A Disappointing Dinner With A Perfect Stranger

I wish I could be more excited about David Gregory’s “Dinner With a Perfect Stranger.” If you haven’t heard about it, you likely will. The publisher printed 175,000 copies (which is a lot) and it is showing up on recommend lists and extended bestseller lists.

The concept is an interesting one–what if a young, overworked executive received an invitation to dine with Jesus Christ for a leisurely conversation over a fine meal?

I read the book in one sitting and to be honest found my stomach sinking as the dialogue emerged as a thinly veiled apologetic primer on “common objections to following Jesus that every Christian should be able to counter.”

I probably wouldn’t have gone public with my reservations about the book were it not for a line in an Amazon review, “In the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis touched on some of the core questions of religion, from the Christian viewpoint (is there a hell? What is heaven like, really? How can other religions be wrong, and just one be right?) Taking his cue from Lewis, Gregory does the same, realizing that questions like these come alive when they’re in the context of a story, and we can be the third party, watching with interest while they are put on the table and considered.”

This reference to Lewis underscores the weakness of this book and reveals the problems in the evangelical culture that would embrace the book and of those who would place it even remotely analogous to the tradition of CS Lewis.

Lewis’ intellectual, spiritual and imaginative mix produced classic works that operated effectively in a range of genres. “Screwtape Letters” is satirical, “Narnia” children’s fantasy and “Mere Christianity” straightforward apologetics. Lewis was effective in each literary genre and understood the conventions of each. On the other hand, “Dinner With a Perfect Stranger” is an imaginative concept executed unimaginatively. For me, the cringe factor was high, but unbearably so when compared to the work of CS Lewis.

Beyond the literary failings, even the “apologetic” approach reflects more the influence of Hank Hanegraff and “The Bible Answer Man” than the actual style of Jesus. New Testament interactions stand the test of time because they reflect real conversations about real issues with real people, one of which is Jesus. Jesus had a way of cutting through the “red herrings” and focusing on the authentic individual. None of his conversations sound generic because none were generic. In “Dinner With a Perfect Stranger” Nick Cominsky is a cardboard regurgitator of red herring questions, lobbing them over the plate to Jesus who comes across like he’s satisfied to hit them out of the park in batting practice. Here I can concur with some of the Publishers’ Weekly’s comments: “In his quest to prove why Christianity is superior to other religions, Gregory has Jesus make misleading statements about Hinduism, Buddhism and particularly Islam. These unfair caricatures add to the book’s heavy-handed feel, as do strawman arguments for the veracity of the Bible and the resurrection.”

Finally, regarding what this book’s impending success says about evangelicalism. I suspect this book will be bought and given as gifts by 1’000’s of Christians who are looking for a way to reach their “unsaved” friends. One of the amazon reviews starts this way “I received this book from an aunt who has recently ‘rediscovered’ her Christian-self and ever-since has been proselytizing to me, in an effort to convert me I suppose.”

Evangelicals have reduced the gospel to a sales pitch and are always looking for “sales aids” and “marketing peripheral material” to help their cause. This book will fit the bill, because most won’t see the thin gruel of reductionist apologetics, because it is the sophomoric level at which their faith operates.

A superficial culture and a superficial faith are a match made in heaven for publishers of “Christian Inspirational” books. They’ll move a lot of units and talk a lot about making an impact on the culture but when, as happened to the Titanic, the above-water obstacles turn out to be shadows of the deeper problems, our thin armor will be ripped to shreds and the ship of faith and culture will take on water and sink.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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    Posted in Staublog in August 15, 2005 by | No Comments »

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