Fifty-six percent of American evangelicals “strongly agreed” that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God,” according to survey results released by Lifeway Research in September. Not a few ministers and theologians were troubled by this evidence that more than half of American evangelicals are convinced Arian heretics.
The problem is endemic to American Christianity more broadly: The survey found that similar percentages of Catholics and mainline Protestants also called Jesus a created being. According to some commentators, this suggests that sincere believers with little taste for theology may have been confused by such a metaphysically loaded question. Labeling them “Arians,” they argue, misconstrues the situation and pours contempt on ordinary brothers and sisters. Their confusion, we are told, is in itself inconsequential and entirely predictable.
We have every reason to believe God desires loving obedience far more than having one’s doctrinal ducks in a row. Still, heresy is rarely, if ever, harmless. At best, calling Jesus a created being alters the way we articulate the gospel, makes nonsense of the creeds, guts orthodox soteriologies, and therefore creates obstacles in our witness. At worst, it draws people toward sin and unbelief. Just as tremors on the ocean floor create tsunamis that become more destructive the farther they travel from their source, so too errant beliefs can cause much damage far beyond their specific doctrinal origins.
Enter Trevin Wax’s new book The Thrill of Orthodoxy. “The Christian life,” Wax writes in the book’s opening pages, “begins with spiritual astonishment at the glory of the gospel and the goodness and beauty of Christian truth, with the wide-eyed surprise of the infant brought into a new world of grace.” The gospel is not just true. It is sublime, the final triumph of beauty.
Rediscovering the “thrill” of gospel truth, Wax believes, will remedy his fellow evangelicals’ wont to drift away from orthodoxy. The Christian life begins with a burst of beauty, but “over time, our eyes grow heavy and our tastebuds dim—and that’s when errors creep in,” Wax writes. “Why do we so easily lose our wonder at truths that have informed and inspired Christians for generations?”
Here we have the question that keeps Wax and so many evangelical ministers up at night. Why are so few of our people interested in the Bible? How can someone warm a pew for years on end and gradually lose the sense that his life should be different from his neighbor’s? Why do so many of our children abandon the church?
Wax’s answer focuses on the negative cultural influences that whittle away at faith: disdain for biblical sexual mores, the temptations of money, confusion about truth, and more. But above all he concerns himself with complacency. “The thrill of orthodoxy,” he writes, “lies in its challenge.” Consequently, contrary to what one expects from the book’s opening, Wax pushes his readers from behind with admonishments and moralizing rather than beckoning them toward orthodoxy with the allure of the beatific vision.
For example, Wax begins the chapter “The Exhilarating Vision” with two metaphors for the Christian life: hiking up a mountain to reach a summit, and his own efforts to master the Beatles’ “Blackbird” on guitar. Exhortations to sexual purity and “radical generosity” follow, and the chapter concludes with a discussion of Augustine’s confrontation with the Donatists to demonstrate that within orthodoxy those who fall can, by God’s mercy, get back up again. The chapter is heavy on obedience, but light on the heavenly ends that obedience serves. As Wax tells us, “The thrill of orthodoxy comes through the moral command, ‘Get up and walk.’” The subtext could not be clearer: Complacency presents the most pressing problems among evangelicals.
We all need regular warnings against sin and encouragement to keep running the race. But by themselves, such warnings and encouragement cannot sustain our faith. Unless we have a clear vision of where the Christian life leads, all the cautionary tales and motivational talks in the world will not keep many of us orthodox. “The adventure,” Wax tells us, “is not in adapting but in applying orthodoxy for a new era.” But to apply orthodoxy, we must more deeply appreciate the goal of the orthodox Christian life, and this requires that we hear the Christian story again in terms that confront us with both its narrative logic and its beauty.
Evangelicalism desperately needs a new and beautiful articulation of the gospel story. The Thrill of Orthodoxy will have less effect than it should because many evangelicals do not understand the narrative arc of that story well enough to even recognize their own complacency.
At the end of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer feared that the words typically used by his fellow German ministers to convey the gospel message had “lost their power.” The same, I believe, is true for American evangelicalism today. We need new theological language if we hope again to grasp the import—and therefore the thrill—of the old, old story.
Trevin Wax could become a major contributor to this renewal. Few evangelical authors marry his level of erudition to such engaging prose. Nevertheless, The Thrill of Orthodoxy doesn’t deliver on its title—not least because the thrill of orthodoxy’s challenge is but a foretaste of the thrill that awaits us when we see our savior face to face.
Joel Looper is an adjunct professor in Baylor University's Baylor Interdisciplinary Core.
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