UPDATE: Lifeway was kind enough to send me this link to an “Author Interview” with Dr. MacArthur regarding this book.
I would like to thank Phenix and Phenix Literary Publicists for providing a review copy of this book.
There are two ways I could write this review.
One would be to try and write something lengthy, attempt to be really interesting, with lots of good prose, plenty of positivity, and a bit of humor. Goal: Impress the audience and gain some credibility and light applause.
The other would be to be straight-forward, to the point and honest without wasting the reader’s time. Goal: Tell the truth.
Well….this is the truth war.
For starters, this book is much like many of Dr. MacArthur’s other polemical books. There are strong echoes of Ashamed of the Gospel, Hard to Believe, Charismatic Chaos and The Vanishing Conscience. In each of these books, Dr. MacArthur’s basic stance is the same, but his points of reference vary as he perceives the changing situation within a declining evangelicalism.
When he is expounding scripture, Dr. MacArthur is at his strongest. This book contains an excellent study of portions of the book of Jude. Those familiar with Dr. MacArthur’s skill as an expositor and his strong commitment to stay close to the message of scripture will be pleased with this book. Dr. MacArthur does mention that he has covered the Biblical material elsewhere, but this book is more pointed towards the issues of postmodernism, relativism and the emerging church.
When Dr. MacArthur leaves his specialty of exposition, he is a different writer, one far less commendable. I am in no way insulting him with that observation. I deeply respect and appreciate his ministry. When I left seminary, it was listening to Dr. MacArthur’s preaching that allowed me to make up a lot of the deficit that was present in my seminary training. When I had the occasion to hear him at the Founder’s Conference several years ago, I told him of my appreciation. This doesn’t mean I agree with Dr. MacArthur entirely. I am sure he would never require complete agreement to accept appreciation.
Much of what disturbs and animates Dr. MacArthur disturbs me as well. I think it is safe to say that many younger evangelicals look at much of what he outlined in Ashamed of the Gospel or The Gospel According to Jesus and say they are similarly disturbed.
The weak aspect of this book comes when Dr. MacArthur steps into areas where he makes broad judgments about the targets of his criticism. While not as flawed as the broad brush caricature of all charismatics that appeared in Charismatic Chaos, The Truth War contains large examples of short-hand analysis controlled by the author’s presuppositions.
For example, on page 6-7, MacArthur surveys the history of philosophy in two pages, going from the Greeks to Henry James in three paragraphs. This will be more than adequate for those already in the hunt against apostate postmodernists, but there is an obvious problem with this kind of intellectual shorthand.
Similarly, modernity, in its entirety, is described and diagnosed in a page and a half (9-10).
Postmodernism gets much more ink. MacArthur is confident that all postmodernism can be described as a tendency to avoid certainty about the truth. While this may be a description that touches on the truth of some postmodern thought, it’s simply, again, too little. Of course, Dr. MacArthur is not expounding postmodernism. He is expounding Jude and other passages of scripture. Keep that in mind, and such abbreviations won’t be surprising.
The emerging church is the main target of MacArthur’s polemic. Throughout the book, MacArthur returns to examples of the extreme truth-rejecting, certainty-denying tendencies of the emerging church. Of course, for MacArthur, the emerging church is an entity much like a denomination. Brian Mclaren- the major recipient of critical condemnation in this book- is the epitome of the emerging church, but it is just as well defined by a reference to Rob Bell, a second hand description of Mark “the Cussing Preacher” Driscoll and the outrageous definition of preaching cited from Doug Padgett.
Anyone who knows the emergent church knows that none of these four persons represents anything close to the entirety of “the emerging church.” While Mclaren is an easy- and deserving- target, it appears that almost nothing is known of Driscoll except Don Miller’s description of him, a description Driscoll has commented on at length in an interview with Michael Horton, and if anything is known of Pagit or Bell beyond what one could read at Ken Silva’s website, it’s not obvious here. The research level in the book seems deficient for a serious study.
In other words, the worst of the emerging movement is told with a few citations and anecdotes. Again, engagement of this sort isn’t MacArthur’s goal. He wants to briefly set his sights, then fire away with a full scriptural polemic. He fires at some good targets. Mclaren’s comments are often beyond irritating, and demonstrate why I have never met an emerging sympathizer that would endorse Mclaren as more than a gadfly whose stock drops every year. But MacArthur also makes a complex, nuanced, multi-layered phenomenon in evangelicalism look simplistic and monolithic. It’s not, but that isn’t really important in this book.
Oddly, MacArthur puts the emerging in the same categories as the seeker sensitive, Purpose-Driven churches, classical liberals in the PCUSA and other movements that few would associate with the emerging movement’s rejection of megachurch pragmatism. I believe this book provides further evidence that the critics of the emerging church have some accurate targets in view, but don’t understand how the typical emerging, missional community is generally far different from other contemporary, non-fundamentalist churches.
MacArthur devotes much of the book to the characteristics of apostasy and the danger of apostates. It’s plain that MacArthur wants us to know that the emerging “church” is outside the boundaries of “the Truth” that defines Christianity. The adoption of a postmodern view of truth and certainty, as defined by MacArthur, isn’t just a variation within a diverse movement. It’s the betrayal of evangelicalism and the path to apostasy. His warning is sincere, and in some of the cases cited, needed.
It’s plain to me, more than in any book of MacArthur’s that I’ve read, that this book reveals MacArthur as a prophet calling down “Ichabod” on a vast portion of evangelicalism. From his position somewhere between the new reformed resurgence and the hard-line evangelical fundamentalists, almost everything in recent evangelicalism is apostate.
Some of us who personally experience being declared apostate and are treated as unbelievers have an idea of what is at stake in this approach.
I am not in any way writing to defend what Dr. MacArthur condemns. I am not a spokesperson for the emerging church, though apparently that perception is why I received a copy of the book. Many of those persons he mentions deserve to be criticized and questioned. But many also deserve to be heard more carefully and understood better. The research here is not up to the levels of even modest academic examination of the influence of postmodernism or the truth about the emerging, missional conversation in all its expressions.
For those who appreciate Dr. MacArthur’s approach to the Bible, this will be a popular book. For those who, “wince,” at hearing John Armstrong and Mark Driscoll thrown in with the PCUSA’s renaming of the Trinity, this book will provide no surprises, but a continuing reason to consider Dr. MacArthur a preaching polemicist well armed with a broad brush. It’s in the details where he loses some of the truth war.
[Note: My apologies for misspelling Dr. MacArthur’s last name.]