Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Book Review: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, by Ronald J. Sider

Even before I read The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, I suspected that Evangelical Christians weren't particularly moral people. And the first chapter of Sider's book, "The Depth of the Scandal", goes a long way toward confirming my suspicions. Sider quotes statistics that paint a damning picture of Evangelicals, including their high rate of divorce, their appalling tendency toward abuse, and their disappointing attachment to money.

But even though I'm skeptical about the morality of Western Christians, I still have hope. Despite the Church's history of disappointing behavior, I still think Jesus had it right, and I still believe God has the power to turn sinners into saints. So after reading the first sad chapter, I hoped that Sider would share some bright examples, some lighthouses of Christian community and Christian morality.

I was disappointed.

Sider spends the rest of the book spinning his wheels, treating us to a dull 100 pages in which he insists that right doctrine, church discipline and small groups will turn the church around.

Now when it comes to contrasting the wealth of Christians with the poverty of the world at large, Sider is a refreshing respite from the ambivalence of most Evangelical preachers. In a particularly barbed passage, Sider writes, "Not one evangelical pastor in ten comes even close to talking as much about the poor as the Bible does."

But these bright spots are overshadowed by Sider's preoccupation with ineffective solutions and his odd pet issues, which pop up up so predictably that one begins to suspect that odd pet issues are a prerequisite to being an evangelical. Legislation is suggested as a way to create a more Christian nation. A biblical worldview is equated with traditional evangelical doctrine. The enlightenment, post-modernism, evolutionary theory and the occult are all fingered as hastening the downfall of Christian morality. And in one of the book's saddest passages, the racism that Sider decries is practically assumed:

Our people, especially congregational leaders, need to see poverty firsthand. Mission trips, either across town to spend a weekend with an African American or Latino congregation or to another country in Africa or Latin America, can be powerful change agents. (italics mine)

Sider would have ended up with a much better book if he had spent more time trying to understand the problem, and less time trying to mold his pet issues into a generic, whole-church solution. Instead, he spends the last three-quarters of the book chipping away at his own credibility, and by the book's end, the interesting and useful ideas in his first chapter have disappeared into a mess of orthodoxy and unlikely solutions.


LaughingJack said...

Yeah.. because the best way I've found to bring people to Jesus is to force them by legislation. Yep, then if that doesn't work, "Guns, lots of Guns." I'll put them in my gun rack below my Rebel flag. Then we can go one to teach those latinos and them thar african American's to not be poor.

Ugh. Makes me sick sometimes, especially when I look at how little I am doing to help in the first place.

I guess a "Christian Nation" starts with Christian People.

Matthew said...

Ugh. Makes me sick sometimes, especially when I look at how little I am doing to help in the first place.

Little is better than nothing, right? Of course in this case, I guess more is better than little.

I guess a "Christian Nation" starts with Christian People.

I'll buy that.

Pastor Mike said...

So what's your answer liberal Jesus to the disconnect between Modern Christianity and Biblical Christianity? Other than running people down because they are struggling with this dichotomy as well.

Matthew said...

Wow, Pastor Mike, thanks for giving me a reason to go back and read this post.

First, I'd like to suggest that criticizing one person's published solution is significantly different from "running people down".

Second, the name of the blog is "liberal jesus", but that's just referring to the liberality of Jesus, to a liberal vision of Jesus, and it's not referring to me personally.

Third: I've moved a long way, theologically, since I wrote this post. Also, my seven-year-old son has died of cancer. So my answer now is probably different than it would have been then.

I think the way to resolve the dissonance you're talking about is to be more Christian. To be true to Jesus's ethos and example. To side with people over power. To be honest about the many horrors in the world. To be willing to challenge and reject power, even power that calls itself God. And then see where that takes us.