A Christless Review

Sometimes random conversations or some other small things like a phrase, a scent, or a picture will trigger a memory. That happened with me yesterday when speaking to an artist about children’s books. On rare occasions over the years, I had a vague memory of a book that captured me when I was a small child. I was an avid reader, so it’s doubtful that I remember ten percent of what I read in my formative years. But this one kept popping back in my mind. I just couldn’t remember the name of it until it popped into my head during an online conversation. Shoeshine Girl by Clyde Robert Bulla

Excited that I finally remembered the name of the book, I looked it up and found a review from a father who read it with his children. His review prompted this blog post not because of the book itself. After all, I haven’t read it in over 40 years. I am writing this blog because of the theology presented in the review. In talking about the lessons Shoeshine Girl teaches about hard work and selflessness through a protagonist who is at first selfish and believes happiness comes through money, the reviewer writes, “I don’t really think he chose the best way to teach it, at least from my own biblical-worldview perspective.”

Worldview

I won’t spend much time criticizing his use of the word “worldview” because it’s become such a common term that most use it without understanding its philosophical implications. But to touch on it quickly before moving onto the most problematic issue of his theology, a worldview is a system built around a single idea and has its origins in Darwinism. Born out of postmodern philosophy, a worldview is a single point of focus with which to view the natural world. Each person having their own worldview rather than examining the natural world through senses and reason leads to relativism—a concept Christians reject. But, as I said, the word has become part of common parlance, so I’ll move on to how he uses his worldview lens to understand Scripture.

The Criticism

The reviewer’s criticism of the book is that the protagonist, 10yo Sarah, learns to give respect only after receiving it herself. This is how children learn—by the examples of the adults in their lives, so why does the reviewer take issue with a normal part of childrearing? He said because according to Jesus, the book got it backwards. According to him, Jesus does not teach that we give only after receiving it ourselves. To avoid caricature, I’ll provide the quote:

“Jesus taught a whole lot about servant leadership, and some of the most famous lessons are these: “Many of the first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31); “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12); and “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).”

I want to focus on the passage from John because it contradicts the reviewer’s “worldview.” Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, saying, “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Before the disciples learned to serve, Christ served them first. Not only that, but the reviewer ignores the Gospel and presents a theology that is antithetical to the Gospel.

The Gospel

The Gospel tells us God is holy, and we are not. All of our sins condemn us before our righteous creator. At the end of our lives, we will stand before God who will judge us against His own perfect righteousness, and none of us are able to meet that high bar on the basis of our own works. 

The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus, who is God come in the flesh, lived a life of perfect righteousness. Not only did He live a life of perfect obedience to the law of God, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice for our sins to satisfy the justice and righteousness of God. Three days later, He rose from the dead, which is how we can be assured that Jesus is who He says He is. Because of His sacrifice, all those who put their trust in Jesus Christ receive the full benefit of His life and death and will forever enjoy the blessings of living in God’s kingdom because our sins are forgiven.

We love God and each other because God first loved us. We sacrificially serve others because God sacrificially served us first. The reviewer of Shoeshine Girl teaches a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps theology because he teaches that we are to serve others solely on the basis of our own merits and not because we were shown grace first.

Christless Christianity

In his penultimate paragraph, the reviewer mentions that Sarah disrespected her aunt until her aunt respected Sarah for her hard work, and then Sarah learned how to respect others. To this the reviewer writes, “I suppose this twist of Scripture towards the supposed virtue of self-love-above-all-else is why The Shoeshine Girl ranks among Bulla’s best-loved stories with modern readers. He panders to the Christ-less belief in the individual’s self-value, first-and-foremost, and the world eats that crap up.”

The irony is the reviewer’s stated “worldview” is the one that is Christ-less because it removes Christ’s atoning sacrifice and our response of gratitude towards Christ’s salvation.

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