Friday, July 2, 2010

Review of Boyd's Present Perfect

A review I wrote of Gregory Boyd's new book, Present Perfect, was just posted over at Englewood Review of Books (  Here it is, reposted with the permission of the publisher:

In his new book, Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now, pastor and theologian Gregory Boyd advocates what he calls, “the most important discipline that you could ever practice” (10).  Drawing upon two monks from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Brother Lawrence and Jean-Pierre de Caussade, as well as a twentieth century evangelical missionary and literacy advocate, Frank Laubach, Boyd defends the need for Christians to practice the presence of God.

To illustrate the need of Christians to be aware of God’s presence, Boyd tells a story of a time he went on a run through the woods to train for an ultra-marathon.  While Boyd ran, his mind focused on the upcoming race and his performance in it.  A few hours into his run, he noticed a cricket chirping.  Boyd then noticed more and more crickets, and then some frogs, bees, and birds.  Boyd then noticed the beauty of the scenery around him and the fragrances.  Boyd says:
The moment felt sacred.  I felt I was waking up to God’s presence permeating all things and reflecting in all things.  It seemed I was, for the first time, waking up to the way the world is supposed to be experienced—the way it really is.  Overwhelmed by this sense of  God’s presence and breathtaking beauty, I began to weep (13).
Boyd uses this story to illustrate how many Christians go through life seemingly unaware of God’s presence around them.  Boyd calls on them to awaken to the “reality . . . that God is present in . . . every moment” (15).

Boyd says many contemporary Christians have difficulty experiencing the presence of God in the present moment because they have a “secular worldview” that assumes God is irrelevant to most areas of their lives.  As Stanley Hauerwas says in With the Grain of the Universe, “Christians in modernity have lost the ability to answer questions about the truthfulness of what we believe because we have accepted beliefs about the world that presuppose that God does not matter.”  Boyd argues that for Christians to experience God they must stop compartmentalizing the “spiritual” from the “normal,” and see God as involved in their whole lives.

Following figures like Augustine and C.S. Lewis, Boyd argues, “our deepest hunger is only satisfied when we’re rightly related to God” (45).  To be rightly related to God, Christians must be citizens of God’s kingdom, surrendering their entire lives to Christ’s lordship with single-minded obedience.  This will lead, when accompanied by a yielding to the Spirit, to sanctification and a renewed mind (Rom 12:2).  This renewed mind should not lead Christians to being unaware of the needs of the world around them, but instead to conformity with Christ, who loved and served the world.  By living in Christ’s love and loving and serving like Christ, Christians continue Christ’s incarnation in the present.

Present Perfect also includes an appendix in which Boyd critiques the New Age Movement, principally through interaction with Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (New York: Plume, 2006).  Boyd does so to contrast his emphasis upon practicing the presence of God with Tolle’s advocacy of “something like the practice of living in the present moment” which he “associates with becoming aware of one’s inner divinity and an assortment of other New Age concepts” (153).

Throughout Present Perfect, Boyd advocates the need for individual Christians to practice the presence of God.  Unfortunately, Present Perfect lacks an emphasis upon how Christians should experience God’s presence in communal gatherings or practices like the Eucharist (most likely because Boyd wants Christians to practice the presence of God continually, rather than an hour a week on Sunday morning).  Also, while Boyd is correct that some people in the church are hypocritical, his dichotomization of religion and relationship is problematic.

At the same time, Present Perfect has its share of strengths.  Boyd succeeds in writing a book advocating the practice of the presence of God to people in a contemporary North American context.  Boyd effectively critiques post-Enlightenment understandings of the Christian faith that compartmentalize life, showing that Christ is Lord of not just the “spiritual” part of a person’s life, but of every aspect of life.  Boyd also avoids the possible escapism critique by arguing that awareness of God’s presence leads one to social action rather than away from it.  Also, each chapter closes with some possible exercises, making the work practical to readers.

While Boyd does tend throughout the book to speak of how individuals can practice the presence of God, groups could read the book and practice the exercises together, therefore discovering a way to practice the presence of God in Christian community (40).  While Boyd is theologically astute, he writes at an accessible level, so Present Perfect could be read not only by professors, pastors, college students, or adult groups, but also by youth.