SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF AN ANGRY CHURCH: Finding a Better Way to Influence Our Culture, by Dean Merrill (Zondervan, 183 pp.; $12.99, paper). Reviewed by John Wilson.

If there is one thing that American Christians at the end of the twentieth century have in common, it is a strenuous wrestling with what it means to be the church. Sometimes, though not as often as we might hope, this questioning is pursued with full consciousness of the issues at stake, undergirded by sustained theological reflection, and always tested against Scripture; more often, questions like What is the church, really? and How do we know what it should look like? are taken up in a pragmatic, hit-and-miss fashion. But whatever form it takes, this questioning cuts across all the usual dividing lines of race and denomination and worship style. The members of the Willow Creek Association are rethinking church from the ground up—not least in dispensing with the name "church"! And so also, when Francis George, the new archbishop of Chicago and soon-to-be cardinal, makes evangelization the keynote of his program, he is asking American Catholics to rethink the meaning of church.

With Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Church: Finding a Better Way to Influence Our Culture, Dean Merrill has made a valuable contribution to this ongoing reexamination. Merrill, a former vice president at Focus on the Family and currently vice president and publisher of the International Bible Society, does what a long line of Christian provocateurs have done, going all the way back to the apostle Paul. The trick is simple. You merely ask Christians, Suppose what you say you believe is really true—how should you then live?

That question is too staggering in its implications to be treated fully in any one book (or any ten books), and the provocateur typically homes in on certain teachings that play against the complacencies of this or that segment of Christendom, as Dorothy Day did with the Catholic Workers, or as John Perkins has done in a series of challenging books calling for racial reconcilation, or Philip Yancey in What's So Amazing About Grace?

So too Merrill has a target audience in mind (though he wouldn't object, I'm sure, if other Christians listened in). He's primarily addressing evangelical Christians, especially but not exclusively those who share at least some of the concerns of the Religious Right.

Merrill's method is to take some notion that is axiomatic among the readers whose minds he hopes to change—and then turn that assumption upside-down or inside-out. Is America a Christian nation? Well of course it is! the unwary reader responds. Just look at the Founding Fathers. Yes, says Merrill, let's do that—and he proceeds to deconstruct that beguiling illusion. (See especially the wonderfully titled chapter, "Will We See Thomas Jefferson in Heaven?") Is America sledding toward Gomorrah? Absolutely! Why, just look at today's newspaper. Not so fast, counters Merrill. A close-to-the-bone slice of his own family history, from "the Indiana heartland" in the year 1915, suggests that maybe the good old days weren't as radically different from our troubled times as we're encouraged to believe.

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And so it goes. But Merrill is not simply taking these assumptions piecemeal; he has a broad strategy in mind. We Christians—or Christ-followers, as he prefers to say—constitute a minority, even in "Christian" America. Sounding a little like Stanley Hauerwas, he calls for a fundamental change in the way Christians seek to influence the larger culture.

Of course we live in a fallen world, Merrill says; what did we expect? But have we forgotten that God is still in charge? We are impatient; we want God "to hurry up, to cure all ills, to settle all scores. When he does not, we often conclude that he doesn't really care, and so we'll have to take up the job he is neglecting." What hubris! "Whether fast or or slow, dramatic or subtle," Merrill reminds us, "God's action in this messy world should never be undersold. He is still the supreme authority, and while his timing may mystify us, his power is not to be doubted."

So how should the Christian minority seek to influence our culture? Instead of fighting fire with fire, we can be salt and light:

What would it take for non-Christians to begin saying about us, "You know, I don't understand everything about those people, and I don't agree with them on some issues. But they're certainly good to have around. They're a valuable asset to society. I'd hate to see this town, this country, this nation have to get along without them."

This passage hints at the limitations of Merrill's book as well as its winsomeness. Unlike Hauerwas, Merrill doesn't take our fallenness quite seriously enough. What would non-Christians do if Christians were consistently following in Christ's steps? That would be interesting to see. Crucify us, maybe?

There's a lack of tough-mindedness at other points as well, most egregiously in the sappy "Short 'To Do' List for Christ-Followers" that concludes the book. This includes a number of bulleted items, the first six of which are as follows:

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1. Pray regularly for the president to hear God's voice. 2. Pray regularly for the vice president to hear God's voice. 3. Pray the same for your U.S. representative. 4. Pray the same for your two U.S. senators. 5. Stop telling politician jokes. 6. Stop laughing at other people's politician jokes.

And so on. It's the sort of list that makes you run screaming to your files for an antidote—a good dose of P. J. O'Rourke, say. Merrill should visit the American history section of his local superstore to take a look at the recently published and extremely revealing volumes of tape-recorded history from the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. (And then there's the fellow currently in office.) No politician jokes? Does the man want to rob us of our only consolation?

But whatever bones you have to pick with Merrill—and every reader will have some—his book will repay your full attention. Pack it in the carryon bag on your next trip—you could read it in one long flight—or read it in your small group or Sunday-school class. But feel free to go ahead and enjoy a good politician joke now and then.

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