Christians Are Revolting: An Infidel's Progress
Fool's Errand Development, 2016
It's hard to know just where to begin a review of Sean Lauren's fast-moving and lucid autobiographical exploration of Christianity, Christians Are Revolting: An Infidel's Progress. So I will start with the title.
Nearing the end of the book, having surveyed some of the uglier aspects of Christian doctrine and history, Mr. Lauren says, "I no longer saw Christians as revolting against God – instead, I could now see them as revolting in general." In other words, whereas at one time he had seen popular Christianity as a rather harmless aberration of what Jesus had lived and taught, he gradually came to see it as active tool of oppression, hence a source of revulsion. This devolution of the modern Christian ideal in the author's mind – from the highest expression of truth and love, to a well-meaning misapplication of the teachings of Jesus, to an actual force for evil – seems to be the book's overriding theme.
With a style that is remarkably fluid, informal, self-effacing, sometimes bitterly sarcastic and other times simply hilarious, Mr. Lauren sketches out his experiences in and of Christianity that led finally to his atheistic break with religious faith altogether. Along the way various other themes repeatedly emerge: the human tendency toward confirmation bias; hypocrisy among Christians; what it means for God to have a plan for individuals; the need for reform in the church; eschatology and the kingdom of God; the nature of faith and righteousness; and perhaps most of all, love. Being a former Christian and current atheist he hopes, he says, to serve as a "mediator" between Christians and atheists. At the same time he remains open to the possibility of a re-conversion, but on a condition: "If Christians wholeheartedly began to actually follow Jesus…" Despite his atheism he thus writes not as an embittered apostate and enemy of the church, but with the stated purpose of seeing Christianity restored.
To this reviewer Lauren writes with refreshing candor. He openly discusses his own failures, biases, unfounded assumptions, instances of self-righteousness, misunderstandings and misinterpretations. At one point he describes what he had learned about himself one summer: "I was passionate, knowledgeable, insecure, committed, and entirely impatient with others." An engineer and once-active member of Mensa, Mr. Lauren is clearly an intelligent as well as honest observer, however, and therefore his observations should be taken seriously. To a surprising extent his story resonated with me, as a Christian who at one time likewise ran afoul of certain questionable doctrines and had painful conflicts with leadership on issues of structure and government. As it turns out, he and I have shared a number of strikingly similar and, yes, faith-discouraging experiences. One begins to wonder how many others there might be with similar stories.
Beginning with his childhood upbringing and tracing his experiences through adulthood, Lauren takes frequent pauses to comment with the wisdom of hindsight. He describes the naively optimistic sincerity of his initial conversion to Christianity, the seeming futility of his prayers, his determination to be a "true follower of Jesus," and then the various disappointments that indeed seem to often plague the lives of even sincere and prayerful believers. Throughout his adventures, he runs into pastors and ministry leaders who appear indifferent, even hostile, to the biblical call to obedience, usually because they consider it an affront to the Reformed idea of righteousness that comes only by faith. He recounts involvement with church groups where it was normal "to think only of one's own career, relationships, and entertainment," and time spent learning the "prosperity gospel," by which preachers unashamedly made themselves rich at the expense of their poor and struggling church members. He recalls encounters with emotional manipulators passed off as miracle healers.
At various points the narrative raises serious questions for Christian believers. If we are ultimately "the product of our environment and our genes," as a certain reading of natural science might suggest, can we rightly be blamed for our behavior? If a life spent for God appears to achieve nothing but poverty and frustration, was Pascal really right to say there is "nothing to lose" in choosing faith over unbelief? If every religion claims itself to be true and the others false, is it likely that just one of them really is true? And finally: if everything that happens, no matter how evidently unfair or horrific, can be worked into a theology that defends God's goodness, is that theology any longer meaningful?
As a Christian apologist, I am confident that there are satisfactory, rational answers to these questions. Nonetheless, Lauren's manner of introducing those questions, in the context of some deeply painful and confusing real-life circumstances, gives them an emotional force that may not be felt in the reading of, say, an article in a philosophy journal outlining the problem of evil. Too often, apologetics comes across as a means of shielding believers from difficult questions, rather than the process of answering those questions only after facing them squarely. I can add as a believer that questions like these tend to arise out of hurt and disappointment and not simply from a detached intellect. In that case we have another example of a great need calling for the kind of heartfelt pastoral care that is, as Mr. Lauren takes pains to point out, frequently lacking in the churches.
Despite its atheistic theme, I really appreciate this book. If I had to summarize it with just a phrase, I might be tempted to simply draw upon two cultural references, a comedy movie starring Simon Pegg, and a classic treatise on Christian theology and praxis by a brilliant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Sean of the Dead" meets The Cost of Discipleship. That's not to say it has no flaws. In some places the problems and attitudes described in the church appear overblown, while the author writes at times as if his opinion were the final word on complex issues like intense suffering: "God could easily stop anything at all but instead he watches it and personally knows the pain and yet does nothing." Heartfelt and understandable as that sentiment may be, it suggests nothing about exactly what God should do to prevent all sin and suffering, nor does it explain how evil in the world should even be recognized in the first place given a naturalistic or atheistic view of the world.
While I think Mr. Lauren is right to argue that per the New Testament the kingdom of God has already arrived on earth in Jesus, who calls us to a life of active obedience, this is not sufficient evidence to conclude that the message of Christ is not "salvation from hell and eternity in heaven through the blood sacrifice of Jesus." According to most New Testament scholars, for example, the eschatology of the kingdom is best described as both "already" and "not yet;" the kingdom has been inaugurated in the ministry of Jesus but awaits its fulfillment in the consummation of all things at the end of time. The fact that many churches underemphasize the "already," then, hardly means that there is no basis for also embracing the "not yet." That leads to Lauren's thesis that virtually all the problems in Christianity can be traced to what he calls "the three lies": "that the Bible is the Word of God, that Jesus died for our sins, and that Jesus is God." Lauren is correct to note that in themselves and by themselves these doctrines do not encourage responsible actions or righteous conduct. At the same time, these are still foundational truths that appear to be backed solidly by the apostles and by Christ himself. Believing those truths does not contradict or prevent actively loving others as commanded elsewhere by Christ and the apostles, and many theologians would argue that apart from the grace of God genuine love is humanly impossible.
All things considered, though, this was a fascinating, enjoyable and yet provocative true-life tale – at times funny, other times heart-rendingly sad, and mostly a cause for self-reflection and repentance. By the most unlikely of methods, namely a prodding and irreverent atheistic critique of "the Christian life," Christians are Revolting somehow manages to effectively call the church to much-needed renewal.
-- Don McIntosh