Trackless Wastes and Stars to Steer By

by Micheal A. King, Herald Press, 1990, 166 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

This is another one of those books I have had on my shelf for years but never read thoroughly. However, when I did so recently I was deeply moved because so many of the issues King addresses are the same ones I have been wrestling with, especially in the last decade of my life. Indeed, I found a soul-mate of sorts – someone helping me think more clearly about the difficult issues surrounding faith and life in our post-modern world. Even though many writers after King have addressed the question of what faith looks like beyond modernity, it seems to me that King laid some important groundwork early on in this dialogue.

The problem, as King sees it, is that we find ourselves – all of us – in a homeless age. Secularization, pluralism, individualism and lack of authority – among other new dynamics – have created a crisis of faith at the turn of the centuries. This has given rise to an intensified search for authentic faith in our new context. It seems that until recently the only two options available for those inclined to “keep the faith” was to either entrench themselves in “separatism” or take a radical leap toward “translationism”. King uses these terms as rough equivalents to fundamentalism and liberalism, but suggests that his preferred terms describe broader tendencies than those specific movements embody.

Some readers might be frustrated by the fact that he steadfastly refuses to jettison either of these two options. He sees some good as well as some severe limitations in both approaches. Separatism is unsustainable in the end, he says, and translationism, once it is too thorough, leaves one without a house to live in. So King attempts to marry the best of both worlds. To do this he insists that it is possible to combine the best of a pre-critical approach to the Bible with the best of a critical approach in order to create what he calls a “post-critical” way of reading the Bible. It maintains the primacy of scripture while allowing for the import of truths discovered in extra-biblical contexts. He calls this “taking the world into the Bible,” as opposed to the more simplistic approach of “taking the Bible into the world.”

Such an approach, says King, allows us for example to mitigate psychological damage that often accompanies separatism by incorporating some helpful psychological therapies while not allowing them to define our entire worldview. Personally I found this section very meaningful because I could so readily identify with the psychological damage that I have suffered in the context of separatism. In a sense King’s perspective gives me new permission to keep seeking deeper levels of healing my soul longs for.

All this discussion leads King to affirm a “centered” model of faith already identified in the 1980s by missiologist, Paul Hiebert. Instead of drawing sharp boundaries as separatists are prone to do, or erasing boundaries as translationists usually do, King suggests that we focus our attention on what we center our lives on. Various writers have, since King’s writing, continued to probe the “centered” approach to faith in their search for a realistic and helpful way forward for the church in a post-modern context – including Brian McLaren. Although many of us are tempted to return to the apparent safety and comfort of a separatist model, or the wide open fields of translationism, I suspect that the faithful way forward will be in the centered approach to a life of faith in community.

According to King, it is the centered approach to faith that allows us to address the intra-faith and inter-faith questions that bombard us on every front. Within Christendom it will allow for the acceptance of greater diversity. Outside trappings may indeed be quite different, but when we look past these to the heart of the matter we may find more in common with Christians in other traditions than we ever thought possible. With regard to the inter-faith question, it will spare us the arrogance and imperialism that often accompanies the exclusive and bounded nature of separatism. It will also save us from the “live and let live” approach to life created by the inclusiveness of the translationists. Instead the centered approach allows us to maintain a confessional passion out of which we “let our light shine,” all the while aware that it is largely context that has afforded us the spiritual houses we live in.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It is a book for those ready to face reality head on and not skirt difficult issues. G. K. Chesterton once said that “…there are two ways to get home. One way is to leave home and then to return. Another way to get home is never to have left.” I find it interesting that the writers who have indeed left their early separatist homes – including King, Yancey, Wallis, L’Engle and Norris – and then fought their way back toward a faith that rings true for them in the end, are the writers that appeal to me most these days. I guess I am one of those pilgrims trying to find a way to my true “home” even though in a sense I have never left it. I am learning “to be a Christian in a new way,” as Brian McLaren says it. Although having gone a different route than me, Michael King is helping me find my way “home” for which I am truly grateful.