Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Christian Who Couldn't Find His Message

Greg Fromholz, Broken: Restoring Trust Between the Sacred & the Secular

Christianity today doesn’t suffer a crisis of faith, contends multimedia entrepreneur Greg Fromholz. We have faith everywhere: faith in God, in the Church, in each other, in science, in politics, in ourselves. Today’s more subtle conflicts, Fromholz maintains, deals more with trust. We’re progressively losing the ability to trust one another, and in doing so, losing the ability to relate to the image of God around us.

Fromholz proceeds from the same “emergent church” tradition that begat authors like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. He writes in the same low-key, “just asking questions” style that characterized these authors’ early works. How you receive Fromholz’s ruminations probably reflects how you received these other authors too. But I’ll note that Bell and McLaren have recently graduated to more muscular, source-noted writing styles. If that tells you anything.

First, the title is somewhat misleading. When Fromholz describes “the Sacred & the Secular,” he doesn’t mean these terms as, say, Mircea Eliade does. Dialog between seemingly opposed social forces doesn’t interest him much. He writes for Christians already struggling to trust and connect with others, those who feel estranged from authentic faith. He expends no particular effort reconciling faith’s claims of reality with secularism’s tempting, fact-based counterclaims.

Then, his prose stylings take some getting used to. He writes in a breezy, conversational tone, like a man thinking with his fingers. I have no problem with that; I do so regularly. However, I have a term for my similar writings: “first draft.” Having found my thought, I believe it’s necessary to organize my writings into a tight, case-hardened format. Fromholz leaves his metaphysical meanderings on the page.

Greg Fromholz
Near the beginning, I appreciated Fromholz’s thesis. Citing the Adulterous Woman from John 8, a favorite of mine, Fromholz writes: “Jesus’ love is with not at. Jesus is there in the dirt, in the woman's brokenness, in solidarity with her. Jesus puts himself firmly between the accuser and the accused. The incarnate God now a human shield.” If Fromholz maintained this level of boldness, he could potentially pierce today’s situation.

Instead, he writes for an audience apparently primed for Internet reading. His formatting looks like a web page, with open lines between paragraphs, sans-serif font, and several paragraphs structured like listicles. Like web writing, his prose rewards a very short attention span; few examples or illustrations receive more than about 500 words before getting abandoned. Web writing is fine; you’re reading this online. But book readers expect something heftier.

Fromholz’s storytelling mixes personal anecdote with something more scholarly—I can’t quite call it exegesis, but close. His childhood struggles with bad posture, for instance, dovetail into a discussion of the story of the woman healed of a bent back on the sabbath (Luke 13). Such parallels point up the continuing relevance of Biblical Christianity to today’s world, even if Fromholz wasn’t unable to straighten his back for eighteen years.

Unfortunately, even when he attempts such solid Biblical exegesis, his writing suffers a nigh-clinical inability to maintain focus. A discussion of the Prodigal Son, which Fromholz could’ve completed in three pages, takes an entire chapter, because he keeps vanishing on cow paths and tangential side discussions. His attention wanders to encompass everything that crosses his mind; my attention wanders because I’m bored waiting for Fromholz to find his point.

This, probably, encapsulates my entire problem with this book: Fromholz clearly has something meaningful to say. But he hasn’t attempted to put that meaning into a form. The resulting product looks like a rambling Socratic discussion, possibly at a Protestant youth group meeting. Fromholz says much that resonates with my faith struggles, which kept me reading. But his prose is pitched too low to hold serious readers’ attention.

The problem, I suspect, isn’t this book. Fromholz publishes with Abingdon, the official publishing organ of the United Methodist Church. Many similar publishers, like Crossway and Augsburg Fortress, publish two strands of books. They stake their reputation on serious, scholarly books for seasoned theological readers. But they mass-produce books like this, which lowball their theology, to move copy and maintain shelf space in Christian bookstores.

Books like this move copy with people who browse Christian bookstores. I cannot say whether they change hearts, but they certainly change pocketbooks. These titles generally go through only one printing, never earning their authors much royalty, because they don’t have staying power. Maybe they build the author’s résumé and reputation. But they certainly prove that, whatever the moral motivation, a Christian business is still just a business.

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