“Messy: God Likes it That Way” Book Review

I’m a mom. In fact, I’m a mom of ten kids. Yes, ten. You might think a mom of ten kids would be naturally accepting, even if by default, of disorder and messiness. You might think so, but you’d be wrong. Although I can usually put up with a little mess for awhile, eventually a pile of legos, stray school books, or a growing pile of papers on my desk puts me over the top. And from that point, life halts until the mess is cleaned up.

Considering my natural disdain for messiness, I wasn’t too sure what to expect from AJ Swoboda’s recently published book, Messy: God Likes it That Way. Even before opening the book to page 1, I found myself arguing with the title, thinking, “Didn’t God create order from chaos – isn’t that the gist of the “Let there be light” creation story in Genesis?”

But, my desire to be challenged to think and grow prevailed, and open the book I did. And my faith is better for having waded through the messiness.

Short and easy-to-read, this highly accessible book is like chatting with a friend, albeit it a highly insightful friend, over coffee. But don’t let its accessibility fool you. Through simple, relatable homegrown memories, stories, jokes and even scripture, Messy delves deeply into heady theological topics such as God’s gender, ecclesiology, images of God, evil, and the Trinity. In typical messy fashion, it forces the reader to consider and reconsider their own viewpoint, posing far more questions than answers.

Intermixed with theology, one also discovers discussions of sex, revenge, homosexuality, and cynicism. With fresh perspective, Messy engages in discussions we’ve all had, would like to have, or should have, around our dinner tables, at coffee shops, and on local street corners. This is a book that can be profitably read, and re-read numerous times. Clearly, any book that can successfully relate Ikea, culture and theology is worth its weight in Swedish meatballs and lingonberry sauce.

More than just an interesting read about theology and contemporary culture, Messy confronts you, the reader, with the opportunity to expand your thoughts on God, faith, the church and even yourself. The pages are full of orthodox ideas that generally fall into three categories: that which I’ve thought about before but never clearly articulated, topics which need to be addressed but few have the guts to do so, and unique insights into ways of reading scripture and engaging with God.

Swoboda’s writing style in Messy is well, messy – appropriately so. Short phrases and truncated thoughts blend together with long, complex sentences. Original Greek and Hebrew words stand alongside stories of thirteen-year-old boys playing pranks on unsuspecting neighbors and midnight coffee shop meetings. Sometimes pointed and other times rambling, Swoboda artfully crafts a story – a story that at times is autobiographical, at times historical, and always a page-turner. In a style somewhat reminiscent of Donald Miller, Rob Bell and Thomas Schmidt, Swoboda’s storytelling is both effective and engaging.

One of the unique aspects of Messy is its potentially broad appeal to a variety of audiences. Disenfranchised with religion and the church? Find yourself agreeing with Gandhi who once claimed, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”? Swoboda’s book is long on honesty and authenticity (even though he dislikes the overuse of the a-word), and doesn’t shirk from admitting “Christianity far underperforms the Christ it talks about.” [8]

If you identify yourself as a Christ-follower, Messy also is for you. But be warned. If you prefer God and your faith to be neat and clean, like I long for my living room to stay, Messy may mess up your logical, compartmentalized, black-and-white categories. If you read the book looking for solid answers and definitive conclusions, you may be disappointed. Life, God, faith, the church, and even each of us are indeed messy. We just are.

And Messy may be just the book your faith needs to grow to the next level. As good as it is to read alone, Swoboda’s book would make an even better book to read and discuss together with others. An excellent potential book club selection, I found myself looking for end-of-chapter discussion questions to facilitate conversation. Even without, however, the book content alone will likely generate and provoke considerable discussion.

Church planters and ministry leaders will also find Messy’s perspective on serving and reaching today’s society beneficial. Having had the opportunity to worship at Theophilus, the church in SE Portland that Swoboda planted and pastors, I can attest to its reverent and relational community discussed in the book. Indeed, any church that takes God very seriously, without taking itself too seriously, is a welcome haven for many.

Overall, Messy is a huge success as Swoboda’s first book, achieving its goal of revising how the reader might view messiness, faith and God. While I still long for God to step in and fix whatever mess in which I find myself struggling, I have a far-greater acceptance of and appreciation for seeing life as messy, because God likes it that way.

Regardless, and much to my children’s chagrin, the legos still have to be cleaned up before dinner!