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April 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 1 · pp. 179–80 

Book Review

Beyond the Rat Race

Arthur G. Gish. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1973. 192 pages.

Reviewed by Tom Neufeld

There is a great scarcity of Christian literature that attempts to deal at all radically with issues of life-style, economics, ethics, etc. Gish has attempted to do precisely that with this sequel of sorts to his The New Left and Christian Radicalism, ostensibly applying the “radical theology of revolution to the area of life-style.” (p. 9) The fundamental point of this book is that “the simple life” is not only a more enjoyable and full way to live, but also a life that is singularly responsive to the presence of God.

At first impression Gish’s book seems to be another how-to-do-it manual for those who are “into” counter culture. (“Borrow this book instead of buying it”—shades of Jerry Rubin?) The first part of the book is an often times infuriating mixture of quite profound insights into the inherently destructive, capitalistically-controlled technological society we live in and hopelessly trite suggestions for simple living like eating more casseroles and not wearing neck-ties. If one endures long enough one is relieved to find a more thorough and thoughtful discussion of such issues as the poverty of health, the alienation of property, the dehumanization of poverty, the blinding and muting effects of technology, etc. Much of this relies heavily on such thinkers as Ellul, Marcuse, and of course the biblical prophets, and Gish gives credit where it is due.

Gish’s call to the program is, as one might expect from someone who espouses at the same time a total revolutionary break with “the system” and total non-violence, utterly and intentionally out of step with the prevailing ethics of North American bourgeois Christianity. Accommodation to the death machine is service to Mammon and idolatrous disaffection from God. There can be no compromise! Gish does not sidestep the scandalous simplicity of this stance nor the consequent implications for the American Church. Here he is at his best, and one is even willing to forgive him for some of the unfortunate banalities of the early chapters. In fact, if we are cognizant of how deeply we are immersed in the consumer society, we can be thankful for many of his suggestions on how to live “simply”.

The final chapters give away “secret” of the simple life. Only in relation to God through faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ as our “Chairman and President” (unfortunate) can we live the full, liberated, joyful, concerned, i.e. “simple”, life. That is what it means to seek first the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is at hand when and where men and women give themselves to the simple life.

“Simplicity is not a return to nature, but a return to God” (p. 147). Apart from the logistical problem already mentioned, this book has {180} some serious difficulties. On the one hand Gish, comes on like a salesman trying to sell the simple life as a kind of radical leftish “abundant life,” all the while appealing to our physical and spiritual hedonism. On the other hand he suggests that it is only in living the self-disciplined simple life that we can become free to identify with those who suffer, that is, to take up the cross in obedience to our leader Jesus Christ. The two emphases seem clearly antithetical to each other. Gish’s statement to the effect that “if, instead of hedonistically seeking happiness, we seek God, we will find happiness” (p. 151), does nothing but further obscure the contradiction, not resolve it.

A much more serious problem in a sense is the fundamental point of the book—the notion of simplicity. It becomes the central category of value and criticism. God is himself “infinitely simple. . . . It takes a theologian to complicate God” (p. 49). (One might suggest that that is itself a somewhat outrageous oversimplification). “Simplicity is to know God” (p. 49). There are many more statements that corroborate the point. It would be a rude oversimplification, however, to say that Gish would have Jesus come to show merely how to live the simple life. But the very momentum by which every thing is brought under the rubric of simplicity makes that kind of conclusion easy. The disciple quickly becomes one who lives simply. To be sensitive to the Kingdom is to be sensitive to the possibilities of simplicity within a complex world. My fear is that this will hardly do as a starting point for radical Christian ethics for those already hopelessly obsessed with their own degree of discipleship, obedience, radicalness, or whatever. To those of us “goats” (Matt. 25) who are still fanatically obsessed with the idolatrous question—“What did Jesus do, so that we can follow ‘in his steps’?”, and the selfish concerns—“What does it mean for me to take up the cross?” or “What does it mean for me to love my neighbor?”—the call to simplicity “simply” tempts us all over again to a self-conscious egotistical ethic particularly we Mennonites need to be freed from. In short, I fear the book fails to shake us into the absolutely essential awareness that by trying to lose our life in order to gain it, we will most surely lose it.

Tom Neufeld
“Crossroads,” Winnipeg

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