Be Holy: Find Identity / Find Belonging / Find Purpose
What does it really mean to "be holy"? These two little words seem to echo throughout scripture. 1st Peter quotes Leviticus when we read God's command: "You shall be holy, for I am holy." Again in Ephesians when we read that God "chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy." And in the last chapter of the last book of the Bible we read that we are to "still be holy.:
Our calling to be holy is a challenging one, but living the "normal" alternative often leads to frustration, disappointment, and empty overindulgence. This invitation to be holy challenges us to live our lives set apart; not because God needs us to, but because it is a better way for us to experience and live life.
Brian Christopher Coulter shows us what it means to be holy in today's world and how living into this calling helps us discover and develop our sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. Prepare to be changed and begin living the life God meant for you.
"In this fresh and inviting volume, Brian Christopher Coulter sets out to reclaim the power and beauty of the word 'holy.' He invites readers to find answers to those questions—or at least to begin exploring the questions in fuller ways. Coulter divides the text into sections that examine the word from a variety of angles, and throughout the volume he sprinkles brief vignettes from his personal life and from pop culture to assist in conveying his ideas. Be Holy has something to offer for everyone, but from the onset Coulter notes that the text is directed primarily toward young adults, for whom issues of identity, belonging and purpose are often of particular importance. ... Coulter, in seeking to reclaim for a new generation the calling to 'be holy,' helps us all—young adults especially—in discovering anew what it truly means to live a life 'set apart.'" —Presbyterian Outlook 3/20/15, T.J. Remaley, reviewer
"There is much to commend in these pages. Coulter’s passion to communicate the richness of the Christian life as a life of holiness is evident on every page. Likely many young adults will most appreciate his skillful weaving of stories from everyday life with scriptural narrative (often in the form of effective paraphrases) in ways that allow each to illumine the other." —Encounter, Philip D. Kenneson, reviewer
Persuading secular moderns that they should be holy is quite a challenge. Aiming this message primarily at young adults, who are bombarded by ceaseless messages to be successful, in the know, popular, or any number of other things besides holy makes the task all the more difficult. Brian Christopher Coulter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina and author of Be Holy: Find Identity/Find Belonging/Find Purpose, takes on the challenge. Coulter believes that seeking holiness is not a dreary religious obligation but something that will enrich life. He claims, “We are not invited to be holy because God needs working drones; God invites us to be holy because it is a better way for us to experience and live life (p. ix).”
Coulter begins by alluding to the emptiness, thoughtlessness, and insecurity that characterize much of modern life. He isn’t interested in exploring these in any depth, though; he’s mainly interested in offering solutions. His answers come from orthodox Christianity, which is to say that faith in Christ is essential to him. This means more than accepting Christ’s invitation to “a relationship of forgiveness and mercy;” it also includes the life that subsequently becomes possible.
Coulter considers what the Bible says about being holy. To be holy is to be set apart. God is holy in that he is distinct from other gods and from creation. This holy God also sets his people apart; he instructs them to be holy. Holiness is more than ritual purity; it is a way of living in the world. Coulter suggests this way of living has three elements: “We reflect our Holy God by being set apart from all that is not holy, for all that is holy, and with all who are holy (p. 31).” These three elements then become the structure for the rest of the book: “set apart from” entails finding our identity, “set apart for” implies having a purpose, and “set apart with” involves belonging to a community.
In my initial reading, I thought Coulter was being too simplistic about what it means to have identity, belonging, and purpose. I had the most difficulty with identity. Coulter is certainly right in saying “Who we are is known, revealed, and loved by God (p. 59).” I love the quote he uses from Brennan Manning: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion (p. 55,6).” But isn’t it more complex than this? How do we understand the political, racial, gendered, and socioeconomic aspects of who we are? How do we sort out our views of what we can know, what is, and what is good? How do we learn what our gifts and abilities are?
Eventually I realized that I was trying to read the book as a psychological do-it-yourself guide to the issues of adolescence and early adulthood. That isn’t what Coulter has written. An early clue to his intent is his allusion to Clark Kent (i.e. Superman) in CW network’s show Smallville. Clark already has all his superpowers, but he doesn’t know what to do with them. The issue he faces is not to acquire superpowers:
“It is about embracing the gifts he has been given. It is about embracing his destiny to be Superman. “This is us with holiness. Our choice seems to be less about becoming holy and more about embracing holiness (p. 20).”
Thus, identity, belonging, and purpose are not something we have to work to acquire. They are gifts from God that we need to accept. Accepting these gifts entails living out certain practices in our day-to-day life. Coulter does a nice job of showing how practices such as baptism, Sabbath observance, prayer, and the Eucharist fit into this holy, set-apart life.
Though I’m much older than Coulter’s target audience, I read this book because I am a Christian who is interested in being holy. The book is mostly about the early stages in the journey towards holiness, but it also contains much that is of interest to those further along the path towards maturity. As might be expected given his target audience, Coulter uses many examples from popular culture–celebrity quotes, music, movies, TV, and the like. Less expected are his references to writers with some intellectual heft, including Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher, Walter Brueggemann, and Thomas Merton. Sometimes, I wished Coulter had developed further the points made by these thinkers–Kierkegaard on the longing for meaning, for example, or Brueggemann on the Sabbath. Still, the references are available for those who wish to explore them more fully, and it is nice to know that Coulter’s ideas were informed by such thinkers.
Coulter writes clearly. He pauses every page or so to emphasize his main points in a few short sentences, each standing as a separate paragraph, as in this from the section on belonging:
“Prayer builds community.
“Prayer builds relationships.
“Pray (p. 102).”
These staccato-like sentences serve as useful summaries. I never did get acclimated to his use of hashtags to make wry comments, but this was easy enough to ignore. I recommend Coulter’s book not only for young adults interested in the spiritual life, but also for older adults, be they newly interested in holiness or further along the faith journey but wishing to reflect on the nature of that journey.
Note: Thanks to Chalice Press for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.—Bob Ritzema, “Life Assays,” blog, 01/15/15
"There is an old hymn, 'Take Time to be Holy.' Brian Coulter has written an expansive riff on that hymn. 'Being Holy' takes time; it also takes energy courage, attentiveness, and intentionality. Coulter brings to his exploration an attentive appeal Scripture and an equal attentiveness concerning contemporary culture in its pop forms. In a society of thin technological living, the summons to 'holiness' is of immense importance. Coulter provides a helpful perspective on the possibility of responding to that elemental summons."
–Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary, author of Sabbath as Resistance and numerous other books
"Ostensibly this book is written as an invitation to faith for young adults. Actually it is an invitation to faith for all of us. Brian Coulter helps us discover in ourselves a desire to be holy and then rightly turns our attention to something far more basic--the holiness of God. A wise and winsome book.
–David Bartlett, professor emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School
"Don’t let the title put you off: 'Be Holy' is not a command to a strict, joyless existence, but an invitation through a gate swinging open to an expansive life of deep fulfillment and promise. With clear, approachable prose Brian Coulter takes profound concepts and makes them simple, introducing readers to fascinating authors and activists who exemplify the life of holiness. Join the conversation and find yourself moving from normal to extraordinary as you discover that being holy is its own reward."
–Debby Topliff, visual interpreter of the Bible
"Brian Coulter understands young adults in part because he is a young adult. What he writes in this book about holiness arises from deep biblical and theological wrestling and his lived experience. Young people want to know what the church stands for, not just what the church stands against. We stand for holiness — living different, abundant, joyful, just, and beautiful lives that flow from the self-giving, other-affirming life of the Triune God. Coulter enlists stories from the lives of musicians and literary giants and superheroes as well as scripture to remind the young and the formerly young that we are set apart. Read this book. Young people aren't necessarily looking for dry ice induced Sunday morning light shows, sexy preachers, and contemporary music alone. Coulter may indeed be right. They want to live holy, set apart lives."