I'm currently deciding whether I will join a United Methodist Church. I've read this book and another on Methodist doctrine (called, fittingly, Methodist Doctrine) and I've come away from both with the sense that the foundational truths officially embraced by Methodism are orthodox, biblical, and inspirational in practically all aspects. Any peculiarity is typically rooted in a distinctively Wesleyan Arminianism that is (as with most schools of theology) certainly arguable but not heretical. One wants to cheer and shout, "Sign me up!"
But the current distance between original beliefs and modern ones in the UMC confuses me. I read John Wesley and the UMC website and see a significant disconnect in many areas, particularly evangelism. It's why I went searching for these books to begin with. And neither of them really addresses that dissonance. In fact, the other book ignores it altogether.
Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the UMC, doesn't use this positive text on unifying ideas as a forum for criticism. He does, however, get in one comment on the relativism prevalent in the mainline churches in his first chapter. Speaking of a too-broad interpretation of John Wesley's warnings against theological hairsplitting, he writes:
"At our worst, this generous Wesleyan 'think and let think' has led to our acting as if ideas about God are not important after all and to the sad error of thinking ... who cares what anybody believes as long as that belief is sincerely held? Wesley was a fierce foe of this sort of goofy theological 'indifferentism'. So is the Bible."
This confessional, historical and personally challenging primer on Methodist theology refutes the stereotype of mainline belief as being crippled by political correctness and "niceness" to the point of accepting anything and nothing all at once. Willimon doesn't seem to.
If I have any misgivings about the book they are these:
It's a virtual paean to Wesley, praising and appealing to him at every turn. But it scarcely appeals to the Bible. I know some mainline readers are wary of scripture quotations and dismiss them as "prooftexting" but the Bible is still, officially, the primary authority for Methodist belief and it would have been nice to have scriptural back-up in many instances. I think I can safely say Wesley would agree.
Speaking of the Bible, this book is peppered with notes that require a copy of The Wesley Study Bible (co-edited by Willimon) to read them.