Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thoughtful Christianity by Ben Daniel

Daniel begins his book by noting that, while Americans are quite religious compared to Europeans, their knowledge is lacking. He shows that, not only is their knowledge of other faiths lacking, but knowledge of their own. “It is clear to me,” he writes, “American Christians are long overdue for a great awakening of the mind.” The next revival, he says, must be one awakening intellectual 

With that opening, I had high hopes for this book. I was disappointed to find that Daniel's idea of such an awakening is to accept the opinions of contemporary thought as shaping our understanding of biblical truth.

As a Christian on the conservative side, I would not describe this book as a rigorously intellectual one. Daniel gives many anecdotes and survey results to “prove” his case, but he does not explore the various Scriptures that conservative Christians look to for direction. For example, on his writing about the LGBT community, he does not address, let alone even mention, those troubling Scriptures with which truly thinking Christians must struggle. In his discussion on Islam, he mentions statistics and anecdotes but never references the Koran nor statements made by influential Muslim clerics. I would hope a truly thinking Christian would want to consult the Koran and the writings of those who comment on it to form discerning conclusions about that faith.

Daniel does not look to the Bible as a “final” authority on faith and theology. He suggests the possibility that the Bible was “written to convey spiritual wisdom rather than historical or scientific fact.” He advocates reading the Bible in such a way that it gives space for data from science. He explores what “biblical inerrancy” means and what it says to evolutionary biology and the study of evolving viruses, bacteria, etc. He suggests our understanding of the Bible should necessarily change as new scientific and sociological light is shined on issues. He rejects a narrow reading of the Old Testament and advocates a faith formed by empirical data.

There are times when he selectively mentions Scripture. For example, when discussing whether Jesus was sinless or not, he writes, “It is true that a few passages in the New Testament seem to suggest Jesus was without sin (1 Pet. 2:21-23 and 2 Cor. 5:21, for example), but...”. He fails to mention Hebrews 4:15, a passage that is quite adamant that Jesus did not sin. Using the story of the Canaanite woman with the daughter tortured by a demon, Daniel thinks the best way to read the story is that “Jesus changed his mind and his heart.” Jesus' perfection “must be manifested in his ability to learn and to change.” We Christians should emulate his example of changing when confronted with new information. A case in point, he says, is that Christians should be using their prophetic voice for human rights, such as for the LGBT community. I wish he would have helped us work through biblical passages that seem to call for an opposite prophetic voice.

Daniel says he is well aware that there can be criticism on both the progressive and conservative sides of Christianity. He claims this book is not a simple endorsement of liberalism nor a blanket condemnation of conservative Christianity. He says he is calling for a faith rooted in biblical knowledge and formed by intelligence, curiosity, and secular learning. I appreciate Daniel's suggestions that Christians should be informed by the past, science and by a knowledge of world events. But I am disappointed that the examples he used all seemed to be aimed at pointing out the errors of the conservative side of Christianity.

Much of what Daniel says is a wake-up call to all Christians, both liberal and conservative. He makes many valuable points, giving evidence where unthinking Christians have made terrible assumptions resulting in terrible mistakes.

Liberal Christians will love this book while conservatives will want to throw it across the room. I think its best use would be to initiate dialog. There is much conservative Christians could learn from this book, namely, how they are seen by liberals and non-Christians. And there is much liberal Christians could be asked to consider from their more conservative fellow Christians, such as the authority of Scripture. This book would be a good one over which to initiate the dialog. This would also be a good book for conservative Christians to read to understand how liberal Christians think.

My rating: 3/5 stars.

Ben Daniel is pastor of Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, California. He is a regular blogger for the Huffington Post and provides commentary for KQED FM. He is the author of two previous books.

Westminster John Knox Press, 216 pages.

I received a complimentary egalley of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.
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