If you don’t know who Chelsen Vicari is, you’re probably not alone.
You also risk missing out on someone very interesting.
I first learned of Vicari, the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s evangelical program director, because of an article: “Why evangelicalism is so misunderstood by Rachel Held Evans and the Christian Left.”
Clickbaity? Kinda. An interesting read? Definitely.
So when I learned of her book, Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith, I only had one question:
Is this going to be really great or made of crazy?
I blame the subtitle for this reaction—it’s an attention grabber, for sure. But because of it, it’s hard to imagine the book as being anything but one of these two extremes. And yet, that’s close what we find in Distortion: some really great insights mixed with a helping of… well, I’m not quite sure what to call it just yet.
Facing the crisis
Vicari writes as a millennial pleading with fellow millennial believers to not abandon the culture wars, and embrace their role as salt and light in the world—to hold fast to the truth, despite the cost that comes with it.
Much of what you’ll find in the book is familiar territory to those who’ve read existing literature about the crisis facing the American church in our day. But just because it’s familiar, doesn’t mean it’s not worth revisiting.
Many, whether seeking to reach their neighbors for Christ or simply to live somewhat comfortably, have given up the fight as the culture has progressively slid away from Christianity. But, as Vicari writes, “Waving the white flag of defeat in the culture wars is not an option for today’s evangelicals because to do so would be to give up on the next generation’s walk with Christ” (7).
This in itself is an important point: convictions matter. Truth matters. Whether it makes us uncomfortable or not, whether it’s convenient or not, if we want obey Jesus, we cannot compromise on the truth as found in God’s Word.
And yet, this is exactly what American Christians are being encouraged to do, as the nation moves toward fully recognizing same-sex marriage, its government funds abortion clinics, and attempts to socially or legally penalize business owners who opt to not to accept work that would violate their consciences. In other words, as America continues its slow march away from its traditionally held beliefs, Christian convictions are increasingly costly.1 And for many young Christians, the old fights are distasteful anyway.
But the strength Vicari consistently brings to many of the issues she addresses in Distortion is her willingness to point her finger at herself. She describes her own journey of having embraced an affirming viewpoint of homosexuality back toward the traditional view not with swagger, but with a sense of humility. It wasn’t peer pressure that drove her back, it was God’s Word.
But she’s also willing to ask her fellow conservatives to own their failings, as she does on this same issue when she writes,
Christians must not look upon the same-sex marriage debate with a “holier than thou” attitude. The truth is that churches stopped engaging and defending marriage and family long before same-sex marriage became front page news. (65)
The irony of Israel
There is, however, an irony in Distortion, and that is the decision to place support of the modern nation-state of Israel among the issues we must not compromise on. The irony here is in doing so, she’s majoring in a minor.
What I mean by that is not to disregard the promises God made to Abraham, promises to bless those who blessed him and curse those who cursed him, but to remind us of the reality that the trajectory of the New Testament is that national Israel is not explicitly identified as God’s people. For, as Paul wrote, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Additionally, Old Testament figures are frequently referred to as being, essentially, Christians, such as Moses who “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26).
So we need to be careful here, don’t you think?
While she tends to disregard the replacement view—that the church has replaced national Israel in the plans and purposes of God—she fails to seriously interact with any pastor or theologian outside of John Hagee. And here, perhaps, is the greater irony: approvingly affirming the teaching of a man who has, at best, distorted the gospel—if not outright denied it—while warning of the distortions of the Christian Left.
A wiser approach to these matters would be to affirm what Scripture affirms as central to what is to come: that Jesus will return bodily, that he will remake this world, that he will dwell with us forever and ever, that sin and death will be no more, and that a countless multitude from every tribe, tongue and nation will worship him throughout eternity. In other words, in God’s kingdom, we focus less on nationalities and bloodlines and more on our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
America, heck yeah!
My final comment about Distortion is more something to be aware of, rather than to be warned against: this is a very “American” book. For those of us who live in nations such as Canada, England, or Australia, there are many elements that are going to fall flat. Why? Because we’re not really people who are terribly concerned with our freedom—at least, not in the same way that our American friends are.
After all, we live in far more socialist leaning contexts than most of you reading this. We are subjects of a monarch.2 Freedom in the American sense is a foreign concept to many of us. So for those of us on the outside, there’s a bit of a voyeuristic quality that comes with reading the book—there are elements that are totally relevant to us, but many others that we just can’t understand, but we can’t turn away from.
In the end, Distortion is a very interesting read, largely because its author is an interesting writer. She’s a nice blend of strongly opinionated and thoughtful—and with time, I can only see that working to her benefit. As for Distortion itself, despite its shortcomings, it has a great deal worth considering, as long as you’re willing to wade through a bit of muck to get there.
Title: Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith
Author: Chelsen Vicari
Publisher: Front Line