Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Every so often, authors in the progressive Christian genre will contact me, asking if I will review their books. Progressive Christianity is a fairly small niche compared with the networks developed by evangelicals to promote their materials, so we try to help each other out. During the pandemic, I received two requests from progressive Christian authors. For this post, I want to tell you about their manuscripts and how each of these books contribute to the larger corpus of progressive Christian literature. Ultimately, these are two completely different types of books, but similar to Restorative Faith, their goal is to open your mind to alternative approaches to God and Christianity.
The first book I want to discuss is The God I Left Behind: A journey from fundamentalism to faith by Brian Holley. To provide some context, Holley came of age in England during the 1950s and 60s. This book really fits into the genre of memoir, but blends quite seamlessly between the biographical elements of his life and his religious evolution. Just when you feel like the description of his circuitous spiritual journey is overwhelming the narrative, he switches back to the timeline of how these events are impacting his personal relationships. Although he does not inundate the reader with detail, Holley is vulnerable enough to reveal the darker corners of his life. Perhaps one of the most salient examples of this honesty are the events that culminate in his first religious conversion.
Holley married a young woman whose parents were fundamentalist Christians. As Holley describes his in-laws, “They didn’t have television, didn’t drink alcohol or smoke and wouldn’t listen to the radio or read newspapers on Sundays. They read the Bible every day, said grace before every meal and went to church more often than there were days in the week, or so it seemed to me.” Holley himself didn’t really see much need for religion, but because he loved his wife, he accepted their religious predilections as part of the marital package.
Eventually, Holley’s wife gave birth to his son and daughter. As is common in the early years of child rearing, one or the other of them always had to be on childcare duty. One night, Holley was watching the kids so that his wife could have a little time to herself. She had gone swimming with some friends at the beach. As the time got later and his wife didn’t return home, Holley became increasingly irritated. Eventually, he went out in search of his wife and found her “frolicking with a couple of our male friends and it made me intensely jealous.” After returning to the house, the two became entangled in a nasty argument, resulting in Holley striking his wife.
Never having had a violent disposition, Holley was mortified by his own behavior. Eventually, Holley fell to his knees and asked God to help him change his life. This is what led him to join the Brethren Church, a fundamentalist Christian tradition. This complete about-face of going from no religion to fundamentalism establishes one of the most common themes that defines Holley’s life: whenever he invests in something, he goes all in. Holley doesn’t just tacitly accept Jesus as his Lord and savior. He makes his Christianity his entire identity.
Holley’s conversion would set him on a path that would dictate the next decade of his life. He establishes a youth group for children in the area so that he can proselytize the kids in his neighborhood. Through this program, he comes into contact with a couple who were part of the Pentecostal tradition, a branch of Christianity heavily focused on the work of the Holy Spirit. Derived from Acts chapter 2, which takes place during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the disciples experience an ecstatic event where the Holy Spirit enables them to speak in tongues. Pentecostalism emphasizes speaking in tongues as the ultimate sign that one has accepted Jesus into their heart.
When Holley unexpectedly has the experience of speaking in tongues, he recalls how, “Tears coursed down my face and it took some time before I could recover enough decorum to leave the church and return to my office. I went back to work walking on air, and continued to feel such elevation for some days afterwards.” This event is so transformative to Holley’s sense of self that it sends him down the rabbit hole of the charismatic tradition. As with his fundamentalism, Holley pours his entire self into the Pentecostal church.
One of the critical components of The God I Left Behind is Holley’s incessant search for meaning. He is like a porous, empty vessel, always demanding to be filled, but never fully satisfied with the answers given. Part of Holley’s psychology will resonate with anyone who grew up feeling unmoored. Within the narrative of his life is a principle sense of unworthiness. He is burdened with a fundamental disposition that the person who he is will never be enough.
For instance, tangled in his narrative is Holley’s struggle of coming to terms with his sense of intellectual inferiority. He describes himself as an average student in school whose potential was never realized by his teachers. Only later in his life, when he took an examination for a job, did he find affirmation that his intellectual deficiencies were more perceived than real. Like so many of us who embody the judgements of adults when we are children, it took Holley a long time to shed the assessments of the teachers who had deemed him intellectually inadequate.
Indeed, like many religious awakenings, Holley’s burgeoning intellectual curiosity coincides with his religious evolution. For instance, once Holley begins taking courses in psychology, he realizes that many of his religious experiences have rational explanations. These seeds of doubt create a cognitive dissonance. It wasn’t long before his Christian beliefs were coming into conflict with his rational brain. Rather than hide his struggle, Holley decided to demonstrate vulnerability to his church by voicing his doubts. He believed his honesty would open the door for others to express their own struggles. Unfortunately, as is often the case in conservative Christian circles, this is not what happened.
The moment that Holley began to express his uncertainties, the leadership of the church distanced themselves from him. Holley writes, “They seemed to think the weaknesses I had shared with them were an impediment to my role and I was abruptly dropped from the small leadership group.” Slowly, it became clear to Holley that he was no longer welcome at his church. The fact that he didn’t accept the belief system wholesale meant that he could no longer be trusted.
Holley’s alienation from the church is where the narrative really begins to find its flow. The heart of this book is to lead the reader on Holley’s journey to discover what he calls his “true self”. Through delving into Eastern religions and studying more closely the religious history of the Judeo/Christian tradition, Holley begins to rethink the nature of God and reality. Those who are familiar with progressive Christian literature will find his path familiar. However, his conclusions are uniquely his own.
Personally, I appreciate Holley’s writing style. His vocabulary is rich and his descriptions are useful in assisting the reader as he navigates complicated concepts. Although there are times where I struggled to fully grasp Holley’s conclusions, the beauty of The God I Left Behind is that it represents a path that will open doors for some people who are ready to abandon the Christian faith. I recommend Holley’s book as a life preserver for anyone who is disillusioned with traditional Christianity and is struggling to redefine who God is and how to conceive of God’s interplay with their lives.
The second book I want to discuss is Doubt on Trial: An Agnostic Minister’s Case for Questioning the Bible by Rusty Williams. The book is constructed in the form of a trial transcript. The focus of the trial is a personified character—Doubt. Williams is playing with an interesting idea: What if doubt could speak? What would doubt say? I was intrigued by this book because anyone who has ever spent time discussing religion knows that doubt is the killer of religious adherence. Similar to the way the crevasse in a glacier begins with the smallest amount of liquid water burrowing its way through hundreds of feet of ice, doubt often starts with a simple question that, over time, can lead to more questions that can disrupt the entire foundation of a person’s faith.
Particularly for those who are part of fundamentalist traditions, there are certain questions that are explicitly off limits. For example, one of the greatest foils to fundamentalism is questioning whether the stories in the Bible are historically accurate. Fundamentalism only works when the adherent approaches the Bible as a perfect, inerrant document. This means the adherent assumes the Bible is a historical record where every word is designed to convey deep truth about God. However, the fundamentalist framework is very fragile because it cannot withstand doubt. Similar to Holley’s story, the moment you begin comparing the biblical stories with historical and archaeological data or you question the internal logic of the Bible, that framework will unravel.
The goal of Williams’ book is to make the reader comfortable with the idea that doubt and faith can coexist. Indeed, like many progressive Christians, Williams wants the reader to appreciate how doubt can ultimately strengthen a person’s faith. At one point Doubt says, “I am not here to cause someone to change or alter their beliefs – I’m present to create the nudge to investigate something when it doesn’t seem right, to dig a little deeper into it and see what you find.” Although this might be Williams’ intention in writing his book, this a bit misleading. If you are a conservative Christian who adheres to biblical literalism, then assimilating Williams’ ideas into your religious framework will likely change or alter your beliefs substantially.
In my opinion, this is something that progressive Christians often underestimate. For instance, within Rob Bell's introduction to Love Wins, he describes Christianity as a wide stream of beliefs. The image brings to mind the notion that conservative and liberal Christians are part of the same river, they are just drifting towards opposite banks. I have come to realize a more accurate image is that the difference between conservative and progressive Christianity is akin to the river is splitting in two separate directions. The water might originate in the same place, but we end up in very different locations as a result. Indeed, I would argue that we end up with two very different religions.
This is definitely the case with Williams’ book if you take his words seriously. I will admit that my first reaction to the construction of the narrative was skepticism. The writing is colloquial. Indeed, his language may be too colloquial for some readers. It took me a little time to get comfortable with the cadence and rhythm of the book. I wasn’t a big fan of the courtroom setup at first, but there are some advantages to framing this discussion through that lens. He was able to ping-pong around in such a way that he could cover a lot of territory.
If you’ve never been exposed to historicocritical scholarship, this is a good primer on how scholars approach the Bible. As someone who has spent more than 20 years studying biblical scholarship, I was not thinking I was going to learn anything new from Williams’ narrative. I am happy to say my assumptions were wrong. I not only learned a number of interesting facts about the Bible I hadn’t known prior to reading his book, but Williams piqued my interest enough in some topics to begin researching them further on my own, which is one of the goals of his book.
It’s clear that Williams is a critical thinker. He’s good at picking up on inconsistencies and deconstructing their implications. In many ways, Doubt on Trial is like a firehose of information. You will definitely learn a lot. My biggest qualm with his text is that he doesn’t cite his sources. There is a bibliography at the end of the book for further reading, but there were times when I would like to have cross-referenced his material. For example on page 101, Williams makes this claim:
"Using functional MRIs, researchers have been able to watch – in real time – what parts of the brain become active when information is presented that goes against strongly held beliefs. When new information is presented to a person, one would expect the parts of the brain that are responsible for learning would become active. What the researchers found, however, is when that information is the opposite of a strongly held belief, the part of the brain responsible for self-preservation becomes active instead."
I loved learning about this. However, I wanted to know exactly what study produced these conclusions. I wanted to read the results for myself. Lacking this reference, I cannot use this excellent piece of information because I don’t know all the specifics. The same pattern occurs when he’s working with certain biblical passages. Although he provides biblical references for most of his biblical criticism, there are small lapses here or there. As someone who is familiar with the Bible, I can easily look it up myself. For those who are not, this could be an impediment.
On the whole, Williams’ book is worth the read. He achieves what he set out to do, which is to nudge the reader to investigate further. Because of this, I recommend Williams’ book as a means of navigating biblical scholarship. Similar to Restorative Faith, it will be hard to get his book into the hands of the people who need it most. I imagine Williams is hoping a conservative Christian will read his book and begin thinking of Christianity through a different lens. That was my hope with Restorative Faith. Instead, what I have found is that books like ours are often read by those who are predisposed to want to read progressive Christian literature. Similar to conservatives who read conservative Christian authors, progressives will find his perspective comforting to their belief system.
In conclusion, I would recommend both books. They are both important contributions to the corpus of progressive Christian literature. You can purchase The God I Left Behind and Doubt on Trial on Amazon. If you end up reading their books, please feel free to leave your comments on their books in the reviews. Also, if you haven’t done so already, I would appreciate your review of my book, Restorative Faith, on Amazon. These reviews help drive readers to my book and provides increased the visibility for our movement. As always, thanks for your support!