Category Archives: Doubt

AGGRESSIVELY HAPPY

I almost did not read this book. The cover made me think it was going to be another one of those fluffy, feel-good books. You know, the kind in the end that leave you more convinced that Christians just can’t write honestly about the human condition.

Well, I am here to say that Joy’s splendid book is hardly spiritual pablum. Joy just finished her PhD at St. Andrews, she knows suffering firsthand, and yet she maintains a gritty confidence in Jesus Christ.

When you are my age (sixty-four, by the way), have a strong theological education, and constitutionally have a honed radar for drivel, you are ready to be disappointed by “popular” Christian books.

I was not disappointed!

The writing is beautiful, the insights are fresh, and the storytelling, even about the author’s own life is wonderful. Talking or writing about yourself is fraught with all kinds of potential hazards, but Joy avoids them. She is the winsome, fellow-traveler you would like to have as a guide and friend.

I usually read (meaning careful highlighting and note-taking) 50-60 books a year. I peruse hundreds of others. Aggressively Happy will definitely make my favorite book list for 2022, but now I feel another category needs to be added: Books that pleasantly surprised me.

I would love to open a bookstore someday. Well, not quite. Since my own teaching and writing makes that impossible, I would love to be the person who picks what gets stocked. If and when that happens, you can be sure to find this book on the shelves.

FED UP WITH CHRISTIANITY? REMEMBERING WHAT MATTERS

These days we find a growing number of people deconstructing their Christian faith, while others say they no longer believe or have deconverted. The former lops off things that are deemed excess baggage to the true faith, while the latter is a full-fledged leaving of the Christian faith. We could debate whether those deconstructing are also deconverting, but that is not the purpose of this piece. Rather, my desire is to call us to remember what we seem to have forgotten. We Christians need to make a few things mainstays of our faith lest we keep losing our way.

I have my own frustrations with the American church, but I prefer to remain within the historic Christian faith among a community of thoughtful friends. Loyal and wise friends are indispensable to a healthy walk with God.

I often jest that I am a serial doubter, but it is hardly a joke. Doubts about certain teachings of the Christian faith have nagged me for four decades. My first book on the Christian understanding of hell was borne out of a personal struggle. Though I wrote that book nearly thirty years ago, my struggle with hell persists. I assume it and other questions will continue to plague me until the day I die. I take encouragement from Christian, the lead character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Not only did Christian get waylaid by Doubting Castle, but at the end of his life this true believer’s last steps were fraught with terror. Christian and his friend Hopeful are crossing the final river before entering the Celestial City (=heaven). Christian is struggling with all kinds of doubt about whether he will make it across the river. Ironically, Christian is confident Hopeful is going to make it safely to the other side because Hopeful always had a sure and steady faith. Things are different for Christian. He is convinced that he will drown. Hopeful seeks to encourage Christian by saying that the river’s bottom can be “felt and that it is firm.” That is not immediately apparent to Christian, but he finally finds the river is indeed “shallow and solid.” With indescribable joy, but quite different experiences, the two friends arrive safely on the shores of heaven.

To put it crudely, just because you are a true Christian does not mean that you will die with a smile on your face. Heaven is yours, but you just may go through one final trial to get there. Not easy words to hear, but true ones. Anyone who has been around for the last days of a Christian’s life knows that there can be intense suffering both physically and sometimes even spiritually.

I believe in eternal security, but that does not necessarily mean that one’s pilgrimage here on earth will be free of struggles, fears, or even doubts. I am encouraged that my God promises to hold me regardless of the doubts that at times assail my sanity and stability.

Again, my motivation in writing this piece is not to describe the dynamics per se of deconstruction and deconversion. Plenty of ink has already been spilled in that regard, and even if you have not read about these things, you probably have a family member or friend who is a poignant testimony to this growing trend. My purpose in writing is to remind us of some things that are not getting the attention they deserve.

In keeping with the theme of sanity and stability, it is good to remember that there is a difference between Christianity and what Christians will say the Christian faith entails. This is especially acute since many “Bible-believing” Christians (as all the polling data shows) have minimal engagement with the Bible. Biblical illiteracy among those who tout their high view of Scripture is something I have witnessed in several places over nearly four decades of ministry. It is stunning when self-professed Christians mix a toxic brew of ignorance and arrogance. They may not know much, but some of these folks still demand that you listen to them. I am old enough to know I need not listen to such nonsense.

Here then are four areas that I believe we Christians must remember to take seriously. The erosion of all four is found broadly in places that name the name of Christ. All four of the following areas offer a powerful prophylactic against the temptation to deconstruct and/or deconvert. All four of these are also indispensable for the rest of us!

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CHRISTIAN EDUCATION?

In a podcast interview for my most recent book (Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians), the host asked if I was finding it easier these days to persuade Christians about the importance of learning. The host thought my need to persuade others might not be as great these days because all the present challenges both in and out of the church are so obvious and alarming. Perhaps I was seeing greater eagerness to learn about the Christian faith. Sadly, I responded that my need to persuade Christians to learn is as great as ever. Instead of the present challenges making Christians more eager to learn, I am finding that many are content to stay in their safe silos where one can supposedly be protected from the complex challenges of our day. The promise of pseudo safety trumps the embarrassment of being superficial. Fear trumps the risk of learning. And true learning is risky because you will find out how much you don’t know. When our youngest son taught philosophy, he told me that his number one priority was to convince his students how little they knew. Such exposure is embarrassing, so it is easier to hunker down in echo chambers where learning is limited.

I have asked different Christian groups whether anyone can give me the biblical texts that describe the proper boundaries of “faith, hope, and love.” In other words, what are the Bible verses that describe the difference between biblical faith and presumption, hope and wish-fulfillment, love, and a secular version of therapeutic well-being. Other than my wife, I have found most admit that they can’t do it. If the biblical boundaries of “faith, hope, and love” are not clearly understood, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know how pervasive the ignorance must be on other important Christian teachings.

The late J.I. Packer “mourned the eclipse” of Christian education (he used the word catechesis). Packer believed that its low priority was a main contributor to “the deepest root of immaturity that is so widespread in evangelical circles…” I agree. I believe our downplaying its importance makes people vulnerable to leaving the Christian faith for poor, but understandable reasons.

There are several factors that may lead to deconversion, but there is one that has not sobered enough Christian parents. I’ve seen it up close in a Christian school context, in parachurch ministry, and in pastoral work. It is a surefire recipe for disheartening your children about the Christian faith. They may still walk with God, but parents can make things more difficult for their children by failing to address an all-too-common problem.

It is not uncommon to find parents who desperately desire their children to be grounded in the Christian faith, but they themselves are apathetic. Years ago, while I was teaching at a Christian school, two high school seniors complained about their parent’s lackluster approach in following Jesus. One asked, “Mr. Moore, my father wants me to love Jesus first and foremost, but he is consumed with his brand-new BMW. What should I do?” The other said, “When I come home my mom makes it clear that I need to get studying Latin, but she is reading Glamour magazine.”

By the grace of God, children may still walk with God despite their parents’ hypocrisy. On the other side of things, I know parents who continue to grow in the “grace and knowledge of the Lord” despite having spiritually wayward children. These parents inspire me.

The late Dallas Willard used to say that he had a tough time finding churches who were committed to building disciples or apprentices of Jesus. People of all ages need to be formed in a more serious and comprehensive ministry of Christian education. Most of the Sunday school classes I have observed don’t come close to doing the job. Neither do the small groups I have observed. The research on small groups by the eminent sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, confirms my own observations. Focused attention must be given to equipping Christians to be lifelong disciples or learners. Church leaders need to provide an atmosphere where this sort of expectation is the normative path for all Christians. It must be an environment where everyone has the freedom to pose their most difficult or troubling questions. This assumes that churches have qualified leaders in both training and temperament.

I recently saw a quote being retweeted by those who heartily agreed with it. The quote came from a pastor I hold in esteem. He said, “The vast majority of Christians are educated past their level of obedience. If you would just do what you already knew, your life would change.” This pastor (and those who retweeted his quote) believes the answer to the spiritual doldrums is to stop putting such an emphasis on learning. What is needed is to get off one’s spiritual duff and go do something with what one already “knows.”

It’s a popular sentiment that I have heard a number of times before, but it misses some critical truths. For one, most American Christians don’t really have a good understanding of their faith. Again, the polling data shows this and my own varied experience over nearly forty years of teaching confirms it. In addition, the Bible makes clear that true knowledge of God leads to love. Finally, we should promote obedience but obedience that honors God is fueled by a maturing knowledge of God. The best love for God (and for human beings) is borne out of a deep understanding of who it is we are loving.

Consider the rigorous preparation of an NFL football player or of someone in the military who is headed to the front lines of battle. Why should we Christians settle for so much less in our own preparation?

MANY CHRISTIANS ARE NOT DESPERATE

I have read several books that seek to motivate Christians to read the Bible. What I believe is the biggest impediment to being an avid reader/student of the Bible has never been mentioned in any of these books. I am waiting to see it. It is this: if you are not putting yourself in situations where you need the resources of God or else you are keenly aware you will sink, you are not going to be an active learner of the Christian faith. You may be in that small percent that likes to learn for learning’s sake, but true Christian learning is meant to be lived and shared. Let me give one example.

If you share your faith on a regular basis, you will come across non-Christians wanting to know all kinds of things like why we Christians only honor the books that are in our Bibles. Why are these books so special? Didn’t powerful bishops in the fourth century use their power to ramrod the books of the Bible they wanted for inclusion in the canon? I have found few Christians able to give an answer to this question. Why is this? It’s quite simple and it is not because you must be a scholar to have a satisfactory answer. Rather, there is no urgent need to know this sort of thing if you steer clear of talking about Jesus with non-Christians. The engagement I find most common among Christians who do read their Bibles is to gain personal inspiration for the decidedly private faith that they are interested in living.

Christians have admitted to me that they avoid ministry opportunities to bear witness due to fear that they will not have a good answer to a non-Christian’s question. Nobody likes to be stumped, especially over a subject where good answers can be found.

I have various areas of disagreement with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), but I am indebted to how this ministry instilled the importance of putting yourself in places outside your “circle of confidence.” Early on, I was talking to people from different religions and cults. It motivated me to find better answers which then served as a catalyst to go out witness again. I was desperate to find better answers. Again, too many claiming the name of Christ aren’t desperate for better answers because they are not putting themselves in situations where they must bear testimony to why they believe what they believe.

I have some ideas for how churches could create a greater sense of desperation, but space limits me. Suffice it to say, pastors and church leaders would find it time well spent to brainstorm ideas for helping those under their care have more of a sense of desperation. They must first assess how desperate they are themselves.

Imagine if those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert saw an abundance of Christians seeking to live supernaturally. Imagine if those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert observed many Christians saying no to American consumerism and individualism. Instead, these Christians were eager to trust God in faith-stretching endeavors all while displaying an attractive joy and confidence in the truth. I believe it would make those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert reconsider what they might lose by doing so.

MAKE CHRISTIANITY BEAUTIFUL AGAIN

Another thing I jest about, but it too is deadly serious, is that if I had to believe everything I hear on Christian radio, I would have to bail on the faith. Fortunately, I do not have to believe these things. Fortunate too that there remains some great music and lyrics on Christian radio, but buyer beware!

Other examples of “Christian art” too easily fall under the category of kitsch. Whether fiction, art, or music, too much is sentimental, superficial, and sloppy.

In the areas of biblical studies and theology, we have lots of competent people doing excellent work. I am grateful for these faithful Christians. Our large library bears testimony to the value my wife and I place on such scholarship. In general, I would give high marks to these scholars and the rest of us “conservative” Protestants when it comes to describing and defending the Christian faith. However, I would not give us high marks on how well we Christians demonstrate the beauty of biblical truth.

My favorite writers of the past, people like Augustine, Pascal, Bunyan, Chesterton, Lewis, and Edwards, appreciated both the truth and beauty of God. We need to learn from them. Showcasing the beauty of the Christian faith along with its truthfulness would make people less tempted to deconstruct or deconvert.

Along with the need for more robust learning/discipleship and being in touch with our desperate need to grow, beauty provides a gracious power that addresses needs that we are not always aware we have. All three of these things are critical, but none have any lasting value if we fail to remember that Jesus is central to everything.

WHERE DID JESUS GO? LOVING FADS, LOSING JESUS

A few years back I went to the graduation ceremony for those who completed a rigorous drug rehabilitation program. The testimonies of the graduates were stunning tributes to a great and gracious God. When the ceremony was over, I asked the founder a few questions about the program. He said people did not have to be Christians to participate. They did need to commit to be in a small group where members slowly read and discussed the gospels. What he next told me is one of the best things I have ever heard about Jesus. He said, “They are not always convinced that Jesus is who he claimed to be, but they want him to be.” Seeing how Jesus treated people with dignity and respect was compelling for these addicts. The beautiful compassion of Jesus captivated them.

In Tim Larson’s fascinating book, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, he mentions various Christians (including pastors living in the Victorian era) who deconverted from the Christian faith. Several did so due to the attacks on the Bible by the “higher critics.” That part of the story has already been told by A.N. Wilson in his influential book, God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. What had not been well known is that a number of these deconverts came back to the Christian faith due to a fresh engagement with the Bible. They found that the Bible has a thicker, more realistic view on reality than the views promulgated by the skeptics. Several reconverted after finding the Christian faith described life more accurately than the descriptions of the most ferocious critics.

It is far past the time for American Christians to settle for a faith that could easily be gathered from a collection of pithy quotes on bumper stickers. Jesus and the faith that centers on him is true, compelling, worth giving our life for, and beautiful.

If you pay careful attention to the conversations of American Christians, you may start to wonder what happened to Jesus. Jesus supposedly undergirds and empowers all that we do, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to what most of us talk about. He is assumed to be central to everything, but our conversations seem to be animated by ministry strategy and leadership principles along with a host of other things. Things like ministry strategy and leadership principles have their place, but if we are not “growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus” we are in deep waters. We might end up being unlike Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. We may be drowning, and we may be unaware of the danger.

A few months back, my own pastor preached a terrific sermon from Colossians. Peter made it crystal clear that Jesus is central to everything. He winsomely teased out some important implications that flow from this reality. Preaching that reminds us of the central place of Jesus is always critical. I’m afraid that it is not common these days. Alan Jacobs said pastors could legitimately warn their congregations every week about the dangers of technology. In the same vein, pastors should regularly make it clear that Jesus is central to everything. If the person, work, and yes, beauty of Jesus are not clearly brought before the body of Christ on a regular basis, we should not wonder why so many wander (I Cor. 14:8).

As Rev. 2:4 tells us, we need to remember from where we have fallen and “go back and do the things we once did.” Repentance that leads to remembering what really matters is the answer for all of us, whether we be the person who is deconstructing our faith or the larger amount of us who still sit dutifully in church pews but are increasingly not sure why we remain.

David George Moore is the author of the recently released Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: David George Moore, Carl Trueman: 9781684264605: Amazon.com: Books

I am grateful to David Campbell who read an earlier version of this post. Several of David’s suggestions made it a better piece. Any errors in judgment and/or style are mine alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DOUBT: A QUICK NOTE…

In many conversations over the years, one thing has proven true with those who struggle with the Christian faith: there are things all these folks believe that are not truly germane to walking with Jesus.  I always mention to the surprise of these folks that if I thought the Christian faith meant some of the things they think it does, I wouldn’t stay within the Christian faith myself.

GIVE A GIFT TO YOURSELF!

This is the third book I’ve read by Tim Larsen. I interviewed him on the other two books.

There is so very much to like about this book. I will simply list out four of my favorite things about the book:

Some shorter books like Larsen’s pack in plenty of content. If a lecture series becomes a book (as is the case with this book), there is a better than average chance that the smaller size book will have great content. You can see this with books (from another lecture series) like Andrew Delbanco’s fascinating, The Real American Dream. Larsen’s book does not disappoint as it offers the reader plenty of material.

Even though there is much content, the writing is lucid and engaging.

Larsen is an eminent historian of nineteenth-century Britain. You can always count on him to do careful archival work and know the primary sources. This book showcases those strengths.

Larsen is sensitive, as was George MacDonald, to Christians who struggle with doubt. As one who knows firsthand these struggles, I greatly appreciate Larsen’s treatment in this book.

Perhaps it is too late for a Christmas present, but how about a present for yourself for the new year?!

OUR SECULAR AGE…

Image result for OUR SECULAR AGE BY HANSEN

Collin Hansen is the author and editor of several books, the most noteworthy being Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Hansen is editorial director for The Gospel Coalition.

Hansen’s latest book is Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.

Moore: For those who are not familiar, tell us why an entire book is devoted to the work of Charles Taylor?

Hansen: Charles Taylor’s 2007 book A Secular Age might be the most ambitious work published in the last 10 years. He aims to account for nothing less than the decline of religion and rise of secularism in the industrialized West. The way he pulls together philosophy, history, sociology, and theology in order to tell the story makes him a fruitful conversation partner, even when we disagree about the conclusions. Nobody has been more helpful to me personally as I look behind and beyond the headlines to understand larger trends and factors that make evangelism and discipleship so exciting but also difficult today.

Moore: The philosopher, James K.A. Smith, has also written a book on Taylor. How is yours different than Smith’s?

Hansen: I’m thankful for Smith, who has helped me and many other of this book’s contributors understand the significance of Taylor’s project. Smith does a lot to translate Taylor, who’s not the easiest writer to understand. It can feel like you’re joining a conversation already in progress, and you don’t know if you’re welcome. Several of the contributors to our book, most notably Michael Horton, engage Taylor in more critical ways, especially as it relates to the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. And throughout the book we give more attention to applying Taylor’s work to a wide array of ministry scenarios, from preaching to discipling millennials to forming worship liturgies and more.

Moore: In your introduction you wrote, “We don’t yet know, then, whether the children of the “young, restless, Reformed” will imbibe more of the restless or the Reformed. (Emphasis yours) Would you unpack that a bit for us?

Hansen: I talked with a friend in ministry who instinctively understood one of my motivations for this book. He described his undergraduate years in a Reformed college. Everyone there had grown up Baptist but as a teenager shifted more Reformed in contrast to their parents and home churches. But then they got to this school, and they no longer stood out. Everyone else had the same story! So they searched for new ways to express their individualism: they dropped John Piper for N. T. Wright or converted to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Taylor would recognize elements of the secular “subtraction story” in this narrative. In an age of “expressive individualism,” just about anything can be co-opted for stylistic projection, even if for a time it looks like settled conviction. If the Reformed don’t dig into and catechize the riches of this biblical theology, then they’ll set up their children for another reaction in some unknown new direction.

Moore: Several of the contributors have important points of criticism with Taylor’s work. In that regard, I am thinking of Carl Trueman’s observation that the automobile may have more impact than Taylor appreciates: “Perhaps it is not so much Luther who created religious choice at a practical level but Henry Ford.” Carl says he is exaggerating there, but his general point remains. What do you think about Carl’s comment about the car?

Hansen: That’s one of the standout observations from the book. And as an appreciative reader of Wendell Berry, I couldn’t help but agree with Trueman. How can you practice church discipline if anyone can just leave your church and join another one down the road? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology. What’s so special about your pastor’s preaching when you can watch someone better on television or listen to someone who tickles your earbuds via podcast? Why worry about sexual ethics if the pill and abortion separate intercourse from childbirth? Taylor has an unparalleled grasp on the philosophical factors, but he undersells the technological dimension to cultural change.

Moore: Let me ask this next question by invoking Yuval Levin’s masterful book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right. Levin makes the point that radicals like Paine are not going to be moved to reconsider why tradition is worth keeping unless they see its beauty. I would give us “Evangelicals” high marks on defending the Bible’s truthfulness, but very low marks on showcasing its beauty. Do you think Taylor has much to offer in this regard?

Hansen: Taylor doesn’t so much show us how to do it, but he at least reminds us of the opportunity before us, to showcase the beauty of Jesus Christ and his gospel. Let’s keep preaching and writing books like this one. But let’s also take up the challenge issued by Alan Noble in his chapter on the “disruptive witness of art,” and let’s appreciate what Mike Cosper captures about the longing for transcendence despite the “immanent frame.” We do not live in a secular age in the sense that our neighbors reject anything extra-sensory. We’re secular in the sense that we look to the self, not to outside authorities, for meaning. When we can stir the self to appreciate the beauty of the gospel, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sinners drawn from every tribe and tongue for everlasting praise, we see that our secular age still longs for hope and eternity.

Moore: What are a few things you would like your readers to gain from your book?

Hansen: First, I want them to see that secularism isn’t just a problem outside the church but our primary challenge for discipleship inside every Christian home. If we don’t catechize ourselves and our children in the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in God’s Word, the culture will catechize us in ways that undermine our faith. Second, I want them to know they can learn from Taylor without agreeing with him on everything. Certainly I would disagree strongly with his relatively positive assessment of Roman Catholicism before the Protestant Reformation. And third, I want them to see there is hope in our secular age. Even if we could turn back the clock, we wouldn’t want to. There are challenges to faith at the dawn of the information age, no doubt. But God is at work, if we will only look for him.

DONE WITH CHURCH

Dones are those who still believe in Jesus, but are finished with church.  Here is one perspective followed by my own reflection on why Dones exist and are growing:

An Alternative Theory on the Dones

I sadly know too many Dones. Several have shared their stories with me. Some were in positions of leadership, even serving as elders. Two frustrations predominated:

Lots of talk in church about what one should do (and how), but precious little about why.

There was not a safe place where any and all questions could be asked. People are left alone to marinate in their own doubts and struggles.

SLAIN BY GOD

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.  He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.  Some of the research for this new book was conducted while a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.

This interview revolves around Larsen’s latest book, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith http://www.amazon.com/Slain-God-Anthropologists-Christian-Faith/dp/0199657874

Moore: This is a rather unusual area of study.  What led you to write an entire book on it?

Larsen:  My whole scholarly life I have been interested in the collision between modern thought and historic, orthodox, Christian beliefs.  A lot of these tensions have been explored over and over and over again by scholars: Christianity and Darwinism, Christianity and Marxism, Christianity and Freudian theories, Christianity and modern biblical criticism, and so on and on.  When I read the letters and self-reflections of people in the second half of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century, however, what I noticed repeatedly was them mentioning the writings of anthropologists as unsettling to faith.  This was a major theme in the primary sources, in the historical record.  What had anthropologists discovered or theorized that seemed incompatible with Christian thought? I wondered.  When I tried to find a written explanation for this, I instead learned that no scholar had made a sustained attempt to try to map this terrain as of yet, so I decided I would have a go at it myself.

Moore: When does the discipline of anthropology as we think of it today begin?

Larsen:  In the second half of the nineteenth century.  E. B. Tylor, who is often considered the founder of the discipline, published an early seminal work, Primitive Culture, in 1871, and was appointed to the first university position in anthropology (at the University of Oxford) in 1884.  Franz Boaz, who is considered the founder of the discipline in the United States, received his first university appointment in 1899 (at Columbia University).  During the World War I era, Bronislaw Malinowski pioneered the expectation of intensive fieldwork.

Moore: You write that Edward Tylor “could not find a way to think anthropologically and as a Christian at the same time.”  Why is that?  What would you have told him if you had the chance?

Larsen:  He was in the grip of a pretty smug, self-flattering, stadial way of thinking – with the three stages of human development being: savages, then barbarians, and then civilized people.  He thought because “primitive” peoples were religious this somehow discredited faith as incompatible with being modern and civilized and scientific and so on.

I wish I could have explained to him that there is a lot more continuity in the human condition over time than he ever imagined – that so-called “savage” people were actually quite logical, scientific, and rational in ways he could not see, and that so-called modern people have other needs and thoughts and experiences and insights that do not fit into his procrustean assumptions about what is means to be a rationalistic, scientific, modern person.

Moore: The Christians at the college in Didsbury had a wonderful confidence that made them more than willing to engage skeptics like James George Frazer.  How common was that among the Christian population during the late nineteenth century?

Larsen:  What a great question!

This is one of the major misconceptions of evangelical and orthodox Christians in the nineteenth century – that they were somehow fearful of modern ideas and rejecting scientific and theoretical advances, that they were hostile and obscurantist.  Some of that stereotype is just erroneous secularist propaganda and urban legends that have been transmuted into the public consciousness as “fact”.  For example, you can read in major, premier, authoritative venues (a recent book by Yale University Press, for example, and articles in papers of record such as the New York Times) that Christians in the nineteenth century opposed the introduction of anesthetics for women in childbirth because Genesis supposedly dictates that this experience must be painful.  Yet this is a completely false urban legend.

I defy anyone to find a single sermon by any minster of any denomination anywhere saying any such thing, let alone an article in a Christian magazine or other publication, let alone an official pronouncement by a denomination.   There are many examples of this kind of thing.

Some of this misunderstanding comes from back-dating things that happened in the Fundamentalist movement beginning in the 1920s (which did have anti-intellectual, fearful, and obscurantist elements to it).

Late Victorian Christianity was actually quite open to and welcoming of new knowledge and scientific theories—even ones that were surprising given traditional Christian assumptions—and very confident that faith and science would cohere together in one, integrated worldview.

Moore: Mary Douglas is an utterly fascinating person.  She was shrewd in the best sense of that word.  Unpack her observation that “Debates which originate in quite mundane issues tend to become religious if they go on long enough.”

Larsen:  Yes, yes, I feel like I have been inspired to become a better, braver scholar by reading about her life and work.  She was so comfortable in her own skin as a leading intellectual who was also a conservative Christian!  That particular quote has been picked up on by several anthropologists since I wrote the book and it haunts me as well.

What she means is that people who imagine that theology can be set aside, marginalized, or ignored in modern academic discussions are actually the ones being intellectually naïve.  What intellectuals really care about are issues which go to the heart of the question of the nature of reality, of meaning, of ethics, of values – and these are all debates that are inherently bound up with theological content and reflections.  Whenever you discuss anything (“Is it important to recycle plastics?” let’s say, “Or should I buy this new suit of clothes that I want?”), the more you discuss it without coming to a quick conclusion, the two sides of the question inevitably lead you back to a more fundamental value or sense of meaning or conviction or principle or proposition and this is heading you into the territory of religion.

Moore: What has been the response to your book from those within the academic world of anthropology?

Larsen:  I am unbelievably, joyfully, relieved to say that it has been received very well.  I say this because for at least a couple years while I was researching it I felt like an incompetent interloper, if not a complete fraud.  I have never even taken an Anthropology 101 course!  I had to learn the whole discipline from scratch just by reading, and reading, and reading.  I was quite ready to be rebuked by professional anthropologists for not understanding the key theories in the discipline correctly and just not “getting it”.  Instead, the contemporary anthropologists that I most admired, not least the ones who do not self-identify as Christians – including  Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University and Joel Robbins at Cambridge University, as well as the former Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Jonathan Benthall (in the Times Literary Supplement! – I would count it a triumph to have my work abused in the TLS) – have received it so wonderfully warmly and appreciatively.  There was a whole panel on the book at the annual meeting the American Anthropological Association, and I have been invited to speak on it at the major anthropology seminar at Oxford, at the London School of Economics (the very storied seminar that Malinowski founded), at Cambridge, at Northwestern University, and so on.  It feels like dumb luck that I wrote this book at a time when the Anthropology of Christianity has suddenly become a hot subfield in the discipline.  I am very, very grateful for how anthropologists have welcomed and received my work.

Moore: What kind of non-academic would profit from reading your book?

Larsen:  Another surprisingly wonderful question.  These things are a matter of taste, so I am willing to accept humbly if others see it differently, but I see myself as a narrative historian who works very hard to have a literary quality in my work akin to an author of fiction.  Just like a short story writer uses a lot of details in description to build up a vivid, compelling portrait of an imagined character, so I have tried to do that with these historical characters.  In other words, I think the lives I present in the book do work for the ordinary, intellectually curious reader who cares about the human condition and experience as lived up-close and in-detail.  Buy it for your grandmother for Christmas!

 

 

DOUBTING THOMAS

Here are five of my favorite books which help me with “Doubting Thomas” syndrome:

The Skeptical Believer by Dan Taylor

http://www.amazon.com/The-Skeptical-Believer-Telling-Stories/dp/0970651155

Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin

http://www.amazon.com/Proper-Confidence-Certainty-Christian-Discipleship/dp/0802808565

Longing to Know by Esther Meek

http://www.amazon.com/Longing-Know-Esther-Lightcap-Meek/dp/1587430606

How (Not) to be Secular by James KA Smith

http://www.amazon.com/How-Not-Be-Secular-Reading/dp/0802867618

Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age by Roger Lundin

http://www.amazon.com/Believing-Again-Doubt-Faith-Secular/dp/0802830773