Book Review: Living the Questions

Some folks come from a world where questions aren’t allowed, but I’m not one of them. In the world I’m from, questions are allowed, but only sanctioned questions, and only as long as you come up with the right answers.

Acceptable questions include:

  • How is it right for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart, love Jacob, and hate Esau (Romans 9)?
  • How can we prove 6 literal 24-hour-day creationism?
  • How can God be eternal?
  • What about the parts of the Bible that seem to contradict each other?
  • How can God send some of his creations that he formed in their mother’s wombs to eternal conscious torment?

Those questions are fine as long as you come up with the right answers:

  • Any answer that explains how it’s right
  • Any answer that explains how we can prove that
  • Any answer that explains how God can be eternal
  • Any answer that shows that they don’t really contradict each other.
  • It’s right for God to do whatever God wants.

Where I come from, it’s okay to ask the acceptable questions as long as you either (a) come up with the right answers or (b) admit that you don’t have them. Unacceptable answers would be:

  • It’s not right, or God doesn’t do it
  • We can’t
  • Maybe God isn’t
  • They do, and that doesn’t threaten our faith
  • Maybe God doesn’t do that.

Of course, there are other questions that are not allowed. Those questions might lead people to come to the wrong conclusions. Rob Bell asked a whole slew of them in Love Wins and got in big trouble for it. He had the nerve to ask questions like:

  • Ghandi’s in hell? And someone knows this for sure?
  • Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?
  • [H]ow do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or baptized or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?

The problem with Bell was that he asked questions that pointed in the wrong direction. He rarely had the nerve to give definitive answers; he just asked questions that made folks wonder. I loved Love Wins, for the record, and I really struggled when it felt like people were telling me that I wasn’t allowed to ask those questions.

Which is why I was incredibly excited to get a copy of Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy. They asked a lot of questions – and they treated those questions like they were perfectly normal and healthy to have. Also, they refused the standard stock answers and, when they gave answers, gave answers that were outside of the “allowed” domain.

Felten and Procter-Murphy begin their book with a challenge to certainty. They argue that maybe we shouldn’t have the answers to the hard questions, but that we should definitely ask them. They note that the Bible gets treated differently by different people, and are quite comfortable with Genesis 1 and 2 being completely different creation narratives.

They question the Bible, explicate the Bible’s multiple creation narratives (arguing that Psalm 104 is the earliest one), and show how the authors of the gospels each portray a different Jesus. They have a fabulous chapter on the Myth of Redemptive Violence, and I absolutely love that they put Penal Substitutionary Atonement right in the middle of that chapter. Even when they question the bodily resurrection of Jesus, it’s in a chapter called “Practicing Resurrection.” They dedicate a chapter to debunking the rapture (which isn’t even in the Bible to begin with), and follow it up with a beautiful chapter on honoring creation. Living the Questions is, in my opinion, a terrific book.

A warning, though: they shake things up, and they question everything. I should warn you – when I say “everything,” I mean everything. Their scary questions run along these lines:

  • Does it really matter if Jesus physically rose from the dead? (Probably not)
  • Was Jesus really born of a virgin? Does it even matter? (Probably not)
  • Does God answer prayers by intervening? (It makes better sense if God doesn’t)
  • Is Jesus God? (Jesus probably wouldn’t have agreed).
  • Are the creeds good sources for right belief? (No, they came from Constantine)
  • Does what we believe matter as much as what we do? (The early church would have disagreed strongly)

Their answers are not comforting. I’ve had my share of bouts of curiosity about these questions, and had my suspicions about them, but Felten and Procter-Murphy’s answers are outside the realms of what I consider orthodoxy, or maybe even outside of Christianity. For me, the virgin birth is a big deal. The resurrection of the body is a big deal. The creeds are a big deal. What we believe is a big deal. Jesus being God is a big deal. Still, it’s comforting to know that even people who have come to (what I consider to be) the “wrong” conclusions still consider themselves Christians.

In spite of my disagreement with some of these premises found in their later chapters, I agree wholeheartedly with about 85% of their content, and the content with which I did not agree challenged me. I think LTQ is an important book, and I think that most Christians should probably read it.

The gatekeepers will probably warn their constituents not to read this book (if their constituents somehow manage to hear about it), but I think that people should. My one concern with this book is this: I fear that it may be erasing the impossible from Christianity. What if we need to believe in the resurrection of the body to gain the nerve to risk our lives for the foolishness of obedience to Christ?

Still, I think this book is important because there will be some who simply cannot believe in the things they question. I think it’s good for those people to know that there is space even for them under the tent of Christianity, even if my hyper-conservative brethren think that they’re not Christians.

It’s a funny thing how we tend to be suspicious that anyone with views to the left of our own are not Christianity. I’m suspicious because I’ve gone as far to the left as I think is still within Christianity, so it’s odd for me, seeing myself as being “on the fringe,” to look to my left and see others hanging on to the faith, even further out on the fringe than I am. It’s even more odd to realize that those folks to my left are folks that I respect.

I’ve considered myself a “liberal” Christian for some time now, but I’ve been forced to rethink that position in light of meeting real liberal Christians. Apparently, I’m a moderate.

You can buy the book on Amazon here. The main web site for Living the Questions (the book and the DVD study series is here: Living the Questions — Main website. And this is their fantastic video.

I got this book as a gift from The Speakeasy in exchange for writing this review. They’re super-cool. Also, they seem to think that it’s important that I put this section somewhere in my post, so here it is:

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.

  • David, I enjoyed your review very much. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Serious question:
    How do the authors respond to 1 Corinthians 15:14? That seems like the obvious counter. Also, do they use context to strengthen their argument against the inevitable rebuttal?

    Others:

    Was Jesus really born of a virgin? Does it even matter?
    A. Let me anticipate their argument and rebut it: The prophecy in Isaiah comes from the Septuagint, which was the lexical tradition almost exclusively used by the apostles and quoted in Scripture. This lexical tradition is, in fact, an independent branch of the Hebrew Old Testament and only “cousins” with the Masoretic text. The Septuagint is not a perverted Masoretic Hebrew. It is quite possible that the Greek preserved, rather than distorted, more ancient traditions than the Hebrew Old Testament preserved from the first centuries of the first millennium. This is, by the way, being generous, because the Masoretic text is technically descended from a contemporary of the Septuagint, and was most likely developed as a response and a rebuttal to the Christian Old Testament. Further reading: “When God Spoke Greek,” a well-reasoned bit of popular scholarship I’m mostly done reading.

    Moreover, and more to the point: Is it true? If it’s true, it matters. Christians have always believed it. If it lasted long enough before being defined, that is only evidence that it was first seriously disputed only then.

    Does God answer prayers by intervening?
    A. How does it make better sense for God not to reply to prayers? We make better sense of “Ask, and you shall receive,” &c? Dozens upon dozens of examples could be mentioned. What is the New Testament but God’s response to the Psalms (and the Prophets, &c.)

    Is Jesus God?
    A. Yes. I’m sure you’re familiar with the evidence here.

    Are the creeds good sources for right belief?
    A. Yes. They came from the Church. If you can’t trust the Church — all the faithful living across time in communion with God and each other, whose eternal voice is discerned by the successors of apostolic eyewitnesses — who can you trust? You certainly can’t trust the apostles, and therefore the whole of the books of the New Testament.

    Does what we believe matter as much as what we do?
    A. Forget about deciding which one matters more. Both matter. What we believe is the source of what we do. Without what we believe, we would not do what we do in any way that matters. Because both are necessary, it is not meaningful to argue about which is more necessary.

    Good question:
    Is Gandhi really in hell?, &c.
    A. We don’t know. We can only say relatively little, and only generally. We don’t even know if Hitler is in Hell, or Osama bin Laden.

    I’m the last to say that the Catholic Faith has all the answers, as there are technically legitimate disputes not yet settled, (compare Thomists and Molinists on operations of certain graces.) Still, at moments like these —

    I can understand fielding questions about the divinity of Christ, and the importance of doctrines, and their relative importance, even within a Christian context. Something rubs me the wrong way about this book, however, and its approach, judging by the way you’ve described it.

  • I’m with you on the not being okay with their responses to some of their arguments, obviously. That stuff showed up in the last part of the book and was preceded by excellent scholarship and excellent content.

    My dad always used to say that they make rat poison with 2% poison and 98% decent food, so we should beware of books like this. I tend to disagree, though. I think LTQ has a lot of great content, and I think that we can learn from it without mindlessly believing everything it says.

    • OK, OK — They’re probably bang-on with the Rapture, just as Rob Bell was in the right direction about condemnation of Gandhi, who might in fact be in Hell but we don’t really know.

      Still, if the comparison in the end is rat poison rather than decent food —

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