Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: The Explicit Gospel, by Matt Chandler

Chandler, Matt. The Explicit Gospel. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 240 pp.

The Explicit Gospel is the first book by The Village Church pastor Matt Chandler. Chandler has been a pastor since 2002 and gained some recent notoriety for battling and overcoming cancer, much like a kindred and similarly passionate preacher, John Piper. Chandler is notable for his animated, sporadic, and outgoing speaking style, some of which comes through in the pages of his book, most notably in his use of colloquialisms and descriptive examples from his own experience or from popular culture.

The theme of the book is evident in the title, but is “explicitly” stated in the introduction. Chandler is fighting against “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a phrase he borrows from author Christian Smith. The new name is for Christianity’s oldest enemy-from-within, self-righteousness, or, more specifically, seeking to earn God’s favor by virtue of our own behavior. The explicit gospel is the antidote to this tendency toward behaviorism.

The book is organized into eleven chapters under two general headings: “the gospel on the ground,” and “the gospel in the air.” The former is the individual, humanistic (in the good sense of the word) way in which the gospel may be understood. The latter is the corporate, cosmic way in which the gospel may be understood. The gospel on the ground is subdivided into chapters on God, Man, Christ, and Response. The gospel in the air is subdivided into chapters on Creation, Fall, Reconciliation, and Consummation. There is a third major heading, but it handles “implications and applications” of the two general categories. The chapters subdividing this third section include a chapter each on the dangers of focusing too much on the “ground” or too much on the “air,” and a third chapter that seeks to provide practical help in living an “explicit” gospel.

The most obvious strength of Chandler’s book is his ability to speak about important aspects of the gospel in ways that the majority of “casually churched” individuals can understand and find familiar to their experience. The sorts of people who have some familiarity with Christianity, but may have done very little theological study seem to be the target audience of Chandler’s book. He won’t miss them for being to academic, nor play to any ignorance by being to vapid. Another strength is the book’s organization. The overall arrangement is easy to follow and the chapters are divided into small chunks, usually with remarks organized into several numerically indicated points.

Strengths within the content include Chandler’s ability to make good use of Scriptural exposition for most of the chapters in the book. He does not make much use of any confessions, creeds, or “old dead guys,” however, which I’ll get to below. I think Chandler’s does a fair job of using a few good texts and coming back to them several times, rather than the approach of culling many snippets from all over the Bible, which helps to show the unity of Scripture, but loses something in the depth of exposition.

As it often happens in books that seek a broad lay audience, Chandler’s attention to theological detail, historical documents and theologians of the past, and even sound logic suffer. This is particularly the case in the third section of the book, where he gets into implications. Most of the examples come from contemporary experience or recent history, losing much of the richness of biblical exposition that came in the earlier chapters. The lack of appeals to the historical language of the church, while perhaps understandable given his audience, underscores Chandler’s own limitations. He relies heavily upon contemporary authors, and where he does make use of older lights in the Church, it is usually for a catchy quote, and not for a developed theological argument.

Considering argument, another weakness of Chandler’s is his imprecision with logical implication. In his chapters on the dangers of the gospel and on the ground and in the air, all of his claims are based upon what sort of things he surmises to have occurred as result of either, but none of his examples follow necessarily upon a too-acute focus upon individual aspect of the Gospel or cosmic aspects of the Gospel. In fact, one might ask the question, “how can focusing on any portion of truth lead to error?” The real point is not that one or another aspect of the truth has been consider too closely, or emphasized too much, but rather, they have been misunderstood or incompletely developed. Perhaps this seems a overbearing criticism, but there is a danger in treating truths as anything other than glorious. Chandler unwittingly drags down the things he seeks to lift up by failing to make the proper distinctions between truth, which never misleads, and errors that masquerade as truths.

There were a few times when I found Chandler very refreshing to read, and other times I was bogged down by the wealth of personal anecdotes, pathos-driven examples, and popular jargon. Other will, I am sure, find those to be the best portions of Chandler’s book. If you are interested in doing theological heavy lifting, this book won’t present a challenge. If are someone, or you want to help someone, who has never really understood the basics of the gospel get a good overview of the gospel, then Chandler’s book is a worthy choice. 

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