Review: Finding Your Way Back to God
Finding Your Way Back to God
Dave Ferguson & Jon Ferguson
Multnomah Books, 2015 $22.99
His name was Chris. For many years, there was a book he hated. He said it was the worst book he ever read! One day he told this to the Executive Officer (“XO”) of his Marine Corps unit. This is the story. Before a long holiday weekend, Chris’s unit commander called for every Marine to have their personal vehicle inspected as a safety precaution. Chris’s XO inspected his car. The XO asked Chris to open the trunk of his car. Chris obeyed, opening the trunk and revealing a small stack of paperbacks.
One of them was R. A. Salvatore’s Dungeons and Dragons novel, The Crystal Shard. On its cover was a drawing of goofy fantasy good guys fighting goofy fantasy bad guys. The XO snickered and said, “Which one’s your faaavorite, Casberg?” He was very sarcastic. Chris said, “Sir, that is without a doubt the worst book I’ve ever read.” The XO grunted and walked away. To this day Chris wonders if his XO secretly liked the book a lot and that maybe he hurt his XO’s feelings.
Chris held up The Crystal Shard as the worst book he’d ever read for many years. Then he read Finding Your Way Back to God, a recent entry in the overcrowded genre of “Christian Living,” which is marketing-speak for Jesus-themed self-help books. The faith-based publishing industry seems to manufacture these sorts of books at the rate of about one per hour. Chris suspects this is because the books take roughly an hour to write, depending on how much coffee the author had that morning. Indeed, reading Finding Your Way Back to God is like reading the frenzied sermon notes of a pastor who slammed a cup (or seven) of joe at half past midnight the night before Sunday service. The book is an admittedly theologically accurate mishmash of surface level exegesis, enthusiastic altar calls, endless personal anecdotes, utterly random pop culture references, and quotes from books you wish you were reading instead. It’s an uncomfortable one-on-one session with a life coach with no inside voice mixed with a youth group sermon that overstays its welcome in a single torturous volume, and it made Chris groan out loud many, many times.
In Finding Your Way Back to God, the Brothers Ferguson lay out a five step plan they say has helped thousands of people FTWBTG, a regrettable acronym for “find their way back to God” that reappears over and over in the book like a cough the author just can’t seem to shake. The Fergusons pledge this five step plan has power to make positive life changes, a curious choice of phrasing that gives the reader the sense he is reading an infomercial script. To their credit, the authors do not offer a thirty day money back guarantee if the reader does not experience positive life changes.
The “plan” itself is a five stage process, framed on the departure and return of the son in the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15. Each stage is a spiritual awakening: the customer—I mean, the reader—first encounters the feeling they are missing something from their life; then regret for their past mistakes and current sorry state; then the realization they cannot escape the downward spiral of their life without help; then their need for God’s love; then, finally, they awaken to the idea that life with God is a constant party. In a general don’t-think-about-it-too-hard sense, the Brothers Ferguson are correct in their description of the Christian pattern of conviction-repentance-reconciliation. The Lord gave us the parable of the prodigal son for that very reason; it is true, instructive, and resonant. Even a Jesus-themed self-help book can’t shake the parable of its transformative power.
The problem is that a good lesson doesn’t make a good book. Finding Your Way Back to God is a great lesson molded into a decent sermon stretched out on a torture rack to justify selling it as a $23 hardcover. The authors drag the reader from idea to idea with a series of rhetorical questions (e.g., “Wouldn’t this be great?”, “How would you feel if…?”), injecting forced enthusiasm with a dose of Schoolhouse Rock interjections (“Wow! Fascinating!”) as if they were afraid the reader weren’t as thrilled as they were about a Tim Tebow interview or a Scarface quotation (both used in the book). Single-sentence paragraphs, a cheap staple of bloggers wanting to add some impact to a sentence, litter the book. Many sentences contain very exciting ideas, a fact the authors alert the reader to with frequent use of exclamation points. The style is gratingly simplistic, something one could chalk up to the authors’ desire to make the work more personal and direct. If that’s what they intended, they achieved the opposite effect. If Chris found himself trapped in a car going down the highway with the voice of Finding Your Way Back to God, he would kick open the door and jump out.
The aspect of Finding Your Way Back to God responsible for the majority of Chris’s groans, and the new book-shaped dent in his forehead, is the criminal overuse of first name-only anecdotes. The book is 211 pages long, and nearly half of it consists of stories about suspiciously generic people like Nick, Kelly, and Jake. The anecdotes are everywhere—diffuse and dogged as a metastasized cancer. The authors bloat what should be a 2,000 word sermon to a $23 hardcover book with a glossy dust jacket and a dozen blurbs from favorable reviews. The constant anecdotes sink any momentum the book ever manages out of the mire of its hokey prose, and their vague nature gives the reader no reason to believe they are true. Perhaps they are true. If so, then God bless; the stories, taken at face value, are inspirational. They come off as fictional asides, however, detracting from the arguments more aiding them. That these anecdotes appear nearly every other page only adds insult to injury.
Alright, I’ll drop the first name-only act. The joke’s run its course. I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would read this book—or why anyone thought it needed to exist. Anything this book does, other books do better, not to mention cheaper. Need a vivid personal account of recognizing our broken nature and our need for God’s amazing love? Augustine’s Confessions is highly accessible. Curious about why there is evil in the world? Try C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, or Tim Keller’s Reason for God. Or, since Finding Your Way Back to God seems to consist largely of the parable of the prodigal son rephrased over and over for 211 pages, consider spending time in study and prayer over the passages in Luke.
The confident, and ruthlessly positive, language of Finding Your Way Back to God comes off as a sales pitch; its incessant, aggravating anecdotes are like customer testimonials to the authors’ five-step plan. I came away, I’m sad to say, with a hefty dose of cynicism. The last portion of the book is a thirty day plan to help people FTWBTG. I can’t help but notice following the plan will put the reader past most bookstores’ return policies.1
Photo by Calsidyrose at Flickr Creative Commons, used under (CC BY 2.0)