Two or three times a month I receive requests to do book reviews on a blog that I manage. Depending on the author, publisher, and/or book title I sometimes say, "sure" and other times, "not really interested." A couple of weeks ago I said "sure" purely on the book title. The book was "If the Church Were Christian." However, it was the sub-title of the book that intrigued me, which was "Rediscovering the Values of Jesus." I wasn't familiar with the author, who was Philip Gulley, but I was in agreement that we need to "rediscover" the values of Jesus.
The overall premise of the book is that the church has lost its way. The author believes that the picture of American religious life is one of disillusionment. He contends that it is difficult to see many similarities between the church's life and the person of Jesus. He unpacks this thesis in 10 chapters, each beginning with the words; If the Church were Christian . . .
1. Jesus Would Be a Model for Living Rather Than an Object of Worship
2. Affirming Our Potential Would Be More Important Than Condemning Our Brokenness
3. Reconciliation Would Be Valued over Judgment
4. Gracious Behavior Would Be More Important Than Right Belief
5. Inviting Questions Would Be Valued More Than Supplying Answers
6. Encouraging Personal Exploration Would Be More Important Than Communal Uniformity
7. Meeting Needs Would Be More Important Than Maintaining Institutions
8. Peace Would Be More Important Than Power
9. It Would Care More About Love and Less About Sex
10. This Life Would Be More Important Than the Afterlife
So far so good. (Except that I would have tweaked a couple of the chapter titles.) I am pretty much in agreement with the author's assessment of the institutional church in America. There is much about the life of the church that has strayed from the teachings of Jesus.
However, I found most of the examples the author uses to highlight just how the church has strayed less than helpful. He seems to conjure up the most extreme examples of fundamentalism in the church to make his point. For me, the numerous stories illustrating the worst of evangelical Christianity became tiresome. Furthermore, I didn't find it to be a fair or balanced approach to criticism.
Most troubling, however, is the Jesus the author describes, particularly in the first two chapters, is really no different than any other "religious" leader in history. For example, in the introduction, the author expresses doubts about the divinity of Jesus, saying that Jesus was a Jew "who did not see himself as divine. He saw himself as a rabbi, probably a prophet." If this is the case, then the author could have just as easily sub-titled his book, "Rediscovering the Values of" Buddha, or Confucius, or Gandhi, or the Dali Lama, or maybe Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) ;-)
Bottom line: Does the author present legitimate problems in the current state of the church in America? Absolutely. Does he do so with a sense of fairness, or evenhandedness that is helpful? I for one, do not think so. Does he provide a way for the church to be empowered (biblically and/or theologically) to move in the right direction? Based upon the author's view of Scripture and Jesus Himself, I would say no.
While others have obviously found Gulley's writings to be helpful (as noted by the other reviews of this book), I believe a reader would be better served by reading a book like "Death by Church: Rescuing Jesus From His Followers" by Mike Err.