Book Review

Theological Detoxification

John J. Bombaro
Phillip Cary
Tuesday, November 1st 2011
Nov/Dec 2011

Readers of Michael Horton's Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life will find Good News for Anxious Christians an outstanding companion in the effort to foster a proper understanding of Christian thinking and living that flows from God's good news. Emerging from decades of firsthand exposure to evangelical anxieties about sanctification, this is a welcome addition to a bourgeoning genre that announces the gospel is for Christians too.

Phillip Cary, an award winning teacher and experienced philosophy professor at Eastern University, has produced an entirely accessible, nontechnical work intended for beleaguered believers seeking detoxification from pop-evangelicalism. For such persons, this book is a veritable Betty Ford Clinic. Yet it has something for everyone, because no one is immune to the disease of law-oriented, anthropocentric Christianity that is endemic to our present milieu.

Written in a warm, conversational style speckled with personal anecdotes and plenty of biblical exposition, Cary's candid but never pugnacious prose invites his readers into a theological world that rightly distinguishes law from gospel’a lesson he learned from Martin Luther (ix)’and therefore into the freedom that the Good Shepherd has for his sheep.

In ten chapters, Cary debunks what he denominates the "new evangelical theology," which by his description is a "working theology" that tells people how to live: "It gives them practical ideas and techniques they're supposed to use to be more spiritual" (xvii). The new evangelical theology adjudicates a person's standing and status as a Christian, not by the objectivity of the gospel but by their works, feelings, and experiences, which are manufactured by a variety of enslaving’and sometimes ridiculously gimmicky but always unbiblical’techniques that require constant upgrading or replacement. At the outset of each chapter, Cary identifies these techniques of the religious marketplace by their clichéd evangelical moniker: giving God control, finding God's will, hearing God speak, letting God work, and so on. This gives way to juxtaposing theses stated in each chapter heading that receive elucidation within each division. For example, chapter 7 is titled "Why You Don't Have to Keep Getting Transformed All the Time, Or, How Virtues Make a Lasting Change in Us," and chapter 8 is "Why 'Applying It to Your Life' Is Boring, Or, How the Gospel Is Beautiful." Like a classic confession of faith, each thesis expertly refuted is matched by an instructive expression of orthodoxy.

The new evangelical theology is shaped and steered by our North American consumerist culture and its marriage to technological advancements, personal experiences, and instantaneous results. "Pastors and other Christian leaders have been taught to use these techniques," explains Cary, "and get you to use them too. They do this with good intentions, thinking that this kind of 'practical' and 'relevant' teaching will transform you and change your life’precisely the kind of thing that consumerist religion always promises to do" (xix). But the result is treadmill Christianity, bogged down by brand loyalty and guilt for failing to succeed in managing sin and sustaining an escalating happiness. It is a hopeless path that leaves many evangelicals anxious, introspective, and exhausted, while propping up the facade of their "victorious Christian life."

Consumer culture offers life-changing experiences, explains Cary. That may sound exciting, but these experiences are fleeting and so the believer must experience new ones. Pop culture is a marketing medium and, in order to keep you consuming experiences that promise "a new you," it must keep you coming back. The techniques necessarily fail in the end and thinking must remain shallow so that the consumer returns for the latest fad hitting the shelves. All of this, Cary says, is antithetical to God's expressed will for his people and antithetical to the gospel that defines and sustains his people. The bad news of the new evangelical theology that breeds anxiety must be contrasted with the good news of Jesus Christ that yields maturity, ordinariness, stability, and virtue if faith, hope, and love are to thrive. But the gospel requires regular attention and habitual devotion, because faith lives on the gospel promises and the presence of God. Virtues and the cultivation of wisdom require work over the long haul, and that means becoming people attuned to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word of God. So what Cary is proposing for the abatement of Christian anxiety and lethargy is nothing short of a reorientation of the evangelical mind and therefore practice.

Cary admirably accomplishes this by taking his readers through theological, philosophical, and psychological discussions without technical jargon. Readers once intimidated by ontological or epistemological discussions will be surprised how unobtrusive Cary makes these fields of study and how effective his analysis is toward understanding human nature, the problem of suffering, and the nature and purpose of divine revelation. The book is compelling because Cary has the uncanny ability to commingle the truth of Scripture with manifest care for his students and readers in the most reachable style.

Disappointments with the book are few: first, the publisher did not include an index (forgivable); and second, the book's cover is just plain ugly (also forgivable). These venial sins are eclipsed only by Cary's failure to segue relevant discussions into references about the sacraments (surely a ponderous move by an Anglican Christian). Page 133 is typical: "We keep needing Christ the way hungry people need bread, and we keep receiving him whenever we hear the gospel preached and believe it. So what transforms us over the long haul is not one to two great life-changing sermons…but the repeated teaching and preaching of Christ, Sunday after Sunday, so that we never cease receiving him into our hearts." Is not the gospel made manifest through Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution too? Does not Christ offer the supreme gift of himself’the Bread of Life’through Holy Communion, Sunday after Sunday? The Word with the sacraments is what transforms us over the long haul. Evangelicals need to hear that as well. Nothing gets our focus off of ourselves and our doing like receiving baptism or receiving absolution or receiving Holy Communion. So how a two-hundred page book titled Good News for Anxious Christians can forego a single reference to Holy Baptism and Holy Com-munion makes me anxious!

As good as Cary's book is (and it is good), however, be sure to set The Gospel-Driven Life or Harold Senkbeil's The Power of Forgiveness as the next book on your reading list for a more complete distillation of the good news that includes Christ's sacraments. Notwithstanding, if you have evangelical family or friends or, indeed, if you yourself are progressing through a theological detoxification course, then Dr. Cary's prescription of Good News for Anxious Christians should be part of your medicinal regimen.

Photo of Phillip Cary
Phillip Cary
Phillip Cary is professor and department chair of philosophy at Eastern University. He is the author of Good News for Anxious Christians (Brazos, 2022) and The Nicene Creed (Lexham, 2023).
Tuesday, November 1st 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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