Doubt Riddled With Faith – A Review of ‘Still’

“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone..."
"And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me. Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of hope keep interrupting my gaze.”
Lauren Winner, Still (xiv)

I get a lot of books in the mail these days, but this one, I am reading slowly, deliberately. I put it down after ten or fifteen minutes just so I won’t finish it too soon. I am savoring every word, every paragraph. And I find myself thinking about those words, those paragraphs, long after I’ve moved on to new ones. 

This book is good for the soul. 

If, like me, you resonate profoundly with the excerpt above, you will love Lauren Winner’s newest, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. 

Winner has long been a favorite of mine. I loved the sparse, colorful prose of Mudhouse Sabbath and Girl Meets God, and I’ve always admired (okay, envied) Winner’s fierce intelligence and ability to speak knowledgeably about such a broad range of subjects. In Still, Winner continues to dazzle with her writing, but this time she shares a different kind of wisdom, for she writes from what she calls “the middle.” 

 “Whether you feel a wrenching anguish or simply a kind of distracted listlessness, the middle looks unfamiliar when you get there,” writes Winner. “The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow farther away, maybe in hiding."

Winner speaks frankly about the things that brought her to “the  middle”—her divorce and the death of her mother—but she never indulges. Instead, her honesty about the uncomfortable realities of life and faith—the unresolved, the disappointments, the mysterious, the gray, the hopeful, the routine, the failures, the valiant efforts—give this book a more conversational and intimate feel than any of her others. It feels more grounded, more relatable. 

 Winner does a masterful job of providing images and stories with which to understand “the middle”—a face jug lost in the divorce, a pie social at church, a protest at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, an elderly couple sharing communion, a Purim celebration, a prayer, a poem, a bookstore in Machester-by-the-Sea. She incorporates just the right amount of poetry into her story—from Ann Sexton, Emily Dickinson, and W.S. Merwin, among others—and tempers this with frank and funny stories about with which any person of faith can relate.

But what has surprised me the most about Still—(I still have about a quarter of the book left to read)—is how challenging I’ve found it. The chapter entitled “Busyness During Lent,” Winner writes this: 

“Busyness is the new sloth...Busyness, my BlackBerry, the feeling of never being caught up, the fantasies about myself that busyness fosters—this busyness is just as disorienting, just as deadly as the traditional seven....I am too busy to go to church, too busy to pray; there’s not enough time to pray, not enough time to hold body together, let alone soul. I am too lazy to do what’s important, or hard, so I stay busy with everything else.” 

That last line has lodged itself in my brain and will not come out. It changed how I made some of my decisions this week, and I’m grateful.

So Still is far from an indulgent glorification of religious doubt. Instead, it challenges the reader to stay connected with the church, committed to the spiritual disciplines, wary of cynicism, and mindful of pride. I noticed that a lot of people who order Evolving in Monkey Town on Amazon go on to order Still, and I could not think of a better companion book.  Just please read Monkey Town first...cause no one wants to sing after Joshua Ledet on American Idol.  :-)

What have you been reading lately? 

Have you  had the chance to check out Still? What did you think?


Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

A correction (and confession) about NT Wright and Calvinism...

So I may have misspoken on Monday when I said that N.T. Wright is “not a Calvinist.”   

As several of you have pointed out, NT Wright does indeed consider his views to be in keeping with Calvin and the Reformed tradition, and his recent debates with John Piper and company over justification are something of an internal skirmish rather than a theological divide. 

My mistake. I apologize. 

Many of you also pointed out that I’ve got a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Calvinism and Reformed theology, and this is indeed true. I suspect it's because the Calvinism with which I most often interact is the Calvinism of John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Justin Taylor, and their followers...and those have been largely negative encounters, both theologically and personally. Still, the Reformed tradition is much more diverse than The Gospel Coalition and I need to learn more about it. 

Sorry for the mixup. And thanks for being there to offer gentle criticism when I need it. 

Anyone know of any articles or books that might clarify some of this for us? 

UPDATE- 3/29/12 - Okay, I’ve done a bit more research and will share what I’ve learned in Monday’s post. THANK YOU for your thoughtful comments and links. Good discussion!


Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

Ask a Pentecostal...


Today I am pleased to introduce you to Jonathan Martin—the next participant in our  interview series and a third-generation Pentecostal preacher.  

I’ve been following Jonathan’s blog for about four months now, and I’m a huge fan. Whether he’s writing about politicsPentecostal spirituality, or women in leadership, Jonathan always writes with wisdom, conviction, and grace. He is well read and passionate, and always manages to bring something new the conversation.

Jonathan is the founder of Renovatus: A Church for People Under Renovation in Charlotte, North Carolina and Fort Mill, South Carolina  He is the author of the forthcoming book Prototype from Tyndale House.  A third generation Pentecostal preacher, Martin is himself a bridge figure between seemingly conflicting Christian traditions, both the product of southern campmeeting services and Duke University.  As a 33-year old pastor, he embodies the concerns of a younger generation of leaders. But as a product of a parsonage himself, he often jokes that church life has “aged him in dog years,” giving him a deep respect and appreciation for the Church’s history and tradition.  Jonathan says he is the product of a life-long lover's quarrel with his native Pentecostal tradition, but ultimately loves his beautiful (if occasionally dysfunctional) eccliessial roots. He lives in Charlotte with his wife of 12 years Amanda and a 10-pound shih tzu named Cybil.

In a recent post, Jonathan wrote this about Pentecostalism: 

“Pentecostalism provides a very different approach to spirituality than Protestantism in any form...It is not, as popularly conceived, garden variety of evangelicalism with the addendum of speaking in tongues (and maybe divine healing), though Pentecostals have done more villainy than any of their critics ever could in feeding this reductionist approach.  Because we like sitting at the big table with other evangelicals, we have been happy to play down our differences so that we can have a seat within the Protestant conversation.... Yet even given all of this, the fact remains that on the ground, this renewal movement is sweeping the globe.  It isn’t sweeping the blogosphere or the evangelical coffee tables quite so much, and that is not really an indictment.  Those circles are predictably white, North American (and not always that interesting).  I do not think Pentecostals should be so preoccupied with what is going on in these circles as to be distracted from making their own distinct contributions to the body of Christ and set the agenda for theological conversations they are uniquely qualified to further." 

 You know the drill: If you have a question for Jonathan, leave it in the comment section. At the end of the day, I’ll pick the top seven or eight questions and send them to him. We'll post his response next week.  Be sure to take advantage of the “like” feature so that we can get a sense of what questions are of most interest to readers.  

Please remember the point of our interview series is not to debate or challenge, but to ask the sort of questions that will help us understand one another better. (You can check out the rest of the interview series—which includes an atheist, a Muslim, a Mormon, a humanitarian, a pacifist, an evolutionary creationist, a Catholic, an Orthodox Jew, a gay Christian, a Christian libertarian, a Mennonite, and more—here.) 

Ask away!


Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

‘Authority,’ ‘sovereignty,’ and other scary words

Today we continue our discussion of N.T. Wright’s Scripture and The Authority of God as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be

Last week, we discussed the thesis of the book—Wright’s assertion that “the ‘authority of Scripture’ can make sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through Scripture.’”  

“When we take the phrase ‘the authority of Scripture’ out of its suitcase,” Wright says,  “then, we recognize that it can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture’s authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses and that which Jesus possesses as the risen Lord and Son of God, the Immanuel.” 

Makes sense to me. Let’s unpack that suitcase! 

But as Chapter 1 continues, Wright starts using a word that I don’t like very much: sovereignty.

“God’s authority,” says Wright, “is his sovereign power accomplishing his renewal of all creation. Specific authority over human beings, notably the church, must be seen as part of that larger whole.” 

I don’t like the word sovereignty because it’s the word that Calvinists use to explain why God predestines people for hell.

 Sovereignty, in their view, refers to God’s manipulation over everything that happens in the world, from natural disasters, to war, to hunger and disease, to the rape and exploitation of children. This view, in my opinion, naturally leads to the conclusion that God is the author and perpetrator of sin, which I find unacceptable. It’s a view that has gotten me into some pretty intense debates with fellow Christians, and a view that has been known to trigger more than one crises of faith. 

And so, in a sense, I have surrendered the word “sovereignty” to the Reformed camp. Sovereignty is their thing, I tell myself, not mine. 

But N.T. Wright is not a Calvinist, and he seems to like the word well why shouldn’t I? 

Wright uses the word “sovereign” to describe God’s purpose “not just to save human beings, but to renew the whole world.”  

Anyone who has spent any time reading Wright will recognize this refrain. Understanding Christianity in the context of God’s plan to restore and renew all of creation is something of an obsession of his. 

“This is the unfinished story in which readers of scripture are invited to become actors in their own right,” Wright explains ““The authority of scripture’ is thus a sub-branch of several other theological topics: the mission of the church, the work of the Spirit, the ultimate future hope and the way it is anticipated in the present, and of course the nature of the church...It is enormously important that we see the role of scripture not simply as being to provide true information about, or even an accurate running commentary upon, the work of God in salvation and new creation, but as taking an active part within that ongoing purpose.” 

Revelation, he says, “is always to be understood within the category of God’s mission to the world, God’s saving sovereignty let loose through Jesus and the Spirit and aimed at the healing and renewal of all creation.”

If I understand him correctly, then, Wright invokes the word “sovereign” to describe God’s power to accomplish his purpose to redeem and restore creation through Jesus Christ. This view is invariably linked to the Kingdom message of Jesus, for as Wright notes in this brief essay, “the sovereignty of God in the New Testament is more about politics than about philosophy.

“To speak of God’s Kingdom,” says Wright in Scripture and the Authority of God, “is thus to invoke God as the sovereign one who has the right, the duty, and the power to deal appropriately with evil in the world, in Israel, and in human beings, and thereupon to remake the world, Israel, and human beings.” 

This is not the “sovereignty” of double predestination, but of Kingdom-come. It’s not about God manipulating creation like a puppeteer, but of ruling over creation, like a wise King.  It’s thedifference between a God who controls and a God in control. least I think it is.

I could be wrong. Wright's books have a way of making sense to me later, when I'm doing something other than reading them - like the laundry. 

Both “authority” and “sovereignty” are difficult words for me...probably because the former has been used to say I have no right to teach men and the later to say I have no business worrying about folks who were predestined before their birth to spend eternity in hell.  But Wright seems to see both as life-giving affirmations of God’s love for creation and his undeterred purpose of restoring all things to himself. 

“Authority,” says Wright, “particularly when we locate it within the notion of God’s Kingdom is...the sovereign rule of God sweeping through creation to judge and to heal. It is the powerful love of God in Jesus Christ, putting sin to death and launching new creation. It is the fresh, bracing and energizing wind of the spirit.” 

Wow. I’ve never heard anyone describe authority like that before! 

I’d really love to get your thoughts on this.  

How would you explain what Wright means by “sovereignty” and “authority”?

And how can we non-Calvinists engage in these important concepts without freaking out?


Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.