For the summer our church was reading and discussing Francis Chan’s Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. Since this was a book that I already owned, I was planning on going to these Sunday night meetings and being involved with the discussion. Sadly, I only made it to one night and the other nights just never worked out. Sometimes we were doing things with family during those nights, other nights the kids decided to be super cranky and I felt bad leaving Kristen do deal with that mess, so it meant that I didn’t really get a chance to be involved with the discussion of the book. Despite not making it to the discussions I did wind up finishing the book anyway.
Francis Chan’s purpose in this book is to cast light on the Holy Spirit. The member of the Trinity that earns the moniker “Forgotten God” by Chan. Now the title may be a bit of an overstatement, but it’s not hard to see what Chan is trying to get at. He’s looking around at a Christianity that largely gets by on its own effort and seems to have little need for experiencing God.
I must say I have mixed feelings on this work. I didn’t really like it as much as I thought I might, but I didn’t entirely dislike it either. It had about equal parts positive and negative going for it. It’s hard to say more than that without looking at those positives and negatives. We’ll start by looking at the positives of Forgotten God.
The first positive and the one you’ll notice the quickest is that Chan is an easy author to read. Chapters aren’t super long; he uses stories and illustrations to engage the reader; and speaks about things as plainly as he can. He’s an engaging author, has honest thoughts on the matter, and conveys his point rather clearly within his chapters, even if some of the nuances aren’t so clear.
Secondly, the topic that Chan is seeking to tackle is another good aspect of his book. Seeking to challenge the lack of reliance, or at least lack of persevered reliance, on the Holy Spirit is a good topic and something that needs to be taken on. We could argue about whether he really succeeds in tackling this subject completely, but his attempt is at least a step in the right direction.
The last positive I’ll focus on is that he does pretty good giving an outline of who the Holy Spirit is. I’d say my favorite chapter is his chapter “Theology of the Holy Spirit 101”. He challenges some of our simplistic ways of demonstrating the Holy Spirit by pointing to the states of water, parts of an egg, or a three leaf clover. Ultimately, I’d agree with Him, that we can’t really explain the nature of the Trinity fully by these examples. He also gives some good introductory points about who the Holy Spirit is and what He does.
Now let’s turn to the things that I didn’t like so much about Chan’s book. My first negative would be that he seems to require at least a couple chapters to validate writing the book in the first place. I understand that the Holy Spirit is a bit of a divisive topic that certain denominations and people take certain ways, but it just seemed that Chan did a bit too much apologizing and rationalizing of why he wrote the book in the first couple chapters. Maybe it’s just that the topics he hit on just didn’t really resonate with me. It’s not that he didn’t have some good insights in his first few chapters, it’s just that overall it seemed like he was trying to apologize for not writing a book that some people might want him to write, which seems an odd way to write a book.
My second negative was that Chan’s book just kind of lost focus. I’d say that the first four chapters really seem to be focused in on the Holy Spirit, but then by the time we get to chapters five through seven we’re getting a bit more messy. In all honesty, the problem could be that when we start trying to focus on one member of the Trinity it’s not very cut and dry and soon we start engaging God, the Father and Jesus in the mix and realize that the only way to engage the Holy Spirit is by engaging the Trinity.
So when Chan talks about being in a real relationship with God, finding God’s will, and being a “Supernatural Church” it is hard to only engage the Holy Spirit without engaging the full Trinity. Now this could be Chan’s point and what his goal was, but this wasn’t the impression I picked up on from the first four chapters. I’m also not sure there was much in these chapters looking at more practical questions and issues that would really accomplish the book’s subtitle of “reversing our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit.”
My last negative is hard to pin down. It’s more the way that Chan presents some of his material. One example of this was an analogy he presented in chapter six about buying a treadmill. The analogy was about a person who bought a treadmill, but then returned it months later because he hadn’t lost any weight. The reason was that he hadn’t actually used the treadmill. Chan then tries to compare this to our interaction with the Holy Spirit, but the example he gives misses the mark. He compares this to people who would say the following:
“‘I have prayed for the Holy Spirit to free me from my lust, and I am still addicted to pornography.” Or, “I have prayed for years to be able to forgive my dad, but I am still racked with anger and bitterness thirty years down the road.’ ‘I have prayed for years to be free of my gluttony, but despite prayer, spiritually based support groups, and dieting, I am still a compulsive, unhealthy eater.”
Now I don’t know about you, but praying to the Holy Spirit would be like getting on the treadmill to me. We may come with faulty expectations for sure, but to me that is getting on the treadmill. Especially with the guy praying about the gluttony, he’s doing more than praying, he’s trying to take active steps (which is what Chan says we may need to do in addition to praying). So to me the illustration falls flat. Now if we are just desiring to be perfect but never praying and never working towards fighting our sin, then the illustration works, but the way he puts it just doesn’t.
This example just hits on what kind of bothers me about Chan’s book. He presents how following the Holy Spirit is a struggle in his own life, and that it will be in ours, but then will turn around and say something that makes it not seem like a struggle at all. This presents a bit of a mixed message and while this doesn’t often detract from his overall message, they left me wondering if this journey was supposed to be difficult or really easy.
So what’s my overall impression? Francis Chan’s Forgotten God is a decent book for an introduction to the Holy Spirit. I have little doubt there are better books on the Holy Spirit out there, even if I can’t come up with one on the top of my head. Chan is a honest, engaging writer who is pretty easy to read, but overall it just feels like the book just isn’t cohesive enough and, in my opinion, doesn’t really accomplish what the title of the book seeks to accomplish. This doesn’t mean that Chan doesn’t have good insights or thoughts, but that these insights and thoughts were not enough to make a cohesive work. So if you’re wanting a decent introduction to the Holy Spirit then this book may be for you. If you’re one who has a decent knowledge of the Holy Spirit and are seeking practical ways to engage the Holy Spirit in your life, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.