Buck Naked Faith: A Brutally Honest Look at Stunted Christianity
Using the metaphor of bonsai trees --- oriental works of art fashioned from live trees --- Eric Sandras examines the factors that have resulted in "stunted" Christianity, faith that has not been encouraged to flourish and grow. Like far too many believers, bonsai trees, or close-up photos of them, look like the real thing until you back up and get some perspective. Then you realize that they're miniatures, intentionally kept small in tight containers and so inhibited that they will never bear fruit.
Sandras reverses the seven basic principles used in creating a bonsai and presents their opposites as principles for creating a "butt-kicking, life-giving friendship with Jesus." One example, my personal favorite, is step five. For a bonsai: Aim for predictability. For a follower of Jesus: Unleash Your God-Given DNA. Seven of the book's nine chapters follow that seven-step structure.
The first chapter is as brutally honest (coincidentally, the chapter title) a confession as I've ever read in a Christian book. Sandras lays bare a blatant sin in his history, the kind of thing the typical Christian leader would go to great pains to hide. In fact, if I had to reduce the many reasons I'd recommend this book to others down to one main reason, it would be Sandras's transparency. We church folk have thrown the word "transparency" around a lot in recent decades. We need to be more transparent, we say; until we show each other who we really are, until we become more vulnerable, until we take off our masks, we'll never be truly free in our relationships with others and with God. So we take the risk and slowly peel off one thin layer at a time, always waiting until we get the nerve to take another risk and peel another layer. Not Sandras. This guy redefines Christian transparency. He'll have none of this slow peeling; he disregards the risk and rips off his masks and every last layer he's aware of.
Take his first experience at a Taizé service, a contemporary version of an ancient style of worship found most frequently in the U.S. in Episcopal churches. There, the mystical atmosphere of candlelight and chanting resonated with his postmodern, emerging-church self. "My soul hadn't felt more alive for years…as I was kneeling there having this meaningful spiritual experience, I found myself thinking about a really awesome cell phone I had seen at Staples earlier in the day." Oh yeah. Very real, this guy.
Now for a quibble, one that applies to the wider Christian publishing industry. For the life of me, I cannot comprehend the decision-making process that went into the title and cover design of this book. This is about the fifth CBA book in recent memory that fully supports the familiar adage, "You can't tell a book by its cover." Let's start with the title. The obvious title for this book would be "Bonsai Believers" or something similar. The bonsai metaphor runs through the entire book and supports every point Sandras makes.
Second, what's with the cover image --- a battered trailer festooned with a laundry-filled clothesline? There's nothing in this book that relates to that image, unless you really, really stretch the image of airing dirty laundry. Finally, there's "Eric Sandras, Ph.D." on the cover. Outside of an academic work, it's a rare book indeed that brandishes an author's degree on the cover. In this case, it's inappropriate and out of character with Sandras, who in no way and in no place flaunts his credentials. Maybe it's supposed to be ironic given the trailer and all, but it ends up being unfair to both an unpretentious author and a down-to-earth book.
Ignore the cover. It has little to do with what's inside. But what's inside is way too valuable to be ignored. If you're a bonsai believer, one who has been pruned so you could be kept "small and under complete control," the opposite of bonsai-growing principles could change your life. "Time and 'maturity' have trained many of us to live on the minimum of God's presence and still appear healthy," Sandras writes. "Don't settle for the measly Dixie Cup containers that others have told you are enough to hold God's presence until he returns." Good advice for all of us.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on April 27, 2004