A Review of Reborn Again: Crucifying Christendom & Resurrecting a Radical, Christopher VanHall, 2019, by John Henson
What happens when a fundamentalist evangelical minister enthralled in megachurch worship productions, religious right crusades, and apathy to the downtrodden finds the real Jesus. Apparently, a lot, as seen in his journey of being fired from churches to starting a church that advocates for the poor, loves LGBTQ folks, and even brews beer. That’s what Christopher VanHall shares in great detail in his book, Reborn Again: Crucifying Christendom and Resurrecting a Radical. His book is not about him, though, as much as it is about the church; the hope he has for the church to find rebirth in the same way he did.
VanHall begins the book with a look at what his life and ministry were like as the music minister at at an evangelical megachurch somewhere in the Low Country (South Carolina?). The book flows with the current of experiences and epiphanies along his journey from fundamentalist to progressive Christianity. There are several milestones he notes, but the foundational one is when his grandfather dies. He writes of the effect his death had on him, leaving him not stricken not only with grief but guilt. He tells of how the guilt was damaging to him and to his faith. He attributes such guilt and its damage to his toxic theology, reflecting that “My reaction to this tragedy is what the fruit of toxic theology looks like. It creeps into dire situations, buries its roots into the weakened spirit of the broken, spreads its seeds in the tattered minds of the innocent, and renders the foundation of its victim more damaged than it was before.”
Another milestone in Vanhall’s life is when he encountered Eli, a homeless man in New Orleans. VanHall, in New Orleans with friends for a weekend, encountered Eli when he came to the Vanhall and his friends to ask if he could have the leftover food they were carrying with them. Vanhall tells of how he offered his leftovers to him but only with the phrase he believed had to accompany any handout: “Jesus loves you.” Vanhall discovered that the phrase had the opposite effect he had intended, eliciting a response from Eli that “no one helps anyone here. Especially Christians.” The encounter with Eli stayed with VanHall and began to challenge his soul and his understanding of what Christianity should be. He writes about the experience,
How could this be? Hou could these temples be so blind to their willful indifference? How could Christians witness abject poverty on a daily basis and remain docile with no initiatives to end this localized justice? It was at this point in a zealous indignation that the reality of my blatant hypocrisy smacked me in the face.
One of the most life-changing milestones for VanHall was when he was serving as a pastor of a church he founded to reach out to people who were disenchanted with the traditional church. The church met each Sunday for a meal at the park, providing a free meal and inclusive invitation for anyone, even if they just ate and didn’t stay for worship. The church was doing well and attracting around seventy each week. There was always food left over and VanHall and others in the church would take it to people in the neighborhood who could use a meal. One such person, Jackson, lived in a dilapidated house. He was receptive of the meal, but never came to the door, wanting it left at the door. On one Sunday, though, VanHall was invited in by Jackson and learned that he was in terrible health. He learned from Jackson about his condition and also his need for fixing up his house to make it livable in his condition. VanHall quickly took the man’s comments to heart and began developing a plan and pulling together the resources to fix Jackson’s house. Bad weather prevented Vanhall and his church from getting started on the house for a while and by the time they could get back to the house, they learned that Jackson had died. Vanhall took the news hard and wondered about a better outcome if he had noticed Jackson and his dilapidated house sooner. He also wonders what other Jackson’s are out there, forgotten by churches blinded by toxic theology, racism, and isolationism.
This book is written mostly as memoir, with each chapter serving as a sequential step forward in Vanhall’s journey of faith and in his embrace of progressive Christianity. Vanhall has a gift for storytelling, writing, and engaging difficult issues seriously but also humorously. As he describes the book, “You will find memories, ministry breakthroughs, and perhaps most importantly theological discoveries that led me away from toxic fundamentalism.”
VanHall notes that he wrote the book after coming to terms with his “detrimental understanding” of the Bible and the beliefs behind his views of himself after his grandpa’s death. As he states, “This book is about my own rebirth. It’s about how I discovered the hijacking of Christianity by nationalism and details of the dilemma that this knowledge caused while I was employed by congregations within evangelicalism.”
VanHall shares about his book, “Within these pages are my own imperfect attempts to creatively rebirth the movement that began long before, and continued well after, a troublemaking Rabbi named Jesus emerged from a place called Nazareth.” This is the very different Jesus VanHall has known all of his life, one shaped by the churches he grew up in and served.
Another reason VanHall wrote this book is the hope he has for the church. Even with all of the disappointments he discovered after seeing that the Jesus he was getting to know was vastly different than the one he knew in his former churches, he never gave up on church. Like so many evangelical millenials who have become “Nones” and never return to church, VanHall is not willing to give up on it. Or, at least, on what it should be. As he writes, “Our resignation is an accessory to the continuation of dogmatic affliction. Our indifference can no longer stand if the authentic directive of Jesus is to be reborn.” He indicates this hope throughout the book, like with the following sentence:
If we can identify the misguided views of what Christians believe that the Bible says, by clarifying what the Bible actually says, then I believe the church will become an unstoppable expanding force of virtue and equity.
While the reader may find such hope as tilting at windmills, there is no question VanHall has it and holds it up as a beacon for anyone disenchanted with what the church has become.
VanHall’s journey from evangelical fundamentalism to progressive Christianity has given him insight into what he sees as the problems of the church; those things that have made the church dead in so many ways. He believes that the church has forgotten its purpose and consumed itself with “ridiculous customs and beliefs that are far from biblical.” For Vanhall, it is time to “place irrelevant traditions and tarnished systems of belief in the grave so that the historically radical directive of a Jewish, nonviolent, subversive rabbi named Jesus can be resurrected.”
VanHall sees the church’s problem in its most dangerous form in the evangelical megachurch. Having served in at least one, he speaks from experience and with familiarity. He views them not only as toxic but dangerous, noting how they—and conservative “hip churches”—are dangerous not only because of the doctrines they edify but because of the numbers of people they draw and expose to their teaching. He notes that Evangelicals “are adept a wielding cultural relevance to sow destructive influence.”
VanHall, though, has hope for the future. He states throughout the book a number of solutions for the church to live up to its purpose. One way of realizing hope for the future of the church is to “illuminate the dichotomy between evangelical messiah and historical Jesus within our communities, then perhaps we can take our rightful place in the frontlines of resistance and be the collective catalyst for change that a broken world has been longing for.” Being that collective catalyst for change involves many tasks for the church, one of which VanHall highlights throughout the book: opposing “intolerant and detrimental churches and denominations.”
One way of opposition to these churches is by other churches becoming the Ananinas of their time, helping remove the scales from the eyes of the Saul’s who’ve been blinded on their road to Damascus. Like Saul, these churches and their congregants have been on a crusade against the innocents, one for their God, their values, and one “the historical Jesus certainly would have opposed.” As Ananias didn’t give up on Saul, progressive Christians aren’t to give up on fundamentalists. For VanHall,
we are reminded here that change is possible if we refuse to give up on those who are lost to unjust procedures of intolerance. We call out their missteps boldly. We guide them as they fumble away from the void. We lead them in their blindness with words of education. We instruct with sharp words of truth about their character flaws. Most importantly, we provide a living example counter to the unethical ethos of colonization and Americanized Christianity.
What I loved about the book is how VanHall weaves his hope for the church in with an honest assessment of what’s wrong with the church, all the while continuing to carry the reader along on his journey. VanHall’s stories were not only extraordinary; they were insightful and instructive for anyone wanting to get a feel for the tensions and movement going on in churches today as they are affected by the tectonic shifts happening within congregations and culture today.
At the risk of sounding prudish, I think this book would have been better without the frequent use of profanity. It is unnecessary (except for a few hilarious instances where it fit perfectly) and will make it difficult for the book to be used in congregational or book studies with multi-generational participation.
This book is not only for progressives who are grasping for hope in the midst of the decay of the church in the United States today. It is also for evangelical Christians, for those who find themselves much like VanHall, struggling with the disconnect between the Jesus of the gospels and the Christianity of American evangelicalism; for those seeing what’s missing from their gospel and churches. Perhaps the book is also for the non-Christians out there who can find relief in knowing that not all churches and Christians are toxic and hateful. And, certainly, this book is for progressive churches and Christians, able to serve as a study and discussion guide for how to live out the hope expressed within its pages.
I look forward to reading more from VanHall, as his adventures of rebirthing church–especially via a brewery–continue and has his hope for what it must become for the future if it is ever going to be the church Jesus intended for a broken world.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.