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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

5 Good Books Which Will Challenge Your Conservative Evangelicalism

In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—"Bibles laid open, millions of surprises," as Herbert says, "fine nets and stratagems." God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.
- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Writing as someone who has traversed the bridge from Solidly Evangelical to, well, not (I identify as a Charismatic Anabaptist) I thought it might be fun annotating a list of books which, once read, are likely to ease a person's transition out of Evangelicalism (of the American and White variety) and into some other form of Christianity. As such, this isn't a list of books by the "New Atheists" but a list of books by authors who operate in and around the edges of Conservative American Evangelicalism and who are all dedicated Christians.

Of course there are millions of Evangelicals (and I am using the term to designate those culturally conservative Christians in America who self-identify as Evangelical and have, in recent history been associated with right-wing politics) who who have read and appreciated these books, they don't have any mysterious power to rip the evangelicalism out of someone. What they do, and do well, is fuzz the (mostly cultural) boundaries which have been set up around American white Evangelicalism. Not challenging any of the basic tenets of the faith (the authors are all robustly Nicene or, as Lewis would have said, "Mere" Christians) allowing alert and critical readers the realization that God is, indeed, moving powerfully out there

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

'Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it's ill talking of such questions.'
'Because they are too terrible, Sir?'
'No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to moral ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see—small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope—something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. 

Nobody ever really warned me about C.S. Lewis back when I was an Evangelical. In fact, throughout my childhood and through college he remained something of a hero among Evangelicals of my stripe. Mere Christianity (having been instrumental in the conversion of so many Baby Boomers) was, and still is, revered as am Evangelical classic.

I, like many others, first encountered Lewis through The Chronicles of Narnia and later his Space Trilogy and The Screwtape Letters. I started to read his apologetic and theological works in college and moved on to his Literary theory while working on my masters. I remain an enormous fan. There are, to my mind, few authors of the 20th century who possess the lucidity of thought, keenness of intellect, and sheer creativity that Lewis demonstrates in so many of his works—academic or fictional.

Of course Lewis himself was an Anglican, not an Evangelical and his writing doesn't back down from that, so it shouldn't be surprising that reading and agreeing with Lewis will have the tendency of moving someone's "center" away from Evangelicalism and towards something more like "mere" Christianity. All the same, I don't know that there are any of his works which will prove more challenging to the Evangelicalism of a person, than The Great Divorce. The book is a fictional supposal in which Lewis goes on a bus ride to the outskirts of heaven where he encounters a series of individuals being given the opportunity to stay and flourish. The book is a masterwork of theological psychology as Lewis uses it to examine our reasons for resisting a Very Good God, the reasons a person might choose their own misery over infinite joy. Critical to our purposes here however, the conversations the fictional Lewis has with his "Master" George MacDonald, will do much to gently yet firmly undermine a good Evangelical's confidence in doctrines like eternal damnation. It isn't perfect (it contains a little too much of neo-Platonism to my mind) but it is both good and powerful.

The Sin of Certainty by Pete Enns

Correct thinking provides a sense of certainty. Without it, we fear that faith is on life support at best, dead and buried at worst. And who wants a dead or dying faith? So this fear of losing a handle on certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs. How strongly do we hold on to the old ways of thinking? Just recall those history courses where we read about Christians killing other Christians over all sorts of disagreements about doctrines few can even articulate today. Or perhaps just think of a skirmish you’ve had at church over a sermon, Sunday-school lesson, or which candidate to vote into public office. Preoccupation with correct thinking. That’s the deeper problem. It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others, too engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet. 
This book is specifically targeted at one of the great fetishes of Evangelicalism: The conviction that certainty = faith and that the basic duty of  a good Christian is to police a particular set of propositions. I think the first attack God mounted on this stronghold in my life was through the Catholic Philosopher Peter Kreeft who once remarked on how bizarre (and un-biblical) it was to think that one had to pass a theology exam in order to get into heaven. Enns writes in a conversational, confessional style and his own commitment to God and his love of the Bible come through clearly. This book makes the list specifically because it is not the sort of book that an Evangelical who reads it will be able to dismiss as having been written by someone without a deep trust in God. Enns' life and reasoning work together to force the reader to take him seriously. Then, once he is taken seriously, the arguments cut winsomely and incisively right at the heart of the "salvation by correct-thoughts-alone" heresy.

The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd

Consider these questions: Did Jesus ever suggest by word or example that we should aspire to acquire, let alone take over, the power of Caesar? Did Jesus spend any time and energy trying to improve, let alone dominate, the reigning government of his day? Did he ever work to pass laws against the sinners he hung out with and ministered to? Did he worry at all about ensuring that his rights and the religious rights of his followers were protected? Does any author in the New Testament remotely hint that engaging in this sort of activity has anything to do with the kingdom of God? The answer to all these questions is, of course, no.
What Lewis does to the Evangelical doctrine of hell, and Enns does to the salvation-by-correct-thoughts-alone doctrine, Boyd does to the civil religion endemic to so much of white Evangelicalism in America today. Like the previous two authors, Boyd is a committed Christian (and a Charismatic to boot). He takes the Bible seriously and Jesus even more so, he is committed to spreading the Gospel, and speaks, fluently, the language of Evangelicalism—he has even written a book of personal apologetics: Letters From a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with his Father's Questions about Christianity.

Meanwhile, this book is an axe at the root of the tree of civil religion. In it, Boys works with both narrative and lucid argument to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God, as Jesus and Paul taught about it throughout the New Testament, is utterly different from governments as we understand them. He cuts right thought the false equation of "Good Christianity" with "Patriotism", carefully distinguishing this world's power over approach from Jesus' power under. 

The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

The Book that made the nation was destroying the nation; the nation that had taken to the Book was rescued not by the Book but by the force of arms.
It is worth stating up front that Noll is an Evangelical Christian with all of the Evangelical bona fides—a Wheaton College graduate, and later professor who has taught at Notre Dame and is currently at Regent—because this book will feel far more challenging to many Evangelicals than several of the previous ones. It doesn't so much challenge a particular belief of pillar of Evangelicalism as it does shake a basic conceit. When I was an Evangelical I held on hard to the belief that people who worked hard to interpret the Bible, so long a they worked at it in good faith, would arrive at the same, correct, conclusion. This book holds an almost painfully revealing mirror up to that conceit by examining the theological crisis among Evangelicals who lived up to and during the American civil war (yes there is some important historical difference between them and the Evangelicals of today). Noll's history is alarmingly reminiscent of the sorts of theological arguments Evangelicals are having today and most troublingly (to the Evangelical mind) it was the thinkers and pastors who were arguing for slavery—either as a necessary evil or as an outright good—who most clearly map onto the Evangelicals of today. They were the one's arguing for the "plain meaning of Scripture" they were the ones who accused their theological opponents of obfuscation-through-nuance. The Evangelical who reads this book will begin to find herself more and more nonplussed and eventually disturbed by the sort of arguments she sees her Evangelical compatriots making when they argue about the "hot button issues" facing the church today.

Sex Difference in Christian Theology by Megan DeFranza

We need to say, is Genesis giving us Adam and Eve as the ideal for all times and places? Or are we bringing those assumptions to the text? I think, too, about racial difference. If we're trying to get back to Adam and Eve, we'll lose racial difference. And yet we don't just have Genesis. We have a whole canon that ends with this glorious vision of every tribe and language and nation gathered before the throne and worshiping. We have racial difference, not in Eden, but in the new creation. I think we're trying to ask too much of Genesis 1, 2, and 3 to give us all of God's blueprint for a good creation and anything that doesn't fit there is a result of the fall. I think that's a false reading. I think it's the beginning of the story, but there's so much more that God has done in the scriptures and in creation that we need to consider.
Like Noll, Megan DeFranza checks all of the Evangelical boxes. She grew up in a conservative Evangelical context, managed a couple of masters (Theology and Biblical Languages) at Gordon-Conwell before getting he Ph.D. in Religious studies, and speaks fluent Evangelicalese. She understands her current calling to be bridge-building between conservatives and intersex people. And yet this book smashes headlong into nearly all of the basic Evangelical assumptions about the nature of sex and gender. Sex Difference in Christian Theology meticulously examines the current science on how bodies are formed and what contributes to the ways in which doctors and scientists assign gender and sex labels to individual persons, and in that light critically (using fully approved Evangelical exegetic techniques) examines the witness of the Bible concerning gender and sex. The result for an Evangelical who reads the book with an open, yet still critical, mind is likely to be the crumbling, not of the book, but of his own understanding of what the Bible does and does not actually have to say about the meaning of physical sex and about gender. Having been disarmed by her passion and care for Scripture, the Evangelical will soon be alarmed to discover just how many of his beliefs on this subject were little more than assumptions—and weak assumptions at that.

How about you?

Are there any books you would like to add to the list. Leave them in the comments section together with a brief explanation.

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