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True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In Paperback – April 25, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Brian McLaren started a genre of fiction in which a disenchanted evangelical meets a wizened ethnic teacher of a new sort of Christianity, prompting a second conversion to a faith that is more world savvy, compassionate and appealing. In Choung's version, a college student in Seattle named Caleb struggles to share the gospel (and a bit more) with his friend Anna. While the narrative runs the risk of falling into stereotype (and often does resort to evangelical catchphrases), Choung manages to make readers care about his characters' religious and romantic fates. Its best moments are Caleb's wrestling with the relationship between his Korean ethnic identity and his faith. Choung concludes the book in his own voice, with a diagram designed to help an individual share the gospel with another on the surface of a napkin. While the faith presented is indeed more passionate about the environment and "social justice" than many evangelicals are wont to be, the goal of a more effective one-on-one evangelism is hardly revolutionary. The book will appeal to readers of McLaren and others for whom "vampire Christianity," a phrase Choung's real-life mentor Dallas Willard uses to describe a faith reduced to a bit of blood shed on one's behalf, has become untenable. (Apr.)
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"Finally someone has come up with a simple evangelistic approach that reflects the wholeness of the gospel. . . . The simplicity of Choung's circle diagrams is a welcome, refreshing, and much-needed approach." (Al Tizon, PRISM, May/June 2009)
"Although designed to help college students articulate a complete gospel, many in our churches will also benefit by reading it." (Rodney Stent, The Lamplighter, May 2009)
"Choung delivers a compelling, fresh look at what we consider the gospel - the good news surrounding Jesus Christ. He directs us to look anew at the way Christ shows us how to live and, from within a comfortable, fictitious setting, radically calls for a new definition of the gospel truth." (Kevin Alton, Journal of Student Ministries, November/December 2008)
"Through True Story, you'll learn an effective, authentic strategy for telling the story of the Bible to non-believing friends." (Catherine Newhouse, Ignite, Winter 2009)
"I suggest that all Christians read this book with an open mind. Even if you remain suspicious, you'll find tools here to draw people into discussion about faith in God and purpose in life." (Evelyn Bence, FaithfulReader.com, July 2008)
"Emphasizing relationship over religion and loving over lecturing; this book will give you the confidence to share what you love about Jesus and let Him handle the rest." (Dawn Paisley, Book Bargains and Previews, July 2008)
". . .highly recommended for community library Christian fiction collections." (James A. Cox, The Midwest Book Review, July 2008)
"James has found a simple way to convey to both Christians and non-Christians that the good news is cosmically good--a diagram that does the best job I've encountered yet of placing our personal stories in the context of God's bigger story." (Andy Crouch, Editorial Director, Christian Vision Project)
"James Choung gives us a penetrating look into ourselves and our faulty reasoning. He challenges us to go beyond 'Sunday School' answers and wrestle with pain, sorrow, death and other strong issues that seem to be potholes on our journey of faith." (Tom Hodges, YouthWorker Journal, July/August 2008)
"Some of the strengths of this book:
- Very helpfully shared the gospel through story dialog
- Communicated the gospel relationally
- Communicated the gospel holistically (heart, mind, soul and strength)
- Demonstrated a biblical rethinking of the gospel, instead of the current prepackaged version that often leaves so much out
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Choung was proposing a new way to present the gospel - a way that showed the kingdom nature of Christ's work. A way that resonated with the cries of this generation. A way that connected Genesis to Revelation. This all excited me.
Choung knows college students: he knows how they speak, he knows what they feel, he knows their values. He raised important questions - the kinds of questions students typically ask about the gospel. He was raw and vulnerable about his own personal journey from the American Consumerism gospel to the "True Story" model. This excited me even more.
I thought his critiques of the church were fair: we don't show how the gospel gives us a passion for justice. We tend to give people a pie-in-the-sky carrot, and dangle it in front of them. And when he began writing, I saw that my gospel presentation for students and his aligned perfectly: he begins with how we FEEL the problems in the world, which I think is spot on.
But then, piece by piece, things began to fall apart.
Why? Because while Choung successfully describes many elements of the Christian gospel, he ultimately gives us something which yes, appeals to the sensibilities of unbelievers - but no, does not actually come to us as "good news." I could go into great detail, but I think it all could be summed up in a question: "Choung - do you think a Catholic would have a problem with this gospel presentation?"
The answer is: No. Why? Because Choung never once uses the word, or the concept, even, of "justification" in his gospel presentation. Yes - somehow, after the death of Christ God is okay with us, and "some people think Jesus' death satisfied God's anger" - well, says Choung's mentor, that's one theory. And maybe it's worthy of discussion. But it's not central.
What I would say to Choung, if we were sitting in a room together, would be something like this:
1. Is the relationship between Jesus' death and God's forgiveness important? How about central? If so, then why isn't it included in your gospel presentation?
2. Is our "relationship with God" really just one item on a checklist of damage we've done to the world, as you've presented it? Or is it the central item on that checklist?
3. You make a big deal about not moving from box #2: "The world is ruined" to box #4: "Be on mission." In fact, making sure we "go through Jesus" is a big part of your presentation. But why is this necessary? Doesn't it acknowledge the inherent weakness of this gospel presentation - namely, that Jesus' death is not exactly central?
4. On this last point - you say Jesus' death and resurrection keeps us from being pessimistic. You say Ghandi borrowed from Jesus' ideals. But what if I find someone else's ideals more inspiring than Jesus's ideals? What if I find some other leader whose work inspires me to "not be pessimistic"? You say Jesus' death and resurrection is what gives us hope to continue - but can't I find hope elsewhere? What if I find more hope in the doctrine of Karl Marx? Why not go to him instead?
5. Without the doctrine of justification, on what basis does the character in the story forgive her father? You say "It's part of following Jesus." But without a sense of God's justice being placated on the cross, how can I possibly have the humility to take such a radical action? Your answer, in the book, is "God is telling you to." Okay - but without justification, how could I possibly do that "from the heart"?
6. Do you believe that God's purpose in the world is simply to restore it back to order? Your story begins with humanity and ends with humanity. Is life really a story about us? Is the gospel really and primarily about God helping us make things better for us?
7. You say that most Christians see the gospel as "being about individuals, not the world". My question is: "What's the difference?" Doesn't a line like that betray the fact that this gospel presentation appeals more to living an exciting life - a life of importance - than loving real people: individuals?
8. Again - what's the difference between this presentation of the gospel and a Catholic presentation of the gospel? If the gospel means "following Jesus", then how "on board" do I need to be? How much following Jesus needs to take place before I'm "in"?
9. On that last question - what would prevent someone from using your gospel presentation as a means of self-righteousness? "I'm following Jesus, doing radical things, and those American individualists aren't, so I'm better." Of course - your character doesn't feel that way. But that seems deceptive - without the doctrine of justification, we will always be climbing the ladder of self-righteousness. How is this not exchanging the idols of individualism for the idol of "radical living for social justice"?
10. You make a big point, again, about the gospel not "just being for individuals" - but you don't say anything in the book affirming that the gospel is first of all for individuals, then for the community of the world. What does your gospel have to say to me, as an individual, other than - "Now you can do good for the world"? In fact - why isn't everyone doing social justice considered a Christian, in your presentation? What's the difference between a Christian and a social worker?
11. You make a big deal about the gospel getting us on mission - but is the gospel primarily a catalyst for us to do things? Or is it a message about something we already are in Christ, which THEN catalyzes us to do things on mission?
12. You might say: "Nick, you're getting me all wrong - I believe all the same stuff you believe." My final question, then, would be: "If a seminary trained Bible student can misunderstand you - what's to prevent a college student from doing so?" And if that's true, what makes this a helpful gospel presentation in the first place?
I say all of this because I think Choung has a lot of good to say, and it seems to me he's appropriately dismissed much of the way we've presented the gospel. But I'm disappointed that such a large, influential campus ministry like Intervarsity would so readily embrace a model of gospel presentation that isn't, at it's root, good news at all.
The Gospel has not changed from when it was first proclaimed by Jesus; this is not a "new" Gospel. Rather, the simple graphic illustrations used are a way of presenting that ancient truth in today's lingo.
I give it four stars because sometimes the gospel will offend no matter how nice we are in our presentation. There is only one way of salvation under heaven and his name is Jesus. The author does not deny this fact but I feel he hints that we should avoid confrontation. Overall I really enjoyed the book.
The fictional story that he uses to illustrate his message is helpful. Personally, I was so involved in the story that I was disappointed that he did not push it to conclusion, but I can see why he chose not to do so, and he is probably right in this choice.
I am not really of the young adult culture Choung is addressing, and my reading ears (having been apparently influenced by Victorian ancestors I never knew) resist the mild earthy language he allows to come through in discussions of the gospel, but he is certainly accurately reflecting what I see of effective language for reaching out to youth and young adults in our day. What he adds to other gospel presentations I have seen is a healthier and more scripturally sound message than is common. This message has come into its own time!