Before even getting into this review, I need to let you know the bargain you’re getting if you get this book. For less than $10 (a mere $8.90) you are getting content that I had to pay over $1000 to receive. Granted, I received the review copy of the book for free. But while I was at Dallas Seminary, I took a 3 credit hour course with Dr. Michael J. Svigel called Sanctification and Ecclesiology (installment 6 in the the 7 systematic theology classes everyone has to take) and this book is essentially a 300 page version of that material. While there is clearly a big difference between taking a class at a seminary and reading a book , if you took the essence of that class and published it in book form, this is what you’d come out with. I mean you can read this with no tests or papers involved, and you can even have the benefit of a Discussion Guide.
Now, I took that class in the fall of 2008, so it has been a few years and so some of the material in RetroChristianity is new. However, I recognized many of the diagrams from PowerPoint slides and even many of the anecdotes I’ve had the opportunity to hear in much fuller form in a classroom setting. Since not everyone has that opportunity, I’m pretty stoked that Dr. Svigel could distill his class material into a book that is more or less accessible to the general reader. I would be comfortable going through this book in a high school classroom, and might just do that this coming year.
I suppose I should probably tell you about the book now that the context is sufficiently established. Clearly, I’m a bit biased in favor of Dr. Svigel’s book, but at the same time, he offers a proposal for modern evangelicals that needs to be seriously considered even if you don’t agree with his every jot and tittle. I found the overall thrust of the book to be fair and balanced, but readers should keep in mind Svigel is an evangelical writing to other evangelicals. If you already consider evangelicalism a lost cause, you might not find Svigel that persuasive (though I would hope you do). If however you a) didn’t realize there were any problems in evangelicalism or b) are painfully aware that there are but you aren’t sure how to move forward, then this is the book for you.
RetroChristianity broken into four main parts:
- The Case for RetroChristianity
- RetroOrthodoxy: Preserving the Faith for the Future
- RetroClesiology: Beyond the Preference-Driven Church
- RetroSpirituality: Living the Forgotten Faith Today
Before even getting to those parts, you’re greeted with a very succinct timeline of the history of the church that spans four pages. Think of it as an added bonus. The introduction is framed by the question of why evangelicals have been prone in recent years to move on to supposedly “greener” ecclesiological pastures. Svigel sees three types of converts away from evangelicalism:
- Aversion-driven converts (got tired of evangelical issues and relocated)
- Attraction-driven converts (got enamored with other streams of the faith and relocated)
- Preference-driven converts (found something new to try and relocated)
Against the backdrop of this evangelical exodus, Svigel offers his proposal for the RetroChristianity, some prominent features of which are (20-21):
- It seeks to challenge us to begin thinking both critically and constructively about history and how it informs our current beliefs, values, and practices as evangelicals
- It not only points out the trailhead of the biblical, historical, and theological paths, but it supplies provisions for the journey without forsaking the healthy developments that have benefited Christianity along the way
- It doesn’t naively defend evangelicalism as if everything were just fine
- It fully acknowledges the frustrating and upsetting elements of evangelicalism
- It also acknowledges the egocentric nature of many evangelicals’ approaches to church and spirituality
With these general contours established, Svigel then defines evangelicalism as “an interdenominational Protestant movement that:
- emphasizes a personal relationship with God through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ
- insists on the paramount place of inspired Scripture as the final authority in matters of faith and practice
- adheres to fundamental Protestant doctrines relative to God, Christ, and salvation
- seeks to engage the world through evangelism and missions” (26)
From this starting point, he can look back into the past through an analogy, a parable, and a metaphor to explain how we got the mess we have now (chapter 1). Then, we’re treated to an apologetic for digging back into our Christian past (chapter 2). There, Svigel gives 10 reasons why we should reclaim the past for the sake of the future (and you can read him blog through each of those over at the Parchment & Pen blog). Finally, to round out part 1, chapter 3 is used to define RetroChristianity in distinction from Primitivism (older was better), Progressivism (newer is better), Metrodoxy (restlessly changing doctrinal moorings), and Petridoxy (staunchly resisting any change whatsoever). In short, RetroChristianity strikes a balance between these extremes and “reclaims the forgotten faith within evangelicalism,” clinging to what has been believed everywhere, always, by all (the Vincentian Canon).
In part 2, Svigel examines how to preserves the faith for the future and splits the discussion between three chapters. In chapter four he explains that some things never change and never should. That is, there is a historical core to our faith that should remain unaltered. However, in chapter five he then explains that some things have never been the same and never will be. That is, we cannot ever completely go back to the way things were in some “golden era” of Christianity and shouldn’t try to. In the midst of the two “canons” of RetroChristianity, Svigel presents the third and final canon in chapter 6: some things glow clearer through trial and error. So while some things shouldn’t change, and some things can’t change, there are some things that should change. The key, it would seem, is deciding what is what, and I think Svigel does a pretty good job of clarifying that (but you’ll have to read for yourself to see how).
In part 3, we move on to defining the marks and works of a local church. Chapter 7 wards off four common myths associated with the nature of the global church as the body of Christ, and introduces the four classic marks that counteract them. Then in chapter 8, we are shown the essential marks of the local church that must be exhibited for a group of gathered believes to be considered a church in any legitimate sense. Alongside these marks, chapter 9 details the works of the local church (I could list the marks and works here, but hey, I had to pay $1000, you can fork out the $10 for stuff like this).
Finally in part 4, Svigel emphasizes the necessity of the church for individual Christian growth. This is a part of the book that is desperately needed for many evangelicals who feel that they’re just fine with their own DIY version of the faith. In chapter 10, Svigel takes us from “me to we” and talks about how we are meant to grow together in Christ, while chapter 11 takes things from “we to me” and discusses how to develop our own personal identity in Christ. The danger clearly emerges as denying one at the expense of the other (just me, myself, and the Bible or just community). The book then closes in chapter 12 with some suggestions for moving forward, as well as a helpful reading resources section before we confront the endnotes (which are prefaced well and meant to add to the discussion in a still generally readable sense).
Now, like I said at the beginning, I am unavoidably biased in favor of Svigel’s book. But even if I weren’t, I can see the need of the book in the broader Christian culture. Even in my own cultural context, the average Christian’s ability to understand where they fit in the scope of church history and how they are to relate to the church global and local is usually lost. Svigel’s book does a superb job at explaining the importance of the past without idolizing it, and deftly brings the historical core into the present to apply and appropriate. His writing style is conversational and clear and the numerous charts and infographs and worth the price of the book alone (seriously, they are pretty dope). I gave this book a read-thru so I could offer this review, but honestly its a book that I’m either going to put to use in a reading group this summer, or in the classroom this fall, or better yet, both.
Either way, it’s not a book that’s going to sit on my shelf and collect dust. No, it’s a book I’ll go back and at least re-read from time to time.
I might even appropriate a chart or two for a PowerPoint slide…
- Author: Michael J. Svigel
- Title: RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith
- Publisher: Crossway (April 4, 2012)
- Paperback: 320pgs
- Reading Level: General Reader
- Audience Appeal: Evangelical prophets, priests, and kings who’ve either lost their ecclesiological way or are afraid they might soon
- Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Crossway)