Saturday, August 22, 2009

Introducing Christianity -- A Review

INTRODUCING CHRISTIANITY: Exploring the Bible, Faith, and Life. By James C. Howell. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009. xii + 212 pp.

What is Christianity? This is a question that needs to be asked, with answers attempted in each generation. Near the beginning of the 20th Century the renowned German Church Historian Adolph Von Harnack authored a book with this title, acknowledging that even then loud and confident voices were declaring that Christianity had outlived its usefulness (Harnack, What Is Christianity, 2nd ed., New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1908, p. 5). Harnack offered his book as an answer to this challenge. Even before that Friedrich Schleiermacher offered his Speeches to the Cultured Despisers. So, the challenges posed to Christians today are not new, nor do they differ all that much from these previous challenges. A more compelling challenge faces Christians of today – a simple lack of familiarity with Christian faith as it has been lived and taught down through the ages. In Introducing Christianity, James C. Howell, a United Methodist pastor offers a response to that need.

Howell, who is the pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, hasn’t addressed his new book to the despisers of the faith, but to those who need a primer on the faith. It is written with an ecumenical mainline Protestant audience in mind. That a Methodist pastor has chosen to publish this book with a Presbyterian publisher is proof of that sensibility. The title of the book, is a bit misleading. Although not written with the trained theologian, or even the well-read pastor, in mind, this isn’t a basic text in the Christian faith. Although it’s not long – just about 175 pages in all – it is rather dense. It also covers a rather wide field of topics, from an overview of the biblical story to an outline of theology, from a history of Christianity to a discourse on Christian ethics. There is very little that it doesn’t touch upon. And it assumes, to a degree, at least a minimal familiarity with the biblical story and even aspects of the Christian story.

Howell’s approach could best be described as center-left traditional mainline Protestant. Indeed, it could easily fit into the scheme suggested in the recent books by Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner – Found in the Middle! and Lost in the Middle? (Both published by Alban). Wildman and Garner argue for a “Liberal Evangelicalism,” one that is open, committed to social justice, and confessional in its approach to the Christian faith. This is essentially what Howell offers in the book. He’s no biblical literalist or inerrantist. He’s definitely committed to social justice and speaks fondly of the social gospel. Yet, he’s also a confessionalist. While the historic church has made plenty of mistakes, he’s confident that in all it’s made sound judgments on theology.

To get a sense of where he is coming from, one need look only at the theologians he quotes most often and quotes with the most respect. The three that stand out are Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reinhold Niebuhr and C.S. Lewis also make regular appearances in the text. This is a very mainstream perspective.

The book itself is divided into three parts, each consisting of three chapters. It is closed with a brief epilogue. Part one focuses on the Bible, with a chapter on the formation and transmission of the bible, and then chapters on the Old Testament and New Testament.

The second part, entitled simply “Christianity,” explores in brief the history of Christianity under the subtitle “Saints and Crusaders.” That statement gives a good clue as to the perspective – there is good and bad in our history. Chapter five focuses on the development of doctrine and then in chapter six Howell offers an exposition of what he considers the central doctrines of the faith (all in about twenty pages). I found interesting his statement that believing is something we do in community, and not as individuals.
Our culture declares that you can and should have your own little private denomination of belief. But how likely is it that even the brightest person’s opinions, that even the most passionate person’s pious feelings, are in fact the truth about anything rightly called God? Nobody can believe for me or you. But I don’t want to believe by myself; I want to believe with others, with you, in community (p. 99).

Thus, the value of the creeds, for even if they represent a certain time and place in history, they are communal expressions of faith and examples for us.

The final section, entitled “The Christian Life,” explores “the practice of Faith, the church, and eschatology. It might seem odd that a book such as this would spend an equal amount of space on eschatology as it does on the rest of theology, but my assumption is that since Howell wrote this book after teaching these topics in his church, that this was the topic that garnered the most interest and the most questions. It is true that the chapter deals with more than simply “end times” issues. Indeed, it focuses on salvation, the afterlife, and the idea of hope.

All in all this is a very good book to be used with lay Christians, but probably not new Christians. There is a certain degree of sophistication here – especially as he explores the ideas of theologians, ancient and modern. It is centrist enough that it should prove useful in most mainline congregations. It raises issues, including homosexuality, but it more often than not leaves room for discussion. Of course, the inclusion at the end of each chapter of discussion questions suggests that the intent is that this book should be read in community – as the body seeks to understand that ancient question – What is Christianity?

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