Saturday, July 03, 2010

Book: "The Comfortable Pew" (Pierre Berton)

TITLE: The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment in the New Age
AUTHOR: Pierre Berton
PUBLISHED: Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Lit, 1965.

This book was a bestseller when it was released back in 1965. Commissioned by the Canadian Anglican Church's Religious Education Department, it was an attempt to take a hard critical but honest look at the state of the Church. Pierre Berton was invited to write the book, but not without controversy.  Those who are for the publication, want to think out of the box to make adjustments to their understanding of church. Those who oppose tend to accuse Berton of seeking to destroy the church.

I pick up this book thinking that it is a book about re-vitalizing the church congregation, by getting pew-warmers and comfortable Christians to live dynamic Christian lives. It turns out that the book is a sharp critique on the current state of the Church, at least in the mid-60s. It makes me think about how different the church of today is, compared to that of 1965. I can say that his book gives good reminders of what the church should NOT do. Having said that, there are positive things happening in the church today, and one need not be overly pessimistic like Berton.

In a nutshell, the author accuses the church of forgetting its main identity and what it first stands for. Broadly speaking, there are two main issues with church. Firstly, the church has become institutionalized in the sense that it is more concerned about conformity and keeping the status quo. Secondly, the church is in danger of being fossilized because of its inability to stay relevant to the people and the society at large. Both of these contributes to the crisis of the church.

Written in 3 parts, the first part talks about how the Church has abdicated its leadership by not standing up for social justice, for rightful ethical business practices and for a more relevant engagement with society. The second part, Berton accuses the church of becoming more an establishment to be preserved rather than a calling toward counter-cultural behavior. In the third part, Berton laments that the church has failed to communicate adequately, and missed the opportunity to stay relevant. He attacks the tendency of the church to assume absolute rightness. He says that the archaic use of liturgical terms are incomprehensible to most people. He blames the poor pulpit qualities, and that sermons tend to be irrelevant and boring. He also complains that the church is not open enough to using modern tools to communicate the message. Finally, he seeks to see a church that is able to confidently practice faith without insisting on members to believe absolutely its dogmas prior to membership.

Thankfully, Berton ends the book with an optimistic prescription that revolution is possible. However, one needs to count the cost.

But there seem to be two ways in which a truly Christian reformation could come about. It could come about through some terrifying persecution of the Christian Church – a persecution that would rid the Church of those of little faith, of the status-seekers and respectability-hunters, of the deadwood who enjoy the club atmosphere, of the ecclesiastical hangers-on and the comfort-searchers. Once the Church becomes the most uncomfortable institution in the community, only those who really matter will stick with it. At this point, one would expect the Church to come back to those basic principles of love, faith, and hope that have made martyrs out of men.” (142-3)

My Comments
I think many of Berton's observations are still applicable today. I tend to agree in general terms but disagree on the specifics. For instance, I agree that the church needs to stay relevant, but disagree that the church should 'appear on front-page headlines' as part of its counter-cultural manifesto. I agree that the church is in danger of being institutionalized, but disagree that there is no need to preserve church structure. Reading the nature of Berton's frustrations with the church, it is helpful for the reader to note Berton's background to him leaving the church totally. He has placed misguided sense of faith in the church when he was younger. He left the church disillusioned and swings to the other extreme too fast and too quickly. While Berton has many good criticisms that deserve to be considered, he is overly negative about the church. There are good things happening in the church today. While not all are actively doing social action, the church is still a place for people to gather and needs are still being met and ministered to. Perhaps, there is a time for everything. The church is undergoing a transition. Like Berton's desire for love in the Church, perhaps, we can learn to apply both the carrot and the stick approach. That is what the Word of God can do: Helping Christians to correct one another in the truth and in love.

If you are concerned about church, especially the Western influenced ones, you should read this book.


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