Saturday, June 23, 2007

Book Review: The Future of Christianity, by Alister E. McGrath

In this book, the British professor McGrath, discuses what he sees as the future trends in Christianity culminating in an interesting chapter on the growing irrelevance of academic theology. Basically, Christianity is incredibly successful in the Third World while it will continue to stagnate in the West. The Evangelical and Pentecostal movements will factor in significantly in the next century, displacing the older mainline Protestant denominations. He also predicts that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy will continue to be strong forces in global Christianity. He noted an interesting phenomenon in that some Evangelicals are converting to Orthodoxy. He thinks this is the case because Evangelicalism is a recent addition in the Christian family and that some evangelicals want to have a stronger sense of attachment to historical Christianity and thus become Orthodox.

Most of the book was merely interesting, not rising to a very insightful discussion since McGrath only had 155 pages to write in this Blackwell Manifesto. If it was longer, I probably wouldn’t finish the book. This was the first McGrath book that I actually finished since he does have a tendency to get a little dry at times. The main weakness of this book is that McGrath tends to tell me things that I already know. This either means that McGrath ought to be more original or that his target audience isn’t as well read as I am which is entirely possible.

The last part of the book that discussed the irrelevance of academic theology in the life of the Christian laity was particularly fascinating. McGrath outlined the biases of academia and how the assumptions of the laity and academia are in many instances diametrically opposed. For example, in academia, the gospels are thought to tell us about the specific gospel writers and their particular communities of faith while for the common Christian, the gospels tell us about Jesus. Basically, the academic theologians and those in biblical studies largely have secular assumptions that are not accepted by most Christians outside of the academy. McGrath outlines well how the pressures of the academy don’t necessarily coincide with the interests of truth, academic excellence and faith. In fact, according to McGrath, theology is trapped in a cerebral box that makes Christianity into a set of intellectual ideas and concepts rather than a holistic way of life. The picture that McGrath paints about academic theology is quite grim but to his credit he does outline a brief idea about how to fix this problem.

McGrath speaks of the need for “organic theologians” or people that tackle theology in the context of their faith communities and to evangelize to people outside the Christian faith. These would be people who use their intellect to engage with the Church and everyone else rather than theologians who only write for other academicians in a language that only they can understand. He cites C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers as examples of people who effectively did this. None of these were professional theologians but they all helped communicate theology to Christians.

Overall, this book is merely okay. It isn’t by any means really bad but it isn’t really good either.

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