Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do

by Phillip Cary

197 pp.  Brazos Press.  $14.99.

Phillip Cary was one of the best guests ever on Homebrewed Christianity, and given the quality of the folks that Tripp and Bo bring on to that program, that’s saying something.  What I did not know when I listened to his episode was that the book on which his interview was based would become one of those “arm’s reach” books when I’m teaching my Christian college students.  But the book, which my mother gave me as a Christmas gift, is going with me when I return to the office tomorrow, and the next time I have a student worry about “finding God’s will for my life” or “letting God be in control,” I’m going to be sure that this book lands in said student’s paws.  (I’m one of those professors who lends books to students.  I might find myself regretting that some day, but so far, so good.)

What makes Cary such a Christian Humanist hero is that his book, as far as I can tell, relies almost entirely on arguments and elaborations upon arguments from sixteenth-century theological sources.  Although he does not directly quote much Luther or Calvin, those who know those good old Reformers will hear their echoes in every chapter, and Cary wields his learning lightly enough that they sound like they’re responding to Christian college girls as much as to John Tetzel.  Like some other books I’ve particularly liked lately, Cary’s argument draws on the resources of old books to address problems that have taken on new shapes.  And as anyone who listens to our podcast can attest, that’s just the sort of intellectual activity that we find compelling.

Cary names  his main target in the book “the new evangelical theology,” and it’s the sort of thing that should ring familiar with those who spend much time at all around young evangelicals (and by young I mean Baby Boomer or younger).  This is a theological phenomenon that seeks divine guidance from the inner recesses of the human heart, that calls into question even the best of human acts, wondering if they’re “really” done for selfish reasons, that looks for “God’s will in my life” and for the next great “mountaintop experience” to rejuvenate the soul.  Its sermons are heavy on “practical application,” and although its practitioners might never have read the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” linking the two phenomena ain’t hard.  In short, this is the sort of mentality that too many of my own students, faced with changes of major and opportunities to study overseas, have to overcome when they drop in to my office.  Cary, a philosophy professor, encounters it mainly through assigned papers, and what he has read I’ve certainly heard.  This is a layer of guilt and anxiety overlaid onto traditional Christian confession, an obsession with the self (Cary argues this point particularly well) that renders moral responsibility and wise judgment far more difficult than they should be.

Cary’s goals in the book progress through stages: after he deals with those ideas that diminish the Christian’s responsibility to take the talents given and make something of them (he returns to that parable quite a bit), he gives the reader permission not to be anxious about self-examination (one should only do so after the fact, in a spirit of repentance, Cary suggests), and he finishes the book examining the structure of “the new evangelical theology” and noting its parasitism on nineteenth-century German liberalism and encouraging pastors and teachers to note just how well liberal Protestantism has been doing of late.  This relatively brief book, in other words, is at turns pastoral, hard-nosed, and interesting intellectually, something that’s not easy to do even in a much longer book.  And with his repeated (and very sixteenth-century) insistence that the Bible should be the foremost and the governing source of revelation for the Christian, Cary nicely highlights the central irony of “the new evangelical theology”: although it pretends to transform the soul, in reality, because it’s a function of consumerism rather than an outgrowth of a true theology of divine gift, such theology can only increase anxiety and guilt, never bring the assurance of divine forgiveness.

In short, I can recommend this book to anyone who works with young evangelicals (see previous aside) and thinks that the sixteenth century might yet say something to the twenty-first.  Whether Cary sets the doctrine of Scripture over against individualism or the preached Word over against self-help sermonizing, this book is a breath of fresh air, a clearly written and compelling case against some of the more irritating developments in evangelicalism in my own lifetime.

If you discern that it’s God’s will to pick this up, then let God be in control, and read it! (That was a joke, folks.)


3 thoughts on “Definitely a Go-To Book: A Review of Good News for Anxious Christians by Phillip Cary”
  1. You may have noticed in our past interactions that I am no fan of moralistic therapeutic deism and I have been known to criticise explicit and implicit contemporary evangelical theology. Despite that I am sceptical of some of the claims to which Carey is lending his pen.
    I’ll start by saying that Carey distinguishes himself from his contemporaries who advance similar claims, the tone of his work seems both earnest and humble, unlike the smugness of John MacArthur’s “Found: God’s Will” or the bait and switch deceptiveness of Friesen and Maxen’s “Decision Making the Will of God”.
    Nevertheless the central claim of the book that Christians do not need to seek direction from God for our specific circumstances but must instead seek guidance only from an impersonal reading of scripture contradicts itself. That is because any reading of scripture that is undertaken in the 2000 year old tradition of the Church instead of through an Enlightenment anti-supernaturalism, however unconscious, reveals a God who constantly reveals himself directly to His followers with specific directions for our specific circumstances.
    Of course it is possible to read Scripture down, to wish away scriptural narratives of God speaking directly to people by claiming that God has ceased to behave in that way but that cessationist claim is itself an extra-Biblical claim, a remnant of discredited Dispensationalist theology. More subtly one can choose to read the biblical narrative as stories, although this is not usually articulated, as a diluted form of the theological schema (usually Reformed) adopted by the reader. If one adopts such a reading and renders the all the narratives in scripture inoperative one is left with the Pauline letters, and then the opportunity to construct an edifice of what are termed principles upon the text. Such an exercise would be repugnant to Luther who exhibited a robust consciousness of the supernatural.
    Ironically Cary urges his readers not to base their theology on experience. I agree. My critique of Carey and others who advance these claims is due to my reading of scripture and not my life experience.
    Since I have very publicly lamented not receiving the expected direction from God at a critical juncture in my life I think I can safely claim that I believing in a God who speaks directly to us, and often (but not always) has direction for our lives is a matter for me of faith and hope rather than any feel good experiences. I am now rather embarrassed about how public that lamentation was (although I suspect that the recipients don’t remember) but at least there is one example of an individual who advances the claim that God does reveal himself directly to individuals but who also acknowledges that it is not the primrose path painted by contemporary evangelicals.

    1. Andrew,

      I’m sorry I’m so slow getting to replying to this–between getting the semester ramped up and my daughter’s getting sick twice this work week, I still feel like it’s Monday even though the world seems convinced it’s Friday.

      Cary’s book does not make any systematic-theology claims that I’d call cessationist; he’s more interested in a popular piety that eludes responsibility and cultivates anxiety. His point is not to pronounce from on high that such things are impossible; he’s more concerned that he has students who assume that everyone among the Hebrews should be a Moses, that unless God “speaks” through what he calls intuition (and offers a nice philosophical/psychological account of intuition on the way), one should not make adult decisions. I’m sure someone who is a systematic cessationist would find things to like in this approach, but I don’t think one necessarily follows from the other.

  2. This was, without a doubt, the best popular-level Christian book I’ve read in years. Actually, I was a little sad when first I read it; Cary basically wrote the book I was intending to write someday down the line. But I suppose that, on the plus side, it’s kind of a metaphor for grace – after all, I get the benefit without having first done the work 😛

    You might be interested to know that The Learning Company currently has a number of its courses on sale for seventy percent off, including two series by Cary. The first is a twelve lecture series on Augustine (for $16) and the second is a twenty-four lecture series on Luther ($30). You can find the links on my website, plus a coupon code for an extra $10 off (I’d look up and insert the links here, but I’m on my phone and that’s much too much work to do on a phone).

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