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A Complete Review of Frost’s _Exiles_

13 October 2006

There can be no question that Michael Frost is a thoughtful guy, a critic with a deep and thoroughgoing desire to live victoriously after the manner of Christ. The first half of the book is a withering but good-natured critique of Christendom, especially its American, evangelical manifestations, which have departed in so many subtle ways from the liminal, exilic calling that Jesus modeled for us. Frost’s extended meditation on what God’s incarnation in Jesus implies for our mission on earth is passionate, moving, profound and relatively free of facile pap. His argument that the church must aggressively rid itself of unholy alliances with earthly kingdoms — in the first half of the book, that means governments and quasi-governmental institutions — is compelling. It is reminiscent of Roxburgh’s little jewel on liminality and the church, and it is unfailingly practical.

Unfortunately, Frost apparently finds it impossible to believe that the kinds of exilic values he holds, and that he urges on the rest of us, are compatible with political conservatism, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary that he does not bother to consider or cite. The second half of the book is little more than Frost’s grandstanding and rapid-fire recitation of liberal talking points. His finely tuned sensitivity to nuance and paradox in the first half of the book gives way to an incoherent strafing run fueled by contempt for George W. Bush, corporations (Frost inexplicably neglects to observe that corporations are themselves people and could not exist without the personal investments of people — and especially the publicly held ones that are responsible for a tremendous amount of the wealth that makes global-scale benevolence possible) and the diverse, multifaceted motivations for the current Iraq war. Frost justifiably deplores Western paralysis during many of the recent humanitarian crises across the world (e. g., Rwanda, Sudan, the Balkans) for our failure to stand courageously with the voiceless and downtrodden and oppressed, but then he turns a blind eye to the liberation of thousands of silent children and dissidents imprisoned (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands wantonly exterminated) under the Hussein regime in Iraq, implicitly and blithely writing them off as unworthy of the very blood Frost rightly wanted us to shed in those other places. These latter chapters are classic paeans to modern, liberal myopia and simplistic, utopian politics, both of which are unworthy of such a thoughtful, engaging author.

In short, the second half of the book disappoints precisely because of the wonderfully high standard he set in the first half: returning to the scandalous person of Jesus and mining His life for direction for the modern, missional church. The second half of the book could have been written to those same standards in a way that relies on hopeful, prophetic discontent with the church he loves; instead, Frost’s arguments devolve into a droning recitation of the Soros party line on everything from Wal-Mart’s alleged, unmitigated pillaging of small-town America to the irredeemable evils of globalization to the baseless accusation that American political conservatism is raping the environment by refusing to ratify Kyoto — the political left’s environmental Buddha. He wilfully ignores — or, less credibly, demonstrates his ignorance of — the market mechanisms that actually benefit the environment, such as cap-and-trade strategies that have actually reduced SO2 emissions, as well as the incredible, ecological devastation wrought on the oil-rich states of Central Asia under the repressive Soviet regimes of the 1900s.

It would seem that Frost wants to have his cake — eco-credibility for his ecologically responsible stance on energy efficiency — and eat it, too, betrayed by his theologically grounded emphasis on drinking good, locally made beer (a woefully energy-inefficient manufacturing process if there ever were one). Frost fails to recognize that the very economies of scale that he resents on behalf of his environmental clients actually make possible the investments that large corporations are able to make in environmental protection.

The ironies of his conflicting positions — what if the long-term, highest and ecologically best use of crude oil and coal is to make the (recyclable!) plastics he deplores instead of the airplane fuel he guzzles as he jets around the world preaching his seductive, social gospel? — never seem to flower into an enlightening, salutary, cognitive dissonance. And that’s too bad. The first half of the book is an inspiring tour de force. And that, by itself, is reason enough for Christians — even those evil, red-state evangelicals — to buy the book. Perhaps in his second edition, he will return to his roots and write a second half of _Exiles_ that retains his muscular, prophetic voice without so transparently aping the Michael Moores and Ted Kennedys of the world. Unless he does, he is unfortunately less likely to get a fair hearing by the very souls he ostensibly wants to engage.


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