Before I do this review, it’s important to do some “disclosure” caveats. First, I am friends with Warren Smith. I met him nearly a decade ago right after I moved to Charlotte and it was an instant connection. We come from different branches of the “evangelical” tree – he is grafted “reformed” in his theology having moved away from this Southern Baptist stock. I am what I prefer to call a “fundagelical” having been raised in a strident branch of fundamentalism with which I have since disassociated over matters ranging from “soteriology” (I reject the name it/claim it version of cheap salvation) to tone to raising issues of tradition to superseding doctrine. At the same time, I do not identify with the squishy theology and associations that have plagued the “evangelical” movement for the better part of sixty years. Thus, I find myself somewhere in between the two as a “fundagelical”. Also, it would be inaccurate to call me a full-blown “Calvinist”. (I like to say that I’m a Calvinist to the extent that I accept about 2.7 of the five petals of the TULIP and I reserve the right to define the terms.) In addition, I have worked with and for Smith over the years. I wrote for the Evangelical New Services which he owns and I also wrote regularly for the Charlotte World and other newspapers that he has owned. We have both taught for Southern Evangelical Seminary, have spoken together at conferences and have worked on projects together. In addition, I was shocked to discover that I am even quoted in this book – something of which I was unaware until I actually read it.
However, this history with Warren may make me a tad bit more critical than I might otherwise be, just to demonstrate that I can write an even-handed review of this work. I might simply skip this exercise, except that I find the book too important to simply relegate to the stack of “read books” that clutters my offices. Having been asked to review it, I shall.
Over the years, I have grown increasingly frustrated and at times disenfranchised from my conservative Christian heritage because of some of the trends and practices which seem to dominate evangelicalism and fundamentalism on a regular basis. There is a certain “lemming” mentality among Christians that I find disturbing, even though at times, I have found myself rushing headlong to the cliffs with my fellow evangelical friends. This is the only world I know in terms of my theology. Born and bred a Baptist, I have moved in the circles of Bible-believing Christianity my entire life. And I’ve watched the silliness and trendiness from a front-row seat.
I remember trends like: week-long revivals, fighting the Southern Baptists, starting Christian schools, having a bus ministry, joining moral majority, opposing the World Council of Churches, prophecy conferences that assured us that Christ would return no later than 2007, Pastor’s schools, Willow Creek, Purpose-Driven Youth/Church, worship wars, small groups, Bill Gothard, cell groups, church planting, emergent, megachurches, church growth conferences, Gaither Homecomings, Catalyst, Passion, Prayer of Jabez, Purpose-Driven Life, Promisekeepers, Beth Moore, Toronto Blessing/Brownsville Revival, Christian Coalition, The Passion of the Christ, King James Only Movement and an armful more. Most of these I simply observed and to my embarrassment some of them I joined.
Warren Smith’s book, “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church” looks at some of the most egregious trends in the evangelical church and in doing so, gives all of conservative Christianity – from the militant-to-strident fundamentalist to the sloppy agape evangelical – a well-deserved wrap on the knuckles. What follows are my impressions…
Smith begins his work with the standard introductions and an explanation of his perspective and origins. Then he immediately launches into bursting the bubble of what he labels the “Evangelical Myth”. That is, that the evangelical movement would not simply be a religious movement, but would bring about cultural and societal revolution as well.
I was a little surprised that Warren took this on and so early in his book for two reasons. First, he holds to a “Reformed” view of theology and many within the Reformed movement (though not all) subscribe to a “Kingdom” mentality (reconstructionism) that is consistent with their amillennial eschatology. (I recognize that some Reformed folks are premillennialist, but many more are amillienial.) Many believe that in order for Christ to establish His millennial reign, there must be the establishment of a theocratic form of governance that will recognize Christ as the Sovereign Leader He is. Obviously, Smith does not hold this view.
The other reason I was surprised was because during the 2006 elections, I caught some heat from Warren and many in the “Christian Right” over my decision to distance myself from politics in my role (then) as a Pastor. I wrote several articles about it and as a result, the Charlotte Observer, my own legislator, Sue Myrick, several other media outlets and my good friend, Warren Smith either discussed it with me or took me to task in varying degrees. Warren had me on a radio show he was doing at that time as a substitute for Stu Epperson called “Talkback Live” and we spent a lively hour or so debating the matter.
Warren’s conclusion is that whether we are talking about evangelical political movement, the evangelical “marketplace” of goods and services that has emerged or other examples of monolithic influence or impositions on our culture, there is more smoke than fire and beneath that smoke you are just as likely to find rather “unchristian” motivations like money and power than you are to find the Gospel of Christ at the heart.
In his next chapter, Smith labels the attitude that has emerged in evangelicalism as a “new provincialism” in which we ignore our heritage and traditions founded on sacred scholarship and we fail to pause about where we are heading with our illusions of wealth, power, influence and what is all-together a rather worldly methodology and scale of evaluation. In this chapter, Warren provides the readers with a brief, but vital overview of the First and Second Great Awakenings in American History and leads the reader to a damning conclusion that the Second Great Awakening was more of a myth than a miracle and he lays the evidence and the blame of the emotionalism and manipulation that sprang from the techniques of men like Charles G. Finney – a man who is often exalted like an apostle of his era. I won’t go into the full case, but this chapter alone is important enough to know to justify the purchase price of the book. In the ministry of Finney, we see much of the seed sown for the excesses and unbiblical conduct of today’s evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
I will note that in this chapter, Smith takes on premillenialism which is more than likely a reflection of his Reformed Theology. As premillenialist myself, I found myself disagreeing with a rather “broad-brushed” approach to defining the history and the impact of this eschatological belief. At the same time, I am not such a premillenialist that I will not even entertain the criticisms and the challenges to that position. I certainly do not elevate one’s eschatological beliefs to be equal to other core theological stands and so in this, I listened thoughtfully to the arguments without completely buying into them. At the same time, Smith is thought provoking in how he deals with the topic and he also points out some tendencies and fallacies that have risen from those who practice a loose eschatological position without regard to other important doctrines and practical philosophy that emerges from a Biblical worldview.
With Chapter Three, Smith approaches, in rapid-fire order, some of the major “quarrels” that he and thinking believers should share with where evangelicalism is as a movement. He first targets “Sentimentality” which reduces the sovereignty and the very definition of God. Smith takes a courageous poke at some of the “stars” of the Sentimentality gurus including Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, leaders of emergent churches and the megachurch celebrities.
Catch this quote, “We have lost, for example, the ability to look at a book by megachurch pastor Joel Osteen and see that its very title offers the same promise as the Serpent offered Even in the garden of Eden: “Your Best Life Now!” That Osteen could title his book thus, completely without irony, and that much of evangelicalism could accept it without criticism, are proof enough that these ideas are not irrelevant to modern evangelicalism.” (I apologize for not having the exact page in Chapter three for this quote as I read it on a Kindle and it does not have the exact pages.)
In his next chapter, Smith takes on what he describes as the “Christian Industrial Complex” with a scathing examination of the Christian Contemporary Music, Entertainment, Publishing and other industries. He upsets some serious tables in this sacred mall and in doing so, he will cause even the most ardent “free-market” purveyor of “Christian” wares to take a second look at this industry and ask whether or not it a part of the solution or a part of the problem when it comes to what evangelical Christianity has become. If the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil, then Smith squarely sounds a warning call to any who buys or sells the wares in this industry. Of course, some would point out the irony in that Smith has, for years, benefitted from this “complex” whether by selling them advertising in his newspapers or publishing this very book. That said, he makes a point that is worthy of discussion. With the skill that a journalist brings to a book such as this, Smith also shines the light on some unsavory techniques that high-profile “ministries” bring to the market place of Christian consumerism that will make most of us squirm a bit in our seats.
One of the most controversial, but important chapters comes next and is entitled, “Body-Count Evangelism”. In this section, he takes on no less of a national icon than Billy Graham and others, like Rick Warren” who seem to have evangelism statistics that are “too good to be true” and asks the importunate question “where’s the fruit?” He goes so far as to boldly “call out” some of the practices of body-counting “decisions” as opposed to those who are experiencing genuine Biblical “conversion”. He also takes a rather insightful look at the “parachurch” phenomenon from a historical perspective and as a modern institution. In this chapter again, Smith’s Reformed leanings factor into his conclusions and he makes some valid points. My concern is that again he over-simplifies what he describes as Armenianism and at the same time, there needs to be additional discussion of why evangelicalism is filled with a soteriology that is more about sentimentality and cheap grace than repentance and conversion. This chapter includes some great history of the “camp” and “brush arbor” movements of the 1800’s and also makes some interesting connections to men like Graham and Jerry Falwell. I should note here that this is the chapter in which Smith lifts a rather embarrassingly transparent admission I made in one of my Evangelical Press News commentaries regarding my own involvement in the “Passion of the Christ” fiasco. My article was entitled, “Pimping for Hollywood” and actually does not cast me in a very good light. Smith goes on to discuss in a subsequent chapter the “Great Stereopticon” which is a fascinating critique of the Christian media and its impact on how we “do church.
Finally Smith closes his book with a call of action of sorts that is somewhat of a criticism of short-term missions and a challenge to plant churches. It’s in these chapters that I find myself in sharpest disagreement with his thoughts. Warren seems to miss the impact of short-term missions trips on the “go’er” by focusing almost exclusively on the mission field. Yes, short-term missions involves a lot of people, spending lots of money, to have a mission-field “experience. But that’s a little cynical. What he fails to realize is that when one gets out of the materialistic Western/American culture, for even a few days, and sees what God is going elsewhere, it invariably impacts them dramatically and permanently. Many young people who are preparing to go to the mission field themselves today would point back to a short-term missions trip.
The irony is that in conclusion, Smith himself shares the consequences of a short-term missions trip he made to India a few years ago where he observed K.P. Yohannan’s ministry and how that has forever changed his perspective on church-planting and foreign evangelism. Now, he himself, has experienced the way God works through short-term missions trips and he is spreading that influence to those with whom he comes into contact around the world today. While he calls the reader to the ministry of planting small, indigenous churches around the globe, he does so like it is a new phenomenon. For many of us who have been doing this work for the better part of a quarter of a century, we’re glad to see others discovering it, but it’s hardly a new innovation.
In the end, like a good movie, I wanted more from Smith. I think he was just getting started on many of the fallibles within the evangelical movement. And in the end, I don’t know if Smith offered any tangible or practical solutions. Maybe there’s another book in there for him on that topic. I hope so.
How important do I think this book is? Well, I’m ordering a case. Half of those I’m giving to some friends of mine that are dabbling with the Emergent Movement and other things that Smith hits on in this book. The other half will be used in a college class I’m teaching in Boston in January – a class of young church planters who are being regularly seduced and approached by much of what is wrong in evangelicalism today. I hope they’ll read this. More importantly, I hope they’ll learn from it. Before it is too late. If you are going to buy a book this week, put this one at the top of your list.
To order your copy, click HERE.