Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Choung's True Story Not Told Well

  • Annabelle Robertson Contributing Writer
  • 2008 12 Jun
Choung's <i>True Story</i> Not Told Well

Author:  James Choung
Title:  True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing in
Publisher:  InterVarsity Press

Written by James Choung, M.Div., D.Min., divisional director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, True Story is a book in drag.  It wants to be a novel but it’s actually a dressed-up primer on biblical theology.

The premise of True Story is an important one.  Modern evangelicals, it says, are imparting a skewed message—and not just to the world, but to each other.  We’ve conveniently reduced the teaching of Jesus to mere creedal, or intellectual, assent.  But when Jesus said “repent,” he didn’t mean that we were to just ask forgiveness for our sins.  He meant that we were to undergo a complete and total transformation of hearts and minds.  Likewise, when he said “believe,” he didn’t mean that we were to nod our heads if a man says he could tightrope walk across Niagara Falls with another man on his back.  It meant, “Climb aboard.”

Viewed in this light, embracing the gospel that Jesus taught—which must be understood within its evolving cultural and historical framework, the very essence of biblical theology—means becoming active agents of change.  It means that we must act as counter-revolutionaries willing to fight a system that perpetuates riches at the cost of injustice.  If we are thus transformed, Choung seems to be saying, we would be rebuilding New Orleans.  We’d be halting the genocide in Darfur (or at least, feeding the refugees), and cleaning up the wreckage of China.  All this and more, instead of myopically trying to fill more pews. 

Many Christians, of course, are doing these things.  But for the most part, we don’t even bother to go downtown, much less to another part of the world—unless it’s the quick missionary trip.  Worse, despite an income that exceeds the gross domestic product of every country in the world, save two (America and Japan), we don’t even hand over our money to the needy.  The majority of Christians barely tithe, much less give—or live—sacrificially.  It’s a disconcerting message for those of us who enjoy designer clothes, expensive cars and beach vacations.  No wonder it’s been ignored—usually with the help of reactionary protests that it’s “works righteousness” or a “social gospel.” 

Clearly, Choung has something important to say.  The problem is that he doesn’t say it well—at least here.  He’s an excellent scholar and probably a great speaker as well.  His text is littered with useful insights and revelations, but the set-up just doesn’t work.  At first glance, it might appear to be a parable, but it’s actually a point-by-point theology lecture thinly disguised as dialogue—in an obvious question-and-answer format, no less.  As a result, these “talking heads” (who are never developed and do nothing but eat, drink, walk and talk) fail to engage the reader on any emotional level.  Throw in the non-stop theology and it’s tedious reading, even for this Master of Divinity graduate.

Choung’s intentions are good.  He wants his message to be accessible.  But you can’t take an eight-hour PowerPoint presentation, add a few graphics, and call it a movie.  Moreover, he’s targeting the wrong audience.  If change is to happen, it has to flow from the pulpit—and pastors don’t need anything dumbed down.  What’s disappointing is that had this experienced evangelist played to his strengths and written his book in a nonfiction format illustrated by anecdotes, he might well have had, if not a runway best seller, at least something that Christians would be debating.  As is, it’s likely to end up just as dusty as the message Jesus presented so many years ago.  And that’s a shame.