Book Review: Colors of God

by Matthew Raley Congregational life among evangelicals is changing across the United States and Canada. For several decades, innovators have been challenging the way churches worship, preach, and structure themselves. The new book, Colors of God: Conversations About Being the Church, is another perspective that seeks to be innovative.

The list of problems in churches is familiar.

For starters, preaching has become ineffective. What pastors talk about either seems of little consequence, or seems rooted in small-minded bombast. And that's when the preaching is comprehensible at all.

Also, community has deteriorated. Churches become busy without producing deep change in people's lives. Believers complain about the shallowness of church relationships, or about constant bickering. Most worrisome, there is a sense of unreality about interactions at church, a sense that we can't deal honestly with our failings and that church isn't safe.

Deeper, Christians are paralyzed by guilt. The weight of secret sins, the anxiety of paying lip-service to "values" without really knowing what those values entail, the general sense that God is displeased and angry, have all conspired to produce the opposite of what the Gospel promises -- joy and thankfulness.

Colors of God is written by three men who started a church called neXus in Abbotsford, BC. Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen have been influenced by the Emerging church movement in the areas of how to preach, how build community, and how to deal with the moralism of today's evangelicals.

The book's strong point is honesty. The authors are transparent about their struggles, both emotionally and intellectually, and gracious in describing how they believe churches are broken. I found many points to admire in their prescriptions. Their emphasis on God's grace, and their clear doctrinal understanding of it, are indeed the antidote for evangelicals' guilty consciences.

But I found the book unreadable.

I think the authors' decision to print, in effect, a transcript of a round-table discussion emptied the book of drive. Their representation of aspects of church life with four different colors, far from clarifying their points, required too much explanation. It seems to me that a book needs both analytical and narrative logic to propel the reader to the end. And this reader did not make it. The organization of the book seemed both fussy and murky.

And to some extent, this toying with presentational niceties as a way of expressing values is emblematic of the evangelical malaise. Pastors are forever worrying about what's wrong with "preaching." The fact that most preachers couldn't give a clear, compelling public address on any subject should figure into the analysis somewhere.

If evangelicals are going to strengthen their churches, at some point they will have to regain enduring competencies. Colors of God has some contributions to make on that score, contributions that would be brighter in a book not burdened with the pretense of being a transcript.

Tough Questions 2008: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately?

Sermon audio: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately? This question from the community invites me to do what some believe I do best: criticize my own subculture. Of course, I will answer, "Evangelicals often do not portray Jesus accurately." And, of course, I will try to specify which evangelical qualities are misleading. By merely asking this question, someone has presumed a negative answer.

There is a larger issue. What attitude should we have toward the deepening problems of evangelical churches?

The criticisms from emergents that American evangelicals are Christianized consumers, that they lack authentic community, that their worship is stilted, and that they are not on the side of the poor all have merit. The doctrinal criticisms from the reformed movement (MacArthur, Piper, et al.) rightly indict the lack of biblical integrity among many evangelicals. Even the criticisms that the church growth movement has made over the past thirty years -- that churches are not reaching non-Christians -- are accurate. (The criticisms just happen to be accurate of the church growth movement itself, as well.)

Put all of these criticisms together, and the picture is dire. A movement that is not growing, not intellectually coherent, and not engaged with other cultures is a movement near death.

James Stockdale, one of the most famous American POWs in North Vietnam, has been used as an example of how to survive dire situations by business author Jim Collins. (The book is Good To Great.) What kind of man did not survive the POW experience? Stockdale said the optimist, the man who was sure he'd be home by Christmas, but whose steadily retreating target dates for release were never kept. The positive thinkers died.

The survivors, said Stockdale, had two things. They had faith that they would survive, and discipline to confront the brutal facts of their environment. Collins tagged this the "Stockdale paradox," the irony that unstinting honesty about dire situations can actually bolster the faith one needs to survive.

I want to see evangelicals eschew optimism about their predicament.

Let's take, as an example, their recent explosion of support for Gov. Sarah Palin. Personally, I like her. She gives a great speech. I admire her decision not to abort her baby boy, and I respect the way she and her husband have handled the appalling media abuse of their 17-year-old daughter. I think the clash of the classes her nomination has provoked is good old-fashioned political fun.

But the adulation of her by evangelicals is in one important respect delusional. She will not change Washington from the vice president's mansion -- populists to the contrary. She will not change American culture. She will not even change the culture of evangelical churches -- though she reflects and represents them well. Her presence on the national stage simply does not address the spiritual issues we face.

We won't be freed from the dire evangelical crisis by Christmas.

A brutal honesty about our future says:

  1. Our compromise with America's consumer society has been a disaster. Consumerism will have to be rooted out of our churches soul by soul.
  2. Our transformation of churches into entertainment platforms has been a disaster. Devout worship of the living God will have to be rediscovered soul by soul.
  3. Our financial selfishness will have to be corrected by the good hand of God soul by soul, until we are once again the people who stand with the poor.
  4. Our doctrinal ignorance and folly has turned our brains to mud. Knowledge of the truth will have to be taught soul by soul.
  5. Our fear of the cultures around us, and our refusal to interact meaningfully with them -- that is, interact beyond marketing ploys -- has left us unable to articulate the gospel in our own time. Soul by soul, we will have to rebuild a vigorous way of life and witness in hostile territory.

I believe that, once we are honest about these things, we will have ground for a strong faith that Christianity will survive and prosper in the future. The moment we look at these five realities, harsh though they are, we realize that the tool for teaching soul by soul is everywhere in this country: the local church. The body of Christ in its many meetings has been doing this job for centuries. We just need to start doing the job again.

Our ultimate ground for faith is our Lord and his plan. As we follow him afresh, Jesus is well able to portray himself accurately in his churches.

McLaren the Intellectual Defines Orthodoxy

Intellectuals thrive on complexity. They regard certainty and simplicity as signs of immaturity, and they have some good reasons. Take Brian McLaren's critique of mainstream evangelicalism. McLaren has identified an attitude that is a hindrance to everything from effective persuasion to loving fellowship. The attitude is the us v. them, chip-on-the-shoulder, we're-right-they're-wrong impatience with which evangelicals tend to deal with the wide surrounding world. From his writings, one gathers that McLaren has had enough.

The problem with evangelical pomposity is that it has preempted learning. If we're right and they're wrong, then all we have to do is stay right. Tell the unbelievers one more time why their views on abortion, education, government, and values are heinous. Our fidelity to the truth can reduce to repeated talking points -- say it again, this time with feeling! -- a tactic that shuts out feedback and degrades relationships to mere exchanges of rhetorical bullets.

McLaren wants to change this attitude, and he is right. I have devoted many posts to the cultural backwater that is evangelical populism, where applications of truth are stagnant.

But McLaren's desire for greater openness seems to have led him to oversimplifications of his own, and ultimately to a redefinition of truth itself. The book is, of course, A Generous Orthodoxy.

His now-famous modification of orthodoxy with generous suggests that orthodoxy by itself is petty. When he comes to defining what orthodoxy is, McLaren starts this way (p 28): "For most people, orthodoxy means right thinking or right opinions, or in other words, ‘what we think,' as opposed to ‘what they think.'" For McLaren, orthodoxy tends to be petty because most people view it in adversarial terms.

The sentence is an early bit of slippage. I know many self-satisfied Christians who like few things better than to hear the us v. them story again and call it Christianity. But their pettiness does not determine what orthodoxy is. McLaren is building up to his redefinition by implying a simple choice between orthodoxy alone (petty) and orthodoxy plus generosity (loving).

His alternative definition comes in the next sentence. "In contrast, orthodoxy in this book may mean something like ‘what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.'" The truth is beyond our reach, in God's mind, and the various factions of human spirituality each have pieces of it. To follow orthodoxy, according to this definition, is to be generous to the other factions and to learn from them.

Orthodoxy may mean that. It may mean something like that. In this book.

The care with which McLaren poses as tentative and playful is necessary to disguise the enormity of what he puts over in that definition. Orthodoxy is inaccessible. It's "what God knows." This is a romanticist punt, even transcendentalist. Emerson could've written it, irony and all. Intellectuals may feed on such continually evolving knowledge, but the gruel is too thin for simple believers.

Actual Christian orthodoxy teaches that God himself is incomprehensible, but that he has given us a revelation of his nature and will by which he is knowable. Orthodoxy is not in God's mind. It's in his Word, both written and incarnate. It's accessible. The distinction between the living God and the doctrines about him --the distinction that ought to keep us humble -- already thrives where theology is a scholarly discipline rather than a grass-roots rallying point.

But I just ran smack into another sentence closing McLaren's paragraph on orthodoxy. McLaren says, "Most people are too serious, knowledgeable, and busy for such an unorthodox definition of orthodoxy." So he makes an intriguing definition tentatively and then bluffs his way out of being examined, an escape-hatch from accountability that he seems to open pretty often.

The definition I've analyzed comes in a chapter titled, "For Mature Audiences Only." How would McLaren define mature? I'll venture a definition for him: "For most people, maturity means being accountable for what you say. In contrast, maturity in this book may mean something like being comfortable with irony."

I hope we can learn and grow as human beings without intellectual games.

Emergent Intellectuals and Their News From Nowhere

Intellectualism has long said, to coin a phrase, "Everything must change." Will emergent intellectuals be any different from the utopians of the past? Not so far. Their knowledge seems enslaved to ideology: Evil is built into our social structures. Racism is systemic. Economic inequality is institutional. War is the result of the military industrial complex. Poverty in the developing world is the legacy of imperialism, imposed first by Western colonial powers and then by cold war superpowers. So, if we're serious about addressing all these problems, the world has to be reorganized.

Fortunately, this is now possible.

A new generation has outgrown the confines of the Enlightenment and is emerging into postmodernity. We no longer think in outmoded ways. We're no longer shackled by the prejudices of ye olde puritanism, or the bigotry of Western thought, or the obsession with proving others wrong. We know that we can change everything because we have what previous generations lacked: dialogue about theoretical models.

And all God's people said, "Yes we can!"

Utopianism of this kind has a pretty well-documented history. Michael Burleigh's recent book about the decline of Christendom, Earthly Powers (HarperCollins, 2005), narrates how political schemes for restructuring society gained religious authority. Among the vast collection of intellectuals Burleigh sketches is Auguste Comte (pp 229-230):

One of the fathers of modern social "science", who in 1839 coined the term "sociology", Comte sought to establish the philosophical basis for the sciences and for the scientific ordering and reform of society, a formula calculated to appeal to the right as well as the left. . . . [Comte's] Positivism was supposed to be a third way between the outmoded theologically grounded world of the ancien regime and an abstract, critical rationalism that had become anarchic and incapable of creating anything.

Burleigh continues:

The essence of his Religion of Humanity was to redirect mankind's spiritual energies away from the transcendental and towards the creation of a happier and more moral life here on earth through the worship of the best in man himself.

The idea that science must direct cultural change led to an array of horrors.

Burleigh narrates the course from Saint-Simon and Comte, among others, to the totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century. Turning to older scholars, Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, showed the many responses of Anglo-American thinkers to the destruction of culture by utilitarian reformers. In The Road To Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek argued that centrally planned economies lead to tyranny. Jane Jacobs documented the dehumanizing impact of urban renewal dogma in The Death and Life of Great of American Cities. Paul Johnson scandalized the chattering classes with his book Intellectuals, which did the extreme disfavor of comparing the ideals of famous thinkers with their actual behavior.

And the emergents?

Infatuation with causes on the left is deepening, especially among younger evangelicals. It is now God's work to protest the war in Iraq, to bring about world peace, to end poverty all over the world, and to advocate environmental regulations. A renewed identification of the gospel with social justice can be heard in many churches, as well as impatience with the idea that salvation is for heaven and not for this world.

I am not saying that emergents are simply latter-day versions of Comte. But I will say that many of them are intellectuals in the old style. Their obsessive theorizing about the course of history and their absorption with grand political change are characteristic of alienated model-mongers. I see two problems with their leftward tilt, just as I see other problems with populist conservatism among evangelicals.

1. The evils of this world are not systemic, but spiritual. Reorganize, restructure, reform all you want, but the power of wickedness will merely shift. A culture is only transformed as the individuals who live in it are reborn in Christ. The reason evangelicals are failing spiritually in America is not that they have ignored progressive political causes, but that they have ignored the Holy Spirit's call to their own souls.

2. Evangelical pastors should not surrender their authority to intellectuals. Every generation since the French Revolution has seen vicars of "progress" emerge. These parsons, whom Malcolm Muggeridge used to call "tame clergymen," bow from their pulpits to the greater authority of Comte's social sciences, giving their benediction to whatever totalist model has favor this year, whether it's emissions caps or a UN war crimes tribunal. A pastor's authority is in his fidelity to the Bible, not to the consensus at Davos.

The linkage between the Kingdom of Christ and earthly power is an old, old folly. If emergents are unable to shake the euphoria of knowing how to change everything, they will end in the enclaves of bitterness, and nothing will have changed.

A 1989 Bull Session and Intellectualism

One night during my first year of college, I was riding with some fellow believers, all from the same InterVarsity group at Willamette University, and we were talking about the megachurch we attended. Willamette is a secular liberal arts school (its historical connection to Methodism is now purely notional). It's the oldest on the left coast, and has the ivy of the Ivy League without the pedigree. It is not the preserve of the wealthy, necessarily, but let's just say I was only there because of a scholarship. And, at that time, Willamette had little interaction with the surrounding community of Salem, Oregon.

The megachurch we all attended had a dynamic preacher and up-tempo music. It was known as a relatively wealthy church, the cars in the parking lots being a major indicator. Because of its youth group and extensive children's ministry, it was also the place in town for families, especially white ones.

My friends and I went there for the preacher, who was smart, likable, and passionate. But the wealth of the congregation, or maybe the display of it, was somewhat embarrassing. And the music was irritating. In all, my friends in the car were conflicted about the church, frustrated with it.

At last, one guy said, "It's just so middle class!" The rest laughed bitterly.

I was taken aback by the hostility in his voice, and by the others' identification with it. Even though I felt the same frustrations with that church as the others, I couldn't understand the contempt they were expressing for being bourgeois. It hadn't occurred to me to think of myself as having risen beyond my origins. My thought was, "All of you are middle class."

In that year of 1989, there wasn't a name for young evangelicals who went to liberal arts schools, took books, cinema, and ideas seriously, and explored such exotica as liberation theology. There wasn't a name for graduates who followed their passion for the poor into work with Habitat For Humanity. There wasn't enough momentum for politically liberal evangelicals at the start of Reagan's third term to gain a label. Nor was the suburban megachurch the object of scorn that it is now.

But today my friends would be called emergents.

I have spent time on this blog exploring the barren flats of evangelical populism. Now it is time to take a look at the swamp of evangelical intellectualism.

I should be clear about my use of the term. I'm not using intellectual as a synonym for scholar. A scholar is removed from ordinary life and work to pursue an academic discipline. An intellectual is not so much removed from ordinary life as disaffected from it. He is embittered by the lives other people lead, contemptuous of their lack of sophistication, and resentful of their lack of attention to his accomplishments. The intellectual class sees itself as society's critic, wrote Robert Bork in 1996 (Slouching Toward Gomorrah, p 83):

Its members are generally critical of, if not actively hostile to, bourgeois society and culture. They are, moreover, susceptible to utopian fantasies.

Not all farmers are populists. So, too, not all scholars are intellectuals in the sense I am describing. And, truth be told, very few intellectuals are scholars. Most are merely glib with general knowledge.

Think Al Gore. Tortured, complicated, afflicted by a sensitive conscience -- and proud of all three. He is not trained deeply in any academic field. He studies science not for knowledge but for advocacy. His career trajectory is typical of an intellectual: liberal arts training, journalism, politics. His intellectualism, at least in many people's eyes, redeems him from grubbiness. He's more than an advocate, more than a politician, because he's about ideas.

Some of intellectualism's cultural characteristics:

1. Urban, not rural.

2. Scornful of business and money. Money is corrupt, and the businesspeople who pursue it are all animated by greed -- all of them.

3. Contemptuous of patrimony. Wherever an intellectual came from, whatever class or location or religion, that is the seat of hypocrisy and sick living.

4. Patronizing toward the middle class. All those poor, narrow people who just work, work, work in their office cubicles and then go to Applebees, all those parents with massive strollers and screaming children, who've never even met a poor person, who've never gone to Guatemala, who only care about money and their 401Ks and the prohibitive cost of filling their SUVs ...

5. Able to evoke positive emotions only with abstractions. Obama.

I see all of these characteristics among emergents. Now, the emergent phenomenon is about many things -- theology, history, abuse by authority figures. Emergents target many legitimate evils: consumerism, a mistaken identification of Christ with the Republican party, the neglect of the arts. Many stories are coming together to make the emergent stream. But it's intellectualism that I am finding over and over again. Many emergents are about class.

Here's a funny thing. Both evangelical populism and intellectualism, even though they have the opposite cultural characteristics, lead us to the same place: grievance. I doubt that resentment is going to advance the Kingdom of Christ, whether it comes from self-satisfied middle class Americans or self-hating middle class Americans. So why do so many evangelicals seem to seethe with it?

My friend's outburst that night in 1989 showed me early signs of the splintering of evangelicalism, and nearly twenty years later I'm still trying to figure out what it means.