The Consumer Who Ate The Church

The Body: Being Light in the Darkness,by Charles Colson, with Ellen Santilli Vaughn (Word, 455 pp.; $19.99, hardcover). Reviewed by Roger E. Olson, professor of theology at Bethel College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and coauthor of 20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (InterVarsity).

More than just another evangelical jeremiad, Chuck Colson’s latest book is a prophetic warning that, if heard and heeded, might rescue the American evangelical church from a new Babylonian captivity. Colson is not content to curse the darkness. He wants to point toward the light—the light of authentic Christian faith that still glimmers here and there in a culture of new barbarianism that threatens to overwhelm and extinguish that light.

Although The Body is, at its core, a book of hope, its warnings are dire: “All too often the twentieth-century church takes its cues and defines its role by the ways of the world. It accommodates a consumer-oriented culture that wants, above all else, to feel good. And it focuses on action at the expense of character, on doing rather than being.” According to Colson, to be the body of Christ in the twentieth-century, the church must recognize, face, and conquer the disease that would destroy it: the subversion of the gospel by culture. To translate the message for better communication in a particular context is one thing; to transform it by accommodating the values and sensibilities of culture is to subvert the message.

Marketing to the pews

But wait! We’ve heard this all before, right? In the seventies, Christians saw secular humanism as the grand subverter; in the eighties, it was the New Age movement. What is different about this latest enemy of the gospel?

The difference is that Colson is not content to cast stones at such easy targets. The true enemy, he avers, is more subtle. It is our consumer mentality that bases everything—including how we package and deliver the gospel—on not offending anyone. Its bottom line is: What does the market want?

Colson believes that this consumer-oriented model of business has filtered into all areas of American culture. Now the only thing not to be tolerated is intolerance, and the only minority that can be offended is the one that talks about absolutes and dares to name the growing darkness as sin and evil. This mentality, Colson argues, has even filtered into and corrupted our evangelical churches so that the gospel preached and taught is fast becoming a generic gospel designed to offend no one and to bring fulfillment and self-actualization to everyone. Gone, or fast going, are the classical themes of sin and repentance, God’s wrath and judgment, sacrifice and service, and being willing to suffer for the cause of Christ.

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The book is not just 400-plus pages of doom and gloom, however. The chapters on the growing darkness are interspersed with chapters recounting stories of heroic Christian “points of light,” individuals and churches that have shone forth into that darkness. The stories are of people like Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, who offered his own life to replace that of a young man condemned to die in Auschwitz, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and numerous lesser-known Christians who have found life through giving it up. All are stellar examples of finding hope and meaning by rejecting the consumer-oriented, therapeutic, self-centered gospel of cultural Christianity. These are exciting and inspiring, if somewhat melodramatic, stories.

Colson may not be today’s Jeremiah, but he is a voice crying in the late twentieth-century wilderness of Christian confusion showing how evangelicals (and others) can become salt and light in society.

A darker darkness

In spite of the many strengths of The Body, there are some flaws. Occasionally the authors engage in rhetorical overkill. Referring to Gorbachev, they ask: “But had the glasnost cowboy riding the buckling [sic] brontosaurus of his ailing nation really pulled off such a miracle?” It would be a better book without such tabloid language.

Academics will wince at some of Colson’s Franky Schaeffer-like attacks on Christian higher education. When he criticizes Seattle Pacific University for allowing a professor to bring a homosexual couple as speakers to a class and for allowing a professor to use a textbook that endorses homosexual marriage, one has to wonder if he understands the nature of a liberal-arts education. The contexts of such incidents are all-important in judging them. Should all speakers who contradict Christian beliefs and lifestyle be banned from Christian campuses? Should textbooks be limited to ones that never endorse a point of view contrary to evangelical beliefs? It seems that Colson’s criticism is somewhat inconsistent with his own statement that “we must be familiar enough with the prevailing world-view to look for points of contact and discern points of disagreement.”

My main criticism of The Body, though, is its limited characterization of the “darkness” of modern American culture. For Colson, that darkness is made up of consumerism, secularism, relativism, extreme individualism, and hostility to traditional values and Christian beliefs. But what about other aspects of darkness? At the same time I was reading The Body, I was also reading God and Gaia, the latest jeremiad from Rosemary Reuther, a liberal, feminist theologian. She identifies some legitimate areas of the “darkness” that Colson does not mention but that Christians and allies must nonetheless struggle against, such as the destruction of nature and injustice toward oppressed people.

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Still, pointing out other areas of darkness hardly undermines Colson’s important thesis; in fact, his challenge is made all the more relevant and urgent. The church must wake up, throw off the warm comforts of consumerism, and become a distinctive community that lives up to its name, the body of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christ, Our C.E.O.

Everything You’ve Heard Is Wrong,by Tony Campolo (Word, 190 pp.; $15.99, hardcover);Transforming Leadership,by Leighton Ford (InterVarsity, 300 pp.; $16.95, hardcover);The Taming of the Shrewd, by Paul de Vries and Barry Gardner (Nelson, 286 pp.; $18.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Steve Rabey, religion editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph.

“Greed is good!” proclaimed Gordon Gekko, the amoral business tycoon in Wall Street, the 1987 film that explored the unbridled avarice of the 1980s. For many, the film was depressingly accurate. The world of work has indeed turned into a relativistic arena in which traditional values like honesty and loyalty have given way to the all-out pursuit of power and financial gain.

Three recent books attempt to challenge these laws of the modern marketplace by articulating a solidly Christian approach to a host of vexing workplace and management issues. While they differ in advice and strategies, all the authors agree that Christ’s life and message contain the key to filling the moral void at the heart of American business.

Love in the jungle

In Everything You’ve Heard Is Wrong, author, speaker, and teacher Tony Campolo delivers a blistering critique of modern sales training (which reduces success to the art of how best to manipulate others for one’s selfish ambitions) and calls corporate leaders to focus on a principle rarely discussed in M.B.A. classes: love.

When Campolo is not teaching sociology at Eastern College, he is speaking and writing books, including recent titles on environmentalism, the crisis of consumerism, and the charismatic movement. So what can he tell us about business? As it turns out, Campolo has a practical, firsthand grasp of the moral tensions within the world of work, to which he brings his refreshing approach toward biblical texts, his willingness to dive head-first into tough issues, and a reader-friendly, unpretentious communication style.

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The book’s title comes from a speech Campolo gave at an insurance sales conference, where he offered a radical alternative to the previous speakers’ advice on how to sell and close deals. “People are not things to be manipulated with the right techniques,” he railed. “They are sacred! Each of them is an infinitely precious person in whom the Eternal God has chosen to make His home. And all of them deserve to be treated with reverent respect.” Although the book is brief, the questions it raises linger: What kind of person do you want to be? How can you do something meaningful with your life? What do you want your legacy to be? “These questions cannot be avoided,” he writes. “Even if you repress them by day, they’ll haunt you by night.”

Part of Campolo’s answer is found in the Christian concept of calling. Campolo revives the traditional view that all people, not just pastors and missionaries, must have a vocation or calling from God, and that all occupations that do not directly disobey biblical teaching are worthy in God’s sight. One’s calling provides the basis for choosing a profession and an employer.

Using 1 Corinthians 13 in a fresh way, Campolo also deftly shows how love can be the foundation of a fruitful career and life. While Gordon Gekko may be confused by these ideas, Christians will find them persuasive and satisfying. Young people who are struggling with what God would have them do would greatly benefit from this book, as would older executives who may be overdue in checking their career aspirations against Christ’s counsel.

The leadership gap

Leighton Ford, who has dedicated himself to developing new leaders, writes that we are in the midst of a leadership gap.

Young people are intimidated by the size and scope of multinational corporations and organizations; they are skeptical of authority; and they have seen highly placed leaders in religion, business, and politics tumble from their pedestals. What these potential leaders need, writes Ford, is a fresh introduction to the person and principles of Jesus of Nazareth, “the greatest leader in the history of the world.”

Ford compares the challenge of leadership in the postmodern world to a rocket with a malfunctioning guidance system: “We hurtle at incredible speed into the future while lacking instruments that can track our course and tell us where we have been, where we are, or where we are going.” The solution, Ford writes, is “transforming leadership”: where leaders allow themselves to be transformed by Christ and in turn transform others through the example of their “vision, communication, trust and empowerment.”

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The question of how Christian ethics relate to the world of business is not new. In the 1920s, Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows took Jesus out of his robes, dressed him in a three-piece suit, and portrayed him as a master executive. Ford’s Christ retains his peasant garments but demonstrates leadership principles for business leaders nonetheless. Chapters on Christ’s vision, strength, strategy, communication, servanthood, and shepherdmaking are moving and insightful, though they lack real-world examples, which would make them more compelling.

Of snakes and doves

Ethicist Paul de Vries and consultant Barry Gardner describe a corporate environment where moral stands have been downgraded to the status of personal preferences. Today’s corporate leaders do not make moral judgments; in consultation with corporate lawyers, they see how much they can get by with in the pursuit of greater profits.

De Vries and Gardner call business leaders to a full-fledged return to ethical thinking in all areas of life and work. Decisions should balance spiritual principles with real-world demands and seek to find the middle ground; or, as Jesus said, be “as shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

The book includes a dizzying array of charts and tables; references to everyone from Nietzsche to Tom Peters; cartoons; Wall Street Journal articles; thought-provoking questions; and many practical scenarios designed to guide the reader through the steps in critical thinking required to make godly decisions.

The focus of the authors’ efforts is something they call “excellence-virtues,” and they humbly call their “rediscovery of the fundamental unity of quality thinking, excellent values, and good living” “the most consequential, practical breakthrough of our time.” Unfortunately, the authors’ choppy, machine-gun style tends to obscure their important message rather then make it clearer.

Together, these three books offer inspiration and direction for Christians struggling to make their faith real in an often unfriendly environment. But these authors would all agree with Campolo’s simple axiom: “In a world where everything seems to be measured by dollar signs, we can do well by doing good.”

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Is The Antichrist A Computer?

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, by Neil Postman (Alfred A. Knopf, 222 pp.; $21.00, hardcover). Reviewed by Reed Jolley, pastor of Santa Barbara Community Church.

America is in the midst of a great social experiment, according to culture critic Neil Postman. We must ask ourselves: “Can a nation preserve its history, originality, and humanity by submitting itself totally to the sovereignty of a technological thought-world?”

Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, describes our culture as a “technopoly,” in that it deifies technology, “which means that culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.” The technological society is drenched with “information,” overly quantified with the results of meaningless polling data, and enamored of technology because of its efficiency. Everything—a beauty queen’s body, a student’s IO, and a worker’s performance—is assigned a number. Computers, in such a society, begin to function as surrogate deities. “The computer has determined …” becomes the functional equivalent of, “It is God’s will.” The net result is the loss of both our humanity and any notion of transcendence.

Postman is readable, humorous, and prophetic. This essay functions as a coherent preface to the less accessible works of Jacques Ellul. Like Ellul, Postman is long on analysis and brief on corrective solutions to our predicament. The author does, however, call the reader to be “a loving resistance fighter” against the onslaught of technique in every area of life. He calls sympathizers to be suspicious of the very idea of progress and to distinguish between information and understanding. He calls America back to “the great narratives of religion,” to family loyalty (“reach out and touch someone” should carry with it the expectation that the person is in the same room), to know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and to question technological ingenuity when it interferes with our humanity. Every technology is both a blessing and a burden. Postman invites a technophile society to count the cost before going to the battle.

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