The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places By Shayne Wheeler, Tyndale Momentum, 2013, 272 pp., $14.99 paperback.
It was a bad sign that I found myself echoing the Preacher’s lament that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) very early in Shayne Wheeler’s The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places, the latest book in the Hipster-Christian genre of publishing (where authors condemn “Holier Than Thou” Christianity only to replace it with “Cooler Than Thou” and “More Tolerant Than Thou” versions). I know absolutely nothing about Wheeler or his church so I have tried to constrain my critique to his book, without extrapolating it to his person or ministry, but I must admit that it is difficult to judge the latter without assuming that the former must logically be influenced by the views the book betrays.
Stylistically, the book is laden with personal anecdotes, and not very good ones at that. As one would expect, the stories that ring most true are those which impact him personally (e.g., his young daughter being diagnosed with cancer), but for the most part the book is illustrated by cliche post-modern dribble about homosexuals, street people, and tattoo fanatics, whose hatred of Jesus, Christianity, and the Church magically disappeared when they met the cool pastor who doesn’t judge people. Each chapter’s illustrations were essentially the same; the names and other specifics were just changed.
This was comically appropriate in a book that didn’t really need to be written in the first place. There’s really nothing new here. Shayne Wheeler is Donald Miller without the novelty or poetry. This book has been written and published numerous times already, and this newest version doesn’t add anything of significance to the conversation. (To be fair, this is probably more a condemnation of Tyndale, the publisher, than it is of Wheeler.)
Wheeler also seemed confused as to who his intended audience was and what he wanted the book to be about. The title, description, and endorsements make it seem like he’s writing for Christians, encouraging them to follow Jesus out of their comfort zone. But at times during the book, it seems like he’s writing a letter of condemnation to Christians for being intolerant, bigoted doofuses, and at others like he’s appealing to unbelievers, desperately trying to convince them that not all Christians are the intolerant, bigoted, doofuses that he describes. He occasionally forces the idea of a briarpatch into his illustrations and applications, but it’s not a consistent, running theme throughout the book as one would expect it to be, nor does the book live up to its billing. In the end, it’s not a book about finding Jesus in the hard places of life; it’s a book about the need for Christians to leave their comfort zone … which could be fine, if that’s how the book was advertised.
Regardless of what I thought of the style, however, it was mostly what I expected it to be. My biggest complaints have to do with the content, which unfortunately are too numerous to detail here so I will only address the 6 most worrisome aspects of the book:
1. For a book with “Gospel” in the title, there was very little Gospel in the book. The name of Jesus appeared a lot, and there were plenty of Bible references and quotes from Christian authors, but there was really only one chapter that dealt with the gospel in any detail (not surprisingly, it was the only chapter I didn’t hate). It’s a shame too because there were lots of anecdotes and assertions by Wheeler that desperately needed to have the gospel applied to them, but he never did it. He also spends a lot of time early on emphasizing that God is love, but neglects any mention of God as holy.
Even in the chapter where he finally addresses the exclusive claims of Jesus and man’s inability to save himself through works, he never actually mentions the cross outside of one generic reference to the “death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.” It’s a far cry from Paul telling the Corinthians, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) or the Galatians, “may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). It’s great to talk about love and mercy, but disconnected from God’s holiness and from the cross, those words are sapped of their power.
2. Wheeler’s model of church hints at an unorthodox ecclesiology. In chapter two, he reveals that his church boasts that “All Souls is a place where you can belong before you believe” (p. 34). That’s a nice sentiment, but think about that for a minute. He’s proud that one can belong to his church without first believing in Jesus Christ. Apparently, one can be a member of the body, while still rejecting the head! (See 1 Cor. 12:12ff; Eph. 4:15-16, 5:23.) It’s one thing to say that unbelievers are welcome at church, but it’s something totally different to say that they belong to a church.
Wheeler also tells of hiring unbelieving musicians to be on the church’s praise team. I know of many churches (full disclosure: this includes my own) that have allowed non-Christians to participate in the music ministry, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong. A church’s musicians, no less than the preacher, have the responsibility of leading God’s people before his throne in corporate worship. The testimony of Scripture, from Aaron’s sons in Leviticus 10:1-7 to Paul’s warning regarding the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, is that inappropriate worship is offensive to God. In light of that, allowing unbelievers to lead the people of God into worship should not be taken as lightly as Wheeler does here.
At least Wheeler and I can agree that such an ecclesiology “has huge implications for how we think about the life of the church” (p. 34). It’s exactly because of these implications that Paul warned the Corinthians:
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty. (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)
Yes, the church can become too exclusive, hiding its light under a bushel (Mt. 5:15) instead of proclaiming the good news, and we need to be vigilant against moving in that direction, but it’s also wrong to swing the pendulum the other way and eliminate the distinction between a Christian (who is one with Christ) and an unbeliever (whose loyalties still lie with the prince of this world). At best, Wheeler was careless with his wording and needs to better clarify his definition of what the church is and of whom it is comprised; at worst, his view of the church is dangerously unorthodox.
3. Wheeler’s view of Scripture is unclear. While he insists that the Bible is authoritative and historically reliable, he also denies that the church can hold its members accountable on the basis of its moral teachings. He writes,
“It contains many commands, but it cannot be reduced to a rule book. The Bible reveals many truths about God, Jesus, and the world, but it is not merely a doctrinal compendium. … Scripture was never intended to impart mere information; it was written less to inform and more to shape the lives of God’s children as the conduits of his call and promise to the world.”
Great. There’s nothing inherently wrong with those statements. The question I would love to hear Wheeler answer, however, is, “How then should the believer use the Bible?” He never gives a clear answer, but it seems like he advocates a “go with the flow” Christianity, where each believer reads the Bible in a vacuum and decides for and by himself what it says to him personally. That view of Scripture is post-modern, not Protestant. All orthodox Christians throughout history (including Luther, Calvin, and the rest of the Reformers) have believed in the importance of the individual reading Scripture within the context and community of the church, not as rogue mavericks deciding for themselves what the Bible says. The Bible might not be a book of commands, but it does contain truth that must be used (both by the individual and the church) to correct the life and behavior of any true disciple of Jesus Christ.
4. Wheeler separates discipleship from faith. This plays out in two ways throughout the book. Firstly, he promotes the type of “identity” thinking that is currently dividing the country and the church. Rather than seeing the world as Christian or not-Christian, he legitimizes the practice of Christians identifying with their particular communities (gay, feminist, young, etc.) more than identifying with Christ (although, again in true post-modern fashion, he does not extend the same right of identification to more traditional classifications as heterosexual, white, masculine, etc.).
Secondly, regarding homosexuality (which has a greater role in the book than the gospel does), Wheeler admits that it is incompatible with Christian discipleship, yet insists repeatedly that one can be a gay Christian (and a practicing one at that)! You can’t have it both ways. “Christian” and “disciple of Jesus” are synonymous. Either one is a disciple of Jesus or he isn’t. The entire book screams out for a correction from Abraham Kuyper:
“Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”
5. Wheeler separates Christ-likeness from morality. Let me first say that from a biblical perspective, legalism is as dangerous to the church as licentiousness. However, that does not mean that the Church and individual Christians should not concern themselves with morality. Wheeler, however, seems completely unconcerned by Christians continuing to practice habitual sin. The most obvious examples are the practicing homosexuals that he describes as gay Christians and who appear to be participating members (or at least attendees) of his church.
Wheeler calls Christians to be Christ-like in terms of hanging out and loving unbelievers, but does not call them (in the book, or, seemingly, in his church) to Jesus’ higher moral standard. When the Apostle John wrote, “By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 Jn 2:5–6), he was not simply calling his readers to a “life of love,” but also to a life of morality, as evidenced by the fact that he went on to write in the same epistle, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. … He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:6, 8).
6. Wheeler perpetuates a negative stereotype of Christians that just isn’t true. While it’s unclear who the protagonist of Wheeler’s story is (Jesus? unbelievers? nobody?), the antagonist is obvious: Christians. Throughout the book, the typical church-goer is portrayed as bigoted, ignorant, intolerant, and hateful. The lone exceptions are Wheeler, his wife, and the people who attend his church. While Christians, like all people, could obviously use some work, most of Wheeler’s stereotypes just aren’t true, and even if they were, his job as a pastor would be to correct and admonish through Scripture, not mock and berate through personal anecdotes.
Unsurprisingly (to anyone who has read this far), I cannot recommend this book to anyone. For the unbeliever, there are many books that do a much better job apologizing for the Christian faith. For the believer who wants to reach out beyond his comfort zone, there are more constructive books out there. And for believers who do not live as disciples, there are books that lay out a better and more biblical explanation of the call to discipleship than Wheeler does. At its root, The Briarpatch Gospel is a gospel that forsakes the holiness of God, his word, and his church, and therefore, it is no gospel at all.
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Tyndale in exchange for an honest review.