Monday, September 10, 2012

Book Review: Steeple Envy by Vic Cuccia

It’s a difficult thing to write a book. I’ve tried, and I work with published authors at my 9-to-5. It is less difficult to critique a book, and even less so to criticize one. This has been my mantra as I’ve worked on this review, through edits and reboots and a week of dormancy--during which my brother, a frequent reviewer for academic journals, helped with editing. Through the wonder that is Speakeasy, a free e-book arrived in my inbox about three weeks ago: Steeple Envy: Losing My Religion & Rediscovering Jesus by Vic Cuccia had piqued my interest, and I was ready to dive in. I grew still more eager when I read Cuccia’s listing of his inspirations: Don Miller, Rob Bell, Francis Chan, Mark Driscoll... These are my BOYS. I was excited. But it didn’t take Cuccia long to move me from “interest piqued” to simply “piqued.”

Cuccia opens the book with his recent background: leaving a cushy pastorate at a mega-church, he started Journey Church, a spiritual community born of basic fellowship and Bible study. He’s founded the 12x12 Love Project, and now works through both organizations to rediscover what, exactly, Christians are called to practice as “church.” From there, he moves into the current state of the modern American church, how it differs from the community and lifestyle that Jesus encouraged and from the early church detailed in Acts. He peppers his thoughts with frequent anecdotes of churches’ failures to meet various people in need, and segues to describing Journey Church, how it began and grew, as well as its present interconnectedness with the 12x12 Love Project. One chapter is written by Brock Johnson, who is currently working with poverty-stricken families in Guatemala, giving a more personal account of the receiving end of Journey’s contributions to 12x12.

The strongest moments of the book come in Chapter 6 (which shares the book’s title), where Cuccia clearly hits his stride--The Thing He Wanted to Write a Book About. Taken on its own, this is a strong and well-presented argument on the hang-ups churches (which is to say, American Christians and particularly church leadership) can get caught on: 

How crazy it is that in church, we judge success to a large degree by bodies and buildings. Jesus didn’t seem too concerned about how many people were following Him. What He was concerned about was doing what pleased His Father... We have come to a place where we assume God’s desires for us: a big church with all the programs that people think they need and a big building to house it all. (62)
Cuccia's arguments are not brand-new (he freely admits elsewhere that even his titular phrase is borrowed from Rob Bell) but for this chapter, his argument is solid and his tone is well-balanced. Sadly, had I been reading the book for a reason other than review, I would likely have set it aside before this point. And to my disappointment, problems that had bothered me in the book’s first half quickly returned.

Before tackling the content issues, I should say that Steeple Envy is in serious need of more careful copy-editing. In addition to the small but constant typos and errors (to say nothing of “Jesus literally flipped-out,” p. 15), the editorial issues sometimes get in the way of understanding. Cuccia uses capitalization or quotation marks to differentiate between biblical and modern definitions of church, as his main point through the book hangs on this distinction. This would be a helpful system if it was in any way consistent.

From there, we move to three more significant issues: Tone, Audience, and Big Ideas.

Tone. When writing any book, but particularly one about issues of faith and tradition, a delicate tone is imperative. A bit of humor goes a long way; a touch of friendly sarcasm can soften some blows. Several writers from Cuccia’s list of inspirations are masters of this. Cuccia, unfortunately, slams forward in a harsh, biting voice. (I’m no slouch at this myself, so if I recognize another’s tone as too strident... Yikes.) I think Cuccia really wants to strike the right tone--a third of the way through the book, he writes, “I sincerely love God, and I love His Church. My intention is not to point the finger and walk away. My hope is that what you read will begin a conversation that in turn may be used to bring about some much-needed change” (45). But a page later, he continues, “if at times my words seem harsh, insensitive or sarcastic, it’s probably because that’s their intention.” With insensitivity as the design, Cuccia chooses to trade effectiveness for alienation.
Audience. Assuming that Joel Osteen is not perusing Steeple Envy on his Kindle, I’m not sure who this book was written for. Certainly someone from a mega-church background, as that’s implied as the reader’s basis of understanding: 
           “Salaries and building projects dominate the majority of the budget, while helping relieve the suffering of the needy has become an afterthought... We’re hiring marketing consultants to help us brand and package the message in order to reach the masses.” (22)
          “What would [Jesus] say to the pastor that’s rolling phat in his Bentley? Would He appreciate the luxury of the ministry’s private jet so that He could be comfortable as He travels to His next stop?” (52)
This assumption about typical American Christian experience is off-putting at best (and at worst, encourages the very envy that the book decries). Cuccia makes a few comments that seem to be geared toward those who have walked away from the church, but his consistently disparaging, self-righteous tone makes me hope that those who have already been turned off would not find their way to Steeple Envy. Moreover, Cuccia frequently points out that he doesn’t have all the answers, that he’s just asking the questions. But asking them of whom? (More on this in a minute.)
Big Ideas. I haven’t moved forward with a book proposal of my own because I only have a few ideas--not enough to float a full manuscript yet. Unfortunately, Steeple Envy shares the same problem, as it boils down to just one less-than-original idea: the biblical idea of church and the modern American church are very different (i.e., community-based social movement vs. programs-based marketing machine). Don’t get me wrong--I don’t disagree. And there may be means of fleshing this out into a book, but that’s not what happens here. At no point does this feel like a book so much as one drawn-out blog post. 

It’s difficult to see how inspired Cuccia was by the emergent writers he listed with his acknowledgments, as the evidence of inspiration is lacking. “Surely I’m not the first to have these thoughts, although I may be one of the few to put these questions on the printed page” (73). No, he’s not. While I don’t insist on true uniqueness--what is original anymore, anyway?--a little awareness and acknowledgement of what’s come before would be helpful. As I finished the book, I found myself remembering something my brother said when he was leading a youth group several years ago. He said that teenagers’ job was to recognize and draw attention to the hypocrisy of their parents and society--though they’re often blind to their own. Overall, I found that Cuccia’s argument struck me as similarly, critically immature. In addition to believing he’s the first to ask provoking questions, he maintains a strong note of self-righteous authority, even as he tries to point out the self-righteousness of the modern American church and its leaders. If Cuccia were to take some responsibility (as a modern American Christian, if not as a former pastor of the very machine he’s arguing against) and approach the topic with humility, it would go a long way. Instead, he seems to seat himself on a pedestal from which he can point out how wrong everyone else is, without having to provide any ideas or methods by which we can change. (After all, he’s just asking the questions.)

I applaud Cuccia for the work he has done and the decisions he has made--in fact, I wish he had written a book about them. As it is, I can only say that a potential reader would do better skip Steeple Envy and stick with those who apparently inspired its author. 

Steeple Envy: Losing My Religion & Rediscovering Jesus is published by re:Think Publishing © 2011. For more information, visit And, of course, it's available on Amazon.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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