By / Sep 30

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis. The other articles in the series can be found here.

Why do you believe what you believe?

The most common reason people will give for why they hold the beliefs they do is because those beliefs are true. If we didn’t think a belief was true, we wouldn’t believe it. We embrace this view because we intuitively adopt the correspondence theory of truth, which says that whether a belief or statement is true or false is determined by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) reality. The statement “That is a tree” is only true if the object being referred to is a tree. If the statement corresponds to reality, then it is true, and we should believe that it is indeed a tree.

The correspondence theory is commonsensical and pragmatic. It’s generally reliable and useful for determining truth when it comes to what we can experience through our five senses. But what happens when we can’t agree on reality? 

When Jesus said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice,” Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” The answer depends largely on what corresponds to reality. Christians would say that Jesus’ statement corresponds to reality since Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). But why then did Pilate, like so many other non-believers, not believe Jesus was Lord? Because they found the claim to be not only false but also to be implausible. 

The role of plausibility structures

Plausibility is one of the most important, and yet least considered aspects of belief-formation. To believe something is true we first must believe it is believable, that is we must consider it as plausible (i.e., seeming reasonable or probable). We must think it is at least possible that it could be true before we can consider it to be probable that it’s true.  

Pilate likely had no problem believing that it was possible for a man to be a god, since the Romans considered their former emperor Julius Caesar to be a god. But the idea that a seemingly unimportant Jew in the backwater of Roman-occupied Palestine could be a god strained credibility. Today, though, the idea that a human man could also be a god is considered by many secular people to be far outside the realm of what could be considered plausible. 

 In both the case of Pilate and the modern secular person, the belief (or disbelief) is dependent on one’s plausibility structure. A plausibility structure is a belief-forming apparatus that acts as a gatekeeper, letting in evidence that is matched against what we already consider to be possible. It doesn’t necessarily tell us what is true, but it prevents us from believing claims that cannot be reasonable or at least potentially true.

Plausibility structures are essential to a worldview. As we are using the term in this series, a worldview is a fundamental orientation of the heart that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. The plausibility structure determines which story or presuppositions we are willing to believe. 

Some thinkers claim that this function is so integral that the plausibility structure is the same thing as a worldview. Like worldviews, plausibility structures contain a collection of beliefs that are largely unexamined and merely assumed to be true. As James Sire says, one of the main functions of plausibility structures is to provide a background of beliefs that make arguments easy or hard to accept. 

Consider, for example, that you find your kitchen in disarray, with food and drink spilled all over the counter and floor. When you confront your child about who is responsible for the mess she answers, “The elves did it.” Whether you consider this claim to be true will depend on whether you consider it plausible. And whether you consider it plausible will depend on whether you think elves exist. Your view of elves is also going to be shaped in part by whether other people (besides your child) believe elves exist. 

The role of community

We like to think we are all “independent thinkers,” but the reality is that what we believe is largely dependent on what other people believe. As Tim Keller has said, human knowledge has a (1) rational/intellectual aspect, a (2) experiential/intuitive aspect, and a (3) social/pragmatic aspect. That is, we come to ‘know’ something well when (1) there are good reasons for it, when (2) it fits with our inward experience, and when (3) we find a trustworthy community that holds it too. 

Of the three, the social/pragmatic aspect is most likely to shape a person’s plausibility structure, and thus their worldview. “Facts, evidence, and data are surprisingly weak in making something believable,” says Sam Chan. “So which is the most powerful in determining belief? Community.”

Chan adds that whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, community determines how we believe. “We think like those around us think, we behave like those around us behave,” he says, “And we believe what those around us believe.” One of the major reasons our friends aren’t Christians, notes Chan, is that they don’t belong to a community of friends who also believe in Jesus.

In the first article of this series, we mentioned that many who attend church regularly also believe in astrology, psychics, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects. How can they believe things that are inconsistent, if not incompatible, with Christianity? Because along with being around other church members, they are in community with people who hold worldviews shaped by New Age spirituality. 

Indeed, social media and the Internet have made it possible to find a community where almost any belief is treated as plausible. You likely wouldn’t accept the “elves did it” excuse from your child because the adults in your life believe that elves do not exist. But if you spend enough time watching YouTube videos about how “elves are real” and in Reddit forums engaging with the “elves exist” crowd, you might soon consider it at least plausible. If you come to find the community trustworthy then you are more susceptible, and perhaps even likely, to adopt the beliefs as your own. 

‘Deconstructing faith’ because of loss of faith in community

The corollary to this is that when a person finds their community is no longer trustworthy, they are more likely to abandon beliefs they once held. Take, for instance, the essential Christian belief  that Jesus was raised from the dead. Many people who are “deconstructing” their faith don’t begin by examining the evidence for the resurrection and finding it lacking. Instead, they start with the discovery that some Christians are hypocritical and abusive—they lose trust in the community that shares their belief. As Keller says, at least some folks who go from “firm, active believers” to “complete disbelievers” through disillusionment with the church had rested their belief in Jesus’ resurrection almost completely in the social aspect.

Recognizing the role plausibility structures plays in worldview formation and how much of what we believe is shaped by community can help us better understand why syncretism has invaded the church and why disillusionment can lead people to abandon the faith. 

Next, we’ll consider how worldviews function and how they help provide answers to the most important questions about life and reality. 

By / Jan 27

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

What would you say to someone on the verge of walking away from the faith? What about someone questioning essential truths of Christianity? In Another Gospel?, Alisa Childers offers incredible help to those struggling with these and other questions about faith and the Christian religion. In the book, she takes on the movement known as progressive Christianity, considering its claims and where it falls short of historic Christian doctrine. More than critiquing this progressive strain of Protestantism, she also charts the way forward for Christians fighting against unbelief and helps to (re)anchor their faith on the solid ground of the gospel. We explored more of these ideas in our interview with Childers below.

Your book engages with what you call “progressive Christianity,” which is something we often hear about in political or social contexts. What do you mean by progressive Christianity? And how does it differ from historic Christian faith?

Progressive Christianity is a movement of people who identify as Christian, but have adopted theological liberalism, mixed with a bit of postmodern relativism. The unique characteristic of this particular brand of liberalism is that it is springing up and out of the evangelical church. 

What are common issues that drive people away from evangelical Christianity and toward progressive Christianity? Are there valid critiques that progressive Christianity raises that the church needs to hear?

Because progressive Christians are largely ex-Evangelicals who are reacting against their Christian upbringings, there are several factors that could lead to their deconstruction. For example, in listening to different deconstruction stories, we learn that many progressive Christians grew up in hyper-legalistic or even abusive church settings. Others grew up in a “Christian bubble,” in which they weren’t taught the difference between essential beliefs, and nonessential beliefs. 

Still, others began to see the Bible as morally dubious. In her book, Inspired, the late Rachel Held Evans, a key figure in the progressive movement, noted that when she was a little girl, the Bible was a magic book. As she grew older, she began to notice the true nature of the Noah’s Ark story, and the Canaanite conquest. This caused her to doubt the moral character of the God who was supposed to be the hero of the story. This led her to begin interpreting the Bible through the lens of liberation theology, feminism, and historical criticism. 

What would you say to someone on the verge of walking away from the faith?

And others, who grew up with a “name it and claim it” type of faith, didn’t have a theological category for suffering, and were left in a dark night of the soul following a trial or figuring out how to cope with unanswered prayers. When progressive Christianity first began to materialize through the Emergent church in the late ’90s and early 2000s, they brought in valid critiques of evangelicalism such as hyper-fundamentalism, abuse, and a lack of providing a safe place to bring doubts and questions. However, the progressive Christian movement ended up throwing out the gospel as well. 

The progressive approach to faith that you profile in your book might appeal to certain Christians who are struggling with their beliefs. What are some of the unforeseen pitfalls of this expression of faith? Why should we question the credibility of progressive Christianity?

The progressive movement is extremely appealing to those who are unsatisfied or disgruntled by their evangelical upbringing. Particularly for those who are asking difficult questions like “Why God would allow suffering?”, or, “How we know the BIble is the Word of God?”, it can be appealing because they are given a lot of space to ask these questions, without expectation of conformity. It can also appeal to Christians who are pressured by culture to capitulate on issues like abortion and sexual ethics. Because it is a movement largely driven by personal conscience, there is no pressure to side with the Bible on these issues. I think we should question the credibility of the movement because it is a belief system that holds feelings and personal preference as the highest authority, even over biblical mandate. 

Do you see a difference between unbelief and doubt? How do you think this distinction can help Christians understand the questions they have about God and the Bible?

I think there is a difference between doubt and unbelief. Sometimes, people think the opposite of faith is doubt, but the actual opposite of faith is unbelief. In fact, one can only doubt something they already believe. When we look at it from that angle, we see that doubt can be a very normal and healthy part of spiritual growth. However, progressive Christianity has created a culture of doubt, where agnosticism largely becomes the highest goal. 

Are there common questions or theological issues that tend to lead people toward a “deconstruction” of their faith? What is some practical wisdom for Christians feeling the first impulses toward the “spiritual labor” you describe in the book?

There are several different factors that can lead someone into deconstruction. When I’ve listened to deconstruction stories, there is often a mix of apologetics questions like, “Why does God allow evil and suffering?”, and, “Is the Bible really God’s reliable Word?”, and, “Has science disproved Christianity?” But when I listen closely, there is almost always an undercurrent of doubt regarding the biblical teaching on morality, and specifically, sexual ethics. I think in many cases, Christians feel pressured to align themselves with the cultural narrative on sexuality, which I have found to be a core tenet of progressive Christianity with advocacy for same-sex marriage and relationships being a main theme. 

My encouragement to Christians who are experiencing impulses toward this type of spiritual labor is to not give up. Often, it seems people begin deconstructing, but they don’t press through to find truth. Often, they’ve already decided they don’t believe what God says about morality or theology and look for reasons to change their minds. But if we keep our hearts set on truth, we will keep digging until we find it. 

You outline in your book how progressive Christianity often redefines or alters core tenets of historic Christianity. Can you give an example of this? Why is this so harmful?

One example of progressive Christianity altering a core tenet of the faith has to do with the atonement. Substitutionary atonement, and specifically, penal substitutionary atonement is referred to as “cosmic child abuse.” Progressive Christians don’t believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins as a sacrifice. Often, the atonement is described as God allowing the cross in order to submit to the bloodlust of humans, and to show how forgiveness works. This is harmful because it removes any mechanism for real atonement—to be reconciled to a holy God. But in progressive Christianity, humans aren’t separated from God in the first place, so there is no need for reconciliation. 

Are there cultural narratives or beliefs unique to our society that drive people toward adding or subtracting to the gospel? What are some ways we are guilty of the “chronological snobbery” that C.S. Lewis cautioned about?

The shift on sexuality and gender norms is a deeply influential cultural narrative leading people to redefine, add to, or subtract from the gospel. There is a push to accommodate the gospel to include the acceptance of premarital sex, homosexuality, and transgenderism. The cultural acceptance of critical theory and intersectionality, which divides people into groups of oppressed and oppressor has paved the way for these changes to be made. 

Another cultural narrative that is influencing Christians to add or subtract to the gospel is the broader push for valuing the self above all else. Messages like “just follow your heart” and “you are perfect just as you are” have led a large swath of Christians to reject the doctrine of original sin, trading it instead for “original blessing,” or “original goodness,” which teaches that humans are not inherently sinful, and if they are, that sin doesn’t separate them from God. If they feel separated from God, it is simply their shame or lack of realizing their belovedness that makes them feel the separation.

You encountered progressive Christianity through the emergent church, a previously popular movement that has now faded. Where do most people come into contact with progressive Christianity today?

The Emergent church planted the seeds for progressive Christianity. Largely speaking, it is the same movement, with the same philosophy and theological conclusions. When it was perceived that the Emergent church faded out, that is because Emergents were largely pushed out of the evangelical church, but then they grew and festered online on social media platforms, internet chat rooms, and blog sites. With fresh faces and voices, the movement continued to grow in numbers and influence, finding themselves published on major Christian publishing houses and being invited to evangelical churches and conferences. With this fresh crop of voices, but not excluding the original Emergent voices, progressive Christianity successfully infiltrated the evangelical church in ways the Emergent church was unable to accomplish. 

What have you personally gained from the reconstruction of your faith? How has that journey strengthened your relationship with Jesus and conviction in the historic Christian faith?

My journey to discover historic Christianity has been a two-fold blessing. On one hand, my experience at the progressive church left a wound. Like Jacob, I walk with a limp, but that limp has humbled me and made me even more dependent on the Lord. That is, in and of itself, a deeper blessing than I could have known to ask for. Second, the Lord has seen fit to bless me with an opportunity to help others who are encountering and interacting with progressive Christianity and help equip them to answer the claims and minister to their friends who are confused by it. Ultimately, my faith in God is stronger today than ever. I have learned to trust in what I know about God and not depend on my feelings. 

Encountering unasked questions created a faith crisis for you because your faith was, as you described, “intellectually weak and untested.” This is an experience shared by many Christians. How would you counsel believers who encounter questions they don’t have immediate answers for? How can the church better equip people to handle doubt?

My main advice for Christians encountering new questions they don’t have answers for is to begin with knowing that there is nothing new under the sun. This may be a new question to you, but it’s not a new question for the church. We have 2,000 years of a robust intellectual tradition that has been interacting with these types of questions. Keep digging. Don’t give up just because a clever skeptic spins something in such a way that causes confusion. It takes work, but as I say in the book, the hungry doubter will do the work. 

I think churches can help by providing apologetics and theological training for young people, starting in elementary school. Our kids are encountering skeptical claims about what they believe at such tender ages. We have to expose them to skepticism in the safety of our homes and churches, teaching them how to think critically and navigate these things before they go out into the world. Also, churches need to learn how to diagnose doubt. Not every doubt is intellectual. An apologetics class won’t necessarily help someone who is doubting because of cultural pressure to capitulate on sexuality. 

Seeking to understand the question behind the question can go a long way to help prepare Christians to stand strong in this increasingly more post-Christian culture. 

You can order Another Gospel? here.

By / Sep 23

For a long time I’ve had a serious problem. And it is the kind of thing I’ve always thought I couldn’t talk about. My problem is doubt. I know that might not seem like a scandalous revelation. But to be honest, for most of my life I felt enormous pressure to keep my doubts a secret. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first reason is that I didn’t want to undermine the faith of anyone around me. It’s not as though I felt like the people in my life only believed in Jesus because of me. But I didn’t want to have anything to do with causing someone else to question their faith. The second reason is even more personal. I didn’t want to admit that I often struggle to believe in my best friend. And that is what Jesus has been ever since I was a small child—my very closest friend.

Doubt and despair

I was in junior high school when I first began to deal with doubt. And of all things, I think it was reading Greek mythology that kicked it off. As I began to learn about the vastness of our world and the multiplicity of beliefs about God and life after death, I began to question my beliefs. And for the first time I wondered if I was merely assuming my beliefs were true because they were the only ones I’d ever known.

As time went on, more things compounded these questions. I learned about other religions, each of which had its own perspective on both the divine and the meaning of life. I was introduced to agnosticism and atheism, and alongside these, secular humanism and Big Bang cosmology. And even as a teenager, I realized that Christianity wasn’t something I could believe by default. My faith was no longer something I could take for granted.

In college I was surrounded, for the first time, by smart people who rejected my beliefs. Not only that, but many of them were effective apologists for their own. And during those years, I went through something like the dark night of the soul.

I remember lying on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night, crying out to God, and feeling ridiculous because I was certain no one was listening. I was crushed and in despair. My faith that was once so certain was anything but secure. And Jesus, my best friend, felt so far away. But probably the worst part was that I was ashamed to reach out for help. I didn’t want to harm anyone else’s faith, and I didn’t want to admit where I was with my own. 

But thankfully, Jesus came through.

Help for my unbelief

One day during this time I wandered into a LifeWay bookstore and picked up a tiny book called, of all things, Doubting. In this little volume, the author, Alistair McGrath, offered real answers to my questions instead of merely brushing them to the side. Though I have not read it in many years, what I remember most is that McGrath helped me understand that my doubts didn’t erase my faith. He showed me, as strange as it may sound, that my faith was actually the best defense against my doubts. 

 Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too.

Around the same time, I started to dig into apologetics. I wanted to learn the answers to the questions people put forward to challenge Christianity. The more I learned about defending the faith, the more answers and hope I gained. Ultimately, I realized that if the Christian story is true, it is strong enough to withstand any challenge or scrutiny.

But as much as those things helped, nothing helped me more than Scripture. I learned that the Bible is a book for doubters and skeptics. And in my early 20s, I began to devour God’s Word, specifically the New Testament. The more I read, the more I found that my doubts were relieved.

The men and women featured within the pages of the New Testament who followed Jesus and continued to advance his ministry after his ascension laid everything on the line to do so. Nothing stills my doubts more than this reality. The Apostle Paul suffered greatly—stonings and shipwrecks and snakebites—all for the sake of the gospel. For me, his most comforting words were these: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19) Or as Lecrae put it, “If Christ ain’t resurrected, we’ve wasted our lives.”

Freedom to doubt, and believe

One of the most helpful passages of Scripture for doubters like me comes from Matthew 11, when John the Baptist—the cousin of Jesus, who declared him to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”—is in prison. At this time, John knows he is about to die. But before he makes that final sacrifice, literally giving up his head for the sake of his faith, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John is imprisoned because he made enemies by faithfully proclaiming the words of righteousness. But before he embraces martyrdom, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Christ, just to be sure. Instead of rejecting John because of his doubt, Jesus answers John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus assures John that indeed the kingdom has come and that he is the long-promised Messiah of Israel. Jesus was not ashamed of his cousin. In that very passage, Jesus offers John assurance, and then commends John as the greatest man ever born of a woman (high praise coming from the eternal king of the universe).

Meditating on that passage brought forth a realization for me. If Jesus wasn’t ashamed of John, he isn’t ashamed of me or my doubts either. Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too. After all, Jesus is also the good shepherd. He is patient and gentle with his sheep. If, like me, you are prone to wander in the midst of doubt, Jesus is always faithful to seek us out. And he will carry you, if necessary, in order to bring you back and help you believe.

By / Mar 31

The COVID-19 outbreak is without doubt a culture-defining moment in our present time. Much of our society and our routines have become uprooted. For Christians, we can tangibly see this in how we have changed meeting together with our local church bodies. Much of our interaction with one another has moved online for the time being.

These things are no less true for our unbelieving neighbors. The same inconveniences that are affecting us are affecting them too, whether that’s having children at home unexpectedly, losing a job or being put on leave, not being able to interact with friends and family, going to the grocery store and being unable to find basic items, etc.

With the unique challenges of the coronavirus come unique opportunities for Christians to engage with their unbelieving neighbors.

First, Christians have the unique opportunity “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

In light of any tragedy, when people’s felt needs are greatest, the world around us looks for answers to those gnawing questions that they might otherwise ignore. This may come in the form of questions such as, “Why would God allow this to happen?” (Here is one article on the “problem of evil” question). However, the questions could even be much simpler and open-ended, like, “What should I do? What should I think about this?” 

Maybe God will even open the door for evangelism more directly when your friend, neighbor, or co-worker asks, “What do you think about these events? What is Christianity’s response to events like these?” These are the kinds of questions we should be ready to answer in order that we might be able to point to Jesus Christ and the sufficiency of the gospel.

One aspect of 1 Peter 3:15 that I want to point out is how it mentions hope (“the hope that is in you”). During challenges such as the coronavirus, it is easy for the world to lose hope because many people do not place hope in anything beyond this earthly life. So, when our earthly life seems to fall apart, hope can seem to disappear right along with it. Again, it is the gospel which gives us hope. Paul wrote that, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). How true this would be! But our hope is not merely in this life only, but for all eternity. Paul writes in Titus 2:11-14:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Because of the gospel, we have hope in the future return of Christ to rule, reign, and restore all things, where there will no longer be death or pain or suffering (Rev. 21:4-5). We have hope and security in our eternal life in Christ.

With the unique challenges of the coronavirus come unique opportunities for Christians to engage with their unbelieving neighbors.

The amazing thing about having hope for the future is that it gives us hope and purpose in the present as well. We do not merely sit idly by and wait for Jesus to return. Having a future hope gives us purpose today that should motivate us to be zealous for good works, as Paul wrote to Titus. This leads me to the second opportunity Christians have in light of our present circumstances.

Second, Christians have a unique opportunity to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31).

With unique challenges come unique needs. I’ve already discussed the spiritual needs, especially the need for hope. Yet, we are also presented with the opportunity to meet people’s tangible needs, whether physical or emotional. This can take different forms:

  • Do you have an elderly neighbor or someone who is part of one of the higher risk categories for the coronavirus? Offer to go grocery shopping for them so that they don’t have to risk exposing themselves to a large group of people.
  • With all the social distancing that is going on, people (especially single individuals, those without families, and the elderly who are being quarantined in care facilities) are more likely to feel lonely and isolated. Thankfully, we live in an age where we have several alternate means of communication. Whether you reach out by phone, text, social media, or meet one-on-one (if circumstances permit), let people know that they are loved and cherished.
  • Are you single yourself? Do you know parents who are overwhelmed with having their children at home 24/7? Perhaps you can help watch them for a few hours.
  • Is someone you know without a job or struggling financially during this crisis? Be generous with your earthly wealth, and, as Jesus commanded, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).

Of course, in all these suggestions, use wisdom and discernment. One of the greatest ways we can love our neighbor is by not spreading the coronavirus itself. 

Above all else, pray and ask for the Spirit’s leading. Perhaps he wants you to do something else which I have not mentioned. Be obedient to his leading so that you can be a blessing to a watching world and so bring glory to Christ.

Conclusion

We should always remember that in light of the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves, the gospel message remains the same and is sufficient for our needs, as it has been sufficient for the church in its 2,000-year history. Let’s remember that the church has dealt with the challenges of disease and pestilence already (Read this letter from Martin Luther who had dealt with a plague). As before, now in our present time, we should let the gospel point toward the hope found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and compel us to love our neighbor and meet their needs so that they might ask, “What is the reason for the hope that is in you?”

By / Aug 16

“But I have a son,” Kate Bowler responded when she was told that she had Stage IV cancer. 

This devastating news came at a point in Bowler’s life when she had it all—a Ph.D. from Duke University, her dream job, her high school sweetheart as her husband, and her first son after a period of infertility. The irony of this timing is that she studies the branch of American Christianity often described as the “prosperity gospel,” which promises health, wealth, happiness, and abundance as long as you have enough faith. 

During this season, Bowler published an opinion piece in The New York Times that went viral because of her story. This piece would later be extended into Bowler’s memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved. Everything Happens for a Reason is the story of Bowler’s ongoing questions about what life looks like in the face of tragedy. Plunged into a world of impending deadlines, foreboding dread, and uncertainty about even the next moment, Bowler invites the reader to consider not only why we seek answers to the problem of pain and suffering in the world but also how we respond when those answers aren’t available.

The lie of wholeness

So often, our response to pain can be to ignore the truth of what’s wrong. However, Bowler has a strong desire to see people, and especially people of the gospel, recognize that our images of perfection and wholeness are not necessarily what they should mean: 

“What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, ‘You are limitless’? Everything is not possible. The mighty Kingdom of God is not here yet. What if rich did not have to mean wealthy and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of the Gospel meant being people of the good news. God is here. We are loved. It is enough” (21). 

Bowler is able to show, quite clearly, that the prosperity gospel is not just something she had studied, but rather had unconsciously accepted. There is something incredibly hopeful about the promises and abundance offered by this view of reality. And it is not limited to late-night televangelists from the 1980s or modern preachers who talk about the best that God has for you. This is a belief as American as apple pie and baseball—that we can be anything, and there are no limits. It is easy to forget that we live in a world distorted and broken, but sometimes we are reminded in the most painful ways. 

Bowler offers this response to these hard truths: face it clearly and in community. Throughout her memoir, there is the recognition that this is her new reality. After her initial refusal, she settles in to the new routine of surgery, immune-therapy, doctor’s appointments, grim jokes, and the daily reminder that she may not see her next Christmas or Thanksgiving. 

However, also present in this new liturgy of death is the powerful truth that community is essential if we are to face this kind of loss and tragedy. From her college friends, co-workers, church friends, family, and even those she met while writing her dissertation at a prosperity church, Bowler’s memoir is the story of how a community of people around her were instruments of delivering the grace necessary for her to keep going. This is a fact that while obvious, may be harder than ever in our disconnected world where life is mediated through screens and impersonal interactions. Yet, Bowler reminds the reader that true community is essential if tragedy is to be faced with any measure of hope.

The power of touch

What does that hope look like in the face of certain death? It looks like the power of touch (75). Though the prosperity gospel gets much wrong and can devastate lives with its unfulfilled promises, this is something that Bowler thinks it does understand. Unlike some forms of Christianity that may prize dogma and doctrine, the prosperity gospel understands the power of objects and touch in a way that no one else does, with the possible exception of Catholics. In the midst of Bowler’s grief, it’s not the words that she finds most comforting, it’s things: books she can touch, a framed photo of her and her husband, a favorite quote. These mementos and items serve as reminders of a life before her cancer, but also of what there is in her life still. 

As embodied people, we were made to touch and feel. Mementos are physical reminders of the goodness of life. There is a reason that the ancient Gnostics were condemned as heretics: we are meant to value the body and the senses. This is why so often the most comforting thing that a person can do for the grieving is not to speak (especially since we are unlikely to be able to grasp what they are experiencing) but to be present and respond with simple gestures: held hands, hugged necks, and the ability to sit in silence in the middle of the tragedy. Christ knew this to be true when he comforted lepers with a touch, something they likely had not experienced since being diagnosed. Our words will probably fail us, but our presence is a reminder that in some measure we are present with them in their moments of grief and pain.

Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason is a powerful reminder that we are not invincible, no matter what we have accomplished. It is also a beautiful reflection on the power that community plays in the midst of tragedy. May Christians truly be people of the good news as Bowler asks. In the midst of tragedy, no answer is ever truly sufficient to remove all the pain. But may it be said that as proclaimers of the gospel, we do not add the burden of perfection as a requirement for the love of God. Rather, God is here. In Christ, we are loved (already). It is enough. 

By / Dec 16

It is during this season, the glorious Christmas season, that my wife watches her favorite channel the most. Unfortunately for me, that channel is not one of the ESPN family of networks, but the Hallmark Channel. I’m generally a fan of Hallmark’s usually wholesome television programming, stuff you can actually watch with your nine-year-old in the room, so please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.

Here it is: The endless string of Christmas rom-coms I’m forced to watch with my wife makes me want to channel William Wallace in Braveheart, rip off my shirt, and yell, ”Freedom!”

Maybe it’s the very simple plot lines (wealthy developer wants to tear down a small town’s sacred institution to build condos–oh, the horror–until a scrappy heroine saves the day with a pitched local campaign and then falls in love with the formerly evil developer), the overwrought sentimentalism, or the poor acting. Or maybe it’s just the difference between men and women. My wife can’t get enough of the Hallmark Channel at Christmas.

If there’s a message in every new Christmas special (and perhaps every Christmas movie ever made), it’s pretty simple: Do you believe? By “believe,” we typically mean that really joyful, spirited, wonderful people put their faith in Santa Claus at Christmas. And this faith injects a spirit into a normally grouchy, stressed, terrible world.

Christians have historically been all over the map with Santa, from denouncing him as a work of the devil (Santa = a rearranged version of Satan!) to moderate disgust, to passive participation. The latter is where I’d guess most evangelicals are now. And if you’ve read my work for long, you’ll know that I’m no Santa grouch. Like most parents, we make the annual pilgrimage to the mall to have our kids sit on the fat man’s lap. I’ve yet to talk to a prodigal who fingered Santa as the catalyst for his departure from the faith, so I think an honest engagement with Santa Claus is mostly harmless and fun.

But I want to circle back to the theme of most Christmas movies: Do you believe? It seems absurd to most rational people that a man in a red suit lives in a cozy home workshop at the frigid North Pole, and that he could possibly worm down every chimney and deliver gifts to good kids. It’s a pretty far-fetched idea. So rational people don’t actually believe it. Yet this part of Christmas makes us really want to believe it. Because, the story goes, if this were true, all would be right in the world.

Does that not sound just a wee bit familiar to another argument? I’m not suggesting the Santa myth is a perfect allegory of the Christian story or that to believe in Christ is the same as believing in Santa. We know the gospel narrative is not “be good for goodness sake” but that Christ was good for us, satisfying the law’s righteous demands and absorbing the punishment of a just God on our behalf.

But this question, Do you really believe this? Is this not the same question asked of us by the world about the Christian story? 

Of course, the substance of the Christian question is a more robust, more unbelievable premise than Santa: Do you believe God became a man, entered space and time, was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, was unjustly crucified, stayed dead in a rich man’s tomb for three days, and then miraculously was raised to life and is now the reigning King of the world? 

The Christian story is buttressed by solid circumstantial evidence (many infallible proofs), and yet it is an unbelievable narrative. Perhaps we American Christians have gotten so used to the gospel story that we’ve forgotten just how incredible it is. But an increasingly secular society is asking us the question, Do you really believe this? It’s not an intellectual question they are asking. It’s not a search for archeological proof. It’s a rhetorical question of near incredulity. You can’t possibly believe this. 

Because rational people, educated people, progressive people just don’t believe that this man Jesus was the Son of God, that there really was a virgin named Mary, that the ugly intersection of humanity and divinity at the cross really is the pivot point of human history. Young people spend their parents’ hard-earned money at our finest educational institutions learning just how preposterous this is. Scientists write strongly worded rebuttals to the biblical narrative, because things like this just don’t happen. We’re enlightened.

And yet …what if it were true? Imagine if the story the Bible tells about Jesus is not allegory or myth, but actual historical record? What if the 500 witnesses who saw the nail-scarred Jesus after his resurrection were right? If this is true, then the world really will be made right. Evil really has been defeated, and a new kingdom awaits those rescued by the King. Lamb and lion really will lie down together. All races will one day come together in praise of God’s glory. Creation will once again be restored from its tumult.

In other words, if the real story of Christmas, the Incarnation, is true, it changes everything. In fact, I would argue, even if you don’t believe it to be true, you might wish it to be true. Maybe this is why we cling to fantasies like Santa Claus, like the Disney fairy tales. It reflects within each of us a deep, heart-felt longing for things to be made right.

Could it be that the nostalgia for the good old times is really us missing our original home, Eden, before sin and death destroyed what God made perfect? Could it be that our hopes for a world where things are magical and beautiful is a yearning for heaven? Perhaps this inspired Phillips Brooks when he wrote the famous words of “O, Little Town of Bethlehem” and the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee (Christ) tonight.”

To believe in Santa defies logic, to be sure. But to believe in the Christian story is also to believe the unbelievable. Not that Christianity cannot be logically explained. Not that the wisest believing scholars haven’t given it weight. But at the end of the day, to follow King Jesus, to be a Christian, is to bow the knee to a baby turned man, God in the flesh, fully human and fully divine. And the question of Christmas becomes rhetorical: Do you really believe this? 

Yes, with my life, my heart, and my mind, I do. And I hope you do, too.