Thursday, September 03, 2009
Book Review: A Lover's Quarrel with the Evangelical Church
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I got Warren Cole Smith's A Lover's Quarrel with the Evangelical Church in the mail. The title had intrigued me, and I wondered what kind of issues Smith would raise, and whether they'd be at all similar to my own quarrels with evangelicalism. I didn't look much closer at the book beyond the title, and once I did, it quickly became apparent that Smith's complaints were not too likely to mirror with my own. My first clue was the fact that Smith is a regular contributor to WORLD magazine, which is kind of like a print media version of Fox News for the Christian world. The second clue was the list of endorsers, which included several individuals, Dr. Michael Horton and Dinesh D'Souza for instance, with whom I have significant theological and philosophical disagreements. Nonetheless, I was still intrigued enough to keep reading. Besides, it's always a good idea to expose oneself to differing viewpoints on a regular basis.

What I found, is that I did in fact share a number of Smith's concerns about contemporary evangelicalism, but for very different reasons, and with very different ideas about the necessary solutions. Oddly enough, at times it even left me wanting to defend some of the same evangelical practices that I would be likely to critique in other contexts (the "seeker-friendly" mega-church movement for instance.) Smith's main "quarrels" center on the contemporary evangelical sub-culture. He identifies what he sees as five main problems:

1) Its disconnection from Christian history or tradition and with little vision for the future (what he calls the "new provincialism", a term he borrows from poet and essayist Allen Tate).
2) A "triumph of sentimentality", by which he means what he thinks has been an overemphasis on God's love and mercy to the exclusion of God's power and judgment, or human sinfulness.
3) The Christian-industrial complex, which he sees as corrupting true Christian community with marketing and money.
4) "Body-count evangelism", which he blames on the legacy of 19th century evangelist Charles Finney and sees as sacrificing depth of discipleship for the sake of higher numbers of superficial converts.
5) What he calls "the great stereopticon", by which he mainly means television, though he would also include most other forms of visual media, and which he thinks undermines God's "preferred medium" of communication, i.e. words.

It should be said that Smith admits right up front that he is writing for "theologically conservative, evangelical" Christians, so I really can't fault him when I just flat out disagree with some of his assumptions about the way things ought to be versus the way things are. He's not writing for someone like me. That said, I found that on at least a few points (especially his critique of the Christian-industrial complex and some aspects of his critique of body-count evangelism) I did agree with his assessment of what was wrong. I just didn't buy into his assumptions about why they were wrong, or how things ought to be instead. It's hard to summarize all the ways in which this was the case, but I guess I could just say that his approach was a bit too conservative, Calvinist, dogmatic, and generally negative towards anything new for my taste.

And, to be honest, on a number of points I really felt like he was overstating his case against contemporary evangelicalism, and failing to note that a lot of the current trends (e.g. contemporary worship music, seeker-sensitivity, grace-oriented preaching, visual and dramatic arts in worship, innovative ministry methods, attempts at cultural relevance, etc.) that he criticizes are themselves reactions to and corrections for even bigger problems in the traditional churches that contemporary evangelicalism has evolved out of (e.g. stale and lifeless worship, a ghetto-mentality in churches that turned off newcomers and seekers, an over-emphasis and on moralism and judgmentalism to the exclusion of the "good" part of the "good news", etc.) Reminding myself of this actually made me more sympathetic towards contemporary evangelicalism than I typically am. In this regard the book felt even more negative and critical than many of us emergent types often get accused of being. Whereas most emergents want to take the good and leave the bad from the evangelical world, for Smith (with the exception of a few positive examples he lifts up at the end) it seemed like it was almost all bad - like evangelicalism had taken a wrong turn shortly after Jonathan Edwards, and has been in a downward spiral ever since.

However, while this book certainly isn't targeted towards and emergent audience, I have a feeling that it will have a certain appeal to those in the anti-institutional, organic church/simple church stream of the conversation, and especially those who resonate with guys like Frank Viola or George Barna. For those who are deeply disillusioned with the hype and marketing and consumerism of the evangelical sub-culture, or who have been burned-out or repulsed by the superficiality of the mega-church world, this book will speak to those issues. Personally though, I was not impressed, and I found the "positive vision" he tried to cast in the last few chapters to be rather scattered and exceedingly thin (it basically comes down to church planting).

For a much more thorough critique of these same sorts of ills (from a pastor and scholar, as opposed to a journalist), I'd instead recommend my friend Dave Fitch's book The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies. While I don't always agree with Dave either, I find his take on all this to be much more nuanced and well-argued (not to mentioned geared towards postmoderns like myself) than Smith's.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 11:20 AM | Permalink |


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