By Eric Elnes
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006
Review by Carl McColman
Eric Elnes is a UCC minister and activist based in Arizona; he was instrumental in writing the list of twelve declarations for the future of the Christian faith known as the Phoenix Affirmations, both for the town in which they were crafted as well as the mythical symbolism of the fiery bird that is resurrected from its own pyre. This document calls the Christian community to a more self-conscious and intentional commitment to love as the foundation and cornerstone of the faith, with twelve points spelling out how love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self comprise the Christian life (you can read the current version of the Phoenix Affirmations online here). The Phoenix Affirmations are being promulgated particularly by Crosswalk America, an organization that bills itself as “where Christian compassion meets progressive action.” Meanwhile, this slender book offers an overview of the affirmations and the rationale behind them.
It pretty much reads like a liberal Christian manifesto. The affirmations blend fairly mainstream theological ideas (the importance of prayer and scripture; the central importance of worship and praise; the necessity of mission) with assertions that display their progressive pedigree proudly: respect for non-Christian faiths, care for the environment, advocacy for the poor, and respect for science. Each affirmation consists of one brief declaration, with a three-paragraph exposition of the statement’s central ideas; in the book Elnes uses each point to write a short chapter, both explaining why each particular point is vital to the future of the Christian faith, and offering meditative ideas on how individuals can begin to live out the spirit of the affirmations in their daily lives. Although the affirmations do not explicitly champion key liberal issues (such as inclusion of gays and lesbian or the church’s role as a voice of prophetic resistance against oppressive powers in business and/or government), Elnes connects the dots as he explains each point of the Affirmations.
The book itself is a mixed bag. As short as it is, Elnes doesn’t alway have the space to really give his argument justice. Consequently, some of the chapters fare better than others; he does a wonderful job advocating for respecting non-Christian religion, but hangs his entire argument for the inclusion of gays and lesbians on a less-than-watertight interpretation of Acts 10 (I like his argument, but I think he’s strictly preaching to the choir at this point). One chapter begins with a poignant story of Verna, a widow facing bankruptcy, in which the author goes on the decry against hiring practices that place too much emphasis on credit history. He makes his case well enough, but leaves the story of Verna dangling — we never find out what happens to her, and for those of us readers who love a good human interest story, that’s a major distraction that leaves the point Elnes was trying to make rather immemorable.
I’m being a bit of a nitpicker here; there’s only so much an author can do trying to spin out twelve important arguments in a 150-page book. Sadly, I think this book will not do much to sway the unconvinced; but it’s a wonderful summary of liberal values that nicely demonstrates how they can coherently fit within the Christian world and therefore will be enjoyed by anyone who basically agrees with its premiss. As a handy compendium of progressive faith, it works just fine.