Subversive Sabbath, the Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World by A.J. Swoboda

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Subversive Sabbath won Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the Year award in the spiritual formation category, and thus represents well spirituality as understood by mainstream evangelicalism today. Written by a pastor and seminary professor, the book’s strength lies in its reminder of the believer’s need for rest as grounded in the Sabbath principle and modeled by the Lord Himself in the creation account. If the Lord rested after His work of creation, the author insists, so should we (pp. 5, 7, 15).  Taking Sabbath rest seriously will result in better health, more productivity and freedom from a messiah complex in which many Christians seem to believe they are essential to the continuation of the universe (pp. 46, 58).  God has embedded Sabbath rest into the rhythm of life so that we recognize only the Lord is necessary and therefore we can learn to trust in Him, rather than ourselves (pp. 164-166, 181, 195).  At its best Subversive Sabbath relays the same message as Wendell Berry (who he quotes several times, pp. xiii, 96, 142), Anne Dillard, Henry David Thoreau and other authors who preach the gospel of slowing down and smelling the roses. The message of throttling back our frantic pace of living and learning to rest in God and appreciate His good gifts is a needed one.  The book’s targeted audience is “anyone interested in living life God’s way and desiring to be part of Christ’s healing work in the world” (p. xii).

The central theme and message are well-represented by the first quote given by none other than that eminent theologian Winnie-the-Pooh, “Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, or just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering” (p. 3).  Despite the source, this is a winsome invitation and explains the draw of the book.  However, the reader can get that message from any of the authors mentioned above, none of whom is Christian. Swoboda, on the other hand, is a Christian author, and as such claims to have a more profound understanding of the rhythms of work and rest grounded in biblical Sabbath keeping. It is at this point the book falls apart theologically.  Swoboda does not simply claim that keeping a Sabbath is a command of God (although he does) but that it is the “goal of all creation” (p. 17).  Adam, he believes, was given this command even before the fall (p. 11), although he admits the first use of the word “Sabbath” is not found until thousands of years later in Exodus 16:23, and is mentioned 58 times in the whole of Scripture (p. 16). Sabbath then is practiced out of obedience (p. 20) and is an invitation to play, something many of us no longer know how to do, Swoboda thinks (p. 20).  Sabbath being one of the great themes of Scripture is a command which must be practiced literally and not spiritualized (p. 33).  As such, the author criticizes those who add to or subtract from the Sabbath (p. 8) and yet ironically in no sense does Swoboda practice or instruct his readers to follow the Old Testament biblical teachings on the Sabbath, for to do so is impossible.  This leads to a number of important observations of Swoboda’s understanding of the Sabbath:

  • While stating often that Sabbath keeping is a command incumbent upon the Christian, at no point does he engage in the debate that since the Sabbath command is not repeated in the NT it is not a requirement under the New Covenant.
  • Never mentions that the Sabbath was given specifically to the nation of Israel as the sign of the Old Covenant and therefore has no significance for NT Christians (Exod 20:12; 31:16).
  • Believes it is God’s ideal that everyone Sabbath on the same day “but God’s ideal is not always a possibility” (p. 198). And yet, under the Old Covenant God’s ideal was possible; it is when authors such as Swoboda rip Sabbath out of the OT Jewish context that it becomes problematic. It simply cannot be practiced today as giving in the OT (p. 86).
  • Teaches that we have freedom to practice Sabbath according to our own choices. The author practices Sabbath on Wednesdays (p. 21) and pancakes are “essential to Sabbath” (p. 22).  He has freedom to garden, play ball, pick up wood on his Sabbaths, some of which are direct violations of the OT Sabbath instructions (p. 57).  In other words, by ignoring direct biblical commands concerning Sabbath, he is free to be lord of his own Sabbath.
  • As a matter of fact, defining Sabbath work and rest can only be discerned by listening to the Holy Spirit (p. 77). Apparently listening to the Holy Spirit, as found in His inspired Scriptures, is inadequate. Instead, “One has freedom to do on the Sabbath what one’s spirit and soul needs” (p. 81).  The reader has to question by what authority a human being can dismiss the instructions found in Scripture and insert his own.
  • Swoboda’s use of Scripture is obviously selective and often out of context (see pp. 16, 60, 73-74, 86, 102, 108, 134, 156). His misuse of Scripture is noticeable and unsettling.
  • If Scripture is not the source of Swoboda’s views on Sabbath, what is? He relies on a wide collection of secular authorities (pp. xiii, 45, 96, 142), Jewish and Catholic mystic (pp. xiii, 18, 31, 32, 49, 89, 96, 128, 139, 179, 190, 199), spiritual formation leaders (pp. 4, 6, 48, 94, 127, 128, 142, 195), heretics (pp. 17, 73, 84, 139, 147, 184, 195) and even Eastern mysticism. In addition, Swoboda turns to ancient myths such as the Jewish myth of Tikkun Olam (p. 49), and the sixth century “Sunday Letter” myth (p. 92).
  • The author believes we are not bound by Jewish laws (p. 199), yet seems to forget that Sabbath was part of Jewish laws that he believes we are commanded to obey today. He mentions Colossians 2:16, which shows that Jewish celebrations are not necessary for the church, but does not follow through with its implications on his Sabbath thesis (p. 202).
  • Admits Sabbath keeping, at least as he practices it, opens one up to serious spiritual attack (p. 186), is boring (p. 70) and hard (p. xi), yet believes we are commanded to keep it. We have no other option (p. 20), although as this review has shown, it cannot be kept today according to OT precepts and instructions.
  • As an aside, the author moves into social justice concerns, claiming God made covenants with animals as He did with humans (pp. 150-151), advocating for “green” agendas (pp. 129, 145-172), and claiming “the gospel is hypocritical without the social gospel” (p. 2).
  • Thinks that when the church embraces the Sabbath, including implementation of the OT Jubilee, our society will change (p. 107). He imagines a world that practices Sabbath as a virtual utopia, but his description of such is reminiscent of America is the 1950s (p. 83). Being only 36 years old (p. 93), he cannot recall the 1950s, but suffice it to say, it was not utopia.

As can be discerned from this review, despite accolades and awards, Subversive Sabbath has virtually nothing to do with the Sabbath teaching found in Scripture. It rather is a diatribe on the need for rest in a hectic world (not a bad idea).  However, the book distorts the teachings of Scripture on the subject, leads the reader in false directions, badly mishandles Scripture, and draws from a wide assortment of unbiblical sources.  That there is a Sabbath, or rest principle engrained in God’s universe, is a defensible position.  That Sabbath is to be practiced as outlined in this volume is not.

Subversive Sabbath, the Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World by A.J. Swoboda (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018) 235 pp. + xiii.

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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