Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges. By James Emery White. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010. 160 pages. $17.
James Every White is the senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. In this little book he seeks to unify and exhort Christians in the task of culturally-relevant evangelism. He sees at least four salient obstacles to this goal, “…the nature of truth and orthodoxy, cultural engagement and the evangelistic enterprise, Christian community and civility, and the identity and character of the church” (19). Or, as I shall refer to them: truth, orthodoxy, culture, and church.
The title of the first chapter is “Truthiness”. It laments our culture’s loss of “absolute” truth. White realizes that this will not do if Jesus is supposed to be the way, the truth, and the life. He glosses a definition of the correspondence theory of truth, and champions it as the preferable alternative to the coherence theory. I understand that the target audience of this book is the notoriously hard-to-define “layperson”, so one might expect a gloss of these epistemological concepts. But I must admit that I left the chapter wanting a little more in defense of the correspondence theory and why it matters so much to the church today.
White sees our denominational splintering as a crying out for unity in orthodoxy. Since “dogma” –church doctrine – comes to bear on the very issues that define human nature and what matters to us, the church can only be relevant if we are united in offering answers to culturally hot questions. Alas, the church disagrees on the relevant answers. This is lamentable. White recounts how he personally learned the importance of orthodoxy. In the past, he was involved in a church where two leaders were found not to believe that Jesus was actually God. Everyone just assumed that they were Christians. No one thought to ask them about what they actually believed.
Concerning culture, White exhorts us to recapture the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. I couldn’t agree more. He then lays out several ways that the church in America has tried over the last few centuries. From revivals and Great Awakening’s to sticking our heads in the sand only to emerge later as the Moral Majority, we’ve been all over the place. We need to understand what the True, Good, and Beautiful are before we start to strategize again. White correctly notes that we can point to natural law in order to capture the True in our secular society. The Good can be sought in terms of social justice. The Beautiful is lamented as being reduced to the subjective. What is the cure? White doesn’t really tell us.
The other main problem White sees between the church and culture is our apathy. We’re apathetic in the sense that we stay in our own little community bubbles, afraid to get our hands dirty and do the heavy lifting that evangelism requires. The closing quotation by the atheist Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) is appropriately hard-hitting, “If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell . . . how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? (100).
The final part of the book deals with unity and the church. White says we suffer from disunity partly due to our “argument culture”. We’re always ready to take sides in one argument or another (by “argument” here, he seems to mean “quarrel”). The mark of a Christian is the love that he exudes for his fellow man. Instead of being divisive and derisive, we need to show each other grace. However, as much as this deals with our outward image problem, we still have to find unity within the church. Instead of heckling each other over minor theological matters, we should follow the advice of Peter Meiderlin when he said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” (128, as quoted by White).
The last chapter laments the rise of parachurch organizations and the trend toward the privatization of our spiritual lives. Here, White argues for church attendance and membership as a command from scripture and not merely an option. In this, I must say, I had a hard time following White’s use of the word “church.” Sometimes he uses it to refer to the Church universal, the body of Christ, and other times he uses it to refer to a geographical location where people get together and have “church.” At any rate, in one particular passage he completely rejects the idea that Christians working in an office building could be “the church”. I must quote him at length, because, frankly, it’s shocking.
A company is not the body of Christ instituted by Jesus as the hope of the world, chronicled breathtakingly by Luke through the book of Acts, and shaped in thinking and practice by the apostle Paul through letter after letter now captured in the New Testament. A marketplace venture on the New York Stock Exchange is not so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell can withstand its onslaught. An assembly of employees in cubicles working for end-of-year stock options and bonuses is not the gathering of saints bristling with spiritual gifts and mobilizing to provide justice for the oppressed, service to the widow and the orphan, and compassion for the poor (137).
There is much to say here, but I’ll only say this. If the body of Christ just is the gathering together of believers, and this is what we call “the church”, then how is this company not the church or at least a part of it in a very important way? In fact, it seems as though White might be shooting himself in the foot here, since it’s just this type of infiltration into secular culture that the church needs in order to evangelize! Many people will not be reached by inviting them to church, the physical building. They simply won’t go. But if the body of Christ is still in effect when Christians go to work on Monday, then the church it is. And if that is so, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s hard to know who to recommend this book to. I would consider recommending it to a recent convert who is full of zeal to evangelize but has no idea where to start. Or perhaps the person who has grown up apathetic in the church and is willing to be shaken out of their apathy. However, to most of the readership (and listenership) of apologetics.com, I would recommend books like Mere Christianity by Lewis or Orthodoxy by Chesterton instead. And if you’ve already read those, then there is certainly no need to pick this one up. According to Chuck Colson’s endorsement on the back of the book, “This book is a good read for any Christian who is serious about capturing this generation for Christ”. I would replace “any” with “some”.