“Go, little book…!”

“Go, little book…!”

It’s a weird feeling to launch a book.

On the one hand, you’re afraid no one will read it. On the other, you’re afraid they will.

Unlike my prior books, which have focused exclusively on either Bible or theology, this one crosses boundaries. It is academic–but not heavily. It marries fiction with theology and cultural critique. It even lodges a qualified endorsement of a term that functions as a shame word in the academy: “speculation”–or what I call “faith seeking imagination.”

It is starkly critical of many currents within American evangelicalism; yet it also stubbornly refuses to defect from historic Christianity because of sheer embarrassment.

In other words, some will like it; others won’t.

That is as it should be. I hope it finds the audience that needs it. And specifically, I hope it finds those exhausted and disillusioned souls (like the “Eliza” character within the book) whose faith is hanging by a thread.

As I put it in the Introduction:

“The importance of what I define as ‘faith seeking imagination’ increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism. Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the ‘resounding gong[s]’ (1 Cor 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say ‘perhaps’.”

I’ll blog a bit more about the book in weeks to come, but for now I’ll end with the words of Robert Southey,

Go, little Book! From this my solitude
I cast thee on the Waters,–go thy ways:
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The World will find thee after many days.
Be it with thee according to thy worth:
Go, little Book; in faith I send thee forth.

See here to purchase a copy of Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.

Or see here for the audio version (*not read by me…).

To learn more, here’s an old blog post that became the basis for Perhaps, several years ago.


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Gen D

Gen D

On religious doubt in younger generations

“Well, I guess I picked the right topic.”

That was one of my thoughts when I first saw this research from Ryan Burge on the rise of religious doubt in younger generations. But it’s hardly the most important one.

My next book (out this Fall) deals partly with that very topic: the crisis of faith experienced especially by young adults within our polarized times. Though I argue that some of the ways both doubt and faith are spoken of in Christian circles can do more harm than good.

Coming back to Burge, respondents were asked whether they believed in God’s existence “with no doubts.” (I could go on here about how this is not a question that the Bible cares much about, but let’s skip to the results.) Older generations remained relatively stable and certain across time. Meanwhile, millennials and Gen Z showed a significant decline.

Now, if you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I dislike sweeping generational generalizations (e.g., Millennials are like this… .”), especially when those claims are used to cast aspersions on a diverse swath of humans across different cultural, economic, geographic, and ethnic backgrounds. (See here for one of my old rants on the subject.)

But Burge isn’t doing that. And the research raises some important questions. Of course, for one segment of the evangelical internet (aka: where fun goes to die), it might be used to justify the kind “hell-in-a-handbasket” fear-mongering that is used to fuel the culture wars and generational superiority: People better wake up, etc., etc., something about participation trophies…

But to be honest, I unfollowed those people a long time ago.

Here are few random queries I had after seeing these statistics:

1. What percentage of supposedly “doubt-free” belief amongst older generations connects to a confusion between saving faith and the profession of mental certainty?

In Perhaps, I write about a misunderstanding regarding what the Bible means by “doubt”—at least as it appears in our modern English translations. In most cases, the Scriptures don’t decry honest questions or uncertainty. Rather, they confront the cultivation of divided loyalties and allegiances in those passages that are seen to speak of “doubt.”

I don’t have time for all the biblical data here, but suffice it to say that some Christians have been led to believe that if we admit to doubts, we are essentially saying that we don’t have “saving/healing/bank-account enriching faith.” Not so. This idolization of absolute certainty probably has more to do with the Enlightenment and folks like Descartes than it does with Jesus and Bible.

What’s more, a conflation between faith and certitude leads to a whole host of problems including gullibility, arrogance, and dishonesty. After all, to say that one has no doubts about a mysterious and unseen God is to risk violating the command that says, “Thou shalt not lie.”

A better option, as A. J. Swoboda rightly notes, is that doubt should be neither vilified or valorized in and of itself.

2. What percentage of youthful doubt is resolved with laugh lines and male pattern baldness?

In other words, do humans (on average) tend to progress from a season of unsettling doubt to more firm convictions?

It seems possible that some of us undergo a period of more intense questioning (say, between our teens and middle age), while gradually moving to more settled opinions around the time we start getting wrinkles, bald spots, and colonoscopies.

I don’t think this “ageing out” interpretation accounts for all (or even most) of Burge’s data. Still, it would be interesting to know more about some of these older respondents in, say, the 1960s or 70s. Last I checked, Woodstock wasn’t an apologetics conference.

3. How much doubt amongst millennials and Gen Z is driven partly by the partisan dogmatism of certain evangelicals?

In Perhaps, my subtitle speaks of “Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.”

By that latter term, I describe a confluence of characteristics among many of the most visible evangelical spokesmen (I almost changed that to “spokespersons” but that would be inaccurate). Namely,

  • A tone of partisan shrillness
  • A posture of false certainty

From Jerry Falwell Jr., to Mark Driscoll, to whatever small-time COVID-denier pastor that CNN loves to elevate—doubt is often driven as a reaction to an un-Christlike dogmatism. In Perhaps, I speak of this as “fringe revulsion” and “team shaming.”

To be clear, religious fundamentalists haven’t cornered the market on dogmatic shrillness and false certainty. There are dogmatic forms of secular Liberalism that are every bit as strident. For that reason, I suggest that one of the best ways to wrestle through seasons of doubt is NOT by binge reading a stack of New Atheists in the morning alongside some simplistic or rationalistic apologetic literature at night.

Rather, the Spirit often works on our “split brains” (more on that in the book…) by virtue of embodied habits, healthy community, ancient voices, and a willingness to cling to Jesus in spite of our many questions. In that way, folks of all generations can pass through the wilderness doubt rather assuming “deconstruction” is a destination.

You can pre-order my new book here; but just to prove that I’m not merely hocking my own “products”—here is another excellent one by A. J. Swoboda. (I’ve got a podcast interview with him coming soon; so stay tuned!)

Grace and peace.


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New book alert!

New book alert!

Big news!

I haven’t written about this on the blog yet, but my next book now has its own page, and its first endorsement on the IVP website (here).

I was honored to receive these words from Matthew Bates:

“Perhaps a meadow exists between dogmatism and skepticism, a fruitful space for cultivating beautiful truth. Perhaps Origen, Augustine, and Edwards can converse there with Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps instead of rehearsing or debunking information, we can foster theological imagination. Perhaps Joshua McNall’s wit and wisdom has pointed the church toward a better future. Perhaps we should listen.”

Matthew W. Bates, author of Gospel Allegiance and associate professor of theology at Quincy University

Matt’s endorsement captures well the spirit my project.

In so many ways, our culture feels held hostage by the fringes: the shrillest voices on the Left and Right. And as we turn to questions of faith, that same polarization leaves many driven toward one of two extremes: On one side stands a yawning chasm of secular doubt, and on the other sits an increasingly angry religious dogmatism.

I’m not the first person to note this trend, but I hope my book sparks something of a renewed (and more gracious) theological imagination between pervasive skepticism and abrasive certainty. That’s what Perhaps is about.

It’s a strange book, because its fuses disciplines that are normally kept safely separate: It’s part fiction, part theology, part apologetics, and part cultural analysis.

Still, the big idea is summed up in this line from N. T. Wright:

To believe in providence often means saying “perhaps.”

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Here’s a brief snapshot from my Introduction:

The importance of what I define as “faith seeking imagination” increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism.

Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the “resounding gong[s]” (1 Cor 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say “perhaps.”

From the Preface

I’ll have much more to say about the book in weeks to come, but if you’re interested, here’s a few things you can do to help as I approach the September launch date:

  • Pre-order. You can pre-order the book on Amazon (here), or on the InterVarsity Press site (here).
  • Join my newsletter (here): Full disclosure… I’ve been terrible at keeping up this newsletter, so if you signed up and wondered if something went wrong, it did: I got too busy. That said… I’ll be offering some special perks through that email list to interested readers. Thanks!
  • Pray. Pray that this book blesses the church and is used by God to speak not only to academics (it is lightly academic) but to college students and churchgoers who feel spiritually homeless.

Oh, and one more thing: The unsung hero of Perhaps is a seven-hundred-pound Galápagos tortoise, named Wilbur. He’s important for the plot, but he’s also dedicated to my 3 yr old son, Teddy Brian.

How’s that for a teaser?

Grace and peace.


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What would Jesus undo? (Sermon Video)

What would Jesus undo? (Sermon Video)

I had a great time preaching this past weekend in Gillette, Wyoming.

Big shout-out to Mike Wilson and the folks at New Life Wesleyan for welcoming me!

They began a sermon series on Sunday entitled “What would Jesus undo?  And as a part of that, I got to preach on some ideas I’ve been working through about what it looks like for Christians to reclaim the sacred ground between (1) crippling doubt, and (2) angry dogmatism.

I’ve written about that topic before (here), and I’m currently writing a book on the subject for IVP Academic. But until then, here’s the video.


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Christian, learn to say “perhaps”

Christian, learn to say “perhaps”

Tucked away on page 1,351 of N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, there is this gem of statement:

            “To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps’.”

In context, Wright is speaking of the fact that for Paul, moments of unambiguous divine revelation were rarer than we might guess. They happened, but not constantly. Whereas pagans believed in divination, consulting the entrails of animals, and any number of other techniques for receiving certitude, for Paul it was different:

“As often as not, Paul sees the divine hand only in retrospect. For the present, the attempt to discern divine intent carries a ‘maybe’ about with it. Maybe, he writes to Philemon about Onesimus, this is the reason he was separated from you. To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps’.”

For me, “perhaps” is intriguing for a slightly different reason.

It seems to occupy a kind of sacred middle ground between the two extremes of doubt and false certainty.

widest

THE ALTERNATIVES

On one extreme, we face the arrogant temptation of claiming to know more than we do. This can lead to dogmatic pronouncements on things that should probably held more tentatively. After all, in theology especially, we are talking about a mysterious and unseen God, not plotting the schematics for a circuit breaker. As Neil Plantinga writes, “besides reliability, God’s other name is Surprise.” And as Paul proclaimed, “we see now as through a glass, darkly” – we know “in part” (1 Cor. 13.12).

Yet the opposite extreme is equally unsavory. Across from false certainty is the sinkhole of pervasive skepticism. After the Enlightenment, empiricism demanded quantifiable data for every aspect of one’s worldview, and many were swallowed in an ocean of unbelief. In my view, this is not appealing either. Nor does it succeed in meeting its own criteria for verifiability. Here, the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet still have force: “There are more things in heaven and earth [O Richard Dawkins] than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

But the irony is this: Both certainty and skepticism have something in common: both bow before the idol of “proof” and make their sacrifices.

And in the middle, sitting quietly, is “perhaps.”

DEFINITION

What exactly do I mean by this? In truth, one could easily locate faith or trust as the midpoint between doubt and certainty. This makes sense. Yet for my purposes, I take trust to be an act of the will (or heart), whereas perhaps is more an exercise of the imagination. Faith says “yes” to core convictions of the creed, while perhaps stands upon this platform in order to peer into more uncharted territory: the blank spaces on our maps.

In doing so, it offers a hopeful, humble, and biblically-informed “what if?” Yet unlike the proof-obsessed alternatives of doubt and dogmatism, perhaps does so with the proviso that “this could very well be wrong.”

It is a kind of sacred speculation, on the basis of more firm convictions.

THE DANGERS 

In fairness, there are times when perhaps is not a helpful word. It can be used to indulge absurdity or unbridled speculation. “Perhaps, as some say, the earth actually sits on the back of a giant (unseen) turtle,” and if asked what this turtle stands on, the answer is straightforward: “it’s turtles man, all the way down.” Yeah… I doubt it.

Likewise, as a Christian, I choose not to endlessly mull over the “perhaps” of questions that have already been decided in my own mind. Thus I do not agonize continually over the possibility that “Perhaps God is not Love,” “Perhaps Christ did not conquer death,” or “Perhaps ‘morality’ is just an evolutionary adaptation.” While such questions are quite real for many, the anchor of my own faith keeps me from endlessly rehearsing them.

WHY IT MATTERS

Yet in other instances, the ability to entertain unlikely possibilities can be crucial.

Imagine, for instance, that you are a first century Jew who has been taught (from the Bible) that Yahweh is “One” (Deut. 6), that only God can forgive sins, and that no human should be worshipped. Then a traveling Rabbi visits your town, and starts saying things that seem to rub against all this.

“Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8.58);

“I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10.30); and

“[I have] authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mk. 2.10).

What do you do?

Apart from God’s Spirit, and a profound ability to say “perhaps,” the answer is clear: You reject the strange Rabbi, you join the throng of confident doubters, and you cite Bible verses to show that it is justified.

Simply put, none of the earliest Christ-followers could hold on to both monotheism and the worship of the risen Jesus without the ability to do some fairly thorough reimagining. At some point, they had to say something like the following: “Well…this doesn’t seem to fit at all with what we’ve been taught, but perhaps God is doing something we had not expected. Perhaps we shouldn’t just reject it.”

For my own part, this thought experiment is particularly convicting. I am a theology professor, which means that if I had lived in the first century, I might have been one of the “teachers of the Law” who frequently interrogated Jesus. Given this, I sometimes wonder what my response would have been to this strange Rabbi saying strange things.

I know myself. I am not optimistic.

I too have trouble remembering that God’s other name is “Surprise.”

CONCLUSION

So while sacred speculation is not without pitfalls, there is justification for Wright’s pregnant sentence:

Sometimes, to believe in providence, means learning how to say “perhaps.”