Robert McElvaine is one pissed-off individual. It’s hard to escape the conclusion, all the way from the cover to the very last page of his Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America. On the other hand, all the old saws about not judging a book by its cover aside, once you get to the contents, it’s easy to see why he might be–ahem–slightly perturbed.
The author’s interest is in those who’ve read the New Testament so closely that they can’t see the forest–in this case, Jesus’ teachings and central message–for the trees (i.e. the individual, highly legalized, very specific and often very specious focus on certain bits that make the more difficult bits of Jesus go down easy). To say that he’s disturbed by the shape of the religious landscape in this country would be putting it mildly. Writing of those he calls “Lite Christians,” he says:
They’re all about having fun, spending money, and seeking pleasure, but when it comes to the fundamental teachings of Jesus, they take a pass. Turn the other cheek? Self-sacrifice? Help the poor? Nonviolence? That shit’s too hard!
And, as it turns out, McElvaine’s in a target-rich environment.
All the familiar names are here, and it says quite a lot about a religion that claims a persecuted, minority status for itself in what it’s proclaimed a Christian nation (talk about your cognitive dissonance) that there are so many names. Household names, from your usual suspects (Robertson, Falwell, Coulter) to those who only make the news when they do something more loony than their usual lunatic norm, like Fred Phelps.
I don’t know that McElvaine ever read Julia Duin’s Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It, (of which, perhaps, more later) but I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened to their respective books if they had. Duin wonders, aloud and at length, why church membership is declining in the States and elsewhere, with frequent side trips into what might be done to remedy that. What she doesn’t seem to go into quite as deeply, though, is whether there just might be a theological reason underpinning this miniature exodus, and whether people have simply given up on Christianity that’s been drained of all the good (if more difficult) stuff. McElvaine takes up the part that Duin doesn’t, but neglects to offer much in its place. He lays out a series of theses at book’s end–mostly just a summary of the stuff he’s spent the preceding pages railing against–but doesn’t give much thought as to how a broken situation might be made better.
The author also doesn’t go nearly deep enough in explaining the hows and whys of the appeal of the “easy Jesus” creed in the first place. The explanation that’s offered–that doing it the hard way is, you know, difficult, and it’s easier to follow something that’s not only less demanding but lets its adherents act as though Jesus is some kind of religious Get Out of Jail Free card–is only part of the picture, and I think that explanation’s too simplistic by half.
It probably sounds as though I don’t like this book, though that’s not really the case. It’s funny, disturbing in a good (that is to say, “afflict the comfortable”) sort of way, and nothing if not passionate. It’s worth reading, and discussing, with your closest believing or nonbelieving friends. Maybe somewhere in that discussion, if/when it comes, we can get to finding some answers to the questions McElvaine raises–some implicit, others quite explicit–as well as the ones he left out.