Books for Critical-Thinking Christians

Does the title of this post sound a tad arrogant? Intellectually elitist even? Arrogance is not my intent, and I don’t have an elite intellect. I do have a keen and personal interest in religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was raised on conservative Christian values — the Southern Baptist variety, which is quite fierce. Over the years, my beliefs, practices, and worldview have changed considerably due to education, travel, social interaction, and perhaps above all, reading. The following is an annotated bibliography of authors and books that have influenced my thinking about religion. I offer this suggested reading list for those who want to approach faith from a critical and thoughtful perspective that does not always confirm but instead challenges traditional assumptions about religion.

I have read all or parts of numerous books on world religions, and there are plenty of good introductions by major publishers, especially academic presses like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. A book I read not too long ago that addresses religious faith in general is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith. No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote this apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for why religion exists, why it has survived for tens of thousands of years, and why it will continue in spite of opposition from the agnostic and atheistic sector of the scientific community.

I think Smith makes some good arguments, and I tend to agree with him that there is evolutionary evidence for the necessity of religious faith for humans. Where I question Smith is on the broad assumptions and emphatic stands he takes along the way. I also take issue when Smith seems to resort to tired religious clichés and platitudes. As an example, Smith writes: “Scientists would give their eye-teeth to know what the non-material component of photons is. For religionists, it is Spirit.” With this type of dismissive assumption, Smith is falling into the “god of the gaps” trap that atheists so often describe.  At any rate, this book is a good source for lay people (like me) who want to hear justification of faith by someone who spent a lifetime studying the subject.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY

It is probably my interest in history that has attracted me to books on early Christianity, so I add here several titles from well-respected scholars. The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders studies the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, distinguishing the certain from the improbable, and assessing the historical and religious context of Christ’s time. In Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Paula Fredriksen explores the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul’s letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus’ histories. Both of these books are dated now but are fine contributions to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. For a less traditional perspective on the historical Jesus, I recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, who has dedicated her career to helping Christians and Jews understand the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby deepening the understanding of him, and facilitating greater interfaith dialogue.

One of my favorite scholars who enjoyed studying the life and legacy of Jesus is Marcus Borg. He apparently also enjoyed stirring up controversy, along with his frequent co-author, John Dominic Crossan. It isn’t really necessary to provide details of these books here because the subtitles are fairly descriptive. I freely admit a significant bias toward Borg and his approach toward examining the Gospels in a historical context, and I know that many readers will criticize him for recycling material in his books. The man was a master book salesman, and his prose is accessible and thought-provoking.

  • The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth
  • The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith
  • Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
  • The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

A recent title by another scholar whom I respect is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire. Bart D. Erhman doesn’t break any new ground here, but as in previous works, he manages to make early Church history more palatable for a large audience. He writes well and can manage to find opportunities to be witty with a subject that is not inherently humorous. Most of what we read here is generally covered in any survey of world civilizations, except in far more detail, which is why the book is worth reading for those of us who are not scholars but are nevertheless interested in history, religion, and the evolution of Christianity. Ehrman takes a direct and well-documented approach to explain why Christianity did indeed triumph over all the long-held religious traditions of the classical world.

THEOLOGY

Again, the titles in this category are not necessarily complex nor heavy. My intent is to introduce books that the rest of us can grasp and appreciate. Some of these would be considered more like apologies than theology, but subject headings are not my focus either. Here are a few books that have had the greatest impact on my thinking.

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil
  • Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (I told you I was a fan)

I will add a couple of books here that are much more recent than the previous selections. These two titles by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland changed the way I thought about some fundamental tenants of Christian theology. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person presents a radical departure from traditional teaching for most Christians. The element of this book I found most interesting was the authors’ belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which begs the question: do they believe in the supernatural traditions of other major religions, like the stories surrounding Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama? I decided to email Philip Gulley and put the question directly to him, and he wrote back! He responded, “Yes, bodily resurrection is an issue with which we both continue to struggle.” I truly admire his honesty. The other book by Gulley and Mulholland I recommend is If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. As idealistic as the premise of this book is (and perhaps a bit naïve in places), these guys make a compelling argument for how challenging it is to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus and the basic tenants of the major world religions.

RELIGION AND SCIENCE 

In so many ways, the last 250 years of religious thought and practice have been defined by the conflict between religion and science.  My intellectual interests as an adult have been concentrated in these two areas resulting from my heritage and a childhood curiosity about the natural world. Much of my reading that touches on both topics has been in the area of anthropology and evolution. Here are two titles that take a more general and conciliatory approach, one from a scientist and one from a minister. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. More recent scholars have scoffed at Gould’s compromise, especially scientists and humanists, but I still believe the concept is worth considering.

Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion is the fourth book thus far that I have read by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is actually a collection of essays from 2000 that predates the bestsellers by this Episcopal priest who left the ministry to finish her career teaching in the small liberal arts college where I am working now. Taylor was named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2014. The principle thesis and the sharp observations in this book are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method. She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

AGNOSTICISM AND ATHEISM

A critical study of Christianity is incomplete without the most challenging opinions of all. My fascination with science has led me to scholars and writers who completely dismiss religion as supernatural nonsense at best and dangerous, manipulative propaganda at worst. On any given day, I may find myself in sympathy with their judgments, but I still embrace mystery in the universe that I am not yet convinced science can explain nor dismiss. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness by leading atheists. It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

In his cleverly-spelled title, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens is just a bit too unreasonable about the evils of religion in general. Of course, he is correct about so many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute his calculated and logical arguments dispelling the myths that are at the center of religion. However, I maintain that religion seems to be a necessary component for so many humans, as history and other social sciences have firmly demonstrated. He thinks because he has successfully faced facts, reality, mortality, and the cosmos apart from the supernatural, that everyone else should be able to do so as well. Obviously, he is mistaken. And frankly, no amount of evidence or persuasion on his part or that of any other atheist will likely win over the multitudes around the globe who prefer supernatural beliefs about the universe instead of rational, scientific explanations. I suppose he is, nevertheless, compelled to keep trying. Hitchens is as brilliant as any of his contemporaries who have presented the case of atheism.

Speaking of brilliant, it is probably good form to give the last word on critical thinking to one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world, who also happens to be the most outspoken and popular atheists of the 21st century. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. As much as I respect Dawkins as a scientist, scholar, and writer, I think he overstates the danger of religious practice. I prefer the more mellow and considerate position of humanists like Greg M. Epstein. However, anyone who truly wants to cover the range of opinions about religion, from pure devotion to intransigent denial, should consider reading this and other books by Richard Dawkins. Oh, and you can’t insult him by calling him the Devil’s advocate — he doesn’t believe in Him either.

(Note: some of the book descriptions in this post were lifted from the Goodreads website.)

Book Reviews: Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”

We Were Eight Years In Power
We Were Eight Years In Power

Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”

The Omega Point: Where Science and Religion Converge

I just finished reading The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is the fourth book I have read by Taylor, and although it is not her best-known work, I think this short essay collection is very fine. Admittedly, my praise of the book comes out of my deep interest in the intersection (or polarization) of science and religion. Most scientists will not find it as compelling as those who are sympathetic to religious belief or even spirituality. Published in 2000, the book is perhaps somewhat dated now, but the principle thesis and the keen observations are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest and a professor of religion with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history, going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Rev. Dr. Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method.  She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have been reading popular books on science and religion for about thirty years. I am drawn to authors who tend to challenge or even shatter long-held assumptions about religion, mainly Christianity since that is the faith of my heritage. In addition to Barbara Brown Taylor, a few that come to mind are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart D. Ehrman, Philip Gulley, and James Mulholland. In recent years I have also been reading books by the modern atheists and humanists, like Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greg M. Epstein, Edward O. Wilson, Eugenie C. Scott, and Jerry A. Coyne. All of these writers have addressed the friction created where science and religion meet.

I certainly have issues with organized religion, although I am a member of the Episcopal Church. I am repelled by evangelical Christianity, fundamentalist factions across the globe, radical sects of all faiths, and any religious practice that results in division, discrimination, sexism, racism, and superiority. At the same time, I cannot agree with some of the modern atheists who have decided that all religion is superstitious nonsense with no purpose, no value to humanity. Some of these scholars claim that religion is not just a benign fantasy but a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity.  To judge religion based on the manner in which it is too often adulterated by immoral clergy, zealots, dictators, and politicians, to my way of thinking, is similar to faulting science when technology is used by power-hungry leaders to make weapons of mass destruction.

Some scientists posit that, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, science has been rapidly replacing religion as a unified explanation for all existence. In other words, we don’t need religion anymore. As much as Dawkins and others have tried to make the case of science’s ability to answer all our questions, I believe there will always be significant gaps. My argument for the existence and validity of religion is primarily built on its longevity, that it has been a hallmark of hominids at least as far back as the Neanderthals. Evolutionary theory teaches us that nature selects what will and will not survive based on characteristics such as fitness, adaptability, necessity, and the ability to pass on vital information from one generation to the next.  It works for genes, language, technology, and yes, religion. Humans have passed down faith and myth for thousands of years, not because they are entertained by them, but because they need them.

As contemplative animals who are consciously aware of their existence, their past, and their possible future, humans have evolved a thirst for answers to questions about our place in the universe, how it all began, and the meaning of life. But, we also need a practice to help us appreciate and absorb emotion, beauty, and a whole host of other experiences. Sometimes science falls short, not because of what is yet undiscovered, but because so many people need the most treasured part of life to remain a mystery. Is religion nothing more than a panacea? Is it “the opium of the people” as Karl Marx observed? Is it a vestige that we will eventually slough off like dead skin? I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think that we will see that next stage in our evolutionary development nearly as soon as some of our atheist friends are predicting.

Godless Ethics

Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed by leading atheists with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness. In some sense, he is playing the role of a modern Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor who is trying to find consensus between the religious and the secular world.

It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

I get the sense that he thinks the creation of humanists organizations that look and function like churches, synagogues, or mosques will somehow make humanism more “competitive” or more attractive or perhaps even more palatable to the skeptics or the indecisive. It reminds me of vegetarians and vegans who eat foods that are considered meat substitutes because they crave meat but won’t eat it. I think humanists can find community and social interaction outside organizations that look and sound like religious ones. In fact, I would venture to say that plenty of believers find their most meaningful connections outside their religious circles.

This is a very accessible book that is well written, thoughtful, and completely unoffensive to left-leaning, progressive readers. Evangelicals and other orthodox or fundamentalist faithful will hate it. There is no doubt that Epstein was very encouraged by the election of Obama, which occurred one year before the book was published. For people who were raised in strong religious environments but now find themselves in the camp with agnostics or even atheists, Epstein’s conclusions can be reaffirming, perhaps even comforting.

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Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

In his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, historian Douglas Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—an “Age of Neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.  Having been raised in the Southeast where these atrocities flourished in the decades leading up to the time I was born in 1960, reading this exposé was both painful and illuminating for me — it is one of the best works of nonfiction I have read in many years.

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Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African- Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. Thousands of other African-Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

This book is a moving, sobering account of a little-known crime against African-Americans, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.  In light of events involving law enforcement and the legal system with regard to black people over the past year, this book is extremely relevant.  It should be required reading in most southern history college courses, and it should be considered strongly for most advanced American history courses. It is well researched, thoroughly documented, and extremely compelling.  Blackmon is such a good writer.

John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meany

If you haven’t read at least one book by John Irving, then you are missing out on one of the best modern American novelists.  I have read a few of Irving’s works, but none was as brilliant to me as A Prayer for Owen Meany.  A tragic accident brings the two main characters together and links them in a mystery that defines their lives.

I read this novel many years ago, and like many other books from my past, I have forgotten so much of it.  Prolific readers have to come to terms with this unavoidable reality — most of us simply can’t retain the vast majority of what we read.  And, I don’t read all that much.  What is encouraging to me is the side benefit of reading, especially serious fiction.  I may not remember character’s names, specific events, or even the story line, but I know that great books have an impact on my way of thinking and the way I view the world and my own journey.  Sometimes, they alter my path and help me find new avenues that I had no idea existed.

I really wasn’t looking for Christian symbolism when I read this book, but by the time I finished, I had decided that Owen Meany WAS Christ.  Someday I want to return to this novel to see how different my reaction to it will be.  In fact, I would like to do the same thing with several other titles.  So many books, so little time . . . .

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Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Reading is easily one of my favorite activities.  Outside of newspapers, magazines, and websites, I tend to read more novels than anything else.  I like the immersion experience and the sense of accomplishment after finishing a well-written novel.  However, I do enjoy nonfiction works, and I gravitate toward works on history, religion, and natural science.  I am also fascinated by human origins, evolution, and anthropology.  There are a few books I can recall that truly had a life-altering effect on my way of thinking.  One of those was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by the late Carl Sagan and co-authored by Ann Druyan.

First published in 1992, this book is an exploration of who we are and how human beings have been shaped by the development of the planet over millions of years.  The authors explore origins of traits central to our current predicament: sex and violence, love and altruism, hierarchy, consciousness, language, technology, and morality.  It is easily the best book on human origins and anthropology for the lay-reader that I have ever read. I’m sure some scholars in the field are still not fond of Sagan’s work, but he really did a good job of making science accessible and fascinating for the rest of us.  For that effort and accomplishment, I am grateful.