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Dangerous Wonder by Mike Yaconelli: a book review

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith by Michael Yaconelli (Credit: NavPress)

Mike Yaconelli is one of the people I most want to meet in heaven.

He was known to the Christian world primarily for his books, articles, and work with Youth Specialties, an organization that trained thousands of student ministers. I knew him differently, as editor of The Door, a magazine of Christian satire (originally called The Wittenburg Door). Mike wrote the final article in each month’s edition (something he called “The Back Door”). I subscribed to Mike’s magazine primarily so I could read his articles. They were unfailingly brilliant, funny, and disturbing.

One in particular chronicled his week-long encounter with Henri Nouwen, an event that transformed his life. During that retreat, Mike came to realize that Jesus loved him simply because he loved him. Not for anything he had done or not done, not for his reputation in the Christian world or dedication to the church. Simply because God is love and because the Father loves his children. I needed that message as much as Mike did, and will always be grateful for the impact his transparency made on my soul.

Mike was killed in 2003 when the truck he was driving struck a light post. His death shocked the evangelical world. In some ways, it still does. Here was this larger-than-life man of global influence and servant spirit, seemingly with so much more to say and do. His death at the age of 61 is still an unexplained mystery to me. When I see him in heaven, I plan to tell him so.

But like Abel of old, it can be said of Mike that “though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Today I picked up a book of his I had never read, and was transfixed.

Mike wrote Dangerous Wonder (NavPress: Colorado Springs, Colorado) in 1998, at the prompting of a friend who thought the world needed a book on child-like faith. So Mike set out to describe all the ways children relate to God, calling us back to who we were when we were children so we can be children of God again. He notes that “Jesus always recognized children because they always recognized him” (pp. 16-17). The problem is that we lose our “God-hearing” along the way, and need to find it again.

How we lose it, and how we find it, is the story of Mike’s book. And of our souls.

The Diagnosis

Mike complains that in our culture, “Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore. He changes them into ‘nice people'” (p. 23, his italics). He asks,

What happened to radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside-down? What happened to the category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire and was considered (by those in power) dangerous? What happened to the kind of Christians whose hearts were on fire, who had no fear, who spoke the truth no matter what the consequence, who made the world uncomfortable, who were willing to follow Jesus wherever he went? What happened to the kind of Christians who were filled with passion and gratitude, and who every day were unable to get over the grace of God? (p. 24, his italics).

He warns that “we have allowed technology to beat our imaginations into submission and have become tourists rather than travelers” (p. 25). We have lost our curiosity as well; as theologian Hans Kung notes, “Doubt is the shadow cast by faith” (p. 33).

If “mystery is the great embarrassment to the modern mind” (Flannery O’Connor, quoted on p. 38), we should all be embarrassed. Mike cites Eugene Peterson’s observation that most of us spend our lives “impersonating ourselves” (p. 85) rather than facing up to the mystery that is life.

In essence, we have lost our child-like wonder at the world God made. Creation becomes a means to our work rather than a means to his worship. And we lose our ability to hear our Father’s voice and to encounter his joy.

The Cure

What is to be done? Here is my synopsis of Mike’s appeal to God’s people.

Recover mystery. Theologian Alan Jones says that priests “are not so much people with answers as ones who guard the important questions and keep them alive” (quoted on p. 42). Mike notes that the church fathers spoke of “unknowing,” the belief that we can learn as much about God in what we don’t know as in what we do (p. 42).

Be still enough to listen. Mike cites author Sue Monk Kidd, a self-confessed “quickaholic” who was told by a monk: “When you are waiting, you are not doing nothing. You’re doing something. You’re allowing your soul to grow up. If you can’t be still and wait, you can’t become what God created you to be” (p. 88).

Seek Jesus until he finds you. Doctrine is important, but as a means to an end: “Most people believe that following Jesus is all about living right. Not true. Following Jesus is all about living fully” (p. 94, his italics). What matters is knowing Jesus—deeply, passionately, in ways that transform us. Then God will surprise us and surprise the world with us:

The grace of God says to you and to me, “I can make last place more significant than first place. I will use prostitutes to teach others about gratitude. I will use lepers as examples of cleanliness. I will take men who persecute the church and make them its pillars. I will take the dead and give them life. I will take uneducated fishermen and make them fishes of men” (p. 130).

Pray until the world changes. Our Father is calling us to praying that connects us with God and intercession that connects God with us. Toward the end of his book, Mike tells an amazing story:

Billy Graham came to Sacramento, the capital of California, two years ago to hold his crusade at the Arco Arena, just north of downtown. The night before the crusade was to begin, choir rehearsal went late. One of the members of the choir was driving home through downtown when he noticed a man slumped over on the steps of the capitol building. It was cold outside, almost midnight, and not the safest of places to be. The choir member decided he could not ignore the plight of this poor, homeless man. He was nervous as he approached the man, not knowing what to expect. The homeless man was crouched almost cocoonlike on the steps, and the choir member reached out and gently touched his shoulder. “Sir, can I help you?” he said. “Are you okay?” The man looked up. It was Billy Graham. He was praying for the city of Sacramento (p. 139).

Mystery—stillness—passion for Jesus—devotion to prayer: these are simple imperatives. Yet they still change the world.

When I finished Mike’s book, I thanked God for giving him such dangerous wonder at life and life eternal. And I resolved to settle for nothing less than joyous intimacy with my Lord.

In the introduction Mike notes, “My prayer is not that you will finish reading this book with great new intellectual understanding of the Christian faith; but rather, that somewhere in your reading you will hear the whisper of Jesus” (pp. 17-18, his italics).

His prayer for me was answered.