Published by Westminster John Knox Press on September 28, 2021
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life
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Thou Shalt Not Be Horrible.
Imagine for a moment what the world might look like if we as people of faith, morality, and conscience actually aspired to this mantra.
What if we were fully burdened to create a world that was more loving and equitable than when we arrived?
What if we invited one another to share in wide-open, fearless, spiritual communities truly marked by compassion and interdependence?
What if we daily challenged ourselves to live a faith that simply made us better humans?
John Pavlovitz explores how we can embody this kinder kind of spirituality where we humbly examine our belief system to understand how it might compel us to act in less-than-loving ways toward others.
This simple phrase, Thou Shalt Not Be Horrible, could help us practice what we preach by creating a world where:
• spiritual community provides a sense of belonging where all people are received as we are;• the most important question we ask of a religious belief is not Is it true? but rather, is it helpful?• it is morally impossible to pledge complete allegiance to both Jesus and America simultaneously;• the way we treat others is the most tangible and meaningful expression of our belief system.
In If God Is Love, Don't Be a Jerk, John Pavlovitz examines the bedrock ideas of our religion: the existence of hell, the utility of prayer, the way we treat LGBTQ people, the value of anger, and other doctrines to help all of us take a good, honest look at how the beliefs we hold can shape our relationships with God and our fellow humans--and to make sure that love has the last, loudest word.
I first heard of John Pavlovitz sometime in 2016 when someone recommended him to me as “another pastor speaking out against the evangelical obsession with Trump.” I clicked the like button Facebook and followed him for a bit. And basically, if you’ve followed him on social media, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of the tone, structure, and content of If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk.
I have two primary criticisms of the book. First, it’s not really substantive. That’s not to say that Pavlovitz doesn’t engage with deep issues. He does. All the hot-button issues of sexuality, gender identity, abortion, politics, eternal judgment, and more get Pavlovitz’s signature treatment. But it’s all done at a superficial level. The exact same thing he does on Facebook, he does here. You can excuse it on social media for being social media, but the context of publication in book format deserves more depth and nuance.
Pavlovitz is ostensibly writing to his “opposition” on the Christian right, telling them hey, If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk. But there’s nowhere in this book where Pavlovitz tries to understand evangelicals. There’s nowhere that he even tries exegeting Scripture or providing solid argumentation for interpretational differences. He just states it blunt “Nope. You’re wrong about the Bible and silly for holding that interpretation.” To be quite honest, Pavlovitz sometimes comes across like a jerk.
Second, he uses language and terminology meant to evoke feeling rather than precision. When I read this book, I shared a quote from it in a fairly progressive pastor’s group that I’m involved with without any of my thoughts so as not to influence first thoughts and it received a fair amount of pushback. Here’s the quote: “God is decidedly nonbinary and that is really good news, because it means that we can discover the character of that God in every human being we encounter without exception.” On the surface, that might resonate with some believers. But there’s a difference between being nonbinary and transcending gender. God isn’t part of the binary because he’s the image of the full spectrum of humanity. It’s an emotionally evocative sentence, but in the end it exploits nonbinary people for the purpose of making an edgy and ultimately not very meaningful statement.
A third more minor point that I might bring up is that Pavlovitz presents himself as an insider critiquing Christianity, particularly evangelicalism. However, it’s important to note that Pavlovitz has stepped outside orthodox belief and currently practices Unitarian Universalism. UU is a unity faith that incorporates elements of most major religions and sees them all as being equally valid. Thus, Pavlovitz has moved outside of the orthodox bounds of faith and his criticisms then, are as an outsider rather than an insider.
In the end, if you’re a fan of Pavlovitz’s writings on social media. This is more of the same repackaged and edited into book form. If you’re looking for something a bit more nuanced or substantial, you’ll find yourself unfortunately disappointed.