Christian Smith’s book “How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps” has been an interesting read. The book is stronger at the front than the back end. Smith’s sociological description of evangelical culture is really good in chapter 1. Smith rightly criticizes evnagelicals for generally being ahistorical and knowing little to nothing about church history or the origin of standard theology. Often we evangelicals naively assume that correct doctrine (like the Trinity, dual nature of Christ, etc) are just obvious in Scripture without acknowledging the historical controversies and councils which hammered out these now-standard orthodox theologies. Smith is right to remind us of the history behind these doctrines and the debt that all Christians owe to those decisions. Smith also is right to point out that evangelicals often have misperceptions about much of catholic theology and practice. He helps us more accurately understand the Roman Catholic practices of praying with and to the dead, praying to Mary, and purgatory.
In my view Smith fails to provide many real convincing reasons to go ‘home to rome’ and become Roman Catholic. He does raise problems and questions for the evangelical Christian community, issues which should be dealt with and prayed about– and we are well served to have him raise these issues and help non Catholics to have a clearer understanding of some Catholic doctrines and practices. But Smith seems to assume that if he points out some more egregious problems in the Evangelical subculture, that this would leave one little choice but to join rome. He also seems to think that if we rightly understand the Roman Catholic Church’s position, we will agree with it. But while Smith’s explanations may help evangelicals more rightly understand authentic Catholic doctrines, I think most would still hesitate to embrace the authentic doctrines any more quickly than their charicatures of them.
Again, I do appreciate Smith’s challenges to evangelicals to think more about the historical background of the church and to embrace it. I do think evangelicals can do this without embracing the institutional Roman Catholic Church as D.H Williams encourages in his book on Evangelicals and Tradition. Of course the problem is that most evangelicals are so historically illiterate– unaware and without knowledge of church history– that it is a long hill to climb for most evangelicals. (The idea of celebrating the Lords supper every week, for example, would be considered ‘works-based’ by many evangelicals)
While its impossible to engage with all 95 of Smith’s points, responding to a few of them may be useful. Again– these are Smiths suggestions to Evangelicals to start questioning their evangelical practices and beliefs:
7. Start wondering where the mystery of faith and life are. **It is true that evangelicals don’t have a lot of mystery in their faith practices– mystical is not a good word for most evangelicals. Those who have more pietist practices– doing daily devotions, extended prayer, etc– often still do ‘bible-study’ approach– to learn intellectually new information, rather than having any mystical encounter with God.
8. Hear about someone you respect becoming (roman) Catholic: There is no doubt that a lot of thoughtful Christians I know have become Catholic– usually because of their frustration with a lack of unity, lack of authority basis, conviction about the eucharist, or a seeking for a more historically rich and tradition-based Christianity. I am always a little sad when I see evangelicalism loose those thoughtful people, because I know that they could have really helped Evangelicalism to become stronger. I also know of plenty of Catholics who have converted to Evangelical– but not as many who are intellectual standouts. What is interesting to me is that evangelicals who convert to Catholic or Orthodox (like Franky Schaeffer) often become extreme critics of the evangelicalism they were raised with. The same happens with Christians raised in a ‘dead’ mainline church or Catholic church– they often have strong feelings against the background they came from and have little empathy for those traditions…
10. Notice American evangelicalism’s cultural accomodations **there is no doubt that evangelicals try to be relevant– often sacrificing historical tradition for the sake of contemporary tastes. And with little historical tradition to maintain, its quite easy for them to discard the little baggage they have. On the other hand, it took the Roman Catholic church until the 1960s to stop using the latin mass– when few if any of their parishioners had understood latin for years. So while focusing too much on relevance is a problem, so is maintainin tradition with no sense of relevance– which all churches struggle with, but perhaps especially the Roman Catholic church. If scripture does not speak to an issue, Evangelicals feel free to modify their practices to fit contemporary sensibilities. The problem is that this can lead to a consumeristic Christianity where evangelicals shop for whatever suits their latest tastes.
11. Read some church history. **This is one of those points in the book where Smith’s antagonistic somewhat paternalistic attitude towards evangelicals comes through. His assumption seems to be that if one would read Church history, you would become Roman Catholic, when in fact what has made many of us resist becoming RC is exactly that we know and understand the history of the Church in the high medieval period– the corruption of indulgences, the split popeships, corrupt clergy, variant practices and political allignments, etc.
12. Start wondering where the new testament came from. ** again, not all evangelicals are completely ignorant or thoughtless about this (maybe christian smith had never considered this as an evangelical, I don’t know) and it seems entirely plausible for an evangelical to accept the first 4 church councils without reservation and the process of determining the set cannon of the early centuries of the church without adopting everything else the Roman church has become since that time.
14. Start asking why evangelical churches are so segregated by race and class. **Although Smith claims he sees more diversity in Catholic churches, I think the same could be asked of most Catholic parishes. I would expect there are a lot more African american baptist and pentecostal evangelical churches than there are Catholic ones in the US. But there is no doubt that many of the large nondenomenational evangelical churches tend to be in the white suburbs, and many of the mainline churches are filled with white wealthy parishoners, while Catholic churches can be found throughout most any city, in any neighborhood.
17. Grow bored with white bread and vanilla flavored evangelicalism. **So Smith criticizes the evangelical church for being consumeristic and then one of his arguments to leave is that evangelical services are boring because they don’t have much ornamentation. I personally love the ornamentation of the high church tradition that you find in orthodox and catholic churches– and they are a lot better than the ‘icons’ we find in evangelical circles at the precious moments chapel or the Billy Graham center at Wheaton, no doubt. But onwe doesn’t need to convert to get stained glass…
18. Notice that Evangelicalism is a religion of the head** No doubt “evidence that demands a verdict” and our continuous debates over minutae of theology make us appear overly heady, in comparison with the typical non-evangelical who often has no knowledge of apologetics or systematic theology, much less the Bible. But if Bible knowledge and theological interest are heady, I think they are good qualities to have. On the other hand, when we focus so much on having correct doctrine, we sometimes get the letter without the spirit– and I have met many evangelicals who are full of truth but have little grace of Christ in them. Our focus on the thinking-side of faith often also makes us ignore and neglect the mystical side of relation to God.
19. Evangelicalism thrives on Alarmist claims. ** There is no doubt that some evangelicals seem to thirve on bringing up ‘end of the world’ scenarios and outrageous stories of examples showing that society is going to hell in a handbasket– and that sort of sensationalism should have no place in our faith because sometimes it is an attempt to manipulate people to action.
20 Start to see how thin the biblical basis is for many evangelical beliefs ** His examples are: paid clergy, that a Christian needs an identifiable point of conversion, and that husbands are to be spiritual heads of their households. There is no doubt that a lot of Evangelical assumptions are not necessrily Scriptural in the strong sense– they are not always the only clear position one could take– but there is some scriptural support for these positions (especially the male head role). I don’t personally hold to these viewpoints, and I don’t think most evangelicals would hold them as essential doctrines.
26. Ask why we need a new monasticism when the RC church has an old monasticism. ** Well, monasteries are struggling to maintain their numbers, and most of the new monasticism movements are centered in struggling parts of the cities they are in (Philadelphia). Monasteries have to upkeep their facilities etc and are not too mobile. It seems that old monasticism and new monasticism have different goals and approaches. I don’t think either is wrong.
27. Start wondering whether ‘getting into heaven’ is what Christianity is really about. ** There are recent attempts by evangelicals (i.e, the book “The Hole in our Gospel”) which try to address evangelicals lack of social transformation. But perhaps even more in line with Smith’s point, Roman Catholicism offers a whole way of life, including Church calendar, spiritual orientation and habit formation, and a number of other helps to make one’s faith a total way of life (not that most Catholics follow all of those directives from the church very faithfully). I do believe that Evangelicals who carry on a close personal devotional life have a rhythm of spirituality and daily sense of presence and purpose which are focused on much more than ‘getting to heaven’– they are focused on personal tranformation on a daily basis. Maybe Smith did not experience that as an evangelical himself, as many Roman Catholics do not follow the ways of life encouraged by the spiritual habits of the Roman Catholic Church.
29. Note that evangelical churches which are opposed to tradition also have tradition. **No doubt they do, and often not very historical ones– but they are by and large much more flexible than the RC church, as Smith has pointed out repeatedly. Smith points out in a footnote that evangelicals who criticize the pope still have their own “popes of the market”– and he is right here. We can think of Mark Driscoll, John Pieper, RC Sproll, and others who function in many ways as a pope– giving direction and theological illumination to thousands. They are turned to for authoritative knowledge and direction by many evangelicals.
30. Start asking where the theological doctrines of trinity and christology came from. ** Again, many of us have investigated this, discovered they came from early church councils, and have not become Roman Catholic. Why? Because when you make a break with someone or an institution, you don’t necessarily reject all things which arose from that relationship. For example: SupposeI was in a partnership with Bernie for 10 years, and in the first 10 years we developed some very successful business models that I find essential and good. Suppose then Bernie started coming up with some financial schemes I didn’t feel comfortable with– ponzi schemes, etc– and I made a break with John and disolved our partnership. If someone came along and said, “well I thought you weren’t with John anymore– why do you still use those principles you developed together back then? Isn’t that hypocritical?” I would say, “no.” Think again of a marriage where a couple has three children, but then the husband cheats on the wife and runs off with another woman and so the wife divorces him. The husband has more children, which the original wife does not think of as her own– but she would still think of the first three children as her own. These analogies are not perfect, but they make the point that fruit of a relationship or partnership before a break are legitimate fruit for the dissassociated party to claim. Protestant evangelicals can trace their history through the early Church and claim it as their own, even if they are not part of the Roman Catholic Church today…
31. Read Martin Luther’s 95 Theses which were nailed to the door (and notice how they support Catholic doctrines and offices, like that of the Pope. **This is sort of a silly argument on Smith’s part. Maybe he needs to read Church history some more, because anyone who knows about Luther understands that at first he was trying to reconcile himself to the Roman Catholic church (he was a monk) until it became obvious that the Roman Catholic Church was in his opinion corrupt beyond repair, when he made his break. To rely on earlier documents in this struggle to try to show his acceptance of Catholic thought is somewhat misleading, at best.
32. Begin to Realize how Modern Evangelicalism is: ** This is perhaps one of the best points Smith Brings up, and it is one whihc evangelicals really need to think through. Our model is very oriented around learning knowledge– enlightenment in the classic modern sense– through study of Scripture. We are all considered able to decipher the text on our own, because we hold an enlightenment optimism abouit Human abilities (with help from the Spirit, of course). Our services are oriented around a lecture/sermon, and our secondarry form of worship is bible study– to help us learn more. Not that this is bad in itself, but it is modern.
33. Notice how reformation leads to secularization. ** Well, insofar as protestantism generally encourages freedom of religion, which can go hand in hand with a secularization of society, that may be right. Its not clear to me that a theocratic model which disallows diversity of religious beliefs (islamic or French or Spanish Catholic Church-state alliances) are a better model though…
34. Get to know some Catholics who have an impressive faith. This is a great point. I am so thankful for the many devout Christ followers Iknow oman Catholic church. They are models to me.
35. Take note of substandard preaching in evangelical churches. ** Yes. And check it out at local Homilies in your parrish as well. Its everywhere.
36. Consider whether the kingdom of God really stands or falls based on inerrancy. ** No doubt this is in itself not the ultimate litmus test for whether or not you are truly a Christian. And Innerancy is often confused with a straw-man literalism which is untennable. Smith claims one can be an innerantist and Roman Catholic, which is interesting, if true.
37. Start wondering what it means to profess one holy catholic apostolic church. Of course the unity is a difficult question for an evangelical– usually we will think of ‘catholic’ as universal in the sense of all true Christ followers– not in one unified institutional church, but in terms of those who truly have relationship with Jesus. Of ourse its true that the Catholic church has a lot of diversity within it– there are extremely liberal Roman Catholics whose faith their conservative Roman Catholic brothers would question– all going to the same universal Catholic church…so when unity contains as much diversity of thought and opinion as the Roman Catholic church, it becomes confusing to Evangelicals how it is really unity, apart from the institutional oversight of the Pope… In terms of Apostolic, of course evangelicals (like Mark Driscolls ACTS 29 Network) want to be historially tied to the very early church of the apostles as we find it in the book of Acts. (Interestingly, ACTs29 also has a form of leadership which in some ways appears to follow the apostolic model of top-down successive authority– the keys of Mark D passed on, etc)
38. Ask yourself what the difference is between Evangelical kitsch icons and the statues and icons of the Catholi Church. ** THis one is easy– the Roman Catholic ones are way cooler. Just visit any cathedral and then go to the Precious moments Chapel and you will know the answer to this question.
44. Start to wonder where all the evangelical intellectuals are. ** Here smith lists off 4 Evangelicals, and 30 Catholics, and then asks the question why there are so few. There are a few obvious answers. First, Catholics outnumber evangelicals by far, and have had universities of higher learning for over 1000 years. Evangelicals, when they lost the major seminaries (Princeton, etc) to Liberalism in the late 1800s and early 1900s had to start over and did so with Fuller, Gordon Conwell, etc etc I think that another interesting point about SMiths list is that a lot of those Catholic Intellectuals are primarily popular among Roman Catholics– you don’t find a lot of secular intellectuals reading Maritan or Marcel or even Charles Taylor. Catholic intellectuals in some sense have a large audience because there are so many Catholics. But with regard to same-reading-same, the same, of course is true of Evangelical intellectuals, but to neglect CFH Henry, WIlliam Lane Craig, Kevin Vanhoozer, or the many evangelical philosophers who created and made the Society of Christian Philosophers (in addition to Plantinga or Wolterstorff) into the powerhouse it is is to overlook some pretty obvious candidates. If Smith wants to make lists comparing Evangelicals to Roman Catholics, it would be interesting to see the list of Roman Catholic movie stars compared to evangelicals, and Roman Catholic Casino operators compared to Evangelicals, and Catholic Liquor store owners compared to Evangelicals, and Catholic convicted mobsters compared to Evagelical mobsters…
46. Read the Joint declaration between Lutherans and Roman Catholics** This is an impressive document, and shows a lot of goodwill. I’m happy for it, and I think its great. It did not lead to a union of the Lutheran Church with Rome, however.
47. Realize that Sola Scriptura is not Scriptural. ** I would put this another way– realize that ‘nuda scriptura’ is not scriptural. The Bible itself seems to support the idea of extra-biblical teachings of the Apostles handed down orally and in practice, and to deny that is to deny Scripture. SMith says Evangelicals hold to a bible-onlyism– and some do– but really only Zwinglians think that it is disallowable to do anything beyond scripture (thats why some churches don’t have organs or guitars– they aren’t in Scripture– but this is a silly position). Evangelicals should realize that they do things beyond Scripture,and not every action has a verse to back it– but I think Smith has a warped view of what Sola Scriptura means. It does not mean bible-onlyism. it does mean we shouldn’t do things which go against scripture.
54. Let liturgy sink in and affect your worship. ** I like liturgy. Simple Free uses it and always has. So do lots of protestants.
56. Read stories of former evangelicals who have become Roman Catholic. ** And don’t forget to read stories of former Roman Catholics who have become evangelical– like Luther. All of protestantism is in some sense rooted in a conversion from Roman Catholicism. Only a few protestants go back, int he big scheme of things. But it is useful to see why they do.
59. Decide that there is something fundamentally wrong with denominationalism. ** There are problems with denomenationalism and our tendency to want to seperate from what we don’t like or agree with. But there is also a question of the integrity of a movement which is filled with so much diversity of opinion that it is difficult to know what the true beliefs of its participants is. While the Roman Catholic church has official standard doctrines that are set, the Catholics in the pews have about as many different viewpoints as there are parrishoners– and this sort of disymetry between the offical stance of the Roman Catholic Church and the real church of the people is confusing and lacks institutional integrity. Denomenationalism has its flaws. But when I think of denomenationalism I think of Aristotle’s claim that you can’t have a governable city of more than 10,000 members, because then it is too big. I think denomenations provide cohestive unity to individual churches– and I find I am in favor of denominationalism in contrast to nondenomenationalism. I know Smith sees denomenationalism as devisive. I see it as cohesive. And I see his desire for a monolithic church as being similar to a desire for a monolithic phone company or restaraunt chain–
62. Realize that Catholicism suffers from not having its ‘seperated brethern’ who are still dissassociated. I do think about this. Evangelicals are kind of like homeschoolers who, if they were in the school, would make it better.
63. Learn the distinction between the 7 sacrments and the many sacramentals. ** If you don’t, check this out: http://www.davidmacd.com/catholic/sacraments_sacramentals.htm
A lot of the other points have to do with Evangelicals needing to get a correct understanding of Roman Catholic theological points and get past misperceptions or straw man representations of Catholic teachings. These are useful for correcting wrong understandings. Maybe it would convince some Evangelicals to go home ot Rome. Nevertheless, here are some of them:
Mass: Christ’s body is not re-sacrificed each time mass happens. Instead, mass is an openning back in time to the original sacrifice of Christ. its more like a mystical time portal to that moment.
Real Presence in the Eucharist: Catholics do not think that, if you took the bread and wine out of a parrishoners stomach you would find that they had Jesus Blood and Flesh in their stomach! But they do think this mystery happens: bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ. Why do they believe this? Because Jesus literally said it in Scripture (john 6: 53-57) (and in some cases Roman Catholics take Scripture quite literally)
Purgatory: Smith says Scripture talks of it when it says that some will be savedthrough the flames in I Cor 3.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception: Roman Catholics do think Mary was conceived of a virgin. They do not think she was without need of the grace of Christ– the power of Christ is what made her born without the taint of original sin.
Veneration of Mary and the Saints: Roman Catholics are not supposed to worship Maryor Saints– but they pray to them, asking them to pray and intercede for them, much as you would ask your pastor or godly grandma to pray for you. You ask th efaithful to pray on your behalf, and that is what veneration is supposed to be.
Assumption of Mary– Evangelicals evidently normally think this means Mary floated up into heaven– but the Roman Catholic Church has no offical statement on how it happened.
Papal infallibility: Not everything the Pope says in infallible– only things said ‘ex cathedra’ (as the spokesperson for God as his office agent)
Indulgences: They are not a big deal and don’t worry about it (thats almost verbatim from Smith)
Praying for the dead: We care about the dead an dlove them, so why not pray for them?
Most of the rest of the points have to do with advice on how to proceed to join the Roman Catholic church.
I liked Smiths book and it helped me think again through a lot of the reasons why I have not joined the Roman Catholic church. I love so many things about the Roman Catholic church, and have high respect for it as an institution, its leaders, and my many devout Catholic friends. I think Smith’s book was probably quickly written, and maybe with a little more distance from his fundamentalist frustrations and his newfound Catholic faith he would have written a slightly more objective account of some of the points, but overall I thought that he raises a lot of the key points to be considered when thinking through the Catholic faith and in contrast to Evangelicalism, and we should thank him for that service.