Book Review: In Search of Authentic Faith, by Steve Rabey
I am twenty-four years old. That could make me a Generation Xer, depending on whether you consider that group to include 80 million people or just 40 million. For now, let’s go with the 80 million figure, just to give me the extra legitimacy of speaking as “one of them.” As a Generation Xer myself, then, I appreciate all the attention that has been lavished on me by Christian authors in recent years. I appreciate the concern they all have for me, and I am flattered by the staggering amount of ink that has been spilled in identifying, describing, and essentially defining who I am, right down to my very goals and dreams. Yep, they have us pegged, me and all my 79,999,999 cohorts. From what I read, we’re a pretty important generation in the grand scheme of things. It’s a good self-esteem shot, actually. Did you know that my generation has caused the most significant and dramatic cultural shift that the world has ever seen? Imagine that—my generation—a part of something more dramatic and world-altering than the fall of the Roman Empire, or the Renaissance, or the Reformation, or even the spread of Christianity—and all because we have asked a few questions about truth and admitted that we need some friends. And of course, as everybody knows, no one else in the history of the world has ever done that before.
Many of the church growth, reach-the-next-generation genre of books that I have read have an unfortunate tendency to make grandiloquent claims about the novelty of what they are saying. Steve Rabey’s book “In Search of Authentic Faith” is no exception. Like most of the other books in its area, Rabey’s book claims to be something new and exciting, a look at a generation of people that is fresh, new, and revolutionary. “Dozens of books have explored the theories of ministry to Generation X,” he writes, “but none has explored the ecclesiastical terrain and provided a portrait of some of the hundreds of emerging churches and ministries…” (p.11) The first part of that is certainly true; there are dozens, probably dozens of dozens of books like this. The second part of the sentence, though, is certainly not true. Rabey is far from the first person to have the idea of surveying a number of “innovative” and “creative” congregations. Dale Galloway does the same thing. So do Eddie Gibbs, Elmer Towns, Thom Rainer and Edward Hammett (all of which are reviewed alongside this book.) It’s simply not a new idea, and the constant neon language about it eventually begins to sound contrived. Not only that, but nothing new is really being said about the Generation X, either. The same issues are brought up again and again—Gen Xers love authenticity, need relationships, appreciate creativity, crave community, and generally distrust institutions. As true as those things may be about Generation X, which of them is really all that revolutionary? Aside, perhaps, from distrusting institutions, which of the characteristics above wouldn’t also well-describe my grandfather’s generation? Rabey writes on page 23, “Many [Gen Xers] seemed constantly worried about what lay in store for them around the next bend in the road of life. ‘No matter what I plan for the future,’ one Xer told Time, ‘when I finally get there, it’s always something different.’” Has any generation not felt that way? Uncertainty about the future and surprise at what it actually holds is no more unique to Generation X than the phenomenon of becoming an adult. “Xers hate anything that is hype and smacks of phoniness,” Rabey writes. The bombastic language of Rabey’s book carries him perilously close to that description.
The fatal flaw in Rabey’s book, though, is much more serious. Throughout the book, Rabey shows a bewildering lack of theological understanding, in everything from salvation to the Lord’s Supper to the nature of faith. The book is, for the most part, an unquestioning, uncritical, and naively approving tribute to anything that could pass as “creative.” Consider this example:
“At a 1998 national gathering of Gen X pastors, one young man whose congregation has been reaching out to vampire-oriented members of the Goth subculture barely caused a stir when he told a group of his fellow ministers, “We invite these kids to share Communion with us, and it gives them a whole different understanding of blood.” Rabey calls this “the cutting edge of Christian outreach.” (p.67)
There is a wealth of theological ink that could be spilled in lament over that anecdote, but what is troublesome is that Rabey so unquestioningly and uncritically praises it. What is the merit of that idea? That it is innovative? That it is creative? The church’s calling is not to be creative. More often than not, creativity in the church degenerates finally into sin. The Israelites were being creative when they melted their jewelry and made a cow; it probably would have helped, in fact, in reaching out to the surrounding pagan subcultures. But God killed them for doing it. Why? Because God is not interested in how creative we can be. He is not interested in patting us on the back for using our noodles to come up with new and interesting and innovative ways of using His ordinances. God is interested in the church faithfully obeying what is written in Scripture, a topic that is utterly and conspicuously absent from Rabey’s book.
For another example, look at page 106:
Protestants have had an uneasy relationship with the visual arts ever since iconoclastic Protestant reformers destroyed icons and statues in the name of God. In the centuries after the Reformation, the church, which for centuries had been a patron of the arts, grew increasingly distant from them.
Some emerging leaders are trying to change that by encouraging young artists, featuring art in their services and buildings, and holding gatherings at art galleries. But in doing so, they’re fighting against centuries of Protestant assumptions about how words are deemed important to God but visual beauty is treated as irrelevant.
Besides the fact that the last sentence of that excerpt is wholly false, one wonders if Steve Rabey has given even a cursory glance at the reasons why Protestant reformers didn’t want pictures of the divine majesty in their churches? Is it really, in his mind, just a senseless repression of talent that needs to be reversed by more enlightened “emerging leaders?” There is no need now to rehearse the iconoclast controversy; it is a long and contentious debate that has been waged over centuries. But the fact that Rabey feels so comfortable sweeping away the whole argument with one stale comment about “encouraging young artists” betrays an embarrassing historical and theological ignorance.
All in all, Rabey’s book is little more than a compilation of one platitudinous quotation after another. He does not analyze his own arguments, he does not think critically about any of the examples he gives, and the book boils down very quickly to a pep-talk about being creative. Not one verse of Scripture is cited through the entire book. The proclamation of salvation and faith in Christ merits one five-line paragraph (p.87), and even then it is just the last of six “current efforts” to “help restore young people to a healthy, biblical approach to sexuality.” I cannot see a single reason why a pastor would want to spend his time reading this book. Even in the genre of church growth literature, it falls in the lower echelons. There are other books, even about this very topic, that are more thoughtful, more insightful, and simply better-written.