In many 1990s evangelical youth groups, Audio Adrenaline’s song “Big House” was a fun way to break the ice for middle and high schoolers. We were looking forward to “a big, big house, with lots of rooms.”
But many of us didn’t feel like God’s house was all that big. Instead of having enough space to play football, some people felt they were stuck in a stuffy attic with low ceilings and only one small window to let in light. It felt more like a prison than a place of hope and joy.
The image of the attic is the central metaphor that runs through Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into A Deeper Faith by Joshua Chatraw and Jack Carson. Chatraw is the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism and Cultural Engagement at Beeson Divinity School and a Keller Center fellow. Carson is the executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University. Both authors have worked with students who are seeking solid answers to hard questions about Christianity.
This is a book that faces doubts honestly, recognizing how harrowing they can feel. The authors write, “If you grew up in the attic of the Christian faith, questioning the walls of your room can feel like questioning the entire house” (10). To some, the attic feels like the whole Christian experience because it’s all they have ever known.
This book offers a way out of the attic that doesn’t result in abandoning the faith. Though the “attic demands a loyalty that makes the slightest deviation feel like heresy” (10), Surprised by Doubt provides a helpful way of asking honest questions.
Surprised by Doubt
Joshua Chatraw and Jack Carson
Chatraw and Carson build on C. S. Lewis’s metaphor that envisions Christianity as a house with many rooms, suggesting that readers move beyond the cramped attic of reactionary versions of the faith to explore the larger, more ancient main floors of the house.
With pastoral care and intellectual rigor, Chatraw and Carson not only help Christians think through the issues confronting them. They also help readers engage their emotional journey of anxiety, fear, anger, and frustration. Readers will discover the wisdom of the past and ways to reimagine a faith that can thrive alongside doubt.
Bad Pressure Makes for Bad Posture
We’re currently experiencing the largest religious shift in American history. Previously, the shift had been toward Christianity; this time, it’s away from the church.
Chatraw and Carson argue that “the pressures of the attic” are among the contributing factors in this mass dechurching because they’re deforming the way attic dwellers see the world. Just as attics often have low ceilings that require stooping, the attic of Christianity requires mental attitudes that lead to bad epistemological posture. For long-term attic dwellers, it becomes difficult to know how to pursue truth.
To some, God’s house felt more like a prison than a place of hope and joy.
Many Christians who have grown up in the church experienced this pressure from a young age—this individualistic need for certainty on everything while remaining perfectly morally upright. This teaches young believers they must make up their own minds in the right way on every question, while remaining pure from the world.
How is this a realistic expectation for a young Christian when saints have wrestled with the mysteries of God for millennia? Is it any wonder that faith begins to feel like a tight space one might like to escape from?
Though there’s a stairwell leading out of the attic into the rest of the house, many doubters escape the pressure of the attic by jumping out the window. They just hope they land somewhere safe.
Landing Spots of Attic Jumpers
Chatraw and Carson explore four potential landing spots: New Atheism, optimistic skepticism, mythic truth, and open spirituality.
Ironically, New Atheism can result in the same prideful certainty and antagonism toward other views that attic jumpers were attempting to escape from.
The optimistic skeptic is jaded by the glib certainty of attic Christianity about challenges like the problem of evil. They’re skeptical of the answers given but optimistic they’re able to see errors more clearly than everyone else.
Other attic jumpers become content with mythic truth, which affirms there are types and archetypes in the world that point to transcendent reality. This view places Christianity as one of many religions that get some things right.
Perhaps the most popular landing spot for attic jumpers is open spirituality. Far from atheists, these folks believe there’s probably something out there that’s beyond us but don’t believe it can be defined, much less known. Certainty, not God, is the villain.
Open spirituality recognizes there must be something to account for our morality and the goodness and beauty we experience in the world. But the spiritual individuals become judge and jury over what they perceive is true.
As Chatraw and Carson write, “Each person is Caesar in the coliseum of their own faith, and only when the evaluation produces a thumbs-up will a belief survive” (67). Open spirituality lets people believe they’re critically evaluating each belief for its merit. Instead, they’re blind to the fact that they can’t evaluate anything without a bias.
Going down the Stairs
Jumping out the window is a quick way to escape from the attic of Christianity; however, it leaves real Christianity unexplored. Chatraw and Carson argue, “To discover if the Christian house is sturdy, we need to walk downstairs” (88–89).
They offer three perspectives through which to explore Christianity and test its claims: looking at Christianity, looking through Christianity, and stepping into Christianity.
Looking at Christianity involves examining the foundations of the faith. This requires asking bedrock questions about the incarnation and the resurrection. It means examining the “load-bearing walls” of Christianity: the tenets all Christians have always believed that are summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Rather than getting distracted by more fringe issues, looking at Christianity requires us to focus on its foundation.
Looking through Christianity asks whether the faith has explanatory power for the world. Does it give us meaning and purpose? Does it provide a foundation for values like justice, dignity, and beauty? If it does, throwing Christianity out might unintentionally undermine some of the things attic jumpers care most about.
Stepping into Christianity is the ultimate test. Christianity isn’t a purely intellectual philosophy of life, and people aren’t mere cognition machines. Going to church, praying, meditating on Scripture, taking walks in God’s creation—these are practices the saints have always done to encounter God and be transformed by him. Christianity must be experienced, not simply examined.
God’s Big, Big House
Surprised by Doubt takes deconstruction seriously. But it does so by inviting readers into a more complete understanding of Christianity. This is a book that should be widely read by parents, pastors, and people who work with youth. It would also be a valuable resource to put in the hands of students and young adults in the church who are seeking honest answers to honest questions.
The song “Big House” was on to something. After all, Jesus said to his disciples, “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2). It’s sad knowing so many people have abandoned Christianity, thinking the attic was the whole house.
Christianity must be experienced, not simply examined.
There is, in fact, a big table with lots of food. A feast is being prepared for the day when all God’s children will eat together, sitting next to surprising people who were in rooms whose doors we only passed by (Rev. 19:9).
If only we’d walk down the stairs, we might smell the food from the kitchen and be reminded of the hope we have for that day. While our doubts might have pushed us out of the place we thought we’d live in forever—the only option we thought we had—we discovered a house more beautiful and sturdy than we could have imagined, surrounded by the saints through the ages (Heb. 12:1), full of treasures new and old (Matt. 13:52).
This house, we find, is built on a rock. And when the waves come crashing into it, we will not be shaken (Matt. 7:25; Ps. 62:1–2).