Book Review

Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life by Michael Kelley

James H. Gilmore
Michael Kelley
Saturday, February 28th 2015
Mar/Apr 2015

Arriving airline passengers are frequently asked, "How was your flight?" The question is often met with the matter-of-fact response, "Uneventful." A typical jetliner such as a Boeing 737 can weigh over 100,000 pounds with passengers and baggage aboard. The aircraft can fly 500 miles per hour and needs less than 10,000 feet of runway to take off and land. Uneventful? If you stop and think about it, there is no such thing as an uneventful flight when you travel in such a plane.

Acknowledging this airplane reality illustrates the essence of Michael Kelley's oft-repeated argument in his hardly boring book, Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. Kelley's premise: "There is no such thing as an ordinary life when you follow an extraordinary God" (6).

Breezing through the book offers a delightful departure from the fodder of David Platt, Francis Chan, Shane Claiborne, and the like’all urging various forms of "extreme discipleship," pounding believers with admonitions to do more, do greater, and do something increasingly big, Big, BIG for God. Yet the most delightful aspect of Kelley's easy-reading volume lies in the fact that the book is not written in direct response to these purveyors of "radical" Christianity. Rather, Kelley admirably addresses the root appeal of all such radical causes, namely, the fear among Christians of merely "being ordinary"’of feeling inadequate in the midst of the routines of everyday life. In fact, Kelley is at his best when grappling with the monotony of marriage, the challenges of parenting, and the grind of the workplace.

Kelley's unpacking of pertinent Scripture (1 Sam. 8; Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 10:5; Jer. 17:7-8, among other texts) is both commendable and salutary. His quotations of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are well chosen and well placed. His call for contentment is most commendable. And Kelley rightly calls out both the world's "cultural emphasis on more" and "our own sinfulness that constantly pushes our hearts toward excess" (49) as culprits in fostering discontentment. Particularly edifying is Kelley's treatment of "the well-worn verse of Philippians 4:13: 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.'" As Kelley points out, the passage is about contentment (in God's provision), not triumphalism (or football). He challenges readers by asking, "Are you worshipping at the altar of excitement?" (73).

Kelley never calls for excessive measures (well, beyond fathers being the first to rise in the morning in their households). Typical of the perspective he offers, he reminds us that "true contentment isn't about settling for less. It's about seeing the true value of what we already have in Christ" (50). "It is the ability to do that which we consider mundane with honor and even joy that is most difficult for us. We must, in a sense, fight to not fight to escape the ordinary" (48). Refreshingly, in a time when so many pastors and Christian pundits have advanced various schemas for practicing some latest assortment of spiritual disciplines, Kelley shares by reflecting on his personal experience of parenting a two-year-old son diagnosed with leukemia: "What we needed more than anything else was to be reminded of the gospel, over and over again" (37).

One can empathize with the challenge involved then in not expanding upon this view with yet another To-Do list (for not doing). Kelley pulls it off most masterfully. Yet there is plenty of sage counsel proffered throughout the book. He offers "boring stuff" that has "fallen steadily out of favor in Christian practice" (68): prayer, Bible reading and memorization, and routine church attendance. Want more? Kelley suggests more, but he refreshingly does so without advancing any formal checklists, sequential steps, or even numbered points. The book just reads like brotherly advice from a familiar friend.

My favorite passage in Boring is an anecdote from Kelley's time as a student at a college where his professor father taught statistics (can an academic subject get more boring?). The school was a small secular one, but because it was located in the panhandle of Texas it had a large contingent of professing Christians on campus. A two-hour "worship experience" was staged every Thursday night starting at 10:00 p.m., and inevitably "Christian leaders" who organized the affair were late for class the next morning. Kelley's dad opined, "You know, son, sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is go to bed early and show up to class on time" (60).

Boring is chock-full of such treasures. I enthusiastically encourage Modern Reformation readers to digest its delights. But one word of caution: while encouraging acceptance of mundane life as God-honoring, Kelley's analysis constantly calls attention to the extraordinary God who is "behind the scenes" in "seemingly ordinary circumstances" (17), and highlights that "below the surface" (23) there is always "something bigger going on" (18). In doing so, he encourages his readers to "see the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary" (40). True enough. But after Kelley notes, "As we look through Scripture, we find God not removing people from the ordinary," he then adds, "but instead [is] transforming that ordinary into something wholly different" (17-18). Life is only boring until we begin "to more fully grasp the scope, power, and wisdom of God" (20).

It is in this transformative view of life's affairs that some concern must be voiced. We must be sure not to treat God as a means to transform an ordinary life into an extraordinary one. Here, talk of transformation may undermine the broader concern that Kelley admirably sets out to address. Don't let it. Sometimes the ordinary is, well, just plain ordinary. As Christians, let's not feel compelled to always turn the ordinary into an occasion to spot something extraordinary going on.

Let me expand upon this caution by commenting on two particular passages in Boring. First, Kelley succumbs in the final pages of his book to echoing the popular catchphrase to "not just go to church but be the church" (202). That mantra outright dismisses the notion that going to church is being the church. It's the very cornerstone upon which rests the radical/extreme call for (truly extraordinary) Christians to "flee into something’anything‘that holds the promise of importance" (19). My suggestion: Go to church. Don't go to church to be the church; just go to church to go to church.

Second, Kelley notes in his chapter on parenting that "our best opportunity to significantly impact the world might just be through our children" (119). Again, true enough. But to bring that extraordinary thought to bear on every ordinary moment of childrearing would only serve to ruin childrearing. There are some Christian parents who’fully grasping the scope, power, and wisdom of the rod’insist on turning an everyday routine into a wholly different teaching moment. An overbearing awareness of the extraordinary nature of parenting can be destructive to children who can easily become burnt-out and defeated, or rebellious and defiant, or both’not to mention the harmful impact this can have on the well-intentioned parents.

The same is true in our pilgrimage as saints. Let's please not ruin the Christian life with incessant concern for finding the extraordinary lurking beneath ordinary Christian life. Let's just live ordinary Christian lives; let's be found resting in the knowledge that God is sovereign and merciful, all-knowing and loving, gracious and just.

Sometimes we sense our Christian walk is lacking. In these moments, let's simply remember:

What is the chief end of man?
To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Saturday, February 28th 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology