When I was seventeen, I started growing in my Christian faith. I went back to church with my girlfriend (now wife) and I was welcomed by her very loving family and her very loving church.
I visited a Christian bookstore at the mall for the first time in my life when I’d only been back in church for a few weeks, and I didn’t know a single author. I just happened to pick up two of the best books I’ve ever read about the Bible – Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods and Howard Hendricks’ Living By the Book. Though I had no idea who the authors were, both men were well-known evangelical leaders. One was a pastor and the other a seminary professor, and twenty years later I would get to serve as a Pastor at Saddleback Church under Pastor Rick’s leadership.
I felt a calling to pastoral ministry when I was still a teenager and started preaching when I was eighteen. By age nineteen, I was serving as the Pastor of a small Baptist church in rural Arkansas, and Angie and I were married and starting our adult lives together. For the next decade and a half, I would be immersed in conservative evangelical culture. I listened to sermons, read books, took classes, and participated in discussions all grounded in fundamentalist thinking.
Transversely, I rarely ever read anything from a source outside the conservative evangelical echo chamber. In fact, to do so much at all would have been considered spiritually destructive behavior. After all, when your world is a tightly guarded fortress, everything on the edge of it looks like a slippery slope.
During that long season of my life, I discovered deeply meaningful relationships with people for whom I still have the utmost respect. I found favor with people who were willing to pour their love and their wisdom into me and I soaked it up gratefully. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their influence.
When we lose love for people with whom we come to disagree, we wind up falling into pride and drowning in bitterness.
I’ve gone through a lot of internal change over the last few years. My faith looks quite different than it did in those earlier years. And rather than sharing some kind of chart comparing former beliefs to new ones, I’d rather tell you about the books that have re-shaped my faith and guided me on this journey.
These aren’t the only books I’ve read in this time period. I’ve taken in a balanced diet, theologically speaking. But these books have helped to break up the fallow ground of my neat and tidy, safe-for-me kind of faith and have replaced it with an open view of history and of the world. I won’t argue that any of these books or their authors are perfect in any way. I’ll simply testify that each one has helped answer a question or lead me to greater spiritual freedom.
I do want to issue a disclaimer at the beginning of this post. I’m still a Christian. I still love and follow Jesus. I read my Bible, perhaps more now than any other season of my life. My faith is well intact (as you can read from my testimony at the very end of this post).
If you’re walking through a season of deconstruction and re-evaluation of your faith, here are ten books I recommend.
The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It, by Peter Enns
Check out the “beliefs” pages of most evangelical churches and organizations and you’ll notice something peculiar. We don’t start with Jesus.
We start with the Bible. Normally, the first, top, most important affirmation in our doctrinal assertions is about how the Bible is the Word of God, how it’s trustworthy, and how it is, therefore, THE ultimate guide and foundation for all that we believe.
There are several major problems with this.
- The early church didn’t have Bibles. The early church wrote, collected, and canonized the Bible, but it took a few hundred years. It took another thousand or so years before the average Christian had access to a personal copy.
- For eighteen or nineteen centuries, the church considered the person and work of Jesus Christ – his teachings, death, burial, and resurrection – to be the foundational belief on which Christianity stands, NOT a particular understanding of the Bible as being literally true.
- There are problems with the texts of the Bible that should be dealt with honestly, rather than ignored or explained away.
The point of Peter Enns’ book is simply that the Bible was written and preserved for us for a particular purpose – to teach us something about God.
Each book, each story, and each literary unit has a purpose. And when we, through our modern rationalistic lens, force the Bible to behave like a modern textbook and stand up to every kind of test we can throw at it, we not only place a burden on scripture that scripture was never meant to bear, we also misinterpret it. Often.
Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual—follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.
And then he levels with us:
Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of an inner disquiet, a warning signal that deep down we do not really trust God at all.
I agree with Pete that, “the problem isn’t the Bible. The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.”
Trusting God is not the same as trusting the Bible. Pete ends his book with a 265-word summary of the entire book, and since there’s so much here, I’ll quote him so you can know what you’re getting into.
The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one. So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place.
The biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was.
The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago.
Jesus, like other Jews of the first century, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible, but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so.
A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.
If you only have time for one book on this list, start with this one.
Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, by Andy Stanley
Andy makes a simple point about Christianity, and it’s a point that got him in all kinds of hot water in the evangelical world.
He asserted that the Bible is not to be the primary basis of our faith in Jesus. In fact, he argues that the Bible is a product of the church, not the other way around. While this idea may be thoroughly grounded in both history and reality, it’s still scary for a lot of people.
He further argues that we aren’t called to defend or to explain anything in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) because those books of the Bible are part of ancient Judaism, and while they may provide the backdrop from which the Jewish Messiah arose, they aren’t “Christian” scriptures to be defended.
As for the New Testament, the earliest generations of Christians didn’t have one. They didn’t have Bibles. They produced the New Testament, which was collected over a few hundred years and recognized as “canon” later.
Andy’s argument is that the most compelling reason to follow Jesus is the way the early Christian movement survived, against all odds, for the first several hundred years of the church in spite of having no buildings, no completed or canonized scriptures, and in spite of the radical claim that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and then was raised from the dead. He says,
While Jesus was foreshadowed in the old covenant, he did not come to extend it. He came to fulfill it, put a bow on it, and establish something new. The new Jesus unleashed made the faith of the first-century church formidable. Their apologetic was irrefutable. Their courage, unquestionable. And the results were remarkable.
The early church was so convinced that Jesus rose from the dead that they were willing to carry out his radical ethic of love and hospitality even in the face of severe persecution. And their movement spread like wildfire.
It is our modeling of Jesus’ love for God and others that makes the Christian movement irresistible, rather than any iron-clad proof that the Bible is a book of divine origin (even if it is).
I wish every believer would read Andy’s book.
Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News, by Brian Zahnd
A couple of decades ago, I took a series of Wednesday night Bible study hours (back when we thought people would look more like Jesus if they went to church at least three times per week) and walked through the text of one of America’s most famous sermons – Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I taught my small congregation of faithful people that even though Edwards’ words sounded scary and harsh, he was indeed preaching a “biblical” message.
Well over a decade ago, I came to see the significant flaws in a theology centered mostly around God’s righteous anger toward sinners. And over the last two or three years, my understanding of God’s wrath toward sin has evolved even further.
Brian Zahnd’s book is a good representation of how I’ve come to see things. His journey was similar to mine and he ultimately concludes:
The monster god has faded away, and today I preach the beauty of God revealed in the face of Christ. But that doesn’t mean there are no monsters. The monsters of war, violence, greed, exploitation, oppression, racism, genocide, and every other form of antihuman abuse continue to inflict our species with unimaginable suffering.
Brian tackles several major problems with our modern evangelical approach to the Christian faith, including our “flat” reading of the Bible in which we give equal weight to both Old and New Testament depictions of God’s personality, our equating of the penal substitutionary atonement theory with the one-and-only “gospel,” and our emphasis on an us-versus-them understanding of the church.
Brian’s book is challenging and refreshing and quoting it will cause fundamentalists to unfairly label you. Nevertheless, if you’re trying to figure out why God seems so angry with you all the time, you need to read it.
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell
When Rob’s book was published, the evangelical world pounced on him. He left the church he started. Books were written in response to this book. And he was branded a heretic and a false teacher by most leaders in the evangelical movement.
The reason for this strong reaction? Rob questioned our handling of the topic of eternal conscious torment. He states in the preface:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
When I finally, reluctantly gave the book a chance, I discovered that what Rob really does is walk through every scriptural reference to hell, hades, the grave, etc. with special focus given to the words of Jesus, and he explains the context and meaning of each passage.
Obviously, it’s okay to disagree with his assessments, but it’s not okay to write off his work as mere progressive pandering to a more sensitive age. Rob deals with all of the texts in a serious way and reaches conclusions that challenge our preconceived notions of eternity.
Ultimately, Rob makes the point that “hell” is here. It’s now. It’s all around us. Hell is our refusal to trust God.
God’s wrath and judgment are intended to purge the earth and its inhabitants of sin and evil, not to throw people into an eternally burning abyss with no further possibility of redemption.
And I’m unapologetically with Rob in his conclusions.
Buy Rob’s book and give it a chance.
Everything Is Spiritual: Finding Your Way in a Turbulent World, by Rob Bell
In Everything is Spiritual, Rob explains how everything God made is stamped with his signature. The entire universe bears the signature of God, and everything made in the physical universe is connected, including every person on earth. It’s actually far more difficult to explain than it is to share it in Rob’s words:
You aren’t an object, you aren’t a pawn, you aren’t an accident, you aren’t disposable, you aren’t here to be stepped on, you aren’t here to be exploited for your labor or body or production value or vote, you possess Spirit. Personal, infinite, knowing, Spirit. You reflect the divine, present in each of us. You’re in Christ.
Everything is spiritual. There’s a universe there in your chest, a cosmos in your heart. We know there’s more. We’ve known it the entire time. What a gift. All that wonder and awe. I feel like I’m just getting started. I can’t imagine where it’s going next. It’s like an endless invitation. And we get to say yes. Again and again and again.
Essentially, if it’s within the realm of God’s creation, it’s connected. Nothing is disconnected.
Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It, by Brian D. McLaren
So many of us grew up (or were trained up) with the idea that doubt is the enemy. We were almost superstitious about the idea that doubt was evil to the point of believing that all doubt must be satanic in origin.
But what if doubt isn’t evil at all. What if doubt is a friend? That’s what Brian McLaren says in this book.
Doubt was a companion, every bit as resilient and persistent as faith, and she wasn’t going away. I realized that she had somethings to teach me, and I decided that since I couldn’t shut her up or drive her away, I might as well learn from her.
And he goes on:
Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.
I’ve found that to be so true these last couple of years. I’m at a place where I’ve firmly settled into a stronger faith in Jesus, but it has come as a result of dealing honestly with my doubt rather than running from it or trying to ignore it.
A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren
What if, instead of seeing your own particular strain of Christian tradition to be superior to any other and therefore seeing all the rest with suspicion, you could actually value the contribution that has been made to the broad stream of Christianity from its various branches.
That’s the subject of this slightly older work of McLaren’s. Brian recounts his own experience of learning from various faith traditions and carrying away from them their best strengths. By “generous orthodoxy,” Brian means that there is more room within the boundaries of what we consider orthodox Christian teaching than what most of us have allowed.
It is a modern phenomenon in which we feel we must have every fine point of doctrine nailed down, and that once we do, we can confidently (even arrogantly at times) declare every other interpretation untenable. As Brian puts it:
To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. It is rather to be in a loving (ethical) community of people who are seeking the truth (doctrine) on the road of mission (witness, as McClendon said) and who have been launched on the quest by Jesus, who, with us, guides us still.
If you feel suspicious of every single other group of Christians out there, definitely read Brian’s book.
The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe, by Richard Rohr
If questions scare you, you shouldn’t read Richard Rohr. And questions, for many of us, are a terrifying enemy of our sense of security and certainty. Richard asks some big ones, like:
What if Christ is a name for the transcendent within of every “thing” in the universe?
What if Christ is a name for the immense spaciousness of all true Love?
What if Christ refers to an infinite horizon that pulls us from within and pulls us forward too?
What if Christ is another name for everything—in its fullness?
And he ultimately concludes that “Christ is everywhere.”
Richard tackles major doctrines like original sin, the atonement of Christ, and the universality of love. He pushes us to re-think them all in light of what God has revealed about himself – not in a few proof texts here and there, but in all of creation, all of history, and throughout the history of the church and its scriptures.
I’m not at all saying that I find agreement with everything Richard Rohr writes (as I wouldn’t with any author in this list – but I don’t agree with everything I’ve written myself in the past), but I do appreciate his unique perspective.
Check out Richard’s most significant work.
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr
At the hardest, thickest point in my own cave of doubt, I picked up another Richard Rohr book and found that, while I enjoyed reading it, it read me, too.
Richard’s book is about deconstruction, a term quite trendy right now with a generation of adults trying to sort out what is real and trustworthy rather than simply what has been received and trusted along the way.
Thankfully, it’s just as much a book about reconstruction. Richard guides his readers through an examination of faith with a fresh understanding of how our life circumstances impact how we view God and then pushes us to rebuild a faith around something new – Mystery.
Mystery isn’t something with which we’re normally very comfortable, but faith and mystery go hand-in-hand.
It is rationalism and modernism that drive us to only believe what we can absolutely prove in the physical realm. And postmodernism leads us to react with an abandonment of the very idea of truth. Neither leaves us on solid footing.
What has saved my own faith has been a willingness to see the world, God, myself, and truth itself as something knowable, but not exhaustively so. We must always allow room for Mystery. It’s as if our greatest fear is having to answer any theological question with, “I don’t know.” But I’m getting more comfortable with that even as my own spiritual experience is deepening in new ways.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Few books have been the source of as much needless controversy in recent times as Du Mez’s work, which is essentially a re-telling of the modern development of the evangelical movement in the United States.
What’s the big deal with Kristen’s book? She asserts in the introduction that:
For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity.
It’s a simple statement, with which I wholeheartedly agree. It’s also incredibly controversial.
Personally, some of my earliest questions about my faith arose, not because of evidence for evolution or liberal philosophy, but because I was so surprised at how we evangelicals were showing up to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in spite of all that we claimed to believe about the ethics of Jesus. My faith in him wasn’t affected, but my faith in the evangelical movement as a source of moral and theological authority was rocked.
Kristen’s book was a confirmation of what I had already observed. The American evangelical movement has largely, for many people like me, lost its credibility because of its marriage to cultural patriarchy, political power, white identity, and American exceptionalism.
If you identify with the feelings of distrust toward white evangelicalism that I’ve expressed, read Kristen’s book for some affirmation that you’re not crazy. You’re not alone. And you’re not wrong.
I’ve walked through pain and grief. I’ve dealt with confusion, fear, and frustration. It’s been a long journey. And that’s the journey on which millions have found themselves.
Deconstructing your faith isn’t fun. It’s not even purposeful. I never set out to tear anything apart. But the questions don’t magically go away, either. Thankfully, the questions aren’t fatal, despite the rumors to the contrary.
While I can’t explain the Mystery that is “god,” I still believe in God, and I believe God is the architect and creator of all that exists. I believe he is good. He is holy. He is love. I believe that God saw a human race in peril because of sin and hate, so he came down here, so to speak.
While I’m half a world and twenty centuries removed from where the story took place, I believe Jesus of Nazareth was and is God’s Son, God incarnate. I don’t fully understand the depth of it, but I believe he died on a Roman cross as an innocent Lamb and took on all the sin and evil of this world, and died to set us free.
While I can’t prove it through historical, scientific, or even rational tests, I believe Jesus Christ rose again from the dead and overcame death for all of us.
While I don’t know when or how he is coming, I do believe human history took a redemptive turn with the resurrection of Christ and his enthronement as God’s King of a new kind of kingdom. I believe God is moving things toward a grand climax where love has finally overthrown evil and that we can survive the suffering of this present age because of the faith and hope made possible by that promise.
While I don’t get it right and have a long way to go, I do believe that following the teachings of Jesus, becoming love as He was and is love, and opening our arms to all people everywhere will lead us to a better world. I believe telling the beautiful story (gospel) of Jesus’ saving work changes everything for those who receive the message.
And while I know it isn’t politically convenient for anyone living on the privileged side of power, I do believe Jesus wants our hearts to be broken and moved to action, as was his own heart, for the marginalized, the oppressed, the broken, the afflicted, the lost, and the outcast even if it costs us dearly, as it did him.
My faith is, perhaps, stronger than it has ever been after reading the books on this list. But I’m still growing and I’ve got more to learn.
Fundamentalism – a mindset that forces every subject into clear black-and-white, cold, hard facts that can’t be questioned – produces a heavy load of unnecessary fear and anxiety. It walls us off from the beauty of mystery. It shuts us up in a fortress that keeps meaningful friendships outside. It steals life.
And Jesus came to give us life. Life more abundantly, in fact.
Photo Credit: Alfons Morales via Unsplash.