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Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity

By Bruce Bawer.
Crown. 1997. 340 pp. Pb. $26

ISBN 0-517-70682-2

Reviewed by Robert W. Bohl

 


Bruce Bawer is one of today's most perceptive and articulate cultural critics, especially in the arena of the religious cultural, political and theological climates. At the outset of Stealing Jesus, Bawer brushes aside worn-out phrases like fundamentalism and liberalism, traditional and modern, biblical and non-biblical religion and uses the terms Church of Law and Church of Love.

The first three chapters — “Are You a Christian?”, “Who is My Neighbor?” and “Love and Law” — set the descriptive terminology to help the reader understand the rise of religious legalism in this country during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But Bawer gets the reader equipped to see how what he calls “Rauschenbush’s Kingdom” broadened the conflict into the 20th century.

From Rauschenbush to Texas preacher C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) Bawer further clarifies what he has in mind in the title Stealing Jesus. The chapter titled “The Legalistic Boom” deals with Unitarianism, the Scopes trial and the rise of voices like Fosdick’s. Mainstream American culture became more and more secularized in the 20th century, but fundamentalism and liberalism did not vanish; they manifested themselves in what Bawer clearly establishes as the Church of Law and the Church of Love.

This book helps all of us see that the differences between law and love, in the way church is done, is so monumental there seems little hope the two can converse with each other. Probably they can’t even co-exist in the same denomination. The author uses the Southern Baptist denomination to illustrate how difficult it is for those at polar opposite viewpoints. Clearly Bawer does not believe that at its roots this is a theological issue or even basically a biblical issue; rather it is an ecclesial issue of power, governance, authority and property.

The chapter titled “God’s Generalissimo” is designed to inform the reader of the real agenda of the Church of Law and carefully crafts the issue with the rise and influence of Pat Robertson. Clearly Robertson “responded immediately to the movement’s powerful sense of the world as a battleground between God and Satan and did not take long to begin seeing himself as God’s generalissimo” (p. 168).

Bawer clearly places his hope in the Church of Love; yet he does not deny the need for standards, doctrines and disciplines. However, these are assumed, not mandated, once a person understands and believes in the “real” Jesus “who was not about asserting power, judging or destroying; he was about love” (p. 326). The Church of Law “denies the name of Christianity to followers of Jesus who reject its barbaric theology. In essence, then, it has stolen Jesus — yoked his name and his church to ideas, beliefs and attitudes that would have appalled him” (p. 12).

This book should be read by every American, every person who believes in God. And it is absolutely imperative that people who are a part of the Church of Law and the Church of Love read this book and learn from it, before historical denominations disintegrate in America and give way to a religion which denies Jesus altogether.

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