John S. Dickerson’s The Great Evangelical Recession (Baker, 2013) is a young pastor’s thoughtful discussion of what American Christians are doing right—and what we’re doing wrong.
What we’re doing right: “When someone is addicted to alcohol, pornography, marijuana, or illicit heterosexual sex, we tell them (if we are scripturally sound) they need Christ’s power to overcome that lifestyle. When someone from those same tribes comes to Christ, we expect them to be drawn to their former way of life. We expect that learning to walk with Christ will include some stumbles, falls, and retreats into those old entrenched patterns.”
What we’re often doing wrong, in relation to both heterosexual and homosexual sinners, is forgetting that “A person must come to Christ, and then Christ can free them from their slavery.” Dickerson argues that “many evangelicals swap the cart and the horse—expecting homosexual unbelievers to overcome their behavior without the power of the cross or the Holy Spirit.” As he says, “No matter what tribe an unbeliever belongs to, we should lovingly expect them to act like pagans until they come to Christ.”
Dickerson’s biblical conclusions: “As with any tribe, don’t focus on changing behavior. Focus on changing relationship to God through Christ. … Don’t be surprised when you are hated and misunderstood about this issue. You will be. … When you are hated or misunderstood, don’t defend yourself or other evangelicals. Instead, let your quiet good actions eclipse any accusations.”
Law professor Patrick Garry’s A Faith Brief (Kirk House, 2012) also counsels patience as he notes, “We expect understanding God to be easier than playing baseball.” The analogy rings true: A child first learns to catch when a parent stands three feet away and practically drops the ball into his glove. A child first learns to hit off a tee. Then come years of practice: “And yet, learning to have faith is something we expect to achieve after a few Sunday attendances at a religious service.” Garry’s explanations are useful both for new Christians and those who work with them.
And that brings me to a book selling far more copies than either Dickerson’s or Garry’s: Cross Roads, by Wm. Paul Young, author of—as the cover of his new book declares—the 18-million-copy bestseller The Shack. Cross Roads (FaithWords, 2012) has clunky writing but it kept me turning the pages. Cross Roads offers sentimentality and takes potshots against orthodox doctrine, but it proclaims that death is not the end.
Overall, with atheism on the march, Christians who understand that God is love (which Cross Roads affirms) but God is also holy (which the book underplays) should not be snarky toward Young’s evangelistic tool. Yes, it is dangerous to base a theology on stories of mostly-dead people seeing bright lights and Jesus, but people who take a baby step toward faith may next, with God’s grace, develop a deeper relationship with Him.
Robert Hall thinks our biggest problem is loss of personal relationships—not the federal deficit or the crisis in public education. The Dallas-based business consultant knows other issues—he helps the homeless and volunteered in the Hurricane Katrina cleanup—but relationships top his list in his book, This Land of Strangers (Greenleaf, 2012).
“Relationships are society’s greatest safety net,” he writes, and backs that up with startling statistics: “Divorced men are six times as likely to suffer depression.” He partly blames technology for helping us become strangers, but solutions are harder to find and government can’t help. He takes a non-partisan approach: Conservatives could applaud his lament about fatherless families, and liberals might appreciate his cry for true community.
Hall’s Christian faith lurks behind the book, but he is sad that faith can be divisive. He knows the heart of the problem is a me-first emphasis, so he says those on the left and the right should not blame each other: All should look in the mirror. —Russell Pulliam