Saturday, March 01, 2008

Two Complementary Views of American Christianity

Several months ago, I reviewed Shopping for God, by James Twitchell. A few days ago, I read a book entitled, I Sold my Soul on eBay, by Hemant Mehta, which comes from a completely different perspective, yet covers much of the ground that Twitchell covered.

Twitchell's book was scholarly and Mehta's was personal. Twitchell examined questions about the relationship between Christianity and advertising in American culture. Mehta, who was raised in the Jain faith, explored personal questions about Christianity and the relationships between Christians and non-Christians in American culture. Mehta's book began with an experiment in which he allowed the highest eBay bidder to buy his time and church attendance. He posted an ongoing account of his visits on a web site, then decided to expand his study and publish his findings in a book. His book, which is published by a Christian publishing house, aims to help Christians understand how non-Christians see them, and to help Christians understand how they can speak more effectively with those who don't share their beliefs.

Both authors visited churches across the USA and interviewed numerous pastors and parishioners. They visited large churches, small churches, and 'tweener churches. They visited urban and suburban megachurches with multiple pastors and money to burn, and country churches that barely pay their bills and their pastors; if there is only enough money to meet one of these obligations, the bills get paid first.

Twitchell's book is well-written, but, since it is a scholarly work, it takes a bit of time to digest its contents. Mehta's book, an equally well-written personal narrative, is easily digested. In keeping with the styles and intentions of both authors, Twitchell's analyses and recommendations tend to focus on global communications issues, while Mehta's findings and suggestions focus primarily on personal and local communications strategies. Twitchell's book is richer in historical context than Mehta's book, but Mehta compensates for his lack of historicity by providing rich contextual insights. For example, Mehta records his emotional reactions to the rituals, worship choruses and scripture readings he encounters, as well as the questions that church rhetoric and practices raise for him. Twitchell, if he has any similar reactions and questions, does not record or address them at all.

Twitchell and Mehta both began their studies as non-Christians and they ended their studies in the same spiritual state. Both books offer interesting analyses of outsider views of the current state of American Christianity. If you read only one of these books, you'll be intellectually rewarded. If you read both of them, your understanding of American Christianity will be well-rounded and enriched.

No comments: