Why I love Bruce Wilkinson and you should too. Part 1(editor request: anyone with editor abilities, if you can straighten out the font problems...I'm sorry that the display changes seemingly ever paragraph...this is what happens when I try to use technology to make this a more readable/attractive post. the exact opposite.)
This article on Christianity Today's website made me rethink and want to post about Bruce Wilkinson. I tried to write a quickie just off of this article but couldn't bring myself to deal with this that quickly. So I've been thinking/reading about him for the past couple of weeks and have decided to treat this in a couple of segments, trying to get a little further in depth than we normally do on here. So I think I will start with a real long post now and another post in the next day or so to follow up and conclude my thoughts.
The quick run down, as is best explained in above article, is that Bruce Wilkinson, author of The Prayer of Jabez, "who captured the imagination of Christians by relocating to Africa from his Georgia home in 2002, has quit his ministry focused on defeating HIV/AIDS and retired from active ministry at age 58."
The details of his quitting will be saved for the second post, but for this one I want to sort of craft Wilkinson's journey from Jabez to Africa. My reasons for dealing with this first are two fold. 1. I remember having similar (though not as strong) feelings of regret and excitement when I heard that Wilkinson was moving to Africa as I did when I heard that Rick Warren had been captivated by a global vision of rigorous social justice. I regretted (some) of the things I had said about the man and his writings and was excited that a person of his influence was going to be this committed. 2. Rereading the stories of Wilkinson in light of the Christianity Today article helped me see him in even less cynical light, casting him as a sympathetic character who had every right to believe in the Prayer of Jabez because he had experienced nothing but remarkable success whenever he tried to do anything. Ultimately, it appears, this may have been the downfall of Wilkinson's stay in Africa and perhaps full time ministry. But for now, our story starts with Wilkinson's decision to move to Africa.
For those of you not familiar with Jabez or in need of a refresher, check out this review. The critique itself is really not necessary, the criticisms that are most relevant are pretty obvious, but this review offered a comprehensive summary of the phenomenon that followed and the main themes of the book. In a nutshell, that if people prayed for God to bless them and increase their influence, capital, and ministry, God would be faithful.
I focus on the beginning of Wilkinson's move to Africa here beacuse I think it is compelling and important to answer a question that I always was asking: "How can this guy really believe what he's teaching? Hasn't he lived for 15 minutes in the world?" This question centered on the (somewhat) negative belief that suffering is inevitable and seemingly pervasive appears to ultimately overcome Wilkinson (at least in regards to the overwhelming suffering in the AIDS crisis). While some of us, taking a different theological perspective, may be tempted to rejoice in Wilkinson's realization because we feel like we are right, following the Wilkinson narrative further back we may be able to not only understand why Wilkinson believed in the Prayer and also realize why it truely a tragedy that his confidence has been shaken.
Starting this far back was originally motivated by the following paragraph in CT:
"Wilkinson has a history of dramatic twists and turns. As his books became bestsellers, he stepped down from Walk Thru The Bible, which he founded. He decided to move to Hollywood to make movies, but then backed out. He moved to Johannesburg, but stayed less than two years. He relocated to Swaziland. He remained there about 18 months before returning to Georgia. Wilkinson has also delayed completion of his next book for Multnomah Press. And in late September 2005, he was to launch the Dream Giver Coach Network to be merged with the American Association of Christian Counselors. But he "pulled the plug on the entire venture," a source closely associated with Wilkinson told CT. "Bruce was quite broken at this time. [Dream for Africa] had physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially taken a serious toll on Bruce."
While the CT article may or may not be implying that unwillingness to finish things is a personality trait in Wilkinson, I have come to the conclusion that this may be the "other side" of Wilkinson's remarkable gift as a visionary and project starter. In this interview with beliefnet, Wilkinson talks about his repentance when first confronted with the situation in Africa. He was convicted that he had failed to fully live out the Gospel. "I went to Africa without the perspective of a balance between teaching people the truth, which has been my calling, and helping people who have physical problems, like AIDS and orphans and hunger."
He talks about leaving his position at Walk Thru The Bible, an organization that aimed to have a bible teacher for every 50,000 people in every country in the world. In five years the organization had trained 33,000 teachers in 82 countries, a truely remarkable start. At the time that he left for Africa he was in the process of moving to California to make movies that would generate interest in Biblical issues. "So in May I went to Africa. I was already working in Hollywood on a number of films by that time. One of them was about The Prayer of Jabez, and there were others as well."
Upon his arival in Africa Wilkinson jumped right into the issue of AIDS. After addressing an audience of religious leaders who all spoke on the tragedy of AIDS in their congregation and their uncertainty about how to address the issue, Wilkinson found himself a new project to work on. "So I trained them that week about what to say, and in that week I went to see the president of Kenya. I said, “Is there something that keeps you awake at night that perhaps I can help you with?” He said, “AIDS is killing my country. I wish I had a Hollywood movie on AIDS that would take the misconceptions away.” So I said, “OK sir, I’ll make you a movie.”" Wilkinson did make a movie, It’s called Beat the Drum. Again, this experience with his early start in Africa reflects the visionary that Wilkinson is and his remarkable experiences of fast starts. Not only is he immediately training pastors how to preach about AIDS, he has an audience with the president of Kenya within a week and has a movie made in no time. I am utterly amazed at how things just fall into place for Wilkinson, regardless of if he's in Africa, California, or Georgia. Not only does it become believable that Wilkinson would believe The Prayer of Jabez, but I feel compelled to rethink the degree to which God must have been at work in Wilkinson's life. Surely these radical quick changes are the work of the Spirit and not just the motivational leadership of this man...
While working in South Africa, Wilkinson was outside of any organizational structure and he experienced immediate and intense success with an audience before thousands and meetings with powerful leaders of Africa. He appears to be tied to South Africa, committed to this new ministry for the long term. "In those 3 weeks, it was like God opened up my chest, took out my heart, dug a hole in the dirt, put my heart in it, and said, “Now you follow yourself right into there.” I didn’t go because I wanted to go, or had a vision to do something when I went." This commitment is seen in Bruce's stories about calling white farmers to repent for treating black farmers poorly, playing an inspirational role in national movements to reform key farming communities toward economic equality.
What would become Wilkinson's new passion, the AIDS crisis in Swaziland, is seen in its early stages in this interview, as Wilkinson talks about reconciling key Chrisitan leaders in Swaziland in his first visit to the country. When asked about his white American background in Africa, Wilkinson again reveals his experience, right out of the pages of Jabez. "I just teach the Bible. By the second day they trust me, come to understand me, and by the third day major changes take place. I have a lot to learn there, but I’m learning." Wilkinson may come off as somewhat arrogant in all of this but the people he met in Africa no doubt saw him as a key outside voice. What fueled Wilkinson in the early stages of his ministry in Africa was a biblical vision where the world was set right and he played a role in it. As he continued in Africa, eventually his vision would become more focused and he would end up moving to Swaziland, the segment of his ministry I will write on in the next post.
Where I'm left at reading this interview in light of what has occured in the past couple of months is first a sense of awe and attachment. Just reading his accounts of his experiences upon arriving in Africa get me fired up. First, for those who see his ministry there as a sort of imperialism and simply assume that Wilkinson is trying to force himself on these people as their savior, this is clearly not the experience of Wilkinson's partners in Africa. (See these links for an example of this attitude. I will address some of this head on in my next post) Secondly, his personality comes through so strongly in this interview that he becomes the sort of person it is easy to get behind. I remember when I was reading Bill Hybels Couragous Leadership, I was so frustrated by the emphasis he put on the role of the visionary in running the church. While I still whole heartedly disagree with Hybels, in Wilkinson I see the sort of person that Hybels has in mind. Here we have someone who, on vision alone, can transform the way others see the world in such a way that the world itself actually can change. This rare gift, however dangerous (and I would ultimately argue that in Wilkinson's case the 'danger' is overwhelmed by the good), appears to be the sort of thing needed in transforming the situation in Africa. Of course the danger is present here, however, as it will be interesting to trace the success of the projects he started without his presence.
What am I getting at in this lengthy wandering first Wilkinson post? I suppose first of all that I am repenting of reading The Prayer of Jabez without taking more seriously the experiences of Wilkinson's experiences. I made the mistake of simply reading it as theology and, quickly and probably rightly, assessing it as poor theology. From this narrow focus, not everyone who prays this prayer will see their lives change and so the book is easily dismissed. But there is more going on here, and Wilkinson's "success" is evidence of it. My repentance, then, is not only because I failed to fully understand Wilkinson's position but also because of my own reluctance to grant any credibility to the position. While everyone who prays the prayer will not experience blessings and riches, is it not true that it is through praying these sorts of prayer that we are transformed into the sorts of people who can change the world? I am not saying, with some psychologists, that once we belive something fully we are empowered to do what needs to be done to accomplish these goals.
(as an aside, check out this book that my psychiatrist gave me in junior high. she thought that I was too negative and incapable of dreaming big. This was the cause of my problems. I'm pretty sure that the proper diagnosis would have been "adolescence" or "pubirty," but what do I know? Anyway, this pseudo-Nietszchian perspective replaces the will-to-power psychology (modern atraction and application of The Art of War for example) with a convince yourself to power approach.)
Instead, I am saying that what Wilkinson is doing in The Prayer of Jabez may be less an obvious theological mistake but perhaps a mis-reading of the power of the Spirt in the life of the Christian. Are we not to believe that God wants to work in the world to bring good? Are we not to believe that the practice of prayer is essential for forming us into who God wants us to be for these things? It seems to me, regardless of how messed up it may be, that Wilkinson's Prayer could be easily applied to teach people how to pray for an openness to whatever it is that God is calling them to. It is clear from Wilkinson's story that this is how he experienced the prayer. It was not necessarily a prayer for wealth and security but instead a prayer that expected God to faithfully act in the world and a prayer of willingness to be a part of that. In this reformed sense, as exhibited in Wilkinson's life, I am forced to reconsider why it is that I am likely to reject such a prayer without consideration and instead hold onto my "realist" account of the world where people pray and pray and nothing happens. Ultimately this position leads away form the radical openness to the Gospel called for in following Jesus.
While my next post will show the dangers a pitfalls of taking the other extreme, I wonder if Wilkinson's is not still the right response of a Christian. What does it mean to really believe in the resurrection of the dead? To believe that in the end God will redeem the world? Surely, as Wilkinson shows us, this sort of belief will lead to a radically different sort of life. Perhaps it is our unwillingness to sell out to this sort of belief that keeps us from being who God wants us to be and doing radical things in this world. Maybe God doesn't want to shower me with financial blessings (but of course I wish this were true!) but maybe God does want to use me to be more than I allow at times. And by this I simply mean to include everything, whether this is theological influence, service in foreign lands, or being faithful in the relationships I have with people around me while working at "ordinary" life. I believe that we often reject things like Jabez because it is easier and more comfortable to believe that God wants to do very little. The reason for this hesitance will be justified in my next post, but ultimately we must ask not what is the most reasonable response but what is the most faithful. While playing it safe and not throwing ourselves into things may be the easiest answer, perhaps the authentic life is one filled with risks like Wilkinson's Africa project. It may be that the only way to experience the depths of joy, beauty, and ultimately redemption (of ourselves and of the world) that are possible in Christ is to take the sort of risks that could leave us broken and frustrated, at times even hopeless. If nothing else, Wilkinson is noble and honorable to have moved to Africa, to have believed that it was possible to eliminate AIDS, and for beliving that God wanted these things for the world.