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).”

Be HolyCoulter 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.
“Be holy.
“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.