A few years ago I read “Jim and Caspar Go To Church”, which was absolutely fascinating. The book centers on the relationship between an evangelical pastor and an atheist who travel around the country taking in different church services, with Jim getting Caspar’s response immediately after in sort of an exit interview. It captured me because I’m right in the middle of evangelicalism as a pastor. When I read the book, I was thrilled that there was dialogue happening. Yet, at the same time, I both laughed and cringed inside when Caspar’s response to visiting at least some Sunday worship services was, “Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?”
As a pastor, I realize that, frankly, there are things that evangelicals do as well as say, that are, well, goofy, cheesy, and sometimes bizarre. And that seems to be the mostly innocuous part. On the other hand, there is a moral temptation among some evangelicals to want to fix, in our estimation, culture gone haywire. This, I believe, has led to some hurtful practices of alienating people, most often unnecessarily in order to drive a point home (or draw a clearer line in the sand).
After reading Tom Krattenmaker’s book, I’m hopeful. I’m not hopeful that we will all become one big happy family – theists, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. No. I’m hopeful because there have to be some brave people who are willing to be honest in order for us to have meaningful discussion with each other instead of speaking past one another. Tom’s book represents the best of people coming to the table, to honestly look at the “other side” and to look at themselves and somehow be open to having a dialogue characterized by charity and understanding.
Without spoiling the whole book, Tom’s book delves into his own misconceptions about evangelicals and his journey to confront his own misbeliefs. But in the process what he does is take us on the same journey to mirror our own fears and misbeliefs. The mastery of the book is that it does to serve to confront my own misbeliefs and how poorly I have acted toward others. At many points it felt like the book was the secular companion to Kinnaman’s and Lyon’s book, UnChristian.
Much of the book is spent de-tangling some of the quick prejudicial beliefs that people quickly accept about evangelicals. Some of the criticism by others is warranted (because some people are highly insensitive). But as no one enjoys being lumped into one single category, Tom begins to tease his readers by showing us counter-examples of evangelical Christians who actually think and act differently. What’s hard for people’s prejudicial beliefs is when great counter-examples are presented it makes it hard to compartmentalize people in one neat box.
It’s hard to find much to critique. I found Tom to not only be very frank but incredibly charitable. Much of what he writes on – evangelism, culture, an over-reliance upon the political process, and isolation – are topics that resonate well with the vast majority of people I minister to (college students/young adults).
My one “critique” of the book would be this… and I know this might not sit well with some. There are a growing number of Christians in academia, particularly philosophy, that are bringing an intellectual element to the Christian faith that has largely been lost. In fact, in his marvelous book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter writes that Christians have done a horrible job at engaging culture in a redemptive way. Most of our efforts, as Tom concurs in his book, have been to forfeit any meaningful voice in culture only to re-create our own Christian parallel universe. Of course, this has been a devastating response. Hunter admits though that there is one area where Christians have regained solid footing – philosophy. I would suggest that the evangelicals that many don’t know are the smart ones who are slowly countering the idea that Christians are really ignorant or gullible or unintelligent, that faith is merely unreasoned belief. And they are doing this in very gracious ways.
People like William Lane Craig and JP Moreland bring less of the combative attitude but more charity in the spirit of debate. Even at a pastoral level, the person who comes to mind who is not only smart but also very gracious is Timothy Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. These men are training up countless others in ways that are changing how people perceive evangelicals. As a result, they have some serious credibility with many young evangelicals who resonate with the concept of truth but aren’t interested in being obnoxious about it.
What is clear is this: if a person comes to a conclusion about the “other” based on what they see on television or the movies, they will walk away with a stunted view. Frankly, there is a reason why talk shows or news shows do not ask the brightest, most articulate Christians or atheists to represent “their side” on an issue. This is why books like Tom’s are important. They challenge us with a different narrative. We might have spirited discussions and eventually disagree, but in the end, we have actually been a part of something redemptive – we treat people as people and not as caricatures of people that we think are deserving of our scorn.