Richards starts by talking about the decline of western society, most notable in the aftermath of America's recent presidential election. Of course, one could argue that things are no worse now than they previously were, but at least it's hard to deny that the degradation isn't more visible now than it was before. Politicians aren't just being bad, they are being bad and not bothering to hide it. They are pretending less, and nobody seems to care. A few people are outraged, sure, but overall, it's business as usual in America. Meanwhile, Noah is busy building his ark.
Only in a crazy civilization would the assertion that one human life matters as much as another be controversial. Only in a crazy nation would tens of millions of people cast their votes in opposition to winds of change--to "take our country back" from those who want their own liberation and equality. This is an apocalyptic moment.
So, The Great Re-Imagining starts by talking about the end of the world. But it's not the end of the world as you and I might typically conceive it. At least, not exclusively. Richards does hold out the possibility that human existence may very well be at stake in the present moment, especially given our current ecological crisis and the ever-looming threat of nuclear war. So yeah, it could be the end of the world as we know it in that sense, which makes the message all the more urgent. Ideally, though, Richards envisions a different apocalypse, the kind that Jesus talked about way back in the first-century. This apocalypse is less about the extinction of the human race or the destruction of planet Earth than it is about the unveiling of a new way of understanding ourselves and our being in the world.
Richard's exploration of the cultural origins and meaning of "apocalypse" is nothing short of fascinating, by the way. And his discourse on kairos, the "time" of the end which Jesus told his Jewish listeners had come (over 2,000 years ago, mind you), will blow your mind when you really get hold of it. Let's just say, I think John Hagee and his fellow prophecy pundits have it all wrong.
From there, Richards goes on to to talk about the wild, and you can tell this is where his bread and butter lies. The way we have paved over the natural world in pursuit of comfort and convenience is a tragic symptom of the way we've paved over the wild expanse of our own hearts. He writes,
Our alienation from the wild and textured world has relegated us to the two-dimensional. Lacking depth, we spend our time in front of screens, seeking after meaning and connection without touch, without awe, without wildness. A sterile, individualized spirituality has left our souls sterile. The great threat to humanity now is the sterility of soils and souls.
What can we do about this threat? Richards believes it is misguided to hope for technological advances to solve the problems facing our planet. Even if such advances do come along, a deeper question still remains: What does this hope for a quick, technological fix say about our deep-seeded inability to control the consumerist impulse driving our degradation in the first place? All questions of technological progress aside, the only way forward for humanity is by reconnecting with the wild expanse in our own hearts--to feel the grass and dirt beneath our feet again, and to re-discover our union with God and nature.
We can do this by listening to the alternative stories of the people on the margins of society. The prisoner, the migrant worker, the indebted... those whom our culture has relegated to the sidelines. Because they lack the affluence that is necessary to afford a cozy existence in the lap of Empire, their eyes are wide open to the injustices of modern Capitalism (which Richards describes as more of a religious belief than an economic system). It was the marginalized and disinherited, after all, who were most attentive to Jesus' message of the upside-down Kingdom of God. Richards concludes,
My suspicion is that the new story must come from the margins, from those who haven't been served by the story we have now. This was an insight that Jesus seems to have had. He didn't seek out the temple priests or the Greek elites or Roman power; rather, he went to those who were, as he was, at the margins of society. There was a wisdom from those margins that could not be found at the centers of power. Indeed, in today's world this would mean turning away from the university and looking to the streets, away from Wall Street and toward the shanty towns outside the centers of capitalist power. It means turning to the "creatively maladjusted," those who do not adapt to an insane world and instead attempt to re-imagine it. It is the kind of wisdom that the Trickster tales teach us: that there is an insanity in the work of building human civilization, and to appear mad in the face of it is a deeper wisdom than conforming to it.
This is a challenging call, to be sure. And while The Great Re-Imagining does not deal exclusively, or even primarily, with the Christian message, it does lean heavily on the teaching of Jesus to make its point. For the average western reader, steeped as he or she undoubtedly is in the idolatrous notion of "God and country," this will come across as a radical reinterpretation of the Christian message. Yet it is all the more Christian for that very reason.
Should anyone who is concerned with the future of humanity and the well-being of our planet read this book, regardless of their religious beliefs? Yes, absolutely. After all, The Great Re-Imagining ends by envisioning a world of "inter-faith" spirituality that is not dominated by any one tradition. Yet I want to conclude this review with a special appeal to my Christian counterparts: Read this book. Recognize the time we are living in, and repent. We have to stop avoiding the simple fact of the matter concerning the radical nature of our faith. As Richards reminds us, "Jesus did not believe salvation and empire could be reconciled without an apocalypse," and neither should we, lest we find ourselves to be serving not Christ, but Caesar in the name of Christ.