Book Review: Irresistible (Stanley)

Once upon a time, there existed a version of Christianity that was irresistible. Over the years, however, errors and accretions have piled up, reducing to a shadow what was once a robust proclamation of the Good News of Jesus. But now, there’s a way that the Church can return to its roots and make the gospel great again.

No, this isn’t another book about the corruptions of Catholicism that the Protestant Reformation overcame; it’s the story of American Protestantism, which has sadly lost its way in the wilderness of the Old Testament and a “Bible-before-Jesus” approach to sharing Jesus.

In Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, pastor Andy Stanley makes the case that Christianity needs to get back to the “basics of our faith in order to effectively reach post-Christian America. Stanley makes three key claims in advocating his position. First, the church should focus on the new in the New Testament. That is, we need to focus on what Jesus said and did differently than the Judaism of his day, not any apparent connections to the outdated covenant of Israel. Second, Christian faith needs to be unhitched from the Old Testament. Yes, the first part of the Bible should remain part of the Bible, but it needs to be clearly situated beneath the influence and authority of the New Covenant of Christ. And third, Christians should prioritize the irresistible ethic of neighbor love rather than “the Bible says” when it comes to engaging culture. Invoking the Bible as an authority may once have worked in our culture, but it does not carry much sway anymore, so focus on the authority of Jesus instead.

Irresistible contains much for the thoughtful Christian to chew on, particularly those who adhere to the spirit of ecclesia semper reformanda est. In particular, Stanley’s diagnosis of the Church’s image problem in contemporary American culture seems spot on. Churches are filled with uninformed, ill-equipped, stunted-disciples who do not feel ready (and largely are not ready) to effectively share their faith with a non-Christian. Christianity is becoming easier and easier to resist (or just not care about) for the average American, and that needs to change.

Likewise, Stanley rightly diagnoses at least part of this illness as originating in the Church: we have become too insider-focused and insular in our approach to sharing Jesus. Stanley concludes that, “The approach to preaching, teaching, writing, and evangelism most of us [Christians’ saw modeled and, consequently, unwittingly inherited, is perfectly designed for a culture that no longer exists.” Large swathes of American Christianity are obsessed with what worked twenty and thirty years ago and have no clue how to bring Jesus to 21st century Americans (especially millennials or iGen).

While the diagnosis seems correct, the proposed treatments are far harder to accept. Stanley’s calls for greater emphasis on the New Testament, the words of Jesus, and the ethics of neighbor love will strike most readers as fresh expressions of the ongoing return to Christocentric Christianity that many American Protestants are experiencing. Whereas in the past, Christians understood Jesus through the lens of Paul (and other sources), in recent decades the Church has taken to focusing on Jesus first and then turning to other Scriptural and Traditional sources. Much of Irresistible can easily be understood as another plank in this platform.

The proposal to unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament, however, comes across as considerably more radical. While some of this proposal sounds appealing, I ultimately remain uncomfortable with Stanley’s approach and unconvinced by his full argument for three reasons.

First, Stanley assumes that early Christianity was irresistible because it was not Old Testament-focused. But this claim just does not stand up to sustained scrutiny. Christianity has always treated the Jewish Scripture as useful sources of authoritative wisdom from God. And there have always been those who have opposed the message of Jesus apart from the Old Testament. There is no magic bullet that makes the message of Christianity inherently irresistible; there is no golden age of the Christian message that we can return to. Such an approach neglects the reality that people are always going to find reasons to resist things that make them uncomfortable.

Second, Stanley’s view of the First Testament is entirely too reductionistic. He cedes far too much ground to criticisms of the Old Testament (particularly those of the New Atheists) and takes the descriptive-prescriptive delineation too far. There is much more in the Old Testament than legalistic rules and stories about genocide. Irresistible also does not dwell enough on how Jesus talks about the Jewish Scriptures, and the treatment of Paul focuses on convenient passages while ignoring potential affirmations of the Old Testament. The presentation is just too neat to be entirely convincing.

Finally, Stanley argues that Christians need to focus on the resurrection, to focus on how God brings life out of death. (To which we should all say, Amen.) Yet it is here that the argument of Irresistible seems almost self-defeating. Because if one takes seriously the narrative of the Old Testament (a narrative of death), it makes the glory of the resurrection (the narrative of life) even more powerful. You cannot have a solution without a problem. While Stanley seems right in calling for a change in the Church’s approach (Jesus first, rather than Bible first), his proposal for a change in foundation (the authority of Scripture) is a bridge too far.

Irresistible is a fascinating volume, worthy of consideration and reflection in the Church. Stanley’s claims should be taken seriously and the problems he encounters addressed. But while he should be applauded for taking steps to move the Church forward to effectively encounter culture, his proposal ultimately falls short.

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