Daniel Darling. Real: Owning Your Christian Faith. Birmingham, AL: New Hope, 2012. 192 pp. $14.99.
Handing down the faith to their offspring was as much a problem for our first parents as it is for any 21st-century Christian parents. Abel worshiped well, while Cain missed the point. Even so today: for every daughter that stays, another will stray, especially during her teenage years. The issue has gained notoriety, capturing the attention of sociologists and pollsters (Bradley Wright, Christian Smith, David Kinnaman, and Reginald Bibby, to name a notable few). Long before sociologists and pollsters began researching the spiritual lives of teeangers, however, pastors were noting the phenomenon. Chicago-area pastor and widely published writer Daniel Darling first noticed the issue as an adolescent “confessed churchaholic” and has now authored a book on the subject, Real: Owning Your Christian Faith.
The first three-quarters of Darling’s book are written directly to children of believers. One thing is common to every single member of this group: each must make a decision for or against his or her parents’ faith. Darling quotes Chuck Swindoll at the outset: “As much as we would love it, there is no automatic transfer of God’s truth to others. Everyone must make his or her own spiritual journey” (17).
Darling’s target audience doesn't want or deserve to be mercilessly critiqued for questioning their formative beliefs. Fittingly, Darling addresses them in a relaxed but earnest tone. He wisely realizes the situation is much more complex, nuanced, and subtle than a “culture wars” approach would suggest. Anxiously sounding alarm bells wouldn’t create the desired result of immediate repentance and return to faith; it would only alienate his audience.
Throughout the book, Darling deploys illustrations using everyday objects such as jelly beans, checklists, chocolate, and ravioli to make his points. Even his use of Bible stories is strategic. While they certainly illustrate the truth of Darling’s talking points, it seemed to me he also intended them to trigger childhood memories in his readers of learning these stories in Sunday school or at family storytime. If this book sometimes reads like a collection of blog posts, it’s because any reader whose faith is wavering won’t get far in a book heavy on prescription and long on doctrine. Darling’s approach is sufficient and commendable.
Darling’s relaxed but earnest tone is an offshoot of transparent authenticity. He writes out of who he really is—the pastor of a small church, and the father of small children. He does not compromise on the essentials of the faith. The gospel is presented clearly more than once. In both strategic and straightforward ways, Darling goes to admirable lengths to awaken embryonic faith in the hearts of his target audience.
The remaining quarter of the book is written to believing parents. Describing the handing down of faith as a “shaky baton” (144), Darling encourages parents that we can actually “parent with the pressure off” and still remain unwaveringly faithful to God (150). It should be noted that the book is written from an evangelical, baptistic perspective. Many of the principles cross over into other Christian traditions, but Reformed, Presbyterian, or Anglican believers will find no reference to their distinctive theological perspectives of covenant children and paedobaptism. But these aren’t part of Darling’s world. Nor should parents of any given tradition look for a discussion of the age of accountability. Upping the ante, Darling also notes the value of older children’s experimenting with different expressions of Christian faith, even to go so far as to [gasp] “read books outside of your particular denomination of fellowship” (137).
My concerns are few. On a formatting level, there are no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliography in this book. The interviews closing each chapter are a nice feature, but the interviewees’ names (Tim Challies, Andrea Lucado, Sean McDowell, and Tom Blackaby, to name a few) appearing in chunky font alongside chapter titles in the table of contents seems gimmicky. My most protracted critique surrounds Darling’s use of the term “second-generation Christians.” He appears to have unwittingly expanded the semantic range of this term to include children of all believers. Darling himself is an actual second-generation Christian, as I am, since both of our parents came to Christ in adulthood. But in some contexts it was confusing whether Darling meant “second-generation” or “next-generation.” Much of the time it seemed the latter term would have been more accurate when the context didn’t involve first-generation believing parents.
Even so, I wouldn’t hesitate to commend this book to children of believers or to those who know children of believers—which, of course, is all of us. Not having fully read the other recent book on the same topic, Karl Graustein's Growing Up Christian, I cannot in good conscience recommend one over the other. One thing I do know: both are written by godly, gospel-loving men.
Daniel Darling loves God, loves the church, loves his family, and loves those who are wrestling to make their childhood faith their own. He makes a persuasive case that secondhand experiences, secondhand beliefs, and secondhand convictions produce a secondhand faith—which is no faith at all. At some point in each of our lives, we must each exercise our own faith, for it will no longer suffice to “ask my dad to see what we believe” (119).
Mark C. Tubbs works in the post-secondary education sector in the metro Vancouver area, where he is nearing the end of graduate studies at a local seminary. He lives with his wife, Cheri, and four children, and was for many years managing editor of Tim Challies’s Discerning Reader book review site. Mark blogs at DiscerningLeader.com.