The Way Back – A Full Review
The Way Back: how Christians blew our credibility and how we get it back
It is a definition of a good book that it forces you to continue reading; it is the definition of an excellent book that it forces you to pause in order to ponder or pray. The Way Back – on the current crisis of Christianity in the United States and the path beyond it – fits the latter definition: this is truly an excellent book.
The focus of The Way Back is the sudden and comprehensive decline of Christianity in the United States. This widely acknowledged, spectacular and troubling collapse is seen in matters both measurable and immeasurable. So across almost the entire theological spectrum churches are showing falling numbers of attendees and, at the same time, the faithful who remain are marked by an increasing shallowness in their faith. With such a decline in quantity and quality it is hardly surprising that the influence of Christianity on the culture of the United States has waned to the point where faith is now frequently seen by many not as society’s foundation but as its foe. Christianity has gone from playing a home match amid overwhelming support to playing an away match in an atmosphere of hostility.
Together, Phil Cooke and Jonathan Bock first subject this crisis to a firm and unflinching analysis. Then, having given a careful diagnosis of the malady, they proceed to an equally thoughtful, if challenging, prescription for its cure.
Although easy to read, The Way Back is a book of depth. The authors draw on truths of Scripture as well as wisdom from church history and Christian thinkers. There is breadth too here. While remaining focused on an American problem, this book contains rich and stimulating insights from the church throughout the ages and across the world.
Let me note five particular strengths of this book.
This is an honest book. Anyone inclined to put their head in the sand and think that there is no lasting and severe crisis in the American church needs to read The Way Back. This book pulls no punches and there are statistics here that leave no scope for any retreat into wishful thinking.
This is a heartfelt book. The Way Back is not some dispassionate analysis of social trends from scholars coolly gazing down from some distant vantage point. Instead, as Christians, these writers care – and deeply – not just about Christianity as a cultural or political phenomenon, but about the gospel and the fate of individuals (and nations) without Christ.
This is a humble book both in its claims and aims. There is no posturing here, no attempt to claim the political high ground, no simplistic ‘I told you so’ finger-pointing. This sense of humility comes over in a refreshing encouragement for Christians to seek to gain influence by service.
This is also a heroic book. There is a bold call to arms here; a stern summons call to action before the decline becomes a fall. The temptation in any crisis is for those affected by it to do what they have always done but simply with a greater frequency or intensity. One of the many courageous elements in this book is its demand that the church be open to consider newer and more biblical ways of being God’s people in an alien culture. The stern and uncomfortable challenge for the church to be the church and the Christians to be like Christ needs to be widely heard and obeyed.
Last but not least, this is a hopeful book. It would be easy for such a book to be a long, nostalgic lament to the days when the Star-Spangled Banner and the cross seemed indissolubly linked, and when Christianity’s moral majority in the United States was both moral and a majority. Cooke and Bock resist this temptation and in the latter part of the book are boldly encouraging in their hopes of a way out of the crisis.
Now it might be assumed by those who do not live under the Stars and Stripes that this book has no relevance for them. The reality is otherwise. For one thing, even at a time where Christianity is expanding (sometimes explosively) in the Two-Thirds World, American Christianity maintains an extraordinary global influence in terms of educating, inspiring and funding the church worldwide. The repercussions of the faltering of ‘America as Christendom’ will be felt not merely nationally but globally. Equally, too, there are lessons to be learned for other lands. Those of us who, like me, live in nations such as the United Kingdom where the Christian faith has long lost its pre-eminent role in the culture can find wisdom about how to regain ground lost generations ago. Those who live in cultures where the Christian faith is growing in influence can read this with profit: there are lessons to be learned here.
It is far too early for a full examination of the causes of the decline of American Christianity over the last hundred years; this is not that book and such an analysis must await both more scholarly research and the perspective of time. Besides, the need of the hour is not some multivolume academic dissection of what went wrong in American Christianity, but a practical and urgent summons to action in order to make things right. The Way Back is a book of potent medicine. But there are times where such medicine is needed: and for American Christianity this is surely such a time.
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