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Fun, insightful and informative
on April 27, 2007
You may have read about Hemant Mehta in the Wall Street Journal as the "eBay Atheist" who offered to attend church for the highest bidder on his eBay auction. Well, Hemant has now written a book about his experiences visiting churches as an atheist. Think of Hemant as kind of a Mystery Shopper for churches. Most churches these days claim to want to be "seeker-friendly" and try to be welcoming to outsiders, so Hemant is there to tell us whether our attempts are actually working
I have to say that as soon as I started reading the book I could not put it down. It is engagingly written and deeply insightful about the pros and cons of Christian churches. Even as a Christian pastor myself, there were so many times I found myself agreeing with Hemant's assessments of contemporary churches. At other times I was amused at his bewilderment at some of the stranger things that we Christians tend to do in church (like the lady in the more charismatic church who kept shouting out random phrases like "Thank you Jesus" right over his shoulder the whole time, or the unenthusiastic liturgical responses from the congregation at the Presbyterian church.)
The book is actually written in three parts. The first four chapters are an introduction to Hemant, his eBay Atheist story, why he is an atheist even though he grew up as a Jain, and a couple of chapters about what atheists are and are not really like (we religious people tend to have a lot of false stereotypes about atheists). The middle four chapters are his reviews of the 14 different churches he attended, and the last two chapters are his summary of what works, what doesn't, and what it would take to actually convert him.
The thing that I've appreciated most about Hemant's approach is that he doesn't see himself as an antagonist to people of faith. While holding true to his own convictions, he nonetheless is open to exploring other options, and especially to helping Christians become better than we currently are. For instance, in his introduction he says:
"I am an atheist, but I don't fit the common stereotype held by so many in the religious community. I am not angry with God, and I don't want to rid the world of religion. In this book, as we talk about matters of belief and nonbelief, I hope you will think of me not simply as an atheist, but rather as a person with questions about faith, an openness to evidence that might contradict my current beliefs, and a curiosity about Christianity and its message. Please don't assume I am the enemy of religious belief. I'm not trying to tear down anyone's religion, and I don't pretend to have all the answers... I'm a friendly atheist. I'm serious when I say that in this book I'm going to do my best to help improve the way churches present the Christian message."
I think that's an admirable goal and I appreciate Hemant's open and friendly spirit. After all, I share his goal of wanting to help Christians become better at actually displaying Christ's message of love. I think any pastor or church-going Christian that is concerned about how we really come across to outsiders ought to read this book. You'll come to respect and appreciate Hemant's advice just as I have. Definitely buy this book!