Robert S. McElvaine. Grand Theft Jesus

Robert S. McElvaine. Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America. Crown Publishers, 2008.

For people like myself, practicing Christians horrified at the general image of Christianity as a violent, intolerant, right-wing religion widespread in our culture, this book comes as a kind of relief. McElvaine is a professor of history at a Bible Belt church-related college (Millsaps in Jackson, Mississippi). His basic argument, presented in a lively, in-your-face style, is that the Christian Right in America has profoundly corrupted the basic Christian message and needs to be called to account.

The author is a political and theological liberal, but places himself in the mainstream of biblical Christianity. He names names and minces few words in his harsh critique. He is not so much setting out to find common ground and persuade those on the Right to moderate their views as to rally the troops among Progressive Christians and to help those outside the churches to see a different perspective on the core values of Christianity.

I find myself quite sympathetic with McElvaine’s basic perspective. I like his constructive suggestions and agree with just about all of his criticisms. And I think it is good and important to have such criticisms. At times his take no prisoners style made me smile, but mostly I did find it a bit off-putting. Maybe it’s good to have someone write such an attention-getting polemic, but one wonders a bit whether such bitter sarcasm is fully consistent with McElvaine’s portrayal of Christianity as a faith centered on love. I don’t think Christ-like love is incompatible with sharp criticism, but I do miss a more compassionate, gentle sensibility that probably would have actually made the critique more powerful.

If you are unhappy with the general portrayal of Christianity in cahoots with the political Right in 21st century America and you don’t feel like you know enough about those who presence has set the tone for this portrayal, this would be a good book to read. And for many of us, it may serve as an encouragement to do something about this portrayal.

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