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If God Were Real: A Journey Into a Faith that Matters
Artist: John Avant, PhD
Publisher: Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster
213 Pages
It seems like we hear a lot of talk about “crises” these days.  It’s almost impossible to listen to the evening news without hearing about the “financial crisis” or the “environmental crisis”.  There are some who would have us believe that the election of Barack Obama has ushered in a political crisis, while others believe that his presidency signals a crisis narrowly averted.  It seems that the Swine Flu crisis is over, while the AIDS and cancer crises are with us still.  John Avant, pastor of a 7,000-member Baptist church in Louisiana, believes that there is a crisis of belief in the modern American evangelical church.  He claims that the church is full of practical atheists, people who give lip service to a belief in God but whose behavior doesn’t seem to line up with what they say they believe.  His book If God Were Real seeks to answer this question:  Does it matter if God is real?
Avant writes with a sense of urgency and immediacy.  The church’s crisis of faith is severe, wide-spread, and potentially catastrophic and Avant’s book is an attempt at a wake-up call to Christians to start really living like what they believe is true, before it’s too late.  In his introduction, he speaks directly to his atheist or skeptical readers, challenging them by saying, “If you can’t find Christians who live like God is real, don’t become one” (7) and then immediately following that statement by asking the question, “With the current state of Christianity, what if all the ones who actually lived like God is real are dead and gone?  I would have to say that you have good reason to be suspicious of God’s existence if he makes no apparent difference in his followers” (8).  In fact, Avant encourages believers to give up “Christianity” altogether.  After spending years fully immersed in the Christian subculture, Avant lost his enthusiasm for what he calls “Christianity as a religion, as an institution, and as the system it has largely become.  This kind of Christianity is a fraud and a failure – because this is never what the Christian movement was meant to be!” (28).  Rather than spending our precious time and resources fighting futile battles against straw opponents (Avant comes down particularly harshly on the church’s treatment of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series), he suggests that we spend our energy returning to the original “Jesus Movement” (48).
The church comes in for some pretty sharp criticism from Avant in other areas as well.  In the chapter entitled “If God Were Real. . . Missionaries Would Lose Their Jobs,” [sic] he says, “The awful truth is that the vast majority of the churches of Christianity are not going to survive.  As I’ve already mentioned, many appear not to be churches anymore anyway.  Many more are only one more split or a few more funerals away form their demise.  I no longer believe that we should waste time trying to save these churches” (69-70).  In “If God Were Real. . . the Church Would Be Full of Addicts” [sic], Avant says of the church today, “We’re so internally focused that, as I’ve already said, it’s highly questionable whether we even have the same mission as the New Testament church anymore – whether we are the New Testament church anymore” (114).
In each of his nine chapters, Avant describes what Jesus’ followers might look like if they started living their lives “if God were real”.  These include claims that “We’d all give up on Christianity”; “Our Family Life Would Shock the World”; “You Would Be Really, Really Rich”; and “[God Would] Send Revival”.  In the second-to-last chapter, Avant gets sidetracked from the general thrust of the book as he speaks directly to atheists and “open-minded skeptics,” in whom he evidently has a great deal of interest, saying, “If God Were Real. . . He Would Believe in Atheists” [sic].  This chapter (including a five-page defense for the existence of God) seems out of place in this book, so much of which is a polemic against modern American Christianity and seems unlikely to be very compelling or convicting to anyone not within that subculture.  
When Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount, he started with what we today call the “Beatitudes”, each of which begins with the word “Blessed”.  Jesus described some of the things that his hearers were already doing that were right (peacemaking, being poor in spirit, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for example) and said, “Blessed are you!”  It’s as though he started out this great sermon (which does eventually include some pretty strong words of conviction and condemnation) by saying, “Congratulations!  Here’s what you’re doing right!”  Certainly Avant includes many examples in If God Were Real of believers doing things correctly and living as authentic members of the Jesus movement.  However, much more of the book reads as a diatribe, with Avant painting the church with sweeping negative strokes.  I wonder if the author will loose the attention of the very people to whom he is intending to write by almost deliberately provoking defensiveness, rather than camaraderie in his style.  
Avant’s book has the speed of someone writing in excitement and with haste and therefore sacrifices artistry for immediacy.  He often adopts the modern habit of writing in bullet points or short, stand-alone sentences, rather than developed paragraphs, and the tone of the book is casual and conversational, rather than artistic or academic.  I had the impression as I was reading that each chapter could have been a transcript from a sermon series (although I have no reason to believe that they actually are).  It is obvious that he believes that the crisis facing the church is real, is urgent, and that it can be overcome.  Clearly, if Christians started adopting even some of the changes that Avant suggests, the Church would be a lot more difficult for atheists to explain and a lot more difficult to resist.
Jennifer Monroe 


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