critiquing evangelicalism

September 1, 2010 at 11:25 am 12 comments

These are some of my favorite books critiquing evangelical Christianity:

These books share a common thread; they all critique conservative evangelical Christianity from within the framework of evangelical Christianity itself. Meaning the authors remain evangelicals themselves, which I think uniquely positions them to be heard better by Christian readers. Probably less threatening than someone on the outside with the message, “Your biblical framework is lacking!” (maybe Bart Ehrman?). And because they have held onto the parts of Christianity they feel are important or essential, they have something more to offer than only negative observations (as I tend to have).

I especially appreciate the intellectual honestly displayed by the authors in the way they ask difficult questions, rather than offering up soft balls they already have the answers too (Lee Strobel, et al?). They all describe a Christianity which depends less on a literal interpretation of the bible and allows for a higher degree of mystery in their faith. They also tend to hold to a less exclusivist form of Christianity; that is, they do not necessarily consider everyone who believes differently than them to be bound for Hell.

For me personally, the books also share a common thread where they all fall short; they fail to describe a Christianity which I find believable as ultimately true. My overall question when studying the bible became, “Is the bible true?” I certainly did not find it to be true in the conservative evangelical sense. And while the books offer alternatives to that conservative, literal reading of the bible, my general doubt about the factuality of the bible still seems to be an insurmountable problem for having Christian faith.

I do not think Christians have to consider discarding their faith before they can honestly examine and discuss it. And correspondingly, others should not have to earnestly attempt to believe the bible before they can honestly examine and discuss it. Too many books about Christianity (both for and against it) seem to be based on those premises. These authors provide great examples of showing sincere respect for those who believe differently than they do. By doing this, they promote dialog and intellectual discourse over diatribe and rhetoric, and find common ground rather than defined divisions.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Like a Child  |  September 1, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    I’ve read 2 of the 4 on your list and I see what you mean, particularly with I & I which I reviewed on my blog. I discovered the world of blogging (and thus Scot Mcknight on Jesus Creed) just 2 months ago and I have enjoyed reading his postings and now browsing the archives…so maybe I should add Blue Parakeet on my reading list. I especially like that Scot Mcknight is not reformed. Calvinism and Reformed Theology really frustrate me. Do you have a list of books you have read?

  • 2. The Wise Fool  |  September 1, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Unfortunately, I have not read any of these books, but I can appreciate your take on their perspectives.

    I’m guessing that when you step away from a literal interpretation, you must be more tolerant of other beliefs, at least if you are honest, because you realize that your view is just one possible interpretation. Despite the lack of books in this realm, it seems that there are some churches now that offer this more “truth-of-the-essence” view. (Actually it also seems even literalistic modern apologists, such as Dr. David Jeremiah, manage to weave in the essence view to fill in the gaps.)

    Personally, on the flip side of the equation, I have tried to argue against Biblical faith based on the Bible itself within my series of studies on my blog. I do not try to focus on the standard atheist go-to objections, but rather try to focus on exactly what the Bible tells us about God’s nature, or God’s essence if you will. While I am admittedly bias in selection of the exact material covered, I do progress through the whole text (Up to the end of Numbers in the OT and the Sermon on the Mount in the NT so far).

    I must also admit that I have made some typical snarky atheist comments along the way, but I have tried to refrain for the reason which you point out; promoting dialog. Yet I think that the real trouble is that I have been somewhat dry in my text, which is often incumbent upon serious study.

    Sorry about the rambling self-promotion there!

  • 3. DoOrDoNot  |  September 2, 2010 at 12:23 am

    Amen! I’ve read Enns and Sparks and appreciated them greatly. They at least provide an alternative to a literal reading, which is refreshing and potentially salvages Christianity. However, I agree with you that there may not be much of Christianity to salvage if it is not rooted in the historical fact of Jesus incarnation, death, and resurrection. As you know, that’s exactly what I’m struggling with myself.

  • 4. atimetorend  |  September 2, 2010 at 8:24 am

    @like a child: I have a book list here, but it is quite dated, from about a year and a half ago, couple annotations in the last comment there. In the Blue Parakeet, McKnight teaches how all Christians (fundamentalists to liberals) pick and choose (he calls it “adopt and adapt”) what parts of the bible they follow. It is a good book for a conservative Christian to read to learn about that. My wife and I took a class in church that went through it and it really helped us talk about those issues.

    Reformed Theology really bothers me too, and that does give McKnight an edge for evangelical authors. Our old church took being Reformed very seriously. Really, theologically I think evangelicalism overall is too confining.

    @the wise fool, Yes, I agree when you step away from a literal interpretation you need to be tolerant of other beliefs. Not so much that you have to agree with them, but you want to give others the same freedom to hold their own opinions that you want for yourself. And I can see in your blog that you are deliberately trying not to be sarcastic.

    @do or do not: I have friends whose faith has been salvaged by Enns’ teachings, actually a couple who were his students. I have a hard time figuring how they did it though.

  • 5. Steven Underwood  |  September 2, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    Thanks for this. I have not read these books either, though I think in terms of my own work at present it would be worthwhile have a look at one or all of them. I agree with you that there is a difficulty in many of the ‘in house’ critics of a given religious culture and that is that they remain apologists. There is a certain degree of ‘Yes, we are not perfect, but we’re muddling though and in the main we are guardians and purveyors of ‘truth’.

    In my own research this is an issue that I come across again and again when interviewing people within faith based organisations(FBOs) (those that have a faith relevant to the work of the organisation – in the minority when it comes to state funded social welfare in the UK; most of the hands on and dirty work is carried out by non-believers!). A good proportion of my thesis is concerned with the notion of symbolic and social capital that FBOs make use of to promote themselves as somehow providing ‘better’ welfare services than the state or other voluntary or private providers (there is scant evidence to suggest this is true by the way!). The fundamental issue is that they believe there is a ‘truth’ to their work. When I tentatively ask ‘Why is it that if faith based social welfare is so great we have only achieved a fairer and more equitable society (here in the UK) by the adoption of a secular welfare state model? The question rather baffles them and I think that part of this issue is concerned with how Christians themselves perceive their role and place within society. Such fripperies as history, science, politics, literary criticism, psychology etc. are of little importance because our Christian brethren have ‘the truth’.

    If you have a read through my blog it is not difficult to see that I am rather fixated with the notion of conceit and how Christian belief (and religion per se) appears to make considerable use of both personal and institutional conceit. I think, in part, conceit may play its part in books about the difficulties within Evangelical Christianity. There is, as sceptically as the likes of you or I look at Scripture or Christian practice and belief, an inherent conviction on the part of many of believing brethren, that their religion is ‘truth’. I think this is probably related to the fact they have too much to lose if they state otherwise – personally, psychologically and socially. In the book ‘Watership Down’ – the ‘road journey’ tale of everyday rabbits – the wandering leporids come across a community of rabbits that have rather plush lives. They have plenty to eat, no real predators and the newcomers initially decide they have arrived at ‘Rabbit Heaven’; however they soon learn that they are actually being ‘farmed’ by man and that every so often one of their number is snared and goes for the pot. The remaining rabbits pretend this doesn’t happen – there is a sort of mass denial of the failures or dangers of their community. Eventually the wandering rabbits leave, realising the self-delusion of ‘rabbit heaven’ community. I think Christian life is a bit like this. For the majority of those that chose to live within its confines it comes up with the goods – the fact there are those who fall by the wayside or that it cannot answer some pretty difficult questions are gaily ignored because it suits the needs of the many.

    Hence I would suggest the authors of the books mentioned are too interested in those of us who choose to question. We leave the churches and in the main those that remain sidestep ‘deep’ questions – as long as the farmer (shepherd come pastor) leaves them their greens they grow plump and fat. They believe they are living in the truth. Though as Pilate rightly asked: ‘What is truth?’

  • 6. Quixie  |  September 3, 2010 at 4:31 am

    I was about twelve when I underwent my deconversion experience. It was pretty painless for me. No trauma that I can remember, really. I think it’s easier perhaps for a young person in that they don’t have so much time and discipline invested in the commitment to a religion. By the time we reach adulthood, practice tends to become habitual, burned into our synapses and our daily schedules. We are conditioned to conform. He who would be an new apostate has to carry heavy baggage that he is emotionally, nostalgically, familially, attached to and so is therefore reluctant to let go of, despite his newfound spiritual and rational awakening. This blog is a good example of the growing pains involved in the process, in fact.
    I have no interest in the topic of theology (other than phenomenology), so I would not read any of the volumes on that list of quasi-evangelical authors.
    But I had an experience with one of them that left a bad taste in my mouth recently. I somehow found my way to Scot McKnight’s blog earlier this year, knowing nothing about him. He had posted his praise of a book by Rodney Stark. I commented on his blog, hoping to call attention to a methodological flaw in Stark’s approach.
    McKnight deleted one of my comments. Anyone interested can go check the link.
    Almost in its entirety, this was my comment that he deleted: Wow, it is amazing how you managed to swat away two damning critiques, one passionate and the other a rather limpid one, by simply calling one of them a ‘militant’ atheist. Well done.

    Was it sarcastic? Of course! Sarcasm and brevity were the perfect literary devices to use to point out his curt dismissal of what I had said. He don’t like atheists? Fine. But at least address the issue at hand. He deleted my comment because it made him look foolish

    What made it even worse in my eyes is that he tried to cover his tracks by implying that there was more to my comment than this sarcastic swat back. This was intentional and disingenuous on his part. He is not interested in discussing the things he posts about. He is interested in the Christianity business and his place in it.

    I since have learned that he is a very prolific writer with a sizable following.
    His Christianity is an exercise in prolixity and not much more. Lots of words. Lots of semantic pirouettes. Full of sound and fury . . .
    Highly systematic and theologically multi-layered, such theological musing reminds me of Astrology (or phrenology or homeopathy). People have written countless thick volumes, grimoires describing the motions and effects of celestial alignments on human destinies. The accumulated written literature is quite impressive in size. But producing and/or relying on this literature is nothing more than the illusion of technique, it is fideism trying to disguise itself as rational. It is eloquent nonsense.

    Sorry for the long post. But i recognized his name in your post and had to share my experience, for what its worth.

    peace
    Ó

  • 7. atimetorend  |  September 3, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    @Steven, thanks for commenting. You must type fast! My brother always wanted me to read Watership Down when we were kids, but I could never get into it. Maybe I’ll have to give it another go. And yes, I agree that the authors to some degree side step some of the hard questions, but I think they tend to be relatively upfront and honest about the fact that they are side stepping them, at least compared to evangelical apologists I have read.

    @Quixie, I had a comment deleted at another beliefnet blog and was surprised, hadn’t thought it was a negative tone or anything. I don’t have a lot to say about your comment deletion, but I would note it seems you were dealing with a different moderator on the site. I didn’t like the content of the post either. Interesting, he addressed comment moderation recently here.

    Regarding his theology, and to some degrees the others on this list, I think by recognizing the intellectual problems of conservative evangelicalism, they are left with not so much in terms of concrete concepts to work with. I don’t know about “exercise in prolixity” (will need to google ‘prolixity’), but their faith is definitely something more nebulous and loosely held then their conservative counterparts. My experience with McKnight’s writing is that it provides sound and constructive material for rejecting the follies of fundamentalism, which has been helpful to me.

  • 8. Quixie  |  September 3, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Nah . . . He explicitly cites the sarcasm as the reason when I asked him why in a followup. It was him.

    But yeah . . . people like him offer a good alternative to robotic fundamentalism by offering a nebulous wordy alternative?
    Is that really such a better thing?

    peace

    Ó

  • 9. atimetorend  |  September 3, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    No, I mean the follow up’s on that thread are by “RJS”, one of McKnight’s collaborators on the site, not from McKnight himself.

    Is that really such a better thing?
    A trade-off of dogmatic certainty and exclusivity for nebulous mystery and holding doctrines loosely. Yeah, I think that’s a better…

  • 10. evolving in monkey town « a time to rend  |  September 7, 2010 at 10:19 am

    [...] And I included some more thoughts on the book in a follow up post here. [...]

  • 11. Sabio Lantz  |  September 13, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Different speakers for different timings

    I remember when leaving Christianity that only certain writers spoke to me. After leaving, those writers don’t speak to me at all the same when I re-read them.

    I know people who have left Christianity (and other religions) after listening to very rattling argumentation. Others needed slow, soft, compromising discussions.

    I think it depends on constitution and timing.

  • 12. Yewtree  |  September 21, 2010 at 2:19 am

    It’s a pity that most Christians insist on taking their mythology literally. I read Oriental Mythology by Joseph Campbell aged about 17, and it cured me forever of taking the story of Jesus as a saviour literally (well, almost: I had a relapse a few years ago, but I was determined to work through it, because I knew it was old baggage that I hadn’t dealt with properly, and knowing the mythology helped with that). Jesus is just another dying-and-resurrecting vegetation god, along with Dionysos, Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, etc. The mythology of death and resurrection symbolises the deflation of the ego and the subsequent reintegration of the psyche into something larger. Seeing the death and resurrection as a metaphor for this process is potentially really helpful.

    I also find Richard Carrier’s writings helpful.

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