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Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul Hardcover – March 30, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
A journalist and United Church of Christ ordained minister, MacDonald, an occasional PW contributor, bemoans the rise of America's religious marketplace, taking church leaders to task for caving in to pressure to provide inoffensive, low-threshold environments that keep members comfortable. Critically examining contemporary efforts such as small group ministries, which he considers insular, and short-term missions, which he regards as misguided efforts to satisfy participants' demands, MacDonald rebukes both fast-growing megachurches and mainline Protestants for not holding members to high Christian standards. He suggests that spiritual disciplines such as fasting and honoring Lent as a structured time for introspection are tools available to address such prevalent social problems as debt, obesity, and divorce. Compellingly arguing against measuring success by attendance or pledge revenue, MacDonald provides examples of communities engaging a new ethic of asceticism. The author's extrapolations from his four-year pastorate of a 40-member congregation occasionally ring bitter, and Christians of good faith may disagree with stances such as fencing the communion table—the practice of setting criteria for who can receive communion. Overall, however, MacDonald's journalistic prowess makes this book a thought-provoking challenge to today's church. (Apr.)
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Jean Bethke Elshtain, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago and author of Sovereignty: God, State, and Self
“Jeffrey MacDonald's Thieves in the Temple is written with clarity and verve. He argues passionately that the wholesale embrace of a consumerist driven model of culture threatens ‘the very soul’ of the Christian churches, and he does so in a manner free from the spite and resentment that too often accompany such critiques. Thieves in the Temple deserves a wide readership.”
Dan Rather, Global Correspondent and Managing Editor of HDNet's Dan Rather Reports
"G. Jeffrey MacDonald writes with a journalist’s eye and a preacher’s heart. The crisis he identifies in this provocative and timely book has serious implications not only for America’s religious life but also for our broader culture and politics."
Rev. Dr. Roy J. Enquist, Emeritus professor, Gettysburg Seminary and former Canon, Washington National Cathedral
“No one seriously concerned about the future of the churches can afford to miss MacDonald’s critique and vision.”
“Parts of the American church are beginning to resemble a modern Ship of Fools, and G. Jeffrey MacDonald has fired a timely shot across its bows. A penetrating and wide-ranging analysis of consumer religion, written with sorrow rather than anger, Thieves in the Temple is good reading for any interested observers but essential for pastors and lay people concerned for the integrity of the Christian faith in the modern world.”
Randall Balmer, Episcopal priest, Professor of American Religious History at Barnard College, Columbia University, and author of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America
“With deft analysis and uncommon wisdom, Jeffrey MacDonald has produced a devastating critique of the cult of consumerism and easy affirmation that has corrupted American Protestantism in recent years. Protestants, the author argues in this compelling, prophetic, and ultimately hopeful book, have defaulted on their historic and culturally crucial task of moral formation. Thieves in the Temple is the finest, most perceptive book on Protestant life in America in a very long time.”
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Thieves in the Temple is the most recent such gem. With measured candor, MacDonald (a freelance journalist and United Church of Christ clergyman) addresses the decline of moral and spiritual authority in today's American Church, tracing it to the Church's embrace of the wider culture's creeds of consumerism, individualism, victimhood, and passivity.
MacDonald examines and deconstructs the consumer culture of the Church and exposes it for the pile of dry bones it is. He reminds pastors of their responsibility, not to be "relevant" or accommodating, but to be challenging to churchgoers. Christian leaders, he says, should be leading, not entertaining or offering therapy. Appealing to Christ's thoroughly counter-cultural ministry, he urges readers not to conform to the world (or even to be only superficially "different"), but to be sacrificial, disciplined, and committed to a higher road where self is denied more often than indulged. MacDonald openly wonders what will become of the Church in this country when the consumerist juggernaut finally grinds to a halt leaving a bankrupt shell of belief in its wake.
The book is not without some significant flaws. MacDonald's reasoning at times seems to indicate that he doesn't fully understand the deity of Christ. Other times, his wording and choice of examples exposes a politically liberal undercurrent to his views, and he over-generalizes the very diverse array of church traditions within evangelical Protestantism. He tends to describe developing and maintaining a moral fiber in society as the primary function of the Church rather than as side effects of its fundamentally spiritual reality, and his solutions to the problems he describes depend more on human effort than divine intervention.
Still, Thieves hits close enough to the mark that, as I was reading, the Lord moved me to put it aside and repent of the myriad ways I exalt my own comfort over His glory each day. I suppose in that sense, the strongest critique I could offer of this book is that it had to come from the mainstream. It is to our shame that Christian publishers (who, unfortunately, can be near the heart of the problems MacDonald engages) have not found a book like this worth printing.
The first half of Thieves in the Temple is like sitting in on a circuit pastors’ discussion. Almost all of his laments are ones every parish pastor has made:
• prosperity gospel (pp. 4-5)
• church shopping (p. 7)
• “vacuum of authority” (p. 25)
• worship as “entertainment” (p. 32)
• music teams as “concerts” with little congregational participation (p. 39)
• lack of contrition in Confession/Absolution (p. 40)
• contributions made outside worship rather than as part of worship (p. 41)
• weddings and funerals out of pastor’s control (p. 42, 78)
• infant baptism as ritual with no parental commitment (p. 45)
• preaching to please the crowd (p. 48)
• mission trips as fun and exciting (p. 51)
• programs (p. 62) and small groups (p. 69) as cheap psychotherapy
• no sacrificial disciplines even during Lent (p. 75)
• participation in Holy Communion with little faith commitment (p. 84)
• disciplines of self-control and morality not expected (pp. 94-96)
• development of “niche congregations” as clubs for particular interest/age/social/economic groups (p. 104)
MacDonald sees all of these characteristics of American Christianity as expressions of the church’s basic sellout to the American consumerist mentality. He lays the character deficit of American life at the feet of the church. (p. 190) Instead, he urges that pastors and congregation members together should approach church life like athletes, with discipline, intention, and sacrifice (p. 142). He concludes with four examples of congregations in the Lutheran heartland of Minneapolis that are trying to move in that direction.
Rev. MacDonald served only briefly (4 years) in a United Church of Christ congregation. He shares his frustrated efforts to address the consumerist mentality of his parishioners. However, we all know that little can happen in just four years. It takes a good five years for a pastor to gain the credibility and trust needed to initiate any fundamental change. In five years one has had a real pastoral relationship with most members, and one truly becomes their pastor. Only then is the soil typically ready for the Holy Spirit to work transforming faith through the seeds of the Gospel.
As part of that process, this book can be a very helpful tool for congregants to reflect on the great temptations to water down the Christian walk. Toward this end, it would have been helpful to have discussion questions at the end of each chapter, so these will need to be prepared.
Concordia University, Portland, OR