(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes within this book review are taken from:
VanHall, Christopher. (2019) Reborn Again: Crucifying Christendom & Resurrecting A Radical. Christopher Drury.
As I write this review, I can’t help but feel that I am writing less about the book Reborn Again by Christopher VanHall and the phenomenon of the book Reborn Again by Christopher VanHall. As I was reading, I began to think, ‘ANOTHER book about how a former fundamentalist who has left evangelical Christendom to embrace progressive Christianity? WHY?’
There have been several ‘former evangelical’ Christian persons who have, after personal and/or intellectual journeys, have come out (no pun intended!) as being progressive Christians. Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Shane Clairborne, Peter Rollins, and Rachel Held Evans (of blessed memory) are perhaps the more prominent, but there are many examples of people who have progressed from a more conservative to a more progressive religious orientation who have documented their spiritual journeys in one or several books, articles, interviews, or podcasts – WHY DO WE NEED YET ANOTHER?!
Simply put, because no one journey is exactly the same. Some will resonate with a theological treatise. Others will identify with a thoughtfully reflective approach. Another type of person will be attracted to a fast-paced, high-octane ride through life, the universe, and everything, peppered throughout with rather salty lexical choices – which is my experience of this book.
I enjoyed the general approach VanHall took to each chapter, which I would characterize as an experience-theology-experience sandwich. He clearly demonstrates that our reflection on faith must first be based on action and events, and that our reflections need to lead us back into renewed and, where necessary, corrected action. It mirrors the action-reflection-action cycle that I and my classmates were always reminded of in seminary Field Education days. Consequently, he’s able to take us through the experiences of losing his grandfather, doing professional ministry in the evangelical megachurch culture, leaving that culture, creating a new spiritual home, and eventually realizing that trying to create this new home meant he had to leave his geographic home, or else potentially lose his dream of ministry. He also created pithy title names which will, no doubt, catch the attention of readers. These range from earlier ones like ‘Hypocrites’ and ‘Idols’ through to the concluding title, ‘Transfiguration’. This chapter is, I found, the most wonderful chapter in the book to read, as it left me with hope for his ongoing work.
I cannot help but think, though, that Christopher VanHall may end up alienating some of the very people he is trying to reach through this memoir. For one thing, his willingness to curse will simply turn off some who think that type of language has no place in a book about Christianity, no matter how open they may be to a new vision. For another, his willingness to jettison classic trappings of the faith, like the doctrine of the Trinity (pp. 75, 88), will be a step too far for others.
What rubs me the wrong way, though, is that his generally combative stance against all aspects of Christianity he doesn’t agree with does not end with standing against Biblical literalism and megachurch culture. He also takes a good swing at the trappings of what we call the ‘mainline’ church. This excerpt from the first chapter (‘Hypocrites’) sums up his critique of what is wrong in ‘progressive Christianity’:
…We progressives are flexible in examining theological views, but we are absolute in our commitment to nurturing tradition. Much of which is meaningless at best and triggering at worst for the average young adult in today’s society. Most millennials find little value in robes, altars, creeds, temples, and songs written 150 years ago. While the evangelical church has yet to accept the indisputable reality of scientific truths such as evolution. As a whole, those of us in the progressive mainline have yet to evolve in our approach to worship. (p. 24)
While there are many progressive-sounding persons and groups bound in ‘traditional church’ trappings which are unhelpful, I can also testify that there has been and still is renewal occurring in worship, church architecture, statements of faith, and hymnody. Lots of people in both mainline and progressive churches are working on new language, music, worship, and forms of community to go with new theology, and to make a broad-brushed statement that progressive Christianity is largely still stuck in the mid-19th century is simply unfair. VanHall himself is working on a new form of faith community, quite admirably, in his work with Greater Purpose Community Church in Santa Cruz, California (check it out on http://gpsantacruz.com/). Indeed, his approach at Greater Purpose will reach some who will not be attracted to progressive Christianity in other ways. However, the statement above leaves the impression (with me, at least) that he believes his approach to be the only worthwhile way to do this. Is that really the impression he wants to leave?
I hope not, because his memoir is otherwise an engaging recollection of a person who has worked through serious issues of faith; deconstructed and reconstructed his beliefs; translated those beliefs into action, often at serious personal cost to himself; and ends with the hopeful first steps taken in establishing an exciting new form of faith community. He has contributed in his own way, as many others have done and are doing, to the redefinition of how one can be Christian in the 21st century. We need more of these stories, told from as many differing perspectives as possible. One story, like one size, does not fit all. Christopher VanHall’s story is told well and needs to be out there. It’s just not the only story that needs to be told.