UnChristian by David Kinnaman (Book Review), B+ ~ BitterSweetLife

Monday, October 15, 2007

UnChristian by David Kinnaman (Book Review), B+

Church: Guess Why America is Giving You Dirty Looks?

America's growing malaise with regard to Christianity is no secret, unless you've been living inside a hermetically-sealed subculture where the drive through at MacDonald's passes for living "in not of" the world. But you probably didn't know how pervasive and specified those ill feelings were. Now, thanks to David Kinnaman, you can.

I'm not being sarcastic. Reading UnChristian is like walking into a closed-door staff meeting to find out why exactly people have been giving you those mean looks. The clarification hurts but it's very helpful.

The findings in UnChristian are the result of extensive polling by the Barna Group. Want a snapshot? Large slices of the American population, ages 16 to 29, view Christianity as "antihomosexual," "judgmental," "hypocritical," "too involved in politics," "sheltered," and "insensitive to others"--with some interesting variations. Can it be true? Are we really this awful? By and large, yes.

Kinnaman takes a blow-by-blow look at the descriptors, analyzes the stats, and makes suggestions for corrective action that are largely circumspect and wise. He avoids cultural posturing and points out that Christians will never be popular, but ought to be giving offense for the right reasons. We need to choose our battles, learn the culture, and put money and muscle behind our good intentions.

A variety of contributors weigh in with short essays at the end of each chapter--among my favorites are Andy Crouch, Mark Batterson, Mike Foster, and Jonalyn Fincher. Their contributions aren't substantive, but the variety of voices adds to the book's rounded perspective. Brian McLaren appears briefly, but says nothing controversial, settling for merely ambiguous.

The book's weakness is probably its individualistic emphasis. Kinnaman's vision is for the church to fix its "image problem" via real, personal change. What he doesn't really address is how current, institutionalize forms of church may be inadequate to the task. However, UnChristian is an much-needed diagnosis tool for the flailing American church and I recommend it. Solid B+. If the writing style had been stronger, it would have vaulted into A range.

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Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Thank you for noting the need for this book. I'm glad you've reviewed it.

One hopeful note in America's culture springs from a recent Wall Street Journal journalist who attended the packed out Hawkins/Lennox debate over God's existence (Birmingham, AL).The journalist had asked me last week to comment.

What encouraged me was finding the journalist quoting me faithfully and responding with amazement, even admiration at the ways Christians are beginning to engage with culture. See my blog or her article for more http://www.opinionjournal.com/taste/?id=110010724).
It was good to see the press taking notice that we are beginning to re-translate our experience of Christ.

Thank you for noting the ways we need to grow to learn out culture, to be nationals who translate this eastern Man into our western culture.

Verashni said...

Insightful review Ariel. It looks like a really interesting book... I find myself really re-evaluating of late the comfort zone that cultural Christianity can become. It's so good to know that there's this larger movement where everyone is picking up on ways for us to return to the truth and completely counter-cultural emphasis of Jesus' teaching... Enjoyed the excerpts in the other entry too. do you think he didn't take on the church structures themselves because he was wary of ruffling feathers?

If we are to be true followers of Christ and not hypocritical, judgemental and so on, that should flow out of a deeper revelation of what it means to be a Christian... it shouldn't be something we strive towards. Not sure if that's what you meant about the individualistic focus of the book, but to my mind, making Christ an end in himself, and not a good image, will fix these as well as a host of other problems in the body.

Hmm... hope that makes a little bit of sense :) Sorry for the long post!

Bernard Shuford said...

Wow, I need to read this. Thanks.

R. Sherman said...

Query whether the "large segments" of the population hold their views based upon actual encounters with actual Christians as opposed to the various caricatures of which society is so fond.

And certainly, I'm all for engaging people where they are, i.e. acknowledging the culture in which we find ourselves. Yet, there comes a point where either we hold on to certain basics or we don't. If society willfully chooses to ignore what we say, in favor of a perception which make society feel more comfortable, then so be it.


Ariel said...

Jonalyn, thanks for commenting. Your opportunities with the press sound encouraging...I hope you'll get more of them. I enjoyed your contributions to UnChristian, so I'll be watching for your name elsewhere...starting with your blog.

Hey Verashni, good comment as always. I agree that if the church focuses on living like Christ, our "image" will begin to appear as it should. Kinnaman doesn't really set out to start a new PR campaign, though. He makes the same point you do.

What I meant by the "individualistic" focus was that the books seems geared toward individual Christians doing various things to make Jesus look better; Kinnaman doesn't really address the state of the church as an institution in America. My feeling is that it's not so much a "fear of ruffling feathers" as more traditional outlook. The argument could also probably be made that ecclesiology is outside the scope of the book...although I might disagree.

If society willfully chooses to ignore what we say, in favor of a perception which make society feel more comfortable, then so be it.

There can be no doubt this goes on, Randall. And at the same time, there's no shortage of "Christians" making fools of themselves and leaving a wake of destruction behind them. Kinnaman gives a few examples, and we can probably all supply some of our own. I think it's a both/and thing.

Jeffrey said...

>Christians will never be popular, but ought to be giving offense for the right reasons.

Bingo. My reading list just got longer.

Ariel said...

I just re-read this quote from Telford Work; it's a good backdrop for considering the helpful critique in UnChristian.

God’s reputation may be in tatters today among the nations and even among his own people, but God’s reputation is eternally secure among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that is what really matters. These three are God’s true biographers; we are merely their publicists.
- Telford Work, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg

Anonymous said...

I saw an ad for this book and using Google I've located several reviews such as yours. I plan to go buy the book today.

I left the church. I spent 30 years as a devout Christian, deeply believing in Jesus with all my heart. But after seeing the way people behave, the mean, rude, hateful people called Christians, I finally decided that the religion can not possibly be true and correct. If it were, it wouldn't have so much hatred in it. After much "soul searching" I finally decided that if Jesus had been real, then his church wouldn't be filled with people like this. I came to that conclusion about three years ago, and have no plans to return. I stopped believing. Jesus isn't real. He can't be, because otherwise his church wouldn't be so hateful. And now I'm so glad to hear that this book says young people in their teens and 20s are finally waking up to this fact, and earlier in life than I did. I know this is probably not something you all would like to hear, but when you're basing your religion on an ancient book that condones hatred towards other people such as homosexuals and is filled with threats of eternal damnation, it's no surprise people are leaving and refusing to believe it. I'm not trying to be rude or nasty; I'm just sharing my own personal experiences; even though I'm not in the age group of 16-29, I'm definitely one of the people who views the church this way after having been a part of it for so long.

Ariel said...

Hi there, Anonymous. I feel a great deal of sympathy for your position, even though I've been sheltered from some of the worst Christian infighting. Growing up, I was fortunate to know many people who genuinely loved Jesus, loved other people, and whose lives made no sense if there is, in fact, no resurrected Christ.

However, I've had my share of experience with unpleasant "Christians," and don't believe that human evil can ever "disprove" Jesus. That's kind of like saying that there's so much darkness that we can't believe in the sun, or so much misery that joy is a myth.

you're basing your religion on an ancient book that condones hatred towards other people such as homosexuals and is filled with threats of eternal damnation...

I'd like to point out that the Bible does not condone hatred and in fact commands the opposite: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," said Jesus. Hell is a topic I don't have room to deal with here, but it's not a random punishment that God inflicts on people he doesn't like. Quite plainly, Hell is the logical, final conclusion of a life lived apart from God. If you take that highway, that is where you arrive.

I hope the book is helpful for you.

Charlie said...

Appreciate the review.

I'm still working through the book, but up to now it seems to be confirming many of the things I already assumed. I'm an odd duck in that I didn't grow up in the church and find myself in ministry dealing with the churchianity culture that this book seems to be deconstructing.

One thing I think exists is a correlation between the hypocrisy and the emphasis on "doing the right thing/being good" in most Christian's minds as being what Christianity is all about. It would seem the prevailing hypocrisy has been birthed because of a lack of really understanding the Gospel.

It's not about being "good." And when we get in the mindset of "be better, try harder" we only end up in dead moralism that takes one of two paths - arrogance or guilt ridden shame and defeat. Either way, if it's about being good and doing better then the natural result will be to hide our shortcomings. Hence, hypocrisy.

Having come from the outside it just seems like the biggest problem is that so many who have grown up in the church have no clue what the Gospel really means. They say, "I'm saved by grace." But they are practical moralists in the way they live their lives. It breaks my heart.

I always wondered why when I went to a Christian college I would encounter peer after peer who had grown up in the church and was looking for a crowbar to pry their way out of "christianity." It always confused me that the things they wanted to run after were the things I had come out of. But it makes absolute sense to me now. Jesus was just a bunch of rules to them. Christianity was this religious set of rules. They knew "churchianity." Christ had been obscured by the "be good" moralism.

It's going to take more than knowing what outsiders think of us. We have to know what God thinks of us and how we should think of ourselves first...

Thanks again for the review...

Ariel said...

Thanks for the comment, Charlie. I like the way you put this:

One thing I think exists is a correlation between the hypocrisy and the emphasis on "doing the right thing/being good" in most Christian's minds as being what Christianity is all about. It would seem the prevailing hypocrisy has been birthed because of a lack of really understanding the Gospel.

That pretty much sums it up.

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this book and highly recommend it. It specifically addresses why comments like 'if people ignore what we say' and how they have the effect of shoving people away from the faith. God and Christ loved every one of us BEFORE we changed our lives. The idea that people must first be chided into being 'good' and only then get to be Christians is exactly backwards.

Fermi Project said...

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I thought you would want to know that Fermi Project just released the official "UnChristian: Change the Perception" DVD Curriculum designed for small groups and church staffs. It has David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Shane Claiborne and Rick McKinley talking through how the perceptions can change and is a resource I would highly recommend. Check it out at:

oddjob said...

I'd like to point out that the Bible does not condone hatred and in fact commands the opposite

Except that it also clearly indicates that the Almighty commanded the Israelites commit what we now call genocide.

No, the Bible's not as straightforwardly obvious and consistent as one would like it to be.

Ariel said...

@ oddjob, I'd agree that the Bible is not an "obvious" book. The way God progressively revealed himself to his people is one of those things that requires careful sorting.

Taking your example, while Jesus conclusively ended the days of religious violence for his people (along with a lot of other things), we see that God isn't averse to endorsing war on occasion. But "holy war" is something reserved for God himself.

sobrietypuritycoach said...

Hi. I believe we are in the great falling away that has to happen before Christ comes again. I believe we are in the last days. The x gay struggler is often rejected by the church and especially the men. so many go back to gay. The world is shocked how badly christians treat each other too! The selfishness of the church and pride is off the hook.

Including ;racism,reverse racism and classism. Why would the lost want to be part of that?

The great news is 2% of the christians Are lovers of God and others.Love fufills ALL the law and is the greatest gift ;the most excellent way.And God is Love.

Crimson said...

This book candidly looks at the real image of Christianity, and in doing so confronts some of its biggest challenges.
The writing style is somewhat mundane - with lack of interesting expression...However, the content is very insightful and therefore, it's worth fighting the preliminary yawnies off.

I enjoyed the fresh candid perspective. I think it was a constructive and open minded approach to what the real issue facing the church is.

Anonymous said...

As an "unchristian" just outside their targeted age group -- upper end , I found the book disappointing. The authors took all their polling data and used it to present what I think was a realistic picture of how things look for young people on the outside even if that bothered the reader. But when it came to giving solutions the authors lost their nerves and went too vague as to be useless.

What the authors should have said was, "Look, folks, we understand that we have to stand for certain values or our religion is meaningless. We also note that Jesus wants us to draw others in. So the question becomes, is holding firm to some values being fought in the cultural wars - like gay marriage, prayer in school, and intelligent design (which appear to be lost causes anyway) - worth pushing away a bunch of marginally attached to Christianity twenty and thirthy-somethings? Maybe it is...maybe it isn't. But let's at least stop pretending we can have both."


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife