Does every generation need faith stories releasing them from legalism; opening hands and hearts to receive grace? Do Christians – and perhaps Protestants in particular – need to repeat regularly the call that Galatians had on Martin Luther so that we may remember afresh that our faith does not consist of or thrive on our own ability to follow the rules, regulations and mores that change in detail but not in their essential function, which is to delineate the borders beyond which one cannot go and still be considered Christian?

Cover of Jesus is Better Than You Imagined. Photo courtesy FaithWords/Hachette Book Group

Cover of Jesus is Better Than You Imagined. Photo courtesy FaithWords/Hachette Book Group

Senior RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt’s new bookJesus is Better Than You Imagined, is admirably gracious; his good taste restrains the book from lapsing into the regrettable (but sometimes amusing) fundie-bashing and cheap shots that writers in this category occasionally indulge in. He’s respectful toward and even appreciative of his heritage as the son of a well-known Southern Baptist pastor.

Still, in describing how he was more or less a professional Christian from the cradle, Merritt is unstinting in his criticism of a legalistic and fear-based religion. The God he met at his Southern Baptist church “was a decent chap, as long as you didn’t make him mad.” To keep his God happy, Merritt lived according to lists of do’s and don’ts, which is more or less what the Bible was to him as well.

And, like the zealous apostle Paul, Merritt was great at his chosen (or inherited) form of religion. He was an extra committed Super Christian, not a pitiable Sunday Morning Christian. He got up early on Saturdays to interrogate strangers as to the state of their souls and regularly employed other such evangelistic “guerilla tactics.” He smiled and played the part of the Perfect Pastor’s Son the moment he set foot into the church parking lot.

But like “many of [his] childhood friends’ parents,” who performed as shiny, happy Church People on Sunday mornings but later “divorced as a result of hidden alcoholism or affairs,” Merritt’s polished exterior belied inner turmoil. After being repeatedly sexually abused by an older neighbor boy, Merritt was, by age ten, depressed, confused, and suicidal.

{This is an adapted excerpt from my review at Englewood Review of Books. Click here to continue reading.}

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