Book Review: I Sold My Soul On eBay, by Hemant Mehta
Atheists are all the rage these days. Sam Harris followed up his 2004 book The End of Faith with 2006’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Later that year, Richard Dawkins made a splash with his The God Delusion. In 2007, Christopher Hitchens did the talk show circuit in order to promote his God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Each of these three books were written by highly intelligent men who were clearly happy to position themselves as the enemies of organized religion.
In response, evangelical Christianity unleashed it’s most devastating intellectual weapon: a youTube video by a former child television star about the banana (take that, Richard Dawkins, with all your memes and phenotypes and your fancy book learning!). In short, the state of theist-atheist relations was not good.
Enter Hemant Mehta. Mehta is a committed atheist (he’s the current chair of the Secular Student Alliance), but he’s not a Hitchens-Dawkins-Harris kind of atheist. Instead, he is a friendly atheist (his website is friendlyatheist.com!). In fact, he’s so friendly that he wants to help Christian churches do a better job of reaching and attracting people like him.
In early 2006 the 22 year old Mehta began an unusual eBay auction. He offered to attend church for one hour for every ten dollars in the winning bid. The winning bidder would be allowed to choose the church. His intention was to explore the Christian faith in the interests of intellectual honesty. He was raised as a Jain but deconverted (his word) to atheism at age 14. He did not have any experience with Christianity and so he felt that he should at least go to a church once or twice if he was to be a respectable atheist.
The winning bidder was Jim Henderson, an author and former pastor who arranged for Mehta to travel to different Protestant churches and write a review of each one from an unchurched perspective. The result is I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist’s Eyes. It has been hailed by some Christian leaders as an invaluable resource, a priceless look at how the church seems to outsiders.
In short, Mehta visited fifteen churches: some small churches, some large churches, some gigantic churches led by super-star pastors like Rob Bell, Joel Osteen, and Bill Hybels. The book contains a brief review of each service and then offers some concluding recommendations.
His findings range from the obvious to the dubious. He found that small churches are not necessarily friendlier than larger churches and large church pastors tend to be more dynamic communicators than their small church colleagues. But mostly, he just records the things that he saw and how he felt about them as an atheist. For example:
As the message went on, I found I wasn’t enjoying myself in the way I had in the other churches. And it wasn’t because I preferred sermons that were sugar-coated. Instead, I was put off by the lack of humor and the formality of Pastor Brad’s presentation… at the Evangelical Free Church, many people in the audience weren’t laughing. They seemed to be as uncomfortable as I was. (73)
Now, I don’t know if this article is so much an official review of the book. But let me go ahead and mention some of the book’s strength and weaknesses, at least as it’s been pitched as something of interest to church leaders.
First, Mehta is very winsome. He seems to be very kind and likeable, the sort of person that you’d like to have lunch with. He’s a committed atheist, but he seems to be genuinely interested in helping Christians to see themselves as outsiders see them. He is respectful to the churches, pastors, and believers with whom he interacts. Unlike Hitchens et al, the author wants atheists to see ways that the church can be helpful in things that atheists approve of, like relief for the poor and education initiatives.
Second, there is value in his observations about the church. Some of the things that he saw are absolutely true and should be rectified.
- He’s annoyed by Christians who come late to gatherings and pay little attention while they are there. He rightly points out that such behavior is disrespectful and is a poor example to our children.
- He finds many aspects of the church service distracting. He doesn’t like the omnipresent video cameras and projection screens. He finds fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines in the bulletin to be insulting.
- He gently pokes fun at the «Christian mosh pit» in one church and describes the varieties of the «Christian dance» on display there.
- He thinks it is wrong the way most large churches put attractive singers front and center while they hide less attractive singers in the back.
- He is a fairly good sermon critic. He particularly dislikes sermons that make logical leaps in order to make their point. If you preach regularly, you would benefit from reading this honest account of how your words might sound to a friendly, intelligent, careful non-believer.
Third, the book serves as a good reminder that the church must be sensitive to the presence of non-believers in its gatherings. Certainly the truth should not be compromised, but there is no excuse to give needless offense. Churches should be friendly, winsome, and warm to non-believers.
Fourth, the things that Mehta didn’t see or learn in the churches he attended should serve as a caution to us. I didn’t observe any mention of the cross in the book, which is not to say that it wasn’t mentioned in any of the services he attended, but it probably does indicate that it wasn’t inescapably at the center of those services. There was no indication that he heard or understood the gospel. In fact, at one place he complains about the fact that Christians think that he’s lost: “What exactly do Christians think they are saving me from?” (148, emph orig). It is sad that an intelligent man can spend dozens of hours in Christian gatherings and not know what Christians mean when they say that he is lost.
And weaknesses? Again, from the standpoint of a church leader looking here for guidance? First, the beginning quarter of the book is pretty boring and feels like filler. He describes his Jain convictions as a child, his journey to atheism, and his auction on eBay. The problem is that there’s nothing really interesting about his story. The case he makes for his atheism is pretty flimsy, you’d be much better off reading something like Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian (I prefer my cantankerous British atheists old skool). You won’t miss much if you skip to chapter 5, where Mehta begins to review the churches.
Second, his complete lack of knowledge about Christianity sometimes creates unnecessary problems. For example, he is concerned and offended by the fact that most pastors are men. After writing for a while about why this is a bad thing, he says «I can only wonder why» (172). It wouldn’t have taken much effort to find out that there is a good reason why. I don’t expect that he would agree with those reasons, but they do exist.
Third, and most importantly, the book is of limited value for Christians because ultimately Mehta only likes the things about Christianity that are not unique to Christianity.
That is to say, he likes the things like social justice initiatives, sermons with a «secular message» embedded with them (133), and churches that help you «have a better day, and maybe even a better life…[because] all people are looking for a better life, whether they believe in God or not» (128). He is perplexed by the fact that churches don’t invite atheists and gay rights activists in to their services to have an open dialogue.
In short, what he doesn’t like are things that are particularly Christian: he finds Christian ethics to be uncharitable (93-94); Christian singing to be tiresome (he suggests a separate event if churches want to sing for a long time; 150- 151); and the insinuation that he is «lost» to be offensive (148).
Which brings me to my question: why would the church scramble to take advice from someone who does not share its faith? Why would an organization committed to worshipping the risen Christ and spreading the message of his gospel to all lands take cues from someone who does not love Jesus or his gospel? (Maybe the better question is, why did 9Marks ask me to review this book? I’m happy to do it for the cash, of course. But you know, from their standpoint, why?)
At one point, Mehta declares “Remember, I am at the center of your target audience” (139). Really? The center? I mean, kind of, but not really. For example, there is almost nothing you could do to make me watch a NASCAR race. So if I wrote a book about what NASCAR should do, my recommendations would basically be that NASCAR should ditch the cars, put on helmets, and play football. Why? Because I like football and I don’t like car racing. Obviously, it would be insanity for NASCAR to build its business model around my opinions. I’m just not interested in the thing that defines them: toothless people inhaling exhaust as cars-cum-billboards drive in a circle.
So if we’re going to be true to our message, if our churches are honestly preaching the cross of Christ, we should be prepared for the fact that people will be offended. A committed atheist is going to find most of what a Christian church does—at least of those things that the Bible tells the church to do—to be absurd. The cross is foolishness and a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23). The eyes of unbelievers have been blinded to the beauty of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). Our churches will be the stench of death to the perishing (2 Cor. 2:16).
To the extent that our churches put up needless offense and stumbling blocks for outsiders, we should remove them. We should be kind and clear and simple and accessible and winsome. But we must never step back from knowing Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2), even if it doesn’t appeal to friendly atheists.