Thursday, September 17, 2009

Trolls and Truth review

I just finished reading an interesting book called Trolls and Truth: 14 Realities About Today's Church that We Don't Want To See, by Jimmy Dorrell. Dorrell is the pastor of the Church Under the Bridge in Waco, Texas. The church meets literally under a bridge year round, and is home to many of the poorest in the city. I've heard a lot of good about the church from friends who've attended, so I looked forward to reading the book.

This one is a short read - for anyone, not just for me. It's 215 pages long, with very generous margins and equally large text size. The chapters are short and concise, and Dorrell's style lends itself to quick reading. It's light and conversational, without much fluff.

Each of the 14 truths presented is introduced through a story whose subject is a currently or formerly poverty-stricken individual, many of them mentally ill. Dorrell uses them and their stories to illustrate the Biblical principles he is trying to communicate, and to show how a church implementing those principles can transform a community. Dorrell's principles - from "Looks Don't Matter" to "Use Your Gifts," and from "Fight for the Least Ones" to "The Rich Need the Poor" - are all Biblical, and Dorrell frequently references the Old Testament prophets. That's hardly surprising since his message and Amos' are much the same.

Dorrell does an excellent and admirable job dealing with some difficult subjects. He confronts and condemns racism, American individualism, and other sins from elitism to vanity. It's clear he passionately hates these sins and the way they've influenced American evangelicalism. I often found myself agreeing with his analysis of American churchgoers' selfishness and egoism, and I strongly agreed with his call for the church to do Christlike work in the community. If the church were rightly discharging its responsibilities, many of the homeless, poverty-stricken, and mentally ill would find their lives significantly bettered. He accurately comments that the church has often failed to reach those people from discomfort or laziness. He also accurately analyses the other reason for that failure: a backlash against the social gospel and liberalism of the early twentieth century.

That reaction is one we find ourselves in danger of today, with many of the emergent crowd peddling the same social gospel. Dorrell's book isn't a social gospel book, but it addresses the same issues. Because of that, it would be easy to dismiss his message. Doing so would be a problem, though: he's right, by and large. The evangelical church very much needs to step up its interactions with the poor, and on more than a Thanksgiving-to-Christmas timescale or commitment level. Dorrell hits the nail right on the head when he notes that many American churches - with their multi-million dollar buildings but insufficient money for outreach to the poor - are frighteningly similar to ancient Israel. There are exceptions, of course: good churches doing good works. On the whole, however, self-proclaimed evangelicals are not generous with their time or money: they're still caught up in the lure of the American dream. So while there is a danger of tumbling down the slope of the social gospel, we need to make sure we don't minimize the importance of doing good works in love of God and men.

James reminds us that true religion is caring for orphans and widows. Paul gave detailed instructions to young pastors on care for the widows of the church. Old Testament prophet after Old Testament prophet proclaims God's coming justice on Israel and Judah for forsaking the destitute and abusing the helpless. The apostle John reminds us that "whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3.36, emphasis mine). Those are significant commands to care for those in need. We should not ignore Dorrell (and Scripture!) because others have lost sight of Christ in their pursuit of good works. We should simply be wise.

Truth and Trolls did have a few problems, one relatively minor and the other two more significant. The minor issue is straightforward: in his passion for helping the poor and homeless, Dorrell seems to devalue other approaches and other areas of social engagement. He makes several comments about "outdated hymns" and standard modes of teaching, contrasting them with the (apparently) better practices at his own church. I don't have any problem with his approaches, but I do have a problem with his dismissal of others' approaches. He also rags a little on evangelicals' engagement in what he calls "extreme right-wing politics," by which he means "the fight against abortion and gay right" (p. 154). While I acknowledge that the church can sometimes get too caught up in those political battles, I also recognize their importance. Dorrell doesn't seem to.

His criticism of the battle against abortion confuses me. Truth and Trolls' theme is that "our ecclesiology must be upended by the 'least of these': the hungry, imprisoned, sick, and stranger' (p. 29). The unborn, most helpless of all, certainly deserve to be in that list. Unlike the sad but hopeful stories of his 'trolls,' aborted babies have no stories at all. I would have been a little disappointed if he had not brought the issue up, but I was actively bothered when he criticized the church's work there. It seems that, in his passion and desire to see the church Biblically ministering to the poor, Dorrell has minimized the importance of other battles. I hope that he comes to recognize that the fight for the unborn and caring for the poor are not mutually exclusive. They're complementary.

My second concern is with the book's handling of Scripture. In the introduction, for example, he quotes Isaiah 43:19a, "See, I am doing a new thing!" (p. 23) in reference to the Church Under the Bridge. (It's actually about God's provision for His people in spite of their sin.) Later, he quotes from Revelation 3:17, "Because you are warm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked'" (p. 32). He fails to note that the pressing concern for Christ in this passage was not wealth or poverty, but idolatry: the church had come to rely on its wealth instead of on God, leading them to be lukewarm. This doesn't hurt Dorrell's thesis, but it doesn't really support it, either. A few counterexamples sprinkle the text - he did well with Isaiah 58's call for a true fast that cares for the poor, for example - but his overall treatment of Scripture was lacking.

Finally, in a book that purports to depict how the church can transform lives and communities, especially of the downtrodden, I was astounded to find no clear declaration of the gospel or its importance. It's mentioned throughout the book - but the mentions are just that; there's no explanation of Christ's saving power or redeeming work. People's lives are transformed not by our good works on their behalf but by the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit. The body of Christ is certainly obligated by Scripture and the love that Christ has planted in our hearts to touch this fallen world. But it is dangerous to place too much emphasis on helping people in this world without doing all we can to win them to eternal life. People's deepest and most important need is Jesus Christ

I don't think Dorrell actually lives, believes, or even teaches that way. The references scattered throughout the book suggest that he and I are actually on the same page about a lot of things: easy-believism and conversionism, consumerism, and so on. Unfortunately, the book never deals straightforwardly with Jesus, the cross, or any of the direct implications on how we engage in serving the poor. That's too bad, because dealing with those topics would have made this decent book an excellent book.

The message the book offers is good and much-needed, but it's a bit incomplete. Dorrell's critiques are mostly accurate, with only a few missteps. He fails to consistently handle Scripture well, though, and he fails to communicate the centrality of the gospel in transforming lives: the most important part of our social engagement. He is certainly right that the church needs to engage in this area more effectively, and his analysis of ways that we can involve ourselves in serving the lowly and downtrodden is very helpful. The book is worth taking a look at if you haven't thought about these issues, but it must be complemented with a liberal dose of the Christ-centered gospel.

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