Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review: Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

Sometime in the winter or spring of 2005, I began reading a blog called the Internet Monk. The specifics of how and why I began reading are lost to me, and I don't suppose they're all that important. What is important is what hooked me: a combination of spiritual memoir and critique of church culture, written in an engaging, earthy style. For a very short time, blogging-wise, I wanted to be Michael Spencer. After I realized that I and everyone else would be much better off if I stuck to my own thing, I became content to just read his posts and listen to his podcasts. Spencer's views and my own diverge on a number of points--he'd still be classified "evangelical" by many, and I one of those "liberal mainliners"--but we agreed enough and I resonated enough for me to keep reading. Since I began blogging, Spencer's blog has been one of the few that I have visited nearly every day.

Due to both the quantity and quality of his posts--long, thoughtful, in-depth pieces churned out almost daily--I and many others wondered why he hadn't yet written a book. His writing displayed a capability of pursuing such a venture, yet there was hardly a mention of him even considering such a project until late in his blogging career. Enter Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to a Jesus-Shaped Spirituality.

This book is the culmination of Spencer's work as a blogger. Long-time readers will recognize nearly all the major themes of Mere Churchianity. In particular, his coined term and concept of "Jesus-shaped spirituality" takes center stage as he seeks to counter all the caked-up stuff of "churchianity." His other coined term, "post-evangelical," does not appear nearly as often, but the concept does. In fact, these two concepts as they intertwine and diverge are what this book is all about.

First, Spencer lays out his case against "churchianity." He begins by telling a story from his time as a youth leader, when he took his youth group to Dairy Queen one Sunday evening after a day of church activities. They essentially trashed the place, breaking a salt shaker, acting inconsiderate toward the staff, and generally showing little regard for where they were. A few days later, Spencer received a letter from one DQ worker which essentially said, "The behavior of your group is why I am not a Christian any more. If you're all I have to go on, then I want no part of Jesus or your church." While Spencer didn't take the letter too seriously at that time, he notes that it did start him on a long trajectory of thinking about how little the behavior and beliefs of the church resemble Jesus.

After this story, this is where Spencer begins. Over the course of several chapters, he lays out how the practices and preaching of most American churches differ so much from what Jesus taught and lived. No sacred cow remains untouched here as he notes how we've made Jesus a culture warrior, a Republican or Democrat, a wise hippie guru, or a bringer of comfort to suburbia. He notes how we've presented non-essentials such as high-quality worship productions, ten-step programs to financial or family wellness, defending creationism, condemning homosexuals, and Your Best Life Now the main items on Jesus' agenda.

Spencer then takes his argument a step further by noting how little Jesus is actually read or referenced in each of these instances. To be more specific, he notes how obviously little of the actual Gospels have been consulted when the church goes about most of its projects. Jesus' name is attached to all sorts of political causes, is used to justify all sorts of middle-class comforts, is invoked in all manner of crazy church programs, and so much of it displays an ignorance of what Jesus actually taught his disciples. This is "churchianity:" placing the agenda of the institution over the agenda of the person it purports to follow.

This, Spencer notes, is one of the biggest reasons why people are leaving the church in droves. He suggests that they're tired of the show, the hypocrisy, the needless crap that looks nothing like what Jesus wants. And this is his stated purpose for writing the book to begin with; these "leavers" are his target audience. He implores and encourages those who are tired of churchianity to not give up on Jesus in the process.

The second section of Spencer's book concerns who Jesus really was and what he advocated. This is probably the section that raised the most questions and disagreements for me. Spencer lays out what we can know about Jesus, which is always a point of contention for Christians. What he boils down as the basics are that he was a real person, was Jewish, did not live in a democratic society, taught an empire that has values alternative to Rome, and was the incarnation of God. Most Christians would not disagree on that basic list.

As Spencer gets into the specifics of this list, particularly his definition of incarnation, he risks his own doctrinal additions. He suggests many of the beliefs common to more evangelical Christians, including that Jesus himself taught that he was the Messiah and was Son of God in the literal familial sense. I'd argue that there's room and need for clarification on these points, including what even the generation after Jesus began writing and preaching about him. In the midst of Spencer's discussion about what the church has added on to Jesus' life and message, I noted no discussion of the Apostle Paul's contribution to this problem. Perhaps I missed it. He does make brief mention of how much churches would rather preach Paul than Jesus, but my recollection is that this discussion was not extensive. The Gospels themselves also present instances of this. The term "Son of God" in particular would have rankled Rome just as much as Jesus' use of "empire," and thus warrants further explanation and exploration of why the early church began using it, but Spencer instead uses it in the traditional Christian sense.

On the other hand, Spencer does spend a lot of time exploring the alternative empire that Jesus exhibited, as well as how grounded Jesus was in real experience rather than a lot of theory or doctrine. This, he argues, is actually one of the church's big aversions to talking a lot about Jesus: he's just not all that systematic. This could be an implied critique of the church's preference for Paul, but I still wish he'd acknowledged it in a more overt way. Regardless, Spencer notes how much time the church rationalizes away the need to read too much about Jesus or take this alternative empire too seriously.

Regardless of my own (minor) theological hang-ups with this part of the book, Spencer's main point is that the real Jesus, however close we can get to him, is much harder to follow. He doesn't really do many of the things that the church says he does or wants him to do. Thus, a Jesus-shaped spirituality will look vastly different from what is typically found in the church.

The final two sections of the book are all about what a Jesus-shaped spirituality looks like in practice. He cautions against thinking that things like a house full of Christian merchandise and being a shiny-happy person all the time are the point of following Jesus. Instead, he suggests that honesty, humility, and self-giving are the central tenets of a Jesus-shaped existence. It involves spending a lot more time loving and serving the helpless and hopeless and a lot less time in fortified, white-washed communities and churches. Such a life carries no promise to solve all your problems, either. The last section in particular involves a lot of encouragement to seek authentic community even if one can no longer justify being part of an organized church.

Mere Churchianity is Michael Spencer's essential message. It is eight years of blogging (and years more of writing and wrestling) condensed into a couple hundred pages. It is convicting, iconoclastic, at times even permission-giving in what people don't have to adhere to any more to be considered faithful believers. It is written in Spencer's familiar voice, and I was glad to "hear" it one final time.

The epilogue is an entry from Spencer's journal shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. It provides an appropriate "amen" both to the book and to his life. In fact, the entire book provides such an "amen" for those who have read his writing for years, as well as for those who never knew him yet would benefit from what he has to say.