Gall in the Family
Faith of My Fathers:
reviewed by Mark Coppenger
What happens when three generations of preachers within the same family (respectively “1950s revivalist,” “Swindoll-esque,” and “emerging”) get together to talk about the ministry? What if their favored preaching styles (“evangelistic hellfire and brimstone,” “teaching-oriented exegetical,” and “Midrash-oriented narrative”) are at odds?
Well, when the resulting book’s moderator, commentator, and editor is one of the disputants, when he believes his way is the hope for the future, and when the other parties wish him the very best, the results are predictable. Chris Seay and the “emerging church” win big.
Things Turn Hot
Chris is pastor of Ecclesia in Houston, where brother Robbie helps him as “worship pastor.” Brother Brian lives in Franklin, Tennessee, where he works as a music booking agent and teaches a Bible study called IKON. Chris’s dad, Ed, is the long-time pastor of First Baptist Church, Magnolia, Texas, and Chris’s maternal grandfather, Robert Baldwin (Papa), is retired, having served Houston’s Magnum Oaks Baptist Church for 28 years. Joining them all in the later chapters is Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz.
Together, they discuss such standard pastoral issues as worship style, depression, “flirtatious female advances,” money in the church, and the need to balance family and ministry; nothing particularly new here. But when the topic turns to morality and Donald Miller joins the group, things get hot. Before they’re done, Miller slanders James Dobson, and Chris both questions his “racist” grandmother’s salvation and accuses most SBC churches of hatred of homosexuals, before he concludes, “A real life of faith is marked by love.”
Of the group, “Papa” is the weariest, confessedly the victim of “burnout.” His observations are frequently tinged with sadness, and even bitterness, whether the topic is ministerial calling (“if you can do anything else, don’t preach”), unresponsive congregants (“they didn’t want to learn; they just wanted someone to go up there and preach to them for 30 minutes”), or deacons (“I didn’t know [they] could be so mean and so troublesome”).
Still, he can have a sweet sense of humor and say some inspiring things, such as his testimony to God’s financial provision and his love for his wife. Now and then, he’ll bark at the upstart boys, but he’s mainly an enabler.
Father Ed is more upbeat, speaking warmly of his church’s using Rick Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose” and their charitable outreach to poor kids in the community. He is sometimes rueful as he looks back at his missteps and confusions, but he basically believes in what he’s doing and he champions biblical inerrancy and doctrinal integrity. Alas, he seems a bit ambushed in places as Chris throws criticisms in his face.
Brother Brian is a Mennonite at heart, indifferent to government policy, focused on the fellowship, almost eager for social marginalization and persecution as a sign of the church’s authenticity. Robbie is the most laid back of the group. Both Brian and Robbie are capable of challenging Chris’s agenda, as when the former notes the woefully narrow age span in emerging churches and the latter cites a poll favoring a traditional-marriage amendment.
Chris Seay and Donald Miller are something else entirely, and their performance is the most instructive aspect of this book.
At one point, Chris tries to disabuse his father of trust in biblical inerrancy, observing that there are numerical and geographical variances in the Old Testament narratives. His father tries to respond, saying that some well-qualified theologians have addressed those issues. Chris replies, “Dad, it’s obvious that this conversation is frustrating for you—but we are not trying to debate, just to point some things out.” And there it ends, under Chris’s edit.
Perhaps his dad went on to say, “Of course, you’re debating; I make a claim, you make a counter-claim, and so on. Don’t say you’re just pointing things out, and then deny me credit for just pointing things out to you, namely, that fine evangelical scholars have crafted decent answers to your shopworn objections.” If he didn’t, he should have.
All we get is Chris’s wrap-up and his take on poor, old, loveable Dad:
But he is not through embarrassing his father. At the end of the book, he “outs” him for irregularities in his early married life, and Dad takes it as best he can. We discover that as Papa’s music and youth director, the young Ed Seay fell in love with the pastor’s daughter and married her secretly. She continued to live with her parents, who knew nothing of the wedding, and when she became pregnant with Chris, things got tricky.
Everything was sorted out, but the family didn’t want to discuss it thereafter. Little Chris became suspicious and suffered a “hidden wound,” fearful that he was conceived under unsavory circumstances. But as he, for publication, works through his hurts and elicits confessions from those who hurt him, he feels better.
Though perhaps his mother doesn’t: As Chris writes, “Even now I know that by talking about it I have crossed a line; my mother will be angry, hurt, or embarrassed by the telling of this story. But it is my story, too, and it is the secret that hurts me, not the truth.”
So with this story, fallibility, vulnerability, and authenticity break out, as it did when Donald Miller reported Chris’s fondness for colonics and when Chris spoke of his tendency to curse at Houston Astros games. It seems that such authenticity is the key to connecting with parishioners these days.
Well into the scrappy section on social issues, Donald Miller provides a helpful description of the “emerging,” “progressive,” or “missional” church perspective, as distinct from “the other way.”
He goes on to make application, saying of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, “I don’t think he cares about whether homosexuals go to heaven or hell. I think he cares about building a utopia. He cares about building a Salt Lake City, Utah, but for Christians.”
So missional churches are “seeker friendly,” even “seeker driven,” but with a different audience in mind. While Willow Creek and Saddleback are friendly to the suburban seeker, Ecclesia is friendly to the urban seeker of the postmodern sort.
And it would seem that the litmus test for missional friendliness is an amiable, nonjudgmental stance toward homosexuals, indeed toward homosexuality. Accordingly, over the protests of their father, Chris and Brian maintain that they would be perfectly happy for a lesbian couple to “join their community,” and not just attend the church. To think other-wise is to risk Chris’s easy charge of hatred.
Along the way, the image-conscious Chris is quick to assign aesthetic demerits to the “mullet” hair, pastels, and sequined shirts of the “Church Growth Gang,” to the “mostly polyester” shirt of an anti-abortion spokesman, and to Branson, Missouri music, which reminds him of “the seventh circle of hell with golden bathroom fixtures.” Proper styling is big with the missional crowd.
Near the end of the book, the conversation gets very political—and not a little strange—as Miller defends his membership in the Democratic party, because it is far less likely than the Republican party to “legislate morality.”
Still, sensitive over the Democrats’ enthusiasm for abortion, he makes the dubious claim that abortion figures have shot up during the current Bush administration (“When you take people’s freedom, they tend to rebel against that loss of freedom”), and he explains that, because of Republican neglect, the number of “unborn bodies versus African bodies” is a wash. It’s not at all clear how peculiarly Democratic policies (regarding AIDS, malaria, Rwandan Tutsis, Sudanese Dinkas, malaria, famine, or corruption?) would have meant the salvation of over 45 million African lives, offsetting the death toll in America since Roe, but Miller is undaunted.
As I read Faith of My Fathers, I was reminded of a familiar Hollywood scene, where the ball carrier weaves his way down the field for a touchdown. Along the way, hapless, would-be tacklers bounce off each other, dive in the wrong direction, fail to grasp the runner, or are even trampled by the (often unlikely) star.
And so, with Don Miller running interference, Chris Seay scores handily, as muddied, out-of-breath -traditionalists in dated uniforms, high-top shoes, and leather helmets, left on the ground by the faster and stronger player, look on in dismay, and perhaps grudging admiration. I think they might call the film, Running Proudly Over and Around the Faith of My Fathers.
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