The Silent Force Threatening to Derail God’s Mission: A Review of “Subterranean”

It was an unwritten agreement, but more emotionally binding than everything else in our life save our marriage license: Sharon and I were NEVER signing our life away to a bank for a house again.
That’s what happens when you buy your house at the height of inflated housing bubble of 2008 and sell it at its nadir in 2010.

Yes, we lost $50k.

Yes, we brought a Trump-load of cash to closing.

Yes, I no longer make jokes about people storing their money under their mattress after the banks collapsed with the stock market in 1929.

No, it didn’t stop us from buying a house 5 years later.

BUT we were extremely thorough this time. Financially, yes – and even more so with the quality of our investment. We looked at 32 houses with an agent. Actually walked through 32 houses. Hundreds more pictures and listings didn’t make it through the gauntlet. It took a stroke of relational genius to find “the one”: our realtor knew the owner’s agent and arranged for us to see the house 12 hours before it went on the market. We walked through the house 3 times scouring every nook and cranny for defect or deficiency. Confident in our analysis, we put an offer on the house; it was accepted without a counter.

We were – once again – homeowners.

The home inspection came back with a surprise, however, something we hadn’t noticed or even thought would be a problem: our new house was riddled with radon – an odorless, colorless, invisible, tasteless gas that is radioactive. It’s a natural byproduct of decaying radium, and  seeps up from the ground into houses undetectable to human eyes, ears, and noses. Testing for it was invented early in the 20th Century to use in uranium mines, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s that testing in private homes began in earnest. It is estimated that 20,000 people die each year from exposure, making radon the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.

The walls were sturdy, foundation secure. No mold, asbestos, leaks, or rotting. Everything we could see told us the house was in pristine condition. But it’s the danger you can’t see, hear, or smell in a house that can be most devastating.

Dan White Jr. in his new book Subterranean gives us eyes to see the cultural artifacts that seep up from our late-modern foundations in the 21st Century North American Church. We can’t see these cultural forces in and of themselves; indeed they largely constitute the way we see. We can see symptoms of this ‘radon’, but usually the cause remains hidden in plain sight. Dan helps to name these odorless, invisible, silent cultural forces that sabotage Christ’s Church, calls us to name and engage these invisible forces, and shapes our imaginations for rooted practices that cleanse the air making it our church cultures healthy and conducive to life abundant.

The Timeliness of Timeless Temptations

The strength of Dan’s book is in his diagnosis of the cultural situation. He gives us eyes to see the ways in which the Church becomes uprooted from its mission through excessive personality (our celebrity culture), extracted perception (our consumptive desire for information), and expedited production (our competitive drive for immediate results). As Christians we like our ‘enemies’ to be obvious: a sin mentioned in one of Paul’s lists, or a person who could be the antichrist. We like holes in the ceiling and mold on the walls; water damage in the bathroom, evidence of termites in the crawl space. These are the enemies we are prepped and ready to preach against and deal with.

But the enemies that lie beneath – quiet, invisible, undetectable – because of how ubiquitous or innocuous they seem, have the potential to derail our best efforts at discipleship and mission. Dan’s craft is on full display as he carefully explicates his observations about these forces that lay waste to the North American Church. He is digging into our contemporary situation, but excavating ancient temptations that have found new ways of masquerading as light in our context.

What is true now has always been true: the radon has simply morphed its external appearance to stay undetectable. Jesus dealt with the same three cultural forces in his day, most clearly seen in the temptations in the wilderness: the temptation of expedited production (i.e. to produce immediate results – “bow before me and I’ll give you everything right now!”), the temptation of extracted perception (i.e. to consume in order to satisfy – “turn these stones into bread”), and the temptation of excessive personality (i.e. to amaze and win the crowd with his spectacular personality – “throw yourself off the temple and let God save you in front of everyone”) (see Luke 4.1-13). Dan endeavors to show how these 3 temptations of Jesus aren’t just his then, but they’re his Church’s now.

They may look different, but it is the same odorless, invisible, silent force that threatens to derail God’s mission in Jesus Christ.

The Rooted Reality of Renovation

Dan gives us a fresh imagination to discern how these forces continue to infiltrate the church. In this he deconstructs these silent cancer-causing agents in our spiritual life. The answer to our pernicious cultural condition is not more sermons, better leadership techniques, or even Dan’s book (as good as it is). It’s the rootedness of the local church – a committed, embodied, localized, faithful people incarnating an abundant life based on a different cultural logic.

The solution to the radon issue in our house was simple: We had a professional come out and drill a hole in our basement floor, inserting a vent pipe directly into the ground. A small vacuum runs in our basement, depressurizing the soil and sucking the radon gas out of the ground, pumping it up a tube attached to the outside of our home. The radon gas harmlessly enters the atmosphere up on our roof and bypasses our living quarters entirely. Another reason (as if we needed it) that playing on the roof is no bueno, kids.  

Dan’s solution isn’t to vent the harmful cultural forces. Unlike radon, we can’t depressurize and avoid our culture. Too many have attempted this posture and found mission and discipleship are more hindered, not less, from inside a bunker or high atop a holy hill. And his solution isn’t an all out assault either: this isn’t another call to arms in the increasingly fatigued battleground of the culture war. Rather, Subterranean presses us to name and engage these forces, making the invisible visible. so that the Church can confront and subvert them directly with sustained, intentional practice. An embodied spirituality that creates a contrary culture.

Briefly summarized: It’s not excessive personality, but a rooted fidelity of presence with and for each other in community beyond ourselves; it’s not extracted perception, but a rooted locality of embodied practice as we build our house on the rock, not forgetting what we look like but remembering the law of Christ’s love; it’s not expedited production, but a rooted community of interdependence that reimagines what a ‘relationship beyond utility’ lives like. Dan eloquently unpacks how this rootedness of fidelity, locality, and community counteracts the cultural radon.

This section of Subterranean was my favorite because Dan efforts to give us hope and a way forward. But, it is here that I wanted a bit more from Subterranean. Because of its prophetic punch I wanted more narration. Story is utilized more often it is as an illustration of an idea rather than a narration of a reality. Both would have been helpful. This is my only critique: my imagination wanted more on the ground, real life stories of how churches were overcoming, struggling, and learning how to be subterranean.

My heart is stirred by his passion and prose; Dan is a practitioner less concerned with pithy syllogisms and pristine articulations than offering wisdom that will help Christ’s Church engage and thrive in the actual world. As one who is church planting and runs headlong into these cultural forces, I found Subterranean to be a thoroughly brilliant and wonderfully winsome look underneath that floorboards of the North American Church. Conviction and hope carried me through the end. This book is a gift, pointing fearlessly into a future of fidelity and rootedness in the local church.

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