Book Review: Greg Boyd “Benefit of the Doubt”

Continuing my struggle through the relationship faith and doubt have, I turned my attention to Greg Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (2013). Boyd is a scholar and local pastor (in Minnesota!) who has written many books on faith. This book spends the first third poking holes at “certainty driven” faith. That is, people who are seeking absolute conviction in their belief system. He gives 9 reasons why this type of faith is damaging and unbiblical. What he believes it boils down to is this type of faith is more concerned with the feeling of rightness than seeking true faith. And when we put a feeling above truth (or anything for that matter), Boyd argues we have turned to a form of idolatry -hence the title. benefit-of-the-doubt-2

He spends the next third contrasting certainty-seekers with those who accept doubt in their faith. They are ok to answer “I don’t know” to a number of questions, and they embrace doubt as an opportunity to grow rather than shun it. This is a much more biblical model of faith -highlighted in Israel’s wrestling with God (alongside the Goshen and throughout history).

The biggest difference he can find between these two approaches is the first appeals to a contractual agreement between us and God. We will believe hook, line and sinker what is taught us (and never question it) and in return God will bless us with eternal life (most expect a good life now too!) When times of difficulty arise, certainty seekers appeal to God by listing how they’ve kept their end of the bargain, and why isn’t he keeping his?

Doubt-accepters, on the other hand, don’t appeal to the contract because they know they have not kept their end. They haven’t bought into everything, so if God will only bless the “obedient” ones (i.e. total believers) they don’t stand a chance. They appeal instead to the covenant, a more relational component.

Boyd spends the majority of the book laying a groundwork for the difference between these views: contractual and covenental. For many, scripture is the foundation. Yet scripture is so vast, spanning centuries, genres, authors, cultures, etc. -including images of God. Sometimes God is seen as a warrior, a judge, a shepherd. So there are times God intentionally punishes, blesses, etc. And if the foundation of our understanding the character of God is scripture, these conflicting images will often be the sources of our confusion. For example, something bad happens to you. Is this God punishing you? Is he testing you? Is it something to learn from? Boyd counters this foundation stealing from Paul -the foundation of our faith is Christ alone. That is, the best picture we have into the heart and mind of God is in the ministry, specifically the cross, of Jesus. So there were times God revealed himself as a warrior, but his true character is a self-giving, sacrificial servant. So when those bad things happen to us, we don’t wonder if God is causing our plight because that’s not his nature. He doesn’t exist to punish us.*

Boyd’s focus on putting Christ at the center of scripture and foundation of our faith is a strong point in the book. Rather than excel at biblicism, he calls us to know the person of Christ. Scripture helps us identify his character, but it isn’t limited to scripture. He often reverts back to the metaphor of marriage to describe our relationship with God. For certain-seekers, faith is based as a contractual agreement: I will say or do the thing my church teaches is the essential thing to say or do and then I’ve got a golden ticket into heaven. You promised God! Growing a relationship, growing in faith isn’t a priority -we just want the prize at the end of the game. Rather, biblical faith is covenantal. We are connected to someone over our lifetime to grow -not just as individuals but as a committed pair to each other.

Where Boyd got a little confusing is where he strayed off topic. This is a heady book, and the three sections are connected, but the strands holding them together get pretty loose. Maybe it was all tied together and I zoned out (a real possibility), but the second and third sections unpack so much more than dealing with faith and doubt. He gives an entire new understanding of what faith in God really is. Still, it is to be commended he gave a new place to land (even if I have my doubts). It always bugs me when an author spends a whole book deconstructing something and then leaves you with a mess to clean up by yourself. Boyd challenges certainty-seeking (and doubt-shaming) by calling the church to focus more on Christ instead of biblicism. That is a strong foundation to run with.

*This is a different view from what many of us were taught: the Bible is the perfect Word of God. It has no errors and means exactly what it says. Boyd counters this with 2 points: Jesus is the Word of God, not scripture. And the Bible is perfect for what God has called it to do -that doesn’t mean it has to be historically accurate. (For another view similar to this one, look at my review of Enns’ book)

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Struggle 4: Voices

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” -Genesis 3:1-5

Losing your job. Burying a loved one. Addiction. Random Tuesday afternoon thoughts. Acrobatic exegesis. The difficult conversation you keep postponing. Certain events in our lives heighten those voices in our heads replaying the serpent’s cunning words to humanity, “God is selfish. God is out to get you. God is holding you back.” 

We believe them sometimes because…well, because life happens. Bad things drop us to our knees, and like Job we gaze at the stars, yell out and beat our chests. But unlike Job we get no audible response. How easily our perception of God can shift to God the Unconcerned or God the Punisher.

It is at these times we most desperately need the voices of the saints, reminding us the core of God’s character is good. I don’t mean that in an “all the time” cliche, but in a “that’s the foundation of the validity of the Bible” way. If God isn’t good then the sacrifice of Jesus is more appeasement than atonement. If the grace of the New Testament is just a hybrid of throwing a virgin into a fiery volcano, then can we really trust this god to stand by his word?

So the gospel, atonement, sanctification, and all those church words we use hinge, for me, on the goodness of God. And I choose to believe he is good. He has our best interests at heart. I base that belief not on great theological study or unwavering confidence in my logic. I don’t believe in the goodness of God because of Moses, the Law, the great stories of the Old Testament, or even Paul’s inspired proofs. I don’t believe in the goodness of God because of my church or some supernatural experience I had when I was 11.

I believe God is good because of Jesus.

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Struggling Within Faith Part 4: Are Faith & Belief Synonymous?

You and I are standing on the river banks growing more curious about the other side. We are in our Sunday best, so the idea of swimming across isn’t an option. You glance downstream and notice several rocks that might form a step bridge all the way across the current. Some of the rocks are boulders, several feet in diameter, but others look smaller than our fist. “Let’s go for it,” you say as you step onto the first stone.

“Do you think they’ll hold us?” Displaying my pessimist side, I’m worried we’ll get half way out there and either have to turn back or be stuck. “Do you have faith we can make it all the way across?” There are a lot of variables: the rocks, the current, our balance and weight. I look down at my outfit. The price to pay if we fall in is pretty steep. I think about other times I’ve challenged my balance and the negative results that followed.

“I believe there are enough rocks within stepping distance, and I believe they won’t tip over when we step on them,” you respond. You’ve already convinced yourself and you’re imagining all the fun on the other side.

“Yeah, I believe it too. But do you have faith we’ll make it?”

Are faith and belief synonymous? If not, what is the difference between the two?

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The Jesus Bridge

At the worship service we attended Sunday, the preacher challenged us to articulate our understanding of what God was up to according to the Bible. If we were unable to do so on our own, he gave a sermon that summed up his understanding. He used the well-known picture seen below. God is holy and mankind has sinned, causing a chasm to form between Creator and created. We can try all we want to bridge the gap with our good deeds, but we’ll always fall short. The only way we can get to God is with the “Jesus bridge.” Through his sacrifice we have access to relationship with the Father and life in his name. This is why Jesus is good news.

Jesus-Christ-The-Bridge

I don’t have a problem with this picture. I just think it is woefully incomplete. It indicates the effect of sin is a valley between humanity and God, but that is only the beginning. It misses the mark of showing us the valleys that exist between humans caused by sin.

When everything was right between humans and God, relationships between humans were right. That is, Adam looked at Eve and there wasn’t brokenness. He didn’t try to one-up her or wasn’t jealous of her or didn’t take advantage of her, and vice versa. They were able to be vulnerable and trusted one another. Each had their place in the system of creation and they were content. This wasn’t just two people in the marriage relationship, but symbolize all humanity. As the writer of Genesis tells us,

Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. -Gen. 2:25

They didn’t feel shame to stand before God naked, but also felt no shame to stand before each other naked. No judgements. No lack of self-confidence. No wondering if the other person is about to start laughing. Next time you stand naked before someone (hopefully only your spouse), see what kind of emotions and self-doubt run across your mind.

It all changed with sin. As soon as it entered creation, there was a valley, a separation between humans and God:

Adam answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” -Gen. 3:10

Suddenly Adam was afraid. There was a shame quality for him to stand before God that he’d never felt before. That’s the valley between humanity and God the preacher talked about. But another valley formed just as quickly -the valley between humans:

The man [Adam] said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” -Gen 3:12

He threw her under the bus. No longer a team. Sin brought shame. Shame brought self-preservation. Self-preservation brought judgements of others. And left unchecked, this brings death to all relationships. The text doesn’t say it, but Adam and Eve couldn’t stand before one another without shame. Sin had sunk its claws in.

I cannot escape the fact I view myself in relation to other people. This may be subconscious, but there are times I look at people and think I’m better than them or they are better than me. Sometimes it is about race, gender, nationality, bank account, religion, fame. Other times it is because my lawn looks nicer than theirs or my kid can run faster than their kid. I am constantly pitting myself against others. To acknowledge this is to admit my shame.

To compete, evaluate and judge, we say, is human. But it is not. It is humanity and sin mixed together. This is the separation we feel among one another. True humanity, as we see in the Garden in Genesis and on the Cross at Calvary, is the ability to look at every human and love them without shame. To serve them without fear and think of them with kindness. And this is why I see the simple picture as incomplete. Jesus isn’t just the bridge to God. He’s also the bridge to one another. And I can’t help but think this is a major component of what God has been up to the whole time.

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A Walk Down…

The snowplow came by earlier in the day, pushing the snow to the bottoms of driveways and yards. As I leave the swings and walk through the gate of the chainlink fence, the piles of snow the neighbors compiled from their driveways tower over me. The three block walk from school to home will take longer than usual because this fourth grader is transfixed by the possibility of play. They gaze out their windows at me, hot chocolate in hand, ready to yell from the front porch for destroying their morning’s work. Yet rather than walking the corridor of the street, I am compelled to climb the snow heaps and watch my boots sink into the snow.

I am climbing Everest. I have arrived at the South Pole. I won the Iditarod!

In the stillness of a January freeze, under the frost of my breath, creativity was blooming as I walked down Fremont. After the snow piles exhausted me I would cascade down the slope and walk along the road. Inevitably there would be water running the edge of the street, with a thin blanket of ice overtop. For the rest of the walk, I would step along the edges, listening for the crackle underneath my boots as though they were dancing with bubble wrap. I’d walk past Emerson, a quick glance to see if Scotch was out on his chain, his floppy ears bouncing up and out of the snow. At each intersection, where the curbside streams converged at the drain, more ice to tiptoe across and through.

For all those meteorologists focused on a polar vortex, global warming and a jet stream, I was just a kid mesmerized by creation on my way home from school. And as I walk the block to the bus stop to pick up my little girl, I see the ice alongside the road and slowly listen to the crackle under my toes. And creativity blooms again.

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Book Review: “The Bible Tells Me So…”

41W52qMYEcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_For all the encouragement and support I’ve received for my last few blogs, thank you! I don’t voice my struggles for sympathy votes or pity parties, but an honest belief that wrapped up in what we know as “church” is a genuine love we have for one another to grow. And in order to grow it takes seasons of struggle. These seasons are to be encouraged, nurtured, and modeled within faith communities -not shunned.

I have selected three books to help me on my journey, and I will be giving book reviews to help anyone who may connect with my struggle. It is important to remember my reviews are not the same thing as my recommendation. I’ve read a book and this is what it is about. If you’d like to dig deeper then buy the book, but please don’t forever associate the author’s conclusions with mine. As a professor once said, “Reading books is like eating fish: eat the meat and spit out the bones.”

The book I finished last week is Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read it.* Peter is a Bible scholar and teacher, but his writing is for the common person in the pew. He doesn’t use many big words and defines them when he does. I think many senior high youth groups would enjoy a group discussion focused on this book.

Enns reveals he has struggled with the historical accuracy of much of scripture and the idea that only one image of God is revealed. In the first section of the book he centers on the God presented in the Old Testament as a god of violence and bloodshed. How can Bible readers mesh the “strike them all dead” God of the Old Testament with the “love them all” of the New Testament? He combats the retorts he has heard from the Church with the notion the pictures of God painted in the Old Testament were painted using ancient ideas and concepts of what a god is and how he acts. For example: perhaps the 10 plagues didn’t happen in Egypt and there was no 40 year wandering in the desert by a million people, but as the Israelites were reforming themselves into a nation after the exodus from Babylon/Persian rule they created (or recreated) stories about a god who will do anything for his people and take them and lead them to green pasture. Their stories show a god who is more powerful than Egyptian gods (the 10 plagues overpower specific gods of Egypt) and greater than any other god the Israelites had experienced. And this god had called Israel to reflect his nature and goodness.

How can Enns land in a “it never historically happened” place? First, archaeology and the Biblical text do not mesh as easily as we would think. Second, God allows his people to tell their stories in a way they understand.

The Bible -from back to front- is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time. (62) When ancient Israelites wrote as they did about the physical world, they were expressing their faith in God in ways that fit their understanding. It shouldn’t get our knickers in a twist to admit that, from a scientific point of view, they were wrong. That doesn’t make their faith or the God behind it all any less genuine. (70)

He’s saying stories were told by Israelites to “bring the past and present together to leave the audience (the people of Israel) with something to ponder, to persuade -to inspire.” (75) They were not told to provide historical accuracy or eyewitness account, but to inspire people to know and pursue the God they called YHWH. So they wouldn’t view it as “making up stories” as much as they would call it “shaping people with stories.”

Enns continues this idea into the New Testament, focusing on the purposes and original audiences of the four gospel writers. He notes how the writers reapply scriptures through the new lens of the cross and connect dots that hadn’t been connected before in order to serve the focuses of the church of the present. This is because the atmosphere in the first century was one of open questioning of how scripture was interpreted. The key word for Enns in first century biblical understanding is ‘flexible.’ It wasn’t a ‘one size fits all.’ So when New Testament writers talk about the past, “we should expect them to be shaping the past as well.” (99) Enns gives scripture writers a vast amount of artistic license in order to make their points.

Enns questions the notion one voice and image is presented in scripture of God and a godly life. He points out the diversity and conflicting teachings one reads -the simplest contradiction being Proverbs 26:4-5. In one instance the author encourages us not to answer fools for fear we will be fools ourselves, and in the very next verse the author says we should answer fools for fear they will think themselves correct. So which one is it? If there is a clear pattern on how God followers are to live, where is it? Enns turns to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament as a snapshot for how scripture works. Rather than a pattern to follow, scripture respects the struggle and walks alongside us on our journey of faith. He concludes by pointing out how the New Testament writers and the understanding of salvation history were drastically altered by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and how that changes the message and image of God moving forward.

There is much meat and bones in this book, but I will leave it to the individual reader to determine which is which. However, one question I have for Enns (and anyone else who doubts historical retellings) -if we are to be suspicious of the historical accuracy of Old Testament writings, how is it so easy to accept the historical accuracy of Christ’s resurrection? If we doubt God got involved in Egypt 3,000 years ago, is it a leap to doubt he got involved in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago? Once we open the box of questioning historical accuracy -where does it end? And for those who believe all scripture is historically accurate (everything happened just as it says), what happens to your Bible reading when either retellings contradict each other or it is proven that something didn’t happen as scripture retells it? Regardless of your view on Biblical interpretation, this book will keep you up nights thinking and is guaranteed to be a conversation starter.

*Peter Enns is a professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. He has taught courses at Harvard, Fuller Theological, and Princeton Theological Seminary. He has written several books, and his blog (patheos.com/blogs/peterenns) is very popular when it comes to talking about biblical matters.

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Struggling Within Faith -Part 2

(Part 1)

I don’t know where you are on the Jabbok, but I have been struggling with scripture for some time now. Trying to make it click in my head and control my heart. The canon and I have been well acquainted over the years; first memorizing her books in Sunday school before I could add and subtract. There have been seasons she has been my refuge, my balm, my comfort and peace. We have struggled together in late night studies and graduate level courses. We have experienced the ethereal together at camp, whether it be the northern woods or midwestern valley. And we have fought like a married couple closer to the wedding day than first anniversary. She has been a constant in my life, more bone and marrow than the air I breath.

And this struggle is not a decision to divorce or not, but how God uses her to shape my life, family, community and mission. There was a time I believed I had her figured out. Enough study had occurred. I reeked of the rich, young ruler. And like that man tugging on the coat of Jesus, I realize I am still missing something. “What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:20)

So I am voicing my struggle in words for a few reasons:

  1. Because I want to believe the church is a community where struggling is acceptable. And shame on me if I ask others to share their struggles without being open about mine. We have seasons of struggle and seasons of growth. One usually follows the other. The faster we can acknowledge this the better.
  2. Because writing it down works better for me. It just does.

And I guess it is important to share the parameters of my struggle so you don’t think I’ve gone off the deep end:

  1. I believe the Bible is foundational and transformational. That is because this book tells me about Jesus. And I believe Jesus reveals more to me about God the Father than anything or anyone ever could. This view isn’t changing one bit.
  2. I don’t believe God and his holy book are done with me yet. This is struggle -not separation.
  3. I believe I’ve been wrong in the past and will be wrong in the future. Same with everyone else. May grace abide in our minds and hearts.
  4. I believe I have used differing views of the Bible as separators to sharing in God’s blessing of fellowship in the past. I believe that was wrong.

For those wondering, yes, this is one of the reasons I stepped down as a preacher. In my experience I’ve learned we don’t want to admit our spiritual leaders may still be working through things. We accept them as leaders after we think they’ve worked through it all. As I pointed out in part 1, we have mistakenly connected struggling within faith with lack of faith. Some of this I understand. We want the person who has already weathered the storm to be our guide. We want the person who has come out of darkness to lead us to the light. But we run the risk of holding them up too high and the pressure (external and internal) can be suffocating. In my experience the church doesn’t want a minister who holds himself above the crowd too high, but also doesn’t sit at the same level as the church. My guess is your preacher has struggled with this at least once or twice.

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