“Do you remember Andy Rooney?” Arthur asked me as he polished off the last of his oatmeal and whole wheat toast.
For the past fifteen minutes we had focused more on eating than on talking. We could hear snippets of conversation from the tables around us. The guys behind us fumed over the inability of the local NHL team to win with any consistency. The couple across the aisle worried about the falling water levels in the Great Lakes. And the two women in the adjoining booth carried on a lively chat, each on her cell phone, however, and not with each other.
I was just about to comment on the entertainment derived from simple eavesdropping when Arthur sprang the Andy Rooney question.
“You mean the guy who used to do the commentary at the close of Sixty Minutes every week?” I asked in response.
“That’s the one. I once heard him say that, although he was personally opposed to the idea of abortion, he liked the people who were for it better than the people who were against it.”
I smiled. I could picture Andy Rooney, with his rumpled suit and bushy eyebrows, saying something like that. And my first impulse was to concur, but I decided to wait and see where Arthur was going with that comment.
“That’s the way I feel about evangelical Christianity,” he said, after a pause. “Theologically, I’m about as evangelical as they come. But I find the American evangelical subculture repulsive.”
“Repulsive?” I asked, hoping he would say more about what he meant.
“Yes. It repels me. I am not attracted to it, I’m repelled by it,” Arthur said.
Arthur was a careful wordsmith, even in casual conversation. He seldom used words haphazardly. I should have known that he chose that word deliberately. It was both technically accurate and stylistically effective.
I suspected that he had more to say, so I waited. I was not wrong.
“Contemporary American evangelicalism is like cheap furniture,” Arthur said, tossing yet another linguistic image into his observations. “It’s a veneer, not solid wood.”
Arthur loved to work with wood. His garage served more often as a makeshift workshop for his furniture refinishing projects than as a shelter for his car. If he used woodworking or furniture symbolism to illustrate a point, he had probably thought carefully about the connection. I listened intently.
“Veneer is a thin layer of wood grain which is glued over an inferior grade of wood product, often a composite, to give the appearance of quality construction,” Arthur informed me, although I knew full well what veneer meant.
“That’s the way I think of American evangelicalism—a thin layer of religion over a system of values that is indistinguishable from the prevailing culture. We claim to follow Jesus, to live by the principles He laid down in His teaching, and yet we are as superficial and materialistic as much of the culture around us. In fact, I often feel more at home with honest, conscientious pagans than with evangelical church people. At least they are asking the right questions.”
“I think that’s what I liked most about this book,” Arthur said, as he tapped his copy of Chasing Francis. Now I could see how all this was tying together. Arthur was using the Andy Rooney reference and the veneer imagery as a way of transitioning to a discussion of the book he had asked me to read the previous week.
“Did you identify with Chase at all?” Arthur asked. Chase Falson was the main character in the short novel which Arthur had recommended to me because of the book’s many allusions to St. Francis of Assisi, one of my favorite figures from church history.
But the book was not about St. Francis. It was the story of an American evangelical pastor’s encounter with Francis at a critical moment in his spiritual pilgrimage. In that regard, I could indeed identify with the novel’s protagonist, and I acknowledged as much.
“Me too,” Arthur agreed.
Chase Falson was the founding pastor of a large evangelical church in New England. A single man in his thirties, his fourteen years as pastor of Putnam Hill Community Church had been, by his own admission, “a church-growth success story.”
Early in chapter one, Chase offers this description of himself and his ministry.
I’d considered myself one of the privileged few the heavens had endowed with a perfectly true compass. I’d known who I was and where I was going, and I’d been certain that one day I would see the boxes neatly checked off next to each of my life goals. I’d liked myself. A lot.
A page or so later, Chase gives the reader additional insight into his self-perception and the way he had approached his role as a large-church pastor.
I can see now that Putnam Hill Community Church had been built on the appeal of my belief in a God who could be managed and explained. I’d held such an unbending confidence in my conservative evangelical theology that even some of the more skeptical locals had been won over. After I’d put in years of seventy-hour workweeks, Putnam Hill had become a church brimming with young Wall Streeters and their families, many of whom had come because they were disappointed that happiness hadn’t come as optional equipment in their Lexus SUVs.
Chase is on the brink of a life-altering crisis of personal faith. Both Arthur and I could relate. We had both experienced something similar. In fact, the similarity between our journeys and that of this fictional character was almost eerie.
For example, here’s what Chase tells a friend of his, a man called Mac, who happens to be both a psychiatrist and a Christian.
Following Jesus used to be so tidy. Every question had a logical answer. Every mystery had a rational explanation. The day I walked across the stage to pick up my seminary degree, I thought I had God pretty well figured out. Everything I believed was boxed, filed, and housed on a shelf.
But things changed. Again, I could relate. I knew Arthur could too. Here’s the way Chase puts it.
For months, anything that even remotely smacked of evangelicalism had been posing a challenge to my gag reflex. I used to devour all those books that promised a more victorious spiritual life in three easy steps. I went to the pastor conferences where celebrity speakers with mouthfuls of white Chiclet teeth gave talks that sounded more like Tony Robbins than Jesus. …
I’d been shocked a few years before when a friend from seminary converted to Catholicism because he felt evangelicals had ‘McDonaldized’ Jesus. I was starting to see his point.
Chase had begun this conversation with his psychiatrist friend by saying that he felt he was filling up with anger. But Mac tells him that anger isn’t really the core issue. The core issue, his friend suggests, is fear.
‘You’re afraid that if you can’t find a new way to follow Jesus, then you might not be able to stay in the game.’
Chase ponders his friend’s assessment and ultimately agrees with it. A few pages later, he sums up his state of mind this way.
‘I’m fed up with all the feuding between theological conservatives and liberals, the good guys and the bad guys. Everybody’s so sure they’ve cornered the truth market. Every morning I want to throw open my window and yell, “Tell me there’s something more! There has to be something more!”
After I read that last quote aloud, Arthur and I looked at each other knowingly. We had both been there. In fact, we were both there right now. We both believed that the contemporary American evangelical version of Christianity could not possibly be what Jesus had in mind when He established the church two thousand years ago. There simply had to be something more!
Both of us wanted to continue our discussion of the book, but Arthur had to leave in order to get his wife to her doctor’s appointment on time.
“I’d really like to keep this going,” Arthur said, as he got up from the table and gathered his coat and hat. “Are you free for lunch on Wednesday?”
“I think so,” I answered.
“Good,” he said. “Come to my place. Twelve-thirty. I’ll make my world-famous corned beef sandwiches.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” I said. “Give my greetings to Ellie, and tell her I hope everything goes well.”
“I will,” he said, and he started to walk away. Instead of heading directly toward the exit, however, he stopped by the cashier’s counter. That’s when I looked down to see that Arthur had picked up the check when he left the table.
I was zipping my windbreaker when he completed the transaction and turned in my direction. “You get the tip,” he called out, above the restaurant noise. Then he was gone.