Wittmer, Michael. Urban Legends of Theology: 40 Common Misconceptions. Brentwood, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2023. 258 pp. Pb; $19.99. Link to B&H Academic
Part of B&H Academic’s Urban Legends series, Michael Wittmer takes on forty common misconceptions about Christian theology. Wittmer is a professor of systematic and historical theology and director of the Center for Christian Worldview at Cornerstone University. In addition to Heaven is a Place on Earth (Zondervan, 2004) and Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough (Zondervan, 2009), he recently published The Bible Explainer: Questions and Answers on Origins, the Old Testament, Jesus, the End Times, and More (Barbour, 2020).
The Urban Legends series defines an urban legend as an untrue popular belief in church or culture. Some of these urban legends are more wrong than others. In his introduction, Whitmer observes that some “will damn you to hell” (ix). He points out that even though dismantling myths is fun, replacing the myth with the truth is far better. This is the book’s goal, to clarify popular theological and replace them with accurate theological teaching.
A book like this runs the risk of theological arrogance, or the author comes off looking like a real jerk. Whitmer avoids both extremes. He answers these myths with good-natured humor: the book is fun to read! His goal is to point the readers to the truth. Notice that the truth is defined within a conservative and evangelical framework.
The book covers forty urban legends in four categories (“in theological order”): God and theological method, humanity and sin, Jesus and salvation, and church and last things. He also includes ten mini-myths, slight variations on the theme of the chapter. Unlike other books in this series, Wittmer includes six “suburban legends.” These are updated versions of the classic urban legend covered in the chapter.
The urban legends covered in the book are usually the kind of trite sayings that describe Christian belief used by outsiders. They are often cliches, like “theology puts God in a box” or “faith begins when knowledge ends.” Sometimes these legends seem like “bad Facebook memes from grandma.” Others deal with serious theological errors. For example, everyone has likely heard the common saying defining justification as “just as if I never sinned.” Not only does this little phrase only rhyme in English, but it is also terrible theology!
Perhaps my favorite in the book is entitled “Grandpa went to Heaven and plays outfield with the Angels.” The chapter deals with the perception that humans go to heaven and get to do whatever they like doing on earth for eternity. Although vaguely comforting, they don’t stand up to a biblical description of heaven. Sometimes the urban legend is derived from a classic hymn, such as “I’ll Fly Away,” which appears to teach that we will live forever in heaven. In this chapter, he deals with what scripture says about the new heaven and earth and the consummation of the age. Wittmer concludes the chapter by changing the lyrics of “I’ll Fly Away” to correct this urban legend. Although theologically correct, I can’t imagine this is catching on at the bluegrass festival.
Each chapter begins with a short description of the legendary belief, often illustrated with some popular culture reference. Wittmer then deals with the legend in a section entitled “Unraveling the Belief.” He deals with what is wrong with the commonly assumed belief and what is actually taught in Christian theology. Remember, his goal is to present theological truth rather than simply tear down a trite cliche. These sections are well documented, with footnotes pointing interested readers to additional literature so that they can go deeper. Each chapter concludes with a short section entitled “Application.” Here we are often treated to Wittmer’s pastoral heart As he attempts to help readers to understand the importance of good theology in living out their Christian life.
Urban Legends of Theology is an entertaining book that presents traditional (conservative) theology as an antidote to popular assumptions about what Christians believe. I’ve often observed that good theology or good exegesis ruins popular preaching. This book might challenge a pastor who has made an emotional point like “Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship,” or “the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Undoubtedly, everyone has heard sermons (or worse, preached sermons) where these urban legends were met with vigorous amens and nodding heads. But as Wittmer says, it is better to have good theology and pass on these kinds of false (and sometimes dangerous) ideas about Christian theology.
Thanks to B&H Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Published on Reading Acts, May 26, 2023