I will listen to just about anyone who speaks with conviction, but after figuring out which variety of Baptist, Holiness, or Pentecostal tradition the speaker represents, I tend to pay less attention to the words than to the intoxicating rhythm of the sermon. There is one exception. When I encounter preachers from the churches of Christ, I find I must focus intently on the meaning of every sentence.
Speaking with an almost cold rationality, they typically assure the listener that God has made the Bible so simple that any honest seeker can find the true gospel of Christ through a "common sense" study of Scripture. Then they proceed to explain and combine familiar passages in ways that are often as baffling to me as they are self-evident to them. But this was before I read David Edwin Harrell's "The Churches of Christ in the Twentieth Century: Homer Hailey's Personal Journey of Faith.
For more than four decades, Harrell has written with clarity and sensitivity about the complex ideas and defining struggles of a variety of southern sectarian groups. Combining long experience as a preacher in the churches of Christ with his skills as a researcher and a fair-minded interpreter of religious history, Harrell now gives us perhaps his most valuable and richly textured work so far.
Insiders and outsiders alike should appreciate how this book brings definition to the in-house religious language of a movement that often appears amorphous in both belief and structure. The church of Christ's frequent call for "restoration" rises out of not a nostalgic longing for the intensity and commitment of the preceding generation. Rather it refers to the conviction that Christ's true churches will divest themselves of all "worldly" denominational traditions in a history-defying effort to recapture the "ancient order" of the "New Testament Church." Christian restorationists have therefore sought to create and maintain self-governing local churches where there is "no creed but the Bible" and in which each member stands equally free to discover and debate the plain intent of Scripture.
Beyond the congregational level, however, the churches of Christ see themselves united informally in an "undenominational brotherhood," charged to warn each other of creeping worldliness and dangerous false teachings. A dynamic tension lies at the core of this movement between a restorationist openness to the plain meaning of Scripture and a rationalist conviction that Scripture is plain enough about most things to provide a basis for restricting fellowship. This tension, aggravated by changing social conditions, accounts for what Harrell calls the "collective chaos" of the churches of Christ and their almost inexorable drift toward contention and schism.
Harrell reconstructs the acrimonious battles that mark the churches of Christ evolution since their break from the Disciples of Christ a century ago. Given his preference for open-minded and irenic truth-seekers over legalistic and divisive truth-finders, one might expect a rather predictable narrative of heroes and villains. But this happens only rarely. Instead, Harrell emphasizes the elements of nuance, surprise and common humanity in the movement by devoting more than half of his book the story of one committed preacher named Homer Hailey.
In Harrell's hands, however, the popular evangelist, Bible scholar, and educator emerges as a reluctant schismatic who much preferred to minister the Word in a small rural church than participate in the hot doctrinal squabbles of the day. Hailey chose sides only when the brotherhood gave him no other option. Once he made his choice, Hailey often behaved in most unpredictable ways-preaching in the pulpits of the opposition, 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 range contains 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 enthusiasm for body-building and boxing suggests a similar blend of commitments in his spiritual life.) More importantly, Hailey prompts us to listen closely for moments of dissonance or doubt that allow us to bear witness to another seeker's "personal journey of faith."
Harrell exposes his readers to this necessary interconnectedness of religion's public exterior and private interior with such deftness that they may find one-sided histories satisfying. When I finished the book, I was in no hurry to pick up another thick chronicle of the past. Armed with a new competence thanks to Harrell's careful scholarship, I wanted to take a long drive through the countryside in pursuit of radio programs sponsored by local churches of Christ.