XFiles: The Faith, by Chuck ColsonJune 27, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: The Faith, by Chuck Colson.)
I have a couple more substantial books coming in, but in the meantime I thought I’d take a quick look at Chuck Colson’s book The Faith. As some of you may recall, I bought this book in response to a request from a publicist at Zondervans, who invited me to submit questions to Colson, which the latter promised to respond to publicly in his blog. I sent him two rather simple ones (I thought), and never heard from him again. Go figure. So now I’ve got the book, and I’ve got a gap in the XFiles series, so it seems like it must be God’s will for me to review it now.
Here’s the Reader’s Digest ultra-condensed summary: What do Christian’s believe? A curious mixture of evangelical pop theology and contemporary conservative politics (what Colson calls “social holiness”). Why do Christians believe? Because great Christians demonstrate the power of God by the way they fearlessly face persecution and death for their beliefs. Why does it matter? Because if Christians don’t jump up and vote Republican every time Karl Rove says “family values,” they might end up following the example of the great Christians, and frankly that scares the shit out of them. The Church may love martyrs, but they love them best when they’re someone else.
This curious dissonance pervades much of The Faith, with Colson admiring and even gloating over the sufferings of Christians as though this were a noble and enviable witness, while at the same time superstitiously attributing these sufferings to a lack of faith, and suggesting that we could and should avoid suffering a similar fate by doing more to make our nation a Christian nation.
For example, the book opens with the story of the homicidal maniac who broke into an Amish schoolhouse and shot ten girls, five of whom died from their wounds. The last chapter features the story of the murder of Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist. Both stories are told in vivid, emotional detail, though slanted to make the victims’ desperation sound like noble piety in the girls’ case, and sheer futility in van Gogh’s case. Both stories are told to try and bring home the point that only “orthodox” Christianity can save us from having future generations praise us for the same reasons as Colson praises the Amish girls. God forbid.
In the introduction, Colson says that his goal is to lay out, in about 240 pages, the key points of Christian orthodoxy that Christians need to know. Obviously, if you’re going to summarize the key points of Christian doctrine in a mere 240 pages, there’s a substantial number important points you need to discuss. You need to be extremely focused and selective. Sensational stories, told in lavish and even lurid detail, would only waste space that could be spent discussing things like how Christians address the problems with the Trinity, or theodicy, or other vital doctrinal issues.
Colson, however, is not a theologian, he’s a politician. And make no mistake, The Faith is a political book rather than a theological one. Though the subject matter of the book is ostensibly religious and doctrinal, the primary goal of the book is to unite the largest possible body of voters believers around a core set of conservative doctrinal and political principles. Don’t expect this book to explore, in any depth, any of the issues that have divided Christians in the past and continue to divide them today.
Take the Protestant doctrine of sola fide (“[salvation] by faith alone”). If this idea is part of “the Faith once for all delivered to the saints,” then the Roman Catholics have clearly strayed from orthodoxy, but if not, then the Protestants are the heretics. What does The Faith have to say about these issues? Nothing much. He does affirm that sola fide—properly understood—is part of Christian orthodoxy. But look at how he says it.
The New Testament makes it clear that this gift of salvation, becoming righteous, or exchanging identities comes by faith—not works—or any merit of our own (Ephesians 2:8). I helped to organize a group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which underlined the agreement of both communions on this central question in a remarkable 1997 document, affirming what the Reformers meant by sola fide—or faith alone!*
*[footnote:] “The Gift of Salvation,” First Things (January 1998), 20—23, also at www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3453&var_recherche=gift+of+salvation. “We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift, conferred though the Father’s sheer graciousness out of the love he bears us in his Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification…Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).”
Sounds like a great victory for ecumenism, doesn’t it? Particularly for the Protestant side of ecumenism? Colson certainly seems to think that he’s managed to convince the Catholics (or at least some Catholics) that the Reformers were right about sola fide, and that salvation is by faith alone. In actual fact, though, all he’s done is to get them to agree to redefine sola fide in Catholic terms, such that faith itself becomes a work (“an act of the whole person…issuing in a changed life). Notice that the core disagreement—whether works like baptism are required for salvation—is neither mentioned not discussed. All that has happened is that he’s gotten both sides to agree that works alone are not sufficient to earn justification. Since neither Catholics nor Protestants teach that good works can save you apart from the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, this was not a difficult compromise to reach.
Compromise, consensus, lowest common denominator—these are the tools of the politician’s craft, and Colson is using them with a rather cavalier disregard for the deeper doctrinal issues that he’s glossing over. The doctrine is actually less important, you see. What matters is getting more and more Christians to lower their standards, ignore their theological differences, and unite around a conservative social and political platform so that conservative Republicans can have a solid, monolithic, and multitudinous power base to draw on.
That’s why such a short book on doctrine has so many lengthy and tabloidesque digressions: they not only evoke manipulatable emotions, they also help fill in the gaps left by the important issues that he’s not going to touch, in the interests of political expediency.
This book is a (no pun intended) textbook example of why a failure to separate church and state inevitably does the church more harm than help. The important issues, the issues that define why your church is not some other church instead, are left behind, sacrificed on the altar of political necessity. Unity comes at the expense of doctrinal compromise, and the state religion is reduced to what little bit of vague nothing happens to be shared in common by all believers.
As you know, I like to dig into a book and see what makes it tick. That’s probably not going to happen this time, because Colson isn’t so much defending Christian doctrine as he is attempting to exploit it for conservative political ends. Besides, it’s not a terribly substantial book, and there’s just not a whole lot of depth to dig into. So as soon as the other books get here from Amazon, I’ll probably abandon The Faith.
After all, it won’t be the first time.