Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: Tithing by Douglas Leblanc

I recently read through Douglas Leblanc's book, Tithing: test me in this from Thomas Nelson's Ancient Practices series. Overall, I liked the book, and found it to be an easy, engaging read.

Leblanc, a journalist, filled the book with interviews he conducted with people representing a wide swath of the Judeo-Christian faith traditions (and it's important that I emphasize traditions, plural, there because Leblanc's list of interviewees includes a Rabbi as well as representatives from nearly every point on the spectrum of Christianity, not merely or even mainly the evangelical "camp"). All of the interviewees speak favorably on the topic of tithing, sometimes offering reflections on the words of Scripture, in other times presenting testimony of their own experience.

The interviews are well-presented, offering a brief introduction to the interviewee and his/her background, as well as comments about goings-on surrounding and even during the interview. They felt more like magazine articles with a common theme than chapters in a book-- indeed, any given chapter could easily have been in Christianity Today or perhaps even the New York Times, if the Times would willingly carry a piece so openly acknowledging the validity of a biblical teaching.

Somewhat because of this journalistic approach to the topic and the various perspectives on it, the book struggles to offer any didactic value. If you're seeking biblical insight into why a Christian might consider tithing, or for that matter any further Scriptural discussion on giving, you'll be disappointed in this book. What little teaching on tithing it does present is indirect and more a matter of inference than exposition.

This fact leads me to question whether I have been asking more of this series, Thomas Nelson's Ancient Practices titles, than I ought. My first introduction to the series was with Scot McKnight's excellent Fasting, and while offered just enough first and third-person accounts to enrich his explanations, there was also a satisfying amount of instruction from Scripture and from other historical sources (like the Church Fathers). The second title I read in the series, Joan Chittister's The Liturgical Year, was a great disappointment-- both because of a theologically-liberal approach to anything and everything related to the Bible, Christianity, and the Church, and because of the fact that the book was very little more than just a recounting of experiences and personal testimonies.

I have been assuming that Chittister's exchange of substance for sentiment was surely anomalous-- atypical of a series devoted the Ancient Practices, which are so firmly grounded in Scripture. Having read a third title, however, I wonder if I've mistaken the aim of the series; maybe McKnight's title is the anomaly. If that is so, it's a shame, and the series should be re-titled the Ancient Experiences.

This is ultimately what leads to my doubt in the real value of this title. All of the interviews are well-written, the stories are interesting, and the subjects remarkable in their experiences. But much of what we are told is only marginally related to the subject of tithing. It seems the thesis of the book is, "look at all of these people that God has blessed wonderfully, often in spite of great financial trial-- and look! They all tithe."

We live in a time when experiences count a great deal, and theology divorced from "story" is questionable in its authenticity. The danger is in making it more about the story than the theology; in this case, I wonder if Leblanc didn't lose his way.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received a copy of Tithing: test me in this by Douglas Leblanc for free, in exchange for my commitment to review the book.]

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