Another Gospel? [a review]
The Year of Our Lord 2020 has proven to be a year of anxiety and fear. The pandemic has dampened our collective spirits, and where we would normally be willing to give the benefit of the doubt we find ourselves thinking the worst about others. It was a summer of racial injustice and unrest, with some evangelicals distraught upon finding that rot in our own home and wondering how far it goes. Others in turn were anxious that such a newfound "wokeness" among their brothers and sisters would lead down a slippery slope to a progressive Christianity that denied the historic faith in favor of a socially acceptable modern substitute. So what is progressive Christianity, and is it something we should be worried about or is it just the yin to the theologically conservative yang?
This is question Alisa Childers seeks to explore in her new book, Another Gospel? The Journey of a Lifelong Christian Seeking the Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. The journey in the subtitle refers to her experience going to a progressive church and attending a faith deconstruction class and then finding her way back to a more theologically orthodox faith after wrestling through various questions. The structure of the book traces this journey through theologically progressive territory, addressing the questions people are asking while ultimately answering with orthodoxy.
It's a relatively short, concise book aimed at anyone who is concerned with or is in a progressive church:
Maybe you’re a Christian who feels alone in your beliefs. Maybe you’re a believer who has drifted into progressive Christianity without realizing it—or who is concerned that a friend or loved one is on that path. Maybe you feel frustrated when your social media news feed is flooded with articles, blogs, and videos that send red flags flying, but you can’t articulate why. Maybe there’s a pebble in your shoe because you’ve witnessed hypocrisy in your church or been a victim of spiritual abuse. Maybe you’re tempted to let the wave take you under and give up on your faith altogether.
To be clear, she is not saying something as simplistic as "orthodox church good, progressive church bad." No church is above the need for repentance or correction, but her aim is to show that whatever the faults of more theologically orthodox churches, the answer is not to jettison everything we believe.
The book largely succeeds at this goal. She writes in a warm, accessible tone that does not shy away from big theological words or apologetic challenges, walking through her progressive story and showing along the way how doctrines held up to scrutiny rather than crumbling. One of the single best parts about the book is how she winsomely invites the reader into daunting vocabulary (penal substitutionary atonement? phew!) rather than simply speaking over people's heads or dumbing the content down. Further, she shows herself to be well-acquainted with the issues at stake and is not writing from a detached academic perspective.
On the other hand, the book is not without blemish. She sometimes gives off the impression that if we just affirm orthodox doctrines and disavow progressivism, nothing could possibly go wrong; in other words, she sometimes makes it seem like the life and the praxis of the church is reducible to holding the right ideas. Her definition of orthodoxy can sometimes be overly restrictive to the point that other theologically orthodox Christians who differ from her on secondary concerns would nevertheless find themselves alienated by some of her stances in the book. To her credit, she does clearly articulate what she believes to be the dealbreakers for orthodoxy, as enumerated by Norm Geisler:
- Human depravity (I am a sinner.)
- God’s unity (There is one God.)
- The necessity of grace (I am saved by grace.)
- Christ’s deity (Christ is God.)
- Christ’s humanity (Christ is man.)
- Christ’s atoning death (Christ died for my sins.)
- Christ’s bodily resurrection (Christ rose from the dead.)
- The necessity of faith (I must believe.)
Also to her credit, she explicitly points out that this means non-essential doctrines regarding gender, creation, or spiritual gifts are not dealbreakers. I had to wonder how much she functionally meant this, though, given that in chapter 5 (for example) she portrays those who believe in evolution as just as heterodox as those who deny the virgin birth. It is of course possible to use evolution as a means toward the end of dismantling the credibility of scripture, but it's disingenuous at best to suggest that all believers who hold to the theory do so with that motive.
She similarly dismisses Critical Theory out of hand, framing it from the start as a worldview in opposition to a biblical worldview, at which point a Christian has no choice but to reject it. Yet it really does not need to be framed this way, and the stubborn impulse of the conservative Christian to insist upon it being a worldview is frankly frustrating and counterproductive. It is a tool for examining power and oppression in our world. Christians believe that both power and oppression are real and must be given careful consideration. When examining power and oppression in our world and in our own lives, it behooves us to pick up a tool custom built for the task. The fact that others who live entirely within the immanent frame condense the whole world down to a dichotomy of power and oppression in no way necessitates that we do, but we can heartily affirm that for this piece of the picture Critical Theory can prove to be a helpful lens.
She goes on to argue, "But when someone accepts the ideas of critical theory, it can begin to erode their Christian worldview by taking their eyes off the fundamental truths of who God is and how he works in the world. It excuses a person from upholding biblical morality and even considers the historic Christian sexual ethic to be oppressive." That first sentence is fair enough, but that's actually true of many other things that we cannot afford to dismiss. Science can begin to erode one's Christian worldview, but it in no way requires this. To baldly state without qualification that Critical Theory "excuses a person from upholding biblical morality" is a gravely reductionistic error, and even beyond that it's simply a non sequitur. Listening to the intersectional transgender lesbian tell stories of lived oppression is not an excuse to dismiss biblical morality, but an opportunity to weep with those who weep. Without affirming everything that is proclaimed under the banner of Critical Theory, we can nevertheless thank God for this small island of common ground in a sea of division instead of turning it into a wedge between us and those to whom we are called to be ambassadors.
These criticisms are not insignificant, but they do not affect my overall approbation of Childers' new book. I think she's wrong about these non-essentials, but I think she's absolutely right about the essentials: we have been given a deposit of faith, and we have been entrusted to guard it for God's glory and our good. The questions she asks are real, and she shows that the orthodox Christian tradition actually does have meaningful answers if we take the time to learn and do our homework. I commend it to any and all who have written off Christian orthodoxy or are tempted to do so; she is a gifted, concise writer and well worth your attention.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.