender. As Wax helpfully discusses from an experience in his life in the churches of Romania, surrender is the essence of our response to God.

My only two complaints about Holy Subversion are the prose style and the missed potential of the book’s final chapter. The prose style is easy to read and engaging in many ways. Wax uses experiences from the five years he lived in Romania and served churches there, getting to know a people tempered by suffering into a deep and abiding faith. The prose style also benefits from several memorable and powerful ideas which I will describe in more detail below. But for all that, the style is sermonic, the language of a certain segment of Christian preaching. I wish Wax had felt free to speak in ordinary language and not use terminology like “pulpit time” or outlines that look like preaching points.

As for the final chapter, in my opinion, it started well and I hoped it would crescendo to the heights of Ephesians and the vision of all things united in Messiah. The final chapter is on “Subversive Evangelism.” Given the book’s emphasis on a bigger gospel, one centered on Messiah and not the self, I’d hoped this would be fleshed out more. The weak gospel Wax is combatting needs to be called out more clearly. Instead, Wax finished the book with what seems to me to be a capitulation to Baptist orthodoxy: insisting that the final destinies of individuals can be discerned simply by their present reaction to Christ. Any doubt about final destinies is dismissed by Wax as compromise.

Even if he is right, and I am not going to say that there is assurance of a good final destiny apart from explicit faith in Messiah, this is not the issue the book needs to close with. Wax did not write Holy Subversion to get a pat on the back from his Baptist colleagues, but to subvert the weak gospel the evangelical churches have been preaching for far too many decades.

Having gotten my complaints out of the way, let me explain why I think this book is very useful for Messianic Jews. Yes, I think a book by a Baptist pastor, from Shelbyville, Tennessee (where I’m guessing the Jewish population is near zero), is useful for Messianic Judaism.

The idea of a bigger gospel is vital to Messianic Judaism. If the “Four Spiritual Laws” are what Jesus came to teach, the Messianic Judaism is never going to appeal to the Jewish community where a culture of intellectual depth has been cultivated. You can’t sell an intellectual with an infomercial, and the gospel in evangelicalism has for too long been an offer comparable to the old Ginsu knives instead of a vision of cosmic redemption and the uniting of all things in God and his Messiah.

Wax gives some memorable and powerful pictures of the vastness of the gospel. It’s not, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” as in the old Campus Crusade pamphlet. I would summarize the gospel as Wax explains it this way, “God has a boundless and sublime plan to redeem all things; Messiah is the center of that plan; and to surrender to the good news of Messiah is to join God in redeeming and healing yourself and others.”

I am completely taken with a bit of genius in Wax’s presentation, a bit of schtick I plan to use again and again in my conversations with Christians. Many who have been in Christian circles for any length of time are familiar with the “Romans Road,” a series of verses from Romans put together as a sort of evangelism tool. The problem with the Romans Road is that it focuses on too narrow a segment of the message of God. Romans says a lot more than the Romans Road presentations make it out to say. The cross and resurrection are about a heck of a lot more than just your personal sin-guilt.

So, in a stroke of brilliance, Wax devises an alternative, the “Ephesians Road.” In Ephesians 1 and 2, Paul succinctly describes are much bigger vision (this vision is also in Romans, but is spread out over more verbiage and more complicated). The Ephesians Road is a simple way to explain to Christians that the good news is centered on Messiah, not us; the amazing thing is God’s mercy and grace, not our salvation; and joining with Messiah is not passive, but active, calling for life transformation, participation in God’s healing work, and living out love and good deeds. The gospel in Ephesians is ultimately about God’s “plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10).

There are other great illustrations and talking points in Holy Subversion. I like one image in which Wax asks if we want to be more like sinks or faucets. Sinks are receptacles. Faucets give out cleansing and life-giving water. God doesn’t save us to collect, but to give. Those who settle for personal salvation as the model for the gospel are not joining the King, but passively receiving some fringe benefits and missing the glory of Messiah.

Messianic Judaism is a community in relation to churches and Christians. I believe that we need better relations with churches, who can easily misunderstand and be suspicious of our practices, motives, and methods. The primary boundary churches have drawn between Judaism and Christianity is the alleged problem of legalism. The weak gospel of older evangelicalism is suspicious of mitzvot (works, good deeds, following commandments). There is a dangerous quietism (just sit back and be saved, let go and let God).

Holy Subversion is a great book to help people in evangelical Christian circles understand the bigger picture of the gospel, that it is joining Messiah in his good works and that this in no way is putting ourselves “under the Law” in Pauline terms. Wax’s short and simple book is also a great way for us to understand how to communicate the idea of holistic salvation. And many in Messianic Judaism need a course in integrating faith and works, which Holy Subversion does very well.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Faith, Gospel, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review: Holy Subversion

  1. judeoxian says:

    Sounds like a good read. A lot of what Wax describes seems to be the difference between an emphasis on cross theology (typified in American evangelicalism) or Christus Victor theology (some more progressive evangelical groups, as well as the Eastern Orthodoxy). Cross theology makes our personal sin and redemption the main focus of the Gospel. Christus Victor on the other hand, certainly contains that, but places the primary narrative of salvation in the context of the cosmic victory over darkness and sin, and hence the redemption of the entire creation, not just getting you into heaven when you die.

    We certainly shouldn’t neglect the teaching of personal redemption from sin, we just need to place it in a bigger context. A “personal relationship with God” is certainly part of our salvation, but not the entirety of it.

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