In the classic Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury paints a picture of a future world where firefighters start fires, rather than put them out—fires created with burning books because intellectual pursuits are forbidden. Instead of growing and being stimulated by reading and exploring the world, society is pacified, encouraged to watch their “family” on television, programming designed to foster happiness—the highest goal.
Guy Montag, a firefighter, meets a young girl who opens his eyes to the reality that there might be more than force-fed entertainment on the television screens around their home. Montag eventually meets up with an outcast group of scholars who have memorized great literary works. And when the world is ready for books again—they will be ready to recreate these great works.
While today’s culture is not filled with book burnings, we must ask ourselves a hauntingly related question: Are we closing our minds to ideas that challenge what we have always believed? Our immediate answer is probably “No, not at all.” We would do well to pause as take stock in what we have read lately. When is the last time you read something that challenged your beliefs, assumptions or deeply held convictions? What follows is a list of four books that have been challenging to me. But before we launch into the list, there’s one disclaimer: There is a school of thought that believes that we should avoid all things “heretical.” This kind of thinking creates an echo-chamber of sorts, where we only read things we agree with. Some call this “confirmation bias”—where we read only thing that confirm our already pre-conceived ideas.
The reality is that we need to expose ourselves to a diversity of opinion, even if we do not agree with the perspective. In this case, we need to learn from what the person is presenting. Why do they hold this position? How might this position make sense? In what ways do I agree? This kind of process is more fruitful than just rejecting what someone’s position as “wrong” and reject them, and their position, out of hand. Jesus asked questions and engaged in dialogue with people—and that is what I hope the books listed below do for you, as they have for me as well. So, instead of metaphorically burning these books, let’s be open to learning from them, especially if they are on the other side of theological spectrum.
When we engage and converse with others on the opposite side of the theological spectrum, we tend to develop a stronger, more robust faith. We may still hold to the same belief after many conversations and readings—but now we know why we believe what we believe—and can articulate it in a respectful, intelligent manner. And if we end up changing a theological idea, we realize the world did not come collapsing down. God is not afraid of our questions (and even our doubts). He is not afraid of the pursuit of a more robust faith.
With that said, here are four books to consider.
Questions to All Your Answers: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith
Here, Roger E. Olson examines ten sayings common to the Christian vocabulary, ones which are catchy, common and often go unexamined. For example, I cannot count the time I have heard a believer say, “Judge not.” Olson tackles this saying in chapter nine, subtitled “So how can we preach to sinners?”
This book was personally challenging because there were sayings I was guilty of uncritically proliferating, perhaps the most common one being, “God is in control.” At face value, this saying makes all the sense in the world and seems biblically authentic. The question is this: Do we really know what we mean when we say this? If God is in control, how do we explain the issue of evil and why the world is in such a mess?
In chapter two, “God is in Control: So Why is the World such a Mess?” Olson offers a different perspective of God’s providence, “God is in charge even though He doesn’t control everything” (52). Olson uses the example of a professor in a classroom. The professor may be in charge, but not in control. A professor cannot control what the students will do, how they will respond or the reviews they leave on ratemyprofessor.com.
The challenging part of this book is that it causes the reader to step back and question what they really believe—and why. It uncovers our presuppositions and that can be scary and vulnerable, leaving us to wonder what else we have not thought through.
The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church
In our country, it seems that nationalism and faith are connected, an unwritten assumption that the American Dream and the Kingdom of God go hand in hand—as if faith and nationalism were just different sides of the same coin.
Greg Boyd’s book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, challenges these assumptions, forcing us to ask hard questions about why we believe about the intersection of country and God. Was our nation truly based upon Christian principles? What kind of “Christian” principles? Were they “evangelical” principles, like the ones we know today?
Several years ago, I was asked to preach a sermon on politics and faith—not an easy task. In preparation I tried to read both sides of the faith and politics divide. I read Greg Boyd, John Howard Yoder, Shane Claiborne, to name just a few. The reason was that I wanted to present a balanced approach. Of all the books I read, The Myth of a Christian Nation was the most engaging, challenging and thought-provoking.
Boyd is clearly pushing back against the idea of God’s kingdom of America. For many, this idea will be challenging because many churches associate America with God’s blessing—but what if this idea was not “gospel fact?” What if this idea has taken our focus off the kingdom of heaven? Would it shake our faith? What if the kingdom is greater than one expression? Is America really the best expression of the life and teachings of Jesus—or are they beyond any specific political expression? No matter where you might fall on the spectrum of faith and nationalism, this book will challenge why we believe what we believe—and after all, shouldn’t we welcome those challenges?
Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions
Stories draw all ages together, break down barriers and help us understand who someone is, where they came from and their journey. And that is exactly what Rachel Held Evans does in her book Faith Unraveled (previously entitled Evolving in Monkey Town). Evans vulnerably tells her story of growing up in the same town of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which made national headlines in 1925 and for the first time nationally brought serious doubt to the certain held tenets of the Christian faith.
Some 80 years later, Rachel experienced her own doubt of the fundamentalist faith she was brought up in. She describes how her doubt started when watching the documentary, Behind the Veil, which highlighted the oppression of women and human rights by the Taliban. One event in particular started Evans on a journey to ask more questions, no longer accepting the status quo of trite sayings. She retells the story of Zarmina, a woman accused of killing her husband, who was executed in a stadium with 30,000 spectators to make an example of her.
Each time I got angrier and angrier with God. God was the one who claimed to have formed Zarmina in her mother’s womb. It was God who ordained that she be born in a third-world country under an oppressive regime. God had all the power and resources at his disposal to stop this from happening, and yet he did nothing. Worse of all, twenty years of Christian education assured me that because Zarmina was a Muslim, she would suffer unending torment in hell for the rest of eternity. How the Taliban punished Zarmina in this life was nothing compared with how God would punish her in the next. (90–91)
Evans raises a lot of very good, faith challenging questions, ones that if we desire to have a robust faith, we must wrestle with. It is not always necessary to agree with any author’s conclusions—but it is vital to a healthy Christian faith that we ponder these troubling, complex and sometimes seemingly contradictory issues.
How do we wrestle with the fact of the mistreatment of women not only in our country but across the world? How do you justify a God who allows evil or to use the theological term—theodicy and the problem of evil? Again, these questions are vital to wrestle with, because when done in a healthy manner, we will develop a more robust, informed faith.
Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future
When a friend encouraged me to read Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, I had no idea it would take me nearly a month to finish! It was one of the slowest reads I have ever had—not because it was dull, but because I was exposed to so many new ideas. Not only did I have to process those ideas, I also had to look up the definition of multiple words on almost every page!
Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th century classicist and historian known for his radical views that challenged the very foundation of our Western intellectual tradition. Perhaps most famous for his claim that “God is dead,” Nietzsche argued that traditional ways of understanding foundational concepts like knowledge and truth were outdated and misguided. With his rejection of a “God’s-eye” perspective as the basis of value, Nietzsche worked to understand how we can make sense of life in the wake of such a monumental loss. His philosophy has gone on to have a huge impact on subsequent thinkers, from autocrats and artists to scholars and revolutionaries.
In Beyond Good and Evil, we learn that since the universe is in a constant state of flux, so is our language and the concepts built from it, including those things we might call “good” or “evil.” The idea of getting beyond fixed ideas of good and evil is to rid ourselves of the idea that the world is to be understood according to only two options. Rather, words and language change, meanings change, and since there is no absolute way of determining which values are true (according to Nietzsche)—that is, since “God is dead”—it makes no sense to evaluate things in terms of absolutes. To do that, the meaning of things needs to be set on a fixed point, but everything in existence is constantly changing.
This book is very challenging because it really confronts our deepest belief—that God created the universe and everything in it. Interestingly, Nietzsche was honest about his conclusions: Without God, there is no ultimate or universal reason for life. While as Christians, we would not accept that conclusion, nor the premise that God is always changing like our language and words, the book challenges us to think deeply about why that is. Do we simply say, “Well, God says so in the Bible …” often proof-texting our way to a preconceived position?
This book challenges us to think deeply and profoundly about what we believe about God, the reason for life and our own personal existence in this world. While this may sound like a heady philosophical discussion (read: not relevant), nothing could be further from the truth. These are the exact questions people struggle with regarding the existence of God and our place in the history of the world.
Obviously, these are only a few of the books out there that will challenge and shape our thinking. You may know of others to add to this list. I would suggest that reading books like these rather than tearing down faith, should do the exact opposite—sharpen our thinking and developing a more robust, informed faith. And isn’t that what God calls to?
After twenty years in the church and university worlds, Bryan A. Sands has accepted the call of Lead Pastor at Kaimuki Christian Church in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is the author of, Everyone Loves Sex: So Why Wait? (A Discussion in Sexual Faithfulness). You can learn more about the book at EveryoneLovesSex.org. Bryan and his wife, Caz, have three daughters.