Book Review: Almost Christian, by Kenda Dean
In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the first book to draw from the groundbreaking discoveries of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Their description of teen religiosity as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” has been eagerly embraced by journalists, ministers, and other interested pontificators.
Kenda Dean, a professor at Princeton Seminary and a collaborator on the NSYR, draws from the same research in her recent book Almost Christian. But where the analysis of Smith and Denton was mostly descriptive, Dean offers the American church a solution to the problem of watered-down cultural Christianity.
AN ACCURATE INDICTMENT AND SOME HELPFUL INSIGHTS
There’s a lot to like about this book. It’s sharply written and consistently insightful. And it’s spot on in its central claim: the generic faith of America’s youth is an indictment of the church culture that nurtures them. But Dean’s proposed solution, unfortunately, doesn’t go far enough.
A Two-layered Problem: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Muddled Ecclesiology
First, let me summarize her description of the problem. It has two layers.
The first layer was identified in the NSYR: the majority of American teens don’t hold to a specific or committed faith. Their Moralistic Therapeutic Deism urges them to be nice people who get along with others, to feel good about themselves, and to keep any notion of God—much less a God made flesh in Christ—at arm’s length. Hardly surprising, then, that the NSYR found most teens to be not hostile to religion but just plain indifferent. They don’t seem to care, and why would they, if religion is no more to them than an indistinct, non-exclusive set of rules to live by? They may as well get their values from the Twilight series or Harry Potter or Glee as from Jesus or Paul.
But Dean sees another layer to this problem, an unsettling reality she believes to be the source of youth-group malaise. For Dean, “The elephant in the room in the discussion about the National Study of Youth and Religion is the muddled ecclesiology of American churches, a confusion present, not only in the young people but in congregations themselves. Put simply, churches have lost track of Christianity’s missional imagination” (37). In other words, she believes the church’s primary failure has been not methodological but ecclesiological. While many twentieth-century churches spent their energy wondering how to keep teenagers coming to church, they neglected to cultivate the kind of faithful Christian communities that could have a significant impact on the youth who did show up. Again, Dean is dead right: “If churches practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to come to church more often is not the solution (conceivably, it could make matters worse). A more faithful church is the solution to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (23).
Dean’s Solution: An Incarnation-shaped “Missional Imagination”
So what would it take to recreate this sort of faithful church? That’s the question the bulk of this book tries to answer, and Dean’s insights are often helpful.
For example, she draws from the sociology of religion to describe what things are true of those teens who do have serious religious commitments, whether they are Mormons, black Protestants, or white conservatives. These youth hold fast to their tradition’s creed, what she calls a “God-story”; they belong to communities that live out that story; they find in the story a sense of calling to some larger purpose; and they claim hope for the future promised in the story. This sociological insight into committed faith is useful not because it’s authoritative, but because it helps clarify why things the Bible authoritatively prescribes matter so much.
Beyond the findings of sociology, Dean eventually offers practical tips—some better than others—for cultivating a distinctly Christian version of what she calls “consequential faith.” Treating teenagers as some sort of alien species, she argues, was one of the great mistakes of the twentieth-century church. We should rather challenge them to mature responsibility as members of the Christian community, for “Christ views young people as participants in God’s mission rather than as targets of ours” (97). Underlying all the detailed proposals in this book is Dean’s conviction that the way forward lies with recovering a “missional imagination” modeled on God’s self-giving love in Christ.
For Dean, the Incarnation is the key: “The point of God’s Incarnation was mission, the sending of God-as-love into creation” (91). By her definition, it was there that God expressed himself in terms we humans could understand, and what he expressed about himself was a radical self-giving love that “stops at nothing—not even death—to win us back” (60). The Incarnation, then, provides “the template for the church’s missional way of life” (90), a way of life which aims to translate God for the world through radical acts of love. A church committed to this self-denying mission—and that calls young people to join in—is the antidote to the self-indulgent and self-preserving religiosity of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That’s Dean’s main point.
BUT DEAN’S SOLUTION DOESN’T GO FAR ENOUGH
As I’ve said, there’s much to like about Dean’s critique of counterfeit Christianity and her call for a more faithful church. She is nothing if not robustly Christological. I’m not quoting her here, but it seems that she wants to say that the real problem with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism begins with the Deism. Deism, of course, envisions a distant, uninvolved, and practically non-existent God who doesn’t require anything of you. So her solution strikes here first, with a proper understanding of the Incarnation as God’s preeminent involvement in the world. According to Dean, the fundamental flaw in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the lack of any perceived need for Jesus as God-made-flesh.
That’s an argument I affirm wholeheartedly. The problem, however, is that her view of the Incarnation may be too constrained to offer a viable solution to the Moralistic and Therapeutic elements. Jesus doesn’t just show us what God is like and how much he loves us merely in order to inspire us to live better. The Incarnation is at least that, but it’s much more. I’d argue that the only effective antidote to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism begins with an objective substitutionary atonement as the foundation for the radical transformation of the new birth.
Substitutionary Atonement Must Be the Foundation of Transformation
Let me elaborate, beginning with the Moralistic element. Substitutionary atonement is the antidote to moralism because it demonstrates that you could never be nice enough to erase your failures and warrant the favor of a holy God. You need propitiation, not a change of habits.
But in Dean’s description Jesus’ life and death come off as primarily demonstrative. They represent “the extraordinary measures God took to woo us back into God’s arms” (89), never the objective satisfaction of divine wrath. To effectively combat moralism, it’s not enough to say we need Jesus: we must be more specific about what it is we need Jesus to do for us. Do we need Jesus to give us an example of how we should live, or do we need Jesus to stand in our stead in order to reconcile us to God and transform us to the core?
The answer to that question separated Paul from the Judaizers, Athanasius from Arius, and Anselm from Abelard. A Jesus whose righteousness grounds a fundamental transformation of the individual stood at the center of Luther’s protest against medieval Rome. It bolstered Edwards’s case against the moral philosophy of the 18th century. And it separated an earlier generation of Princetonians from the rising tide of Protestant liberalism.
I don’t mean to say that Dean explicitly denies Christ’s unique, unrepeatable work of wrath-bearing. She seems thoroughly orthodox. But insofar as she proposes a new sense of mission—even a mission modeled on God’s incarnate love—shorn of the need for a prior radical work of God’s grace rooted in a substitutionary atonement, her solution rings hollow.
Regeneration and the Call to Repentance and Faith must be Central
What’s more, the antidote to therapeutic, feel-good spirituality is not, as a first step, to call people to self-denying mission, as intuitive as that may seem to our innately legalistic minds. Rather, it’s to remind people of how utterly helpless they are. A person cannot see the kingdom, said Jesus, unless they have been “born again.” God, for his part, must do the work of regeneration. We, for our part, must repent and believe. Young people—and, for that matter, adults—need to be told they’re not okay as they are, and in a real sense they shouldn’t feel good about themselves. What they need is not better self-esteem but a new self, a new birth, a transformation into the image of Christ.
To be fair, Dean does speak repeatedly of the need for individual transformation by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit (see, e.g., pp. 15, 50, 80, 88). But for her, transformation happens primarily as a byproduct of missional living, not, in the first instance, as a precursor to it, and as far as I could see, she never discusses the need for regeneration. “It is in participating in the mission of God that God decisively changes us into disciples” (15), she writes. In one way, I’d say, “Absolutely.” But we have to distinguish between the transformation that is the sanctification process and the transformation that is the new birth. And the order really matters. Dean’s confidence in the transforming power of participation in mission seems overblown, and it’s risky. It’s risky because starting with a new set of prescribed practices—even practices modeled on the sacrificial love of Christ—is not much different than moralism.
A WORTHWHILE CRITIQUE OF QUASI-CHRISTIANITY
So, pastors, if you’re not worried about the presence of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in your flocks, you should be. And I believe Almost Christian is worth your time as a penetrating indictment of quasi-Christianity and a source of some helpful advice about how to fight back.
It’s just that Dean’s strategic starting point is missional—with a heavy focus on what we do—when we should instead begin with what Christ has done in the gospel. First and foremost, youth—and adults—raised in a culture of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism need to understand and embrace the word of the gospel. They need to know they’re not okay and cannot fix themselves. But Jesus offers them forgiveness and transformation and a hope that is sure and unfailing.
If what youth need is transformation, then what we’ve got to offer them is biblical preaching rooted in the confidence that the Word does its own work and won’t return void. We’ve got to call them to live in communities of radical love and accountability embodied in a formal covenant of membership. And then we’ve got to send them out to proclaim this good news in word and deed.