Evangelicals were taken aback this summer by popular Christian contemporary musician Michael Gungor’s denial of the historicity of several Old Testament narratives. This came just weeks after Jars of Clay’s lead singer, Dan Haseltine, took to Twitter to debate the merits of same-sex marriage. Both situations provoked celebration from the left and consternation from the right.
Why such a fuss over Christian musicians’ theology and ethics?
For better or for worse, evangelicalism’s lack of authority structure and ecclesial identity open the door for campus ministries, parachurch organizations, and singers, writers, and moviemakers to fulfill the role of quasi-theologians. This is why, when celebrities cross the boundaries of their conservative audience, they get an earful from their constituency, who, rightly or wrongly, feel betrayed by the star’s defection.
The left’s response to Gungor and Jars of Clay was to celebrate an artist’s willingness to boldly “ask questions,” to be “authentic,” and to reformulate Christianity in ways that take into consideration our contemporary setting. The conservative response was to decry these artists as defectors from the faith and to write them and their questions off.
My Facebook feed was filled with both responses – those who praised the courage and creativity of Gungor, and those who condemned their unorthodox views. Both attitudes left me unsatisfied. Here’s why.
The Celebration of Doubt
The left’s response to Gungor is to breathlessly cheer anyone who “steps out of line” doctrinally as they “explore their faith.” This kind of reaction is frustrating for two reasons.
First, it implies that one must leave the bounds of historic orthodoxy in order to explore their faith. As if it’s courageous for a fish to say, “The ocean is not big enough for me!” and then flop onto the sand. “Exploring our faith” ought to mean we move into the deep end of the pool of orthodoxy, not that we get out altogether and mock the other swimmers. (And how is it the “broadminded” progressive is the one who narrows the number of miracles to believe?)
Secondly, it implies that asking questions is always a good thing. Doubts are exalted and certainty is demonized. Or at least, doubting is courageous and certainty is suspect.
But questions are never just questions. As Mark Galli says, ”There is no such thing as a neutral inquiry when it comes to questions about God.”
Galli contrasts two kinds of questions, one that arises out of a “trusting faith” and another that arises out of “a desire to have God prove himself on human terms.” The left’s celebration of doubt fails to deal adequately with the self-justifying tendencies of the human heart:
“Given human nature… we can safely assume that the questions are largely driven by a desire to justify ourselves, to put God in the dock, and to don those judicial robes.”
The problem with celebrating doubt is that all questions are treated the same, as if the motives are always pure and innocent. The truth is, the spirit behind a question can either be faith seeking understanding or unbelief seeking justification.
Gungor’s remarks were dripping with condescension toward people whose interpretation differs from his, which is why his “questions” provoked a heated response from conservative Christians.
The Condemnation of Doubt
While the left sees doubt as courageous and certainty as suspect, the right inverts this picture. Recognizing the smug attitude in many who “question,” conservatives can easily assume that all our questions arise from a rebellious heart seeking to capitulate to cultural pressure.
Our response to the wrong kind of questioning can unintentionally shut down the right kind of questioning.
This attitude is problematic because of the message it communicates to the people in our churches: the recently-converted physics professor in the row behind you, the teenager at your house for a Disciple Now weekend whose best friend just came out as gay, or the man in your small group who just buried his wife after a long battle with cancer. I’m afraid the vehement response to Gungor and Jars of Clay, though understandable as a response to feeling “betrayed” by these evangelical celebrities, tells churchgoers, It is not safe to ask these questions here. It is not safe to be honest about your doubts.
Many Christians already feel guilty for internally questioning the authority of their church’s teaching or the reliability of God’s Word or the cohesiveness of Christian theology. But since we live in a culture in which we breathe the air of Enlightenment rationalism, the Sexual Revolution, and the consumerism of Amazon, shouldn’t we expect people in our congregations to wrestle with questions regarding the historicity of Bible stories? Shouldn’t we expect people to wonder why the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality is good and beneficial to society? Shouldn’t we expect people to be curious about why they belong to this particular Christian church and not another one, especially when it’s as easy to change churches as it is to change shoes?
Church leaders say they want to provide a safe place for people to be honest and open about their struggles, but if we are not careful, our denunciation of public expressions of doubt may cause some of the sincere doubters in our own congregations to climb into their shells and never ask the substantive questions. This facade gets tiresome, of course, and it is the reason some people just drift away from church altogether.
The good news is, Jesus loves doubters. He never stopped loving His disciples. Thomas got a reprimand, but He also got a close-up of Jesus’ scars of love.
God can use doubt in a similar manner to the way a broken limb can actually wind up stronger and more fortified at the very place the break occurred. We don’t have to see broken limbs as a good thing to observe that good things can come from the healing process. Many times, our experience with doubt leaves us stronger in the end, with people who truly own their faith.
The Way of Faith
So, let’s make sure that when we express our disappointment in evangelical leaders who cast doubt on fundamental truths of the faith, or who question Christianity’s distinctive sexual ethic, we don’t imply that all such questions are wrongheaded. As Matthew Lee Anderson writes:
“The way forward is the way of faith, a faith that does not deny questioning but orients questions toward understanding and grounds them in love. For faith is the pretext for questioning well, the atmosphere that sustains patient, longing inquiry.”