THIS. Naughty Thoughts. (On Church). A Book Review.

THIS is the book I’ve been waiting to read. I just didn’t know it. “Naughty Thoughts: On Church, and Why I Think We Need to Change,” by South African author Johan van der Merwe, addresses every doubt and internal conflict I’ve had about church attendance for the past two years. In fact, his central question is “Do I have to belong to a local church?” There are some for whom this question is satisfactorily settled, on either side, and you may not be interested in the question, and that’s fine. Neither van der Merwe nor I is interested in digging people out of a way of practicing Christianity that is working for them. Van der Merwe makes clear on several occasions that if you are finding life in a traditional church of any denomination, he has no quarrel with you continuing to love and serve God in that context. I do not fall into this camp. I have been struggling with questions of church for quite some time because, while I understand the nature of the gospel to be communal, and I don’t know how to experience that communal relationship outside of church, at the same time, I don’t feel that church is really enabling that experience, either.  For people who share this longing and dissonance, this book might be very compelling for you. I personally experienced such a huge paradigm shift while reading this book that it’s hard for me to write this review because I don’t have enough distance yet from the shift to be able to articulate it.  All I can say it that it was foundationally liberating to hear someone acknowledge, articulate, and honor all my subconscious questions and conflicts.

“Thinking Naughty Thoughts” is van der Merwe’s somewhat lengthy reflection on why the church as the institution we have come to know, is, per se, a fundamentally flawed and perhaps even toxic vehicle for trying to communicate the gospel of Christ. Not because the church is corrupt, although it is sometimes, and not because it needs some reforms, although it often does, but because the very principles that help institutions to exist conflict in some central ways to the gospel. Van der Merwe points out repeatedly that the primary metaphors used to describe the church in the first century all revolved around families, meals, bodies, and households – very natural, organic, fellowship-oriented concepts. And while we pay lip service to those metaphors today, our weekly church experience doesn’t actually practice them, whether you are Catholic or Protestant. Or if your church makes a special effort to foster familial relating among its members, it does that over and above and separately from its standard Sunday event – Sunday service and fellowship and community service, when van der Merwe points out that in the first century church, church basically was fellowship and service.

Van der Merwe takes a critical look at several basic elements endemic to institutional church, including tithing, liturgy, the role of the pastor, the Sunday sermon, church buildings, the Eucharist (yes, the Eucharist), and Sunday worship.

I’ll take one example to illustrate the dynamics that “Naughty Thoughts” is taking a look at – the role of the pastor. Van der Merwe spends several pages at the beginning of the chapter explaining that he does not mean to speak against any particular pastors, and neither do I. He (and I) are acquainted with many wonderful, hard-working, Christ-loving, long-serving pastors who do wonderful work, and his critique is not meant as personal slander – he is critiquing the institutional office of pastor, and what it has become, rather than any individual people who serve in that office. Despite this disclaimer, it is still a difficult critique to make precisely because van der Merwe is arguing that the existence of a professional pastor (or priest) per se is not only unnecessary but sort of contrary to some of the primary values of the gospel.

Van der Merwe makes a detailed case that Christ came to found, not a great religion, but a family of equals. I won’t go into that case in detail, but considering that Christ disrupted first century Jews’ understanding of their own religion, radically moved the boundary line that decided who was included, and left precious few instructions on how to proceed, and that first-century Christians shared everything in common, etc., you can probably see where he is going with that without me giving you the full exposition. Anyway, he goes on to point out that if Christianity is to be a family of equals, and yet every Sunday our way of coming to God is to sit and listen to the same person monologue at length about what we are to take from the Bible and the tradition, rather than engaging with our neighbors, dialoguing, and taking turns offering illumination of varying kinds, then the message (Christianity is a family of equals) is in tension with the delivery of that message (one man delivering all your wisdom from a place of authority). Even when churches go out of their way to foster community outside of Sunday services (small groups, home groups, fellowship groups, service projects), the primary, standard event that unifies the church community still falls back on this model, and the message the model sends is still in conflict with the message it is trying to deliver. This is an oversimplification of both van der Merwe’s point and the fully expressed dynamics of the situation, but hopefully you can see the point.

The entire book is laid out in that basic format – examine the central principle of the gospel, examine the institutional adaptation we have adopted (he goes into church history quite a bit), and ask the question – in what ways are our practices in conflict with our message? I LOVED, loved, loved, loved, loved this book. The only thing I could possibly say in critique is that the style feels a little to informal at times, and I wished for a little more structure in the editing. There were times when the book felt very much like a long string of blog posts, and I felt that the informality distracted from the brilliance of the ideas contained therein.

So, in sum – if you are quite happy with your church situation, then you don’t need this book, and I (and I think van der Merwe) are very happy for you. If you, like me, are finding church to be a bit thin, and your experience of the gospel more rich in other contexts, this book might help lay bare some of the values and principles involved.

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9 Comments

Filed under book reviews, religion

9 responses to “THIS. Naughty Thoughts. (On Church). A Book Review.

  1. Stephen River Smith

    Let me be the first to say “I’m smiling.” No convincing necessary, but another little tile in the tapestry.

  2. Hi, so…great review…i totally get where you and the author are coming from…i agree that our normal method of doing “church” would be unrecognizable to early Christians. Some thoughts:
    “but considering that Christ disrupted first century Jews’ understanding of their own religion, radically moved the boundary line that decided who was included”
    Jesus didn’t do either of these. He participated fully in the Jewish religion of his time. And, we know that Judaism allowed for the presence of God fearing gentiles. The question of gentiles pops up in Acts 15 and the question isn’t whether or not to include gentiles but how much of the law do they need to commit to, since Jews who followed Jesus (such as Peter and Paul) continued to obey the law. (i know this is not the common Christian view, but it is true none the less) One more point, as Christians we tend to equate church with the Temple when we should be equating it with synagogues at that time. So I would suggest, we shouldn’t merely ask, how did the first Christians do church but instead ask, how did the first Christians who were in reality practicing Jews, understand and practice fellowship.

    • Maureen! I love that you still read my blog sometimes! I always forget that actual Bible scholars occasionally read this, and so I should be more careful with my glib grand summations, lol. I agree that we should be looking also to how first century Jews practiced, but I don’t think it’s too far to say that Jesus stepped outside what was perceived to be “normal” Jewish practice. He practiced both the letter and the spirit of the law, yes, but just a look at the stories of the Samaritan woman and Zaccheus (sp?) paints a picture of how Jesus moved the boundaries of how most everyday Jews interacted with those around them. I also think the tension you’re sensing here might be more from my hasty summary of the author than from the author himself. (I’m on my way to a funeral in an hour, so I didn’t got back to re-read his whole exposition). Any misrepresentations are my own. 🙂

  3. Ag man, Johan! It ain’t rocket science. 🙂

    The more people who actually get this ‘family of equals’ thing (although we’re more a body, and an arm isn’t a leg, a leg isn’t an eye, and so on) the better.

  4. Definitely thinking I need to check this out.
    While my family and I love our faith, church services too often feel like a thin broth when what you need is a five course dinner! It really isn’t the issue of the faith itself, and preaching the word doesn’t affect me as it is how the word was meant to be spread. Sitting in a church pew with people doesn’t give me a sense of community – it is that lack of sincere participation that unnerves me. The format as well seems to leave the church vulnerable to the foibles of “tradition”. The service progresses the same way time after time, and all the little Amens and rote routines lose all meaning. The danger comes from when the traditions and routine threaten to overwhelm the purpose of the communion of the church. Christ himself continually chided the synagogues and leaders of his day on allowing the routine and tradition to supercede the word.
    I don’t know that I am communicating this effectively (and I could discuss this for hours); regardless, thank you for the book review – it is something I know we will check out.

    • Thanks for stopping by Jenn! I know what you mean about the “thin broth.” For me what I started noticing was that all the places where I felt I was receiving (and participating in/ helping to offer) the five-course meal were NOT standard Sunday services. Instead, I was experiencing the “family of equals” in non-church or not-quite church settings, and I was frustrated with wanting to be more participatory in Sunday church, but all the ways of “participating” in Sunday church are marginal, and almost entirely serve to perpetuate the whole Sunday dynamic, and it all just felt so…circular. Come to church to passively receive and only connect to people at the small talk level; get frustrated, decide to participate more, become an usher….so I can help people come to passively receive and only connect to people at the small talk level; etc. Not that sermons and worship aren’t nice, but after a few years of hearing the same person speak, my level of delighted surprise and inspiration in any given sermon is greatly diminished, and I find myself craving different perspectives on a more regular basis. Small groups are great, and that’s where I’ve been finding all my spiritual food lately, but I was feeling kind of guilty about that until reading the book. Anyway. I do wish the book had had a better editor – it’s self-published, and feels like it sometimes – but I think the ideas are important and mostly well-articulated.

      • Stephen River Smith

        ‘Insular’, ‘passive’, ‘self-perpetuating’,’ circular’ (a descriptor you used so well in your reply)–all familiar words from my own vocabulary of personal experience, none of which hinders my ability to love and respect my friends still finding their sense of meaning within the walls. But having found my own version of the ‘family of equals’ to be entirely undefined by religious, or even philosophic, parameters, I find the freedom of living and loving such a heady wine of reality and Jesus that I could not conceive of ever returning to the restricted confines of public, guarded, structured faith.

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