Review: Meant for More: In, with and Under the Ordinary by Dr. John Nunes

Many reviews try to find something to praise in a book, even if the reviewer does not like it that much. But that will not be this review. Dr. Nunes’ book, published by CPH (Oct. 2020) and infamously illustrated by Nunes’ “married” lesbian right-hand “man,” has no redeeming value, in this reviewer’s opinion. It is not only worthless, it is actually harmful. It speaks gospel-like language, but without a real teaching of sin or repentance, becomes just clever word-play. This work does condemn racial sins (though not biblical ones, like homosexuality) and takes up the social justice language of progressive warriors, both subtly and also boldly. Whoever was involved with this work should be ashamed of it. It is fitting for the ELCA, but not the LCMS.
On the very first page Nunes footnotes the first phrase, “When I was an eighteen-year-old new immigrant to the US,” with “Prior to becoming a US citizen, it happened more than once that, due to my lack of finances, failure to accurately understand immigration information, or lack of adequate advocacy, my status lapsed, and I would have been considered ‘undocumented’ ….” Civil laws, however, do not excuse ignorance, poverty, or not having a helping hand. Breaking the government’s law—instituted with God’s authority—is wrong, so to excuse and dismiss it, shows Nunes’ approach right off the bat. We are to submit to the governing authorities, according to Rom. 13. Disobeying a valid law, because we think that it is unfair, is rebellious and goes against God’s instituted authority. Furthermore, Nunes describes no repentance or remorse, but just throws it out there as a sort of political statement, which is in line with liberal causes. It certainly does set the tone of an easy, yet painful, book to read, in this reviewer’s opinion.
Nunes thinks himself a clever writer and talks about his love of words. He revels in playful new and unique turns of phrase, as is the post-modern way. Yet, he doesn’t really say much with all his word torture. He is quite imprecise—style dominates substance—perhaps because He has little divine wisdom to impart. This book is replete with silly, meaningless phrases which sound very “gospely,” but communicate little. For example “With God-ward Words” (4), “Recombobulating More” (11), “Diversifying More (61)”, and “Raging More” (97). On the surface these are interesting phrases, but they do not serve any profound purpose.
While Christ offers life in His Word, many reject that Word—so blanket statements like “God’s got a future for you” as a “recombobulating thought” should not be stated as a fact, but proclaimed as a promise—a foundation for faith. But this book contains no real sense of the possibility of rejecting God’s grace through unbelief or living for the sinful flesh in rejection of God’s will. It is antinomian (lawless) through and through, as is much of modern Lutheranism.
Nunes calls the reader to “invest in what matters, in what promises permanence and transcendence, not transience and temporariness,” but never makes clear statements on what is or is not the truth of Scripture. Theological slogans abound, but are nothing more than cotton candy, for example: every “vocation” is “a sign of grace” (14). It often sounds like Nunes is making a cogent and clear point, but nothing is ever said from the standpoint of a biblical foundation. The words of this book have nothing to rely on, in the end.
This line summarizes the book well: “Sing your song. Live your dream. Believe your faith. Confess your conviction” (18). But those personal impulses are wrong, most of the time. What then? He does propose journaling. Towards the end of the book, we are told that “repent” “suggests God’s invitation to believers to turn back to Him” (175). No condemnation of sin, apart from superficial social categories, is ever described. But true, biblical repentance does not mean doing “more” sin and hate—it means going back to God’s holy commands, obeying, and being contrite for sin. Faith and turning to the Gospel complete repentance, in the larger sense, but if repentance is spoken of only in positive terms, the law of God and His judgment against sin is denied—and the Gospel becomes mere acceptance, not forgiveness.
The positivity of this book is borderline oppressive: “Do a radical act and sing your song, dance your dance, dare your dream, live your life, be the more that God meant you to be” (19). Do not live someone else’s life—that is the only possibility, but the “dare” to do something is foolish to tell sinners without direction from God’s Word. We are not to live according to our own sinful ideas or passions, but according to how we are called by the Spirit to walk, according to God’s Word and created order. Platitudes abound in this book that a pagan could hardly disagree with—since there is no sin or condemnation of anything personal and biblical. The “more” attitude of this book is no doubt positive, but Christ did not die for us to wallow in sin “more.”
The social justice aspect of this work is most concerning. These non-biblical issues are the only ones condemned and spoken of in strong words. The activism theme is woven throughout the book: “working for justice” (4). He mentions that the world could use “difference-makers … like those we see in March for Our Lives or Lutherans for Life” (21). The former group was unknown to me. It claims to be “a student-led demonstration in support of gun control legislation,” which is very odd since that is a divisive political aim and not a basic Christian value—like the sanctity of life and opposing murder. The fact that the two groups are put on the same plane is troubling. The precise substance of this type of “passionate integrity and compassionate intensity” the book encourages is not defined at all.
The incessant positive spin is aggravating to this reviewer and just seems like warmed-up worldly acceptance: “in this world some people will hate you”; Nunes bemoans “the inevitability of attracting haters” (23). He claims very strangely that “Sodom (Genesis 19) is most ostensibly used to support prohibitions against same-sex relationships,” but it “is vastly underrated for what it reveals about the morality of hospitality.” He touches on the homosexual issue, but then redirects the conversation without saying what is his position—which fits very well with the recent saga of the Lesbian Lindsay Fertig-Johnson he recruited and promoted at Concordia, New York.
If Nunes remains in the LCMS, he should be disciplined and called to repentance, which this book does not demonstrate in the least. In fact, Nunes seems to disagree with the concept itself: “It is not our job to change people so that God can accept them; it is our job to accept people so that God, by grace, through faith, working through the Spirit, can change them” (27). But we do have a measure of control over our outward behavior. And the church is not to accept or approve on-going rebellion against God, like practicing homosexuality. The binding key Christ gave to call the unrepentant to repentance is just as powerful as the forgiveness of sins. In the same vein, this blanket statement in the book goes against Paul’s words on the unworthy eating in 1 Cor. 11: “You are loved and supported in the Sacrament. Go out to love and support those who need it” (54). The sacrament offers the forgiveness of sins, but the unrepentant and those who do not discern the body and blood of Christ receive it to their condemnation—the opposite of love and the positive vibes with which Nunes tries to imbue the Sacrament. Christ’s blood does not support us in our sinful endeavors as some universal covering of acceptance.
Nunes is very careful not to be a crass liberal, but his agenda comes through in political statements. In praising the acceptance of “so-called new voices” in education, he castigates those who are “nervous it dilutes the strength of Western thought and silences ‘dead, white males.’ ” This seems unnecessarily inflammatory for someone who wants to be so positive. In his strongest condemnation, he says that those who “retreat to ideological enclaves of any sort is often fueled by insecurity, ethnocentric idolatry, and racism.” But isn’t any confessional, orthodox church an enclave from the spineless acceptance that the world demands of us—including sin in all its rebellious forms? Questioning the motives of those who hold to a more traditional and conservative worldview, while not also acknowledging that all progressive and radical views cannot stem from God’s unchanging, inerrant Word, misses the mark badly.
In radical fashion, Nunes admits that, for him, sin is not just personal (which is entirely glossed over in this book), but also structural. But “structures,” abstractions without souls, consciences, and ears to hear the Gospel, cannot repent. This guilt is never taken away. “The healthier, even holier, approach to our messed-up histories is to own them, face them, embrace them, grace them with forgiveness, learn from them, wash them in the blood-bought promises of Jesus, cast them on His cross, get over them, and get on with life” (56). Nunes correctly writes that “categories like race are at best nonexistent and at worst flawed,” yet also that “the consequences of racism cannot be denied” and “racism is a stingingly oppressive reality” (63, 64). The underlying problem is that the Gospel cannot be applied to dead people, nor can past history under any category be baptized or forgiven—since something impersonal cannot have the Spirit or faith. Actual living people are to be forgiven by Christ in the Gospel, not past national injustices or those who have already faced judgment in death. This sort of worldly thinking, is dangerous and seductive to the ignorant, especially when it is given the veneer of Christian language.
“A lack of diversity, that vain pursuit of purity of perspective, is sometimes a reflection of being so insecure,” it is said in this book, but what about doctrinal and theological diversity? Aren’t these of the devil? We are to be pure in God’s truth. Though God calls himself a God of order, and calls Christians to submit to Him in their various vocations, Nunes says that “Real righteousness, on the other hand, always shakes things up” (65). This statement contrasts with God’s Word that says “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). This book goes on to criticize “North American Lutherans” because we struggle with “people who don’t share our ethnic, social, or sexual identity.” But sinners of all stripes do not want to hear the call of Christ, according to the flesh. Despite the fact that a demographic statistic is not proof of a sin, in itself, or a condemnation that can be attributed to any one individual, Nunes’ complains, “Lutherans are more white and English speaking than any other religious group in North America” (72). Yes, that is probably true, just like Lutherans in Africa, unsurprisingly, are likely not as white or English speaking as American church bodies founded by Germans and Scandinavians.
The vast doctrinal differences between Lutherans churches are not mentioned here, but later we hear Nunes bemoaning “the theological borders and cultural boundaries dividing Christians from one another in denominations” (79), without acknowledging that this must be so to preserve the truth. Here we have another bold statement, with serious fellowship implications (is Nunes taking the ecumenical tack that there should be no separated church bodies over doctrine?), is left completely open-ended. Clearly, he does not want to be pinned down.
This book has no real doctrinal substance, but rather the opposite: fashionable sentiments, sprinkled with the social activism of the world. Yet it does give insight into the author and his unique brand of Lutheranism. The most significant modern Lutheran cited is Arthur Carl Piepkorn (5, 120, 148) in some nice-sounding quotes that are ultimately doctrinally vacuous, such as: “Christ Himself is the great hoop that encircles the universe.”
Nunes states that he is “a pastor within the evangelical-catholic (Lutheran) tradition.” He writes about having two degrees from an ELCA institution (87), without a negative statement about that church’s false public doctrine and immoral stances. His subtle, seminex-style, and traditional-sounding theology hides behind words of clever language most of the time, but it does make appearances, tinged with racial and social justice themes: “Staying More Woke Means Keeping More Hope” (137). He sees the danger of racial rage, but admonishes to not be “complacently satisfied with the status quo” (138). He displays a modest, worldly liberalism that wants to get along with everything and everyone—while condemning nothing except extremism. That can work in many church bodies, but not in an orthodox church body—as the LCMS portrays itself. This winsome, appealing, subversive liberalism is more dangerous than the bold, in-your-face variety. —ed.