Reading Group Guide
About the Author
How writing caught my interest…
Probably the thing that got me thinking seriously about writing was a war movie I saw back in the 80s—I don’t remember the title, but in the show the main character decided to focus his life on writing because he believed words could do the most to change how people think. The thought stuck with me and I started working on sharpening my writing skills. It took me almost 20 years to get published, but writing is a dream come true for me.
What I love…
Now in my fifties, I’ve proven to myself that nothing I accomplish and no position I hold every really touches my soul—those things are sort of like fingernails. I feel things that touch my nails, but those touches feel sort of “distant” to my body. Attached, yes, but distant. So, the older I get the more I enjoy working on the things that really touch me: my bride of 30+ years, my kids and grandkids, my friends, and my God—my relationships are what impact my soul. I do love to work, but not at the expense of the people in my life. In theory, I always believed that to be true; I practice it now. Often, old guys are better guys—my wife, Gail, tells me that’s happening with me. Thank God.
About the Book
What was the spark that motivated you to write this book?
We may not like it, but faith is an untidy enterprise. It demands persistence in the face of uncertainty and doubt. Some mistakenly think faith completely eliminates the presence of doubt, and that if doubt is present, it is an indicator that you don’t have faith. But I don’t think that is true. For many people of faith, the idea of experiencing doubt at all makes them nervous. They view the questions that naturally rise in their minds in the presence of faith claims as evidence of a lack of faith, which surely disqualifies them from being authentic believers. I wrote What Bothers Me Most About Christianity because I don’t think that is true. I think honest questions and doubt are the fodder of faith—that real faith has doubt and questioning in the mix. That means struggling with doubts and questions is not a lack of faith; it actually is faith.
What is the key thought you want readers to take away from this book?
Lots of folks try to make faith a black-and-white issue, but it’s not. It is filled with complexity. When it comes to truth in general, most prefer black and white and resist complexity. Complexity is too colorful. We prefer doling out black-and-white conclusions. Telling people what seems so much simpler than telling them why. And safer too. Indoctrinating people into thinking and acting in certain ways is so clean, so black-and-white simple. Helping them internalize the why behind beliefs and actions, and letting them participate in a discussion on conclusions, is both cumbersome and potentially dangerous—they may conclude something different than we do. God forbid.
But in a 21st century, pluralistic society, knowing the beliefs and rules of our “in-group” will not win the day. We need to know why we believe what we believe as opposed to what others say. We need to be “out”-doctrinated—to be shown all sides of an issue, and given the grace and room to draw our own conclusions. In the short haul that may seem crazy and dangerous, but in the end, it is our only option if faith is to survive in the West.
Why did you choose to approach this topic, even though it may be somewhat controversial?
I’m part of a generation that touted, “Jesus is the answer.” In a sense, we thought faith answered all the questions of our time and believed a questioning mind revealed you had not yet experienced faith. The apostle Paul penned, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask. . .” (Eph. 3:20). God can afford any question we can come up with. But many try to avoid the natural questions that come into the modern mind over matters of faith. We work to systematize everything: our beliefs, our experiences, our outcomes—we want to have a clear understanding about everything we say and believe. We no more appreciate mystery and questions than we do appendicitis.
But there are many things we believe that rest in the domain of mystery. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to figure them out, but after we try and still come up empty, we need to smile and be OK with questions. The Greek Orthodox Church speaks of apophatic theology, a theology that celebrates what we don’t know about faith and about God. Paul said it this way: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom. 11:33).
I’m no longer sure we had it right when we told people “Jesus is the answer.” What if he’s the question? What if the million-dollar-question is what are you going to do with Jesus and his claims? And what if faith is really about all the questions that emerge from that conversation?
Shouldn’t we be guarded about truth (orthodoxy)?
Most of us appreciate the familiar. We feel safer. We generally believe the things told to us by the people we trust. Other opinions about truth-positions often feel dangerous because they call into question not only our beliefs on a particular subject, but also the in-group we are part of. However, it is instructive to listen where different Christ-followers (both living and from history) are coming from. Many issues of faith are not as clear as they first seem, and listening to each other broadens us in healthy ways.
It is definitely appropriate to disagree with other Christians after we hear the defense for their positions; it is just not appropriate to be disagreeable. We should have great difficulty with absolutism and accusatory language in our discussions, along with any willingness to dismiss the views of others as “compromise” or “of Satan.” That kind of positioning is counterproductive, not prophetic. Planting flags and spouting over-simplistic tautologies cause us to fall short of doing anything transformational. It simply draws lines in the sand—not unlike political debates that are not about finding solutions and synergies, but simply serve to establish "us/them" identification markers. Always bad form.
How can we change the world?
It is evident that the church is walking into a dark night of deep cultural displacement. Our old hegemonies—the ways we influenced the world—are passing away. The old symbols of safety—big church buildings, political power, a Leave It to Beaver culture, and so on—are becoming more and more a thing of the past. What is needed in these coming days is a prophetic people, tethered to the vision of the kingdom of God through lively confession and prophetic praxis. By so living, we do a couple of things: 1) we show that the kingdoms of our world are less than they think they are; and 2) we embody our salvation in real time in real circumstances—we offer “salvation” to the kingdoms of the world. We need to be, as Paul puts it in Philippians, a politeuma— a robust, lively “colony of heaven” situated right smack in the middle of the chaos of pagan culture.
Remember it was Jesus who cried, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Notice who is supposed to be “gated” in Jesus’ view. The church is not supposed to be inside a gated fortress . . . “holding on” till Jesus comes. We’re supposed to be attacking the dark forces. God doesn’t abandon cultures. He doesn’t want us enclaved into gated Christian communities waiting for the return of his Son. He wants us to bring his salvation to the ends of the earth as his faithful few.
This means we are going to need to be able to deal with the honest questions that those outside of faith frequently ask. Questions about reason, church history, the why of evil, church history, etc.—these are vital questions for us to become familiar with in order to be a voice for God in this era.
About the Conversation
- Does it bother you that God is intentionally hiding? Why or why not?
- Does it bother you that reason doesn’t always lead one to faith?
- Does it bother you that God allows evil in the world? What do you personally believe about evil? What role does Satan, people, or God play in it?
- Does it bother you that Jesus is the only way to relationship with God? What about those who have never heard or understood the message about Jesus?
- Does it bother you that some see science and faith as incompatible? Were do you think they intersect or collide? What do you do when science and faith seem to contradict each other?
- Does it bother you that so many Christians give Christianity a bad name? What do you do when people bring up the negative reputation of Christians?
- Does it bother you that God looks like such a bully in the Old Testament? What are your thoughts about the matter?
- Does it bother you that believers constantly misuse sacred text? How do you approach scripture in your study life?
- Does it bother you that the Christian faith includes a hell? Are you convinced in the literal or metaphorical view of the descriptions of hell?
- Do questions about faith bother you? Why or why not?