Some Basic Introductions to Christianity (Updated)
When I was an agnostic teenager in the 1970s trying to decide what this “Christianity” stuff was all about (the “I Found It” campaign and other evangelistic efforts were creating a mini-revival after the secularism of the late ’60s and the cynicism of the Watergate years), I was greatly helped by C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (Harper & Row, 1963; from radio talks given in 1943) and D. Elton Trueblood’s The Company of the Committed (Harper & Row, 1979). My mature theology is not much like either of these worthies, but I remain grateful to each for the help given my younger self as a seeking pilgrim. Each conveyed a sense of the central core of Christianity and a dislike for theological faddishness or extremes–whether liberal or conservative extremes. I would now say that each of these works is dated and has drawbacks–enough that I hesitate to recommend them as the best introductions to Christian faith today–but for a long time I saw little or nothing to replace them. (There were many attempts, all along the theological spectrum, but in my view they all fell short.)
Yet I think that now there are several good contemporary introductions that might serve contemporary seekers as well as Lewis’ and Trueblood’s famous works served me. From the center of the American liberal Protestant tradition is Marcus J. Borg’s The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (HarperOne, 2003). Borg, a New Testament scholar teaching at the Oregon State University and one of the sanest member of the Jesus Seminar, was raised as a conservative Lutheran, lost his faith, and rediscovered it in a different, more revisionist, form. He writes to both firsttime seekers and to those, like himself, who found that the conservative Christianity of their upbringing led them to skepticism. In this work, he seeks to reinvigorate the liberal Pietist tradition of F.D.E. Schleiermacher, like him seeking to redeem Christian faith from both sterile orthodoxy and the “cultured despisers” of secular skeptics. After 2 introductory chapters, Borg’s book is divided into two (2) sections, using the organizing metaphor of “the heart.” Part One “Seeing the Christian Tradition Again” contains chapters on faith (The Way of the Heart), the Bible (The Heart of the Tradition), God (The Heart of Reality) and Jesus (The Heart of God). The next section on “Seeing the Christian Life Again,” contains chapters on being “born again” (A New Heart), the Kingdom of God (The Heart of Justice), “thin places” (a concept of Celtic Christian spirituality that focuses on places and times where one appears to see from this world to the next) (Opening the Heart), sin and salvation (Transforming the Heart), practice(s) (The Heart of the Matter), and being a Christian in an age of religious pluralism (Heart and Home).
Borg’s work is often compared to that of Brian McLaren, who is somewhat of a “guru” to the “Emerging Church” movement. Although I have been critical of aspects of Borg’s work (both his scholarly work and his popularizing efforts such as The Heart of Christianity), I find Borg’s work to be far superior to McLaren’s. Still, if one is interested in using a work of McLaren’s as a basic introduction for seekers, I’d choose his most recent work, A New Kind of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010). Here one finally has concrete structure for the Emerging movement, instead of the annoying vagueness. I don’t find McLaren’s introduction to be all that “new,” but it is an excellent restatement of the central Christian narrative and life in a 21st c. context–and to the U.S. fundamentalists out of which McLaren and many of his followers sprang, this rediscovery and restatement must surely seem new.
A New Kind of Christianity is organized around ten questions: the narrative question (3 chapters on the overarching storyline of the Bible); the authority question (3 chapters on questions of revelation, inspiration, and related matters); the God question (especially focused on whether or not God is violent–Is Jesus’ nonviolence an exception to the [normal?] wrath of God or is Jesus the key to God’s very nature?); the Jesus question (Who was/is Jesus and what was/is Jesus’ mission?); the Church question; the sex question; the future question; the pluralism question (How should Christians relate to persons of other religions?), and the “What do we do now?” question. This is especially helpful for those who have only been exposed to the narrow, harsh, and judgmental forms of Christian fundamentalism.
I highly recommend Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Brazos, 2003). (The 2008 edition has a study guide attached for easier use in group settings.) Camp is a minister in the Stone-Campbell tradition and consciously chose to write this as a popular update to both Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (1963; German original, 1938), and John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1972; updated, 1994). Camp’s approach to Christian faith is far closer to Yoder’s and Bonhoeffer’s, but he seeks the popular style of Lewis. The result is an easy-to-read invitation to the challenge of true Christian discipleship. This is an untamed faith that hearkens back to the original (pre-Constantine) Christian message. In the words of Will D. Campbell, one finds nothing of the acculturated “churchianity” of most U. S. preaching where the message is “take up your cross and relax” or “take up your cross and get rich.” Camp’s work is divided into 3 sections: Re-envisioning Discipleship; What Disciples Believe (with chapters on The Gospel, The Savior, and The Church), and What Disciples Do. The last section is especially good in connecting the practices of Christian faith to the basics of theological ethics (in ways sure to shock the politicized fundamentalism of America). Included in this section are the chapters: Worship: Why Disciples Love Their Enemies; Baptism: Why Disciples Don’t Make Good Americans (or Germans or Frenchmen); Prayer: Why Disciples Trust God Rather than Their Own Calculations; Communion: Why Disciples Share Their Wealth; Evangelism: How Disciples “Make a Difference.” Camp has ably summarized the radical nature of true Christianity.
Diana Butler Bass writes from the perspective of mainstream Protestantism and as a participant observer in the renewal of neighborhood churches (not mega-churches). Her book, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How Neighborhood Churches are Renewing the Faith (HarperOne, 2007) uses case studies of 10 mainstream neighborhood churches which are not in decline, but are renewing themselves and impacting their world. Excellent chapters on hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection, & beauty. Her third section, From Tourists to Pilgrims is full of hope for a revitalized Christianity in America.
For a Catholic introduction, I’d go with Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (Novalis, 2008; Orig. Pub, 1968), but it’s major drawback is its sheer length (720 pp). His work Christianity: Essence, History, Future (Continuum, 2007) is even larger. I’d love to see a Catholic and/or Orthodox introduction that is brief enough to hold the attention of most seekers, yet written as well as the other entries in this list.
I have not read Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperOne, 2010) but I am including it based on two things: First, I know Wright’s New Testament scholarship to be first rate and second, I trust the judgment of fellow theo-blogger Jonathan Marlowe, who recommended it in the comments section. Like C. S. Lewis and Elton Trueblood, Wright’s work is both an introduction to Christianity and an apologetic for it (i.e., a defense of its truth). (To some extent, that is true of every work in this list.) With a British secular public as his main audience, Bishop Wright organizes Simply Christian around the theme that we find “echoes” of God and of the truth of Christianity in ordinary life and he seeks to “tease out” the reality which the echoes reflect. Part One, “Echoes of a Voice” is the most directly apologetic (in the older sense of “defending the truth of the faith” and not of “saying I’m sorry”). The world is unjust, but why do we all have a “sense of justice” that makes us want to set the world to rights? Why do humans seem to be made for community? Why is there beauty?
Part two, “Staring at the Sun” is an exposition of Christian basics with chapters on God, Israel, Jesus and God’s Kingdom (Rule), salvation (“rescue and renewal”), the Holy Spirit (God’s Breath of Life) and the church (Living By the Spirit). The final section is on the nature of discipleship/the Christian life. It has chapters on worship, prayer, the Bible (The Book God Breathed), individual discipleship (The Story and the Task), life together as the new people of God (Believing and Belonging) and the Christian hope (New Creation, Starting Now).
The authors of these contemporary introductions to Christianity are all ministers or scholars, yet Lewis and Trueblood were laypersons and that was one of the keys to the success of their works–introductions by non-experts for the non-expert. Is there any basic introduction to Christianity by a layperson that I would recommend today? Yes, there is. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s Living Faith (Three Rivers Press, 1998) is both a personal spiritual autobiography and an excellent introduction to basic Christian faith. A Baptist Sunday School teacher for his entire adult life, Carter is one of the most biblically and theologically literate of U.S. politicians and former politicians. (Almost all American presidents have quoted Scripture and/or referred to their belief in God, but few have done so with any real depth of knowledge. Among the rare exceptions are Abraham Lincoln–who, ironically, never joined a church and may have been agnostic–and James Earl “Jimmy” Carter.) Here one sees the influence of his parents, home pastor, his sister (who was a Pentecostal evangelist), Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhöffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the civil rights movement–not only on Carter’s presidency, but on his later peacemaking efforts. The sequel, Sources of Strength: Meditations on Scripture for a Living Faith (Three Rivers Press, 1999) is in some ways even better. Carter has organized his adult Sunday School lessons into an outline of Christian faith and living. There are 52 brief chapters, so that the book itself could be studied by a seekers class for an entire year as a catechism or basic introduction to Christianity. Here is a theologically informed layperson writing to other laypeople with simplicity and power.
I’d love to see a comprehensive introduction to Christianity from a Black Church perspective, or from a Latino/a perspective. It’s not really a full introduction, but the closest thing from a Black Church perspective is by Peter J. Gomes, Senior Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Pusey Professor of Morals at Harvard Divinity School. His The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (HarperOne, 2007) seeks to throw cold water on people who think that Christianity is tame and proper and reawaken a sense of its radical and scandalous nature.
Any of these introductions would be excellent guides for contemporary seekers and I recommend them to youth leaders, college chaplains, pastors, evangelists–and to those either seeking to understand Christianity for the first time or seeking a renewed comprehension. If I had to choose just one, I’d go with Camp’s because his “take” on the nature of what it means to be a Christian most closely resembles my own. But all of these are helpful and church groups or campus ministries could use any of them for “seeker studies” or for new members’ classes.