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 picture to the left shows angels dancing on the head of a pin. One more post along these lines, then on to other things…
Evangelicalism tends to overstate the confidence people can have in knowing its doctrines are true. OK, I know I can be overconfident about what I believe as well. But as a religion, or maybe the culture it produces, I think evangelicalism is especially susceptible to this problem.
If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, then why is death the punishment for sin? If all our penalty for sin has been paid by Christ and he died for us, then why do we die?
That is a little bit of a puzzle. I think we have to say that death for [Christians] should not be seen as a punishment, because the penalty for our sins has been paid by Christ. Rather, it must be that God, in his wisdom and his sovereign good pleasure, has good purposes for us in allowing us to go through the experience of death, and I suppose [of aging] leading up to death.
One point is that God, even though he has forgiven us, still allows us to live in a fallen world, and death is the final outcome of living in a fallen world. Because, even though Christ in his death paid the penalty for us to earn his perfect fullness of salvation with all its blessing, all that has not been applied yet, so death is not yet removed.
I spent a number of years working in computer customer support. Have you ever spoken with a computer support analyst who sounded like they were making things up? They probably were! “The problem is caused by the variegated VGA daughterboard, it’s a type A12 you know…”
The theological answers above strike me in much the same way. “I think we have to say…” Why would anyone have to say that? How about, “We can’t know, but maybe…” Or something like that, I think it would be more honest. “I think we have to say…” assumes there is one correct and comprehensive system into which the verses of the bible can be compiled. And that a teacher needs to have a correct answer for every question.
You might be a theologian if…you make stuff up! Or you might be a computer support analyst…
Al Mohler seems to be the go-to-fundamentalist in many Christian circles today. He has an article in Christianity Today decrying the overturning of Proposition 8 in California yesterday. Below are some quotes from the article, along with my comments.
“On page after page, Judge Walker …declares the evidence and arguments put forth by the defenders of Proposition 8 as lacking in any rational basis”
And the rational basis is what? The defenders of Proposition 8 had their day in court, they had their witnesses take the stand to make their case. And the judge found that, yes, they were indeed lacking a rational basis for their opinion. This statement only attempts to persuade based on rhetorical skill, and nothing else.
“A single unelected judge nullified the will of the voters of California as expressed through the electoral process.”
Isn’t that an established purpose of federal judges, to rule on the Constitutionality of legislation? I am not a scholar of our government, but that is my basic understanding.
“Until this verdict, such language had never appeared in a decision of a Federal court. If gender is no longer “an essential part of marriage,” then marriage has been essentially redefined right before our eyes.”
This is true, but wasn’t that true one time of race relations in the United States? It would have been true then, just as it is today. But that doesn’t make it wrong, just (perhaps) unprecedented.
“The central institution of human civilization suffered a direct hit, and its future hangs in the balance.”
That is true only if Mohler believes marriage is defined by governmental rules. But of course he would say it is defined by God as expressed in the bible, right? If so, what factual impact does this statement carry?
If one is to assault gay marriage from a religious perspective, do it from a religious perspective, and within religious institutions. The legislation in question is part of a culture war and a religious issue, but not a case of judicial incompetence or injustice.
I read a post this week by someone blogging through Tim Keller’s book, Reason for God, and was freshly reminded why I don’t like apologetics. I read this book when I first started questioning Christianity. It was billed as a great defense of the Christian faith, and was endorsed by leaders who were trusted in my church. I felt a need to have given Christianity a fair shake, even though I thought I was through with it. I had been immersed in conservative Christianity for over a decade, had read many books about doctrine, but had not read any serious apologetics.
The book does stand out from some others in the way it engages with skeptics. Keller clearly has real life experience interacting with skeptics, and is gracious, intelligent and educated. But I am still left with the impression that it is the same old apologetics wrapped in a contemporary veneer. I didn’t like the book then, and still don’t.
These sentences were quoted in the blog post, in support of the author’s (the author of the book, not the blog post) belief that if you believe people share a common sense of what is right and wrong, than you should admit it demonstrates God’s existence. Keller writes:
“If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmonhy between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists.”
I wrote in the margin, “Bible not exactly a champion of human rights.” :^)
I have no doubt these issues are worth thinking about and discussing, and that there are not easy answers to the questions. But is the author trying to honestly inquire into why something is or is not true, or is he trying to convince you to believe what he believes based on philosophical slight-of-hand?
“If you insist on a secular view of the world.” This sounds disingenuous. I do not insist on a secular view of the world! Can I still disagree with the premise? “…then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists.” In other words, “You are living in a fantasy world if you disagree with me!”
From my experiences with car salespeople, I don’t trust them. Unfortunately too many of them have proven themselves worthy of the negative stereotype they receive (sorry if you are an honest car sales-person out there, no offense). One has to assume the salesperson will say whatever gives them the most advantage to close the deal. At the end of the day, I don’t trust apologists much more than that, I think they are just trying to sell me something.
We live in an area of the United States originally settled by German Mennonites. There is still a large Mennonite population here. German, or actually Pennsylvania Dutch, was still commonly spoken in the area through the 1950’s. I don’t know that much about the Mennonites, at least not as much as I should living here. My own heritage is partly Pennsylvania Dutch, though not Mennonite.
As with many other Christian denominations, there is a wide spectrum of churches, from liberal to conservative. Old Order Mennonites, a conservative group at one far end of the spectrum, are similar in many ways to the Amish, forgoing many modern conveniences and embracing older, traditional ways of living. On the other end of the spectrum, many Mennonites are quite progressive and modern.
Mennonites have a long tradition of working for peace and taking a strong anti-war stance. The Mennonite Central Committee, a service organization of the Mennonites, performs relief work and invests in sustainable community building all over the world, and are well know for their work in the field of appropriate technology (which is one of my pet interests).
So that’s a brief background. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are Mennonites, or are of Mennonite lineage, and they all are good people, every last one.
This post was really created for the photographs included below. They were all taken within a five minute radius of our home. I am guessing someone in the region manufactures them. I don’t know if it is just a Mennonite endeavor, though it would seem to be, from the location of the signs.
Click on the images to see them full size.
|This sign is across a small road from a Mennonite church, but I doubt they placed the sign there themselves. I suspect the verses inserted in these signs can be swapped out, but I’m not sure. Are you rejecting Jesus?|
|Here is the other side of the same sign. Like most of these, it has a strong emphasis on wrath and judgement.|
Here is a second sign, next to the larger greenhouse sign. The Mennonite owners of the business seem a conservative group. The men always wear button up shirts, and the women wear long dresses and head coverings. I had thought all these signs contained harsher messages, until I noticed this one when I photographed it. Also note the statement concerning the day they are closed, near the bottom. The signs clearly express a desire to preach to the world around them.
|I took this picture out my car window while stopped in the middle of a road, which resulted in the camera shake.|
|This sign is in the front yard of a house. There is sign at the corner of the property advertising toys and crafts for sale. Some of the merchandise can be seen on the small table next to the yard sign.|
|The toys are more visible in this photograph. I think it is an interesting jux-
taposition with the message on the sign.
There are a couple more signs I know of in the area, one a bit farther away, and one I can’t remember the exact location. I may add them to the post at a later date. What bible verse would you put up in your yard if you were to do so?