April 16, 2013

Book Review: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed by Jay Bakker

Photo Credit: New York Times

By Aaron Gaglia (@GagliaAC)

I recently finished reading Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Walking with the Unknown God by Jay Bakker with Andy Meisenheimer. Going into this book I was fully aware that I have great theological differences with Bakker yet I was very interested to see how he would express himself. The theological content of the book did not surprise me, yet I was pleasantly surprised by his passion and that he practically seeks to show love and grace to others. I found it to be an engaging and well-written book.

Through reading the book, I identified three key features of Bakker’s theology:

1) The grace and love of God embraces all people exactly as they are and cannot exist alongside justice and wrath. Bakker does not see a distinction between special and common grace and does not include faith and repentance as the instruments to receive that grace. Bakker writes, “I don’t see how we can credit God with these attributes of holiness and justice and wrath and vengeance. I am not convinced by those who say we have to accept the tension between love and wrath, grace and holiness; that we have to take this on faith, have it remain a mystery” (Pg. 14)

2) “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the lens through which he interprets Scripture. “Love is my trump card. The Bible doesn’t ever keep me from accepting and loving other people. If scripture starts to guide me or direct me into a place where I’m treating someone as less than human, I’m either misunderstanding it or it’s wrong” (Pg. 47). He makes it clear that this love does not include wrath. He bases his idea of love based on passages like 1 Corinthians 13, claiming that wrath and punishment do not mesh with those descriptions of love.  A similar idea is espoused by Peter Rollins in his book How (Not) to Speak of God.

3) Doubt is understood as a positive aspect of faith.  Drawing heavily from Tillich, he argues that doubt is a sign of spiritual life rather than a deterrent from it. Quoting Tillich, Bakker writes, “We are able to doubt because we are ‘separated from, while participating in’ what we doubt.” We need to have the courage to tackle head on what we believe and let our doubts guide us into a deeper better knowledge of God. He expresses a vision where doubt allows us to part with the baggage and bad parts of Christianity while still holding on to the good parts. Doubt keeps us away from holding any belief as absolutely true, which Bakker says causes one to “lose your dignity” (Pg. 167). He argues that we must have faith rather than belief, arguing that “[b]elief wants to have certainty, and so it puts faith aside (Pg. 174). Faith on the other hand allows us to hope in the midst of uncertainty. “Faith doesn’t deny that life is meaningless. It also doesn’t accept that life is meaningless. Faith is living against meaninglessness.”

Put together, we see a Christianity that seeks to move past propositional truths, divisive doctrines, and teachings about judgment and wrath, toward a Christianity that’s focused on showing God and His love through unconditional love and embrace of all people regardless of their beliefs or actions. In this view, reconciliation, redemption, and salvation are concerned with the here and now and are understood not in terms of wrath and sin, but in terms of love and unconditional acceptance.

Jay Bakker is spot on about the centrality of God’s love and grace. It is extravagant and scandalous. God accepts us while we are dying in our sin.  He doesn’t wait to embrace until we have changed, but clothes us in His robe while we are still in our sin. This is completely true.

Yet we cannot neglect the full gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot reject the idea of wrath and judgment because it does not mesh with our idea of love. We must not pit Scripture against itself and choose one over the other. Love is not intelligible apart from the justice of God. Without a standard of what is right– of what is beautiful and true–we would not even know what love is. And sadly, we have all veered from justice into sin and discord. We have rejected God as our Lord and have placed ourselves on the throne.  Though I do not fully understand it, there is a cosmic rule in place that we will reap what we sow.  There are temporal consequences for our sins and then there are eternal consequences for our sins. We are broken, sinful, and lost beyond imagination. We are severed and separated from God. Yet the Good News is that God provided a way for us to be reconciled to Him. He sent Jesus Christ to die in our place. He sent Jesus to conquer death and Satan so that we could be restored to wholeness and relationship with God. He bore our sins so that we could be forgiven. He then rose from the dead, securing our justification and new life together with God.

This grace is truly scandalous. God was not obligated to save us but because of His love for us, He became flesh and saved us from our sins. He loved us so much that he paid the penalty for our sins. While we were enemies of God, he saved us. And this grace and mercy is offered to all who will receive it. No one merits it based on good works, socio-economic status, or color. It is equally open to everyone. One just needs to put his/her trust and reliance in God for salvation and they will be saved.

This is truly good news. I sincerely hope and pray that Jay Bakker will realize that the true Gospel is truly good news. It is not something to progress past, but rather truth to embrace. Though Bakker rightly focuses on love and grace, he sadly veers away from the justice and wrath of God, which leaves him and his readers with an incomplete picture of God and reality.

Please keep the comments civil and constructive. No slander or personal attacks.

3 Responses to Book Review: Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed by Jay Bakker

  1. Seems to St. Paul preached a sermon I trouncing people to the “unknown God”. Does Bakker approach that in the book or (dare I snark a bit?) is that too propositional for him?

  2. […] already claimed that Bakker’s conception of God neglects “the full gospel of Jesus Christ.” As Aaron Gaglia writes, “We cannot reject the idea of wrath and judgment because it does not mesh with our idea of […]

  3. Ben Welliver says:

    More of the Sgt Pepper theology: “All you need is love.” Do people like Bakker ever pause to consider that Jesus, Paul, and the other great men of the Bible saw no contradiction, NONE, in holding in tension the belief in God’s love and in God as Judge? Maybe previous generations of Christians did overemphasize divine wrath, but our own is clearly amiss in trying to sweep divine wrath under the rug. I believe in a God of love, also in the Last Judgment where we will all be held accountable for every idle word speak, and in Bakker’s case that will include a gross misrepresentation of the Christian gospel.

    If you study Christian history, you’ll notice that heresy is usually an attempt to simplify faith too much. Bakker wants his to hinge on one concept, love, which he apparently defines as “accepting people as they are,” not even remotely near the New Testament view of agape.

    I don’t believe Bakker when he lauds doubt. He sure doesn’t have any doubts that his own religion is superior to traditional Christianity, nor any doubts about his view of issues like gay “marriage” as being correct. When someone tells you “doubt is a good thing,” what he really means is “I want you to doubt any beliefs that are different from mine.”

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