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Monday, March 10, 2014

"The answer to bad religion is not no religion" (Martin Thielen)

TITLE: The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics, and Believers
AUTHOR: Martin Thielen
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (160 pages).

What caused Charles Darwin to stop believing in God? Is it the theory of evolution? Is it some secular thinking? According to author and senior pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church in Tenessee, Martin Thielen, it is none other than "bad religion." What is "bad religion" you may ask? It comes with the words, "closed-minded, "negative," "arrogant," "intolerant," "judgmental," "narcissistic," "guilt," "legalistic," "exclusive," and others placed next to religion. Thielen concentrates on five chief characteristics of bad religion. First, bad religion is caused by self-righteous people judging others. Such judging of others often tend to be selective, destructive, hypocritical, and unChristlike. Second, bad religion is chronically negative, with lack of joy, grace, and manifests a laundry list of no's more than yes's. Third, bad religion is basically arrogant and is not capable of handling ambiguity. They are essentially intolerant of differences. Fourth, bad religion is largely associated with partisan politicking and excessive nationalism. Not only does this complicates and confuses Church and state relations, it blunts the role of the Church's prophetic vision and gospel mission. Fifth, bad religion promotes indirectly the fostering of nominal Christianity through a lack of commitment to God and to Church.

Sure, these five factors will deter and discourage anyone, especially non-believers to consider Christianity at all, That said, Thielen argues that to swing to the opposite is also an unhelpful and unwise extreme. Why react against bad religion by damning religion altogether? He takes the new atheist camp to task, like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, saying that the alternatives they provide are equally if not more impoverished. He points out the stature of prestigious universities of the world that have been anchored on faith prior to their success. He highlights the presence of huge charitable organizations that are faith-based. He tackles the three big issues of the bad religions, the literal belief, and the problem of suffering by saying that "no religion" is simply incapable of resolving any of them. For not everyone in any Church practise "bad religions." Not everyone agrees about a rigid way of interpretation. At the same time, suffering is a mystery that no one philosophy or a masses of religions or no religions can resolve at all.

Thankfully, Thielen is no doomsday prophet. He proposes ten ways in which religion can be good. Good Religion basically:
  1. Impacts the way we live
  2. Puts Love first and foremost
  3. Serves
  4. Provides a Prophetic Voice
  5. Builds Community
  6. Gives Hope
  7. Keeps and Open Mind
  8. Practices Forgiveness
  9. Promotes Gratitude
  10. Witnesses and Evangelizes.

So What?

Thielen has identified important reasons why people in general have taken a dislike to Christians, Churches, and Christianity at large. He describes many things which have led to an exodus of people both young and old out of the Church. Not only are non-Christians finding it meaningless to consider Christianity, nominal Christians themselves are only adding fuel to the fire of scepticism, sarcasm, and superficial faith. The first five chapters of the book are depressing indeed. What makes it worse is that the things Thielen says is quite a common sight, especially in particular regions in the West. Instead of being persecuted, certain church leaders have turned into persecutors, even prosecutors as they try to use politics to further their causes. Worse of all, such tactics have led to a growing dislike of all things Christianity. This is the first challenge of the Church. The second challenge to the Church is from the non-religious group which tries to front an atheistic or secular offering. They too are inadequate and impoverished. It is like saying the answer to bad food is to avoid food altogether. Such a response is foolish, short-sighted, and self-deceiving. While the title of the book does not suggest it directly, Thielen dedicates ten chapters to describe what hope and good religion is all about.

Let me make several comments about this book. First, I agree with Thielen's general thesis. I applaud him for highlighting the problems of negative perception and the reasons behind them. It is an honest admission of our tendency to major on the wrong things and minor on the right stuff. Readers will benefit from falling into the traps of bad religion by first recognizing the signs. Second, things may not be as clear cut as he had painted them to be. There are always at least two perspectives of everything. Thielen has largely described the more negative ones in the first five "bad religion" segments. He may be guilty of one-sided portrayal that does not do justice to any one such Church. I remember Thielen saying something like not everyone in any one church feels the same way as the leadership or influential leaders. There are always pockets of differences in any Church. Third, Thielen's main focus in the book is on encouraging "good religion" which makes me wonder why he does not let the title be more explicit about this. Only two chapters out of 17 are allotted to addressing his thesis in a title. Fourth, I like the title which really sums up the point that churches can adopt. It is another way of saying we should not be dumping the bathwater out with the baby. Finally, I wonder how many people are like the "Walkers" that Thielen had described. Are there significant numbers of them to highlight the validity of Thielen's observations? Maybe, it is a phenomenon that is local to certain places in certain geographical areas. Readers must learn to practise triple listening. 1) Listen to the contexts the book was written from; 2) Listen to their own larger cultural contexts; 3) Listen to the people local to their current contexts.

With proper listening, we will learn that good or bad religion is not the point. It is Christlikeness.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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