Letters to the Church by Francis Chan (David C Cook, 2018)
“Imagine you find yourself stranded on a deserted island with nothing but a copy of the Bible. You have no experience with Christianity whatsoever, and all you know about the Church will come from your reading of the Bible.” So begins Francis Chan’s Letters to the Church. Choosing to frame his work with this scenario highlights the basic shortcoming this book.
I should begin by saying there is much that is worthwhile in Letters to the Church. With emphases on prayer, the Spirit, sacredness, the Church as a family, what’s not to love? People are coming to Christ, churches are multiplying. All good things.
Unfortunately, Letters fails to address the assumption inherent in the opening scenario, and this colors much of what follows.
Yes, I understand that this is a thought experiment, a hypothetical situation meant to make us reflect on what Scripture says. However, stranded alone on a deserted island with a Bible is perhaps the worst place to begin thinking or speaking about the Church.
The great problem with this scenario: I am the only one there, both in the image and in the act of imagination.
Why is this such an issue? How does this hamper the rest of the book? The scenario assumes that a private ‘literal’ first reading of Scripture would be the unvarnished and authoritative reading.
The words of Scripture were not written for this scenario, and so someone in this scenario has zero context to understand them. We would do better to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the recipients of Scripture. We would do better still to listen to the Church across the ages doing this with us.
The invitation to imagine such an unvarnished reading is, in truth, an invitation to ignore our bias and assume we are reading things correctly. In other words, it invites me to assume that what strikes me as the ‘literal’ meaning is the ultimate meaning. Again, we would do much better the read in concert with the whole Church across the ages.
While Letters to the Church contains valid critiques of the American megachurch, it only offers the ‘We Are Church’ model as a solution. The only reason I write this review is to point out the desperate need to retrieve the Great Tradition. Yes, we need to be biblical in all that we do, but we are not the first generation of people to try what the author is suggesting. The Great Tradition is the heritage of the Church’s own wrestling with Scripture. It offers a real solution to the problems raised in Letters.
The Church must have roots that go deeper and wider than our own Bible interpretation and experiences. Everything in TUMI’s enterprise, every resource, conference, video, pamphlet, or post grows from the Church’s Sacred Roots. The Great Tradition represents that solid Biblical core of what has been believed and practiced everywhere, always, by all Christians. If we are going to think or talk about the Church, indeed, if we are going to be the Church, let us begin here.