I usually don’t recommend books I haven’t read, but I recently made an exception for Has American Christianity Failed?, by Bryan Wolfmueller (Concordia Publishing House, 2016).
My reasoning went as follows: Great title + a fair amount of buzz + familiar author (e.g., Issues, Etc.) = a solid bet.
So I recommended it to my sister Ann, who agreed to team up with me on this review.
The bottom line: The book wasn’t what either of us expected, but for different reasons.
Reaction #1 (me): Surprise! The book is more about Lutheran doctrine than American Christianity.
That’s not a bad thing, especially if you’re in the market for a primer on Lutheran beliefs. When I first heard the title, though, I envisioned a Frontline-type documentary, with scenes of evangelical worship services, massive gatherings, altar calls, busy Christian bookstores, and maybe some political moving and shaking, interspersed with historical information and commentary from church leaders and religion scholars. Throughout, you’d follow stories of believers initially excited about their decision for Christ but who wind up weary and dejected by the end of the tale. (“Have I done enough? I don’t know. Guess I just have to keep on working.”)
There IS some of that in the book. Wolfmueller shares his personal experience, and he identifies key beliefs in American Christianity (e.g., that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are symbols, not sacraments). That material, though, takes a back seat to the explanation of Lutheran doctrine.
And that explanation might strike some readers as a little dark, which brings us to Ann.
Reaction #2 (Ann): Surprise! Not everyone will find this book comforting.
One of Ann’s first comments about the book was, “I didn’t find much solace here,” which I was a little surprised to hear. When I read the book, I wasn’t expecting solace and actually skimmed big chunks of the Lutheran doctrine material. Ann, on the other hand, paid close attention, and she found herself asking a lot of questions. Her general impression:
“If you’re studied in Lutheran doctrine, maybe this appeals. But for a layperson, I don’t think the argument against American Christianity is too effective. I can see why American Christianity appeals. I understand the Lutheran perspective, but the Lutheran arguments seem cold to me.”
She’s saying that, by the way, as a lifelong Lutheran. “I get that ours is a life of suffering,” she says. And she appreciates the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, saying, “It’s comforting to know that my 10 good works won’t have to compare with Mother Teresa’s 1000.”
She heard the Gospel message of God’s love in the book; she just thought it was overshadowed by the Law.
She points to the chapter, “How Bad a Boy Are Ya?” as an example. Early in the chapter, Wolfmueller writes:
“The Scriptures teach that we are ‘dead in the trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1). Our sinful flesh is incapable of knowing or understanding God’s Word (1 Cor. 2:14). We are, by nature, God’s enemies (Romans 5:10), ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3). The diagnosis is bleak” (p. 57).
That’s all straight from the Bible. But for Ann, the repeated drumbeat of the message throughout the chapter (“There it is again: ‘You are dead in the trespasses’”) got to be a bit much. (Wolfmueller says himself at one point in the chapter, “Not a cheerful teaching, but true”—a sign of his emphasis.)
At times, Ann even felt a little ticked off at God.
“I was thinking, ‘Really God, why didn’t you just stop at Adam and Eve, or Noah?’”
I can relate. It’s a human question, which is one of the reasons Ann thinks American Christianity might appeal. People want to feel connected to God in prayer. They don’t want to constantly hear that they’re bad. They want their actions to matter.
“I can see the author’s arguments against American Christianity,” Ann said, “but I can see its appeal. It works with our humanness.”
One example: good works. Ann wonders: “Is it unique to American Christianity, or do all of us feel this way, that we’re always feeling like we’re not good enough? We measure everything! From the time we’re born, we’re measured. (‘Your child’s weight is in the 25th percentile. You can do this and this to change it.’)”
It’s hard to hear that our works don’t matter. “Are they worth nothing? Like God says, ‘Okay, that’s nice, but they don’t matter?’ What if you treated your own kids like that when they did something good? ‘That’s nice, but it doesn’t matter. You’re a bad person. But I love you anyway.’”
That’s left her with an important question: How can a person witness these beliefs in an uplifting way?
“At my stage in life, I’m trying to be a better witness, to be better prepared for a conversation should it present itself. If I were to encounter someone in the American Christian tradition, what would I say? People are human. We don’t want to be told constantly that we’re dirt. If you’re by human standards a generally good person—you’re a good neighbor, you don’t steal, etc.—how do you witness God’s love?”
If you have a good recommendation, share it in the comments. If not, Pastor Wolfmueller might want to think about writing a sequel. (Dark Lutheranism for Happy People?)
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About Ann (one of Garrison Keillor’s “Happy Lutherans”)
|Ann (middle) and I, reading with our Aunt Nancy|
Occupation: Parish assistant
Favorite Hymns: “Lift High the Cross” and “Thine is the Glory”
Most vivid memories of our Lutheran church and school: “Our third-grade teacher smacking someone on the backside with one of those long erasers…and leaving marks!” she says, laughing. She also remembers the pastor’s “fire-and-brimstone sermons” (which might explain why she leans happy today).
Currently reading: The second book of Kings
Ann is also handy enough to be on This Old House, but that’s for another day.