Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Charles Sheldon

Books I didn’t like

Among the thousands of books that I’ve read in my lifetime there have been books that were useful and informative, books that conveyed truths that have inspired me, books that were merely interesting, books that were so uninteresting that I never finished reading them and books that were well written but quite deceptive. Here are four books from that last category that stand out in my mind.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: I was young and impressionalbe when I read this book. Still, the idea of a better world that would be built by pure unbridled selfishness didn’t impress me as being a world where I would want to live. I didn’t find John Galt a very sympathetic hero, either.

In His Steps by Charles Sheldon: I have read this book four times, trying to figure out how anybody could consider this a Christian book. What I found was people who read the Bible but never got any direction from it; people who prayed but never got any direction through answers to prayer; people who sang hymns but never got any direction from the words of the hymns. The only way they got any direction was to ask themselves  “What would Jesus do?” Then they found the answers within themselves.

Well, actually the answers came from Charles Sheldon. The whole sin problem in the world is the fault of privately owned business and the solution is for ordinary people to band together to counteract the nefarious influence of big business. The newspaper owner is the epitome of Sheldon’s solution when he plans to turn the newspaper into an employee owned cooperative.

Sheldon called himself a Christian socialist. Notice that socialist is the noun and Christian is an adjective, mere camouflage for the real message Sheldon wants to convey. He uses Christian words all the way through, but they are eviscerated of all meaning. It is very skilfully done, but this book is actually a primer on socialism.

A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch: Rauschenbusch follwed in Sheldon’s steps and coined the term “social gospel” in the early 1900’s. This book reveals the full scope of his thinking. There is no such thing as a sin against God. God appears to be a philosphical construction to provide a framework for ethical teaching, not a divine person who actually exists. Sin and redemption are not matters of personal concern, but involve all of society. The sins for which Jesus died are: religious bigotry; the combination of graft and political power; the corruption of justice; the mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt.

Rauschenbusch taught that there were two kinds of business organizations: the saved and the unsaved. Unsaved business are those that are privately owned, saved businesses are socially owned, such as cooperatives and goverment owned businesses.

One hundred years have passed since this book was published. I see the results all around me: churches, political parties, cooperatives and government owned businesses built on social gospel principles. I don’t see any evidence that they have succeeded in ushering in Rauschenbusch’s vision of the kingdom of God.

The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whittal Smith: This is another pseudo-Christian book which I have read several times. All I could find was pop psychology couched in Christian language. If people are unhappy and unfulfilled, they might want to ask if there is some sin hindering them, or are they not hearing and following the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is no mention of any of that in this book. It is do-it-yourself Christianity. I would recommend the Bible and genuine Christianity.

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Strange Gospel

Approximately 300 years ago there arose a line of thought in pietistic Protestantism that God’s reign would progressively manifest itself through human action cooperating with God’s action. The belief that the gospel will gradually Christianize the world, bringing a reign of peace and harmony preceding the return of Christ, is known as postmillenialism.

In 19th century Germany, theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf Harnack concluded that most of the Scriptures were simply mythology or allegory used to convey spiritual teachings. This was called higher criticism of the Bible. Although they did not believe the Bible to be literally true, they taught that the life and teachings of Jesus carried a message of hope for the poor and oppressed. Rejecting the historical truth of the Bible, they also rejected the thought that evil was the product of the sinful nature of the heart of man. They rather taught that it is the evil in the social environment which prevents men and women from living as Jesus taught. This teaching infiltrated most of the major protestant denominations, and was called “modernism.”

Meanwhile, the success of the abolition movement in the USA led to a belief that it would be possible to cure all the ills of society. In His Steps, published in 1897, became the second-best selling book in the USA (after the Bible) for the next 60 years. This was the account by Charles Sheldon of the transformation of the fictional town of Raymond when people began to ask “What would Jesus do?” It seems an inspiring story, the Bible is read, powerful prayers are offered up, good things happen.

But when answers come to the question “What would Jesus do?” they do not come from Scripture or from the leading of the Holy Spirit, but rather from the intellect and imagination of the persons asking the question.

The theme of the book is that the liquor business and big business in general have created a social environment where people cannot live a Christian life. There is no hint that the great need of rich and poor alike is to repent of the evil in their own heart. The sin of society must first be addressed. This book played a large part in creating the Social Gospel movement.

Walter Rauschenbusch was the principal theologian of the movement. He was a Baptist minister of German descent, who had studied the writings of Schleiermacher, Ritschl and Harnack. His work as a pastor in one of the worst slums of New York City led him to develop a theology to impel Christians to work towards the immediate correction of the evils in society.

His best known book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, appeared in 1917. Rauschenbusch quotes Scripture and uses the language of evangelical Christianity. But he does not believe in the divine inspiration of the whole Bible, leaving him free to select certain Scriptures as authoritative, and to reject others. The Scriptures he does use are interpreted according to social gospel theology.

According to Rauschenbusch, the kingdom of God includes all of humanity. Men are not inherently sinful, but live in a sinful environment which hinders them from living as God wants them to live. Sin is not committed against God alone, but since God resides in every human being, every sin against our fellow man is a sin against God. There is no thought of Jesus being the incarnate Son of God. He was simply a man who attained to a new level of understanding and living the kingdom of God.

Rauschenbusch names six sins which caused the death of Jesus: religious bigotry; graft and political power; corruption of justice; mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt. There is no mention of a resurrection. The devil, hell and heaven exist only in a figurative sense. All people are somewhere in the unending process of growing closer to God and becoming more like him.

Rauschenbusch considered the production and marketing of alcoholic beverages to be a great evil. Even worse was the oppression of mankind by privately owned businesses operated for the profit of the owners. He called these businesses unsaved organizations. Collectively owned businesses, such as co-operatives and government owned businesses, are saved organizations. This is the Social Gospel and it is indeed a strange gospel.

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