How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-five Difficult Steps by Christian Smith (Cascade Books, 2011), 205 pp., paper $24.00
Christian Smith, a self-confessed former evangelical and professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, was accepted into full communion of the Catholic church in 2010 (p. 2). He writes this book not as a “theological treatise, nor an apologetic argument for Catholicism” but as a “how to book” (p. 3). He offers 95 steps that will lead evangelicals back to Catholicism.
In order to draw evangelicals to Catholicism he must first vilify evangelicalism which he does throughout the book. He in fact identifies many true flaws in the evangelical sub-culture, but in doing so he grossly over-generalizes, misrepresents, and makes groundless accusations. He characterizes evangelicals as stupid (see pp. 77-78), mindless followers of the herd, who if they would only come to their senses would all head toward Catholicism immediately.
The discerning reader wants to cry out about every third page that what Smith writes is simply not true. He often takes the most radical and/or worst examples such as televangelists and false prophets and lumps all evangelicals with them. The definition of “evangelicals” has become so broad today as to enable writers to dump virtually any so-called Christian into that category, but Smith’s approach is a cheap shot, if not downright distortion.
Smith believes that Protestants have rewritten church history and he is here to set them straight. While Smith may be correct at certain points, his own spin on church history is biased and creative at the worst level (e.g. pp. 60-69). Evangelicals, in Smiths estimation, are even to blame for Catholicism’s problems such as secularization (pp. 69, 110-112). Additionally, Smith repeatedly lays out important Catholic distinctives that have proven divisive then tells his reader to not make a big deal of them. This includes purgatory (pp. 121-124), the Assumption of Mary (pp. 131-132), Papal infallibility (pp. 132-135), indulgences (pp. 136-137), praying for the dead (p. 141), and birth control (p. 149).
All 95 of Smith’s steps could be discussed, critiqued and analyzed but there is one central issue, which he returns to repeatedly, that separates Protestants from Catholics – they think differently (pp. 103-107, 118-121, 126-127, 132, 151-152, 175-190). In the Appendix he compares the problem with similar issues in science: Those trained in Newtonian mechanics have a difficult time understanding those who subscribe to quantum physics. Catholics (quantum physics types) have a hard time being understood by Protestants (Newtonians). Here is how Smith frames it: “Protestantism forms a mindset that tends strongly to be linear, literal, either/or univocal, didactic, and rationalist. Catholicism thinks quite differently. Catholic thought is more analogical, both/and, metaphorical, curvilinear, symbolic, and multi-directional. It’s a difference you need to recognize and shift with” (p. 103). Again, “For evangelicals, things say what they mean and mean what they say…for Protestants, the words are the truth. That is why one must get them exactly right. For Catholics, by contrast, words formulate expressions of truth. There is not in Catholicism a literal, exact, univocal correspondence or identity between words and truth” (pp. 104-105) (emphasis his).
In philosophical terms Smith sees Protestants operating from a modern worldview and Catholicism from a postmodern (or premodern, depending on how these terms are defined)) worldview. While this is exaggerated, it does explain many differences between evangelicals and Catholics. If one wants to move towards Catholicism, what must one do? Smith tells us, “Leaving evangelicalism and becoming Catholic requires a paradigm revolution” (p. 184). In other words, to become Catholic one must adopt a Catholic worldview and its approach toward truth and reality.
How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-five Difficult Steps is an infuriating book. Smith is demeaning and lopsided. He really does not develop an argument for Catholicism as much as he does a put down for evangelicalism. He proclaims the Reformation a major mistake, declares that it is ended and tells evangelicals to get over it, adopt the Catholic mindset, and return to the one true Church.