Rarely have I come across a book that I am so torn over as to how to rate it. Usually a book will be obviously good or bad, making the ultimate conclusion in rating it a fairly easy process. While a good book may have some detractors, overall the good outweighs the bad, with the reverse also being true of bad books. However, I’m having a hard time making such a distinction in reviewing Charles Sheldon’s classic, In His Steps. There are many good things about the book, but there are also many not-so-good things.
The book centers primarily on a few members of the affluent First Church of Raymond in the late19th century who have been faced with the question of how Jesus would act if He were in their place. (In His Steps can be credited with the origin of the popularized question of “What would Jesus do?” or WWJD). A call is made for volunteers to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” before making any decisions for one whole year. Among those who volunteer are the pastor, the local newspaper owner/editor, a gifted singer, a wealthy young woman, a writer, and an employee of the local railroad. The book follows their efforts during the course of the year as they attempt to live out their pledge of asking, “What would Jesus do?” This leads them to make decisions that aren’t the most popular or even understood by some family members and the general public. It also leads them to undertake a greater involvement in their city, both in evangelical outreaches and for the good of society in general.
For a book that was written over 100 years ago, it cuts to the heart of our current culture in the majority of the Western world of materialism and even more so among Christians. Perhaps the hardest hitting teaching comes towards the end of the book when the pastor asks a congregation, “How much is the Christianity of the age suffering for Him? Is it denying itself at the cost of ease, comfort, luxury, elegance of living? What does the age need more than personal sacrifice?....The Christianity that attempts to suffer by proxy is not the Christianity of Christ.” Here is found perhaps the main and best thrust of the entire book. The call to Christianity is a call to suffer for Christ. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) The decision to follow Jesus, to do what He would do, is not played out in the characters’ lives as something that turns out rosy. One man loses his job and as a result, his wife becomes bitter toward him. The newspaper owner/editor watches his subscribers and advertisers leave in droves because of his decision not to allow certain kinds of content. Yet another turns down what some may consider the “opportunity of a lifetime” to serve in a more humble ministry. This is no health, wealth and prosperity gospel. Wearing a bracelet that says “WWJD?” simply won’t cut it. All through the book, the element of personal suffering and sacrifice is continually presented as the ultimate test of following Christ.
In His Steps gives an example of Christianity in action – how Christianity looks in the nitty-gritty, everyday stuff of life. The characters realize that Christianity is not simply an abstract idea, full of wise sayings and doctrines designed only to stimulate the intellect. Christianity is lived out Monday through Sunday. It’s not only making decisions based on what Jesus might do, but telling people the reasoning behind the decision. It’s getting involved in the community, reaching out to those in need, using the resources that we’ve been blessed with to help change a life. This is Christianity in action.
This brings me to the issues that have given me pause and not just a little concern. First, a few minor points. The writing style is very poor. Superlatives abound in the descriptions of the effects of various decisions. “For the first time ever…” or “he had never…” or “Nothing had ever…” or “Such a thing had never…” – these overused phrases become old and trite in their use. Additionally, the plot becomes rather predictable. However, that being said, this book is perhaps rarely read for its fictional and linguistic prowess.
While the characters in the narrative are seeking to follow Christ’s example, much of the decisions are based very much on personal interpretation with little to no Biblical basis for their reasoning. In one sense, the subjective nature of the question at hand makes the decision one that should be and can only be decided by the person ultimately responsible. In this, the author rightly puts great emphasis on prayer and the personal nature of the pledge. However, this lends somewhat of a relativistic mindset if the decision is not based on what Scripture says. For example, the newspaper editor decides that printing a Sunday edition is not what Jesus would do since Jesus would not publish something that caused a reader to read anything else but the Bible on Sunday. While to be commended for making such a difficult decision and following his conscious, this makes me wonder what in Scripture teaches such a notion that reading anything else but the Bible on Sunday is contrary to Christ’s teachings.
The biggest issue I have with the book is why the Christians go about seeking to follow Christ’s steps or do what Jesus would do. Set during the heyday of the Temperance Movement, much emphasis is placed on the poorer citizens of the city and the effect that alcohol played in many of the problems that class of society faced. Further, while there seems to be much emphasis on evangelization, the improvement of life in general for the class is seen as the ultimate end of this evangelization. Oddly enough, this message of “accept Christ and everything well get better” goes against the message for the upper class citizens that Christians must suffer. The gospel that is proclaimed in In His Steps is not a gospel that comes by means of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Instead, it is a gospel that points to Christ as the ultimate example of how to live and reform society, but not the source of the strength to bring about that reform. And Christ’s example in this case is to help the poor. Where a conflict arises is in dealing with the question, If helping the poor in bettering their society is what the gospel offers, how does this affect how the poor themselves live? This question is asked point blank of several of the pastors by a man out of work for many days and not one of them can provide an answer. One pastor ponders the question in his heart as
“a question that brings up the entire social problem in all its perplexing entanglement of human wrongs and its present condition contrary to every desire of God for a human being's welfare. Is there any condition more awful than for a man in good health, able and eager to work, with no means of honest livelihood unless he does work, actually unable to get anything to do, and driven to one of three things: begging or charity at the hands of friends or strangers, suicide or starvation?”
Nowhere in the book is a person’s sinful condition addressed, but only the social condition. When reform comes, it should not, it cannot come through the betterment of a person’s economic wellbeing. I’m not denying that we have a responsibility to minister to others, especially those in need. I think even my own tendency is to try to ignore others’ condition, like the condition of the man on the corner holding the sign. But in helping those in need, we should not do it simply for the sake of our own suffering nor in trying to help them make a better life for themselves. We should be pointing them to Christ, not as the example of who we are following, but as the source of the strength to do what we do, the source of the righteousness to overcome sin. Without Christ, without repentance, we can improve society to the last person but will not change the root of the problem and will find them just as bad as before. As John Owen so aptly puts it in The Mortification of Sin: “Poor soul! It is not thy sore finger but thy hectic fever that thou art to apply thyself to the consideration of. Thou settest thyself against a particular sin, and dost not consider that thou art nothing but sin.”
In His Steps is certainly a step in the right direction of encouraging believers to challenge the way we live and think and interact with the world around us. But the reader should always keep in mind that the gospel of Christ is not an example simply to be followed in order to better society, but rather the gospel is solely and completely about Christ Himself and the righteousness we have in Him. In following Him, a person’s social standing may not improve in the slightest, but his eternal standing in the sight of God will. And that’s what matters.
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