Monday, January 28, 2008

Book Review: unChristian

“Christianity has an image problem.” That’s how unChristian begins, and it is the problem it attempts to resolve, not by explaining the Christian faith to non-Christians, but by urging professing Christians to fix their image in 6 specific areas. According to the research done for this book (from the Barna Group), Christians are accused of being hypocritical, insincere in their efforts to convert people, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental. Because of these accusations, the writers contend, evangelical Christians, or those who are considered to be “born again,” have lost the respect of those outside the church. These non-Christians consider the Christian faith as it is practiced today to be unChristian, that is, “they think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be” (p. 15). Are they right?

It is tough to argue with the data gathered from the research. The authors make a convincing case that even those inside the church—young Christians in particular—agree that something has gone terribly wrong with modern Christianity. I found myself nodding in agreement quite a bit as I read the accusations hurled at the faith I myself possess. If our faith has become “unChristian,” we must not delay in working to fix it. And even if we are tempted to think that it doesn’t really matter what non-Christians think about us since non-believers will always disapprove of what we believe (the authors field this charge and respond to it on pp. 36-39), we have to realize that perceptions, even wrong perceptions, still affect the way people respond to us. If as Christians we desire to be heard by non-Christians, then we would do well to listen first to them.

As for the specific allegations leveled at us, can there be any doubt that Christians by and large are guilty of being hypocritical? It is true that for many of us our lives do not reflect what we say we believe. And we can surely understand that many of our attempts at evangelism have lacked in genuine interest for the person with whom we are sharing our faith. Yes, the Christian faith can seem “like a religion of rules and standards” (p. 123), and surely many of us have far too often made others feel like we were judgmental, setting ourselves up as the judge and jury of morality. We are known more for what we are against than for what we are for. We are too quickly associated with a political party and with antihomosexual values. What is helpful in this book is the authors’ ability to help us see why we should not wear many of these charges as badges of honor. Each chapter concludes with a section from various contributors explaining ways in which we might change these perceptions of non-Christians.

There are, however, a couple of areas in which I think the authors have erred.

First, in chapter 5, in which the authors’ deal with the accusation that Christians are unloving and hostile to homosexuals, I found the authors to be wrong about some of their conclusions. They quote (favorably) one pastor who says, “the struggle of gays being attracted to the same sex is no different than my struggle in being attracted to the opposite sex” (96, emphasis mine). Now I agree that the sin of homosexuality is no different than the sin of immoral heterosexuality as far as God’s judgment of sin is concerned. But the Bible does suggest that there is a progression in reprobation, and according to Romans 1, homosexuality is further down that progression than other sins. The authors also ask if “we really want government regulating the sex lives of its adult citizens” (96). Does this mean that we should oppose a Federal Marriage Amendment? Do the authors think that government should not regulate morality in any way? I agree that “we cannot assume that politics is the only or best way to influence people” (106) and that we can further burn the bridges by which we hope to reach homosexuals by unloving political jargon. But this doesn’t mean that Christians should abdicate this issue politically and cease in our efforts to influence our legislators toward a biblical morality. The authors also imply that we shouldn’t speak so passionately against the right of homosexuals to adopt children because “our most important concern must be the response of young people to Christ, not merely what type of home they grew up in.” While there is much to learn from this book’s chapter on homosexuality, I was disappointed by these suggestions that we shouldn’t fight the issue politically because of the potential that our opinions will alienate the homosexuals we should be trying to reach with the gospel.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, there is a potentially fatal flaw in the research that supports this book. On page 46 the authors tell us that in their research, “when it came to nonreligious factors—the substance of people’s daily choices, actions, and attitudes—there were few meaningful gaps between born-again Christians and non-born-agains.” The point is clear: this book is built upon the assumption from the research that born-again Christians do not live much differently from those who are not born-again. The authors even tell us how they identify those who are born-again: “a person has to say he or she has made a personal commitment to Jesus that is still important and that the person believes he or she will go to heaven at death, because the person has confessed his or her sin and accepted Christ as Savior” (46). Based on these conclusions, the book attempts to help these “born-again” Christians recover an authentic Christian faith.

But a survey cannot identify true “born-again” Christians without error. Just because a person makes the necessary profession to be classified doesn’t mean he or she really is. The authors say that two out of every five adults nationwide qualifies as being “born again.” Really? Forty percent of adult Americans are born again? What the authors miss is that behavior is a better identifier of regeneration. Of course, only God knows those who are truly his, but the Bible says we are to inspect the “fruit” of people’s lives in discerning those who are truly born-again (1 John 3:10). I do not deny that true believers are often guilty of the accusations leveled at them in this book by non-Christians. But I do think that Christianity gets much of its bad reputation from those who are not truly born again. So I’m afraid the research for this book is skewed.

Nevertheless, the damage is done to the Christian reputation, even if the guilty party are those who profess to be Christians but truly are not. Keeping that in mind, this book does offer some helpful advice for Christians who truly desire to convey to “outsiders” what it means to be Christian. I give this book 4 stars.

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