Because it’s important to be transparent about biases before one starts a review like this, I have at least 3 going into this blog post:
 The DVD I am about to review was provided by Zondervan explicitly and only if I promised to review it. That promise was secured because when I watched the video teaser they sent me to see if I was interested, I told them that I would be glad to watch the video, but that I couldn’t promise I’d review it – and my reason for that was simple: I hate writing reviews that are wholly-negative. I know none of you here at Evangel believe that, but the truth is that I think there are plenty of good things – especially in the Gospel – to write about, and that panning someone’s product is a drain on my time. So I told the publicist I work with at Z that if I didn’t like it I probably wouldn’t review it. He said the only way to get a copy was to promise to review it, so here we are.
 I am not a fan of Zondervan’s offerings to the marketplace of spirituality as a whole. They offer some winners like Richard Abanes, Jay Adams, Evangel’s own Gene Fant, The Habermas brothers, two books by John MacArthur, and a few others if you rifle through their stable of talent. But sadly they are also the ones who prop up the liberal end of the spectrum and undergird the “self-actualization” end of the evangelical (small-“e” intended) spectrum, and they do so with gusto. It seems to be their favorite thing to publish. So I tend to hold Zondervan’s offerings in general at arm’s length.
(An important note here: Zondervan also publishes a dump-truck full of fiction titles intended for the Christian book marketplace – one assumes because it is a cash cow. The state of Christian fiction should be the subject of a future year of blogging in every blog venue I have, but suffice it to say today that it’s not their fiction I actually have a serious beef with: it’s Zondervan’s non-fiction and allegedly-serious forays into spiritual/pastor advice)
 The easiest way to garner an unenthusiastic response from me in any situation is to place some other value ahead of truth. This sounds like a fundamentalist saw horse, but I think I mean something different by it than the classic fundamentalist would. Recently I had a chance to discuss this at work with a colleague, and when given the chance to elaborate, I said this:
Honesty is not just the ability to tell the truth, but to receive it as a means to improve my own performance and contributions. Being blunt with others is not honesty: treating the truth with respect, and changing when one is wrong, is actual honesty.
This will come back to roost in this review, but keep in mind that I think that truthfulness in this sense is the highest virtue when dealing with others.
Before you pre-judge the site and the DVDs by that frontpage screen cap (taken on 28 May 2010), there’s something vaguely noble about the site itself. Overall, it’s not actually a polemical site – it’s sort of a Socratic site that is willing to think about or listen to any idea which is reasoned out in some way, and not make snap judgments about those ideas. Now, whether or not that’s actually “Socratic” in the way Socrates was “Socratic” (I suspect he knew where he was going when he was leading other people around by the nose through their fallible philosophies), it’s at least very generous to the ideas it explores.
And we can say that with a straight face because there’s not a political agenda here. When the site boasts content from a spectrum as broad as Os Guiness, Chuck Colson, Rick Warren, Chris Seay and Jim Wallis, there is a sort of balance involved. It’s not completely balanced – it certainly skews to the liberal edge of the table – but there’s a certain sobriety to the imbalance that you can at least respect the fact that they have tried to reach across the aisle, so to speak, to find the places where the wings of the intellectual household can agree. There is something admirable in that (cf. my disclaimer #3) because there is not merely disagreement among the members of the household in question: there is some agreement, some commonality.
And in that, the Zondervan has partnered with the folks at “Q” to produce these video discussion guides.
The disc they sent me was “The Whole Gospel”, which features some brief conversations with some folks I would call minor contributors to the larger discussion of faith and practice; these conversations are merely intros to videos by larger luminaries like Tim Keel and Chuck Colson. And the point of the disc itself is simply to get a conversation started on the topics in question – to start people thinking about what they really mean when they say certain things – or when they fail to really think about what it means when they say certain things.
So that’s all at least not bad: these are nearly-balanced conversation-starters, and they have the intention of starting conversations about faith and the real world.
And I watched the videos and was intrigued because I think that the basic conservative Protestant view of the church as a consequence of the Gospel needs some reform – and that’s what these videos were talking about, to a greater or lesser degree: reforming the real life of the church, ostensibly because it ought to be a necessary consequence of the Gospel.
Tim Keel sort of owned me in his talk until we got to this part, right at the end of his 30-minute video:
Now, let’s think about this: if we completely and utterly concede that “Jesus has a compelling answer to that question” of how to live (I would concede the point utterly and without a single qualification), is that actually the point of the Gospel? Is that actually the mode of evangelism – especially as defined by the New Testament?
Here’s the crazy thing: Keel’s presentation of the greater narrative of the Bible is the previous 28+ minutes of the video (which I truncated for fair use reasons; you can find it at qideas.org and download it if you want to register as a user there for free) I thought was about the best literate exposition of the whole Bible in 30 minutes that I had ever heard. But somehow, right there at the end, rather than grasping that the Exodus narrative (for example) is about God doing something for Israel it cannot do for itself, Keel abandons almost all of his good exegetical work to make a point which is transplanted from his cultural context rather than actually present and active in the text before someone in the 21st century in middle-class America looks at what Moses has written down.
So again, to my bias #3, this is a crisis of truthfulness: is Tim Keel being right-mindedly truthful – somehow more truthful than the Evangelism Explosion straw-man he sets up from a generation ago? If Keel being formed by the content of the text in a way that his counter-example is not – or is he simply hiding his own deep and serious mistake behind the mistake of his Sunday School teachers from 30 years ago?
This brings me back to Bias #2: Zondervan’s failure to actually engage the church as a whole as if there are actual solutions to the quandaries we face, or if we have to invent or adopt solutions from the culture in order to meet our intellectual and spiritual needs. Zondervan is masterful at seeking out and speaking to the broadest possible audience: the problem is that when it gets the seats in the arena full, it delivers something they could have found anywhere – and says that this is what the church can or ought to say to the passers-by.
What’s at stake in the conversations Zondervan and “Q ideas” have opened up here is not whether you personally can reason out your own solutions to the issues raised here – because you can. You do every day – as does every person with an IQ above 75. What is actually at stake is whether or not we have heard God’s solution to the problem of our culture, taking it in as true and real, and therefore do the things which are necessary after it like change our own ways of thinking about the problems for the sake of honesty.
In that, I think the content of the “Q Society Room” discs leave a lot to be desired. They are not adequate teaching tools. They do not provide the fully-orbed solutions the Gospel actually provides – which is an irony given the title “the Whole Gospel” on the disc I received. My opinion is that the conversations starting here are not new, and are not especially insightful, and do not offer the ultimate hope of the Gospel in a clear way.
As I close up here, let’s think about that issue in this way: if we were talking about the Oprah Winfrey Show, or a series on PBS, I have a suspicion that we all could agree that this kind of conversation would be significantly more helpful than the standard fare which includes Joseph Campbell, Marcus Borg and John Spong. But we’re talking about resources that churches ought to be using to educate their members and guide the spiritual formation of their flocks. This sort of ambiguous approach doesn’t really accomplish that, and leaves people to find their own way home after leading them out into a busy foreign city. It would serve both Zondervan and qideas.org to get closer to a fully-orbed orthodoxy than they are right now if their real objectives are to serve the local church and the church at large.