Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Review: The Michael Horton Duology

As a sort of early Christmas present, the generous folks over at Baker Books sent me both of Michael Horton's latest books and I have been quite excited to review them. In retrospect, I am happy I was able to read them back to back, and I would suggest anyone else interested in either of the books do the same. Christless Christianity, while an excellent book in it's own right, leans toward a bleak picture without The Gospel-Driven Life to balance it. Of course, if you have heard anything about the duology, you know that's sort of the idea.

Christless Christianity is Michael Horton's diagnosis and prognosis of the state of the Christian church in America. Going into painful detail, he presses in on the places where the church has shifted its focus from God's activity to ours, from Christ as Savior to Christ as coach, from the transforming Good News to our own transformed lives.

Horton says that our narcissism has taken the form of what has been coined "moralistic, therapeutic deism", but he suggests that, at its core, it is simply a repackaged Pelagianism. He calls it "the default setting of the human heart: the religion of self-salvation".

While Horton seems uncomfortably spot on through much of the book, I imagine every reader will find a critique with which they might disagree (or in the case of the fans of Joel Osteen, an entire chapter). Also placed under the microscope are the Emergent Church, fundamentalism and the religious left and right, but his diagnosis is so often returning to the Gospel message that it is hard to argue against it.

While Michael's writing style flows well and moves at a good pace, there was one thing that made this book a slightly harder read: 260 pages were broken up between only seven chapters. I know this is a bit of a juvenile complaint, but long chapters just make a book feel longer.

Christless Christianity is sharp critique of the state of the modern church, and I imagine that no one can walk away from this book perfectly unscathed. However, it is well-reasoned and -argued, and the cuts it makes seem to be the necessary and precise cuts of a surgeon.

If Christless Christianity was Michael Horton's diagnosis of the Christian church, The Gospel-Driven Life is his prescription. Using the lingo of the news room, Michael argues in his sequel that the church needs to reorient to the "Good News" as central to our faith and practice.

Where the former book was bleak, this book is hopeful. The book is split into two halves, the first focuses on getting the elements of the Gospel straight and the second details what sort of a community the true Gospel creates (what he calls a "cross-cultural community" and, yes, pun intended). Horton memorably says that we need to get back to "Drama, Doctrine, Doxology, Discipleship", themes that continually recur throughout the book.

In contrast with the narcissism and Pelagianism that Horton diagnosed as the church's primary problems in Christless Christianity, he offers this as the solution: "The gospel makes us extroverts: looking outside ourselves to Christ in faith and to our neighbor in love."

Again, as in Christless Christianity, Michael is sure to ruffle everyone's theological feathers at some point. For me it came when (I felt) he overstated his case for the sacraments and the inclusion of the believers' children under the new covenant. Still, when it is so relentlessly couched in Gospel, I am more inclined to consider Michael's position, and this is one of the greatest strengths of the book.

I wholeheartedly recommend both of these books to every Christian, but particularly to those involved in church leadership.

This book was a free review copy generously provided by Baker Books.

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