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1 Stars Out Of 5
A tad too heavy on anti-evangelical
August 31, 2012
Let me summarize this book in one sentence: the mainline (liberal) denominations are dying, but the author visited a few mainline congregations that are full of nice, smart, tolerant, sophisticated Christiansâ€”people like her. What a pity those nasty evangelical churches are growing, when the BEST churches are small and warm and loving.
She claims evangelicals are "aggressive in their attempts to create a kind of `one-party' Christianity in this country." This is not just nonsense, but nonsense on steroids. I know of no evangelical who wants (much less expects) a "one-party Christianity." Do evangelicals feel that they are closer to the Bible and Christian tradition than the mainlines? Yes, definitelyâ€”and apparently a growing number of people believe them, and join up. She says evangelicals are "louder and more insistent" that they are on the right track spirituallyâ€”well, yes, that tends to happen when you're discussing a critical like salvation. (Has she read Paul's letters? You don't get the impression Paul was someone who whispered the gospel.) The author makes evangelicals sound conniving and sinisterâ€”as if there is something sinister about churches that apparently please millions of people. (Maybe it's one of those vast right-wing conspiracies that liberal women seem to fear.) She refers to the mainlines as "brand-name" churches, so the evangelicals are what housewives used to call "off-brands"â€”brands you wouldn't dare bring home.
Ex-evangelicals have this neurotic compulsion to distance themselves from their former churches. Fine. We get the message: you are way too smart, deep, and (especially) sensitive to be part of the great unwashed conservative rabble. It takes her several chapters to repeat this message, bringing to our attention mainline congregations that, in her view, embody "real" Christianity. The churches she describes do sound like nice placesâ€”but I saw nothing in her descriptions of them that couldn't also be found in evangelical churches. The one non-negotiable for her is that evangelicals take the Bible literally (ugh), while the smart Christians like her know betterâ€”in fact, she makes it clear that one literalist woman she met in one church was obviously out of place there. The author repeats the familiar liberal formula: we take the Bible "seriously, but not literally"â€”which translates as "anything we don't like gets ignored or reinterpreted."
The author has a size fixation. She constantly disses "suburban megachurches," as if evangelicals can't gather together unless they can fill a stadium. There are plenty of small and mid-size evangelical churches. I share her dislike of huge churches, yet I'm also pleased that some evangelical congregations have become huge. The author seems determined to cast evangelical church growth in a bad light.
A digression: even though Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, liberal Christians are still dissing itâ€”or, more precisely, dissing those who went to see it. The movie, she says, turned the crucifixion into a "marketing event." Meaning what, exactly? Gibson made money from the filmâ€”but then, as far as I know, liberal pastors make money from preaching, don't they? Liberals hate Mel's Passion for the most obvious reason: evangelicals flocked to it. How sad that the liberal side essentially defines itself as "the negative of whatever the evangelicals do." It's also sad that liberals would diss a movie that, for the first time on film, really shows the crucifixion in all its horrorâ€”a horror that the first Christians knew about firsthand, but which later generations do not. Is the author not aware of how central the crucifixion is to the New Testament?
As a former book editor, I have to say that Bass overwrites horribly. If it can be said once, she says it twenty times, and if it can be said in one sentence, she requires an entire paragraph. Edited down to its essence, the book might be 50 pages long.
The author praises the churches she visited as "creative and traditional, risk-taking and grounded, confident and humble, open and orthodox." That could've been lifted from any mainline church's website (and probably was), but it's devoid of meaning. Exactly what makes a church "risk-taking" and "grounded"? And "open and orthodox" makes about as much sense as "promiscuous and monogamous." (Again, don't they have an editor at this publishing house?) The churches are vital due to "intentional and transformative engagement with Christian tradition"â€”this is seminary-babble at its worst (and rest assured, whatever takes place in a mainline church these days is "intentional"â€”visit a few websites if you doubt that). She says the churches "expressed a coherent faith"â€”how, exactly, when they're not even sure how to interpret the Bible?
One closing note: she says she worries about the "increasing political partisanship" of evangelicals. Oh, author, remove the plank from thine own eye before removing the splinter from the evangelical's eye. Has she never noticed the unashamed political liberalism of the mainlines? I suppose it's "partisanship" when the conservatives do it, "doing the will of God" when the liberals do it.
Two words aptly describe this book: Christless Christianity. The author recognizes neither Jesus nor Scripture as the authority for the church; rather, she cites tradition as something to be recovered and treasured in the local church (yes, certain traditions are biblical). I found that even at its best, this book will give something valuable with one hand and snatch away something equally important with the other. I value the author's efforts and her charitable spirit, but this book falls woefully short of the biblical standard. Grace is elevated above truth and love for people over love for God. If the neighbourhood church is to have any eternal impact, then we must be equally committed to grace and truth, loving God and loving others without compromising either one of the two greatest commandments. For an accurate, biblical assessment of the church, read "The Courage to Be Protestant," by David Wells. Wells' writing is strong medicine for the postmodern, post-liberal, seeker-sensitive, emergent quagmire in which we live.
A must read for anyone who is clergy or a member of a mainline denomination.Butler-Bass does a fantastic job of identifying directions and challenges that face us as we seek to faithfully serve and follow God.