Book Review: Sacrilege, by Hugh Halter (5 Stars)

Book Review by Eric Demeter

Let me first confess that my bias toward this book review is in the fact I’ve met Hugh personally twice, in two different states. I’m not sure if he remembers me, because our interactions were brief amidst a crowd of people. The first time was after a conference on a plane in Orlando, and the second time was at a conference in Kansas City. My impression of him is that he is a straight-forward, smart, no-nonsense kind of guy who can be intimidating when you first meet him. In the past, I have written-off seemingly blunt Christians like Hugh, but there’s just one problem with that: he’s a very likeable guy. He loves the Lord and loves people, and it truly shines through.

Therefore, his newest work, Sacrilege: Finding Life in the Unorthodox Ways of Jesus, comes as no surprise to me. The title is obviously provocative, and it’s meant to be. I was ready for the topic, and it didn’t shock me because many of the new missional books released over the last several years have challenged the religious status quo, especially concerning the Church. But Hugh’s work was refreshing, because it focused on becoming an apprentice of Jesus, and how to live the same “sacrilegious” life Jesus did.
As Hugh defines it, “Sacrilege is about removing religion from our faith. It’s about securing the integrity of what is most important. It’s about chipping away at people’s false assumptions about who Jesus is and what following him is all about” (pg 32).
So the premise for the title lies in the contested teachings and actions of Jesus by the religious hierarchy of his day. Hugh points out that our Savior was accused several times in the Scriptures of violating Jewish law when he ate and drank with tax collectors and other “sinners”; when he healed on the Sabbath; and when he challenged the teaching of the Pharisees. Of course, the glaring irony of the title quickly becomes apparent because none of what Jesus taught or that Hugh is advocating for is truly sacrilegious—it’s only behaviors that have becomesacrilege, by past and modern-day Pharisees.

In my opinion, many churches have, in fact, exchanged a relationship for Jesus for that of a ruled-based religion. We teach irresistible grace to our pre-Christian neighbor, but when we rescue them to the Christian fortress, i.e. “church”, this grace is then belittled by church authority, dogma, and behavior management preaching.
Thankfully, this book (and Jesus’ goal) was not a “how-to” guide for becoming a spiritual “butthead”, and to see how many congregations one could get thrown out of. It’s really about finding and following Jesus as a true apprentice. To what groups of people and situations your apprenticeship takes you is up to God, and if it happens to ruffle the feathers of your Sunday school class, they just may not save a doughnut for you if you arrive late.
In the author’s words, “Biblical apprenticeship is about three things: becoming just like Jesus, doing what Jesus did, and doing the above with the types of people Jesus liked spending time with (p. 50).

Big Billy
Besides liking the author personally, I knew I would enjoy this book for another reason: the story Hugh told of his gruff neighbor in Chapter 1. One time he was minding his own business, cutting the lawn when his tough, ex-mafia neighbor named “Big Billy” stood on his deck and gave him the “bird” (a.k.a. the “middle finger” for any neophytes out there). Back and forth as he went with the mower, his neighbor continued to signal him. Pouring over what to do next, and not wanting to show his neighbor he was afraid or offended, he decides the only appropriate response was a big “double bird” back. After seeing this, Billy invited him over for a tasty beverage, where their friendship began.
The threads of this story can be seen throughout the entire message of Sacrilege:  Our faith is about loving God and loving people first. I’m sure you’re not surprised when I tell you Someone very important first said this two thousand years ago. Billy-the-neighbor ended up becoming a good friend, and became part of the of their faith community (p. 31). Although it might have been “sacrilegious” to some church goers to throw-up a “double bird”, do you think Billy would have been “reached” by a plate of brownies and a Christian track?
Hitchhiking In New Zealand
This story reminds me of one of my sacrilege moments. I was hitchhiking around New Zealand with two female friends as part of a “Faith Week” program organized by our Christian organization. They challenged us to see what God would do if they literally dropped us off on the side of the road with only a small backpack, no tent, and only $20 each. We prayed which direction to go (north, south, east or west), and were commanded not to come back for seven days, unless someone was near death.
Our first “hitch” went well, as we were hosted by a friendly American couple taking in the sites with their rental car. They were very cordial, the rental car was new and tidy, and they were excited to give their first-ever hitchhikers a lift. Our second ride was very different. At a gas station, I met some fine young fellas who were driving a classic, beat-up Volvo station wagon packed with cargo. They were happy to pack us in and give us a ride to the town of Franz Joseph about thirty-minutes away. My two teammates, Kayla and Melissa were a bit more reticent, and might have even used the word “shady” to describe them.

Five minutes later we were hurling down the highway at 85 mph taking corners like we’re in the Indy 500. While we were hanging on for dear life, they happen to mention they were also drug dealers. Wonderful. I think at that time they were actually high on their own products. For some reason, my two teammates were not thrilled with my choice of rides. In jest, I whispered a Hail Mary to my teammate Melissa but, surprisingly, she did not find any humor in it.
But all joking aside, why we didn’t ask them to pull over and ride with someone else is certainly a valid question. Let’s just chalk it up to Divine Providence (God can use our stupidity too, right?). Once we arrived at our quaint glacier town, we settled in and I met my new entrepreneurial friends at a local pub, while the girls stayed behind. I promised them a drink once we arrived but hesitated and thought, “We only have 20 dollars each for a week. Am I really going to spend mine on a couple beers for drug dealers?” But I was convicted to do so and bought the libations. Then we chatted for a bit on the balcony overlooking the main street, along with several of their friends. They asked me why I was in New Zealand, and it eventually opened the door for me being able to share the Gospel with them and about six of their cronies.
Would I have ever been able to share the Gospel if alcohol wasn’t involved? Maybe, maybe not. But aren’t eight souls, precious to the Lord, worth buying a couple beers for and risk offending a few Christians? I thought so. My church back home probably wouldn’t have understood, and probably even some Christian peers, but it was clear to me that it was the right thing to do.
In summary, Sacrilege is first about hitting the reset button on our faith, and deciding that becoming an apprentice of Christ is better than only being “saved” by Christ. Secondly, it’s about having the courage to explore and experience the “sacrilegious” life God has called us to. Adopting a new paradigm is difficult and takes time. That is why, thirdly, we must take baby steps and engage the practical “To-Do’s” Hugh has given us at the end of every chapter. Although following Jesus leaves you with some scars, I wouldn’t trade in this life for anything, and as wild a ride as it’s been, this life has been as meaningful as I could ever imagine”—agreed (p. 221).
My bottom line is that we live in a real world, with real people, and with real problems. Our lives and the Church are not supposed to be just a reflection of Christ, but the actual embodiment of God’s Kingdom (a.k.a. what God wants to do) wherever we are. Hurting people feel better and we figure out godly solutions to complicated problems when we remember this. Ministry happens not just on Sundays but through daily Incarnate living during mundane Mondays and spirited Saturdays.

Since I like to rename books, my new title for Sacrilege would be Did We Forget Christ in Our Christianity? And the subtitle would be We Weren’t Just Supposed to Tell People About Jesus, We Were Supposed to Be Like Him. Or, I’d rename it, Becoming an Apprentice of Jesus: Go Have a Beer with Your Neighbor.
If I was offended with any part of this book, it would have been with the author’s choice of counter-insults to his gruff neighbor. Although the “double-bird” response was quick thinking on his part, it was a bit uncreative. I would have reciprocated with the “full moon” instead.

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