02 January 2010

On the Reality of God

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Initially, I found John Avant's book If God Were Real to be … terrible. A brief catalog of complaints: The language is sometimes repetitive and unsophisticated, and initially the ideas seemed similarly simplistic and unevolved. The introduction to the book—a story about the capacity for love and desire for a father figure in a much-abused little girl—seemed to be there solely to condition the reader, to manipulate emotions in order to preclude rational judgment. The inclusion of a long statement from the author's (adult) daughter, about her experiences as a committed Christian in the New York theater scene, felt naïve.

Then there's the devotion to god—or, more accurately for Reverend Avant, Jesus—that continued to present problems for me. I’m not a Christian, or even a Jew for Jesus; while I respect many of the principles Jesus espoused, I have never been able to get over the intellectual hurdle of the whole “son-of-god-in-man is god who died for our sins” construct. (Yes, yes, I know: it’s about faith.) To be fair, it must also be noted that I am clearly not Avant’s intended audience. This is a book written for Christians, so Avant's repetitive refrain that “we should all love Jesus” is, I can only assume, more appealing to a Christian audience.


However, my view of Avant and his book began to change, and rapidly, as I got further in. After the first chapter, Avant writes as a strong, passionate individual with a very definite, out-of-the-mainstream perspective on “organized” religion. He frames very clearly his objections to the contemporary "church" of Christianity: not the religion itself, but the ways in which it is interpreted and applied by the institutions that wave the banner most loudly. (This short poem, by a friend, gets the sentiment just right.) This is where the book is most successful, in aggressively engaging with the way that religious institutions often become more focused on themselves than on the values they espouse. While I will never share his passion for Jesus, I came to respect his faith and his logic.

Avant calls for a new “Jesus Movement,” his preferred term in place of Christianity. He writes: “Can we see a new Jesus Movement in America? Probably not in traditional, institutionalized Christianity as I have described it. It’s too absorbed in guarding its turf and protecting its turf lords. Institutions tend to protect themselves at all costs, and I see no sign that the institution of Christianity will move toward Jesus.” (Page 54)

This is the meat of Avant's argument. He carefully builds this out, exploring a range of issues, from how modern American Christianity deals with drugs addicts (there’s a chapter titled “If God Were Real … the Church Would Be Full of Addicts”), to the risk-averse nature of churches and communities and a sense of expectation of using religion as a means of achieving prosperity (there’s another chapter, titled “If God Were Real … You Would Be Really, Really Rich”). (For more on the concept of the prosperity gospel, see these two articles from the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic.) His section on the absurdity of Christian attacks on J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series is sharp and insightful.

All this reminded me of my own feelings about much of contemporary (American) Judaism, where the importance of institutions—and institutionalized beliefs and perspectives—sometimes feels like it has overtaken the importance of the values at the heart of Judaism. Everything from the “Yom Kippur appeal” fundraising tactic to the American Jewish fetishization of Israel is driven as much by a commitment to the status quo as anything else. Rare is the organization (religious or otherwise, to be sure) that boldly embraces downsizing in the face of diminished resources or audiences. Instead, external problems are blamed, and used as foils to generate support. (Surely it isn’t simply that some young Jews find modern Judaism less-than-compelling, perhaps because of the relentless focus on the trifecta of the Holocaust, Israel, and intermarriage to which we have been treated for the last five decades.)


Now, like the rest of us, Avant is not free from certain contradictions. He criticizes organized Christianity’s focus on political hatred as a distraction from Jesus’s call to love everyone … and then makes some rather strong statements against homosexuality and gay marriage. Oh, well.

But, as someone famous once said, let (s)he who is without sin cast the first stone. Overall, Avant has written a strong book, one worth reading for contemporary Christians or others interested in the role and ongoing development of the largest religious denomination in the United States. Avant even includes a section on atheism towards the end of the book—a book littered with quotes from atheist or questioning friends and commentators—that again represents the value of an open mind, and is evidence if needed that a believing individual can co-exist with a non-believing one, without necessarily feeling threatened. The subtitle is “A Journey into a Faith That Matters” and it’s Avant's ongoing journey. I wish him well.

FCC idiotic disclosure notice: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, via LibraryThing, as part of its Early Reviewers program.

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Blogger Mary Valle said...

Sascha, good to know you're not a Jew for Jesus. I was a little worried one time when I spotted a tract in your car, but maybe someone had just given it to you? Now, I haven't read this book, so I'm not all-filled-in about his Jesus Movement idea, but it sounds a lot like something that already happened in this country in the early 70s...

10:22 AM  
Blogger Marie said...

Sounds like one I would enjoy. Thanks for the heads-up!

12:28 PM  

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