David E. Timmer
The cover of Dan Meeter’s e-book features a set of austerely elegant sacramental vessels rudely interrupted by a screaming red fire extinguisher. The visual incongruity effectively signals to the reader what will and won’t be found inside: Meeter seeks to offer an invitational apologetic for Christian faith, one which does not depend on threats of hellfire, condemnations of other religions, or “evidence that demands a verdict.” And he contends that this generous, non-defensive and non-coercive presentation of the gospel, far from diluting it into liberal pabulum, gets us to its solid core. It is this gospel core that Meeter intends to express in Why Be a Christian. Hence, the book is not only (or even primarily) an intellectual exercise in apologetics; it is also an act of evangelism, ending with a sort of altar call befitting the sturdy evangelical Calvinism in which Meeter was raised.
Meeter is a pastor in the Reformed Church in America, as was his father. He has served congregations in New Jersey, Ontario, and Michigan. He currently pastors Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn and is on the board of editors for Perspectives. His wife, Melody, is also an ordained minister in the Reformed Church and a hospital chaplain. Meeter is thus able to tap into a rich vein of experiences and personalities from his long career in ministry in order to make a fundamental point: Christian faith is not first of all a set of doctrines to be believed individually, or a transaction between an individual and God; it is a spirituality to be lived out within a community of real people. Theology is important, and Meeter “does” a lot of it in this book; but its importance is always as an opening to or a reflection on spirituality in community.
It is important to distinguish between the individualistic and the communal sense of spirituality. The former, expressed in the “I’m spiritual but not religious” mantra of contemporary culture, may in fact be quite genuine, but it also risks spiritual solipsism. “To do spiritual practices well means embracing a tradition and a community doing the same thing,” Meeter observes. He wants to introduce inquirers to the specifically Christian “patterns and practices for cultivating your soul in the company of fellow travelers.” His own mantra throughout the book takes the form: “If you want to do/explore/experience x, then you would be a Christian.” The heart of the book consists of thirteen chapters that answer the question of the title with a series of infinitive phrases: to pray, to be a human being, to know God’s story, to love your neighbor, to be transformed.
Meeter lays out his own location within Christianity—ecumenically Reformed; liturgically and credally shaped; influenced by Irenaeus, Luther, Calvin, and “some obscure Dutch theologians.” Yet he seeks for the most part to present what another influence, C. S. Lewis, called “mere Christianity,” rather than a denominational or confessional variant of the faith. At the same time, and again like Lewis, Meeter leaves the imprint of his own personality and convictions on his presentation of the common faith of the church. This is most overtly the case when he engages the issue alluded to in his subtitle, Hell, and its opposite, Heaven.
On the former issue, Meeter argues that neither the Bible nor the ancient creeds of the church teaches a doctrine of eternal punishment of the wicked or of non-Christians, despite a long tradition of such teachings in the medieval and modern periods. His own sorting of the issue is influenced by N. T. Wright’s exegetical deconstruction of biblical terms traditionally associated with Hell, like Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades. Unlike Wright, however, who ultimately works his way back toward a modified version of the traditional view, or Rob Bell, who gravitates further toward universalism, Meeter adopts a different solution, a kind of “annihilationism” for those who do not experience salvation. This is all rather sketchily laid out; a much longer and more technical work would be needed to do full justice to these ideas, but that is not the book Meeter set out to write. The important thing for him is that the reasons to be a Christian are all positive ones. “To escape eternal torment” is not on the list.
“To go to heaven” is most definitely on the list. But Meeter’s reading of the New Testament leads him to a construal of heaven that differs from the traditional dualism, which sees heaven as a place separate from earth to which immortal souls go after death. Again in concert with Wright, Meeter insists that the core of Christian eschatology is the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul. Our bodies are made from and for the earth. Hence, he sees the “New Jerusalem” in this-worldly fashion as “the fulcrum and center of the reunion of heaven and earth.” Heaven is not the negation of earth, but its fulfillment. Therefore the prospect of “going to heaven” should lead us to a deepened commitment to our earthly vocations, particularly those of justice for the poor and the stewardship of creation.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the book is not any particular position that Meeter takes on a doctrinal issue, but rather his overall magnanimity and generosity of spirit. Without being at all naive about evil or conflict or ambiguity, Meeter conveys an attitude of delight in the world and appreciation of human diversity—including religious diversity. In a time when so many of those who purport to represent Christianity adopt stances of anger, ridicule, or exclusion toward other faiths, Meeter’s good cheer, courtesy, and inclusiveness constitute a powerful witness to the gospel of a sovereign and gracious God, who does not after all require our impertinent defense.