I will listen to just about anyone who speaks with conviction, but afterfiguring out which variety of Baptist, Holiness, or Pentecostal traditionthe speaker represents, I tend to pay less attention to the words than tothe intoxicating rhythm of the sermon. There is one exception. When Iencounter preachers from the churches of Christ, I find I must focusintently on the meaning of every sentence.
Speaking with an almost cold rationality, they typically assure thelistener that God has made the Bible so simple that any honest seeker canfind the true gospel of Christ through a "common sense" study of Scripture. Then they proceed to explain and combine familiar passages in ways thatare often as baffling to me as they are self-evident to them. But this wasbefore I read David Edwin Harrell's "The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey's PersonalJourney of Faith.
For more than four decades, Harrell has written with clarity andsensitivity about the complex ideas and defining struggles of a variety ofsouthern sectarian groups. Combining long experience as a preacher in thechurches of Christ with his skills as a researcher and a fair-mindedinterpreter of religious history, Harrell now gives us perhaps his mostvaluable and richly textured work so far.
Insiders and outsiders alike should appreciate how this book brings definition to the in-housereligious language of a movement that often appears amorphous in both beliefand structure. The church of Christ's frequent call for "restoration" risesout of not a nostalgic longing for the intensity and commitment of thepreceding generation. Rather it refers to the conviction that Christ's truechurches will divest themselves of all "worldly" denominational traditionsin a history-defying effort to recapture the "ancient order" of the "NewTestament Church." Christian restorationists have therefore sought tocreate and maintain self-governing local churches where there is "no creedbut the Bible" andin which each member stands equally free to discover and debate the plainintent of Scripture.
Beyond the congregational level, however, the churches of Christ see themselves united informally in an "undenominational brotherhood," chargedto warn each other of creeping worldliness and dangerous false teachings. Adynamic tension lies at the core of this movement between a restorationistopenness to the plain meaning of Scripture and a rationalist convictionthat Scripture is plain enough about most things to provide a basis forrestricting fellowship. This tension, aggravated by changing socialconditions, accounts for what Harrell calls the "collective chaos" of thechurches of Christ and their almost inexorable drift toward contention andschism.
Harrell reconstructs the acrimonious battles that mark the churches ofChrist evolution since their break from the Disciples of Christ a centuryago. Given his preference for open-minded and irenic truth-seekers overlegalistic and divisive truth-finders, one might expect a ratherpredictable narrative of heroes and villains. But this happens onlyrarely. Instead, Harrell emphasizes the elements of nuance, surprise andcommon humanity in the movement by devoting more than half of his bookthe story of one committed preacher named Homer Hailey.
In Harrell's hands, however, the popular evangelist, Bible scholar, andeducator emerges as a reluctant schismatic who much preferred to ministerthe Word in a small rural church than participate in the hot doctrinal squabbles ofthe day. Hailey chose sides only when the brotherhood gave him no other option. Once he made his choice, Hailey oftenbehaved in most unpredictable ways-preaching in the pulpits of theopposition, and espousing unpopular "liberal" views on practical issues,like the rights of divorced and remarried people.
Hailey's story, in other words, illustrates that history at close rangecontains large doses of the complex and unexpected. Like most members of the churches of Christ, Harrell argues, Hailey embodies a "distintive personal mix" of restorationalist and rationalist tendencies. (Even his enthusiasmfor body-building and boxing suggests a similar blend of commitments in hisspiritual life.) More importantly, Hailey prompts us to listen closely for moments of dissonance or doubt that allow us to bear witness to anotherseeker's "personal journey of faith."
Harrell exposes his readers to this necessary interconnectedness of religion's public exterior and private interior with such deftness thatthey may find one-sided histories satisfying. When I finished the book, Iwas in no hurry to pick up another thick chronicle of the past. Armed witha new competence thanks to Harrell's careful scholarship, I wanted to takea long drive through the countryside in pursuit of radio programs sponsoredby local churches of Christ.