Book Club Discussion: History, Mistakes, and Redemption

Today we will conclude our discussion of David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything with a look at his chapter on “Questioning History.” (Two more chapters follow, but I thought this one was most conducive to our conversation here.)

In Chapter Eight, Dark observes that “reading history yields the realization that deeply sincere people have gone to houses of worship, looked after their families, and prayed intensely while also participating in unthinkable atrocities. With this in mind, I read in the hope that I might participate in the redemptive movements of history, the kind that will look redemptive centuries from now.” (p. 173)

Those two sentences summarize a difficult and inconvenient truth that should keep us awake at night. I often think of Christians who owned slaves, Christians who opposed integration, and Christians who remained silent as the Cherokees were forced from their homes, and I wonder would I have joined them?

The truth is, sometimes we get it wrong.  In fact, we are probably getting some things wrong right now.

To be honest, this is why I spend a lot of time thinking about issues related to homosexuality, and why I find myself reluctant to join crusades against gay marriage. I often wonder if future generations will look at how the Church treated gays and lesbians and hang their heads in shame.

On page 173, Dark wisely asks, “How do I avoid being yet another uncaring face in a long line of blissfully ignorant people whose action and inaction are harnessed to keep other people down?” 

From this perspective, Dark makes an excellent case for the benefits of historical revisionism, arguing that “our commitment to remembering well, to the details of what really happened in tragic personal histories, war zones, and under the watch of negligent governments, is, it seems to me, inescapably tied to the struggle to think, speak, and listen redemptively.” (p. 185)

Of course, not all Christians have remained silent in the presence of inequity, and not all Christians participated in the aforementioned injustices. Some actually stood up against them, and their stories should certainly not be downplayed or ignored. However, there have been plenty of times throughout history when taking a stand against the government or the Church has been met with the charge of capitulating to culture or even denying the faith. To live a life that looks beyond the present almost certainly carries with it the risk of being criticized, even persecuted.

This chapter was perhaps my favorite of the book, because Dark takes the popular charge that one has a “biased reading of history” and shows how a redemptive bias can be helpful. It was also an appropriately uncomfortable chapter to read, because I found myself wondering how my children and my grandchildren will one day view my life, my words, and my silence.

In looking at the world today, what injustices do you think Christians might be overlooking or even perpetuating? How do you think history will judge this generation? Do issues related to homosexuality come to your mind when thinking about this?

And, to borrow a question from Dark: “Oscar Wilde once observed that the best thing one can do for history is to revise it. Is he right? Why or why not?”

Let me know what you think!

(P.S. If you enjoyed The Sacredness of Questioning Everything as much as I did, consider writing a review on Amazon!)

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Book Club Discussion: Words Worth Talking About

Transient

As we continue our discussion of David Dark’s excellent book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Zondervan, 2009), I’d like to focus on the author’s thoughts regarding language and interpretation.

I like Dark’s observation in Chapter 6 (“Questioning Our Language”) that “semantics might be all that we have to talk about...The question of what our words mean, what we didn’t mean, or what we didn’t mean to mean, as tiresome as it all feels, is really all we’ve got...If we’re unwilling to reexamine or revisit the meaning of our words, if it wounds our pride to receive a talking-to concerning our ill-suited talk, what’s left?” (p. 130)

Instead, Dark advocates “keeping everything talkaboutable”—a phrase I love, and a phrase I hope describes the nature of our conversations on this blog. Such an approach requires humility and a willingness to think critically. It requires that we remain open to the perspectives of others.  It requires that we listen better and, ultimately, love better.

In Chapter 7 (“Questioning Our Interpretation”), Dark applies the same approach to how we read and interpret (among other things) the Bible.

Writes Dark, “...we have to resist the temptation to read the scriptures flatly, as if any verse can be extracted and deployed to say ‘what God says,’ as if there is no ethical progression or moral development or widening eschatology within the collection. “ (p. 156) Dark goes on to rightly note that Scripture will not interpret itself and that “this work of reading the words well—of trying to do them justice—is never done.” (p. 156)

In mulling over these chapters, I started making a list of certain words I think are worth talking about more, words that are worth reexamining within Christian dialog. These are words that are often thrown about without much thought or are lifted from the Bible with little regard to their context.  Here are my top five:

  1. Inerrancy:  Why do so many insist on passionately defending the use of this word to describe the Bible when the word itself never appears in the Bible? Where did this word come from? Is inerrancy irrelevant when the Bible must always be interpreted by errant readers, when we have no actual access to an inerrant text? Might we benefit by using words like authoritative, or trustworthy, or truthful instead? (
  2. Salvation: Saved from what? Does the word salvation refer to the eternal ramifications of our sins (saved from hell) or to the day-to-day ramifications of our sins (saved from gossip and greed), or does it refer to both? Does salvation happen corporately or individually?
  3. Justification: Check out a great conversation on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog about N.T. Wright’s new book, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision.  Clearly, this discussion goes beyond “mere semantics.”
  4. Blessing:  Should material abundance always be considered a blessing?  How do we know when something is really a gift from God?Should we use this word more sparingly? 
  5. Truth: Oh, where to begin?

Question For YOU: What are some words that you think are worth talking about?

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Book Club Discussion: Does This Offend You?

Probably my favorite show on television is the Colbert Report on Comedy Central. I don’t think I would have made it through the 2008 election had it not been for this daily dose of smart, hilarious satire.

David Dark, author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, seems to appreciate Colbert as well, for he begins his chapter on “Questioning Our Offendedness” with a “tip of the hat” to the comic genius of the caricature that is Stephen Colbert—a caricature that highlights how “we develop a built-in resistance to any information that refuses to fall in line with our preconceived notions.” (p. 53)

I chose the clip above because it highlights how our culture glorifies the act of being offended, and it illustrates Dark’s point in Chapter Three that we tend to be “selective fundamentalists,” especially when it comes to what offends us.

Writes Dark:

“Feeling offended summons a sense of being in the right, a certain strength, a kind of power, an espresso shot of righteous indignation...But if we feel deep affection only for people who tell us we’re right and only give high fives to the like-minded, all we’ve done is joined a club. We risk becoming incapable of the give-and-take of genuine conversation. If all our friends and news sources require of us is a ‘Ditto’ and “I think what you think,’ we might be in danger of becoming impenetrable to wisdom, immunized against the sensation of sympathy, resistant to the pleasure of being amused by our own ignorance, and closed to the joy of being wrong.” (p. 58)

Dark writes about how being offended is easier than loving our neighbor and loving our enemies. He reminds us that, as followers of Christ, marginalization and public ridicule is supposed to come with the territory; it shouldn’t surprise us. “Proclaiming the kingdom of God,” he says, “does not include shouting down anyone who finds your proclamation unconvincing.”

This is my favorite quote of the chapter...maybe even the whole book:  “If we’re more opposed, for instance, to what we take to be ‘bad language’ and nude scenes and films about gay people than we are to people being blown up, starved to death, deprived of life-saving medicine, or tortured, our offendedness is out of whack.” (p. 56)

This chapter was really convicting to me. When it comes to “selective fundamentalism,” I tend to wag my finger at other people – those who consider Fox News a reliable source of information, those who protest intensely against abortion but have nothing to say about poverty or torture or excessive materialism, those who consider Anne Coulter a representation of Christian values. But when I’m honest with myself, I see that I too am prone to indulging in the power-trip that comes with being offended. I yell at the television when I don’t agree with how I assume the gospel is being portrayed by televangelists. I rant about quotes from books that I haven’t read in their entirety.  I look down on people based on remarks they make on their Facebook statuses about politics or faith or pop culture. I spend more time reading/watching/listening to people who I think will convince me of what I already believe than I do really listening to those who might disagree.

This, according to Dark in Chapter Four (“Questioning our Passions”) this is the essence of “perversion.”

“Perversion,” he writes, “is a failure of the imagination, a failure to pay adequate attention....There’s always more to a person—more stories, more life, more complexities—than we know...Perversion is a way of managing, getting down to business, getting a handle on people as if they were things. A person reduced to a thing has been, in the mind of the perverter, dispensed with, taken care of, filed away. Perversion is pigeonholing.” (p. 76)

I am reminded of the time when, as a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I got an angry e-mail from a woman who assumed that because I had referred to “holiday season workers” in an article I wrote about college students taking on extra retail jobs between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that I had a clear, “anti-Christian” bias.  The woman was absolutely convinced that I hated God and that I wanted to “keep Christ out of Christmas.”

“I know what you’re trying to do,” she said.  “I know you have an agenda.”

But she didn’t know. She didn’t have any idea.

So often we make assumptions about media/artists/leaders/ friends/family without really knowing what’s going on, without taking the time to hear the full story. So often we either preach to the choir or sit in the choir loft, mindlessly nodding along.

So, in what ways have you inadvertently offended other people? In what ways are you a “selective fundamentalists”?
And—perhaps most importantly—what do you love most about Stephen Colbert? : )

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Mistaking Our Religion for God

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Today we begin our discussion of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark (Zondervan, 2009).  I hope you’ve had the opportunity to get a copy of your own, because this is a good book, the kind that stretches your thinking and will likely impact different readers in different ways.

Having read the table of contents on Amazon, one reader e-mailed me to say he didn’t approve of my choice. “The first chapter is about questioning God,” he protested.

Read beyond the table of contents and you will find that when Dark refers to questioning God, he is specifically referring to the question—are we mistaking our religion for God?  This is a profoundly important question, probably the most difficult and life-changing question I have asked in my own faith journey, and a question with which the Church has wrestled for centuries. This is not an irreverent question, but rather a question that arises out of reverence.

Writes Dark, “It is only when we’re blessed by a feeling of finitude that we can begin to perceive the holy, that sense of a whole before which our limited understanding is dwarfed...Only a twisted, unimaginative mind-set resists awe in favor of self-satisfied certainty...More humility might characterize our talk of God if we believe that the whole truth can never be entirely ours and that our attempts to nail God down are always well-intentioned human constructs at best and idols at worst.” (pp. 22-23)

What prompted some of Dark’s questioning (and much of mine) was what he calls the “Uncle Ben” view of God—the view that God is an angry and controlling being who does not tolerate questions or curiosity or nonconformity, the view that God consigns most of humanity to eternal torment in hell for believing the wrong things about him, and the view that it is the duty of his followers to ignore their doubts and embrace him without question. 

He says:

Having faith in this brand of God is akin to Orwell’s ‘double think’—a disturbing mind trick by which we don’t let ourselves know what’s really going on in our minds for fear of what might follow. We learn to deny what we think and feel. The resulting mind-set is one of all fear all the time, a fear that can ender us incapable of putting two and two together. Never quite free to say what we see...We’re instructed to believe and to silence our questions and imaginations. Like Orwell’s Big Brother, Uncle Ben thrives when questioning is out of the question...We feel pressure to believe—or pretend to believe—that God is love, while suspecting with a sinking feeling that God likes almost no one. (pp. 12-13)

This describes my own experience almost exactly! Although I was raised to believe that God was loving and gracious and kind, the theological/religious teachings I encountered as an adult seemed to suggest otherwise. I was told that only born-again Christians had any chance at salvation, and that because of sin, God hated the rest of humanity—even those who never heard of Jesus Christ. I put two-and-two together and realized that this meant that the majority of the human population would be damned to eternity in hell, most without having the chance to be saved.  It meant that hell would be populated, not only by Adolf Hitler, but by the millions of Jews that suffered in his concentration camps.  It meant that, for most people, the good news wasn’t good news at all; it was terrible news.

This didn’t seem right.  It didn’t seem good or holy. It didn’t seem true.

So I started asking questions. Sometimes I felt like I was questioning theology. Sometimes I felt like I was questioning God himself. It’s easy to get the two mixed up—especially when you are told (as one of my friends put it), that “this isn’t Calvin’s view of God; it’s God’s view of God. Take it up with him.”

Like Dark, I no longer believe in this controlling and hate-filled God. But had I not aggressively questioned my assumptions about him, I might have remained in that dark and scary place where I pretended to love and adore God, but secretly feared and despised him.

I think that when Dark refers to questioning God, he refers to questioning our idols. This can get tricky, of course. Sometimes we are so convinced that we’ve managed to squeeze God into a certain theology, we don’t know how to question one without the other.

Prayer for wisdom is in order, as is prayer for skepticism.

I like what Dark says in Chapter Two about skepticism. “...redemptive skepticism is a religious commitment to avoid being swept up by bad ideas, especially ones that wear a godly guise and demand absolute, unquestioning allegiance.” (p. 31)

Although we must be careful not to equate our religion with God himself, religion is not all bad. Dark writes:

...Religion can, and should be, objected to, questioned, and talked about. Contrary to many adherents who demand unquestioning respect for their faith, religion is perfectly and wonderfully objectionable. In fact, what else in life could be more worthy of objection? Interestingly, most religious traditions are constantly objecting to themselves over the decades and centuries, challenging old categories with new, religious proclamations. This is how religions work. Devastating criticism of religion is always part of religion. The religiously faithful aren’t just permitted to critique and complain and reform; they’re bound to do as much by religion. Without it, there is no faithfulness. (pp. 33-34)

Some questions for discussion:

What questions have you asked about God in your faith journey? Have you encountered any idols in the process? Have you ever been criticized for being skeptical about your religious tradition? How do you respond to those criticisms?

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Book Club, Babies, and By the Way...

I hope you will consider getting your hands on a copy of our book club selection for the month of May—The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark. The book includes a series of reflections on the importance of thinking critically about faith and the value of asking difficult questions regarding everything from God to religion to language to government. Dark, an acquaintance of mine and fellow Zondervan author, really struck a cord in the first chapter, where he says, “We feel pressure to believe—or pretend to believe—that God is love, while suspecting with a sinking feeling that God likes almost no one.” Later he writes, “I believe deliverance begins with questions. It begins with people who love questions, people who live with questions and by questions, people who feel deep joy when good questions are asked...The call to worship is a call to complete candor and radical questioning—questioning the way things are, the way we are, and the way things ought to be.”

It’s a great book for the month of May because my posts for that month will all connect to the broader theme of questions.  We’ll talk about the process of questioning, the history of questioning, and the importance of questioning. In addition, I’ll be asking you a lot of questions—some serious, some silly—with the goal of opening up some good dialog and getting to know one another a better. The Sacredness of Questioning Everything includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter, which will be useful for the blog, and I hope to include a brief interview with the author, so be thinking of what you might want to ask him. I’m really looking forward to our upcoming discussions!

On a fun note, I’d like to offer my congratulations to friend of the blog Micah, who is now a happy father of two. Liam Nathaniel was born on Wednesday, coming in at a whopping 9 lbs, 4 oz, and 22 inches long. Micah joins several from our little blog community to recently celebrate new arrivals. Julianne has some great pictures of little Harper Emerson on her blog as well.

 And by the way, you might want to check out this perspective from Megan McArdle on the subject of torture (sent to me by Micah), and this guest post  by Travis on the Jesus Creed blog about labels (“Christian” or “follower of Christ”?). 

Have a great weekend!

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