I bought this book a couple of years ago and have already read McGrath's The Passionate Intellect and his biography of C.S. Lewis. McGrath is a historian, biochemist and Christian theologian from Belfast, Northern Ireland. A one time atheist and professor at Oxford University, he is now a Christian and holds the Chair in theology, ministry, and education at the University of London.
I like reading his books because he is committed to challenging Christians to use their minds and intellects to explore and affirm their faith. While I don't agree with him in all areas, such as his stance on evolution and certain Biblical truths he seems vague on, his work is well-researched and reflects his own commitment to making reasonable and intelligent arguments concerning the Christian faith.
Christianity's Dangerous Idea is a historical account of the origins of Protestantism, its spread throughout Europe, America and eventually the world, its development and adaptation to change and its current cultural face as it exists today.
He starts with the Reformation with Luther and Calvin and meticulously traces their beliefs, comparing and contrasting it with the prevalent Catholic theology and its turbulent spread across Europe, including heretical break offs. He also explains the separate but contemporary development of the Anglican church under Henry VIII in England and its own struggles between the state church and Puritanism, Puritanism being the branch of Reformed theology that traveled from Geneva under Calvin to Scotland via John Knox.
We travel with the Puritans to America where they were committed to setting up their own churches, free from established state churches and building our great educational institutions today such as Harvard and Princeton. They also incorporated laws that protected citizens' rights to worship as they believed not as a state controlled religion would impose on them.
Somehow the Puritan's laws have been twisted today to mean that citizens no longer have a right to worship as they please if it comes into conflict with state-imposed secularism. Hence wedding caterers and bakers are forced into bankruptcy for "hate crimes" because their beliefs don't conform to state-ordained statutes of what constitutes right and wrong. Nuns and other businesses have to go to court to defend their personal religious beliefs about birth control and abortifacients. New definitions have been created to determine what discrimination means and freedom of religious expression is being sacrificed at this alter.
Protestant movements saw this as a danger in the 17th century and came to America to freely practice their beliefs and legally protect all people's beliefs.
An interesting phenomenon occurred within the Protestant denominations and McGrath asserts that the very nature of Protestantism produced it. Because an overhead authority in the form of the Roman church came between the individual and the Word of God, there was unity in belief and worship. People did not try to interpret the Bible for themselves, but rather allowed the Holy See to interpret Scripture for them. This produced a uniformity of worship and doctrine. Protestants said that their only authority was scripture "Sola Scriptura" and that they needed no human intermediary.
What this produced was many variants of Scripture interpretation and a fractured church as Protestants broke into many denominations, each interpreting the Bible according to their own understanding.
Or so McGrath says and this is where I disagree with him. He seems to discount an essential phenomena to the Christian walk. Namely, that when a person becomes a believer in Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity comes to dwell with him, the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised this in John 16:13:
But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.
1 John 2:27:
As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.
Consequently, even though there are many Protestant denominations who worship in a variety of ways the differences are secondary. Each Protestant church will claim the same truths concerning salvation and evidence of that salvation.
The difference lies between churches who believe in the inerrant truth of the Bible and those who claim the Bible is not inerrant.
McGrath shows the pattern of almost every denomination and how each one eventually splits into two groups: Liberal and Conservative. I find these names ironic because the "liberal" churches believe the Bible says whatever you want it to say and any scripture that contradicts modern culture and morals must be wrong. Conservatives believe one of the attributes of God is that He is immutable.
For I, the LORD, do not change
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
McGrath makes the argument that people misunderstand the truths of the Bible therefore, the "meaning" of Scripture can change as Christians gain greater understanding of it, but again this belies the power of God and His ability to impart truth to even the simplest of people.
He uses the argument of Christians justifying slavery using the Bible. I counter that argument by saying that the people who use the Bible to justify slavery are the same people who would twist the meaning of Scripture today to justify acts of immorality. They didn't rely on the truth of the Scripture but manipulated it to mean what they wanted. This is a sure sign someone does not have the Holy Spirit with them.
One of the most interesting topics McGrath writes about is the missionary work and its consequent spread throughout the world that the majority of Christians now live in the "Global South" as it is called. The biggest Protestant church in the world is in South Korea with a significant underground church in North Korea and China. Africa and South America also have fertile population growths of Protestant churches.
McGrath claims that two characteristics of Protestantism is responsible: changing the face of Christianity so that it no longer is entrenched in a European culture and the spread of the Pentecostal movement.
Because of Protestantism's ability to remain malleable, it is able to adhere to Biblical truth while embracing cultural norms of other societies. Therefore, Africans, South Americans etc. can incorporate their own culture and worship God inside a familiar context.
Ironically, because so many American and European churches have become liberal, those churches are fast losing populations (why go to church if I can believe whatever I want?) while their Global southern counterparts are conservative in Biblical practice and are growing by leaps and bounds.
The other phenomenon is the rapid spread of the Charismatic movement. McGrath argues that this particular brand of Protestantism more closely adheres to African, Asian and South American beliefs in spiritualism, faith healing and casting out of demons.
He notes that in America the Pentecostal movement started on Azuza street in 1906 (although many other factors led to that movement) by Charles Parnham Fox and spread throughout America, largely through the poor underclass. Interestingly, similar movements started in Korea, India, Chile, Venezuela and other countries, even in Norway, around the same time. For those who are unfamiliar with Pentecostalism, it is the belief that when one becomes saved, one is "baptized" by the Holy Spirit and receives a special "prayer language" that enables the believer to speak in tongues. This can be while praying to God or in an assembly where an interpreter will reveal to the congregation what was said, usually a message from God for the edification of the people.
There is division among conservative Protestant groups as to the validity of this belief, however, it is a secondary difference. Pentecostals and other conservative denominations are unified in the essential core beliefs of Christianity: saved through faith in Jesus Christ, inerrancy of the Bible et al.
Pentecostalism is one of the fastest spreading branches of Protestantism and it is estimated that around 300 million Pentecostals exist world wide (Pew Forum).
I personally found this book fascinating because I love to trace historical roots of our present culture and connect the past to the present. It gives me a greater understanding as to the cultural context in which I live my life. I also love to approach belief systems and how they fit in globally. As a Christian I feel connected to my fellow believers worldwide. McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea helped me connect our Christian past to its present and value it all the more.