by Matthew Raley
Warren Cole Smith has written an indispensable book. I believe he diagnoses the sicknesses of evangelicalism correctly, and he does so in detail, sparing the reader none of the gravity or complexity. A Lover’s Quarrel has rare strengths.
First, Smith has been around. He’s seen most of the subcultures within evangelicalism, and his personal experience of wandering in this wilderness goes back almost four decades. Not to put too fine a point on it, he’s an elder – the kind of man we badly need right now.
Second, Smith is a seasoned reporter. One reason he has seen so much territory is that he has reported for the Evangelical Press News Service for years. Most Christian books on the subject of why we’re so bad off make no pretense of documenting a story, naming names, and holding to standards of journalism. Smith has pounded the pavement to get this story, and his disciplined reporting puts him in a different category from mere opinion-mongers. His reporting on Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed, to tug just one thread, is illuminating and adds depth to his larger argument.
Third, Smith brings intellectual weight to his diagnoses. He draws upon the critiques of modern life and media by Richard Weaver and Neil Postman, among others.
Most writing about evangelicalism treats “the culture” as a post-war artifact, telling us yet again that the World War II generation was more institutionally oriented than Generation Next, or whatever – stuff that basically comes from marketing literature. Even a well-documented book like UnChristian is essentially a public relations consult. These books can sometimes tell us what is happening, but rarely why.
Smith understands that evangelicals have embraced the vast scale of modern life without asking whether that life is a fantasy. Huge churches with impersonal systems, vast parachurch enterprises with assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, mass media strategies that address no one in particular – we have invested in these structures without considering what harm they do to our face-to-face relationships. There are reasons why we committed this folly, and history can tell us what they were.
A Lover’s Quarrel describes the “new provincialism” of evangelicals, the blithe dismissal of the importance of history and ideas in practical ministry. The book also dissects the sentimentality of evangelicals, their refusal to face reality. Smith’s portrayal of “the Christian-Industrial Complex” shows that the media world perverts the message of the Gospel not just because of the love of money, but because of things like Christian radio’s devotion to its fantasy-Mom, “Becky.”
These narratives are informed by long-standing critics of media and society, like Weaver and Postman, who were sounding alarms while evangelicals were lost in a dream world. The historical and intellectual sense of proportion Smith brings to this subject are badly needed.
Fourth, Smith offers a path out of the evangelical mess, one that restores life to a relational scale, both with human beings and with God. The path is that of vocation, the ancient and biblical notion of calling.
But I’d hate to spoil the end of a great read.