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Kickstarting a courageous conversation

Review of 'The Rebel Christ' by Michael Coren.

Did Michael Coren hack my computer? That was my shock when a friend pointed me to The Rebel Christ. I’m currently writing a book myself with those same three words in the title (though in a different order)!

Coren is a fascinating public Canadian Christian. Over the last decade he has journeyed from a conservative Christian criticizing culture to a liberal Christian criticizing Christians and the Church. He draws both ire and curiosity. But in a world of tightly-bound ideological straitjackets, I love any “born again” story!

The Rebel Christ captures Coren’s reflections on the state of North American Christian faith from his new perspective. It’s almost as though we’re reading his journal from the past few years. Coren wants to discern how Jesus’ “rebel” ministry tactics in the first century relate to our twenty-first century.

A divided church

Coren opens with a chapter outlining where he perceives the divides and debates to lie when it comes to Christian faith in Canada today. This is followed by three main chapters where he tackles three divisive topics among Christians: economics, sexuality and abortion.

This is challenging material in part because his journalistic and personal style contribute to statements that tend towards hyperbole and over-simplification. And, his analysis of biblical texts is, sadly, superficial. He paints with a very broad brush. If you agree with him from the outset, your views will be confirmed. If you already disagree with him, your views probably won’t change – you may even find yourself digging in your heels.

An example could illustrate this. In his third chapter, Coren tackles the complex topic of human sexuality and how the church should relate to those who are gay. I agree with Coren that the church today should be far more welcoming and hospitable to those who are gay (something that the CRC’s 1973 report on Pastoral Care for Homosexual Members encouraged but which I don’t think we’ve made much meaningful progress towards). But Coren doesn’t make many friends for his view when he repeatedly calls those of us with a traditional sexual ethic “gay-haters.”

This is where the challenge lies with this book: it’s not written constructively in the midst of a diversity of thought on complex matters facing the church. Which raises, for me, the difficulty of reviewing it for this publication. It would be so easy for you, the reader, at this point to decide to skip reading this book. And yet, for all the criticisms I have, I think this is a book that we should read even if we deeply disagree with the author’s style or conclusions.

This is why: The Rebel Christ made me wonder who we are as the readership of the CC. We live in tumultuous times, but I sense that we’re losing touch with what binds us together. This is the kind of book that could easily further divide. But this book could be just what we need to further our conversation as reformed Christians living in Canada about who we’re going to be for our context.

Theology isn’t about issues

What I’m specifically thinking of is that we are becoming far more committed to our ideological positions than we are to living together with Christ in our midst. This alone is going to be a significant factor in how we hear what Coren has to say. Yes, he’s had a change of mind and heart. He’s jumped from the right end of the spectrum to the left. And now, given this, we may be quite disinclined to hear what he has to say or think about the ideas he’s bringing to our attention.

During our lifetimes here in North America, we have been told that the battle lines in the “culture wars” are clearly defined. The degree to which we have bought into this mindset, is the degree to which we’ll be suspicious about Coren and his book. If we believe that the discussion on orthodoxy is settled, then we will be impatient with any re-engagement of controversial topics.

But now I’d like to speak as a theologian. I would want to remind us that the work of theology is never finished. God is infinite and we are very limited creatures living in time and culture. This means that theology is never a “once and for all” event like Jesus’ death and resurrection. No, theology is the art of discerning good news in every historical or cultural context. Change is a given; and this means that we have endless opportunities to discern and articulate fresh and life-giving good news in the vernacular.

Also, theology is never a single-issue concern. Creation is highly diverse and complex. But because it is God’s Creation, everything is inter-related in a fundamental unity. Theology wrestles with this comprehensive embodiment of life before God. Let me give one example: the many discussions today about economics, sexuality and abortion are not stand-alone, straightforward issues. All of these are more complex than a simplistic moralism can account for. But, even more foundationally, none of these are issues; they are all about people made in the image of God. If the world thinks Christians are gay-haters (and, according to recent research, that’s generally how Christians are indeed viewed in North America), it’s because we love turning people to be loved into an issue to be managed.

Necessary challenges

In this way, The Rebel Christ is personal. Reading it will challenge the reader at an uncomfortably deep level. Coren himself has admitted on his blog that his new perspective has come at great “personal and professional cost.”

But there is also the public side. Today’s North American Christian culture is one which has been manufactured to produce ideological anger. There are powerful forces bent on dividing and controlling us. Just as the 2016 USA presidential election has been clearly shown to have been strategically manipulated by powerful social media organizations, what we often think of as our personal convictions on faith, science, politics and culture are often nothing more than what we’ve been told to think by our technological overlords. There are already well-financed cultural influencers in Canada telling us what to think of Coren and his books and related ideas.

So, when “groupthink” begins to set in, as it certainly has in North America, it’s a book like The Rebel Christ which may be just what we need to jumpstart a conversation about how we will live out our faith today. I don’t think Coren wrote this just to criticize capitalism, traditional sexual ethics and pro-lifers. I think he wrote it as a friend asking his friends to reflect again on how Jesus would really and truly treat those who are suffering under harsh circumstances today. He’s asking us to discern afresh what the dynamic good news would be today for those labelled “sinners” and shoved to the margins by the religious leaders of our day.

Author

  • Mike is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he is also a professor of theology and culture. He is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019). Mike adapted this reflection, published by Kuyper December 13, 1899, for our cultural context.

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