The Ghost of Perfection by Joseph Haward
A fresh look at major themes both of the church and of wider society - a masterly debut
The Ghost of Perfection
By Joseph Haward
Wipf & Stock Resource
Reviewed by Jeannie Kendall
As a young Christian, coming from no background of church or faith, I was handed an orthodoxy which was expected of me. Like every human, I was deeply tainted by sin and deserving of God’s wrath, the cross took that wrath, and the most important thing was to get people to believe in Jesus by whatever means to save them from hell.
It sat uncomfortably with me, but there seemed to be no other way of understanding the gospel which had literally (and in more than one sense) saved me. In time there were others touchstones of orthodoxy offered to me: that God always heals unless we lack faith, that unless all our issues were resolved and we were whole in every sense, we were short of God’s best. Thankfully I serve now somewhere where these things are not the benchmark of acceptability, but those early years sometimes cast a long shadow.
I wish I had been handed a book like The Ghost of Perfection much earlier. Joe Haward takes some of the major themes both of the church and of wider society – mission, triumphalism, relationships and sex among the stimulating ten chapters – and has taken a fresh look at them with the help of a rich tapestry of thinkers from the Desert Mothers and Fathers to iconic films such as Inception, and with a range of disciplines including sociology and psychology as well as theology.
He encourages us to look carefully at the gospel, specifically the person of Jesus, in a way which encourages us to embrace and value our humanity and see it as of infinite worth to God. In so doing, he highlights aspects of theology which can strip us of our humanity rather than treasure it: such as the risk in mission of people becoming fodder for our success, rather than an opportunity to love people as they are. Indeed one of the many memorable quotes (which I hope might encourage you to read the book to check out the all-important context) is that “mission has become the idolatry of the church”.
One of the areas Joe particularly focuses on is violence, and in doing so will no doubt raise some theological hackles. For example, he sees the cross as dealing with our violence rather than the wrath of God – and our understanding of the cross is such a shibboleth of acceptability for so many. Unsurprisingly he is influenced by Rene Girard and offers a helpful and accessible way into his thinking which has proved rather impenetrable for many. Joe sees violence as expressing itself in subtle ways in much of our theology and at times the book makes for disturbing reading as it unmasks these. At times it is a demanding read, and without doubt I will return to it to wrestle a bit further. At other times – in particular the chapter on trauma – it is profoundly moving.
The call to love is central to the gospel, and this book at times exposes the shallowness of the “love” we offer – love so we can change you to be like us, love which sees you as an object of our evangelism. It is a book which challenges us on this and so many other fronts. In an era when church growth has become the holy grail, he reminds us that not all growth is healthy and our calling is neither to be a flourishing business nor a “community of sentimentality”, but the much more demanding call to be a community of genuine relationship offering hope to people as they are not as we think they should be.
I can’t guarantee you will love it as I do. But I can guarantee you will be made to think. I recommend it so that you can make your own mind up. A masterly debut.
Jeannie Kendall is co-minister at Carlshalton Beeches Baptist Free Church
This review was originally published in Regent’s Reviews, based at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. Regent’s Reviews is published every April and October and can be read at: http://www.rpc.ox.ac.uk/regents-reviews/ This review is republished with permission.
What does it mean to be human? With the help of ancient and modern thinkers, Baptist church planter Joe Haward seeks to help us reconnect with our beautiful humanity, discovered in Jesus, in his new book The Ghost of Perfection