Book Review – Christless Christianity

Michael Horton, in his recent book, labels the latest trends of Evangelicalism in America “Christless Christianity.” He explains,

“My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous….
It is not heresy as much as silliness that is killing us softly. God is not denied but trivialized – used for our life programs rather than received, worshiped, and enjoyed.”

Another term he uses to describe the state of Christianity in America is “Christianity Lite”:

“If our real problem is bad feelings, then the solution is good feelings. The cure can only be as radical as the disease. Like any recreational drug, Christianity Lite can make people feel better for the moment, but it does not reconcile sinners to God.”

He asserts that the religion many professing Christians in America actually believe is not the Biblical gospel but “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.” He writes that the main tenet of this religion is that “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” Any mention of Christ, his death, or the cross, is noticeably absent. He writes,

“Whatever churches say they believe, the incoherent answers offered by those entrusted to their ministry substantiate my argument that a moralistic religion of self-salvation is our default setting as fallen creatures.”

There were a number of things I appreciated about this book.

First, it was a great reminder for me on both a personal and ministry level to continually fight to keep Christ at the center of my life. It is, indeed, my natural default setting to deny that I am not my own, that Christ has a rightful claim to my life, that I am God’s son, and that I am only living a life of any significance if I am living in line with his will. The church at large tends to take Christ out of Christianity, but I am equally guilty of that in my own life.

Second, I thought the connection Horton made between the emergent church gospel and the prosperity gospel was particularly insightful. I never would have recognized that someone like Brian McLaren and someone like Joel Osteen are actually saying the same thing at the end of the day. In my mind they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The emergents are usually more politically liberal, concerned with social justice and not material wealth. The prosperity crowd is usually more politically conservative and (obviously) on aiming for the health and wealth gravy train. However, Horton points out that even though their messages are vastly different, both are really putting forward a self-salvation project:

“Osteen speaks of salvation entirely in terms of prosperity here and now, while McLaren speaks of salvation primarily in terms of peace and justice here and now. In both cases, it is up to us to bring about this salvation, which in some sense Christ has made possible by planting a seed in us all.”

One criticism I would have of the book is that the flow of the material he presents was a bit difficult to wade through. At certain points I was reading and it felt almost like a recorded stream of consciousness instead of a logical and clear progression of ideas and points. The book is filled with insightful analysis of the current trends of American Christianity, but it felt more like pearls scattered across a table, than strung neatly together on a necklace. It doesn’t take away from Horton’s contribution, but I mention it just to warn you that it may take a bit more work to mine the content than you expected.

Overall, I would recommend this book as a good reminder of the tendency in all of our hearts to live the “Christian” life while leaving Christ behind. However, without adding much by way of a positive suggestion regarding how to move the church toward a more Christ-centered existence, Horton’s book is primarily a critique and criticism that is a bit difficult to wade through at times.

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