Thinking Faith blogs

A sensible shot of faith

Rudi Hayward reviews A Shot of Faith to the Head.

I have a lot of enthusiasm for this book, which contains a lot of philosophy in a popular and accessible way.  It is a response to the ‘new atheism' but not in a defensive mode; rather, Mitch Stokes takes the most common criticisms of Christianity and turns them against atheism.  The criticisms are that belief in God is irrational because lacking in evidence, that science has shown there is no God and that the existence of evil and suffering contradicts belief in a loving God.  These criticisms are dealt with in the three main sections that make up the bulk of the book – a short intermission on the rules of argument in chapters 8-10 making up the rest.

Stokes is a professional philosopher who studied under Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga, well-regarded philosophers who have spearheaded a renaissance of professing Christians in academic philosophy.  Plantinga's influence, especially, is evident throughout the book.  However this is very much a popular book with short chapters and punchy prose.

On the first objection Stokes begins by arguing that public evidence is not always necessary for us to hold a belief rationally (not only is it hard to see what evidence we have to support the belief that evidence is necessary, but there's plenty of evidence that many of our beliefs are largely held on trust).  Now, the Christian has a ready account as to why we should trust our usual belief-forming mechanisms with or without public evidence, but the atheist's reliance on an evolutionary account of our cognitive abilities leads us into deep trouble.  So what at first looked a serious criticism of Christianity turns into a major headache for the atheist.

A similar pattern emerges with the science-verses-God objection. It turns out, among other things, that Galileo was a Christian attacking Aristotle, that the 'God of the gaps' is a recent invention and quite unappealing to orthodox Christian views of God, that explanations like: "that’s just how it is" and "maybe this is just one of billions of universes" are no better than "God did it", and that the natural sciences imply naturalism is wrong.

Finally Stokes takes on the problem of evil.  He reviews and responds to both the “logical” and “probabilistic” versions before again turning the tables.  Atheists, the new ones especially, tend to say things like “We are nothing but matter,” and ”Humans are the end result of the random and unguided mechanisms of natural selection”.  Such views undermine our usual sense that such things as rape, torture, genocide, etc. are unconditionally wrong whatever people may happen to think or whatever values we may have evolved to hold.  He concludes that a naturalistic explanation for moral obligation is impossible.  So the fact that we recognize the existence of evil turns out to count against atheism.

This is a very good book, but in a few places it fell short.  Here are two of them.

  1. The sensus divinitatis (an innate sense of the divine) is said to be part of humans' ordinary belief-forming mechanism except many people don’t believe in God because it has gone wrong.  On Stokes' account the problem is that sin has damaged this sense so that it partially works for some and fails altogether for others.  However Stokes also mentions that atheists could still be responding to the faint whispers of their sensus divinitatis when they posit an ultimate natural principle.  It is a real shame that he does not take this suggestion seriously here, since it is close to what Paul seems to imply in Romans 1:25.  The biblical position is not so much that the sensus divinitatis is damaged, rather that it is misdirected.  The atheist may deny the existence of God, but at some point they will end up giving divine status to something created.
  2. This becomes more important when Stokes turns to mathematics as a problem for naturalists.  He speaks rather warmly of Pythagoras and his religious attachment to numbers.  Here we should recognize an example of the sensus divinitatis being misdirected!  This is a typically pagan belief in the divinity of something created rather than the Creator - so it is disconcerting when Stokes tries to accommodate this faith in maths with belief in God when he takes numbers to be part of God, even identical to God's intellect.

These concerns aside, A Shot of Faith to the Head is well worth a read.

Stokes, Mitch: A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be a confident believer in an age of cranky atheists (Thomas Nelson, 2012)

Rudi Hayward teaches Religious Studies and Philosophy at a secondary school in London. 20 years ago he read Francis Schaeffer and decided to study philosophy at university. He plays football regularly and badly, and is his local church’s leading expert in reformational philosophy.

Death of a Roman Legion

Last Sunday I preached a sermon in Cragg Baptist church in Horsforth about Roman soldiers living and dying for Christ. Here is that story.

In 286 AD an entire Roman legion of 6600 men was put to death by the emperor Maximian because of their stubborn refusal to give up the Christian faith. The pagan emperor Maximian commanded his army to swear that they would persecute and kill Christians in Gaul (France). All the soldiers of the Theban Legion refused to do this. The emperor became enraged and he ordered the legion to be decimated, that is, every tenth soldier to be selected from the rest, and put to the sword. The survivors persisted in declaring their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and the butchery continued; the blood of another 660 was shed.  Again the remaining soldiers refused to obey Maximian and so the entire legion was put to the sword.

Before dying, the Theban legion sent this letter to Maximian in order to explain its conduct.

"Emperor, we are your soldiers but also the soldiers of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience, but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours even though you reject Him. In all things which are not against His law, we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto. We readily oppose your enemies whoever they are, but we cannot stain our hands with the blood of innocent people (Christians). We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you, you cannot place any confidence in our second oath if we violate the other (the first). You commanded us to execute Christians, behold we are such. We confess God the Father the creator of all things and His Son Jesus Christ, God."

Questions

1) Why did these Christian soldiers refuse to obey the emperor?

2) How should modern Christian people subvert the consumerist empire?

3) Where are Christians being persecuted today?

Listening as a spiritual scholarly discipline

He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: "Listen! ..."

Mark 4:2

Give ear and hear my voice; Listen and hear my words.

Isaiah 28:23

For Christians pursuing academic careers, listening constitutes a spiritual task. As researchers, we are called to understand a broken and complex world. We are also expected to answer difficult questions. The two are linked: our ability to listen properly will mediate our capacity to provide meaningful insights into the world’s issues. Here, I understand listening not simply as the immediate capacity of hearing others, but also an awareness and openness to broader relevant issues (including the pressing questions in our own research field). The ability to listen properly will enable us not only to untie the complexities of our own subjects but also to discern God’s wisdom on contemporary issues. The British theologian John Stott stresses that

we are called to the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening’. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.

(1992, p13)

I believe that “double listening” is a task for Christian scholars. We are called to be sensitive to modern issues while preserving our attention and obedience to God’s word. Here I will focus on the importance of listening to the world’s issues with love and sensitivity, and in a subsequent post I plan to address the need to listen to God’s Word.

The ability to listen to people’s voices is a biblical mandate. From the beginning of the biblical narrative, God is presented as someone who hears people’s cries for help and is deeply attentive to the world’s problems. In the context of slavery and oppression:

The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering."

(Exodus 3:7; see also Genesis 18:20-21; Psalm 34)

There are even warnings against shutting our ears to people’s cries. “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:23). Listening was also a significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry. He heard the cry of the poor, women, children, the mentally ill, and the wrongdoer. In one instance, He asked a blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51), revealing a deep interest in the man’s life story, hopes and problems. He considered critically the present issues of his time and showed compassion, love and sensitivity. As he once said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

I believe these are strong reasons for adopting a more sensitive approach to listening in our own research. This can take diverse forms: we may develop research questions that will enable the participants (or those who will benefit from our study) to voice their concerns and expectations. We may also need to be deliberate about asking whose voices we are privileging and whose we are ignoring. Like Jesus’ ministry, empathy should permeate our relationships with research participants, colleagues, and the public.

At the same time, Jesus regularly withdrew to listen to the words of his Father (see Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12-13). We are also called to be like him in both ways. My experience of doing a PhD in social psychology has taught me much about the need to listen to people’s voices on relevant societal issues. Listening to cries for justice, equal opportunities, adequate health and social care is paramount, particularly in a world of superficial interactions and noise in which many voices are systematically drowned out. For instance, in my own research, I explored older adults’ views on well-being in later life, particularly in community settings, and realised that this group has been consistently overlooked in policy campaigns and frameworks of care. Their voices are hardly heard!

Progressively, I became aware that listening to their concerns would be a spiritual task. Their views, experiences and hopes would be venues for spiritual, political, and psychological change.

Finally, John Stott (1992) highlights that

[Double listening] is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and to Christian mission.

(p29)

I believe (double) listening is also indispensable to Christian scholars. In the context of academia, it may enable us to tackle relevant issues in a creative and transformative way.

Thanks to my friend Jess Hope (PhD student in History, University of Cambridge) for proofreading and for helping me to think more deeply about double listening in research.

Reference

Stott, John (1992). The contemporary Christian: an urgent plea for double listening. Leicester: Intervarsity Press.

Bruno Medeiros recently completed his PhD in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Originally from Paraíba in Brazil, he is interested in the social psychology of health and community.

Wisdom for Thinkers

For Christmas a year ago I was given a book called ‘Wisdom for thinkers: An introduction to Christian philosophy’. It’s not a very thick book – under 200 pages – but fairly dense. So, having just finished it, I thought I’d tell you about it.

Wisdom for Thinkers by WJ Ouweneel

The book was written as part of a series designed to help Christian students think Christianly about their subject. Subsequent volumes on a Christian approach to politics, theology and psychology have already been published, and there are plans for further volumes on biology and history. The author, Willem J. Ouweneel, is a prolific writer who has three(!) PhDs, in biology, philosophy and theology. As the first volume of the series, this one focuses on philosophy, with a particular emphasis on philosophy of science (taken to mean academic scholarship in a broad sense, as in the German Wissenschaft). As such, this book can be fruitful reading for Christians in a wide range of subject areas.

The first chapter asks the question ‘Does it matter whether there is a Christian philosophy or not?’. The second chapter looks at the concepts of wisdom, knowledge and science and traces how these related to seeing and thinking through the history of Western philosophy.

The next four chapters form the core of the book and provide a concise, readable and accessible introduction to Christian philosophy – in particular, the philosophy of the ‘reformational’ Dutch thinker Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) and others who further developed his ideas. These chapters provide a philosophical analysis of reality, giving you a framework and terminology with which you can analyse your own area of study, as well as all kinds of societal trends. For instance, the FiSWES group used this framework to analyse the ecosystem services framework and to provide a less reductionist alternative.

The last four chapters of the book move from a philosophical analysis of reality to a philosophical analysis of knowing, and particularly the kind of knowing that goes on in academic scholarship. There is much here that can help in understanding the role that scholarship plays within the wider context of all human knowledge.

I do have some points of criticism as well, though. Overall, the book seemed quite dry - but perhaps just because I was already familiar with much of the content. The transitions between chapters could have been better, which would have greatly improved the coherence of the book. At the end of each chapter there is a list of ‘Questions for review’, but these are all factual questions and do not help the reader to deepen his/her understanding.

Be that as it may, for anyone interested in developing a Christian approach to their subject area, this book has much to offer - not least a framework from which one can begin to understand the focus of their discipline better, and a method to analyse its shortcomings.

Wisdom for thinkers, An introduction to Christian philosophy by WJ Ouweneel (2014, Grand Rapids: Paideia Press)

RealityBites in Doncaster

Yesterday I delivered my Celebrity Culture and Human Trafficking conference to about 100 sixth formers in a school in Doncaster. I was delighted with how it went. I had a great conversation with a teacher who taught Classical Civilisation. I told her some rat stories, the Glenn Hoddle routine and we had a very enjoyable chat about the difference between Hindu teaching and the biblical hope in the resurrection of the body. She told me that she would really enjoy hearing my talk but she had to go and teach a class.

I began talking to the students individually and was very encouraged when a student told me he had really enjoyed the Mafia conference which I had delivered in 2015. This cheered me greatly!

The conference went very well and I was able to explain the difference between the western religion (consumerism) and the Christian faith. This provoked some cut-diamond questions. One student asked me a question about Buddhism and I was able to clearly articulate how materialism and eastern religions contrast with Christian faith. You could hear a pin drop.

The most encouraging feature of the session was a wonderful conversation with 8 sixth form boys who stayed behind to ask me questions. I was amazed by the spiritual depth of their questions. Our discussion touched on the moral bankruptcy of secularism, the uniqueness of Jesus, His resurrection and the incarnation. I explained the incarnation by an ant parable and this seemed to go down well. I was also asked why I believed in Jesus. One of these lads wrote me this:

"Thank you for your speech today. I'd say it was the best enrichment session we've had so far. The topic/discussion was very intriguing and engaging."

The very delightful Geography teacher was very positive about the session and told me it had been 'fantastic'. A very encouraging time for RealityBites.

The multi-faceted meaning of life

Reductionism is a key issue in many Christian critiques of other ideologies. Claims that the rich diversity of life as we know it can be explained by a single fundamental kind of reality often sound authoritative and sensational, but fundamental substances that are supposed to underlie what we experience are thereby attributed with a kind of occult power. I'm not denying that things are not always what they seem; we can uncover surprises about the world and develop illuminating explanations. And indeed, the explanations we find most profound and enlightening often relate one kind of phenomenon to another that appears very different. If I explain that water makes things wet because of its dampening properties, I'm merely presenting a tautology; explanations need to do some conceptual work!  But while the sensational appeal of an explanation may increase as the two kinds of phenomena being related become more and more different, another problem may arise if my explanation invokes inconceivable or incoherent properties. Consider a claim that feelings of guilt are a product of certain states of brain chemistry.  The problem here can be simply stated as a category error: chemistry is not in the same category as feelings, so neither is properly explained in terms of the other. That's not to say that there can't be meaningful correlation between feelings of guilt and certain states of brain chemistry (although even "brain chemistry" might turn out to be a category error). But the problem arises if I attribute power to one of these to produce the other, as in the above claim. 

Thus it can be argued that the guile of a reductionistic explanation is in the same category as the allure of an idol, in biblical worldview terms. (This reasoning needs unpacking further - as done, for example, in Roy Clouser's The Myth of Religious Neutrality.) How can we avoid such idolatry?  One approach is to posit God as the ultimate  explanation: the being Who grounds all phenomena.  But such a perspective doesn't seem to foster any further scientific analysis, and we may be sure that some kind of scientific work can legitimately be pursued without falling into idolatry. 

Enter the most distinctive element of the reformational philosophy tradition. Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd, brothers-in-law, were professors of philosophy and law, respectively, at the Free University of Amsterdam, and in the 1920s and 1930s they gradually came to agree on a spectrum of what they called modalities [or aspects] in which reality is 'disclosed' to us. These are, in other words, a set of fundamentally discrete ways in which reality (its things, relations, and time) can be known and analysed by humans. The diagram below attempts to illustrate these using both words and images.

This diagram is also designed to represent an ordering among these fifteen aspects that is somewhat flexible - and this is where it gets quite interesting. Reformational philosophers agree that the aspects lower in this diagram are conceptually foundational to those above them, while higher aspects in some sense 'guide' or 'direct' those below. For example, spatial functions can be conceived of without any kinetic ones (e.g. shapes need not be conceived of in terms of motion or rest) whereas kinetic functions depend upon spatial ones (movement has to be in space), and indeed motion can guide our interpretation of a space. Or again, jural functions like giving due credit don't presuppose altruistic ones like generosity, but generosity only makes sense against a notion of what was justly due.

Using thought experiments like these, Reformational philosophers tend to agree about the ordering of those aspects that are stacked vertically in the diagram here, but hold divergent views about the ones in the turquoise boxes. Most strikingly, the aesthetic aspect is conventionally the 12th (just before the jural) but sometimes placed as early as 7th (straight after the sensory).

A number of previous posts here have explored how careful distinction of these aspects can help us do better scholarship, and you may like to read about how this idea was pivotal to an outcome from the FiSWES project.

Summary and Endorsements for James Bond and the Great Commission

Summary of James Bond and the Great Commission: Creative Ways of Talking about Faith by Mark Roques, Thinking Faith Network, 2017

Why is it so easy to talk about James Bond but so hard to talk about God and Jesus? Is it possible to introduce the Christian faith to our friends and work colleagues in ways that aren’t cringeworthy and emotionally harrowing? Can we find a fresh, more imaginative and less embarrassing way of talking about the gospel? Can we rediscover boldness and confidence in our God-talk?

In this book we will show you how to begin a conversation that goes from something non-threatening and enjoyable like a Bond film and takes you and your listener on a journey where you can talk naturally and engagingly about your Christian faith. Here is an example of one of these creative ‘spiels’:

“Rats scuttle happily in a temple in India, where they are worshipped, fed and adored. They have the best buffalo milk in town and full-time chefs produce superb food for them. There are four ways of looking at rat worship. Some say the rat worshipper is a lunatic and he should pack it in and go shopping. Others deeply admire the authentic faith of the rat worshipper. Some believe it is totally right to worship rats and appease the rat goddess. Some say - don’t worship rats! Worship Christ the Lord. He made rats in the beginning (Col 1:16).”

So we go from stories about rat worship, footballers, James Bond and the Duke of Edinburgh etc and we lead people to Jesus the Lord and Saviour.

In the final chapter of the book we will lay out 32 spiels which will help you to talk credibly, confidently and creatively about Jesus and His kingdom.

Endorsements

"Mark is one of the most brilliant gospel communicators I know. He challenges, provokes and inspires us to find creative ways to share with others. I loved this book and you will too!"

Mark Russell, CE, Church Army

"This is a great little book that gives creative insight into how to go about sharing your faith. If you struggle to talk about your faith, then I totally commend it to you."

Barry Woodward, Director of Proclaim Trust

"Storytelling is a vital part of communication - especially in evangelism. Mark’s book goes further and blends story with persuasion and insight. This will be a real resource for many."

Elaine Storkey, Sociologist, Author and Journalist

"Was Jesus' storytelling as zany as Mark Roques? I think maybe it was. Mark is so good at helping us to recapture the storytelling method. It might mean people will enjoy listening to us when we talk about Jesus."

Geoff King, Leader, South Parade Baptist Church, Leeds

Review: James K. A. Smith's 'Who's afraid of postmodernism'?

Cover of James K. A. Smith's 'Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?'

This week’s post takes the form of a brief book review, my first as a blogger here (but hopefully not my last; I’ve got a few other books in mind that I’d really like to share with you). I thought I’d start with one of my favourite books on the intersections between Christian thought and academic culture, James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). It’s a slim little volume, but don’t let its slight dimensions fool you: this is a lively, provocative book with a lot to say.

The title of the book sets out Smith’s basic thesis pretty well. Essentially, he suggests that postmodernism, as a significant movement within academic discourse, has suffered unfairly from a severe image problem within the Christian community, especially by comparison with modernism. Modernism – with its basis in scientific rationalism and humanistic narratives of technological and social progress – is often presented as an intellectual framework whose only defect is its tendency towards atheism, its willingness to explain God away; by contrast, postmodernism is seen as a kind of intellectual bogeyman, the antithesis of modernism’s calm rationality and hopefulness, flagrantly rejecting every value that the Church should be holding dear. Smith’s aim is to redress the balance: he points out a number of ways that postmodernism serves to reemphasise vital aspects of our faith and witness that are all too easily obscured by an uncritically modernist worldview.

By its very nature postmodernism, more than perhaps any other intellectual movement, can only be understood as a (far from unified) patchwork of individual thinkers’ contributions. Smith’s approach is thus to move away from the kinds of generalisation often found in (generally dismissive) Christian discussions of the topic, and instead focus on the contributions of three of the most influential writers associated with the movement. Hence the subtitle: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church

All three of these writers have a pretty fearsome reputation (I’m ashamed at how glancing my own engagement with them has been over the years), and the first impressive achievement of this book is to make their thought so accessible. Each chapter begins by using a relevant film as a lens to approach the ideas of a specific author (the origins of the book in a lecture series are quite evident here). It’s a gesture that could easily seem clichéd or superficial, but in practice it works remarkably well – Smith’s insightful analysis of his chosen examples leads smoothly into a discussion of the key ideas of each author that is surprisingly rich, given the brevity of the book as a whole. He focuses on key statements by each writer that have become in effect postmodern ‘slogans’ within contemporary culture: Derrida’s claim that ‘there is nothing outside the text’, Lyotard’s description of postmodernism as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, and Foucault’s equating of power and knowledge. 

I can’t hope to sum up Smith’s responses to each of these in such a short review, but I was particularly struck throughout by his ability to find redemptive meaning in each writer’s work, and to move from it towards a thoughtful and loving critique of contemporary Christian culture. He focuses in particular on the importance of the church as an active, distinctive and engaged community of truth; he suggests that postmodernist ideas can help us to engage more with the insights of the historical church, and even to rediscover helpful liturgical practices that set the body of Christ apart from the world and redirect our gaze towards Jesus. In the end, he suggests that postmodern ideas, far from undermining the basic tenets of Christianity, can in fact act as a stimulus for revitalising our thought and action.

What do you think? Do leave a comment to let me know!

FiSch research published in Trends journal

About two years ago, FiSch launched a research project on ecosystem services. A group of Christian scholars, with backgrounds in philosophy and/or ecology, formed the Faith-in-Scholarship Working Group on Ecosystem Services (FiSWES). After a number of face-to-face meetings, we continued to work on improving the ecosystem services framework with insights from a Christian philosophical framework. We (Richard Gunton, Eline van Asperen, Andrew Basden, David Bookless, Yoseph Araya, David Hanson, Mark Goddard, George Otieno and Gareth Jones) are pleased to announce that this work has now led to a first publication, in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, a leading journal in the fields of ecology and evolution. We expect the article to be available online in the next few weeks, so watch this space! Also, for more information on a Christian conference on this topic, please scroll down to the end of this post.

So how did we go about this? We followed Andrew Basden’s ACE approach: affirm, critique and enrich. In essence, this is also the structure we follow in our TREE article.

Affirm: Ecosystem services (ES) provides an important framework in conservation science and policy. It analyses the many ways in which people benefit from ecosystems, and uses these as incentives for conservation. It has been very successful in motivating people to conserve ecosystems, and has broadened people’s understanding of the different ways in which natural habitats benefit humans.

Critique: The use of ES has not been without controversy. The main criticism arises becomes it encourages people to put a price on the different ‘services’ that an ecosystem provides. But many of the benefits that people derive from ecosystems cannot really be commodified. Think for example of recreation. You can measure how much money people spend on visiting nature reserves, or how much it saves the NHS if people’s health improves as a result, but do such numbers really express the full benefit? Monetisation and commodification can also lead to bias towards those stakeholders who are richer, more vocal or better connected. These issues, and the fact that the definitions and categories used in ES are often vague and contradictory, point to a deeper underlying conceptual problem.

Enrich: In order to do justice to the plurality of motives people have for conservation, and the multiplicity of stakeholders, we propose a framework that focuses on mutual human—environment relationships and the diverse ways in which particular people value particular places. To do this, we offer a comprehensive, mutually irreducible set of axes to consider, derived from aspectual theory. For a particular place and a specified stakeholder we can then ask how the stakeholder appreciates the place in these kinds of ways.

If this all sounds a bit abstract to you, the article contains a diagram to outline the different axes and some examples of stakeholders. And of course we are planning to develop this further. We really hope this will be a constructive contribution to the discussion around ES.

If you’d like to learn more, the John Ray Initiative’s annual conference on 18 March in Birmingham has the theme ‘Nature in the balance: Can we put a value on the environment, and should we?’ A number of FiSWES members will be giving talks or leading workshops. We’d love to see you there!

Here's the full reference of the article:

Gunton, R.M., van Asperen, E., Basden, A., Bookless, D., Araya, Y., Hanson, D.R., Goddard, M.A., Otieno, G., Jones, G.O. (in press): Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Doing English in the church

‘Oh, you’re thinking of doing English at university? You’ll have to be careful about that. A lot of people lose their faith.’

I was seventeen. I had been a Christian for several years, and I had loved books for much longer. I was doing two English A-Levels and thoroughly enjoying them, and I had just moved past a period of crippling doubt in God – the first I had experienced – into a steadier, more confident faith.

Dangerous territory

So hearing the above, from an older friend at church, was jarring. It didn’t stop me pursuing my studies, but it was an attitude I’ve encountered more than once in the evangelical church. The academic study of literature is dangerous for the Christian: Christianity is a religion of the Book, but for some, really only the one Book is safe.

This can manifest simply as gentle warnings and raised eyebrows, which is all I faced, or – for others I’ve talked to – active discouragement from pursuing English at all. Related subjects such as philosophy and history often attract similar worries: I remember a peer’s loss of childhood faith being directly linked by other Christians to her study of philosophy.

The death of the Author?

Why is this the case? I don’t think the concerns stem simply from anti-intellectualism, though that is certainly something evangelicals have to reckon with. Distrust of academic literary study, where it is raised, seems to come mainly from anxiety about postmodern or relativist practices of reading, and the way these may undermine the Bible’s authority. The death of the author and the death of God, two memorable claims advanced by twentieth-century thinkers, are certainly linked, and for some Christians this is enough warning to stay well clear of the literary academy.

This concern is rarely stated explicitly. But it’s a problem. Not an urgent or even a major one, perhaps; Christian young people still study literature, and there are more believers in this section of academia than at first appears. But there is often a lack of support from their churches, partially out of ignorance of the nature of the work and partially from the anxiety I’ve discussed.

Bridging the gap

Christians in literary study can feel isolated, already a problem in a field not well suited to collaboration, and encounter few resources to help them integrate faith and work. If we believe Christ to be the Lord of all life, what can we do to foster more and better Christian engagement with the literary academy?

I have a few ideas on the church side of things:

  1. On an individual level, we can affirm and encourage young people with an interest in literature (and similarly ‘difficult’ subjects), making sure they hear positive reactions as well as negative or unsure ones.
  2. The church can acknowledge the power and value of literature that is not explicitly 'Christian': this can work out in lots of ways, but centrally I think it’s important to talk about, give, lend, and reference a wide variety of books in church contexts. (This will mean going beyond C. S. Lewis and other ‘safe’ fiction.)
  3. Ultimately it should be an integrated, public part of our witness, as individuals and churches, that academic life can and should be lived for Christ, including the ‘difficult’ parts of the humanities.

From the academic side, Christians in literary study can aim towards a greater willingness to integrate their faith with their academic field in an explicit way. We can model a commitment to doing it well in Christ which will be winsome both to unbelievers and to those Christians who are sceptical.

And we can do better at supporting one another – there are resources and initiatives available on specific issues relating to literature and Christian faith, and there are Christians faithfully doing literary work, but often these are not very well linked up. In the UK, the Christian Literary Studies Group is one forum for exploring this interface and also has a helpful list of resources and groups. I would love to hear in the comments about other ways that Christian literary scholars can connect with one another and with their churches, for everyone’s benefit.

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