Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review: Christless Christianity by Michael Horton

I don't have enough superlatives.

When I first started reading Michael Horton's latest book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church I tweeted and blogged about its maybe being the most important book of the year. I don't regret that a bit.

You know all this buzz lately about the bottoming out of American religion, about the growing fuzziness in American evangelicalism, about the coming collapse of said evangelicalism? Wish someone would sort of diagnose the problems and explain them and then prescribe something?
Yeah, well, Michael Horton did that.

Only Horton doesn't just X-ray evangelicalism and point out some blemishes. Like some kind of awesome surgical ninja, he cuts out evangelicalism's ailing heart and shows it to us while it's still beating. Seriously. It's pretty awesome.

No square inch of the Body is left untouched by Horton's scathing evisceration of "moral therapeutic deism," the cancer that ails us. And on a personal note, I loved how prescient his thoughts seemed, as each page practically addressed something I'd just been pondering the day or two before reading it. For example, this bit on confession as catharsis:
[A] moralistic religion of self-salvation is our default setting as fallen creatures. If we are not explicitly and regularly taught out of it, we will always turn the message of God's rescue operation into a message of self-help.

Recently I came across a story in the newspaper on the remarkable success of a website caled "Chat rooms and confessional sites are exploding in popularity -- receives as many as 1.3 million hits a day -- as young people become more comfortable sharing intimate secrets and seeking advice online." One nineteen-year-old user of the site related, "The idea of confessing isn't necessarily about right and wrong. It's about unloading a burden. It's almost cathartic."

We recognize here the confluence of Gnostic spirituality (individualistic, disembodied, private) and moralistic, therapeutic deism. According to a biblical worldview, confession of sin is about right and wrong.

I read that conveniently on the day I planned to address the same issue at Element's public small group.

Christless Christianity is indeed prophetic. It knows the times and thereby shows us our future. The future we are just now seeing in the headlines.

Horton has the knowledge and the courage to analyze our illness and to address by name those who are spreading it. With conviction and kindness, then, he zealously proffers the gospel at every turn, insisting explicitly and implicitly page after page that we turn from works-focused "What would Jesus do?" to the faith-focused "What has Jesus done?".

From his knowledge of historical theology to his eagle eye on contemporary evangelicalism with its bigger/better/faster, its slick marketing, and its 7 Steps to the Successful Life, Horton's critique is nearly flawless, practically devastating, and immensely helpful.

The only problem I can foresee with Christless Christianity is that it will not be read by those who most need to do so. Horton's book is a grenade. But with the Church already submerged in so much noise and so much chaos, those most in need of its explosive power aren't likely to feel it.

So many times those of us urging greater gospel-centrism are just preaching to the choir, not necessarily by choice, but because those in need of the message have inoculated themselves against it, have reflexively decided to tune it out. Our brothers and sisters who desperately need to hear this message won't. I would love to airdrop copies of Horton's final chapter "A Call to the Resistance" over every church in America. But since there aren't many exclamation points in it (and Horton doesn't use phrases like "off the chain!") it will likely only be met with a yawn.

Which is just more proof that it is true.

I pray daily that the message of Horton's book (and all those who share it) will not just be voices crying alone in the wilderness, but it may be so. Nevertheless, the prophecy is sound. And revolutionary.

Thanks, Dr. Horton, for an incredible work.


Steve said...

I don't have enough superlatives either! :)

It may not be read by everyone who needs it -- but I know I need it.

I correlated some of what Horton says with William Lobdell's new book, Losing My Religion.

timwitten said...

Today was the first day I'd ever heard of Michael Horton and Christless Christianity. It has been on my plate the majority of the day...I just found your review as I looked to 'validate' the author to some degree, though his message resonated deep within. I only have the first chapter available to me at the moment..(along with some related articles/broadcasts I found). Thanks for the review!

Jared said...

Steve, thanks.

Tim, happy to be of help.