Posts tagged ‘evangelicalism’
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.
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…
Conservative theologian Norman Geisler is a famed apologist and the author of the book, The Big Book of Biblical Difficulties (I always get the title mixed up with Gleason Archer’s book, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties). In this book he outlines various solutions to stories in the bible which are difficult to reconcile with a strict view of biblical inerrancy. He states in the preface that what might seem like inconsistencies are only “apparent contradictions,” meaning though they might appear to be errors, but really they are not, we just are not reading or understanding correctly.
Many of his solutions to these biblical difficulties contain valid arguments based on careful study of the languages, context, geographies, etc. of the biblical writers. Unfortunately, many of his solutions, while perhaps being logically possibilities, make a tangled mess of reasoning, or “pretzel logic.”
On his web site Geisler recently addressed a problem related to the virgin birth of Jesus. The dilemma, according to Geisler, is:
“Conservative theologians have long troubled by how the Virgin Conception of Jesus is related to his sinlessness. In short, if Mary was his actual mother, then why would not the inherited depravity from Adam be passed on to Jesus anyway. Why isn’t a sinful mother, which Mary was (Lk. 1:46), as much of a problem as a sinful father in channeling original sin?”
Leave it to a conservative theologian to be “long troubled” about something like that. As though the set of possible solutions to this vexing problem couldn’t involve the problem not existing in the first place.
Geisler’s goes on to relate how recent discoveries in genetic research may have finally resolved this “biblical difficulty.” Geisler believes that if we do not know of a way to resolve an apparent difficulty in the bible, it just means we haven’t figured it out yet, and so he writes:
“This is where epigenetics may solve this previous “mystery.” According to scientists, “the general mechanism for transmitting information about ancestral environment [is] down the male line”. If this is so, then perhaps a person born of a virgin mother would not inherit the epigenetic information resulting from Adam’s Fall. Whether this is so or not, we are not in a position to say. And, of course, there may be other factors. But certainly epigenetics has opened the door to a possible solution of this long-standing and vexing problem for evangelical theology.”
This is a fantasy world, where presuppositions cannot be challenged and people are more content with shoddy reasoning than they are with a healthy, “I don’t know.” Honestly, as a Christian I found this kind of reasoning made me very uncomfortable. It sounded so shaky, it made me wonder what else was shaky about my beliefs. I appreciate that Geisler admits this is only a possible solution and could be wrong, but it sounds more like grasping at straws then providing a reasonable basis for the beliefs he tries to support. It makes me question myself though, wondering where I hold on to tenuous solutions to maintain my beliefs, rather than dealing more directly with challenges.