Saturday, June 27, 2009

Book Review: Not The Religious Type (Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist)

IT IS PROBABLY TOO MUCH to say that I like Dave Schmelzer, based simply on having read his short memoir, Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. I don't think it's too ambitious, though, to at least say this: I'd be surprised if I met him and didn't like him.

Here is a book that is part memoir, part apologetic, and which never seems to over-do either. In this quick and pleasant read, Schmelzer shares his spiritual journey and presents life with God as a kind of adventure.

He makes the case that truth is relational rather than simply abstract or propositional (Personally, I think it is both). He explains why we are better off entering into a relationship with God and others as part of a Christ-centered life journey (rather than a group/my team/us-and-them existence).

He also makes the bald statement "God is good. Religion is bad." At first I found it, I suppose, kind of annoying. The more I thought about it though, I saw his point. It is a view shared by prominent Orthodox Christian thinkers such as the (late) Rev. Fr. Alexander Schmemman (For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy*) and the Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko (in many of his lectures). I agree that although Christianity may be characterized as a 'religion' in certain contexts and discussions, it is above all a "Way." (Acts 18:26; 24:22).

Eastern Christians will appreciate this book in that it reminds us to keep union with God in Christ as our paramount aim in life. It also holds a unique value to those who serve in "ethnic" churches. While cognizant of the need to serve the needs of those coming from a particular cultural milieu, we are warned not to be snagged by cultural trappings.

And he is a good writer. Having earned his undergrad degree in English from Stanford, Dave has a way with (few) words. He is mercifully stingy with his words and generous with his ideas. He has masterfully combined the fields of memoir and apologetics (he makes some powerful, succinct observations on the 'new atheist' movement).

While I think he and I would probably disagree on some points of theology and ecclesiology, I liked the book overall. I heartily recommend this work for pastors, college-student ministers, and as a gift for the skeptic in the cubicle next door.
*Schmemman writes, "Christianity, with its message offering fullness of life, has contributed more than anything else to the liberation of man from the fears and pessimism of religion...

"Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer 'insufficient help,' but precisely because they 'suffice,' because they 'satisfy' the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about the produce men who will gladly and corporately die-and not just live-for the triumph of the cause, whatever it may be...

"Christianity is not a reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, not a mystery to be explained." (pp.98, 99)

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