Review of Churched, by Matthew Paul Turner

Through the Amazon Vine program I received a review copy of Churched, by Matthew Paul Turner. The subtitle is "one kid's journey toward God despite a holy mess." Part of the description on the back reads, "He spent his childhood trapped within the confines of countless bizarre, strict rules. And lives to tell about it." It ends describing the author as "a young man who, amidst the chaotic mess of religion, falls in love with Jesus."

As you may have figured out, the author was "trapped" in a fundamentalist church. To be specific, an "Independent Fundamentalist Baptist" church. His family left the Methodist church when he was four and joined an IFB church where he attended until his graduation from high school. The author writes from the perspective of his younger self, immersed in a fundamentalist church. This is a clever way to make the church he attended and his family and friends look more bizarre and clueless than they likely were, but it is not meant to give the church, his family and friends a fair hearing. From the perspective of a four year old or a seven year old, any organized human endeavor is going to have some bizarre appearances (think, for example, of a jury trial or AA meetings). This perspective plays to the humor angle of the book but detracts from its substance.

The youth perspective is accompanied by an avalanche of snarky asides and comments the author adds to his anecdotes throughout. Some made me smirk and a couple made me laugh. Most were so-so. Although the writer is not without talent, the onslaught of snarkiness proves unrelenting.

Also, the childhood anecdotes left me wondering how, as a child, the author knew the inner thoughts and motivations of so many adults. For example, when his Mom lectured him on this or that subject, he knew exactly what her unspoken motivations were. As another example, the author also knows that the ushers in his church only volunteered for the job so they could avoid listening to the sermon. Indeed, all of the church members who volunteered to do something that occurred during the service only did so to avoid hearing the preacher preach. Perhaps this was true of some, but it seems far fetched -- based on my own upbringing in a conservative Church and service as an adult -- that this was true for all of the volunteers. Thinking back to when I was four and five and even seven, I would not trust myself nearly as much as this author to accurately gauge the hearts of so many people.

Does the book work as a caution about a fundamentalist upbringing? I doubt it. The church the author was raised in, if accurately portrayed, goes much further in its fundamentalism than most fundamentalists I know (and I have known plenty). The author apparently was exposed to teachings and ideas that were unsuitable for him and with which I disagree. While I can relate to some of his complaints (such as the focus on the "end times" discouraging hope for joys in life, such as marriage and children), overall, I do not see that this book offers much guidance on the subject. There is no real discussion of doctrine or exploration of how early is too early to stress even undisputed doctrines to children. Churched will likely reinforce negative stereotypes for those who already have them and result in a "my church is not nearly that fundamentalist" from conservative Christians.

Will the book speak to people who suffered like the author did but want to know Jesus in a vibrant new way? Sadly, I do no think so. There likely is a market of people who had too harsh of a religious upbringing and want to know and love Jesus in a new way. However, this book does not deliver. The back cover suggests an explanation of how the author "falls in love with Jesus" despite the travails of his upbringing, but the author seems to feel distant from Jesus even in adulthood. There is no "growth" in the book. We follow the author from four to seven, then kind of jump to high school briefly. Then he is an adult wandering from church to church. Did he really get to know Jesus? If so, how? These things are not explained or -- that I could tell -- narrated by anecdote. There may be hints, but nothing more.

Is Churched effective as a piece of humor? Not in my opinion. The author has some talent in that regard and some of his asides and commentary are funny. Perhaps a magazine piece rather than a book on the subject would play to the author's strengths. The sheer number of so-so or ineffective asides and comments prove so relentless that the effectiveness of the ploy is diminished and even the funny lines grow tedious.

In conclusion, you will not find within the pages of Churched any substantive discussion of doctrine, the Bible, religion, philosophy, politics, sociology, theology, etc. There is also no discussion about how the author "falls in love with Jesus." You will encounter some funny comments but will find many more a chore to read through. Churched is mostly a lament combined with relentless but failed humor and a glimmer of hope offered at the end that feels a little forced.


Anonymous said…
I just finished reading Churched, and you missed the mark. My church was exactly like Turner's.

And Churched was HILARIOUS. You obviously have a flawed sense of humor...
Layman said…
You move quickly, Anonymous, since Churched was not released until a couple of weeks ago. And you found this post quite quickly.

That being said, I can see how someone who had the exact same upbringing as Turner might appreciate the book more. I suspect that audience is not as big as you think.

My sense of humor may be flawed, as you say (my wife would certainly agree), but if anything I err on the side of finding too much funny. The author can be funny. He sometimes was funny. But a books worth of such mockery was simply too much for me.

It wasn't horribly written, it just doesn't work for me.
Anonymous said…
I'll take your word for it on the book's style, Chris, but I have no trouble imagining fundamentalist churches really being that bad (and even worse), having been raised in one myself. I guess I'm less inclined to give fundamentalists (I know that's a slippery term) the benefit of the doubt when I've been stung by it like I have. Young-earth creationism, literalistic (read: out of context) biblical interpretation, excessive control of dress and behavior...that all starts alarm bells ringing in my head. I thank God that I got out and that, far from losing my faith like some ex-fundamentalists have, through careful and diligent study I've come to a more mature understanding of faith. But there are many people hurting out there because some bozo or another thinks that he's got an exclusive hotline to God.

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