Being the Bad Guys (Book review)
We know that there are so many brilliant resources out there that encourage us to grow in godly character and that equip us for leading well. We also know that it can be hard to work out what resources are most helpful for your circumstances and worth the time required to read them. To help you sort through these resources, we are going to start occasionally publishing some reviews of brand-new and classic books. Below is our first of these reviews for a new book out this month:
Being the Bad Guys, Stephen McAlpine, The Good Book Company, 2021, 144 pages, ISBN: 9781784985981, List price: £8.99
Christianity is now the ‘bad guy’ in the eyes of Western culture and we need “to refuse to be surprised, confused, despairing and mad about it, and find a way to be calm, clear-sighted, confident and even joyful in it” (p.11). That is Stephen McAlpine’s call in this fresh new book on Christian living in contemporary Western culture. Too readily, he suggests, we can become angry at our sense of victimhood in a culture that seems to have turned against us. When we recognised that Christian influence was dwindling, we built strategies for cultural engagement on the assumption that Christianity would be one voice given a fair hearing in a competing public square, but it is time to realise that we are, in fact, judged as being a toxic legacy of a harmful past. We must rethink how to respond. In a clear and engaging style of writing honed in the blogosphere, McAlpine serves as a helpful guide on that journey.
Being the Bad Guys begins by analysing the turn against Christianity in Western culture with the help of thinkers like philosopher Charles Taylor and political theorist Dale Kuehne. He then challenges us to recognise that this should not surprise us – after all, “Everything that is hazardous about the gospel is in plain sight in the gospel” (p.32) – the biblical story repeatedly tells us that we must suffer now and receive glory later. Building on this foundation, the central section of the book explores what it means to be the ‘bad guys’ in three respects: how we understand sex and sexuality (McApline defends his frequent references to this issue on the basis that it is not Christians but the culture that obsesses over it), how we speak about justice and injustice and whether the path to human ‘flourishing’ is self-actualisation or self-denial. In the final section, McAlpine turns to the practical outworking of three strategies for being the best ‘bad guys’ we can be, relating to church, the workplace and living simultaneously as citizens of God’s kingdom and of the earthly cities we inhabit.
There is, undoubtedly, a great need for Christians to understand the cultural moment we live in and to plan to engage faithfully in it. McAlpine has given us a very clear and helpful tool in doing so. His final chapters are immensely valuable, especially in his very practical advice for faithfulness in the workplace and as the church. It was refreshing to read his constructive and realistic ideas. He deftly avoids veering into the morasses that line either side of the road of faithfulness in this moment: on one hand, defeatist resignation to dwindling influence, and on the other, a hubristic belief that we can win back the West if we just adopt the right tactics. McAlpine charts a middle path by acknowledging the Church’s culpability in past wrongs and the culture’s hostility to us whilst calling us to see our potential to be a source of help and healing for those who will suffer because of secularism and individualism. Pastors and leaders will find precious nuggets in this book to help them prepare their people, in McAlpine’s words, “for the week they will be having, not the week you will be having” (p.115). That task of equipping the saints for life in a hostile environment must, surely, be central to the pastor’s ministry in this age. Being the Bad Guys will assist in it.
The subjects this book touches on – especially the LGBTQI movement and its implications – are vast and complex. Inevitably, in a book of this size, analysis will be relatively superficial. That is not a problem in itself, and I think McAlpine is right insofar as he goes, but I found myself looking in vain for pointers to more thorough analyses as the book makes sparse use of quotations and offers no guidance to additional sources. By way of example, readers who want a deeper understanding of the main example that runs through the book – gender and sexual identity – should look to Ryan Anderson’s When Harry Became Sally (Encounter, 2018) and Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story (IVP, 2017). There are also concepts that McAlpine clearly thinks are important but does not fully explain, such as the buzzword ‘flourishing’, which he uses repeatedly. While he is clear that Christians should understand ‘flourishing’ differently predominant culture, he never quite explains what that vision is or why he finds the word helpful at all. Even the central point of being the bad guys was not developed quite as clearly as I hoped, into a crystal clear vision of ‘the good’.
McAlpine’s practical, strategic and thoroughly biblical advice for action is the book’s greatest strength. In framing it, he takes us to a smorgasbord of biblical texts and images. That approach is helpful and he handles each of these responsibly, but the lack of sustained focus on any one book and the absence of a synthesis of ideas makes his case a little less coherent than it could be. In places, the book felt more like a collection of blogs peppered with tactical suggestions than a coherent strategy. Readers, especially those with a teaching ministry, may want to follow the leads the book gives towards a more complete biblical theology of cultural engagement. In doing so, they will need to engage with issues not fully addressed in this book, such as the tension between our duty to submit to the authorities and to work for change towards what is good and the ways in which the church may support those members who MacAlpine (rightly) suggests will find themselves losing jobs because of faithfulness to Scripture.
Being the Bad Guys is certainly worth a read and you won’t find it at all sluggish. It strikes a healthy balance between exposing the deficiencies in how we may have responded to challenges and reminding us of our hope in God’s ultimate purposes. I can imagine it would stimulate healthy discussion in a ‘book club’ or small group. Pastors could benefit a great deal from hearing the responses of church members as the book resonates with and challenges them. Above all, though, I am thankful to McAlpine for challenging me personally to recommit myself to live faithfully for Jesus in a world that says I shouldn’t.
You can buy your own copy of Being The Bad Guys on the publishers website, or from any of your usual retailers.
Our copy was kindly given to us by The Good Book Company for fair review. The opinions expressed in this review, and the others we undertake, represent our impartial and honest appraisal of the book.
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