Monday, May 03, 2010

book review – the vertical self

The Vertical Self: How Biblical Faith Can Help Us Discover Who We Are in An Age of Self Obsession

The Vertical Self - Mark Sayers


Mark had my undivided attention with his Acknowledgements section. He gives thanks to his regional library for “saving me a small fortune in books and for a lifetime of learning.” So, from the beginning of my reading I considered Mark a kindred spirit.


Mark writes with an uncommon grace. As I was reading this book I did feel like I had a wiser friend gently dispensing insight. Personal without being corny and deeply thoughtful without being overtly academic makes for a very compelling read. His personal stories and central thesis provide grounding for years of scholarly research.


Mark writes primarily to those of us engaged in “reshaping the church in the West.” He suggests that our efforts will ultimately fail, “because there is a huge unnamed problem with people inside the church.” (p.xviii) He goes on to argue that discipleship is both the problem and the way forward as the people of God reframe church practices for the sake of living out a more liberating, revolutionary, and life-embracing faithfulness.


After 12 years of ‘life together’ with communality I tend to agree with Mark’s assertion. We really can find all kinds of creativity in the ways we ‘do church’ but still leave our lives just as vulnerable to the dehumanizing influence of that which is unholy. It is no surprise that hot on the heels of this book those other Aussie missionary marvels, the Hirsch’s, released a book on missional discipleship (Untamed).


I found this book personally challenging, a perfect companion during the Lenten season. Mark was able to help me think about my identity as a human person in relationship with the Creator God (the vertical self). I must admit my severe (and, for the most part, ungodly) cynicism whenever I come across the latest “find yourself” recipes for self-discovery – especially from Christian writers. I was curious to see how Mark would avoid pressing my buttons and I was delighted to catch myself deeply moved by a challenging message. Mark is calling us back to a biblical anthropology that affirms what it means to be a proper human being and he cleverly articulates how frequently this quest is interrupted by the push and shove of our LOUD culture. Mark urges the reader to think about this proper humanity in terms of holiness, an admittedly un-sexy idea for this day and age. Mark helps unpack a kind of holiness (wholeness) rooted in scripture and affirming of our deepest impulses. His writing about the redemption of desire was especially helpful for fasting efforts during Lent.


I would have loved to read more of Mark’s reflections of being human in terms of the life of the Trinity. Our image bearing, it seems to me, is only possible in communion with other human persons. How does holiness become more than a personal trait and carry over into cultural (trans)formation? I’m also on a kick about ‘place’ and would love to hear more from Mark about how geography informs the vertical self.


I highly recommend this book to you. Fantastic for personal inventory and/or reading in a small group setting. Few writers are able to bring the big-picture into the same landscape as personal formation with the clarity and gentleness of Mark. And while you’re at it, pick up his other book, “the trouble with Paris” for a brilliant survey of the mess we make when we allow faith to be submitted to consumerism (my review is here).

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