Book Review: Primal

Posted: July 11, 2011 in books, christianity, justice, love, money, obedience, review

Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity is an interesting and, at times, provocative book calling the American church back to what author and pastor Mark Batterson calls the “primal glory” of Christianity.  He writes,

I…wonder if our generation has conveniently forgotten how inconvenient it can be to follow in the footsteps of Christ.  I…wonder if we have diluted the truths of Christianity and settled for superficialities.  I…wonder if we have accepted a form of Christianity that is more educated but less powerful, more civilized but less compassionate, more acceptable but less authentic than that which our spiritual ancestors practiced. (3)

With that as the implicit “thesis” of the book, Batterson sets our to recapture the “lost soul of Christianity” (4).  He argues that at the very center of the Christian faith is the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  This simple, yet utterly profound command, is the fundamental essence of the Christian faith that we must regain.  To that end, Batterson breaks down Jesus’s command into it’s component parts:

The heart of Christianity is primal compassion.
The soul of Christianity is primal wonder.
The mind of Christianity is primal curiosity.
And the strength of Christianity is primal energy. (7)

Each section, while containing a lot of good and challenging material, was nonetheless frustrating for a number of reasons.  First, Batterson’s interpretation of the Great Commandment seems rather arbitrary.  He offers little exegetical support for his restatement of Jesus’s words, which left me wondering whether or not the text really supported his specific points.  Additionally, Batterson often lacks nuance in his writing.  In these instances, although I generally knew what he was trying to say (and often agreed), I didn’t really appreciate the way he was saying it.  For example:

Sometimes our minds interfere with our hearts.  Logical objections get in the way of compassionate actions…But if God is speaking to your heart, don’t let your mind get in the way of what God wants you to do.  Sometimes loving God with all your heart simply means listening to your heart instead of your head. (31)

In my opinion, constructing this type of dichotomy is not helpful.  In regard to this particular example, I would say that what we need is right thinking (God is a gracious, compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, seen primarily in Christ’s work on the Cross), not less thinking (I just have this feeling, detached from any real thinking and careful judgment).  Assuming Batterson’s understanding of the terms “heart” and “mind,” I would argue that while mind without heart is certainly a risk, heart without mind is equally dangerous.  It is this lack of nuance, which unfortunately characterizes much of the book, that would lead me to point interested readers elsewhere.

That being said, the book does offer some compelling insights into what it means to truly love God, most often in the form of provocative anecdotes and questions.  Batterson isn’t afraid to call out areas of hypocrisy and complacency in the American church.  There are moments when the book is at its best:

I have nothing against DirecTV.  The NFL Sunday Ticket is one of the luxuries I afford myself…But we live in a country that desperately needs perspective.  Americans are not immune to economic recession.  And this prodding is not directed to those who have list a job or lost a home.  But come on, friends, half of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars per day.  Less than two dollars.  Maybe it’s time for a reality check. (45)

And:

I wonder if the negative perception that many people have of the church stems from the negative energy we project…We falsely view righteousness as doing nothing wrong.  So we practice holiness by subtraction…But the problem with this approach is this: you can do nothing wrong and still do nothing right.  Goodness is not the absence of badness.  And righteousness means more than doing nothing wrong.  It means doing something right. (142)

I was particularly impacted (and convicted) by the third chapter, which deals with Christians and money, and includes some compelling practical suggestions (like establishing an “income ceiling” and making “pre-decisions” about your finances).

It seems that almost every page has some interesting story illustrating the spiritual truth Batterson is attempting to drive home.  From Chuck E. Cheese to atomic bombs, crack houses to brain physiology, Batterson has a story for everything.  Additionally, Batterson’s style of writing is quite gripping.  He writes earnestly, with what I would say is probably a godly passion.

All in all, Primal was an interesting book, but I finished with the distinct feeling that I’d heard it all before, and with more nuance at that.

Note: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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