The Problem with (Some) Christian Books: Gibbons’s The Monkey and the Fish

“The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard, quoted in The Monkey and the Fish.

It is always the mark of a dispiriting reading experience when the quotes that open a chapter are the best part of the book, and such, unfortunately, is the case with Dave Gibbons’s The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church (Zondervan, 2009), a thoroughly forgettable, overly optimistic, disorganized, and altogether vague foray into the subject of Church leadership today.

I stumbled upon Gibbons’s book while browsing a $2 book bin while on a family vacation (for the record, I typically have great success with the $2 bin). Since I am undoubtedly not only in church leadership but indeed cross-cultural church leadership, this seemed like a potentially rewarding read. The back cover offers the promise of a “third-culture way of being the church” and “creative applications that can help any church of any kind anywhere make a difference in the world.” Hey, I’m an American of Puerto Rican heritage working with Vietnamese people in Canada—I’ll take all the help I can get! In other words, I paid my $2 and read the book.

Why care to write a review of a book I found so unmemorable and vague? Because it exhibits a number of what I perceive to be common, unfortunate habits of popular Christian literature. Therefore talking about the book gives me the opportunity to vent my frustrations. And, of course, much like the owner of a roadside diner giving advice on road conditions ahead, a book reviewer should alert a potential reader to the book conditions ahead. Of course you can read it if you like, and maybe you’ll enjoy it. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you if you don’t.

So then, what are these distasteful habits of popular Christian literature that Gibbons’s book exhibits? I’ve picked four to talk about here: Undefined Terms (which I’ll discuss at length), Incomplete Thoughts, Formatting, and what I’ll call “Mystic Appeal.”

Undefined Terms

When I graded papers for professors in seminary, it was a continually astonishing fact that few masters-level students possessed any concept of the thesis. Sure, they could write word counts—words flowed from their computers like water from burst pipes—but the process of stating a claim, then working through an argument, was woefully lacking in the vast majority of essays that I assessed. The simple lesson, so often missed, so easily overlooked, is that when you are writing a work to make sure, at the outset, that you state what you are talking about clearly. This is more essential, perhaps, even than the thesis, because it gets you and your reader both on the same page. It is a matter of defining the terms of your argument. Now Gibbons’s book is based on the invention, or at least unique application, of the term “third-culture.” It is identifying and applying this idea that drives the whole engine of his theory. But the crippling problem is that the very idea of “third-culture” is never adequately defined.

Let’s consider how this plays out. Early in the book (page 21), Gibbons offers his first definition of what it means to be third-culture. He draws first from third culture children, whose parents are one culture (say, American), but have grown up in a different cultural environment (say, in Japan). He writes,

When third-culture kids become adults, they possess a heightened sensibility and intelligence about embracing and bridging cultural differences wherever they go. They’re accomplished ‘culture-nauts,’ so to speak. Throughout their lives, they are able to relate to people of vastly different cultures far more easily than most people can. And because of their deeply ingrained convictions about the inherent richness and value of different cultures, worldviews and perspectives, they seek to expose their own children to the diversity of the world’s people and cultures. They celebrate culture. They treasure it. They respect it.

Now this is all well and good. We are getting the idea that “third-culture” seems to mean a kind of cultural conversance. But the very next sentence throws this off a little:

As we unpack the third-culture way, I think you’ll see how it is at the core of the gospel and who we are called to become.

Now, this is an obvious overstatement: how can any single thing other than the gospel can be at the core of the gospel? We have shifted from one definition of Gibbons’s special term to another within the space of about two heartbeats. But before we have a chance to consider this more carefully, Gibbons is going to illustrate his point with a story about a man named Julio who was mugged but shared the gospel in the process. He asserts, at the end, “that Julio’s response was third culture. It was an embrace of pain and an extension of generosity—learning, loving, and serving all wrapped in one amazing young man.”

Clear definitions mark the life or death of an argument!

From this short example you get the sense—one that increases as the book continues—that the definition of “third-culture” shifts and bends depending on the chapter. Furthermore, what Gibbons means by it in any given situation is apparently equal to what Gibbons likes. And this is one of the tangential byproducts of Christian literature today, because it seems rather common for authors who don’t identify clear terminology to label everything one agrees with as symbolic of your thesis, and everything one disagrees with as opposed to your thesis. The result is books that lack argument, but catalogue the likes and dislikes of the author. What it appears, then, that Gibbons is doing is merely exchanging the word “gospel” for his term “third-culture.” If that is the case, then the story about Julio’s mugging/evangelism is a nice example of the gospel. But as it stands, loose definitions run the dangerous risk of rendering all terminology meaningless. Why invent new words if their invention only obscures the use of our already preexistent and perfectly good ones?

Writing that operates with badly or undefined is frequently an unwieldy mess. Consider this alternate explanation of the meaning of third culture from page 37 (for the record, Gibbons presents a variety of definitions, but with each one I found myself increasingly confused):

When I use the term third-culture church, I’m referring to a beautiful yet sobering reality: whether we’re in Manhattan or Beijing or Sao Paolo, our credibility and the veracity of our initiatives will be measured by our third-culture lifestyles—hence the need to understand the third-culture mandate in light of the purposes of the church prioritized by Jesus himself when he was queried about the greatest commandment.

Now, first off, this is a monstrous sentence: it is terminological, vague, and drifting. Second, it exhibits the unfortunate tendency to make an argument by repetition rather than definition: the words “third-culture” occur three times within it, but I still have no idea what he means, only that Gibbons thinks it’s important. Third, this sentence has all the appurtenances of importance, but I can’t seem to determine if it actually says anything of substance. What is it that I’m supposed to do? What’s beautiful about it and what’s sobering? How am I being judged by my third-cultured-ness? What is this mandate and how, if it is at the core of the gospel, is it to be understood “in light of the purposes of the church”? If it is at the core of the gospel then isn’t it already the purpose of the church?

But perhaps Gibbons has an answer for me already, because a few pages later he says (page 40), that,

Third culture is about adaptation, the both/and, not the either/or, mindset. It doesn’t eradicate color or lines but embraces and affirms who we are, regardless of differences in ethnicity, culture, or mindset. Third culture is the gift of being more cognizant of and more comfortable with the painful fusion and friction inherent in cultural intersections.

Well now, here we have yet another definition of third-culture, one that, in its affirmation of both/and and rejection of either/or, seems to imply that my desire for clarity is itself a defect. After all, I’d understand if I were more third culture! Perhaps the problem is that I merely lack the cultural cognizance to appreciate Gibbons’s argument.

For the record, I want to state that I don’t think Gibbons is necessarily wrong about what he intends to write (and he does say a few memorable things in the book). The problem is that how he has written it has gotten horribly in the way of whatever it was he was hoping to say, and to observe that a lack of definitions make for crippling reading. In the end, if you are going to write a book about a new idea for church leadership, you had better make sure you’ve adequately and clearly defined your term by the end of the first chapter.

Incomplete Thoughts

A second issue common to Christian literature is Incomplete Thoughts. Authors regularly make side points that require development, hint at stories left unfinished, and on the whole leave the reader hanging in anticipation of resolutions that never arrive. The author thus creates gaps in the reader’s mind, but rather than filling them (as good prose does), chooses instead (in my estimation out of neglect) to either go off in a different direction or end the chapter entirely. It is a profoundly dissatisfying experience.

In one place (page 102) Gibbons describes the life changing experience of meeting and ministering to a homeless woman, and how it changed his perception on the role of teaching versus action. A statement like this sprouts questions like crocus in the spring: What happened? How were you changed? But while he talks about meeting the homeless woman in abstraction, we never actually hear about the meeting, what happened, or what, particularly, Gibbons learned in the process. The omission is startling. (It is worth observing, actually, that in this episode Gibbons makes the point of praising action over teaching. This attitude is symptomatic of a further problem: if you neglect the ministry of teaching you become incoherent as a teacher. Hence, Gibbons succeeds here in naming a situation without explaining its lesson at all. It’s a kind of un-teaching—words without content.)

In another place (page 43) Gibbons asks, rhetorically, how one of his leaders, a man named Cue, whose background is unlike that of Newsong Church, ended up in such a radically different atmosphere,

The answer to all these questions finds it home in Cue’s pain. Cue epitomizes a new breed of leader, a leader who leads from what I call the pain principle. This is one of several attributes that mark a third-culture leader and a third-culture church. The pain principle grows out of two axioms: (1) For leaders, pain in life has a way of deconstructing us to our most genuine, humble, authentic selves. It’s part of the leader’s job description. (2) For most people, regardless of culture, it’s easier to connect with a leader’s pain and shortcomings and mistakes than her successes and triumphs.

The first question that popped into my mind when I read this was, “Wait a minute, there’s a pain principle?!” Do you mean to say that in the middle of (inadequately) describing what it means to be “third-culture” Gibbons just introduced a new term—one that he will equally fail to explain in full? Indeed yes, and this is the kind of rabbit-trail prose that frustrates me in Christian literature: terms without definition, ideas without flesh.

And yet more, even, than the sudden arrival of new principles, a paragraph like this begs questions: How does Cue use his pain? How has Cue been “deconstructed to his most genuine”? And how does he then take this pain and apply it to Newsong Church? But there’s nothing about this, and I am left turning pages looking for answers. Here the omission is especially startling because points (1) and (2) are interesting and worth thinking about—how Cue does these things seems extraordinarily relevant! But as it stands, without explanation they’re just nice words; an example that is named, but void of content. As if I were writing a book about the right way to eat pizza and cited as evidence my friend Peter (an expert in eating pizza!), but never described Peter’s method at all. It is wholly dissatisfying.

Formatting

The formatting of Christian books is one of the criminal travesties of our time. And one of the prime examples of this criminal activity, exhibited by Gibbons’s book, is the use of lists. Now, a good list is a great thing, powerful, rewarding, and pungent in its effect. But it is profoundly dispiriting to discover that an author has formatted sections of text that are pure lists, characterized by things that are,

– Banal

– Insubstantive

– Containing one entry that doesn’t quite fit with the rest

– Repetitive

– Short

Nevertheless, the list gives off the appearance of significance because, of course, it’s in a list. It is a way of disguising the lack of argument through formatting, as if re-clothing a book could change its substance.

O Authors, lists do not an argument make! For the most part, they merely show us that you have copied your notes into your book without taking the time and effort to turn it into prose. It is lazy writing. Stop it!

Mystic Appeal

My last complaint about Gibbons’s book (and Christian literature in general) is what I’ve called “Mystic Appeal.” It is the allure of the different, usually the ‘eastern,’ as a challenge to the way we’ve done things in the west. Gibbons’s book opens with (and its title is drawn from) an “Eastern Parable” about a Monkey and a Fish. There is obvious appeal here. We’re getting an ‘eastern’ viewpoint (Gibbons, incidentally, is half Korean) which carries with it the allure of alternate ideas.

Definitely a sage man.

From within this framework, the chapter titles sound even more significant—titles like “Liquid,” “Wardrobe,” “Liquid Bruce Lee,” “Three Questions that Become the Answers.” (Is it too much to suggest that we should imagine Mr. Miyagi reading these titles to us? They certainly sound significant in his voice…) ‘Western’ people (that is, North Americans) seem to have a mystic (and often uncritical) appreciation for eastern ideas, and this is rooted both in the inherent challenge that different ideas bring to our way of doing things, and a good dose of WASP guilt over how the church has been run for the past, oh, 20 centuries.

For example, a chart (indeed, one of those rhetorically formatted ‘lists’) on page 105 contrasts bad and crusty ‘western’ ways of doing things with fluid and adaptive ‘eastern’ ways. It is worth stating, to set the record straight, that this contrast is optimistic at best. I, a westerner, work for an eastern (that is, Asian) church. I want you to know that the cultural practices are equally crusty and firm in the east as they are in the west, and change is equally hard because of it. It is a lie to believe that people of an eastern disposition are more malleable. While they often have a different way of doing things, they are just as committed to their traditions as so-called ‘western’ people are, if not more so.

Therefore, Christian author and Christian reader, be not deceived by the allure of the east—take what is good, of course, but do not consider what is different to be necessarily what is best. It might in the end be merely different.

Final Thoughts

Undefined terms, incomplete thoughts, formatting, and mystic appeal, Gibbons’s book was replete with these issues. By the end, despite my hopes, I was reading to finish the book more than I was to enjoy it. I had gotten all I was going to get out of it (slightly less, perhaps, than the $2 I paid for it), and had found myself, at the end, as irritated with this type of book as I was with its content. That content was not really a new philosophy of ministry, just Dave Gibbons’s hodgepodge opinion on what he likes to do with ministry; not a thesis, just a collection of disorganized thoughts, gathered under the ubiquitous heading, “third-culture.”

So, if you have read this to the end, and if you are ever hoping to write a Christian book of your own, please remember, not only for my sake but for the sake of all those readers you hope to reach, to please, please, define your terms, finish your thoughts, make arguments without relying on shenanigans in formatting, and remember that God’s truth is God’s truth, whether you are in the East, the West, the North or the South, and that no cultural information, however interesting or alluring, is a substitute for the Word of God.

6 comments on “The Problem with (Some) Christian Books: Gibbons’s The Monkey and the Fish

  1. Jeremy says:

    My goodness, how refreshing this post was. Reading through your elements of frustration in much of Christian literature, I cannot help but agree. I, too, have noticed those things, but haven’t really been able to put them to words. And if I happened to find a way to do so, I was already bored with it and moving on to something else.

    Quite honestly I think “lazy writing” sums up your four points of frustration. It seems as though many Christian authors are more focused on getting published than publishing anything with substance. As an English grad, I’m shocked and irritated at my fellow Christians who have been given a rare opportunity to publish a book only to completely botch the basics of writing. Terribly frustrating…

    Is the “her” in your quotation of Gibbons referring to Cue (presumably a man) the actual quote? If so, this seems to be a further element of confusion on Gibbons’ part. If Cue is a man, then why does Gibbons use a feminine pronoun? “For most people, regardless of culture, it’s easier to connect with a leader’s pain and shortcomings and mistakes than her successes and triumphs.” I can understand if this was a statement apart from a story about Cue, but since Gibbons is highlighting Cue, a man, then shouldn’t the pronouns at least be gender neutral to avoid confusion?

    Once again, thanks for posting a thorough critique of Christian literature. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in noticing these things :-)

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Jeremy, thanks for responding!

      I’m inclined to agree that “lazy writing” is at the heart of a lot of bad literature, but at the same time I feel that there is also a huge culture of untrained writing. Christians feel (perhaps more than any other group?) that it is their duty to write a book. Is lack of training or practice in writing then a form of laziness, too? I wonder…

      Yes, the ‘her’ refers to a him, and I didn’t even notice the change until you mentioned it. I confess, to minimize frustration, that in most modern literature I try to ignore the pronouns.

      You are not alone! Take heart! And thanks again for commenting ;)

  2. Ben says:

    Don’t be ridiculous, Jeremy; Peter’s not a pizza-eating expert, Now Franklin, that guy can eat some pizza! ;-)

    • jmichaelrios says:

      I chose Peter as an abstract example, but it misses the point to show that Franklin is a superior pizza eater–especially when both are inferior to Bryson. So try to read what I’m saying, and not what I didn’t say. :P

  3. elliot says:

    As someone who edits for a living, I appreciated your critiques of the book. Sounds like Gibbons sure could have used an editor who challenged him to be more clear. The shortcomings of the book could equally be laid at the foot of the editor, though Gibbons is the one with his name on it.

    And thanks for making me feel all right about never reading this book. I’ve seen it around, but I have been put off by the subtitle. “Liquid Leadership for a Third Culture Church” sounds to me like “Buzzword 1 for a Buzzword 2 Church.” It is permissible to have an eye-catching title that doesn’t convey much besides an impression. But subtitles are for clarification, and this one didn’t give any.

    • jmichaelrios says:

      It’s good to remember that editors are partly to blame for what happens in books. Although as someone who has now (sort of) written a book, I still feel that I am personally responsible for its content more than any of my editors. I wouldn’t feel comfortable laying the blame at anyone’s feet but my own for its shortcomings.

      Glad, furthermore, that I could be of service!

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