Today I’m starting my review of the book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy. This post is the first of a series of reviews as I go through the book. What I’ll be doing in this series is reviewing a few of chapters each post and then I do a summary post at the end.
I have to let you know, too, that I got this book free through Speakeasy. The full disclosure will appear at the bottom of each review in this series.
My initial feeling of the book is that it’s written very well — nothing too over-the-top. It’s broken down into three sections — Journey, Reconciliation, and Transformation — with seven chapters each. The chapters aren’t very long so several can be read in one sitting. In this review, we’ll cover the Preface, and the first two chapters.
The Preface starts with a story about a group of people being introduced to the view that the book of Genesis contains two creation stories. The reaction of the people in the story runs parallel to the reactions of a group I was in when we first heard this, too! And if you’ve never had to experience this before — a long held tradition being shattered — then you should really get to one of these classes! I’m pretty sure your experience will be a lot like ours. With this story, Felten and Procter-Murphy set the stage of exploring other ways of seeing the “organizing myths of Christianity” (pg. xii). And by “myth” here, I’m understanding them to mean “myth” in a classical sense — not that the stories of the Bible are complete fiction.
They go on to say that, “Living the Questions is for those who are yearning for something more than the shallow platitudes that too often pass for theology in our churches” (pg. xiv). While I think they’re spot on here, it’s also where I have my first suggestion. I know a lot of people who fall into this category but wouldn’t pick up this book because of the subtitle, “The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.” Because of the word “progressive,” some people would instantly be turned off and others would be vehemently opposed. If Felten and Proctor-Murphy want to reach this group, they might consider removing the subtitle. It may certainly be true that the contents of this book are “progressive,” but let the reader decide if what they discover should be called that. I think they might reach more people. Nevertheless, if one fits into that category, this book will be a breath of fresh air.
Chapter 1: An Invitation to Journey
Felten and Procter-Murphy start off their first chapter by telling “an old joke about a man talking to his rabbi. He asks, ‘Why is it that rabbis always answer a question with another question?’ The rabbi answers, ‘So what’s wrong with a question?’ ” (pg. 3). They relate this to Jesus stating he was “typical of the rabbis of his day” (ibid.), insisting that he “rarely gave a straight answer to a question” but, instead, offered people “deeper and deeper levels of ambiguity” (ibid.). While that may be true on some level, the idea of never getting an answer to a question is rather frustrating. When I read the Gospels, I find Jesus far from ambiguous. He seems very certain about the world he lives in and his purpose in it. Perhaps Jesus was offering people a “deeper and deeper” way of looking at things but still maintaining some kind of “absolute.”
For example, in Matthew 5, Jesus said,
“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny” (vv. 21-26; CEB).
So, I certainly agree that Jesus is wanting people to look deeper into scripture, but it seems that he’s pretty certain that there’s a secure position to land on, too.
Close to the end of the chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy quote a conversation between Culver “Bill” Nelson and Paul Tillich. Tillich said, “Everyone seeks answers, mostly to questions that are not very important. The great concern in life should be to discover which are the right questions. Then, even if you rarely get answers, you are at least journeying in the right direction” (pg. 8).
Again, I see where their going, but the first thing that popped into mind was, “Who decides if someone is asking the ‘right questions?’ ” From the beginning, the assumption is that “my” questions are the right ones and “your” questions are the wrong ones — that “your” answers are naïve and “my” struggle and never-ending ambiguity is mature. While I’m certain that’s not their intention, it surely can come across that way.
Chapter 2: Taking the Bible Seriously
In this chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy set out to show “how a Christian reads the Bible and the authority she places in its words plays a critical role in the reader’s worldview and understanding of a life of faith” (pg. 12). This is spot on! I’ve had several conversations with friends about G‑d, the Bible, soteriology (salvation), etc., and, more the most part, our differences all stem from how we read the Bible.
They go on to state that, because of “puzzling storytelling,” some people “cannot hold to a literalist view of scripture” (pg. 13). “There are just too many inconsistencies (in several of the biblical stories — j+) for them to take every word as historically accurate eyewitness accounts” (ibid.). Now, I don’t know who those people are who take “every word as historically accurate eyewitness accounts” because, even in my conservative days, I never knew of anyone who understood “every word” of the Bible in such a strict “literalist” way. That’s not to say there aren’t people like that. It’s just to say that I’ve never met them and I still hang around several conservatives. Heck, a couple of my closest friends are conservatives! (You know who you are!)
And speaking of those conservative friends, there’s a section in the chapter titled “A Fourth Member of the Trinity?” In it Felten and Procter-Murphy detail how some people see the Bible like the “fourth member of the Trinity.” And that’s really funny to me. I was having lunch with a few of my friends and one of the aforementioned conservatives said that very thing. “The problem is,” he said as the rest of us had a mouth full of pizza, “we’ve made the Bible the fourth person of the Trinity.” We were all choking on our pizza and drinks and trying to get our breath back! It took a while for us to realize what he was saying. Felten and Procter-Murphy are making the same point in this section. And it’s an important point. I’ve even written about it before.
And so, it was quite shocking to see that, after a good run and showing how the Bible came into being, how there are several different manuscripts, how they differ from each other, etc., Felten and Procter-Murphy state, “Despite the witness of the Gospels themselves, biblical scholars are now almost unanimously agree — based on evidence within the books themselves — that none of the Gospel authors was a disciple of Jesus or an eyewitness to his ministry” (pg. 18). Now, that’s fine as far as it goes. But, what gets me, is that there’s no footnote or endnote! Nothing to back up their claim!
The reason this bothers me so is their intended audience. These are people who are tired of unsupported statements that are passed off of “truth.” And, yet, they make this claim without any proof.
Furthermore, they do something similar back on page 13. They state, “For example, many people don’t realize that there are two flood stories in Genesis: the familiar one where God has Noah collect two of each animal (Gen.7:14), and the other where he is to collect seven pairs of each animal (Gen. 7:2).”
One of the major problems with this assertion is that it’s unfounded! Genesis 7.1-3 states,
[Yahweh] said to Noah, “Go into the ark with your whole household, because among this generation I’ve seen that you are a moral man. From every clean animal, take seven pairs, a male and his mate; and from every unclean animal, take one pair, a male and his mate; and from the birds in the sky as well, take seven pairs, male and female, so that their offspring will survive throughout the earth.
If they’re basing the assertion of “two flood stories” on the collection of animals, both “stories” are in verses 2 and 3 as well!
Again, I understand where they’re coming from. They’re trying to get people to think, to consider other ways of seeing the Bible. And that’s great! I heartily applaud that and practice it myself. But, if people aren’t like me — people who read the cited biblical passages in their contexts — and just takes their word for it, they’re not being completely honest with their audience. In fact, they’re acting just like the people their audience doesn’t have the time for.
I hope that didn’t sound too harsh. It’s not meant to be. It’s just that I’m a person who comes from the “other side” of the track. I used to be that rigid, conservative, Bible reader. I used to only see things one way. But then, through a journey of my own, I found other ways of reading the Bible, of “seeing” the stories. Like they state on page 20, “We all bring our assumptions, presuppositions, prejudices, and experiences to bear on the text.” I did and still do. But so do they.
Felten and Procter-Murphy go on to talk about the different genres in the Bible: poetry, collective memories, prophecy (and I’ll add history, genealogies, biographies, etc. to the mix). Reverend Winnie Varghese, when speaking of these different genres, states, “I believe that we are called to engage [these differences]. If we take the text seriously, we have to take the work around it seriously” (pg. 20). Spot on, again! There are so many times that people neglect the context of a passage. And that context is not limited to the “verses above and beneath.” Those are important. But to gather a true understanding of the context, all of the other things mentioned above have to be taken into account, too.
In the last section of this chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy refer to Frederick Buechner’s use of a window to “illustrate how we can hold on to our belief in both the need for questions and the relevance of scripture” (pg. 19). They state:
“[Frederick Buechner] notes that when we look through the window, we don’t worship the window. We simply look through it to get a glimpse of the Divine on the other side. Just because there are smudges, swatted flies, and hariline cracks obstructing our view, we don’t throw the window out. We learn to distinguish between what is part of the window and what is beyond it. Even though one can point to countless examples of political and theological spin that are anything but holy, the Bible has nonetheless established itself in our culture as a source of inspired (not dictated) guidance and observations. Although a flawed and imperfect window, it was fashioned by people of faith who have helped generations of seekers catch a glimpse of the mystery beyond” (pg. 19)
Then on page 21, they end with:
“The re-visioning of Christianity that is already emerging in the world is motivated in part by taking the Bible seriously and not literally. The core message, dogma, and practices of the Christian faith in today’s world are being reevaluated with a love for and relationship with scripture at its center.”
This is so true. I often here from people who think any type of critical look at the Bible must not “believe in the Bible” or they’re not “really Christians” or what not. But that’s just not true. Granted, all groups are going to have people who are in that group for the wrong reason, but mostly, people who are seeking to understand the Bible and asking the hard questions are people who love Christ and the Bible. They just aren’t satisfied with the previous answers. They know there’s something more; something deeper. Just because they don’t take the Bible in a wooden literal sense, doesn’t mean they don’t take it seriously. They love the Bible and G‑d too much to just let those questions go. If that happens to be you, if you happen to be one of those people who have some questions, some thoughts, or struggles with some of the “traditional” understandings of the Bible and God, this book just might be right up your alley. Just don’t let the subtitle side-track you. There seems to be some really good stuff in here.
Next time, we’ll continue our look as we examine the next few chapters.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
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.