Jim Candy, Brad M. Griffin, Kara Powell. Can I Ask That: 8 Hard Questions About God & Faith – A Sticky Faith Curriculum (Leader Edition). Fuller Youth Institute, 2014. (209 pages)
This is a hard review to write because of a challenging tension that exists.
The first side of the tension is that FYI (Fuller Youth Institute) needs to be commended for their research and subsequent resources that are pushing the Church to think critically about the future of our faith. I have observed, from close and afar, that the people at FYI are passionate, dedicated, and thoughtful, and their contributions need to be taken seriously.
The other side of the tension, however, is found in the inadequacy of its engagement with the issues they tackle in this book. A few possible reasons for this. First, they may be being careful not to overtly offend the dogmatic sensitivities of their audience, a feat that is so easily done in religious circles. This is also a tactic that is employed (some would say necessarily) if you want to bring change to any population. Second, they themselves truly may not have the best information to offer to their readers, though I doubt this considering their association with Fuller Theological Seminary, and the intellectual stature of the authors. My best guess, and the one that makes the most sense, is that this book is simply not designed to bring resolution. This book is primarily designed to spark healthy dialogue, ideological engagement, and to provide a format of discussion for the very real questions that do exist amongst our youth that many are hesitant to talk about. And because many are hesitant to talk about it, someone needs to talk about it.
However, this is where the tension gets even more tense. I commend the ethic of conversations, questions, and intellectual jousting, especially on topics like these. The problem is that by positing “two-sides” to any issue, giving equal real estate and attention to “both sides,” validation is automatically given to both sides regardless of how inadequate one side may actually be. So, while I commend the authors for their intention to give voice to the doubts and questions that exist, and while this book is not necessarily designed to give solid responses to these very difficult questions, it will also — intentionally or unwittingly — give validation to held positions regardless of how spurious or inadequate those positions are.
So, below I will interweave my critiques into the notes and highlights that will further elucidate my thinking and engagement with these issues. In addition, I’ll do my best to provide more information that will better help guide the discussion, and “fact-check” some of what is listed.
My final note is that Christian apologetics — of which this work somewhat falls into this category — must do better. Much of what has fueled the apologetics of the 80s and 90s is quite dated and is proving inadequate for the tasks that are now at hand in this new century. All of that is for a later time, but must be noted here as a critical historical point.
— Notes —
0 Can I ask That?
1 Why this study?
…notice these students did not say they left the faith because of the stance their church took on the issues above. They left because the church failed to address them at all. (9)
[VIA: The problem with this statement is that the Barna Institute — specifically through their work unChristian — has suggested that students are leaving the church because of the stance, or at the very least because of the messages that are being conveyed. This is an important point, as it highlights the inadequacy of the Church, not simply in our willingness, but also in our thinking/beliefs about certain things.]
…saying “I don’t know“ is better than avoidance. | Teenagers will ask these questions with or without you. Let it be with you. In taking this study seriously, your credibility will increase in the eyes of your students. And, more importantly, the credibility of the gospel of Jesus Christ will increase as well. By being willing to entertain hard questions, you present both yourself and Jesus as safe and trustworthy. (10)
2 What you should know before you start
Key #1: This is about faith that sticks.
KEY #2: Don’t hold back.
KEY #3: Help them learn the “context.”
[VIA: Key #3 is a daunting task for many youth workers. It’s quite a bit of intellectual heavy lifting to gather that kind of information. Perhaps I would suggest, “Help them ask the right questions,” which would naturally lead to recognizing the critical importance of context.]
KEY #4: Don’t study alone.
KEY #5: Ask God for help.
One final note about interpretation: While we’ve attempted to present well-balanced approaches to these tricky topics, it’s inevitable that some of our own biases and beliefs will come through in these lessons. Our own traditions include Presbyterian, Methodist, Nazarene, Assemblies of God, and Congregational backgrounds. We also field tested these sessions and invited critical readers and input from other backgrounds, like Baptists, Evangelical Free, and non-denominational churches. Though our views might seep through — as will yours when you lead your group through the study — our hope is that a variety of viewpoints can be discussed and scripture can be studied in such a way that students arrive at their own views. And while you may go into this hoping students will come out on the other side with “right” beliefs, it may be that the most important part of this whole journey is the process itself. (19)
1 Can I trust the Bible?
The first copy we have of any part of the New Testament is from around the year 200 A.D. (25)
[VIA: Thanks to the work of CSNTM, that is no longer true. We have a copy most likely dating to the first century.]
There are 300,000 changes in the Bible among all the different copies. (25)
[VIA: There are actually over 400,000 “variants” in the transcriptional record, and growing every year.]
Make sure your group feels the freedom to express their own thoughts before you share yours. (26)
[VIA: The mention of the inadequacy of the game “telephone” on p.28 when it comes to transcripts is grossly understated. It’s not just that we don’t live in an oral culture anymore. It’s that the process by which telephone works is nowhere near comparable to the process of textual transmissions.]
In the 1900s, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which confirmed that the Old Testament texts had not been significantly modified in the thousand years between when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written and when the next-oldest existing texts (the Masoretic Texts) were written. (28)
[VIA: This requires a more nuanced response. While there is stability, there are also many variants that should be considered. See BAR’s article to start, but then also Timothy Law’s book, When God Spoke Greek, and the work of Emanuel Tov.]
[VIA: p.37 introduces multiple languages as a factor, but should also include the fact that language itself is a “moving target.”]
2 Does the Bible contradict itself?
Jesus’ resurrection story is an example of different writers giving their own views. Some people believe this actually increases the trustworthiness of the Bible because it shows the writers did not conspire to invent a perfect story. (52)
If students are stumped here, this is a good time to reinforce that different writers may have been writing for different reasons as they communicated with different audiences. (55)
[VIA: Which means that yes, sometimes there are “contradictions” in the classical historical sense of the word. However, as Peter Enns and others will point out, this is not detrimental to the doctrines of inerrancy or infallibility.]
3 Can I be a Christian and believe in evolution?
Some people use a “literal interpretation” approach to scripture. A literal interpretation means Genesis 1 tells us the world was created in seven 24-hour periods. “Figurative interpretation” takes the approach that some stories in the Bible may not be based on real historical events. (73)
Even though there are differences between how people read the Bible, almost everyone agrees that not every word in the Bible is literal. Warning: PLEASE DO NOT TAKE THE SCRIPTURE ABOVE 100% LITERALLY. (Referring to Mark 9:43-48)
NOTE: Just to share a bit of our bias here, we’re convinced that students could spend a lifetime debating whether Genesis 1 and 2 is scientific history, poem, or something else, and miss the point of this rich description of God’s desire and design for relationship with us. Interpretation is important, but sometimes our debates about interpretation can cloud our vision of who God is and what God is up to in our lives and the world. You can decide based on your own tradition and interpretive lens whether to include a comment to this end in your discussion. (78)
[VIA: This “note” is untenable. You simply cannot bifurcate hermeneutics with theology, especially given the work done in Genesis by people like John Walton, et.al. What is better to say is that our debates about interpretation, our wrestling with a text like Genesis illuminates who God is and what God is up to in our lives and in our world. It is this kind of critical engagement that teaches. This note by the authors is a slippery slope to cultic fundamentalism, and is again evidence that some religious ideas and dogmas shut down discussion, the very factor that often drives students away from the faith.]
[VIA: On page 82, there is a “literal/figurative” line exercise in response to the question, “Do you think the Bible should be read more literally or figuratively?” Then they state this is a “trick question” due to the multiple genres that exist in the Bible. My critique here is a soft one. I wonder if students would balk at such an elementary offering, feeling that this would be a bit condescending.]
We will never know the full story about the original creation until all creation is made new by God, so make sure students know it’s okay to walk away from this discussion with some unresolved tension. That will be true of most of the following sessions as well as this study addresses more controversial issues. (83)
[VIA: The problem is simply this: evolution is true. This is perhaps one of the most disappointing chapters in the book, as it never really addresses the evidence that exists in good science. While some time was spent on the hermeneutics of Genesis, there was no time spent on the philosophy of science, and the damage that rejecting scientific theories does to the reputation of Christ, and the mindset of the religious. I also would have appreciated more epistemological work on the word “belief,” as evolution is not something you “believe in.” Finally, by leaving it “open-ended,” the authors again validate the literalistic and mechanical readings of Genesis that bolster many Christians’ rejection of evolution, a stance that again, drives students away from the faith.]
4 Does God discriminate against women?
[VIA: Page 94 includes a list of cultural notes that need correcting.]
Women were typically:
* Forbidden to talk to men (except their husbands)
[VIA: Patently, demonstrably false. I’m not sure where this statement even comes from.]
* Not allowed to worship with men
[VIA: False. Especially not in first-century Judaism or Christianity. Especially given that the synagogue was a community center, and that the home was also considered a worship space. See JerusalemPerspective.com for more.]
* Forced to cover their heads, because hair was considered private
[VIA: Forced? I’m starting to wonder where they got this information. See here.]
* Restricted to household work only
* Not considered reliable witnesses in a court of law
[VIA: Dubious. While this is popularly taught, there is complexity in the actual history behind this. The primary source of this information (from a Jewish perspective) comes from the Talmud which is not so much a list of regulations as it is a catalog of debates on a variety of matters, including judicial law. Read more here.]
WARNING: DON’T LET ONE VERSE SPEAK FOR THE WHOLE BIBLE (100)
[VIA: On page 107, the authors reference 1 Corinthians 14:34, saying, “Some scholars believe that this prohibition of women speaking or teaching in church still holds true today.” What they fail to mention is that many scholars believe this passage to be an “interpolation.”]
5 Is Jesus really the only way to God?
The ideology that religion is a moral system designed to make us good people conflicts with the Bible’s claim that we are all tainted by sin and need rescuing. This rescue comes in the form of Jesus Christ. The question about whether we can just try hard and make ourselves good or we are in need of rescue points to the heart of the gospel. (117)
[VIA: The direction of this chapter feels a bit disjointed as the title (which speaks of “exclusivity”) seems different from the content (which speaks of “morality.”) In addition, their statement above is a subtle affirmation of “sin management” which I would have thought the authors would have rejected.]
[VIA: On page 121, their column on Judaism states that “Jesus [is] not mentioned in any sacred texts.” False. Jesus is mentioned in the Talmud.]
Word to know: Religious Pluralism is the belief that all religions are equally valid. Religious pluralists believe that even though some religions might contradict each other, each holds a part of the eternal truth of the Divine. … John Hick, a well-known proponent of religious pluralism, teaches, “Applying a kind of philosophical Golden Rule, it would be unreasonable not to grant to religious experience within other traditions what I affirm of it within my own tradition.” (122)
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, writes, “It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right.” Keller is saying that any stance we take — whether it’s Christianity or religious pluralism — inherently prefers one perspective over others. In other words, there’s nothing essentially “narrow minded” about believing that Jesus is the only way to God. (123)
[VIA: Wrong. This classic argument is fallacious because it is a non sequitur, namely that a claim about religious ideologies does not necessarily equate to an epistemological philosophy.]
[Regarding John 14]: Jesus is the link between sinful human beings and a holy God. … “Truth” – Jesus is making a statement that he is totally reliable. … real life in the present as well as eternal life with God and resurrection from the dead. (125)
6 What does the Bible say about being gay?
Enter this conversation with sensitivity and compassion, regardless of your personal viewpoint. (138)
Are people born gay? What about genetic disposition? How could it be wrong if people are born that way? Is there a spectrum of sexuality? Heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, transgender — how do we navigate the changing definitions of “gay”? These are all valid questions. Resist giving answers at this point, but instead ask for more about what they’ve heard about these questions. That may be insightful information for you. (138)
[VIA: I opine here that “resisting giving answers” may not be the best response. Yes, there is a spectrum of sexuality. Yes, there are changing definitions. No, people do not choose to be gay. (While there are one or two popular examples that are often referenced in Christian circles, the existence of the exception is evidence of the point. The reason why this is a story, is because it is the anomaly.) Giving these kinds of affirmations do not necessarily have to shut down conversation. On the contrary, it provides a common foundation upon which to wrestle with the implications of said realities.]
It’s also important to note here that while we might tend to think of this as a “topic” or “issue” as a way to keep our distance from it, this conversation involves real people and their lives in deeply personal ways. (140)
“Can someone have feelings of same-sex attraction without being gay?” This question gets at the reality that sexual identity development is a process, one that ebbs and flows with teenage hormonal development and is influenced by both good and bad experiences. (145)
[VIA: This statement gives up too much and confuses “identity” with “orientation,” which does not ebb and flow in the same way as “identity.” I would have preferred more precision here.]
[VIA: I did appreciate the authors’ use of the debate tactic, to consider the other side and “pretend you agree” with an opposing view; especially for this issue.]
7 Does God endorse violence?
One thing is consistent about all the hard stories of the Old Testament: God never acts randomly. God acts against people doing wrong. As hard as it is to read some of the Old Testament stories, imagine a world where God never took action. (169)
“If that’s true, then why doesn’t God always respond?” This question opens up the larger problem of evil. … 1. God gave us the ability to make choices. 2. God does not sit back and watch us suffer. 3. God will ultimately establish justice and make all things right. (169)
If you want to know God, know Jesus. So the question then becomes, “Is Jesus violent?” (172)
8 How can I follow a God who would let Christians do such bad things?
It’s important to realize that people have often used Christianity to their advantage to get what they want. (187)
…it’s important to point out that we need to be careful with one-sided arguments. (187)
[VIA: After giving some examples of ethical behaviors…]
How does this help balance out the story of Christians’ behavior and its reflection on God? (191)
Christians often spend time defending the terrible things some people have done in the name of Christianity. Instead of defending the actions of Christians who have done evil, it is often best to agree that those actions don’t represent Jesus. … Help release students from the pressure to defend the acts of some Christians that are completely indefensible. (191)
[VIA: On page 192, they reference Pastor John Ortberg noting that the origin of the word “hypocrite” comes from Jesus. (192) I’m uncertain how accurate they’re attempting to be, but the origin is from the Greek for “actor” (υποκριτης).]
10 Tips for reading your Bible
- Pray for the Spirit to Help You
- Formation vs. Information
- No Shame
- Get a Readable Bible
- Don’t Start at Start
- Read the Notes Before the Book
- Bible Reading is a “Team Sport”
- Use Your Imagination
- Stick With it
- It’s About God