Tag Archives: Christianity

The Sin of Certainty, by Peter Enns

How does the modern Protestant define faith? For many, faith is considered to be an intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal creeds, rather than trust in a living God. In the past century, especially, the Christian life has calcified into checking boxes on a statement of belief, rather than a relationship with a being who is far beyond our comprehension. Gone is the mystery, the paradox, or the humble recognition of human limits.

Pete Enns is the Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. Early in his career, he had all of his theological ducks in a row, but while on a plane to give a presentation, he watched Disney’s A Bridge to Terabithia, where the unbelieving girl said that she didn’t believe that God would make his own son die if he was so busy running the whole world. Pete thought to himself, would a loving God force his own son to die a painful death? And he was thrown into a quagmire of doubt, which is not a comfortable place to be when you’re a pastor.

Throughout the book, Pete opens up all of the hermetically sealed boxes that today’s evangelical Christian keeps tucked safely away. How can the earth possibly be 6,000 years old? Why did God want the Israelites to kill all those people? Does he care about me, then? Why is the Bible so ambivalent on the question of slavery? If God loves us, why do children die and why are there wars?

When Pete began to wrestle with these issues himself and to bring them up in his classes, the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary began to view him with suspicion. He published a book on the Old Testament in 2005 (Inspiration and Incarnation) of which his administration did not approve, and while he was struggling to hold onto his job, his daughter had to be sent to a therapeutic boarding school for an overwhelming anxiety disorder. His life began to unravel, and he entered what Douglas Adams calls “the long, dark teatime of the soul.”

The Sin of Certainty is Enns’s exposition of his own journey away from and back to faith—or, as he would say, trust—and he boldly wades into dangerous waters. One of our pastors recommended this as the number one book he would give to people who are deconstructing or reconstructing their faith. Enns certainly leaves no stone unturned. He is completely knowledgeable about scripture, of course, since that is his vocation, but he also writes conversationally and even humorously about his own life and the state of the church. Near the end, he has a couple of sections called, “When ‘Uh-Oh’ Becomes ‘Ah-Hah’” and “Cultivating a Habit of Trust.” He believes that it is important to become comfortable with uncertainty and with changing your opinions as life happens. As Switchfoot would say, “We are always in motion, like the winds, the tides, the ocean….”*

To put cards on the table, I really like Pete Enns. David and I were several years into our reconsideration of many religious issues when we read his How the Bible Actually Works when it was published in 2019. It was pivotal in my journey to have someone who loved the Bible and had studied it for decades tell me, in effect, “but hey, it was not handed down on stone tablets. Here is the real story.” Pete Enns and Jared Byas also host a podcast called The Bible for Normal People, to which I regularly listen. They have great guests and ask hard questions. I am not always in agreement with them, but they are never boring.

When David and I read How the Bible Actually Works, we thought that we were alone in our struggle and that we would never know any other believers who were pursuing God on this path. We were wrong, thank goodness. If you are questioning manmade teachings that you have been forced to think are essential to salvation, please know that there are so many kind, intelligent people who love Jesus and are not evangelical Protestants—millions of them who have lived over a couple of millennia, as a matter of fact. You are not alone, and The Sin of Certainty is a good place to start.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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*”We’re Gonna Be Alright,” by Switchfoot, from the Native Tongue album. It also says: “…And it’s ok to doubt/ To learn what you think ain’t what you thought.”

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Reading While Black, by Esau McCaulley

How does a Black Christian find identity and comfort in the Bible? Some people have accused Black Christians of adopting a white man’s religion, but Esau McCaulley, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, responds that God chose his children in Africa centuries before the gospel ever reached Europe.

McCaulley is also a New Testament professor, and he brings his erudition to bear on scriptural passages concerning slavery and oppression, showing that it is not God’s plan to leave anyone in slavery, but that the trajectory of the entire Bible is always in the direction of liberation and freedom. Furthermore, he uses these ancient texts to examine the most contemporary of issues, such as policing and Black rage, parsing in detail the Bible’s verses about submission to government authority and the honest reality of the desire for vengeance.

For the White reader, McCaulley opens a window to the exegesis of the traditional Black church. All the way back in Genesis, Jacob’s son, Joseph, was sold to slave traders and ended up in Egypt, where he became the second most powerful person in the country. Pharaoh gave Joseph the daughter an Egyptian priest as a wife, and he had two sons with her whom Jacob later adopted as two of the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. It had never really occurred to me before that two of the twelve tribes of Israel were half African. Four hundred years later, the entire narrative of the Exodus and deliverance from slavery holds a message of hope for the Black church and the assurance that our God is a liberator of the oppressed.

This short book is divided into seven major topics related to the Black experience, and the author pulls from both Old and New Testaments— from Genesis to Revelation— showing his love for scripture and his faith. He does not hesitate to confront challenging passages, particularly in the Psalms or in Paul’s writings, just as he also glories in the hope of Isaiah and the gospels.

The last chapter, entitled “Bonus Track,” fills in gaps and answers some questions that the reader may have formed in the previous pages. First, McCaulley separates himself from James Cone and Black liberation theology. He says that, while he believes that liberation is found in the gospels, it is not the gospel.  He believes that his view of the Black ecclesial tradition will be familiar to Black audiences, since it is the message that has been heard from the pulpit, rather than read in scholarly books.

He also takes the opportunity in this chapter to address misogynistic scriptures and womanist theology. “Womanist” is an intersectional term coined by Alice Walker to deal with issues that concern both feminism and race. I appreciated this discussion, because I had been surprised on several occasions by a breezy insouciance toward the mistreatment of women in a passage, with a concentration only on the problems that pertained to men. Sometimes this blindness was found in quotes by other scholars that he had chosen.

McCaulley ends with a generous bibliography of authors for further study and an index of Bible references.

Important and enlightening.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Rediscipling the White Church, by David W. Swanson

“…One of the significant challenges of discipling white Christians away from segregation is that we do not consciously identify ourselves as a racial group. We don’t consciously think of ourselves as white.” (p. 159)

Rediscipling the White ChurchAfter the death of George Floyd, there was a very short time in which we began, as a nation, to unite around the tragedy of racial injustice. Within days, however, protests turned into riots, which took over broadcast and social media and split the national conversation into political parties so that we could slide back into our camps and not have to go through that uncomfortable, squirmy examination of our consciences.

Before that slide, though, I ordered a whole pile of anti-racist reads, just to make sure that I got really uncomfortable and stayed there. The one I picked up first is pointed at the white church, since I pitch my tent in the community of those who call Jesus Lord.

David W. Swanson is a white pastor in the Bronzeville section of Chicago who regularly speaks on issues of race, particularly addressing the white church. Because churches, particularly Protestant churches, are usually segregated to at least some degree, it is difficult for us to empathize with believers of color, since we never see them. Swanson points out three ways of thinking that are largely invisible to us but are influencing all of our conversations about race within the church.

First of all, white Christians are very proud of the American ideal of rugged individualism. We are quite sure that if each person worked harder and took personal responsibility, they would be fine. It worked for us, it will work for everyone. Often, we refuse to acknowledge that slavery and Jim Crow— although they are in the past and perhaps none of our personal ancestors were involved in them— have caused lasting damage to our society and our national psyche so that it is far more difficult for people of color to advance in the world.

Secondly, white evangelism and preaching appeal to the intellect. While we are rational creatures, we are also physical beings with emotions. Salvation is not an assent to a logical proposition, but a life that has been radically changed by the grace of God. As a result, we take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Discipleship engages the whole person.

Finally, white Christians tend to be anti-structural. That is, they are so afraid to shift blame away from the individual that any mention of “social justice” smacks of politics, and so they turn away. Eschewing the beautiful example of Christian abolitionists of the past, we forget that the Bible tells us that God requires us “to act justly and to love mercy.” (Micah 6:8)

Building upon this foundation, Swanson explores several ways that the church can reorient its discipleship toward solidarity in the kingdom of God using the Lord’s Supper, preaching, children’s ministry, liturgy, evangelism, and the many other ways in which we relate to one another. He also asks church leaders to examine their bookshelves to see whether there is diversity in the voices they are hearing. Perhaps no one will be able to use all of these suggestions, but they may be a springboard to the imagination for churches that desire to move into a true picture of the kingdom of God.

Although Pastor Swanson has years of experience living out his own ideals, his thesis will offend some readers, which is one good reason to hear him out. In this polarized time, all of us, Christians and non-Christians, seem to have drawn into two camps on nearly every question. In this instance, some churches have become all about social justice, as if that is the purpose for the existence of the church itself. Other churches are so opposed to that view that they refuse to confront the issue of racism at all and never approach the issue humbly, examining their own hearts. In my reading of scripture, though, it seems that the church exists, first and foremost, to worship God. After that, Jesus tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations,” teaching people to follow Jesus. Flowing from our love for God, we repent of our sins, and as we are Christians who happen to be Americans, it is completely Biblical to lament for our nation’s sins. This is not false guilt, and it does not involve kneeling before anyone but God, but it is acknowledging that the sin of racism is real. We must consider how we, as priests of God (1 Peter 2:9) can further the kingdom and “do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

There are two points that Swanson and others make that hit home with me and encourage me to continue reading and meditating on this issue. One is that white people may have suffered in their lives, and we all do, but we have never suffered because of the color of our skin. Millions of people have to go through the same trials that we endure in addition to overcoming our society’s hurdles caused by racial oppression.

Secondly, white people, often unconsciously, consider our lifestyles, our preferences, our speech, and our modes of worship to be the neutral standard by which everyone else is measured. Even in a multicultural church, the church leadership is most often white. Swanson talks about an exercise that he and his wife went through to adopt trans-racially in which the participants examine how many people of color are authority figures in our lives: your boss, your pastor, your doctor, and so on. The stratification of power in our world may seem invisible to us, but what are we silently communicating to our children?

In other words, although we may not consciously hurt other people, it is important to understand the other person’s perspective and to see if there is some way that we can change to bring about a more equitable society. As David pleaded with the Lord in Psalm 139:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
Test me, and know my anxious thoughts
See if there is any offensive way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

Scripture tells us over and over to examine our hearts. “As the eagle stirs up its nest” (Deut. 32:11), our churches should encourage us to get uncomfortable, to grow up, to act justly, and to raise up the next generation to love others who may not look like them.

We can start here.

Disclaimer: I purchased a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or any group.

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