Let me just put it this way. This:
could have been a great book. By "Great Book," I do not mean, "an entertaining read." I mean, "a book like Mere Christianity."
Matt Anderson is a fellow blogger, and he graduated from Biola's Torrey Honors Institute in 2004. He spent a year at Oxford, and now -- get this -- he's the guy at the Journey in St. Louis (Darrin Patrick's bishopric) who is making sure they are teaching in an orthodox way in Sunday School. And this book is supposed to "explore how our bodies interact with our faith," tracking how Christians have historically dealt with this issue as they engaged their culture, and how God brings life to our dry bones in faith. (that's a paraphrase of the back-cover blurb) The subject matter is categorically-relevant to our culture. We are a post-modern people, and to us, experience is everything and pragmatism rules. In some sense for us, unless it either has a body or makes a difference to our own body, a thing can be dismissed.
And Matt is a bright guy. His intellectual fire power is so great, I was really hoping that he would, in a manner of speaking, split the atom of apologetics in a popular style so that the resulting blast would have taken out all the trite babbling which passes for spiritual writing on the subject. I was hoping for a practical theological mushroom cloud which would rattle the popular discussion.
There were only two or three people when I was writing at "Evangel" over at First Things who I would hope to see posts from, and Matthew Lee Anderson was one of them. He's not a plodding theological android who says plainly-obvious things in a non-offensive way: he's a bright fellow who has a deep liberal education, and he writes like someone who is really there, really in the middle of the intellectual playing field when he's blogging.
So when I found out he had written a book for Bethany House about being flesh and blood people with a real faith, I wanted to read it. In fact, I wanted to read it and have my wife read it so that I would have a chaperone to make sure I didn't gush about it in an unwarranted way.
Unfortunately, after it arrived, well, I didn't even want to review it. I put it on my bookshelf and moved on to other things.
Now: fair enough. That's what happens when you get books to review: some of them you simply can't review. Here at TeamPyro, I admit we don't review most of the books that come across the mailbox mostly because they are rather mundane. It's not like every book written ought to be nominated for an award -- this isn't kids' soccer. What I don't want to do as a blogger is invest in the time to write three pages about something which can be distilled into the single sentence, "You don't have to read this book after reading this review because it has already taken up too much of you time."
What I expected from Matthew's book was a winner -- something in the 90th percentile or better. Instead, what I found was a book that was too high-minded to apply to real life, and too confused to actually get the reader anywhere. For example, in Chapter 2, which started strong with an honest belly-laugh about Precious Moments figurines that was leveraged into an interesting lead-in to the lack of Evangelical understanding of ourselves and the secular playing field, we get an analysis of the philosophical problems of Evangelicals as they relate to their critics and the arena in which they will engage them which is both overly-dense (with words) and also uninteresting, uncompelling. Yet, later in Chapter 7, Matthews starts his analysis of the Christian treatment of sex in our culture by saying, "If there were a sexual arms race, evangelicals would be winning." How the engagement in Chapter 2 can result in the triumphalism in Chapter 7 is inexplicable.
The juxtaposition is almost embarrassing, as if the book didn't have an editor to keep it between the ditches. It would not have taken much at all to prove out the solid thesis of Chapter 2 with examples of how Evangelicals -- even prior to 2010 when Matt wrote this book -- constantly fumble the ball on sex and sexuality to the extent that we are literally losing the culture war on sex, marriage, and family. To say that we are somehow a superpower in the sexual arms race when one has already establish how inept we are at engaging unbelievers is, frankly, just sloppy.
Let me say this plainly: we need a great book that addresses the problem that our Christianity is both kitschy and removed from the real world; we need a great book that talks about the connection between creation and incarnation in the spiritual life of man which doles out Christian theology and wisdom; we need a working creed which we can use to teach people that being good neighbors is actually a foundational mode of Gospel proclamation -- especially in this world where people think they can be friends across the virtual divide without ever seeing each other; we need an apologetic that covers both tattoos and sex without retreating to mores and modes of social discourse from the 19th century; we need to understand the church as a body full of bodies. In short: we needed the book Matt set out to write.
Unfortunately, he never wrote the book we needed. He wrote the book I received -- which advertised the menu above in the table of contents, but delivered a lunch in a sack rather than five courses and a satisfying dessert.
It's at this point that the reader of this review has to ask herself, "why would Frank write this review? If he hated this book so much, why should he, a year after it came out, savage it like Rex Reed vilifying a rookie kid from Minnesota who had the audacity to present herself in cabaret at Cafe Carlyle?"
Simple: I think Matthew's book deserves more attention than it got -- either from people who can grind down on it and cause him (or someone else) to do better the next time, or from people who ought to have taken this book up as a helpful starting place for a new level of engagement with the secular arena. It's my aim to make someone either defend Matthew's book from the vile likes of me, or to say it publicly that even though this book is a failure, we need someone else to try and write it until we get it right.
Because let's be clear about something as I close up here: we should all be sick and tired of hearing about and reading books which, frankly, make the Gospel into a logical or scholastic exercise, or are only reporting facts about bible-based theology. We should protest against receiving another book which has the same term paper format and no connection to the life of the reader. Isn't the Gospel the foundational truth of life even in the secular workplace, even in the grocery store, even in your yard when you cut the grass? Then why are Christian books -- even books like this one written by well-read people -- written like they were mandatory book reports to get a passing grade? The Gospel is not a syllabus. The Gospel is not a curriculum. The Gospel is about God taking on flesh to save His fleshy creations from their own fleshly desires - and when God talks about what it means to believe that, He uses stories about people who did things with their bodies that, frankly, put all the cultures of the world to shame. Some of those people even saw themselves as filling up what was lacking in the wounds of Christ for the sake of people not yet saved. If in fact one believed the thesis of Earthen Vessels, you would think he would write in a little more convicting and actionable way.
There is something brilliant in God's intention to use earthen vessels for the sake of His Glory and His Honor, and we ought to be able to say something about that which makes people want to taste and see the goodness of Him. And when we talk about it, it should't be boring or confusing: it should be great and gripping.
Maybe the next guy will get it right.
 As we say in these here parts, "AHA!" After talking with Matt after posting this, he reads these last to sentences to call into question his good faith and good intentions. Let me say this plainly: no one should doubt Matthew Lee Anderson's good faith, or his real belief in the theses in his book. My intention was to say that believing it and then writing as if it was believed -- in a vital, gripping way which makes the reader want to take action -- are not the same thing even if they should be. The writing was beneath the conviction. However, since Matt found the way I said that to question his good faith, I offer the apology here were the reader can find it immediately for the sake of correction.