Review of Christian Civility in an Uncivil World

Note: This review was published in the November 29, 2009 issue of The Post & Courier. The reviewer the Rev. Robert M. Knight, pastor of First Christian Church of Charleston.

Christian Civility in an Uncivil WorldMitch Carnell, a lay leader at Charleston’s historic First Baptist Church, is concerned about a lack of civility in public affairs and church life. His concern has led him to edit an insightful book called “Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.”

The essays are written by notable church leaders representing various Christian traditions. John Gehring and Alexia Kelley are Roman Catholic laypersons who write about mediating and modulating too much inflammatory rhetoric and negotiating the politics of the church they know and love.

The Rev. Sally Dyck, bishop of the United Methodist Church, Minnesota Conference, draws on a distinctive Wesleyan tradition she terms “Holy Conferencing.” Dyck outlines an approach to negotiating and problem-solving designed to minimize the unfortunate consequences of a church life reduced to “winners” and “losers.” She has adapted this approach from Methodism’s founder John Wesley.

Another bishop, the Rev. Stacy Sauls of the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington, Ky., who is also an attorney, writes with notable pastoral sensitivity concerning the conflict in the church he loves and serves surrounding the matter of one’s sexual orientation.

In this essay, Sauls declares, “What We Need is More Maturity.” Except I found myself wondering if the notion of being “more mature,” however kindly presented, might still provoke anyone conflicted or threatened about such a polarizing subject.

Likely the most public of those writing in this book is the Rev. Richard Mouw, a Presbyterian and president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

A leading figure among American evangelicals, Mouw’s chapter, “Good Manners for Public Christians,” is reflective of his firm convictions and kind and considerate spirit, evident when he addresses hot-button issues in the world of religion and culture.

Carnell’s essay, “The Power of Words,” not only reveals how hurtful interpersonal communication can be, it offers thoughtful guidance for improving interpersonal relations through a greater awareness of responsible and considerate ways of speaking and listening, both verbal and nonverbal.

Having spent his professional lifetime studying “The Power of Words,” its intricacies and subtleties, Carnell’s contribution to improved civility for the church in the world is worthy indeed.

The chapter contains numerous evocative quotes from both well-known and lesser-known people. One that sparked my imagination was Mark Twain’s: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Plus, the theological/biblical foundation Carnell offers is particularly significant for any Christian discussion of “civility.”

Three representative Baptist ministers also are contributors. Jimmy Allen describes important efforts in “Bringing People of Faith Together,” drawing on conflict involving Southern Baptists over several decades.

Tom McKibben’s “The Minister as Friend” is written from the perspective of someone who has served two different American Baptist congregations in Massachusetts. His is an important contribution to the practice of pastoral theology.

Wade Burleson, another Southern Baptist, who has developed quite a reputation as a blogger, writes the essay “Christian Civility on the Internet.”

“Christian Civility in an Uncivil World” is a readable book, as conversational as it is intellectually, morally and spiritually stimulating, and sure to appeal to anyone concerned about conflict in and outside of church life.

Carnell has joined with an impressive array of thoughtful, faithful church leaders in producing an important book I commend to both clergy and laity.

CHRISTIAN CIVILITY IN AN UNCIVIL WORLD. Edited by C. Mitch Carnell. Smyth & Helwys. 160 pages. $17