It was a book I was eager to read. As a professor of Great Books who earnestly believes in the value of historical Christianity, I expected to find in this argument an exploration of the creeds, a survey and denunciation of the heresies, the various confessional movements, and the dangers of our modern divergence from the faith. Each of these elements were touched upon in Trevin Wax’s The Thrill of Orthodoxy (InterVarsity Press, 2022), which successfully reinforced my confidence in that faith. But my experience of reading the book was, sadly, less than thrilling.
The modern Christian—especially the Christian long-churched—struggles to find novelty in ancient words. Growing up going to Sunday School means memorizing not only the old text but the old language. The language that isn’t holy writ but has been repeated so many times that it holds the enchantment of the sacristy in the minds of its parishioners. As in a familiar marriage, it can be difficult to believe passionately in the good of fidelity when temptations are found on every digital street corner.
The problem, Wax rightly discerns, is that we are easily distracted by the world’s allurements while hungering for something spiritually rich. If we cannot find satisfaction in recitations of the creeds, we will find titillation in sensational philosophies and syncretism. Spiritualist cults often offer something more intriguing than orthodox religion. Like the modernist, they blend belief in God with the promise of power, marketing the illusion of social acceptance plus the freedom of individual irresponsibility. To stay within the fence lines, trotting along grasslands well-worn, can bring a banality to a heart seeking what lies in the forest beyond home.
But Christians digging deeper into scripture, listening to the voice of the Spirit, longing for transformation, desiring communion with God will discover new treasures as well as old (Matt. 13:51-52). Those seeking the kingdom of heaven with sincerity and hard effort will find connections between scriptures, depth in theology, and results in practice. What is orthodox is not exciting or adventurous in the way the author describes, but it is stable foundation on which to build a home.
For this reason, I struggled throughout the book to connect with the repetitive characterization of orthodoxy as “an adventure.” This wording, and others like it (“thrill,” “exciting,” etc.) betrays a fear that the subject is anything but. As soon as the professor has to ask if the students are having fun, he knows they are not. This is because, by his own tacit admission, orthodoxy is not fun in the religious sense. It could be pictured as a journey. But it is better described, for what my opinion is worth, as a cathedral, a multi-generational project where believers use their talents to construct a kingdom worthy of the King upon his glorious return. The cathedral is awe-inspiring, working wonder and prompting worship; but it is not sensational like riding a roller coaster or joining a role-playing game.
This problem is not merely rhetorical. Even without the repetitive language, the argument lacks a compelling narrative. To his credit, Wax attempts many of the objectives I would have set for the book. He lays out his definition of orthodoxy, as represented by historical Christianity and the major creeds, distinguishing them from the various confessions of major denominations. He discusses ancient heresies like Donatism and Arianism. He discusses modern heresies like sectarianism and sexual ideology. It does touch on some of the stories of the faith, but all too briefly. It does mention some significant heresies, but not in ways that either contextualize their appearance nor explain their application to contemporary Christianity. More heresies should be reviewed, and more resolutions should be presented, if the reader is going to understand why a biblically based, historically informed Christianity is more meaningful than its ancient and modern divergences.
Far be it from me to cast too dark a pallor on the book. Wax makes many important points that turned my head. He is correct that heresy makes faith narrow-minded while claiming the opposite, and that orthodoxy, on the other hand, is expansive. He is correct that progressives are too inclusive to the point of blurring the definition of faithful obedience, while sectarians are so exclusive as to destroy fellowship with nearly anyone who disagrees with them. He gives thoughtful warnings that “We should be wary of anyone who advocates new teachings or new practices that Christians in other parts of the world would fail to recognize or that church leaders throughout history would find surprising.” When we find ourselves frustrated with church teaching, we should remember that “We are always tempted to challenge the constraints of orthodoxy at the pressure points where we most need those constraints.”
But Wax chooses for his text a popular audience of the unconverted and the disenchanted. I believe, however, his audience is the choir. Few modernist Christians already conforming to today’s sexual ideology would likely pick up the book and change their minds to embrace historical Christianity. Few traditionalist Christians are likely to be convinced by the author’s frequent reminder that orthodoxy is fun.
That being said, especially to the novice, The Thrill of Orthodoxy can be a useful introduction to historical Christianity. I would recommend even more the references in the back of the book that would deepen the reader’s exploration of the faith. G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is a remarkable text for seeing catholic universalism in a new and whimsical light. And, of course, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity has for several generations brought a philosophical approach to faith that has enchanted many believers. Wax’s contributions to this discussion are not unfruitful, as he reminds us that orthodoxy is more fulfilling than any other gnostic gospel we might try to live.