Reborn Again. By Christopher Vanhall. © 2019 Christopher Vanhall
I believe the Christian life is a journey and our theological experiences are the map offering direction. As I have ministered through the last decade, I have crossed paths and shared journeys with a variety of people. There is always something comforting about a journey that travels on ground you have trod. I recently found some of this ground in the memoir Reborn Again by Christopher Vanhall.
Reborn Again is Vanhall’s journey from megachurch worship leader in the Deep South to spiritual entrepreneur on the West Coast and all the struggle that lead from one to the other. This is a journey toward realization. This journey takes the author from the sheltered, rural, fundamentalist existence of the southern United States to the realities of the suffering that exists in the greater world. Beginning with a story of heartbreak over the deathbed of a beloved grandfather, this reminiscence walks through the subtle experiences of growing up in a fundamentalist denomination and all the baggage that comes with it and moves to the natural questions that arise when we take the words and the faith of Jesus beyond intellectual assent.
The book is a call for progressive Christians to innovate, to explore methods that have never been attempted in American churches that appeal to a younger demographic but embody the politically subversive movement of the early church. While recognizing that progressives are flexible in examining theology, the mainline progressive approach to Christianity has been ineffective at reaching younger audiences in comparison to evangelicalism perhaps, Vanhall muses, because of an absolute commitment to tradition. Vanhall does not encourage mimicking evangelicals or mega churches but encourages seeking relevance by making services attractive without becoming an attraction. He writes, “In short, the horse of Christendom is symbolically dead, but even an electric guitar, faux hawk, skinny jeans, and iPad, and a concert hall won’t make it stink any less” (p.27).
As Vanhall gets into the meat of things, He begins to recognize the difference between true worship and religious performance, which triggers his crisis of faith or perhaps more accurately his crisis of institutional faith. He is walking through his process wrestling with the concept of church as a mission to itself versus church as mission to the world. The book is a challenge to live deeply into the life and ministry of Jesus by finding out who Jesus actually was rather than who the evangelical world has presented him to be.
The scholarship is evident. I have studied many of these things both as a seminarian and as a pastor and found Vanhall’s work to be thorough. I can personally relate to the influence of academic literature, particularly what may be characterized as moderate to progressive, in changing and reshaping my views and those of the author with regard to theology and the church. I find a similar trajectory in my reading which also led me from a fundamentalist beginning to what I would characterize as a moderate/progressive existence. Many of the authors found in Vanhall’s suggested reading list are authors I myself have read and found enlightening.
That said, there are a few issues I have with the book. While he provides a suggested reading list in the back of the book, there are some technical references and specific terms that are defined outside the norm of Christian experience and would benefit, particularly in light of their controversial nature, from specific references. A good example of this is the examination of the word pais in the chapter Centurion. I have done a cursory examination of the word and while Vanhall has settled on the meaning being “male lover” when the word is glossed it has a wide semantic range of child, slave, or servant (see Perseus Tufts at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=Pais&la=greek#lexicon for a general introduction to the word). While the word may mean exactly what he says it does, I would like to know where the information came from considering what is at stake in the discussion.
Some thing I feel like the author either skips over or simply doesn’t respond to is the idea of a middle ground. I have experienced a very similar journey and found myself traveling back down roads I have walked previously. However, it strikes me that the author either skipped or glossed over the mid range of this journey. This part of the journey I feel like is crucial because it is in this place that I personally begin to find balance between scholarship and advocacy. While I am aware that it is possible to move from a fundamentalist to a liberal position, I feel there is a journey through the middle, however short it may be, that has to be traveled. It strikes me that the author did not speak to that part of the journey or perhaps I missed it. As much as I enjoyed the rest of the journey, I think I would have enjoyed that as well.
As an introduction to some of the basic ideas floating around in Christian circles, especially those more thoughtful circles, I can recommend this book as a way of entering the discussion. For those who disagree with the liberal perspective but would like to hear a thoughtful discussion of the issues from the perspective of a personal journey, I’d recommend this book. For those who need a little challenge, maybe even a kick in the pants to their journey, I’d definitely recommend it.
Read it. I’m just going to recommend this book.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.