The writing is good enough, the story sufficiently engaging.
Here's what jumps out at me. The atheist offers honest feedback on everything: the insipid lyrics of most worship music, the forced friendliness of ushers and church greeters, the insider lingo used by pastors during sermons, the lack of practical action points ever delivered in those sermons, and the amazing amount of money needed to sustain mega-church corporations. Jim does mostly a great job of hearing him, letting these observations stand, not dismissing or arguing them away.
Yet as I keep reading, a nagging irritation persists. I realized what it was this morning as I was also reading along at Jesus Creed. One of the chief concerns of evangelicals is to be sure that they are perceived as friendly and seeker-sensitive, able to make the Gospel message relevant to non-Christians. Ironically, for all that effort, the atheist in six trips to church calls that effort contrived or failing. Why?
Casper, the friendly atheist (as Jim calls him), comments that at each of the churches they visit, only the official greeting teams are friendly to them, but it feels forced. Otherwise no member of the churches goes out of his or her way to say 'hello' or to genuinely welcome them to the church. Jim's response to this observation was to suggest that he'd like to offer a workshop to evangelicals that would train them to smile and say hello to newcomers. Casper's reaction was classic: "They would need a seminar to learn how to do that?!?" Jim replied (I think missing the point) that the irony of the workshop would be that it would only teach smiling and saying hello, showing evangelicals that they can make a difference through simple gestures.
An additional conversation develops about the fact that one pastor who does go out of his way to converse with the pair of them tells Casper that as an atheist, he will not be able to understand the sermon as it contains spiritual truths Casper won't be able to grasp. Casper is mystified. Jim states in the book that this pastor had not yet learned how to "talk to an atheist" because after all, Jim had, and what Jim learned is that "atheists like to be asked questions." Huh. I had thought human beings liked to be asked questions, not just atheists.
So far we have two workshops to offer to evangelicals based on Casper's observations:
--Workshop to teach evangelicals to smile at people they don't know.
--Workshop to teach evangelicals how to "ask questions" of an atheist.
Maybe they should offer a workshop called, "How to remember what it was like to be a regular human being."
If being an evangelical means you lose your ability to smile or ask questions of other human beings, hasn't something about you, as an evangelical, been changed and damaged due to your conversion? In other words, regular human beings without religious agendas smile and say hello every day, they ask questions of people they meet, they don't start conversations by telling them that they won't understand the words they utter. Sure, the band meeting at school may not produce a flurry of smiles and handshakes, but the stated purpose of the meeting isn't to create community, either. If evangelical Christianity is about spiritual growth which ought to result in deeper human connections, why do they struggle so much to relate to regular people? Why do they need "special trainings" for ordinary human behaviors?
Then this morning over on Jesus Creed, I read the 87 comments on the thread called Dinner. In that thread, Scot McKnight asks,
Which is worse for the kingdom — the generous, kind leader whose thoughts sometimes wander from the traditional or the brash, abrasive, mean-spirited leader whose theology seems straight as an arrow? What do you think and why?"Worse for the Kingdom?" Why is that the concern? Shouldn't the issue be: Why is a man with supposedly good theology mean-spirited? Why is a generous man suspect for having wandering thoughts? The Kingdom of God is not a "thing" that can be damaged. There's no "such thing." The KoG is within you, it is all around us, it is the activity of God (not the appearance of kindness or rightness).
Evangelicals bargain with reality because the "appearance" of being "spirit-infused and therefore better than the world (either kinder or more right)" must be sustained to validate evangelical beliefs. If the KoG is threatened by a mean-spirited man, then he must change. But if we decide it is not, then his mean-spiritedness is not of real concern. It might make interesting discussion fodder, but the truth is, what advances the KoG (however that is defined - usually for evangelicals it means winning souls) comes first. Therefore the real issue for the church has to do with the convincing appearance of being good, right, kind, true, and superior, rather than actually being those things or at minimum, real, honest, and human.
Getting back to Casper and Jim, then, my thoughts as I read were: Can't you see, Jim, that your agenda (though you claim not to have one for Casper) is how to make evangelicals more palatable to atheists (as though atheists are all of one uniform voice, anyway)? It ought to be: What is wrong with evangelicalism that we change from human beings like the rest of the world to those who alienate, irritate or condescend?
Put another way: When will evangelicals give up their obsession with perception (how others see them) and rejoin the human race?
It strikes me as an utterly non-spiritual way to live and view the world, not to mention a gold-plated path to hypocrisy.
**Caveat** I know I'm broad-brushing. What I've discovered in my reading of evangelical books and blogs, in the thousands of meetings I've attended in my 25 years of evangelicalism is that usually non-Christians are categorized and sorted according to type (atheists, unbelievers, secularists, humanists, postmodernists, rebels, back-sliders, other religions, liberals, heretics etc.) with little interest in nuance or variation or even the possibility of spiritual vitality in their lives. Evangelicals believe they need peculiar insight into these various unregenerate groups in order to make themselves relevant enough to convert a few. But they aren't usually interested in learning from these other groups of people. It's a one-way valve. Even Jim's questions of Casper are still about what Jim's world of Christians can do better to speak to atheists like Casper. The questions are not about how the atheist worldview has anything to contribute to the spiritual lives of evangelicals.
In this entry, my thoughts are based on how the evangelical community strikes me when reading them as a group, represented by writers who speak for them. I'm comparing how they represent themselves with how I think they've departed from what it means to share humanity with everyone else. I'm critical, but I hope not mean-spirited. I suppose that is for you to decide.