I just finished Alisa Childers’ book Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity. With a subtitle like that, the thesis is evident. Childers’, a former Christian pop star, increasingly popular blogger, and hobby apologist, found herself under the tutelage of a self-described progressive pastor who grated against her theological convictions and rattled her cage. The book uses this experience as a jumping off point to critique the progressive movement overall. It is a warning to anyone who may come under similar influence.
Childers gets a lot right. She is a terrific writer. The book is accessible and readable and enjoyable. I expect she already has a nice three-book deal as a follow-up, and deservedly so. I mean that. It’s a well reasoned argument in general and well articulated. I also welcome her into the public apologetics community, a group of thinkers historically dominated by men. A woman’s voice is needed, and hers is a capable one indeed. Though she (apparently) doesn’t have any degrees on the subject, her treatment of basic apologetics arguments is thorough and well communicated. But what she gets right is not limited to her skills as a writer and apologist.
I also think she has a heart set firmly in the right place. Her own experience underscores the fact that unchecked progressive voices can knock off balance those who are theologically unprepared and send their lives spinning out of control. She doesn’t want anyone to face this. Her pastoral concern is laudable. Moreover, her commitment to God’s word is one I share. While I certainly ascribe to some progressive views, and while I certainly feel a kinship with many progressive Christians, my sincere trust in God’s word has never wavered. Nothing I believe today that I didn’t used to believe has changed that. In fact, it’s been informed by that fact. I really appreciate that she makes the Bible her north star.
So I mean it sincerely when I say this is not a hit piece of any kind. Credit where credit is due.
Still, I believe Childers also gets some stuff wrong. By this I do not mean she is a wayward Christian, nor do I mean she has fallen from grace. I just think she’s wrong about some stuff. This point is one where I don’t feel she extends the same courtesy. While she attempts to tip-toe around it, on numerous occasions she ascribes to various progressive theological convictions the label “heresy” and to various progressive theologians the title “false teacher.” I admit this one strikes an uncomfortable chord with me, as I’ve had that title lobbed at me in the past. Still, I think her alternately being willing to call it progressive “Christianity” and other times saying Brian McLaren is a modern-day Marcion is inconsistent and unfair.
This leads me to my second critique. One of the chief weaknesses of the progressive movement, according to Childers, is the way it plays fast and loose with Scripture, picking and choosing as it sees fit. I find she practices the same hermeneutic with the written work of progressive voices. I have spent a massive amount of time reading and listening to Richard Rohr, for instance, who is one of her favorite targets in Another Gospel? While she does not misquote him, she does selectively quote him. In an interview on a radio show, she calls Rohr the “pope” of the progressive movement and includes him in a list of teachers to avoid at all costs. But Rohr is no heretic. He is a priest in good standing with the Catholic church (an institution famous for not being amused by or tolerant of false teachers).
I understand that her thesis requires that she has an enemy, but I believe she could’ve written an incredible defense of the faith without having to prop up villains to knock over. She sees a bogeyman in progressive theology I do not find. Do I agree that some popular progressive teachers go too far? Sure. In college I also thought McLaren was a heretic. I have scratched my head listening to Rob Bell. And I have disagreed with Rohr on theology at times. This does not necessitate that I doubt their faith, however. I don’t understand why Childers feels that need.
Another oversight on her part is that when she reaches back to church history to articulate her defense of the faith, she quotes almost exclusively from those considered western theologians. She may question progressive thinking around ideas like mystical union, but the reality is these ideas are as old as the church fathers, the desert mothers, and half of the early church. If she thinks Rachel Held Evans was out there, she should read the Philokalia. The Eastern tradition deserves our respect, and I don’t think Childers gives it where due.
Finally, I think she says some things that are false. I do not think it is accurate for her to claim that progressives believe that The Gospel is Jesus plus social justice. I do not think it is true that all progressives summarily reject the atonement (though some do), it’s just that they don’t limit the cross to a singular meaning (atonement) but a deep, layered range of meaning. I think she glosses over the complex theologies of early church fathers (some of whom would be labeled, by her standards as quite progressive). There are additional contradictions in her thinking, too: she states that progressives don’t have a foundational belief system, but has a section in her book covering what progressives believe and lumps them all in together anyway, despite the fact she acknowledges there’s no singular set of beliefs.
I sincerely hope Childers continues to write. I welcome her work and appreciate her thoughtfulness. I also hope she will look past the bad experiences she’s endured and understand that it may be that she wasn’t on the receiving end of harmful, unbiblical theological teaching but simply under the influence of a lousy pastor. She was right to get out of there, but she is wrong to blame it all on a bunch of Jesus loving people she happens to disagree with.