Category Archives: Christianity

LETTER TO A FRIEND ON DOUBT

 A friend asked how I navigate my doubts. Here is what I wrote him:

I don’t like the word “certainty,” especially when it comes to the Christian faith.

When I teach apologetics as I did for four years at Regents School of Austin, I used the word “pointers” instead of “proofs.”

“Faith seeking understanding” is my preferred way to think about my relationship with God. The “democracy of the dead” who have helped me the most in this regard include, but are not limited to: Athanasius, Augustine, Kempis, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Baxter (and a few other Puritans), Pascal, Edwards, Herbert, Dickinson, Chesterton, Lewis, Newbigin, Willard, Bloesch, Stott, Oden, and Lundin. Most impactful living authors would include but not be limited to: Keller, Rutledge, Wood, Delbanco, Wright (NT and Christopher), McKnight, Piper, and Taylor.

You mentioned “tending your own garden.” Voltaire’s Candide is one of my favorite books. The glib Pangloss (=all tongue!) repeatedly invokes “It is the best of all possible worlds.” Exposure to the horrors of the world eventually make even him no longer believe what he is saying. For all its brilliance, Candide offers a binary trap: be superficial with the harsh realities of life or hunker down on your plot of land.

I believe (that word is instructive!) there is a third alternative: engage with the messiness of the world trusting there is a God who is really there, and more than fine with my wrestling to make sense of the Christian faith. I am grateful that God is mindful that we are but dust (Ps. 103:13,14), blessed if we believe without seeing (Jn. 20:29), and knows that the best of us sees in a mirror dimly (I Cor. 13:12).

I find it somewhat ironic that you liked Hitchens. I did too so I get it. His short book on dying (Mortality) is compelling. I love that one of the three authors that Hitchens requested be brought to him in his last days was Chesterton! The other two were Nietzsche and Mencken. Quite a trifecta! Yet, Hitchens was a man of certainty. Remember, we read and discussed god is not Great. He sounded like John R. Rice, so in the end I did not find him very illuminating.

There are many things I am not certain of, but I will mention one. As you know, I wrote my M.A. thesis (and then slightly expanded book) as a critique of annihilationists on the doctrine of hell. Though Stott, Hughes, et al. were mentioned, I spent most the time on Clark Pinnock’s view. To my delight, Professor Pinnock (along with J.I. Packer and Dallas Willard) wrote an endorsement. Pinnock said it was a fair and worthy treatment.

Years later after writing that first book (it came out in 1995), I am not so sure about many aspects related to the nature and duration of hell.

The following are some of the things that give me a “proper confidence” of what I believe.

*I start with the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. From there, I look at how Jesus handled the Scriptures. See John Wenham’s book, Christ and the Bible. I am fairly confident this is a wise way to proceed.

*I intentionally seek out alternative views to my own. It is why I listened to all three cable stations (we no longer have cable) and in the car listen to everything from NPR to right wing radio. It is also why Ralph Waldo Emerson has been a major conversation partner for over two decades. He wrote things that I need to hear, even and maybe especially when they make me angry.

*I seek out people who are willing to interact over the most contentious issues of the day. For example, in both writing, teaching, and conversations I had many vigorous discussions with pro-Trump Christians. In some of the best conversations we each learned some things we would not have otherwise learned. It is true that I remained a Never-Trumper, but my objections were clarified/slightly modified by these conversations.

You could read this as apologetic that there are others who have not bowed a knee to the Baal of certitude. You may be surprised that there are more than you imagined!

AN AUSSIE WHO KNOWS AMERICA BETTER THAN MOST AMERICANS

This is the third book I’ve read by this author. All have been terrific.

Sayers has a real knack for putting things in a fresh perspective. He effectively uses history and global trends to illumine the topic at hand. In this book, it is how the church can wisely address living between eras, what Sayers describes as a “gray zone.”

There are many invaluable insights to be sure in this book, but many times I found myself launching in a direction that the author probably did not intend, but I nonetheless found fruitful.

Highly recommended!

STUCK IN THE PRESENT

When I wrote Stuck in the Present, I was not thinking about megachurches per se, but this excerpt describes a concern that seems more formidable in larger churches:

“A community, especially a Christian one, is a group of people who share something in common that transcends socioeconomic or racial backgrounds. What Christians share is a common history—a living tradition. When we lose sight of this living tradition, we put ourselves in a perilous situation. With a sketchy understanding of our common identity as Christians, we are no longer able to have true community with one another.”

David George Moore, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians, p. 93.

WHEN EVERYTHING’S ON FIRE

There is much to like about this book. It is well-written, insightful, and winsome. Zahnd demonstrates his pastor cum theologian strengths with this clarion call that those tempted towards deconversion need not do so.

The author’s view on Scripture (he is indebted to Barth and Brueggemann, among others) leaves me wondering who I can recommend this book to. I have recommended it already but will only do so to those who have more grounding to find the significant wheat among the possible chaff.

CHRIST AND THE KINGDOMS OF MEN

This is a lucid and thoughtful engagement with how the so-called political is to be understood by Christians. Those from a Reformed tradition will resonant most closely with it, but it offers a small c catholicity so all Christians can benefit.

One small bugaboo: I wish the author had not quoted Metaxas on Bonhoeffer without a caveat lector. It surprises me that the author, clearly a very literate scholar, would not be aware of the problems with Metaxas’s work.

THE WHOLE CHRIST

Ferguson write with great skill about why an older debate is worth our careful attention. Some background will be helpful in this semi-technical book, but the author writes lucidly and offers many pastoral nuggets along the way.

If you are looking to clarify what legalism and antinomianism are all about, this is a study worth considering.

 

THE TRAGEDY OF AMERICAN COMPASSION

This is the third Olasky book I’ve read. Though they are very different books, all three have been terrific reads. 

The Tragedy of American Compassion is the book that Olasky is best known for. Even though it was published thirty years ago, it stands up very well.

A compelling case is made that the prior ways of understanding compassion and therefore dispensing aid are superior to our modern policies and programs. By “prior ways,” we are talking about the nineteenth century.

Books like this can so easily fall prey to trotting out an endless stream of statistics. Numbers matter to be sure, but they don’t tell a story. W.E.B. DuBois learned that lesson in a graphic way when he realized that his fascination with numbers could not adequately convey seeing “the barbecued parts of a lynched man.”

Olasky peppers his seminal book with loads of stories that help us better understand what true compassion entails. In other words, Olasky appropriately moves both our minds and affections to consider a wiser approach.

Highly recommended!