Thursday, January 25, 2007

"The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right" Review

When I received The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right as a gift for my birthday, I thought the book would be a good-natured parody of what today's American church has become, using edgy humor to point out where today's self-help, wealth-and-prosperity ideology doesn't necessarily line up with the scriptures Christians claim to hold as sacred. But what I started with enthusiasm I struggled to finish. The jokes were funny at first, especially when aimed at pastors and fringe evangelical leaders I disapprove of, but after over a hundred pages of caustic criticism of my belief system, I could only hold out hope that by the end the author would turn a corner and at least attempt to understand those he was bashing.

Robert Lanham does have some experience with Christianity, but unfortunately, he's been jaded since youth. According to the author's notes, Lanham grew up in a "strict Southern Baptist church" where "rock music was considered the devil's music" and his parents spoke in tongues. Now living in New York City, far removed from his Bible-belt hometown, he has an overtly liberal vendetta against anything "evangelical." His arrogant tone takes the reader's agreement for granted as he condemns traditional Christianity and draws shameful caricatures of prominent figures in American Christianity today. His biting rhetoric and relentless disrespect for for people and their practices show that he's just as intolerant as the Christians he condemns.

But the fact that Christians give him so much ammunition is what worries me. Lanham cites a number of disturbing statistics and quotes heresies from some of the most consipicuous evangelicals of today. Of course, in Lanham's mind, the more liberal someone is, the better. So we can't use his standard to judge someone's faithfulness. But we can examine--and cringe at--some of these telling statistics.
Joel Osteen is one of my favorite health and wealth guys. His motto (at least according to his bestselling book) is that since we're children of the King, God wants life to be easy for us, and people will go out of their way to help us. If I had 30,000 people listening to my sermons every week and a bestselling book, I might be able to embrace this philosophy without feeling my stomach turn, but I think Joel would have a hard time selling this to Paul and other apostles, and especially to Jesus. Here's what Lanham has to say about Osteen's church (p31):

-Lakewood meets in the Compaq center, the former home of the Houston Rockets, and the church spent $92 million renovating the place.
-Has two working waterfalls, a state-of-the-art hydraulic stage, an internet cafe, and 300 employees.
-Features an adjacent five-story building with its own restaurant and a view of downtown Houston.

And here's one that Lanham somehow missed. Like most churches, Lakewood has a building fund and is making a push to raise extra money to pay off their debt more quickly. Church members pledged to up the ante and pay an additional $4o million (over regular tithes and offerings) by the end of last month. Any member who forked over more than 2500 bucks was promised to have their name added to the Wall of Champions, which is apparently an actual physical structure that commemorates the "sacrifices" of those who contributed to the Lord's work. So much for not letting your right hand know what the left hand is doing.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not picking on Lakewood because it's the only church that makes us wonder whether we've forgotten what it means to be salt and light. But you can hardly turn on the TV without seeing Osteen's cheerful grin, and I can only foresee his church membership and influence increasing. This scares me, because even though I think waterfalls are kind of nifty, I don't think they're necessary for the ministry of the word of God.

Lanham goes on to bash many more evangelical leaders in the book, some of whom I believe are legitimate men of God, others who I think are wolves in sheep's clothing. Keep in mind that the main premise of the book is to give those whom Lanham calls "sinners" (outsiders and non-Christians) an insider's look at the celebrities of the evangelical movement.

And what we see is chilling. Lanham's perspective, although sometimes lewd and always skewed to the left, says that Christians in the U.S. need the same kind of gimmicks and indulgences at church as they get in the fast-food line. Though this book is not for the faint of heart, I'd recommend it for a thick-skinned believer who wants to see the sad truth of how Americans have moved toward corporate Christianity. Lanham's book reminds us that when megachurches become the mainstream, we have to ask ourselves if we're preaching the true gospel. May we never forget our Savior's words: "Broad is the path to destruction, but narrow is the road that leads to life, and few find it."

1 comment:

Seabolt said...

I think we should start our own prosperity church, get fed up with the world, move to some strange place, call it Trevboltia... and prove 'em all wrong! Everyone has a right to their opinion but not everyone seeks right regardless of their opinion.