In His Steps is the classic Christian novel by Charles M. Sheldon. It is, I think the first fictional work I’ve read in quite some time that ran counter to my usual experience of reading fiction much more quickly than nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent a couple of extra weeks both reading this book and contemplating my review of it.
I know what I think of the book, and I know what I am supposed to think of this beloved and renowned work and its author, and my challenge is reconciling my two warring perspectives of the book. Last night, as I was falling asleep, it hit me. Dubois’ theory of double consciousness strikes at the heart of my wrestling with this book. In reality, this inner conflict is hardly isolated to the realm of race in America. I am increasingly able to see how, given our history of merging the political and the religious, the American Christian, sans vigilance, can be afflicted by this same phenomena of double consciousness. We’ll get back to that in bit.
Since I both liked and struggled with In His Steps, depending on the scene it which it was set, we’ll start with a brief synopsis of the plot of the story.
The Rev. Henry Maxwell, pastor of First Church of Raymond, experiences a crisis of faith after a homeless man enters his church and challenges him and his congregation concerning the veracity of their faith in action. A few days later Jack, the homeless man, dies. Maxwell grapples with everything the man said to his congregation that day, and begins to earnestly pray and reconsider his and his congregation’s comfortable, self-satisfied faith. Not only is it void of personal sacrifice, but it is more of a merit badge signaling class and decency than evidence true, Christian discipleship.
The next Sunday, Rev. Maxwell enters the pulpit a changed man, with a renewed passion for Christ and the gospel message. After shocking his congregation with a sermon and prayer lacking the rehearsed polish and poise they have become accustomed t, he ended the morning’s worship by challenging his congregants to embark with him on a new journey. Specifically, he has resolved to filter every life decision through prayer and the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”
So WWJD wasn’t just a 90s slogan that looks good on t-shirts and rubber bracelets!
Initially, about 50 of his congregants join him in prayer and resolve to do nothing without prayerfully and earnestly considering whether Jesus would do the thing in question. The results are remarkable, and many of the players involved encounter situations where their commitment to living as they believe Jesus would come at great personal sacrifice. Some lose jobs, some lose money, and others find that relationships are tested. However, having pledged wholeheartedly to embrace the Christian promise that every one that has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred times, and shall inherit everlasting life, they forge on in faith.
There were a few who fell away when difficulties arose, but overall, the town itself was reinvigorated with all that was taking place. I especially appreciated the way that the congregation of First Church of Raymond left their cushy, prosperous lives and donated time and energy to minister to the people in the roughest, most obviously sin-scarred parts of their town. It was a picture of revival that any Christian can’t help but be moved by.
In addition to the self-sacrifice and commitment to being the hands and feet of Jesus outside the four walls of their brick and mortar edifices, there were others who were committed to transforming their entire city for the glory of Christ. Commitments to be more active in promoting Christians in politics and shutting down saloons to curb liquor consumption was a theme that ran strong throughout the book. It’s also where my wrestling began until I recognized that this is not a new problem and that W.E.B. DuBois had expressed it well describing the freed slaves in America trying to reconcile their American citizenship with an oppressive culture constantly reminding them of their foreignness. Before I explain further, here’s a portion of DuBois’ original quote:
“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Now I’ll rework it to show how it directly relates to the conundrum of the American Christian, particularly in light of our traditional intertwining of our faith and our governing principles:
One ever feels his twoness, — an American citizen, and a citizen of heaven; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one fleshly body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
As I read the portions of In His Steps from my current spiritual (and political) vantage point, I couldn’t help but fell a sense of wariness at the notion that Christians can somehow “Christianize” the dominant culture as many of the well-meaning actors attempt to do in Sheldon’s city of Raymond, and later as the book’s setting moved to Chicago. The whitewashing of external unpleasantness can make it easy to become complacent about our need for repentance. The temptation is strong to believe teetotalling, calf-length dresses, and sin locked away in the dark is evidence of our spiritual fitness. Michael Horton expands on this way of thinking in his piece on American captivity of the church.
Because of my tendency to inwardly squirm with discomfort at the idea, I had to remember that books are written relevant to the time and place in which they were written. Once I was able to remember that, I was able to relax and enjoy In His Steps a lot more and understand why it has remained a beloved book, touching the hearts of generations of Christians new and old for over 100 years. We would all do well to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” in our day to day living, and then act and love others accordingly. Against such things there is no law.