Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dear Christians: Please Stop Boring the World

Phil Rehberg, The Road to New Life: The Way Of Jesus Of Nazareth

Many moons ago, my local pastor offered what he called a “Bible 101” course for all congregants interested in learning more about the Good Book. He even opened it to community members, including interested unbelievers. Though I suspected he’d lowball his lessons (and he did), I attended, and found it periodically enlightening. Then, six months later, he offered Bible 101 again. And six months later. And six months after that. “Bible 102” was never forthcoming.

I’m unsure how to review this book. At only eighty pages plus back matter, it’s barely a pamphlet, but brevity serves its purpose. Attorney turned pastor Phil Rehberg pretty comprehensively summarizes his brand of charismatic Protestant theology for spiritual seekers and recent converts. But he breaks no new ground. He just circles popular homiletic points longtime Christians have heard for years, and even curious unbelievers have previously encountered in a society saturated with religious language.

Don’t misunderstand me. Rehberg says nothing out-and-out wrong. His exegesis accords with broadly Calvinist soteriology, backed with solid Biblical citations. I cannot dispute statements like: “Unfortunately, Christian leaders often ask people to decide to follow Jesus before they have considered him.” Or: “If you decide to follow Jesus, you are choosing to join his family, live in his kingdom, and let him be your King.” To pinch a theological cliché, This Is Most Certainly True.

It’s also really ordinary. Not only does Rehberg declare rudimentary Christian principles without any form of rhetorical clarification, as the quotes above demonstrate, he uses short sentences and few polysyllabic words. The language approaches a middle school level, with gentle, soothing cadences Christian readers probably remember from Sunday School handouts. Despite Rehberg’s brevity, and his generally agreeable thesis, I found holding focus very difficult, because his theological simplification and Mister Rogers-like intonation made me sleepy.

Recently I read an essay insisting that Christian worship traditions must change, that liturgy itself drives believers away. One recommendation really stood out: the author insisted sermons needed to go, because they’re a mere relic of pre-literate civilization. Christians today can read theological books, watch theological TV, and generally absorb theological teaching broadly. Old-school homiletics, according to this argument, is functionally obsolete anymore. Anybody, this writer claimed, can read theology and witness the truth thereof.

I respond: they can, but do they? We can argue the theological heft of Christian TV. But even Christian bookstores won’t stock difficult theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or William Lane Craig. Writers with bite, like GK Chesterton and Watchman Nee, vanish into the “Catholic Interest” and “Charismatic” sections, guaranteed to go unread by anybody not specifically seeking them. Forget classics like Augustine, Aquinas, or John of the Cross. You might find pretty gift editions. Maybe.

Instead, Christian bookstores, and Christian sections of mainstream booksellers, are dominated by writers like Johnnie Moore and Terry Smith, popularizers who desperately pitch to the middle. Or Amish romances. Lots and lots of Amish romances. Christian publishing has become hostage to a mindset that being pious means being polite, anodyne, and unobtrusive. The BBC's history of British Sunday School notes that Parliament once tried to ban Sunday School as dangerous. When did Christianity become safe?

Phil Rehberg joins legions of recent Christian leaders keeping curious Christians stuck at “Bible 101” levels. Surely they don’t mean any malice. They don’t revel in their congregations’ bland habits and freshman-level Biblical literacy. However, at least since the 1990s, when “Seeker Friendly” became Protestantism’s watchword, Christian leaders have fallen into a groove of presenting the same information, mostly the same way, time and time again. Meanwhile, “no religion” has become America’s fastest-growing religious category.

Then, irregularly, Rehberg tosses in the kind of awkward flourish that actually alienates Bible-believing Christians from evangelical churches. One really stood out: “Your relationship with God is like a romance. God is pursuing you.” David Murrow complains, with some justification, that such “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” language, common especially in evangelical praise songs, specifically alienates men. Today’s society has strict gender divisions, right or wrong. While I believe God seeks us, romantic rhetoric is offputting.

Rehberg’s brief, accurate, basically harmless pamphlet might make a decent textbook for adult catechumens. To his credit, Rehberg avoids the “one and done” salvation model beloved on Christian AM radio. He just says nothing to inspire Bible-believing Christians beyond the “Bible 101” level. It’s a theological teething ring, and says little congregants won’t internalize after a few Sunday sermons. People who buy books expect something more, something weightier. Rehberg, sadly, just doesn’t push hard enough.

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