InterSections

inform - encourage - unite

BOOK REVIEW

Toowoomba Lectureship, QLD

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For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined  by Natasha Moore, et. al. (Sydney: Centre for Public Christianity, 2019)    Nathan Holyoak

What does it take for a society to flourish? 

Today, many people who look back over history see mainly the damage wrought by religion – Christianity in particular. Therefore, so the thinking goes, for humanity to flourish we simply need to grow up and abandon the Christian faith. That’s why increasingly Christianity isn’t seen as something merely outdated or irrelevant, but a malign presence that harms the world.

Is this a fair summary of the situation? One way to help answer this question is to consider For the Love of God (also condensed into a documentary: publicchristianity.org/fortheloveofgod/) by Natasha Moore, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney. Moore takes an open and honest look at the history of Christianity, attempting to understand the best and worst that have been done in the name of God. 

Of course, to do this comprehensively is a mammoth task. Moore’s book isn’t a full church history text. Instead, it focuses on episodes that loom large in the public imagination: negatives like the medieval Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and child sexual abuse; as well as positives like charitable works, the abolition of slavery, and others. Beyond these prominent examples, Moore considers the impact of Christian theology on ethics and political and social developments, such as civil and human rights. She also finds other examples where Christians have been a transformative presence in their world.

Beneath this discussion lies the question of what exactly do we mean by ‘Christianity’? In reflecting on church history, Moore finds a distinction between faith used as an identity marker and faith used as a guide for living. When faith is merely an identity or a tribal marker it can be a driver of conflict. But when faith is a guide for living it can change us and shape our actions in positive ways. This realisation should temper our judgment when we go looking for someone to blame. 

To help illustrate this, Moore uses a musical metaphor: a tune that’s written by God but played to varying success by individuals. Do we judge the tune by the music or how it’s being played? 

As helpful as this illustration is, it still doesn’t tell the full story. It’s too easy to dismiss those who do evil in God’s name as not being ‘real’ Christians. This is a serious topic that deserves our careful consideration. Even today, many have been hurt by people who claim to be Christians or representing the church; so we have to be wary not to be too glib in our assessment of these issues. As Moore points out, Jesus invited the world to judge his followers by their behaviour: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35). An honest accounting will need to dig deeper; that’s what this book helps us to do.

To the extent that Western civilisation over the past 1,700 years has been described as ‘Christian’, many consider the evils of Western civilisation as ‘Christian’ evils. Equally, the great achievements of Western civilisation are counted as ‘Christian’ achievements. This equation isn’t entirely fair, but it’s also not without some merit. 

The truth is that the Christian faith has shaped Western civilisation and has also been shaped by it – for better and for worse. When seen in this light, it’s impossible to give a simple and straightforward answer to the question as to whether Christianity has been a force for good. Also, does the good simply balance out the bad? 

Instead, if we ask the question whether Christ himself  has benefitted the world then the answer would have to be an unequivocal yes. Indeed, as the book shows, even the most strident critic of Christianity would likely agree – even if not for quite the same reasons. 

The book’s conclusion is referenced in its subtitle: Christendom in the broad sense of the term has done unspeakable things in God’s name; this has to be acknowledged. But, equally, Jesus and the church he established has also had a much larger positive influence on the world we live in today than most people realise. This is a discussion that Christians should approach with great humility but also with confidence. We have nothing to fear with truth.

In sum, Moore’s book is a worthwhile read on at least two levels. First, it helps us face up to the brutal reality of things that have been done in Jesus’ name, and the pain and suffering that have been caused by churches of various stripes. Second, it’s also inspiring to read about how followers of Jesus in many different circumstances have lived out Jesus’ teachings with dedication and courage. 

Seeing these two sides of the same coin is a powerful reminder of the responsibility we’ve been given as Christ’s ambassadors in the world. The world is watching us, now more than ever. Meanwhile, the Gospel still has the power to transform our hearts and, through us, the world.

Nathan Holyoak is a member of The Point Church in Brisbane and an associate editor of  InterSections.
nathan@helmsdeep.org

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