Posts filed under ‘books’
These are some of my favorite books critiquing evangelical Christianity:
- Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns
- God’s Word in Human Words, Kenton Sparks
- The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight
- Evolving in Monkey Town, Rachel Held Evans
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.
A quote from this interview on Focus on the Family, where they discuss how to deal with gay activists infiltrating the public school system with their sneaky agenda:
“The gay activists have become very adept at using fun engaging images, cute little pictures of furry animals, to capture children’s imagination and familiarize them with the whole idea of same sex parenting and gay marriage.”
Well, who would ever think of doing something like that?
As a side note, I have always found the cute animals in the book linked to above odd. They are randomly inserted in page after page, generally unrelated to the stories in any way.
I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town, which does a remarkable job of delving into issues of doubt and faith with intellectual honestly. Evans grew up thoroughly immersed in the evangelical culture, but was compelled to honestly examine it with open eyes. I think that is extremely difficult to do for someone who grows up within evangelicalism’s “biblical worldview.” Evans seems to be representative of a number of younger evangelicals who are not comfortable accepting the culture wars and dogmatic beliefs and doctrines of early generations.
Evans writes pointedly about the problems that arise from a literalistic, inerrant reading of the bible, and tells candidly how her faith changed through this process of examination. The book uses the motif of evolution to describe what both Christianity has done over the years, and what has happened to the author’s own faith as well. Her home town was the location of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, thus the analogy to evolution. It describes how skeptics and Christians alike can experience these problems, and indeed Evans has the same questions herself.
This vision of Christian faith offers something of an acceptance of the tension between belief and unbelief, believer and unbeliever, rather than assuming a rigid and vast divide separates the two. Which in turn seems to offer the opportunity for greater dialog and understanding in discussing issues, rather than hostile debates and attempts to convince others to change their beliefs. Reading the book very refreshing in this way.
I think the book can help encourage Christians who are compelled to ask hard questions of their faith, as Evans describes what it was like to face the disapproval of other Christians. It is a tough path to walk alone. Even without sharing the same experience of faith as the author, an unbeliever could walk away from the book with a better understanding of who evangelicals are, and how their religion has come to the point it is at today.
Reading this post over, it sounds a lot like the technical paper I wrote the same day. I’ll try to revisit the subject soon to give a more personal take, time and emotional energy allowing.
For those interested, Evan’s blog provides a good taste of her writing. She recently responded to an Answer’s in Genesis review of her own work. She also has a couple of good posts on doubt -here- and -here-. Mark of christiandoubt.com reviews it here.
And I included some more thoughts on the book in a follow up post here.
The Year of Living Like Jesus, by Ed Dobson, follows the genre of The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. In fact Jacobs even provides an endorsement of the book. Dobson does as the title of the book states and tries to live like Jesus for a year. Kind of like “what would Jesus do” carried to an extreme. It is definitely more spiritual in nature that Jacobs’ book. Dobson is a devout believer and pastor who seeks to live like Jesus, not so much in the cultural norms and rules of Jesus’ time, though he does a bit of that, but more in the spirit of Jesus, trying to understand his message better and how he would have chosen to live.
One big difference from The Year of Living Biblically is that while Dobson’s book is very well written, it is not as funny or entertaining as Jacobs’ book. Not necessarily a shortcoming, just a different style and purpose. I probably also enjoyed Jacob’s work more because I am more of a “reverent agnostic” (as Jacob’s describes himself by the end of his book) than an evangelical Christian like Dobson.
Dobson is an interesting guy because he comes from a very conservative Christian background, would seem on the outside perhaps to be a very conservative evangelical, but does a lot of things that many conservative people would not feel comfortable with. Not just doing things that makes conservatives uncomfortable, but seeming to enjoy that it does. Dobson actually worked directly with Jerry Falwell for over 14 years.
He is very insightful in the way he learns from others even when he does not prescribe to all their doctrines. For example, he writes about what it means to pray to Mary and say the rosary with Catholic people, and grows in his understandings of these concepts from discussions with Catholic friends. Very humble and I have a lot to learn from his example.
I glanced at the rosary. Maybe I should pray the rosary as part of my journey in following Jesus. As quickly as that thought came, another one followed: that’s crazy. Praying to Mary? You’ve got to be kidding. We only pray to God. Not Mary, not the saints, not anybody! And besides, praying the rosary has absolutely nothing to do with living like Jesus.
Or does it?
I am reading through Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian along with atimetosew. The book is told as a fictional story where the characters end up narrating the points the author wants to make. As fiction, bleh, but the teaching is very good. McLaren discusses what it means to incorporate postmodern thought into his Christian faith, still somewhat orthodox in belief, but new at the same time.
atimetosew feels she may be heading in that direction with her faith, which I can confirm, I think she is becoming A New Kind of Christian, which is pretty cool. Maybe I am becoming a new kind of person too. I think we both find the book pretty great. Some good ways to understand and work out one’s faith in this modern age.
“I don’t live in such a world. I look at my father and wonder how many other Americans are like him. Why are we so divided?
In Dover, those on the side of the truth weren’t the ones marching under a banner of biblical fundamentalism and traditional values. “You can’t lie for Jesus,” I remind my father. No, the ones on the side of truth were the eleven parents who stood up to their local school board and said teaching their children about religion was their right, and not the job of the educational system.
But my father has closed his eyes to such a worldview. Rather, he wraps himself in his religion, retreating into a cacoon of denial. To him, the only thing that matters is whether I believe, whether I am saved.”
This book has a lot going for it. Lauri Lebo is a reporter from York, Pennsylvania, near the town of Dover where the trial concerning teaching Intelligent Design in public schools took place. The book details the content of the trial well and in riviting fashion. I am reminded of how important these issues are, how important it is to take civil liberties seriously, and how admirable it is when individuals take a stand when push comes to shove. The book is very well written, but has a couple of particular strengths.
The story is very much about the author’s personal experience through the trial, autobiographical as well as documentary. Lebo worked through the issues deeply herself, and built real relationships with the people involved, both the plaintiffs and defendants. Lebo’s relationship with her father, a fundamentalist Christian, is central to the story in the way it was strained as she attempted to talk with him about the trial, as the above paragraphs show.
As a journalist, Lebo also writes about the challenges of the profession, walking the line between “fair and balanced” reporting, and reporting that deals honestly with the events. I highly recommend this book; to learn about the issues involved, but even more so to learn about the way personal relationships are strained by politics and beliefs, and the ways one person worked through them.
To read a real review (which prompted me to read the book), check out the Spanish Inquistor’s review HERE. But don’t check it out if you would not like to see the blasphemous and topless logo on his site.
“I thought about calling my father. I’d fought with him almost every day of the trial. I’d wanted him to condemn, as a Christian, what seemed obvious to me to be deception. But he refused. I’d grow angry and hang up on him. The next day, I’d pick up the phone and try again. How do I explain to my faither why this was so moving? How do I tell him we shouldn’t be afraid of this? How can I describe what I witnessed?
I wanted him to know the parents’ stories: Cyndi Sneath, who testified that she might not have a fancy education, but her eight-year-old son, Griffin, dreams of being an astronaut; of Bryan and Christy Rehm, who teach Bible school and sing in their church choir, but who are called atheists by their neghbors; and of Fred Callahan, a gentle, reserved man dismissed as intolerant. “What am I supposed to tolerate? he asked. “The small encroachment of my first Amendment rights? Well, I’m not going to.”
I wanted my father to understand Steve Harvey, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys and a dutiful Catholic who says we can only try to believe in God. On the morning of that last day of trial, he nervously paced around the block, smoking cigarettes and praying “our Fathers.”
Surely if my father were here, I thought, I could convince him. But not wanted to risk a fight, I ddint’ reach for the phone. I thought there would be plenty of time to make my father understand.
Now, sitting in the Chinese restaurant, my father watching me from across the table, I realize that he never will.”
I had changed in another way. I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded in logic and reason, requires a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. I used to think that you simply made a decision: to believe in Jesus or not. Collect the facts and then decide for yourself. But it’s not that simple. Faith is something that is triggered deep within your soul — influenced by upbringing, family, friends, experiences, and desires. It’s not like registering to vote.
Christians often talk to those who have fallen away from the faith as if they had made a choice to turn away from God. But as deeply as I missed my faith, as hard as I tried to keep it, my head could not command my gut. I know now that it was wishful thinking, not truth. I just didn’t believe in God anymore, despite my best attempts to hold on to my beliefs. Faith can’t be willed into existence. There’s no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.
– from William Lobdell’s book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America — and Found Unexpected Peace.
Listened to The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis with the kids on a roadtrip recently, and this section caught my ear, an interesting bit of reasoning and apologetics. Need to go back a couple of pages to supply some background first though.
The book is part of the Narnia series, of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wordrobe fame. Two children, accompanied by a Narnian creature, a Marsh-wiggle (read the book) are on a mission to rescue a prince (the Prince of Narnia), whom they have now found. He had been held captive by a witch (a different witch than the Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe witch). After they find the prince, the witch makes her appearance, and is trying to beguile them into disbelieving their mission. In fact, she is trying to convince them that their understanding of reality is completely wrong.
The witch has enchanted the company into a stuperous state with song and magic incense. She is trying to convince them they have made up everything they think is true, including the world they have come from (“Overworld”, the witch’s realm is underground). As they struggle to perceive reality, they grasp at memories of their world and mention things they “know” to be real, like the sun:
“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldy and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.” “Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch… “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this *sun* must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your *sun* is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the *sun* is but a tale, a children’s story.” “Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone, “It must be so.”
The group is obviously falling for the witch’s deceit. The children’s companion Puddleglum, the Marsh-wiggle, musters the strength to grasp at a fragment of reality. He brings to their minds a memory of Aslan, the lion symbolic of Jesus in the series:
“There’s Aslan,” he said. “Aslan?” said the Witch, quickening ever so slightly the pace of her thrumming. “What a pretty name! What does it mean?”
Ha, she knows very well what it means! As the group struggles to remember Aslan, the Witch continues to play her game of feigned ignorance and spreading of confusion through her lies:
“I see,” she said, “that we should do no better with your *lion*, as you call it, then we did with your *sun*. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the *sun*. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to so called a *lion*. Well, ’tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all better if you were younger.”
Puddleglum comes through again though. He quenches the enchanting fire with his bare feet, and then makes the following statement (this is the money paragraph):
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we *have* only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of akingdom of yours *is* the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the yong lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
At which point the spell is broken in a dramatic fashion.
It seems like the story offered here is trying to take two approaches for reasoning towards belief. First, it is worth believing even if it is not true, because life is so much better that way. Belief has benefits apart from whether or not the belief is accurate. Second, living as though something were true can actually lead to real belief that it is true. What starts as a way of life can become a belief. In the end it is Puddleglum’s act of faith itself which enables them to escape the doom of unbelief and life imprisoned in Underworld. It just takes faith.
Pascal’s Wager states that “a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.” (from wikipedia). Win-win, right? Even if Aslan does not exist, you spent your life with such high aspirations and hopes that there wasn’t anything to lose. And look what you stand to gain.
But is that a valid way of thinking in the modern world where, by the very nature of living in this age, we reason and understand things based on evidence, not just feelings and intuitions alone?
It just sounds too much to me like the statement, “just have faith,” which I have heard too many times. Maybe that is my conservative Christian background, tending towards seeing things in black and white. Or my rejection of conservative Christianity which makes it hard to see the good in Lewis’ story because I view it as a fundamentalist exhortation rather than a lovely liberal story. Regardless, I need another way, one that looks at evidence as well as benefits and wagers. Or maybe I’m in the grip of a dark power; drugged, deceived, confused, hopeless to choose my own way… Where have I heard that story before?