Messy Grace by Caleb Kaltenbach

Messy GraceMessy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction

by Caleb Kaltenbach
Trade Paperback, 203 pg.
WaterBrook Press, 2015
Read: December 6, 2015

Straight off, I could tell Mr. Kaltenbach and I approach things very differently. There is a looseness to his language that I can’t tolerate on theological matters — I, like the noted Richard Rogers, serve a precise God*, and it gives me hives to read people who don’t — though I readily acknowledge (and lament) that he’s speaking in the Evangelical Vernacular. By page 5, I was grimacing at his phraseology. Particularly his use of “messy” and it’s connection to grace, and his insistence that there’s a “tension” between grace and truth — but I’ll return to that in a bit.

The first few chapters outline the problems between the perceived (and, sadly, sometimes real) destructive attitudes of Christians towards LGBT people and the perceived (and, sadly, sometimes real) combative stances and attitudes of LGBT people towards Christians. Kaltenbach illustrated this with episodes from his own childhood and what he’s seen in the pastorate. Sadly, he’s too impressed with generalizing from his autobiography (it’s not a totally improper strategy, but Kaltenbach doesn’t bring in anything to buttress his arguments). He also displays an over-reliance on platitudes and catch-phrases. Worst of all, he’s good at using stereotypes and generalizations when calling for those he’s stereotyping/generalizing to stop stereotyping and using generalizations about LGBT people.

I admit I was thoroughly annoyed with him by the time I got to chapter 6, when he (largely and temporarily) put aside the anecdotes and actually got around to explaining the Scriptural view on the topic at hand by brief glances at various texts, responses to critics, and so on. Could this chapter have been better? His explanations less open to criticism by theological opponents? Yes. That said, it was pretty good — and a very good introduction to the ideas he offered (his “More Reading” list at the end of the book contains much that would do a better job on this point).

I have several reservations and problems with Kaltenbach doctrinally and theologically. Actually, despite frequent use of the word “grace,” I’m not sure what he means by the term, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what the biblical writers mean by χαρις. In a fallen world, plagued by sin (a term Kaltenbach avoids), the favor of God, the goodwill of God towards undeserving sinners because of Christ’s work on their behalf (my quick and dirty definition of grace) will be messy, it will be found in messy situations with messy people — because there are no other kinds of people. Calling grace “messy” is like saying it’s “undeserved.” There is no other kind. Kaltenbach also spends a good deal of time talking about a tension between grace and truth, and I don’t see that where he locates it in the Scriptural witness, or anywhere else. In fact, throughout the Old and New Testaments, the two go hand in hand.

Both his dependence upon the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) for his approach to those who differ from him and his indictment of Imprecatory Psalms make me worry about his view of scripture. I can’t help but wonder, built on such an unstable foundation, how much of Kaltenbach’s arguments can stand.

That said, from Chapter 6 on, there is little I flat-out disagreed with — the differences ranged from minor quibbles to exceptions — but he said nothing that I’d say was entirely wrong or baseless, and I could appreciate what he said and where he was coming from. Both his understanding of the biblical teaching on sex, and the way that Christians should interact with, think about, and treat those with whom they disagree on sensitive issues is commendable and spot-on. As this is the point of the book, however sloppily he goes about it, I have to like that.

It’s a good 101 book (maybe a 080?), but one should grab his “More Reading” list and work through it — Champagne Butterfield’s book would be the best to start with if you like the memoir aspect of this book.

* If you’re unfamiliar with the story, see DeYoung’s quotation of Packer here.

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I received this book from the ever-so-nice people at Blogging for Books for this review.

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3 Stars

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