Book Review: Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity, by Mark Batterson (Multnomah Books, 2009) Hardcover, 192 pages. $17.99
Sometimes I hate reading Christian books. Often it’s because they are full of fluff and flash, trendy impulses in religious society, pop psychology or even business principles coated with the lipstick of Scripture to make them seem spiritually insightful. This wasn’t the case with Primal. Other times, these types of books are full of insights and truths that demand to be eaten slowly and digested. Not that they’re full of heavy theological concepts you have to dig through with a pickax and shovel, but because they lay bare the core of our souls with the sheer power of the simplicity of truth. This was what made wading through Mark Batterson’s latest book a time consumer. I had to wrestle with it a bit, chew on it, jot down notes for myself — and the result is a book with something underlined on almost every page, with post-it notes sticking out the sides signaling thoughts I’ll want to come back to later.
Inspired by an experience descending a long flight of stairs inside a Roman cathedral into the ancient catacombs where early believers hid from persecutors 2000 years ago, Batterson was struck by the parallel of how layer by layer, the true heart of the Faith has become obscured by centuries of accumulated traditions and institutions. “I couldn’t help but 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.” His goal: to cut through all the superficialities, and reach back to the primal core beneath. His conclusion: we need to get back to the Great Commandment, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). Simplicity itself.
He then uses this verse as an outline to expand and explore ways we can express this primal love for God. The “heart” of Christianity he equates with primal compassion. The “soul” of Christianity is primal wonder; the “mind” of Christianity is primal curiosity; and the “strength” of Christianity is primal energy or work. Get the recurring theme here? At points it seemed like he was hammering “primal” to the point of meaninglessness, when he was really just trying to emphasize “basic” or “core” or “simple” truths, but we’ll cut the guy some slack and allow him a bit of literary license to tie everything together neatly.
I should confess that this emphasis on the word “primal” did mislead me. I was looking for ancient beliefs, uncovering primitive truths, perhaps a creed, something that unified those early believers around the basic tenets of faith — the kerygma, as we used to call it in seminary days. And when Batterson would begin to talk about “holy curiosity” or “wonder” as a vital component of the Faith, the academician in me began shaking my head over and over. “Where does it say that in the Bible?” Curiosity is what empowered those first-century disciples to spread the Gospel to all the known world? Unh-uh. But slowly, as I wrestled with his premises, it suddenly dawned on me that I was reading with entirely the wrong perspective. I needed to take off the theological spectacles, and put on the reading glasses of devotion. He was talking about basic human nature, how we’re designed, how we function, how we express ourselves, and how we experience God through interacting with the world around us — His creation. To ask questions, to let our minds become filled with wonder at the universe God created — those are acts of worship. And in that sense, they are basic to our Faith.
He speaks of these four aspects — compassion, wonder, curiosity, and energy — as a type of spiritual love language. Some of us are more comfortable with one or two of them than we are with others. He admits that he is more naturally inclined toward wonder and curiosity. And I’ll admit that those were the sections that spoke the least to me. My primary languages are apparently compassion and work. These are how the image and love of God are reflected most in me. In every chapter, but especially in those sections, I had to stop every few pages and just let the message seep into my mind. I had to get up, walk around, turn the words over and over in my head, sometimes deeply moved by what he was saying. I found myself muttering repeatedly, “wow — that’s IT!” or “Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve been struggling to put into words all these months.” I discovered new ways of expressing my own personal “love language” to God, new goals for myself, other outlets, new ways of showing compassion, or seeing the importance of working up a sweat for the Kingdom.
When he writes, for example, “if you are in Christ and Christ is in you, you cannot be okay with suffering or injustice or starvation. Why? Because His heart is in you. And His heart beats for the suffering, the victim, the poor, and the needy,” my response is “Of course! That’s why it bugs me so much when I see or hear this ….” Or when he states that “the blessings of God are never ends in themselves. And if we use a blessing selfishly, the blessing actually turns into a curse. The blessings of God are always a means to an end. And the end is blessing others” … I’m nodding my head in agreement, seeing this as the key component missing in the trendy “prosperity gospel” message. And when he talks about Jacob, how he went to sleep in Luz but woke up in Bethel, all because his angelic vision changed his perspective, my appreciation increased for wonder and how a new vision can allow you to see more clearly God at work in your life. I especially liked his perspective on divine synergy, that partnership between us and God that makes the impossible possible. Using Albert Einstein’s famous formula, E=MC2, he illustrates the principle of real effectiveness: Energy (results, doing the impossible) comes from matter (our puny human efforts) multiplied by the speed of light squared (God’s power: God is light!). “Our human effort plus His divine power equals supernatural synergy.” The book is full of examples from science, business, and history to highlight the points Batterson is making. That’s his forte. And page after page offered up nuggets of truth, new and old insights described in a way that make them fresh and relevant on a personal level.
Not every chapter spoke as personally to me as others, but once I got on the same wavelength with the author, ideas and images leapt off the pages, sometimes planting seeds of new concepts I wasn’t yet ready for, and other times resonating with truths that I’ve discovered in my own life, reinforcing them. This book didn’t uncover an ancient creed of Christianity — at least not in the formal sense. But stripping off the layers of our intellectual sophistication and tapping again into the simplicity of what it means to be a human in relationship with the Creator of the universe, the book does in a real sense get us back to the “primal” focus of our Faith. Though it may be expressed in multiple ways, the lost soul of Christianity is simply loving God with all that makes us who we are. And Mark Batterson draws our attention back to the original simplicity in how it can be done.
Mark Batterson is lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC, which focuses on reaching emerging generations and meets in movie theaters at metro stops throughout the D.C. area. He is the author of In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day (2006) and Wild Goose Chase (2008). He’s also an avid blogger and tweater. You can follow him on Facebook or his blog, evotional.com.
This review is part of the “Primal Blog Tour”, a promotional effort where several hundred writers were given a copy of the book and asked to publish a review on their blogs as a way of spreading the word about its new release. Primal may be purchased from your local bookstore, or by ordering directly from Random House.