Saturday, July 28, 2007

"The Great Giveaway" by David E. Fitch - A Review

In his excellent study “The Way of the Modern World,” Craig Gay observes that “it seems that the ideas with the most profound consequences are frequently taken for granted. They are the ideas that lie just behind conscious thought, providing a kind of foundation for the deliberations of everyday life.” In “The Great Giveaway,” Dave Fitch attempts to diagnose and offer correctives to some of the ways in which the evangelical church in North America has come to take for granted many of the unconscious assumptions and controlling ideas of secular modernity thus leading it to “give away” being the living Body of Christ in the world. He attempts to uncover the ways in which modern assumptions concerning such things as success, leadership, character formation, and justice have warped our understandings of them as Christians and have lead us to be unfaithful to the Bible and the gospel of Christ. He also attempts show how evangelicals have given away even specific practices of the church such as preaching, worship, and evangelism to the controlling assumptions of modernity, sometimes even when we think we are being the most faithful.

Fitch identifies some of the hallmark characteristics of modernity as being a fascination with technique, a fixation on efficiency and effectiveness, individualism, elevation of experience and self-expression, and an attachment to scientific rationality among other things. Fitch argues that these characteristic assumptions of modernity have infiltrated evangelicalism and have hampered our ability to be faithful to the mission of Christ in the world. For example, he argues that our view of leadership in the church has become more shaped by the CEO model of American business culture than by the teachings of Jesus and the model of the New Testament church. Or again, he argues that our understanding of spiritual formation and personal well-being has been overtaken by the categories of modern psychology.

Fitch is not the first person to express concern about the shape and character of contemporary evangelicalism. Fitch’s book differs, however, in the way he uses the insights of post-modern thinkers to expose and undermine the modern assumptions that have shaped the practices and character of contemporary evangelicalism. Many of those who have expressed concern over the state of current evangelicalism have specifically associated some of its negative character traits with post-modernity and have displayed an almost reflexive anti-postmodern attitude. While Fitch does not endorse post-modernism willy-nilly, he sees the insights of post-modern thinkers as a source of help for the church and as a means of deconstructing the pretensions of modernity that hold evangelicalism captive. In some cases this leads directly to controversy, such as Fitch’s claim that expository preaching, which for some evangelicals is synonymous with faithfulness to scripture, actually ends up giving away the faithful proclamation of scripture to the forces of modernity while leading us to believe that somehow we are interpreting scripture “objectively” and are therefore protected from error. In other cases, however, I think it clearly makes Fitch’s case stronger, such as when he uncovers the interpretive, narrative, non-scientific character of much of modern psychology and shows how it contrasts with the scriptural narrative that should be shaping us as Christians.

Since each chapter of the book deals with a different issue, it is possible to read and benefit from individual chapters without reading the whole book. My guess is that most discerning readers who are alert to the issues and problems of contemporary evangelicalism will find at least one or two chapters they agree with, even if they find themselves in violent disagreement with others. In my opinion, the first, third, and seventh chapters alone make the book worth purchasing. It is also my feeling that reading the whole book will lead to a better overall picture of the state of the contemporary evangelical church and the crisis it faces. If I had any criticism to make of the book it would be that I wish certain parts were better documented, which would make Fitch’s overall case even stronger, especially given the controversial nature of some of his claims. Overall, however, I think Fitch strikes a good balance between academic seriousness and accessibility to the layperson. I think he has rightly diagnosed many of the serious problems that currently plague the evangelical church and has offered some helpful suggestions for how we might begin to reclaim being the Body of Christ again in North America. I think this book is must reading for anyone seriously concerned about the faithfulness of the church in our times.


thekid said...

Thank you for this review Gordon! Makes me want to spend the afternoon on the couch with my copy of the book. I personally feel the need more than ever to be versed in some alternate ways forward as I find myself sitting in church feeling so unsatisfied by the pile of reprimands and techniques that will solve our problems and make us a successful church.

I'm waiting for your next review :) ... might I suggest The Luminous Dusk?

Gordon Hackman said...

Hey sis,

Thanks for your kind and encouraging words. I'm glad it makes you want to look at the book more closely.

I'm sorry to hear about your current church experience. Constantly being subjected to reprimands sounds like a real drag. Being handed techniques as the answer sounds like an even bigger drag. In fact, Dave talks in his book about how "the applications of the sermons accumulate like an ever growing stack of self-help books and tapes we can never hope to get to."

I will try to review the Luminous Dusk and hopefully some other books, before too long.