A Feature Review of
Radiant Church: Restoring the Credibility of Our Witness
Tara Beth Leach
Reviewed by Jamie A. Hughes
As a kid, I was a Sesame Street superfan. I watched multiple episodes a day, knew every character by name, and could sing all the songs. Each night, I refused to sleep until my father had performed “baby jump”—a ritual that consisted of him singing the theme song repeatedly and tossing my Muppet friends into bed with me one at a time. (Talk about the patience of Job!)
When my baby brother came along, I was overjoyed at the thought of sharing the show him. But when it was on, he always turned away from the screen. Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Grover simply didn’t hold his interest the way they had mine. So I plopped him down between my outstretched legs and held his face, a kind of pre-k Ludovico Technique, hoping that if he stared at the primary-colored world long enough, he’d come to adore it the way I did. No dice.
Tara Beth Leach’s latest book, Radiant Church: Restoring the Credibility of Our Witness, does much the same thing (albeit much more successfully). With this book, she gently holds a reader’s face, forces him or her to look at the predicament in which the White American church finds itself, and offers a way back a better, truer way of faith.
For her, the exploration began with a single assertion: “Something isn’t right.” It’s a sentence many of us have uttered in recent years after looking at the state of the church and its ever-eroding witness to the world. Leach writes, “We could find many symptoms: #ChurchToo, segregation, polarization, hypernationalism within local church worship, and a history of systemic racism. These didn’t happen overnight; rather, they are symptomatic of a crisis that has been brewing for decades.” It’s an uncomfortable list to read no doubt, but if believers won’t admit the truth—that these things run rampant in many of our houses of worship—it will be impossible to name our sins, repent of them, and “step into new wineskins.”
Leach’s book is an ambitious one, and she seeks to eat the elephant in nine gigantic bites. She begins with a two-chapter examination of the symptoms of the “crisis moment” in which we find ourselves and offers several necessary cures for our malady such as switching from an individual mindset to a corporate one, practicing lament, and focusing on living out the kingdom here rather than just focusing on heaven and what is to come. In the chapters that follow, she scrutinizes our anemic views of God, our propensity for asking weak questions, our lackluster witness, our struggles with gender equality (which she calls “radiant partnership,”) and our uninspiring efforts at evangelism.
If this sounds like a lot, it is. Entire books have been written about the topics she discusses in each chapter, and I often felt like I was drinking through the proverbial firehose. Other readers may find nothing wrong with this approach. In fact, I can see how Leach’s method would make this book an excellent one for a reading group who meets on a regular basis for a deep discussion of the material, and thankfully there are questions at the end of each chapter to help people do just that. Unpacking it that way would be a much more rewarding exercise than reading the almost stand-alone chapters in rapid succession. I was also glad to see Leach cite some well-known experts and scholars throughout her work, including Soong-Chan Rah, Carolyn Custis James, Scot McKnight, Eugene Cho, Rebecca McLaughlin, Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, and Eugene Cho, giving readers breadcrumb trails to follow if they desire to do more work in any one given area.
That one minor gripe aside, Radiant Church is a wonderful read with much to recommend it. The first thing I enjoyed was the way Leach handled each chapter with great care and compassion. There is no finger-pointing or clucking of tongues; she includes herself in every shortcoming, often telling stories of the many ways she’s fallen short of the standard she knows has been set for us by almighty God. One standout moment for me was in the chapter titled “Radiant Practices” in which Leach explains the practice of examen. As a student, Leach told a Black friend named Tiffany she didn’t believe racism was a problem in America, that it was a thing of the past. However, after further reading, study, and contemplation, Leach realized the errors in her thinking, and two years later, she made a public apology and begged for forgiveness, which her friend readily gave. That level of honesty imbues this book with a strength not found in other books written to critique the modern Western church.
Leach’s piercing questions, which she asks throughout the text, are a second strength of this work. In some places, she answers them, providing direction and guidance on how to consider the matter at hand. However, more often, she leaves them on the page for readers to wrestle with, and they require much more than a straightforward, Sunday school reply. A few of these whammies include: Do we love the thrill of power at the expense of loving our neighbor? Who are we progressing toward—Christlikeness or our falsely constructed distorted gods? If Jesus is King, then how should we live? Are we giving [people] a preview of the church that tears down families…that ignores the voices of the marginalized? Oooof.
It’s easy to read a book like this one, which is filled with unpleasant truths and real talk, and put it down feeling exhausted and defeated. However, Leach handles this problem masterfully, particularly in the final chapter when she writes, “We are living in the middle of a shift and an uprising within the church. We as the people of God can point fingers away from ourselves or we can deny; or we can take this head-on and embrace the radiance of Christ. I believe in my bones that this is a moment for us as God’s people. This shifting and shaking don’t have to break us; it can instead create room for new life. But are we willing to do the hard things? Are we willing to not only face the beastly powers of this world but dismantle and disarm them? Are we willing to untangle ourselves from the grip of the beast has on us?” (I told you the questions were good, right!?) There are challenges, but Leach leaves readers hopeful and inspired by visions of what the church should and can look like this side of heaven.
Leach doesn’t shy away from the hard truths, but neither is she mired in them. Instead, she keeps her eyes (and ours) focused on Jesus our coming King—the one in whom the victory is already secured and through whom all things will ultimately be redeemed. All this makes her book rather prescient, and it is one we would all do well to read and consider if we want to help change church for the better.