This World’S Too Much Our Home
Also reviewed in this section: Theology Without Boundariesby Carnegie Samuel Calian, Mourning into Dancingby Walter Wangerin, Jr., Doing Well and Doing Goodby Richard John Neuhaus, With Liberty and Justice for Whom?by Craig M. Gay

No God but God: Breaking the Idols of Our Age, edited by Os Guinness and John Seel (Moody, 224 pp.; $16.99, hardcover); Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?edited by Michael Scott Horton (Moody, 354 pp.; $17.99, hardcover). Reviewed by Richard J. Mouw, provost and president-elect, Fuller Theological Seminary.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when some of us complained, quite loudly, about the “other-worldliness” of evangelicalism. But that hardly seems a problem in the 1990s. Social action is widely advocated in evangelical circles. Bible-believing Christians occupy important positions of power and influence in legislatures, corporations, and universities. Pentecostal and holiness churches, which once stood on the wrong side of the tracks, now often own the best ecclesiastical real estate in town. Evangelical conferences propagate the latest in social-scientific savvy and technological know-how. Christian media proclaim the benefits of therapy sessions and recovery programs.

The writers in these two volumes are all agreed that the time has come to worry aloud about evangelicals’ this-worldliness. We are not told whether these two projects, both from Moody Press, were in any way coordinated. But they do complement each other: the essays in No God but God, edited by Os Guinness and John Seel, are organized under the theme of idolatry, while the collection in Power Religion, edited by Michael Horton, focuses on the ways in which our idolatrous projects are played out in our sinful obsession with power.

The authors of these essays are not merely cranky critics but are some of evangelicalism’s leading lights: Charles Colson, J. I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and James Boice are part of the Horton team, while Thomas Oden, Paul Vitz, and David Wells are among those who go to bat for Guinness and Seel. For all of them, the seeming cultural complacency and conformity of many present-day evangelicals constitutes a serious threat to faithful discipleship. Both books take a critical look at several popular movements and trends within evangelicalism, which they identify as the key dimensions of this threat: church growth, signs and wonders, recovery and psychology, professionalization and bureaucratization of ministry, the politics of the Religious Right and Left.

Article continues below
The dangers of popularity

While timely, these are not new issues. Idolatrous power has plagued us, after all, from the time of our first parents’ banishment from the garden. Nor are these temptations new to evangelicals. Some of the books’ criticisms are reminiscent of those made of nineteenth-century revivalism. Criticisms of a fondness for “methods” and “techniques,” of a heavy borrowing from worldly culture, and of a love of the sensational were once lodged, for example, against Charles Finney’s brand of “success”-oriented revivals—and even, we might add, against the ministry of the evangelist for whom the publisher of these two books is named!

One also detects in some of these essays a nervousness about popular evangelicalism as such. Recent historians of American religion (such as Yale’s Jon Butler in his book Awash in a Sea of Faith) have paid much closer attention than past historians to the longstanding tensions between the “high” theology (systematized and orthodox) and the popular “folk” practices (emotional and understood pragmatically) of various religious groups. These tensions are very much alive in contemporary evangelicalism. Much of our fascination with power and spiritual techniques has roots in folk-religion traditions. Still, it is not enough for evangelical intellectuals merely to label these “bad theology”; we must also explore the deep spiritual yearnings that are at work in our grassroots evangelical desire for visible and practical signs of God’s presence in ordinary life.

Not that these essays are merely warmed-over polemics from our religious past. The 23 authors in these two volumes are also addressing issues that are unique to our present situation. Evangelicals in the past often thought of themselves as on the margins of the dominant culture; worldly power was something they viewed from a distance. For today’s upwardly mobile evangelicals, this distance has been greatly reduced. It is a matter of profound sociological and theological importance, for example, that fundamentalists who for many decades said, “This world is not my home,” would form a movement in the 1980s that thought of itself as a moral majority.

Beyond favorite grudges

The analyses set forth in these two sets of essays ought to be debated carefully and thoughtfully in the evangelical community. My own guess is that a healthy dialogue about these issues would reveal that at least some of our apparent disagreements have to do with the ways in which we nuance our respective statements of the case.

Article continues below

Granted that a fascination with political power and evangelistic methods and church growth and the therapeutic control of inner lives and managerial technique can all function as idolatries; but is there not at least something present in each of these recent developments that can provide important correctives to past evangelical habits? Do we really want to return to political passivity? Can we rightly dismiss the desire to train pastors to manage effectively large budgets and to supervise specialized ministry staffs as nothing more than an unhealthy obsession with “professionalization”? Should we not explore the ways in which a sanctified sociological savvy can enable us to reach more people with the gospel? Granted that much popular psychology these days is obsessed with “victimization” themes; but aren’t we also learning about real victims—abused spouses, molested children, married couples made miserable by poor understandings of what intimate communication is all about—who have often been hidden from sight, even in our own circles?

I strongly suspect that many of the authors in these books would concede that the trends they worry about also carry with them opportunities for faithfulness. Some of them even admit this, albeit grudgingly. Those on both sides of these debates need to get beyond their favorite grudges.

In an almost playful introduction to his volume, Michael Horton warns us that his authors “are painting with wide brushes—in places, brooms—in order to make a point!” Fair enough. But painting with wide brushes and brooms is also an old, often very destructive, evangelical pattern of argument. The issues raised in these essays will not be dealt with effectively unless we are all willing to attend to the finer details. Brooms are simply the wrong instrument for performing the delicate task to which we are called.

These authors are rightly calling for theological integrity in a movement that has not always thought clearly and carefully about the details of the Christian witness. And yet evangelicalism is a movement that has served in the past, for all of its faults, as a powerful instrument in the cause of the gospel. Evangelicals have been blessed with a strong devotion to the authoritative Scriptures and with a special burden for pointing men and women to the Savior whose blood is the only power in the universe that can cleanse us of our unrighteousness. It will be a sign of our continuing theological and spiritual health if we pay close and prayerful attention to the issues discussed in these two books.

Article continues below
West Meets East

Theology Without Boundaries: Encounters of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Tradition,by Carnegie Samuel Calian (Westminster/John Knox Press, 130 pp.; $14.95, paper). Reviewed by Eugene H. Peterson, who teaches spirituality at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and is the author of Under the Unpredictable Plant (Eerdmans).

Jesus’ prayer “that they all may be one” (John 17:21) continues its work at the heart of the church’s life, a powerful and unremitting energy. It is not always apparent. What more often gets our attention is the fragmentation—fights, splits, rivalries. Church history can be read, and often is, as an out-of-control Hatfield-McCoy feud, each new generation finding fresh provocation for continuing old disputes.

But most of it is surface noise. Beneath the surface, prayers initiated by Jesus for a reconciled community daily dissolve suspicions, clear up misunderstandings, open doors, and bring estranged sisters and brothers together in holy embrace. Carnegie Samuel Calian’s new book, Theology Without Boundaries, is both product and continuation of the prayer.

One of the most formidable boundaries of our time has been between East and West. For most of this century the boundary was defined politically by the communist governments of Eastern Europe and Central Asia; we called it an “iron curtain.” For a millennium previous, the boundary went along the theoloeical/spiritual lines of Eastern Orthodoxy. Even though there were no armed guards to prevent border crossings, the theological boundary was as forbidding as the political one. There has been little communication and almost no communion between Eastern and Western Christians. We tend to glower at each other, occasionally extending a stiff handshake.

This is the boundary that Calian, who is president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, works, providing introductions, welcoming, and interpreting. Baptized in the Eastern church and ordained as a Presbyterian, he is uniquely qualified for the work. And he has been doing it a long time, writing books and diligently pursuing ecumenical exchange.

Calian singles out prayer as Eastern Orthodoxy’s most significant contribution to the recovery of our common Christian community. Instead of calling for yet another council in an attempt to organize Christian churches into unity, or urging the formulation of a theological creed that will enlist all churches in a common confession, he persuades us to “recover the practice of interiority within the heart of our theologizing process. We cannot afford to leave the practice of interiority solely to monks, spiritualists, Eastern gurus, New Age religionists, and transcendental meditation practitioners.” He does not dismiss the importance of councils and creeds—both are given considerable attention in the book—but he insists that the key is in the life of prayer, “the practice of interiority.”

Article continues below

Hesychasm is Orthodoxy’s most notable contribution to a life of prayer that is adequate to the noise and externalization of our culture. Hesychasm (from the Greek, hesychia, meaning “silence” or “quiet”) is primarily a prayer of listening, listening to the voice of prayer in our own heart, and understanding that this voice is not our own but that of Another speaking within us. It is “essentially an attitude of contemplation and interiority which centers on the heart.” It is the apostle Paul’s “pray without ceasing.”

There is a widespread marketing of spirituality in our culture, inevitable perhaps in a free-market economy. But much of it is secularized, with no concern for God. And much of the rest is diluted, appealing to our basic laziness. So it is urgent that we have access to a life of prayer that is thoroughly Christian and uncompromisingly interior. Orthodoxy has maintained a living tradition of just such prayer. Bits and pieces of it have emerged among us in the pastiche of transcendental meditation and the techniques of “centering prayer.” But why not get it whole and entire in the rich context of Orthodoxy’s robust thinking and holy living? That is the question and invitation posed by Calian.

With the collapse of the communist governments in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, many of us who were ignorant of the beauty and power in Orthodoxy have become aware of it. We thought those were godless countries—now we find they were all along well salted with Christians. How did they keep the altars burning through all those years of brutal suppression? Obviously, it was this cultivated interiority of worship and prayer that proved more than a match for any external oppression.

Calian does not idealize Orthodoxy; he does not present it as the tribulation-refined antidote to the world-corrupted Western church. His purpose is to make sure we realize how essential Orthodox Christians are to any realization of recovered community, and what a prominent role they play in Jesus’ prayer “that they all may be one.”

Article continues below
The Many Deaths Of Walter Wangerin

Mourning into Dancing, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Zondervan, 293 pp.; $16.99, hardcover). Reviewed by Katie Andraski, a poet living in Rockford, Illinois. Walter Wangerin, Jr., has written many stories about death and its attendant, grief. He has used fiction (The Book of Sorrows being the most notable example) to show how vital and close our mortality is.

Walter Wangerin, Jr., has written many stories about death and its attendant, grief. He has used fiction (The Book of Sorrows being the most notable example) to show how vital and close our mortality is.

Now he has offered us a theology of grief in Mourning into Dancing. In an interview, Wangerin notes, “Bereavement follows not just the loss through death but also losses through divorce, through marriage. My child marries and I cry. It isn’t all happiness. I really am suffering the separation. What the book has done is to identify death as separation. I use separation as a working definition of death, and I use relationship as a working definition for life.”

Wangerin defines four kinds of relationships people have: with God, with other people, with their place in the world and their work within it, and finally with themselves (their bodies, their personalities, their feelings). When a person is in relationship to these four, she is alive, but “death is suffered in separation” when those relationships break.

As is his vocation, Wangerin tells stories: biblical ones like how death came into the world through Adam’s sin; personal stories about his daughter Talitha growing up; one about Terra Johnson, whose house burned down; about a surgery removing part of Wangerin’s lung; about his memories of his father when he learned by letter that his father had cancer; and about Gloria, whose beloved uncle, Sonny Boy, a dancer, died and how she grieved. Wangerin mixes these stories with his explanations and meditations.

The writing is clear, precise, and bare, which can be terrifying, like a skull, when the subject is death. Sensing a kindred spirit, Wangerin quotes from Job, “For now I lie in the earth; thou wilt seek me, but I shall not be.” As Job saw it, death was a place where not even God could find a person. Wangerin comments, “For whatever we don’t know about the far shore, this we know so well it stands our hairs on end: that the third death is an isolating event. There is no such solitude as this death is. People do not die together, holding hands and singing songs; they live together that way even to the end. But at the end, one takes the extreme step all alone; that single step is what distinguishes the dead from the living; at the last, the last is one’s aloneness.”

Article continues below

And that’s not even the final death, the utter death, the separation from God all sinners deserve. Beautifully, thoughtfully, Wangerin tells how God in Christ made it so the faithful do not have to suffer this last death.

Mourning into Dancing is both explanation and advice. When Wangerin turns away from death to grief, he affirms grief’s healing capacity and speaks to comforters, instructing them in caring for the grieving. “Comforters: know the script, but read the griever.” The script in this case is the four acts of grief: shock, anger, hopelessness, and despair.

He urges comforters to prepare themselves by making peace with their own death and by purging their own motives. Comforters must expect nothing from the griever. They must be engaged in a close-to-selfless act of commitment and listening until the griever heals.

Mourning into Dancing is a pastor’s invitation to sit with him while he “sketches the causes of sadness.” He names them and “tells a story or two” along the way. “Perhaps you’ll find your own experience therein. Surely you will see that not all causes are ‘unnatural.’ Many are the passages of living, despite the sadness they engender; and if such natural events cause you to cry, well, you won’t be embarrassed by your sorrow anymore. I’ll show you. Come.”

Making Money For God

Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist,by Richard John Neuhaus (Doubleday, 312 pp.; $22, hardcover). Reviewed by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics.

Socialism has disappeared as a serious international force, but it retains a powerful allure in religious circles. Even many clerics who recognize the devastating failings of collectivist economics remain dissatisfied with capitalism. In their minds, it is cold and selfish, based on greed and inhospitable to the most marginalized in society.

Paradoxically, the collapse of communism may have made it more difficult to make a moral case for the market economy. Observes Richard John Neuhaus, Lutheran-turned-Catholic theologian and editor of First Things, “Unlike any time since at least 1917, then, the free society is not self-evidently justified by contrast with an ideologically aggressive alternative to the free society.”

Article continues below

In Doing Well and Doing Good, Neuhaus attempts to develop a moral basis for capitalism. He explains that his purpose is a limited one. He is not promoting a theology of economics but, rather, hopes to get people “to think theologically about the free society.” His effort is directed at Catholics, but the principles and evidence he develops should be of interest to Protestants as well.

Redeeming capitalism

Neuhaus acknowledges the perceived popular tension between “doing well and doing good.” Far from these interests being opposed, he argues, “they may actually need one another.”

Economics is not everything, but it is, Neuhaus writes, “an important dimension of our lives.” And, as such, it, too, “should be brought under the lordship of Christ.” Neuhaus’s important contribution, however, is to see that for some people, participation in economics—particularly work in business—is their most important skill. “The one thing some people know how to do really well is to make money,” he observes. Thus, there is nothing wrong with them doing so as long as they submit it, like every other activity, to God.

Neuhaus does not attempt to bathe capitalism in Christianity. Businessmen are no more moral than anyone else, and capitalism, he admits, “has a mixed moral record.” The problem, however, is not the system: capitalism reflects the morality of its participants rather than supplying its own. Thus, argues Neuhaus, the source of greed and selfishness is “human nature.”

His defense of economic freedom is also quite limited. He likes what Michael Novak calls “democratic capitalism,” which Neuhaus distinguishes from “the free and unfettered market that is favored by those who call themselves libertarians.” (Alas, what Neuhaus misses is that it is the corrupting influence of democratic politics through the regulatory state that most often results in the immoral results denounced by liberal clerics.)

Neuhaus endorses the point made by Pope John Paul II that only a system that allows entrepreneurship and profit will produce the resources necessary to lift up the disadvantaged and marginalized. Moreover, it is only a free system that generates the variety of private mediating institutions that can best meet the world’s many needs.

Profiting by religion

Yet, for all of the benefits of a free society, Neuhaus recognizes that it does not represent humanity’s ultimate end. “Capitalism will never be morally satisfactory,” he writes. Rather, the system of free exchange needs to be nestled in a larger, moral order.

Article continues below

Which is where the gospel and the church come in. Indeed, he argues that the very success of capitalism requires religion: “While a spirituality of economic enterprise may not have been necessary for economic success, one might argue that economic success now makes a spirituality of economic enterprise necessary.”

For all the benefits of its market economy, America faces a number of serious problems, which Neuhaus does not minimize. But he rightly argues that we are more likely to solve them with a free rather than collectivist system. His most important service, however, may be to emphasize the decisive role that religion can play in supporting and humanizing a free society.

Evangelicals’ Economic Babel

With Liberty and Justice for Whom? The Recent Evangelical Debate over Capitalism, by Craig M. Gay (Eerdmans, 276 pp.; $19.95, paper). Reviewed by Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the editor of No Longer Exiles: The Religious New Right in American Politics.

At a meeting of evangelical economists, philosophers, and biblical scholars, a Left-leaning philosopher begrudgingly admitted after two days of debate that free-market capitalism was more efficient in producing wealth and helping the poor. Still, he protested: “Okay, I agree with everything that has been said, but I still don’t like Disney World!” Welcome to the world of the evangelical debate over capitalism.

The rise of evangelical social and political concerns over the past 30 years has brought with it a surprising diversity of positions on economic issues. Craig Gay, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, touches on every imaginable position within the evangelical world. His comprehensive and evenhanded research is revealed as he describes the positions, in separate chapters, of leaders of what he calls the evangelical “left,” “right,” and “center.” The result is the best survey available on evangelical views of economics.

Almost 20 years ago, 40 church leaders gathered in Chicago to write the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” Out of it grew numerous books and essays calling for a renewed commitment to social and economic justice. Magazines like Sojourners and The Other Side emphasized that evangelicals had neglected the numerous passages in the Scriptures detailing God’s special concern for the poor. Many books, most notably Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, called for a radical discipleship that made concerns for social justice an urgent priority.

Article continues below

Such legitimate pleas for compassion to the poor and the oppressed corrected a prior imbalance in evangelicalism’s history. Still, such calls for justice often failed to take into account the strong differences Gay notes in both the evangelical community and the larger religious community regarding what “justice” is (Is it equality ofopportunity, for example, or equality of result?), and who is responsible for maintaining it.

The “contemporary moral debate,” Gay observes, “is plagued by competing definitions of justice, definitions that appeal to entirely different moral paradigms and are therefore logically incompatible.” Gay reminds us that “even among those who agree that justice ought to be grounded in revelation, there has been considerable disagreement as to just what justice is.” One of the chief merits of this book is Gay’s detailed explanation of the competing views of evangelical writers on the appropriate role of civil government in promoting economic justice and correcting social injustices. Evangelicals also hold widely different concepts of liberty and differ on the priority it should be given in the economic sphere.

In the end, Gay reminds us that Christ stands in judgment above all economic and political programs. Thus, he says, those arguing for an evangelical economic ethic must offer their prescriptions with humility

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.