THE ANSWER TO BAD RELIGION IS NOT NO RELIGION: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics, and Believers. By Martin Thielen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. Xv + 160 pages.
It’s not secret – fewer people are going to church than they used to. Many give the bad state of religion as their reason for staying away. People seem to have noticed that there is a lot of hypocrisy among Christians. They’re too politicized, angry, exclusive, dogmatic, and self-righteous. They’re simply not pleasant to be around. So why spend your Sunday’s around such people. Instead, we can be spiritual without the trappings of religion. I can understand the sentiment – I’ve known these kinds of people. I’ve even been counted among them a few times in my life. But just because some religion is bad, doesn’t mean we have to totally give up on religion!
Martin Thielen, a United Methodist Pastor serving in Tennessee, and a former Southern Baptist pastor, doesn’t think that we have to give up on religion completely, because some representatives of the faith are not all that attractive. In other words, he’s asking people to give the church a second look.
This book follows up on his book What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? In that book Thielen distinguished between beliefs that don’t represent mainstream Christianity – such as God causing car wrecks or that doubt is unacceptable – and beliefs and practices that better represent mainstream Christianity, such as the centrality of Jesus to the Christian faith and the message of grace. Like the earlier book, this book is written with a lay/general audience in mind. As such, it would be very useful for an adult education program (a leader’s guide is available from the publisher). The perspective represents a broad, middling, moderate understanding of the Christian faith. Depending on your vantage point you might think he’s too liberal or conservative, but as with the earlier book I found him to be fairly moderate.
Thielen offers up the book to the seeker and the skeptic, but I think the primary audience will be Christians who want to respond to the critics in a firm but gentle manner. If taken seriously, church people might get a better sense of why so many persons pass them by. The church’s reputation has taken a serious hit, so it will take time to restore the church’s credibility.
Thielen, like many preachers, is a story-teller. Each chapter is filled with stories, some of which I’ve heard before. The book itself is divided into three parts. The first five chapters form Part 1: The Answer to Bad Religion. In this section Thielen addresses expressions of bad religion, including self-righteousness, chronic negativity (after all, who wants to be around someone who is always negative), arrogance and intolerance, partisan politics and nationalism, and nominal commitment. On the latter he decries the tendency to put things like ski trips and youth sports above church. While I agree with Thielen that too often people don’t give the church the priority it deserves, I think it needs to be asked why that is.
The second part of the book is composed of two chapters -- in which he suggests that the answer to the above isn't "no religion." In other words -- John Lennon might have gotten it wrong. Abolishing religion isn't helpful or necessary. Thielen begs to differ, offering significant examples of the contributions made to society by the church and by Christians, from leadership of the civil rights museum to the provision of hospitals and educational entities.
Finally, we come to the longest section of the book, comprising ten chapters. In this section Thielen lays out his vision of good religion. He lists/describes ten good characteristics: it impacts the way we live; prioritizes love; engages in service; provides a prophetic voice; builds community; is hope filled; keeps an open mind, practices forgiveness; promotes gratitude; and practices evangelism with integrity. As you look over this list, you might think – well these describe our church pretty well. Hopefully that is true, but sometimes what we think the world beyond our walls sees and hears may not be what they’re seeing and hearing. Note that he speaks of providing a prophetic voice as being good, but he also makes it clear that partisan politics makes for bad religion. It’s not always easy knowing where the line between the two lies – so that is at least on area to keep an eye upon. As for evangelism – most mainline churches don’t have to worry about venturing into what he considers the bad side, that’s because we’ve tended to avoid evangelism. He reminds us that evangelism doesn’t have to be filled with fire and brimstone to get the point across!
As I noted earlier, the target audience is the general reader. It’s moderate in tone, easy going as a read, and centered in a mainstream Christian context. I think it would be very useful for a study group (there is a Leader's Guide for a six week study series available as well).
While Thielen helpfully points out the problem areas and offers a counter point, I’m not sure it will answer the concerns raised by the skeptics. It might prove helpful to seekers who are at least open to the faith, but have some negative experiences. But, if it can help church people get beliefs and practice back in alignment, we’ll be in good shape!