Book Review: Strangely Bright?: Can You Love God and Enjoy This World? By Joe Rigney
If you are a faithful Christian, the tension between the biblical truth that everything is about God, and the experiential truth that you want to be happy has most likely haunted you. We want to be happy, and enjoy every moment, but we often wonder whether our happiness will come at the peril of our souls. We have Bible verses that show us that we shouldn’t love the things of the world (e.g., Philippians 3:7-8, 1 Timothy 6:17), and others showing us that every good gift is from God (1 Timothy 4:4, James 1:17). How does a single-minded pursuit of the glory of God fit with a real and deep enjoyment of created things? We are torn between our desire to love God above all things and our inevitable and inescapable delight in earthly things.
Joe Rigney, in his book Strangely Bright?: Can You Love God and Enjoy this World? helps us to resolve this tension. Rigney (Ph.D., University of Chester) is an assistant professor of theology and literature at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also a pastor at Cities Church and the author of Live Like a Narnian and The Things of Earth. The Things of Earth is a larger version of the book we are reviewing. Rigney helps us resolve this tension by giving us two approaches; the comparative approach and the integrated approach.
Summary of the book
The author begins by stating the fact that everything that God has made declares His glory. Creation shows us what God is like. God designed our bodily senses to take in His world, and our minds and hearts to connect our experience of the natural world to the God who made and governs both. When we eat bread, for instance, we can understand Jesus’ word that He is the bread of life (John 6:35).
God has also given us pleasures to enjoy. Rigney points us to three pleasures; sensible, relational, and vocational pleasures. Sensible pleasures are things that we enjoy through our bodily senses, e.g. taste (food) and sight (beautiful views). God has made us like Adam, to need, love, and delight in people. He meets some of our needs through people. Therefore, the people close to us are a source of relational pleasure. Just as it was for Adam and Eve, the calling to represent God as His image-bearers by working and guarding, multiplying and filling, subduing and reigning, and naming and speaking, is the source of all our vocational pleasures.
As I mentioned earlier, Rigney helps us resolve the tension of the ‘things of earth’ bible passages and ‘totalizing’ passages (verse calling us to delight in God’s gifts) by giving us two complementary ways of approaching God and His gifts; the comparative and the integrated approaches. In the comparative approach, we separate God and His gifts and weigh them to determine which is more valuable. Of course, God has all value. Next to Him, everything is rubbish, as Paul says in Philippians 3:7-8.
In the integrated approach, we enjoy God and His gifts together; we don’t separate them or treat them as rivals. In explaining the approach, Rigney quotes Charles Simeon, “Enjoy God in everything and everything in God.” He also quotes C. S. Lewis, who said, “Every pleasure has the capacity to be a tiny theophany, a little revelation of God.”
The author then goes ahead to exhort the readers, “He’s calling us to plunge headlong into the ocean of His gifts and then, as we come up for air, to sing like we’ve never sung before. By deeply enjoying the world God has made, we are able to love Him with expanded minds and enlarged hearts and increased strength. But as we do, we must be mindful of two dangers. On the one hand, because God intends for us to know Him and understand Him and to grow in knowledge of Him through the natural world, it would be wrong and sinful of us to ignore the natural world… But the second danger runs in the other direction. If God is revealing Himself in and through the natural world, then it’s not enough for us to attend to creation; we must also attend to Him”.
Rigney warns us against idolatry, i.e., the separation of the gifts from the giver and then a preference for the gifts over the giver, and ingratitude, i.e., refusing to say thank you for His many gifts. He exhorts us to live in a rhythm of godwardness, anchoring ourselves through personal devotions and corporate worship, and then live our lives conscious of God’s presence and nearness. We sanctify God’s gifts by setting them apart through our direct godwardness (word and prayer) and enjoying them through our indirect godwardness (receiving them with thanksgiving).
Rigney then explores two comparative tests that we can use to guard us against falling into covetousness, greed, and idolatry. These are self-denial and generosity. Biblical self-denial is the voluntary giving up of good things for the sake of better things. This self-denial emphasizes the goodness of the gifts, even when we abstain from them. It shows that we hold our earthly goods with an open hand. We enjoy them when we have them, but we don’t covet and crave them. Generosity, on the other hand, is not just a giving up of the gifts; it is a giving to. It is the voluntary giving of good gifts to others in the cause of love.
The author is also not oblivious of the fact that God sovereignly apportions us good gifts and also may take them away from us through suffering, pain, and death. He makes two distinctions; the pain of losing something that we already had and the pain of desiring something that we’ve not received. Rigney acknowledges that it is true these sufferings are not the same. However, our different kinds of suffering serve the same purpose; that we may comfort those in affliction just as God comforts us (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). He also reminds us that suffering serves to test whether God is supreme in our hearts and minds.
In the last chapter, Rigney talks about the complex pleasures of this life, that take us deeper into the world and our experiences and our past before they take us Godward. He does this by using a personal case study of his love for baseball. I know many soccer fans will enjoy this chapter! This chapter serves as an example of how we should practically connect the truths stated in the book to our everyday pleasurable experiences.
Thoughts about the book
As you can tell, this book is full of wonderful insight. I struggled writing the summary because I was unable to pick a few thoughts that represent the theme of the book. Every sentence and paragraph counts! I admit this summary can be considered long-winding by some.
There is not enough material on the subject available, making this a timely and relevant read. Rigney wrote the book plainly and clearly. The introduction spells out the purpose of the book and gives a summary of the topics covered in every chapter. At the beginning of every chapter, Rigney gives a summary of the previous chapter, helping the reader to connect the thoughts and appreciate the logical flow of the book. It is also short and possible to complete reading in one sitting (2-hour read).
I have, in the past, been influenced by an unbiblical kind of asceticism that prefers not to enjoy God’s gift, assuming that not taking pleasure in them will produce holiness. Rigney’s thoughts have not only been mind-changing to me, but they have also called me to active enjoyment of God through His creation. In addition to this, his thoughts have also helped me see how I can relate the natural world to the spiritual world, helping me enjoy God more. I unhesitantly recommend the book to every believer.