Book Review: Mere Discipleship, by Alister McGrath
Alister E. McGrath, Mere Discipleship: Growing in Wisdom and Hope. Baker, 2019. 176 pages.
Christian discipleship today is often reduced to either a pseudo-spiritual self-help session over a macchiato or life-coach meetings for personal mentoring. It’s refreshing, then, to see a robustly evangelical Anglican like McGrath define it as “intergenerational transmission of wisdom” (65) and “reflective inhabitation of our faith” (31). McGrath’s aim in Mere Discipleship is to help churches develop “individuals who are both theologically informed and professionally competent, who can make connections between these two domains . . . [as] salt and light in the professional and academic world” (16). To that end, he seeks to apply a C. S. Lewis-esque approach to Christian discipling—particularly discipling of the mind. Don’t let the pulp paperback fool you. This book is thought-provoking stuff by a leading British evangelical, admittedly expressed in “somewhat opaque ways” (46).
McGrath serves in the academy, where misunderstandings of Christianity as anti-intellectual are legion. In the best sense of each word, his approach is intellectual (chapter 1), evangelistic, creedal (chapter 2), ecclesial (chapter 3), literary (chapter 4), and even doxological (44–46). McGrath’s book is also “philosophical” in that it both applies and proclaims Christianity as a complete worldview—a Protestant protest against “rationalist dogmatism” (81). Yet for all that, it’s no less readable or engaging for the person in the pew. As such, it’s pitched as both thoughtful apologetic and Christian training manual for understanding and displaying the reasonableness of Christian truth as the best way to make sense of the world we see and experience.
FOUR DISCIPLESHIP EXEMPLARS
McGrath offers a chapter each on the apologetic and theological approaches of Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, John Stott, and J. I. Packer. Each represents a distinctive apologetic approach to be emulated in personal evangelism or deployed in evangelistic preaching. He singles out Sayers as an exemplar of searching the universe for patterns of meaning (79) based on “our implicit belief in the intrinsic rationality of the world” (77). We are constantly looking for “the inference to the best explanation,” only to discover we don’t have all the information, which for Sayers makes divine revelation necessary, not as “a violation of human reason, but a demonstration of its limits and a disclosure of what lies tantalizingly beyond its limits” (80).
McGrath’s admiration of Lewis’ approach centers on the reflection, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else” (97,; Ps. 119:105). McGrath’s most fundamental attraction to “Lewis’ apologetic” is that it “often takes the form of a visual invitation: try seeing it this way!” (89). With Lewis, “‘we are presented with a vision, and it is the vision that carries conviction’” (89, quoting Austin Farrer). Witness his character Eustace Scrubb, whose fantastic greed transforms him into a dragon, and whose only hope of re-humanizing is Aslan’s removal of the reptilian scales and submerging him into a healing well in order to pull him out a better Eustace (90). Lewis “transposes” doctrine “into a narrative” that appeals to the imagination (91), thus illustrating the reasonableness of Christianity more than arguing for it.
McGrath also explores the apologetic of John Stott as a pioneer of “double listening” (99), attending first to Scripture but also learning our modern culture so well that we develop the bilingual fluency necessary to speak gospel doctrines in today’s idioms. His point here is that Christians should ask how our evangelism or preaching will sound to an unbeliever, why it will sound that way to them, and how we can help the message of Scripture resonate without distorting it. Otherwise, “we will run the risk . . . of answering questions no one is asking, scratching where nobody is itching, supplying goods for which there is no demand” (105, quoting Stott).
McGrath’s final exemplar is the pastor-theologian, J. I. Packer. Packer bleeds a vintage biblical theology, ripe with the spirits of Puritans past, that distills into Edwardsian Godward-ness. His rich engagement with Owen and Baxter, among so many other luminaries, taught us “to see with other eyes” and “feel with other hearts” (116) until we develop the wisdom to hold “chronological snobbery” in disdain (115), and to hold “theology and spirituality . . . inseparable” (116).
But McGrath doesn’t draw all his illustrations from the works of authors past. He includes four of his own brief topical sermons, each delivered in a university setting, to illustrate how he engages educated professionals with the truth and commends the Christian worldview. All in all, Mere Discipleship is a fantastically stimulating book. It will challenge you to expand your evangelistic imagination and vocabulary. For that reason alone, it’s worth the read.
A FEW SHORTCOMINGS
Having said that, it will be hard to take this book as a stand-alone model for evangelism, discipling, or preaching. While Mere Discipleship mentions the gospel frequently, it appears to assume its definition without ever clearly articulating it. McGrath gets close with a summary of the Bible’s core themes (25). Elsewhere he even notes the priority of “personal trust” in Christ (29), and later of repentance as “transformation of the mind” (36). All quite good, and perhaps the reader can patch the gospel together for himself. Even so, I saw nothing on the necessity of Christ’s death because of our personal and specific sins or the significance of his death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners, or our need, not simply to change our worldview, but to turn from our innate sinfulness and specific patterns of rebellion. I was disappointed to see these surprising omissions in the sample sermons as well.
Perhaps behind this omission is McGrath’s use of George Herbert’s famous distinction between “looking at and looking through” (31, emphasis original). But sometimes the prospect of looking through the gospel is so alluring that we do not first look at the gospel itself. Of course, we should look at the world and our vocations through the lens of the gospel. We must, in fact. McGrath is absolutely right to draw our attention to the eye-popping explanatory power of the Christian faith. But looking through the gospel doesn’t mean we can look past it. We need to admire the clarity and precision of the lens itself. We must proclaim the gospel before we “use” it. Regrettably Mere Discipleship makes the gospel feel a bit utilitarian; like it’s only valuable for looking through it so that we can see other things, rather than valuing the gospel for what it is in itself.
Additionally Mere Discipleship lacks a compelling notion of authority. Repeatedly, McGrath employs the tact, if not the verbiage, of Lewis: “try seeing it this way.” It’s a shrewd strategy for personal conversation. But personal suggestion is foreign to the authoritative medium of preaching and its call to repent. In the sample sermons, McGrath uses suggestion language precisely where preaching would demand authoritative declarations. For instance, McGrath says in a sermon: “It seems to me that the Christian faith is able to enrich a scientific narrative.” (135). That’s a profound understatement from one of our most convincing evangelical voices. We might say that kind of thing at the stage of pre-evangelism or in a TED talk. But is it really preaching if it arrives to the listening heart weightless, void of gospel authority?
It’s hard to imagine John Owen or Richard Sibbes, Charles Spurgeon or J.C. Ryle, coming to the payoff pitch in the ninth inning of the sermon and throwing out a phrase like, “We all need a greater narrative. . . . In my opinion, precisely such a view of reality is presented in the grand vision of the Christian faith” (138).
If I asked McGrath if there is a difference between proclaiming the gospel on the one hand and sharing a metaphysical opinion or making a moral suggestion on the other, I’m confident he would not only agree but be able to write a book on it. But those are the sermons I wanted to read in this book—the ones where he was proclaiming, not merely suggesting.
Mere Discipleship is an impressive, unique, thought-provoking book; full of edifying stuff that makes it a worthwhile investment. McGrath rightly shows us how the gospel should be the lens through which we interpret all reality. I need to get better at this myself, which is why I’m glad I read McGrath’s book. Just remember that the gospel is not simply about viewing our vocation in light of God’s creation in order to feel more purpose or permanence in our work. That may be a benefit of the gospel; but the gospel is more objective and specific than that. After all discipleship begins with repenting of our sin and trusting in the blood and righteousness of Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation to God (Matt 7:21–23).