Ten Resources For Those On The Fence

Another glimpse into the Faith & Doubt Issue of our magazine, which you can order […]

Mockingbird / 2.28.19

Another glimpse into the Faith & Doubt Issue of our magazine, which you can order here. What resources would you add? Leave them in the comments below. 

Usually the last thing any of us need when we’re in the midst of a genuine crisis of faith is a recommended book or sermon. However laudable the impulse or loving the intention, we all too often receive such suggestions as an invitation to, well, shut up. We already feel alone in our doubts, so any hint of silencing tends to make things worse. But say we do read the book in question or listen to the talk, and it doesn’t immediately “fix” our misgivings? The relationship with that person gets awkward, leaving us even more out on a limb than before.

Everyone’s doubts take a slightly different shape, and seldom a straightforward one. The young man who frames his questions philosophically may actually be struggling with something more personal or emotional. Or maybe the self-described “seeker” claiming to be looking for answers has in fact fallen in love with her uncertainty and developed what Christian Wiman calls, “an almost religious commitment to doubt itself.” (Honest doubt is, in his view, nearly always marked by pain and humility, divorced from self-satisfaction.) Whatever the case, what you see is not always what you get.

This does not mean that fresh input is never helpful, just that what we usually need most in these moments is a gracious friend in whose presence we can say the things we’ve been afraid to say (to God!), without fear of recrimination.

And yet, ask anyone who’s lived as a Christian for more than a couple years, and they will eagerly tell you about the writers and artists who have most helped them in their faith, especially when they were struggling. The right book at the right time really can pierce the armor and address our doubts in a palpable way. If a book has done this, it’s usually met us by surprise rather than by prescription.

We polled a bunch of our contributors to see what had played that role in their lives and here’s what they gave us. Some are more head-focused, some more heart-, some will take an afternoon to absorb, others a lifetime; all are worth knowing about.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford

Perhaps School of Life head honcho and Mbird fave Alain de Botton put it best when he wrote of Unapologetic, “this book pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians… Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.” Spufford makes an emotional case, in other words, but not one divorced from historical realities. A big part of Unapologetic’s charm, in fact, is how it simply reacquaints us with Jesus in all his counterintuitive glory. The sparkling prose and generous humor don’t hurt.

Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing by Sally Lloyd-Jones

Word on the street is that SLJ wrote this little devotional because a young family member was being bullied at school. And so this beautifully illustrated volume speaks to those of us who find ourselves on the edge of things, desperate to not fall off. Each page calls the reader into the hope that God’s love and mercy might actually be as good as it sounds. While intended for children, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing addresses the any-age-old needs: to know we belong (and to whom). We all walk this world grasping for a Home and SLJ nudges us, believers and not, in the best direction.

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith

A handy distillation of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s opus A Secular Age, which peels back the veneer on the various “conditions of belief” that make faith in the modern world feel like an increasingly fringe proposition. In doing so, he robs our positivist assumptions of much of their power. As if that weren’t enough, How (Not) To Be Secular gives us an incredibly helpful new vocabulary for understanding the world and ourselves, as well as a map of how we got here. That it does so in such immediate and accessible terms is a tribute to Smith. This short book will have you quickly doubting your doubts.

Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do by Phillip Cary

Cary wants Christians to believe the Gospel. He wrote this book because he suspects we actually don’t. Against the popular focus on “practical” steps and experiential faith, he shows us the completed gift of rest in Christ. Practice and experience aren’t dismissed or repressed but decentered by the received Good News. He doesn’t want to give us “denunciations of the way [we’re] living but permission to live differently.” This permission comes straight from scripture, which forms the ground of the whole book.

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

At once poetic and direct, funny and tough and deeply relatable, this memoir is a ministry to both the head and the heart. Traveling Mercies chronicles the author’s unlikely staggering toward faith—Christianity specifically—amid a difficult childhood, alcohol abuse, unplanned pregnancy, and the many pains and losses of an average life. Lamott’s particular story and the spirit with which she tells it deliver a welcomed jolt to the weary and apathetic heart.

Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Diogenes Allen

True to its name, this volume is written for a crisis. Interweaving the conventional subheadings of theology (Incarnation, pneumatology, etc.) with the familiar narratives of scripture, Allen writes for Christians who want to think deeply but aren’t sure about what or why. The content and the reasonableness of the faith emerge here from a wide array of resources, from Plato to recent historical-critical theory. His final product is akin to cerebral pastoral care, useful for when understanding the history (and relevance) of tough concepts is what your faith needs to keep going.

The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey

So often our objections to and struggles with Christianity have more to do with Christians and church than with Jesus. The Jesus I Never Knew, while no silver bullet, is helpful in recapturing the very center of the Christianity—Jesus himself. If, after reading Yancey’s book, you still have qualms about the whole Jesus thing, at least you’ll be objecting to the essential and not merely the incidental.

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart

Hart sets out to fix a problem: to define “God.” Too much debate among atheists and believers turns on that crucial word but without any shared understanding of it. To find clarity, as well as the broadest and deepest consensus, Hart surveys the major world religions, and the result is not so much a defense of God (although it’s not not that) as an articulation of the most abiding intellectual resources these ancient traditions have to offer. Despite the high-level arguments, this book of Hart’s is (relatively) accessible, to believers of all traditions, with its biting humor and its reference to personal experience—not in the way of memoirs, but the kind that makes the reader confront transcendence and mystery his/her own everyday life. This is metaphysics for doubters.

“Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer” from Sinners Welcome by Mary Karr

Karr’s account of her conversion is poet’s prose, and among the most beautiful (and honest) we’ve read. Like Augustine in his Confessions, Karr pierces her perversity, her joy, her abjection, and clings to God not from certainty but from desperate human need. Pain led her to prayer, she says, and “prayer led me to God, and God led me to church.” With the visceral immediacy of her poetry, Karr shows us how faith has made a difference.

The Merciful Impasse: The Sermon on the Mount for Those Who’ve Crashed and Burned by Paul Zahl

Disguised as a series of lectures on the Sermon on the Mount, PZ delivers an unflinching and deeply pastoral (re-)introduction to the Christian faith as it plays out in actual life, where the rubber often meets the road in our lives. These are places characterized by anger, desire, worry, and, yes, despair. Psychologically penetrating yet hilarious, erudite yet gut-level, sobering yet enormously hopeful, in a perfect world The Merciful Impasse would be the single Mockingbird resource for anyone contemplating giving up on the whole Christianity thing.

Click here to order a copy of The Faith and Doubt Issue!