You Can’t Reject a Faith You Never Knew

Historian Alec Ryrie offers a revisionist take on the roots of unbelief. But there’s another story that needs telling.

Let’s begin with a quiz. Think of some specific people you know who do not believe in God. Do you have your answers? I thought of Jill, and then, to make it more challenging, imposed an alliteration rule before adding Jeremy, Jeanette, Jane, and Jeffrey.

Most of us can cobble our own lists together without too much trouble. Which raises an interesting question: How did we reach the point where this exercise is so easy? After all, there were numerous generations in Europe when almost no one could have named a single true unbeliever.

In his well-researched and thought-provoking book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, historian Alec Ryrie recounts a McCarthy-like atheist scare in late-16th-century England. The authorities were determined to root the problem out, but the deeper they dug the less they found. One man was subpoenaed because he was overheard saying he knew that some people did not believe in heaven or hell. Asked to name names, he duly explained that he had learned of the existence of such people when a minister denounced them in a sermon.

So how did we get from unreliable rumors of atheists to alliterative lists of them? Ryrie’s thesis is that the standard account, which focuses on intellectual arguments for atheism, is wrong. He believes that these are generally just rationalizations concocted after the fact: “What if,” he wonders, the true story is that “people stopped believing and then found they needed arguments to justify their unbelief?”

Anger and Anxiety

Ryrie replaces the old view with a revisionist story driven by emotions rather than ideas. Just in case unbelievers might find this a slur, he adds this disarming disclaimer: “In writing an emotional history …

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The Business of Evangelical Book Publishing Is Business

Or is it faith? Or some complex combination of both?

The evangelist Billy Sunday wasn’t afraid to try something new. He would jump on top of a pulpit if he thought it would get attention. He would sell shares of a revival tabernacle, complete with “stock certificates” guaranteeing the bearer a portion of the proceeds, if he thought it would bring in enough money to fund the business of preaching the gospel.

He was a man who believed in innovation. But this was surprising even for him.

In 1934, Sunday was deciding who would publish his next book. He had two publishers, William Eerdmans and Pat Zondervan, come meet him at the same time. Each man was surprised to find the other in the meeting. Then Sunday asked them both to pray out loud. In a prayer competition. Which he would judge. The two men did pray, Sunday judged that Zondervan’s extemporaneous prayer was best, and he awarded the 25-year-old’s company with the contract for Billy Sunday Speaks!

The story is kind of a parable of American evangelicalism. As a parable, it raises a question: Which of these men acted out of faith and which from commercial interest?

Daniel Vaca, an American religious historian at Brown University, offers a clear answer in his new book, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America. He says all three. All three were acting out of faith. All three were acting out of commercial interest. In fact, when looking at the history of contemporary American evangelicalism, it doesn’t make sense to distinguish between the commercial and the religious.

“Evangelicalism exemplifies what I describe as ‘commercial religion,’” Vaca writes. “Religion that takes shape through the ideas, activities, and strategies that typify commercial …

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Pastors Need Friends Born for Adversity

When beloved congregants turned on me, who could I trust for advice?

Not too many years ago I got lost in the woods near Linville, a small village high in the North Carolina mountains. I had been the Sunday speaker for summertime worship at the Wee Kirk and stayed over for a day to relax. Midafternoon my dog, Wrangler, and I went for a walk in the woods. I’d walked there before and thought I knew the path pretty well; it wound a short distance around and back to a small lake. But as the sun began to set, it became clear that we were terribly lost.

My cell phone was close to powering down, so I realized I better call for help before the charge was totally gone. So I called the nearby Eseeola Lodge hoping I could reach the manager.

“Where do you think you are?” he asked. “Describe it.” I tried to tell him the best I could.

“I think I know where you are,” he said, then told me to go another direction. Confused in the woods and hills I had been headed 180 degrees wrong.

Relieved, I set off again. Wrangler and I walked for a good 45 minutes along trails I did not recognize. As evening closed in, every minute seemed longer. I was still unsure I was going the right way, but I trusted that someone who knew the woods had set me right. Then came a final turn and I saw a security guard waiting with a pickup to take me back to my car.

Lines in a poem by David Wagoner take me back vividly to that lost afternoon.

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

There have been several other seasons in my life in which I found myself feeling lost in a dark wood spiritually and in need of help to find my way back home. Some of these times have come when I have made a wrong turn and deliberately gone in a direction I knew was not …

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Christianity Today’s 2020 Book Awards

Our picks for the books most likely to shape evangelical life, thought, and culture.

When the calendar flips from one decade to the next, we typically see a flurry of articles and blog posts taking stock of the decade just past. What were the defining events, trends, and personalities? Which films, albums, and books left the largest mark?

Analyzing the religious landscape of the last 10 years at The Anxious Bench, historian Philip Jenkins concluded with this postscript: “What are the most influential Christian books of the past decade? I scarcely know where to begin!” On his blog, Alan Jacobs replied, “There aren’t any. In our moment Christians are not influenced by books, at all.”

Naturally, I can think of several 2010s books I would classify, with varying degrees of conviction, as game-changers. And I have my own thoughts—somewhat more upbeat, but hardly Pollyannish—about the state of Christian reading habits. But perhaps that category of “influence” is worth a longer look.

The lives and afterlives of great books are hard to forecast. Some make waves right from the starting gun. Others take the scenic route, ambling along until some twist of circumstance lifts them from obscurity. Herman Melville died long before Moby-Dick became a staple of college literature courses and great-American-novel debates. When Oswald Chambers died, My Utmost for His Highest existed only in fragments of lecture and sermon notes, awaiting his wife’s expert harmonizing. Rare though such stories are, you just never know.

Leaving aside the pantheon of consensus classics, you still find plenty of books that exercise a quieter influence, instructing, delighting, encouraging, and convicting a wide range of everyday believers. They’re not “influential” in the …

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Georgia Endorsed Bible Classes. Twice. But Schools Aren’t Teaching Them

Why a growing political push to put the Bible in classrooms only has a minor impact.

Steve J. Smith wants the 671 high school students in Bleckley County, Georgia, to know the Bible.

As a Southern Baptist pastor, Smith believes Scripture has the power to transform their lives and ultimately lead them to salvation. As superintendent of the county school district, he thinks a basic knowledge of the Christian text helps them understand history, literature, and art.

But when the Georgia state legislature passed a Bible literacy bill in March, authorizing public schools to teach the Bible, Smith shrugged. “My sense is it was a solution in search of a problem, to be quite honest,” he said.

Legislatures across the country have been considering laws that would accomplish one of the long-talked about goals of Christian conservatives—putting the Bible back in schools. Kentucky passed a Bible literacy bill in 2017, approving elective courses on “the historical impact and literary style” of the Bible. Three states looked at similar laws in 2018. Six more considered them in 2019.

After President Donald Trump tweeted his support for the legislation in January, Georgia proposed, passed, and signed its own Bible class bill into law.

There was something odd about this political victory, though. Georgia public schools already had Bible literacy classes. The state had approved them in 2006.

Back then, Georgia’s Bible literacy bill passed with overwhelming support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and Georgia became the first state since a controversial 1963 Supreme Court ruling to say that the Bible could be taught in public schools.

The 2006 law authorized two electives classes: Literature and History of the Old Testament Era and Literature and History of the New Testament Era. The …

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Samoa Bans Kids from Church as Measles Outbreak Kills 63

Advent will be “mellow” on South Pacific island as government restricts public gatherings amid vaccination campaign.

Children in Samoa have been temporarily banned from attending church services and other public gatherings, due to a growing measles outbreak that has claimed more than 60 lives and threatens to cancel Advent celebrations.

The government of the South Pacific island nation was closed today and yesterday, as officials and public health workers turned all their attention to an immunization campaign.

Prior to the outbreak, less than a third (31%) of the island’s population of about 200,000 were protected by a measles vaccine, according to Reuters. After cases were reported and a national emergency was declared in mid-November, nearly another third received immunizations in the following two weeks.

As of yesterday (Dec. 5), 82 percent of infants and children up to 4 years old have been vaccinated, along with 93 percent of those between 5 and 19 years old.

Even so, more than 4,300 Samoans have been diagnosed with measles and at least 63 have died. Of those, all but 3 were children; 55 were 4 years old or younger. About 20 more children are in critical condition.

In a nation where many are not vaccinated, the prime minister made it clear that Christian leaders are needed to encourage their countrymen to get vaccinated.

“The government needs the support of all the village councils, faith-based organizations, and church leaders, village mayors, and government women representatives,” said Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi in a state address last Sunday. “Let us work together to encourage and convince those that do not believe that vaccinations are the only answer to the epidemic. Let us not be distracted by the promise of alternative cures.”

Indeed, many Samoans had never received childhood immunizations, either out …

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Died: Reinhard Bonnke, Record-Setting Evangelist to Africa

Founder of Christ for All Nations, the German Pentecostal held one of the biggest evangelism crusades in history.

German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke, whose record-setting crusades led him to be nicknamed “the Billy Graham of Africa,” died Saturday at age 79.

His ministry, Christ for All Nations (CfaN), claims that more than 79 million people came to Christ as a result of Bonnke’s career, which spanned from 1967 until his retirement in 2017. The Pentecostal evangelist preached a prayerful message of Christ’s transforming power while also boasting miracles and healings.

“Those who knew him off-stage can testify to his personal integrity, genuine kindness, and overflowing love for the Lord,” said his successor, CfaN evangelist Daniel Kolenda. “His ministry was inspired and sustained by his rich prayer life, his deep understanding of the Word, and his unceasing intimacy with the Holy Spirit.”

Christianity Today reported from Bonnke’s largest in-person event, where 1.6 million gathered on a single night to hear him preach in Lagos, Nigeria. CT featured Bonnke and his ministry in an issue the following year, calling him “one of the continent’s most recognizable religious figures.” Historians have said that no Western evangelist spent as much time in sub-Saharan Africa as Bonnke.

Following his death, many African Christians offered their condolences on Twitter, saying “Rest well” and “Africa will never forget you.” The government of Nigeria stated that President Muhammadu Buhari, who is Muslim, “joins Christendom at large in mourning the passing of renowned evangelist, Reinhard Bonnke, 79, describing his transition as a great loss to Nigeria, Africa & entire world.”

Kenyan politician Esther Passari shared how “I spoke in tongues …

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LGBT Rights-Religious Liberty Bill Proposed in Congress

Fairness for All advocates hope legislation makes compromise seem possible.

Congressman Chris Stewart doesn’t expect his bill to pass. But he is proposing the Fairness for All Act anyway. It’s a step of faith for Stewart, a Republican who represents Utah’s second district, and a marker on the bet that it’s possible to find a compromise that protects both religious liberty and LGBT rights.

“Congress can be a frustrating place to be because it’s so polarized. But I don’t think we can throw up our hands and quit,” Stewart told Christianity Today.

Smith proposes the Fairness for All Act in Congress Friday. Advocates of the idea of finding common ground for religious liberty and LGBT rights, led by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), have spent three years planning, discussing, and strategizing for this moment.

The law would prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation, including retail stores, banks, and health care service providers. Currently, under federal law and in the majority of states, LGBT people can be evicted from rental property, denied loans, denied medical care, fired from their jobs, and turned away from businesses because of their sexual orientation.

The Fairness for All law would offer LGBT people substantially the same protections as the proposed Equality Act, a bill LGBT advocates have long promoted and Democrats in the House passed earlier this year, only to see it stall in the Senate. The Equality Act, however, includes no exemptions for religious organizations.

“The Equality Act was written in such a way that a religious person like myself couldn’t vote for it,” said Stewart, who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “[Democratic …

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God’s Mercy is More Robust Than We Think

Grace does not sabotage the pursuit of righteousness but empowers it.

In the now famous October courtroom scene, Brandt Jean turned to the former Dallas police officer convicted of killing his brother, Botham Jean, and said, “I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” Then the black man stepped off the witness stand and warmly embraced the white woman, Amber Guyger, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for murder.

The scene inspired millions. But any time the radical grace of God becomes manifest, some begin to grumble, and for understandable reasons. As Jemar Tisby noted in The Washington Post, the killing of a black person by a white person is always an iconic event. Such tragedies “aren’t just felt by one black person. The black community feels the impact.” He also said, “Instant absolution minimizes the magnitude of injustice. It distracts attention from the systemic change needed to prevent such tragedies from occurring.”

Tisby is rightly concerned about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” as in: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance . . . grace without discipleship, without the cross.” Many today would add, “grace without the pursuit of justice.”

Sentimental grace is indeed a danger, and yet so is a grace that is qualified by something we have to do to earn it. Faith without works is dead, as James noted, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the forgiveness that faith receives is, in fact, “instant absolution.” To be clear, this instant absolution took place long before the act of faith, when on the cross Christ announced, “It is finished.” That was the moment when “God was reconciling …

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Interview: Alister McGrath: Both Science and Stories Declare God’s Glory

The Oxford scholar reflects on the interface between faith and science and how narratives draw us toward belief.

The relationship between Christianity and science is hotly debated, and both believers and skeptics have appealed to Albert Einstein to buttress their positions. Believers point to Einstein’s many references to God while skeptics note his rejection of revealed religion. Alister McGrath, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, has written a new book on the famous physicist, A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God (Tyndale).

McGrath also recently published Narrative Apologetics: Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith (Baker), in which he argues that stories are an important but often overlooked resource for commending Christianity. In both books, he contends that the Christian faith has a better story to tell than secular alternatives and offers great explanatory power.

Christopher Reese spoke with McGrath about the interconnected topics of faith, science, and apologetics.

You stress in A Theory of Everything (That Matters) that Einstein sought to integrate his scientific knowledge with religion, philosophy, and other disciplines. What can we learn from Einstein’s approach to seeing the bigger picture of reality?

Einstein is emphatic that science is only able to give a partial account of our complex and strange universe. It may help us to understand how our universe functions, but it does not engage deeper questions of meaning and value. For Einstein, it was essential to have a rounded view of this matter, enabling reflective human beings to appreciate new insights into the structure and functioning of the universe, working out what is good and trying to enact this in their lives, and finding …

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