by Roger Wolsey
393 pp. Xlibris. $19.99
Certain books stand out in my mind less as conversation partners and more as moments for anthropological reflection. Such books give me a decent picture of how people whose outlooks differ from my own see the world, but I don’t come away from reading them feeling compelled to incorporate that picture of things into my own active imagination. Off the top of my head Richard Dawkins, James Dobson, Bart Ehrman, and Rick Warren are among the living authors whose texts I’ve read recently but whose ideas haven’t really challenged mine so much as given me occasion to say, “Nope. That’s not me.” This month (and it took me dang near a whole month to read this book), Roger Wolsey joined that list.
I know that my reviews tend to pick nits with people’s missteps citing historically important texts, and I’m afraid that I couldn’t suppress that tendency as I read Wolsey. As the world looks to Wolsey, ancient and medieval people thought the earth was flat (78; anyone who’s read Dante could tell him otherwise), literal readings of the Bible did not become standard practice until after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (102; apparently Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana doesn’t count), Abelard invented the idea of personal/individual salvation (again, I have to point to Augustine), and Quakers are Anabaptists (159; granted, some Quaker groups eventually adopted water baptism for converts, but the core of the Quaker tradition rejects bodily sacraments in favor of spiritual communion). I know that to some this must look like “Gotcha!” review-writing, but as with other cases, I must insist that people who want readers to take their points seriously must research seriously, and the historical blunders in the book (I limited myself to three early ones) tell me, as a reader, that Wolsey doesn’t take the subject matter seriously enough to do basic fact-checking.
Beyond matters of sloppiness in isolated points, the book tends to set up binaries between “conservative Christianity” and “progressive Christianity” that do not do much to point beyond themselves towards greater complexity. Granted, periodically through the book Wolsey takes time to offer a proviso to the tune of “there are some progressives who believe this,” but on the level of organization, just about every chapter begins with a rather flat caricature of conservative evangelicals, one that might capture the worst of the pack but certainly doesn’t account for the diversity within that camp, and proceeds to a longer description of what progressive Christians might have to say about the question at hand. As Wolsey goes into each topic, the footnotes might offer somebody’s blog URL, the title of a magazine article, or one of Wolsey’s own sarcastic comments that didn’t fit into the flow of the book. Periodically the typesetting changes for a “Break it Down” section that either follows a tangent that came up or quotes somebody else’s text at length, often addressing the question at hand but rarely integrating it into the larger argument. So it goes through chapters on God, Jesus, sin, salvation, the afterlife, the Bible, the problem of evil, and eschatology, and rarely in those chapters does the book indicate that evangelicals disagree among themselves about how best to articulate answers to the questions, much less that there might be Christian writers like N.T. Wright or Will Willimon who call into question the paucity of Christian imagination instead of answering those questions in that order. Instead, if the structure of the book even in part constitutes the argument (or, if you prefer, if the medium is even partly the message), then that part of the argument seems to hold the binaries as relatively uncomplicated and unworthy of even structuring the book as anything but a series of binaries.
I should admit that Wolsey got on my bad side early when he reproduced the classic “blind men and the elephant” riff early in the book (67). Once I see someone use that unironically (after all, if someone can see the blind men and the elephant, doesn’t that person claim an objective perspective on God that the parable seems to be warning against?) as an argument against doctrinal assertions, I lose respect for that person’s thought processes. Beyond that, the book makes assertions about contemporary evangelicals that do not at all ring true to my own experiences. He pushed me further towards the Dark Side when he accused conservatives of denying that the Spirit was operative in the world before Pentecost (93), apparently accusing conservatives of never reading the gospel of Luke. He offers a positively screwy etymology of the Hebrew ha-‘adam, reading the initial aleph as the first-person imperfect stem of a becoming-verb (165) and seems to ignore the fact that the
Sermon on the Mount Olivet Discourse is spoken to people already willing to follow Jesus up a… wait for it… mountain who are already following Jesus right up to the Last Supper scene, noting with some sense of triumph that very little of the sermon is dedicated to convincing people to follow Jesus (181).
Of the content of the book I won’t say much more beyond the observation that this is a catalog of early-twenty-first-century tendencies of thought among Protestant liberals and not much else. They’re not Calvinists and they’re not Catholics and they’re not Fundamentalists, but they’re not saying much about why they’re not. There’s very little sense that Wolsey seeks to convince any conservatives to become otherwise; they’re mainly there in the book for a sense of contrast and so that to demonstrate, over and over, that Wolsey ain’t them. After two hundred fifty pages of this they-say-we-say pattern, the final run of the book is a list of spiritual practices that liberal Christians tend to undertake, from versions of lectio divina to listening to rock and roll albums to public advocacy for New-Left causes, nothing that surprised me but also nothing that runs against my sense of what liberal Christians are about. At the end of this (very long) book, I’m no more convinced than I was at the beginning to become a progressive, and I haven’t learned much about progressives, but I have seen a decade’s worth of web reading compiled in a book, just in case someone wants to see all of the places where liberal Protestants differ from (something like) conservative evangelicals.
Ultimately, a book like this reminds me that, when I’m tempted to say that my more-conservative sostren and brethren that they’re stereotyping liberal Christians, sometimes there are people to whom they (the conservative siblings) could point and say, “Look! That’s just what I was talking about!” Indeed there are people who say that the forgiveness of sins isn’t at the core of the gospel because , in human conflicts, the main fact that both sides ignore is that “we’re both fine–just as we are” (269) and that there’s really nothing beyond a “mess-up” or two to forgive anyway. And there are people who think that “literal” is the opposite of “nuanced” (193) rather than literal sense being one component of a (medieval) nuanced reading that also encompasses other things. And yes, there are people who quote the incendiary blog of an angry evangelical and assume that said blog post represents and encapsulates a theology of “Divine child abuse” (155) which in turn represents most evangelicals. All of those stereotypes do have roots in the real world (I have a book in my hand that proves it), and likely the stereotypes that people heap on me do as well. Mercifully, there are certain books out there that might well begin with stereotypes but eventually articulate arguments powerful enough to take seriously in spite of their genesis.
This book just ain’t it.
*A note to the reader: As Roger Wolsey notes in a comment below, I did refer to a section of his book treating Matthew 25, part of Jesus’s Olivet Discourse, as the Sermon on the Mount. That was a careless oversight on my part, and the text above that’s stricken through reflect my retractions and corrections.