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Bluepring 21: Presbyterians in the Post-Denominational Era

By Robert Thornton Henderson
Providence House. 2000. 160 pp. Pb. $16.95.
ISBN 1 57736 203 9


Reviewed by Richard Ray, Pittsburgh


Utopian, iconoclastic, broad-brushed and frequently irreverent about venerable PC(USA) ways, Robert Henderson's Blueprint 21 is a provocative book. If you like your theology cool, your sense of churchmanship poised, your rhetorical style silky and smooth, and your exegesis in harmony with the claims of the Enlightenment, you had better head for your aspirin bottle before you begin to turn these pages.

What can unsettle you the most about Henderson’s work, however, is really none of the above. What begins to itch is the thought that Henderson could be right.

Well, maybe not about everything. But what about such suppositions as these: Our worship has become too formal and cold, for we have allowed the adoration of Christ to become a very marginal part of our lives. And concepts such as sin and holiness have been replaced by success and organization. As a result, we can use terms like “Reformed” until the cows come home, but no one knows or cares what they mean.

And the present generations X and Y, who are already scarred from despair and hopelessness, will find our common church talk to be as remote as the far side of the moon. The irony in our situation is that while our constitutional documents hold great theological treasures, we are far from taking them seriously or even understanding them ourselves.

To separate out the treasures in the Reformed tradition from the present state of affairs in the church, Henderson suggests some radical surgery. Revival and renewal are too mild. What will be required is a serious spiritual and theological “refounding.” We will actually have to evangelize our own Reformed tradition. If we do this, however, the great Christian doctrines such as the sovereignty of God and the centrality of Christ can become very powerful.

Henderson doesn’t leave us many places to hide. Lost in our focus on ourselves and bogged down in superficial concerns, we have abandoned our basic Trinitarian theology, slithered away from our Apostolic heritage and become comfortable only in talking among ourselves. We have no idea what it means to be founded for mission. The crown jewels in our intellectual heritage — our colleges and seminaries — have, lamentably, only diminished our Reformed tradition. “And one wonders,” Henderson writes, “what theological education and ordination standards even guarantee . . . other than academic ability.” While “guarantee” may be asking a lot, recent developments at some of our institutions deserve a closer look than this appraisal would suggest.

With a certain amount of intentional candor, Henderson acknowledges that this is an outrageous book. I have no reason to spend much time debating that. However, Henderson’s somewhat quick potshots hit closer to the bull’s eye than we might think at first. While his style is often conversational, it masks some cultured insights of considerable weight. We had better pay attention to them. And his judgment that the PC(USA) is barely surviving on life support at this time gives cause for concern.

Henderson has paid his dues. Many years a pastor, particularly in university-related contexts, service as a denominational leader in evangelism and broadly read in fields of cultural analysis, he rings an alarm bell and tells us that it is later than we think. We who care about the PC(USA) ought to read this book. It has the singular character of jump-starting the church battery that we didn’t even know was dead. And if we want to connect with these generations that Henderson obviously loves, we had better get cracking. Whether his prophetic eye is completely accurate, this spunky little book can scare the dickens out of you. One positive thing it will do; it will put you to work hoping and planning for the future.

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