I have to say, I had a pretty complex reaction to this book. I selected to review the book because its title and description suggested to me that it was an unflinching look at some of the issues of the modern church. (And for the most part, it was.)
I thought the book would give an honest assessment of the lasting fruit of the evangelical movement, and tackle issues like greed and corruption. (And for the most part, it did.)
I did NOT expect it to be a book largely centered around and promoting Calvinistic theology. And that killed it for me.
If I had wanted to read a book about Calvinistic doctrine, I would have picked a book whose title suggested it. While making some very valid points about the state of evangelicalism, its detachment from the broader history of the church, its failure to retain a large percentage of its converts over the long term, and its product/brand industrialism…the author’s main point seemed to be theological in nature, using the symptoms described above as evidence of faulty theology. Warren Cole Smith, a journalist, never specifically says he subscribes to Reformed theology; however, his multitude of favorable references to Calvin, Jonathan Edwards and Reformed doctrine (not to mention his negative references to Charles Finney and Arminianism) make his bias clear.
The problem I have with this is that the book was billed as a journalistic expose, not an argument of a theological viewpoint. And for this, I fault the author with the same bait-and-switch tactics he would no doubt accuse evangelicalism of. I simply do not like being taken in under false pretense.
I mentioned that Smith is a journalist. And to the extent that he functions as one, I think he actually does a good job of it. When he is presenting facts and sorting through the data, the information he presents is very helpful. While I didn’t concur that all the data points to a problem (he seems to believe the church’s use of modern technology is a negative, for example), there can be no doubt that the evangelical church has some major problems, and he presents that case pretty well. I found myself heartily agreeing with him on several of these points, and he filled in a lot of historical gaps for me along the way.
It is when he began drawing conclusions about the data that his true agenda came to the forefront, and his journalism began to fall short. Some of his conclusions were over-drawn, in fact. For example, he repeatedly stated that evangelicalism’s separation from the church of history flirted with denying the Incarnation of Christ–without ever really explaining clearly how the two were connected. Also, he gave two quotes (with no context) from revivalist Charles Finney to claim that Finney rejected the core doctrines of God’s sovereignty and man’s sinfulness–when in my view, the quotes did no such thing. I am neutral about Finney, myself, because I don’t know enough about his doctrine to say either way. But any journalist, especially Christian, should know better than to label someone a heretic without providing more substantive proof of such a claim.
But even more provocative than this is the fact that Cole’s overall conclusions about what should be done to rescue evangelicalism were more about theology than they were about methodology. What is surprising to me is that I would have thought someone having a “lover’s quarrel” with evangelicalism would lean to the liberal side of things; in fact, Cole does the opposite. To me, there was a clear “this-is-the-right-way-to-believe” vibe in what he wrote that left little latitude for other interpretations; and again, he did not properly tie the data to his claims.
It isn’t that I have a particular issue with or grudge against Calvinists or Reformed theology; I tend to take theology with a grain of salt, anyway, including my own. My beef was that I came away feeling utterly preached to and lectured, rather than simply informed. I thought journalists were supposed to be neutral.
BOTTOM LINE: Can’t recommend it, at least, not as a fair assessment of the issues tackled in the book. The strong Reformed bias overshadows the good information that can be gleaned. (At least, it did for me.) This is not the kind of book that convinces people to change their thinking–it will likely only rally those who already agree with it. Which means Calvinists would probably love it. 🙂 Thumbs down for me.
This review is posted as part of TheOOZE Viral Bloggers network.