Book Burnout

I’m experiencing book burnout at the moment. I really enjoy reading, but need to do so in small doses at the moment. My system is a little overloaded.

The unfortunate fact is that there are some really great books out there at the moment and it’s tempting just to get onto the Book Depository or Amazon Kindle Store and get my hands on them. But I’ve got so much information going around in my head that my thought-train is threatening to de-rail.

Recently, I’ve been challenged greatly by Brian McLaren‘s Naked Spirituality and by Rob Bell‘s Love Wins. These two recent publications have joined Hugh Halter’s And: The Gathered and Scattered Church in giving me hope in what is possible for the Faith, Christianity and the Church at what many have called a crossroads in its existence.

Mike Foster’s Gracenomics inspired me to lean more towards mercy in my life and give people a second or third or fourth chance.  

Shane Hipps’ well-researched volume, Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, shows how this marketing guru-turned-pastor sees the way our faith is faring, growing, changing amidst the onslaught of new technology at our disposal (I am still digesting this one).

I really enjoyed the way Pete Rollins underhandedly sparked my thinking in his collection of modern-day parables, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. What a great, creative gift of storytelling this man has been given!

Then there are a couple of books that are more challenging to read since they are written by people who do not share my same belief-branding: The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became one of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker. I say “challenging to read” because sometimes what these men have written unsettles me, makes me squirm, and necessitates that I put the book down and do some further searching, study and praying. So many of the questions asked need to be asked–answered, re-phrased, discussed–not simply dismissed. The sad truth is both of these books contain truth, and sometimes address in very direct terms the deficiencies that pervade Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity today.

I have often heard the comment (from those with the best of intentions): “We shouldn’t be reading anything but the Bible,” or a variant, “We should only be reading books that are solidly based on Scripture” (what actually qualifies in this capacity usually are those books that agree with my own interpretations.)

While I see the value of not constantly surrounding oneself with “error,” it also must be said that we do ourselves no favour by blocking our ears and crying out “la la la” while others are raising genuine questions. We who claim to want to be like those of Berea who “searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17),” have much to answer for if we fail to understand the claims of those different to us so as to critically (Scripturally?) give a credible response.

And what McLaren has penned in A New Kind of Christianity and Ken Howard in Paradoxy: Creating Community Beyond Us and Them gives me hope that we can have meaningful dialogue–and find friendship–with those who differ from us.

Meanwhile, too much thinking is “doing my head in.” I’ve removed the half-read stacks of books next to my easy chair and on my bedside table. For now I need to sit back, draw some deep breaths, mull over some well-written words and ideas and pray.  I think I’ll be back in the library or on the ‘net before you know it. But, for the moment, I’m taking a little time out for sanity.

Unraveling

What happens when your world unravels?

What happens when your worldview is shaken and doesn’t seem to provide the answers you need?

Regardless of whether or not your worldview appears to be Biblical, God-centred, and “water-tight” in its theology, there may come a time when the soft comfortable blanket that is wrapped around you starts coming apart around the edges and, before you know it, you’re starting to become uncomfortable, unsettled, and cold.

Mihee Kim-Kort, a pastor in a Presbyterian church in the U.S. writes about this when she recalls a momentous shift in her theology relating to gender equality in the church:

Moments of irony hit me hard…I think it’s because I subconsciously hold up my worldview like a blanket wrapped around me, these expectations and preconceived notions woven together tightly in my brain, so when something outside of my usual assumptions happens to me, it knocks me out cold and stays with me for awhile.”

That time when this shaking up of our “preconceived notions” occurs is very unsettling. It knocks the wind out of us. It may seem like our faith is crumbling around us. Laryn Krgat Bakker writes about this in her post about such a time when her baby daughter died:

“Before tragedy struck home, many of these issues were intellectual problems that I could consider and then set aside again without answers. They’ve become much more visceral and harder to ignore. I find myself feeling other tragedies in a deeper way, and theodicy has become very personal.”

Tragedy has a way of causing us to rethink a lot of what we’ve been taught. It reveals to us that faith is more than having answers, or even possessing a logical framework or system of believing. At times like this, the questions flood us: Is God really good all the time? How much of this did he know about? Did he predetermine that this should happen to me? If so, does he really care that I’ve been ripped apart by this? Where is God right now? Why does he seem so distant and uninterested?

But it’s not limited to life-defining moments or tragedy. This also may happen when something you always have believed gets the rug pulled out from under it.

  • A close family member “comes out” and declares a same-sex orientation.
  • A close friend who is also a highly respected humanitarian and involved in doing so much good reveals to you that she is an atheist and doesn’t really believe God exists.
  • A colleague in the pastoral ministry presents a paper denying the historical accuracy of the gospels’ presentation of the Jesus narrative.

Often moments like these can turn committed, dedicated Christians into virtual agnostics. Bakker continues:

“In a strange way, I ended up with more questions but my faith feels stronger on a fundamental level. A friend of mine coined the phrase “faith-infused agnostic” and that term has grown on me. It reminds me of Meister Eckhart’s famous prayer that God would rid him of God. Our perceptions of God are always incomplete, and trying to force God into terms we can understand can become a form of idolatry. It seems that humility dictates that we acknowledge our own fallibility and finitude with respect to a God that cannot be contained by any concept within our grasp.

“At the same time, I can’t help but continue to wrestle with the events of my life, the kind of world we live in, and God’s role in both. Many of the issues I find myself mulling are not unique to me – most of them have been asked since ancient times and none of them have definitive answers. Knowing this reminds me that I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t solved life’s most profound mysteries, and I suspect that my thoughts may continue to change over time.”

The questions we struggle with usually arise because God does not appear to conform to our expectations of him (/her?). The box we have put God in—our worldview, if you will—all of a sudden cannot contain our God. We apply the duct tape of Bible passages, the glue of possible explanations, and pound in a few nails of trust in what our pastors, teachers, or spiritual leaders have to say. But in the end, we must face the fact that God cannot be contained in “buildings [or boxes] made with human hands.” And his alleged implication in this crisis may be an opportune moment for us to discover that worldviews are not a creation of a Divine entity, but are fabrications of well-meaning, modern human beings.

I am concerned for people whose whole spiritual experience is wrapped up in one church, one small community of like-minded people and one narrow understanding of “the way things work,” because when their lives unravel, they unravel in a big way. And the easy answers don’t seem to work—but they need to pretend they do because that’s the way their chosen community believes. To doubt is a sin. This creates a great conflict in their lives and produces inner struggles with shame, guilt, and denial.

Our churches need to prepare us for such challenges and confronting moments. Rather than declare a rather narrow view of a God who only works in predictable, understandable ways, our spiritual leaders need to preach the “unknowableness” of God, that which doesn’t (and can’t) conform to our human expectations. Like Rob Bell points out in his beautiful DVD Everything is Spiritual (watch a part of it here), it’s like God is 3D and we can only understand 2D because that’s the kind of world in which we live and which we understand.

We must see that in the unraveling, God is present. He may not be visible, his presence may not be obvious,  his journeying with us may not be knowable in our limited two-dimensional comprehension, but he is nevertheless with us, loving us, singing over us songs of deliverance. . . .

. . . and desiring that, in spite of our confusion, we trust that one day this incomplete knowledge shall pass and God will make everything clear.