A Review of Tom Raabe’s Penetrating Church Satire and Must Read – “A Famine Not of Bread”

Tom Raabe, author of the popular satire “The Ultimate Church: An Irreverent Look at Church Growth, Megachurches, and Ecclesiastical “Show-Biz,” has written a new church satire titled A Famine Not of Bread. Raabe is the brother of Paul Raabe, professor of Old Testament at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. The review is by another Concordia professor, Rev. Francis Rossow, emeritus professor of homiletics. Details on ordering the book follow the review.

A Famine Not of Bread: Volume 1, Trinity

By Tom Raabe

Blue Pomegranante Press, 2010. Paper

The arresting title is from the biblical book of Amos (8:11), a passage describing an unusual kind of famine: not one of food but of the Word of God.  The implications of the title are profound.  It means that we have, or are meant to have, two kinds of life: bodily life (characterized by breathing and muscular movement) and spiritual life (characterized by loving God with everything we’ve got and loving our neighbor as our self).  Our Creator intends that we be born (like at a hospital) and then be born again (like at a baptismal font).  Despite the popular proverb, cats do not have nine lives.  But human beings do have, or are meant to have, life in the plural, two lives in fact.  We have two mouths to feed, two existences to maintain.  Thus the Word of God, by further implication, is not just a book, it is a food.  To use it is more like going to the table for a meal than like going to the library.  To be denied the Word of God means we’ve got a famine on our hands, a famine not of ordinary bread but of the Bread of Life, every bit as literal and deadly as the kind of famine we’re more familiar with.  It is this kind of famine that Tom Raabe addresses in his book.

And, to continue the play on words, there is no famine of helpful insights in this book.  It is a banquet of ideas and a feast of words.  Not since Anthony Trollope have I encountered so penetrating an understanding of church and clergy.  And not since Sinclair Lewis have I met so incessant a display of satirical wit.  Raabe’s prose is as muscular and hard-hitting as that of Amos himself.  Some appetizers follow: a church named “Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel Lutheran Church” (171); a rural congregation so desperate for a pastor that the members “would embrace…almost any biped wearing a robe” (182); pastors in “full declamatory mode” (63), seating their audience with “the traditional push-and-pat” (198), and “gnawing on (their) manuscripts” (199); clergymen surprised into requested table prayers that, given their vacuous content, “could have worked just as well at the christening of a new tractor” (155), tackling congregational problems as if “sawing at redwoods with a butter knife” (37), and received at the homes of possible mission prospects by children “observing (them) with the curiosity of a chicken looking at a chopping block” (114).

How about this paragraph for dessert?

“But most enter the ministry by a different route.  No flash of light…throws them helpless to the roadside; no beams and lintels trembling, no clouds of smoke enwrapping thrones on high, and no six-winged seraph zipping over with his tong of glowing coals to anoint their lips.  The Lord may have known them before they were formed in their mothers’ wombs, too, but their calls are more of the Hansel and Gretel variety – they follow the path marked by the bread crumbs (72).”

Here is a writer not only at home with words but saturated with biblical imagery as well.

The plot is a simple one: an ambitious liberal pastor of a large congregation gunning to be the successor to the retiring denominational president and resolving to gain that retiree’s support by hiring as his assistant the man’s hapless nephew, a recent seminary graduate, under the mistaken assumption that that nephew is a flaming liberal like himself.  The completion of that plot lies in the volumes yet to be written, but it is a plot made to order for entertainment and edification. (This reader can hardly wait!)

A necessary virtue for a successful novel is its capacity to elicit reader identification.  I was hooked as early as page 26, where Pastor Harking uncorks a table prayer that lasts four more pages, a prayer mentioning every political and social issue that liberal Christianity has mistaken for the core of its message.  The vacuous jargon, the confessing that is boasting, the sanctimonious piety – all of it is there “in full measure and running over.”  To read that prayer is itself worth the price of the book.  And when I got to Pastor Wenge’s first parish in rural Colorado, I was addicted.  Having spent my early ministry in rural North Dakota made it, of course, easier for me to identify.  The same petty congregational problems (e.g., whose cups to use at church conference dinner) confronted me, and, I fear, I was often as clumsy in dealing with these issues as was Pastor Wenge.  How often I yearned in the face of these problems, not merely insoluble but not even worth a solution, to be, like Pastor Wenge, called away to those moments by that “wondrous blessed instrument of deliverance,” the telephone (46), despite the many times I had previously viewed it as a nuisance, I, too, had a member who, like the one in the novel, invariable interrupted by Sunday sermon, the only difference being that instead of adjusting the church door, he ambled down to the basement to poke up the fire.  His slow stride proved much more interesting to the audience than my (supposed) eloquence.

Similar to the Fox News motto, the caustic wit of the book is “fair and balanced.”  Stubborn, small-minded conservatism is the victim of Raabe’s barbs as well as brainless liberalism (e.g., the heresy-hunting paper The Sword of Peter in Chapter 4.)  More important, the book is “fair and balanced” in another way.  Despite the quantity of negatives about church and clergy in his book, Raabe provides occasional positives whose quality dwarfs the aforementioned negatives.  One instance is the life-changing Word of God preached by Pastor Twiggs, whose church Pastor Wenge drifts into during his Jonah-like flight to Tarshish.  Despite the speaker’s delivery being “so bad, you had to listen” (199), the fleeing pastor learns that the ministry is all about God and not the pastor.  Neither a low self image or a more contemporary “feeling good about yourself” is the crucial factor.  It is rather the Lord Jesus Himself, what He has said and what He has done, that counts.  We can do all things only through Him who strengthens us.  We are but weak vessels for His strong Word.  That Word, that Gospel, never returns empty but accomplishes what God purposes.  When the Bread of Life is the center of the Church’s mission, there will not be a famine of God’s Word.

There is no clergyman (of any denomination) nor any member of a church (again of any denomination) who will not benefit immeasurably from this delightful publication.

Francis C. Rossow, Professor Emeritus, Concordia Seminary – St. Louis, Missouri

The book can be ordered from Church and Ministry Publishers (aka Blue Pomegranate Press) for $15 plus shipping. Most orders are shipped within two weeks but can take up to four weeks. Here is the description of the book from the back cover.

A Famine Not of Bread is a satirical and humorous look at life in a Protestant denomination. Volume I follows the ups, downs, and fateful turns in the ministry of first-year pastor Martin Wenge, set against the political machinations of veteran pastor Avery Harking, Jr., as he seeks to attain high office in his denomination. Two careers, on highly divergent tracks, converge in a highly unlikely fashion, and both clerics influence the other’s ministry in ways neither of them could have anticipated. It all provides for a good laugh, but more importantly, the book offers commentary on the dangerous road the church, and theology, seems embarked upon in these postmodern times.

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