I believe one of the most important thing anyone can do for their edification is to read books with which one disagrees. There are a number of reasons for this, such as the possibility that such books may enlighten or even change one’s position about at topic or to ensure that one does not misrepresent the “other side” when discussing topics with which you disagree. Alisa Childers’ Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity* presents her opinions on what she calls Progressive Christianity, and, being sometimes labeled progressive myself, I figured it was worth taking a look.
The book has a Foreword by Lee Strobel, a journalist who writes bestselling apologetic works centered around interviews of experts and whose fame was only increased by the “A Case for Christ” movie about his life. I was honestly stunned when I saw his example of sailing a boat and needing an anchor to ensure one’s safety. He goes on to say that the anchor for Christianity is… what? Reading the analogy, I most definitely expected the answer to the question: “What is the anchor of Christianity?” to be, well, Christ! After all, Christ is the chief cornerstone of our faith (Ephesians 2:19-20). It seems reasonable to expect that the anchor would be similar enough to a cornerstone in an analogy to have Christ be the answer. Well, you’d be wrong. Strobel’s answer is: “In Christianity, the anchor is sound biblical doctrine” (xiii). Strobel’s answer is not only surprising but also wrong. Christ just is the foundation and anchor of our faith. Having the right beliefs is all well and good, but those right beliefs are nothing but foolishness without Christ. I belabor this point because Strobel’s answer in this foreword is indicative of Childers’ approach. For Childers, progressive Christianity is a threat not because it fails to honor Christ or because Christ is not at work in the progressive Church. No, progressive Christianity is a danger because they don’t agree with her own definition and beliefs of what is entailed by “sound biblical doctrine.”
Childers provides autobiographical details throughout the book, many of which resonated with me because I had some similar experiences growing up in the church. Childers was apparently a member of a CCM group known as ZOEgirl, which had songs I’m sure I’ve listened to at some point. What’s interesting is that these autobiographical details are often used as the foundation for her chapters dealing with her analysis of progressive Christianity. For example, a surprising example of a pastor who was an agnostic with whom she took a class serves, apparently, as her definition of what a progressive Christian is. I don’t say this to be disingenuous. It just appears that, as far as Childers is operating, her experience with this agnostic pastor became so formative for her with her visceral reaction away from him that she then associates anything even remotely related to that pastor’s views as progressive and therefore not really Christian, in her mind. I admit I’m taking some psychoanalysis too far here, but if one reads the book just trying to find what she means by “progressive Christianity,” this seems to be the ultimate answer. Indeed, Childers herself writes that this single class “would permanently embed the voice of a skeptic into my mind–that has to this day affected my ability to read the Bible without inner conflict” (20-21). That Childers reveals this is good, because it tells us about her biases. But then it clouds not just her personal reading of the Bible, but also her interaction with any Christian who strays from an unconflicted idea of “sound biblical doctrine.”
Childers words quoted above reveal what seems a painful experience to her based on her wording about conflict. It also shows a recurring theme in Another Gospel?, namely, that doubt is inherently to be distrusted or “fixed.” A later example occurs in Childers discussion of church, “Fixing What Isn’t Broken.” Over the course of a few pages, Childers delivers a terribly confusing message about doubt, first noting the problem with defining faith as 100% certainty all the time (49-50), then helpfully suggests that faith is “trust based on evidence” (51), and finally suggests that churches must become “safe places for those who experience doubt” (51-52). That sounds great, until Childers adds the addendum, “If people don’t feel understood, they are likely to find sympathy from those in the progressive camp who thrive on reveling in doubt. In progressive Christianity, doubt has become a badge of honor to bask in, rather than an obstacle to face and overcome” (52). Citation. Needed. Childers has absolutely nothing to back this up. Again, contextually, the aforementioned agnostic pastor is mentioned (50), apparently setting up Childers’ entire view of what progressive Christianity is, such that she can make these broad stroke claims about “progressive Christianity” without even a single citation of evidence. Indeed, one may wonder based on her own encouragement of churches to become “safe places” (note that she dare not use safe “spaces,” for that term is too progressive) for doubters is itself evidence that the non-progressive church itself dares not “face and overcome” the “obstacle” of doubt. Her words are insulting at best, and uninformed in the text itself.
Critical theory serves as a bogeyman in Another Gospel? just as it does in much conservative Christianity. Rather than providing any primary sources to discuss what critical theorists actually believe or think, Childers is content to set up false dichotomies regarding critical theory and Christianity (59-61). She ends this brief section with this whopper: “[W]hen someone accepts the ideas of critical theory, it can begin to erode their Christian worldview… It can lead someone into progressive Christianity, which already devalues the historic Christian answers to these ‘worldview questions’ and focuses on actions over belief. That becomes just another works-based gospel that ebbs and flows with cultural norms” (61). This passage is riddled with unwarranted assumptions, and Childers hasn’t even come close to establishing that progressive Christianity does anything of the sort regarding what she claims.
Claims about historical Christian belief abound in Another Gospel?, but it is clear that Childers has, at best, a passing knowledge of selections from church history. Her claims about the apparent unanimity of church history in agreement with her own current moral compass should set off alarm bells already (again, see quote above). Once she actually turns to discussing church history, those alarms turn into blaring claxons. For example, her discussion of “digging into their [church fathers’] writings” is especially revealing in that she she portrays them as seemingly united in doctrine (78-80), emphasizing that there are “hundreds” of quotes (81) about Scripture showing similar views to her own, but failing to demonstrate that what they were saying actually aligns in any way to her own views beyond superificial similarities in appealing to Scriptural authority. Yes, the church fathers had a high view of Scripture, but the way Childers writes, one comes away thinking they aligned on virtually everything else regarding morals, doctrine, &c.
A simple demonstration of Childers’ strange mixture of attempted awareness of church history and ignorance thereof is her treatment of universalism. I’m not a universalist myself, but it is clear there is a strand of universalist thought throughout church history. Childers’ discussion rejects universalism with little more than a trite “I learned that it is not biblical” and a quote from Richard Bauckham (187). The standard proof texts for eternal conscious torment are cited, but Childers seems to think that universalists have never even attempted to deal with these, and shows no actual awareness of a position like conditional immortality. No, for Childers, unsurprisingly at this point, it’s her way or the highway. After all, we know the anchor of Christianity is what? For Childers, it’s sound biblical [read: her view] doctrine.
Childers’ chapter about atonement is abysmal. I don’t use that word lightly, but Childers shows that she’s totally uninformed about historical positions on the atonement. Yes, there are voices in progressive Christianity that talk about the atonement theory in ways that don’t make sense historically as well. Yes, the “cosmic child abuse” narrative is nonsense. But also, yes, there have historically been several atonement theories. And Childers has the audacity to conclude this chapter by writing “Progressive Christians assume they are painting God in a more tolerant light by denying the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. But in reality, they are simply constructing a codependent and impotent god who is powerless to stop evil. That god is not really good. That god is not the God of the Bible. That god cannot save you” (224). Throughout this chapter, Childers cherry-picks quotes from various people and then trashes them based on proof texts that she presumably believes prove substitutionary atonement as the One True Atonement Theory. But if Childers really, truly believes that one must hold to substitutionary atonement or else have a “god” who “cannot save you,” then she’s writing off many, many Christians even back to church fathers throughout history. And the thing is, I genuinely do not believe Childers has any idea she’s doing this. Childers could not actually believe what she writes about competing atonement theories while also quoting C.S. Lewis in a positive light (Lewis did not believe that a single theory of atonement was necessary, as anyone who has read his views in Mere Christianity would know, and he seems to have held to a ransom theory or some variation thereof, though Lewis scholars continue to debate this). The chapter on atonement is, once again, Childers widely missing the mark. And that’s unfortunate, because a genuine critique of those within progressive circles who say things like “cosmic child abuse” needs to be written, but maybe it just can’t be done by someone who’s going to throw people’s salvation into question. Again, for Childers, the “achor” of Christianity seems to be “sound biblical doctrine” (read: doctrine she agrees with) rather than Christ.
Another Gospel? is an unfortunate mess. I say unfortunate because I, as a sometimes-labeled progressive Christian, believe that progressive Christians could use a gut check at times. It is true that the “cosmic child abuse” view some Christians put forward is astonishingly ignorant of church history and probably very poor Trinitarian theology, at that. It is true that progressive Christianity could stand to think more strongly about church history. It is true that progressive Christianity could use some subtle corrections. But Childers’ work is not that work. It is a series of misrepresentations, mistakes, and fear-mongering. Childers, like Strobel, appears to think that the anchor of Christianity is doctrine, not Christ. Perhaps they could each learn from so many progressives I’ve known personally who value Jesus so much that they’re willing to be uncomfortable with their own beliefs or those of others for the sake of the Gospel. Perhaps they could learn that God is strong and powerful enough to exceed our own expectations and break out of the boxes we set up.
*I did not comment upon the subtitle in the main body of my text because I know authors often don’t get to choose their titles or even subtitles. Nevertheless, the implication of progressive Christianity being so obviously untrue that “lifelong Christians” (such as myself, a lifelong, sometimes labeled progressive Christian) must “seek truth in response” to it is, minimally, a tough pill to swallow.
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