The first is Rob Bell's What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Bell is a progressive Evangelical and highly articulate in the inane patter-style that characterises the semi-hip contemporary preacher. If you can overcome any aversion you have to this kind of glibness, he can be quite winsome. Bell is well along the continuum, but, alas, probably convinced he can have his cake and eat it too. It's a neat trick of you can get away with it, and after a few pages you kind of hope he can. Bell's God is warmer and fuzzier than the Old Sod in the Sky most of us grew up with, a Deity dragged out into the light of the twenty-first century, given a decent haircut by Bell and some smart casual clothes. It may be an improvement, but you get the feeling that, despite Bell's protestations, it's largely a cosmetic makeover. Nevertheless this is the kind of book you could recommend to one of those 'difficult to shake loose' Southern Baptist types. It'll get them thinking without triggering a total shock and horror reaction.
Way down the other end of the line is Joe Bennett's Double Happiness. It's not about religion as such, although Bennett takes some lusty swipes along the way. The subtitle sums it up: How Bullshit Works. By bullshit Bennett means a great many things from advertising strategies to royalty. Double Happiness has something to offend almost everybody, so you can alternate between deep groans and loud bursts of applause. This is what life looks like to many decent folk who have consigned religious faith to the trash can. I love the straight talking, no jargon, no nonsense approach (obviously this guy could never be a theologian!) Almost Joe, almost thou convincest me...
Somewhere between these two very readable volumes sits the third, Why Weren't We Told?: A Handbook on 'Progressive' Christianity, made up of a series of odd contributions from writers who have moved to the fringes of orthodox Christian faith. Here God has been comprehensively deconstructed and re-envisioned. I confess that this is the part of the continuum where I currently feel most at home, but it's really hard to deal with the oppressive earnestness that exudes from these progressive (liberal/radical) practitioners. Why is it that most of those who find themselves in this uncomfortable spot on the spectrum exhibit all the joyfulness of prune-fed Methodists? You don't get the impression that you could sit down and enjoy a beer with these folk - if they do imbibe it'll doubtless be a carefully selected still white wine. And neither do they seem the sort who could chortle into their glasses over an episode of Modern Family; in fact I doubt whether many of them watch anything other than an occasional BBC documentary. What you will find here is bad poetry and pointless (though mercifully short) rambles, along with a few (too few) worthwhile pieces. They say Christianity began with a few fishermen, but latter-day fishers would probably head back to sea early just to avoid stuff like this.
Christianity; it's a problem, a love/hate object that more often immobilises its bemused followers rather than motivating them, especially when you move away from the black and white literalism of the fundagelicals. If you reach for the glowing centre (whether real or a mirage) you must first shovel aside copious layers of the "bullgeschichte" Mr Bennett has identified.
It's a conundrum that I for one have no solution to, other than perhaps taking some comfort from the words of "the preacher" of Ecclesiastes, who had some deeper, rawer insights that even Rob Bell can muster.
I have come to realise that nothing is better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. (Eccl. 3:12)Perhaps that's a bottom line we should all agree on.