Holy Shift! a book review

In 2006, Kathy Escobar underwent a ‘faith shift.’ No longer able to conform to the beliefs and practices of her conservative evangelical church, she went through a time of shifting and unraveling before rebuilding her faith, albeit in a new way. Currently she is a popular blogger,  the co-founder of Refuge, a mission center and Christian community in the North Denver area and a spiritual director. As a spiritual director and pastor she has journeyed alongside many spiritual-shifters.

Faith Shift is not just Escobar’s story;  it is the fruit of her story and is birthed by her work with fellow-faith-shifters. Escobar has cataloged the process that she and others have gone through as they moved from  a faith which was ‘certain’ but narrow toward a reconstructed, generous faith (or a movement beyond faith).  By naming the process, Escobar comforts those experiencing the disorientation and disequilibrium of a ‘faith shift.’ The stages she describes are:

  1. Fusing– characterized by believing, learning and doing underscore this stage. People in this stage place a strong value on  affiliation, certainty, conformity.
  2. Shifting–discomfort with formulaic answers and beginning to disengage with aspects of belonging with the in-group.
  3. Returning–This stage is a ‘re-engagement’ and a ‘return’ to the faith community we were in, in the ‘fusing stage.’
  4. Unraveling–A letting go of the faith we had in our ‘fusing stage.’ If the fusing stage valued affiliation, certainty and confromity, in the unraveling stage we value autonomy, authenticity, uncertainty (65).
  5. Severing–cutting ties with your past belief system (Escobar observes that most shifters do not give up their belief in God, or their faith totally, but she allows for the possibility.
  6. Rebuilding–In the final stage, new faith (or a new spirituality, even an atheistic one) emerges. In this stage, our values are freedom, mystery, diversity (129).

Along the way, Escobar has a number of wise and compassionate things to say. Escobar validates whatever stage we may be at on our spiritual journey because each stage has peculiar gifts for us. Those who return to their original faith are validated because all our journeys are different, people return or a variety of reasons and the simple certainty we knew at that stage is comforting (see chapter 5).  Escobar has a gift for honoring the spiritual lives of others. She knows that even as we change and grow, something is lost from the ‘faith’ we had and it is worth grieving and appreciating. The reflection questions at the end of each chapter allowed me to explore how the theme of the book and make sense of  some of my own story.

When I began this book, I felt like I wasn’t exactly her intended audience. Most of the faith shifts she describes were movements from conservative Evangelical to something more progressive (or beyond). Like Escobar and her tribe, I too began my spiritual journey as part of a conservative evangelical church. Currently, I pastor one. I have made some denominational and doctrinal shifts along the way but still hold to the central doctrines I was raised with. I hold some issues far looser but I also feel more certain about the aspects of faith I regard as essential.  Still my own faith journey parallels Escobar’s stages.  I moved from a narrow  version of evangelicalism to one that is more generous and values freedom, diversity and mystery.  I think a lot of of what Escobar says will be instructive for anyone moving from a rudimentary faith toward spiritual maturity (not that I necessarily have arrived there yet!)  Faith Shift is first and foremost about spiritual and personal growth.

Escobar places no judgment on the outcome of a faith shift. You can move from fundamentalist to agnostic and in so doing, experience more freedom and authenticity. That is growth, and in many respects, growth in the right direction. However, I’m not sure that I want to relativize all aspects of ‘faith.’ I think it is possible to move towards a belief system that is healthier but falser (or as false). The stages that Escobar describes are individualized and allow each shifter to decide what they still believe:

Each person’s journey is unique. While I know some people who are no longer certain of the divinity of Christ, others hold strongly to this belief. While some believe the Bible might be inaccurate and therefore loses parts of his authority, others still believe it is inerrant and take it extremely seriously. While some may have five or more things they still firmly believe, others may have only one. (143)

I am enough of a Pietist to believe we each have to own our own faith, but I am not a relativist and and put a higher premium on (capital T) Truth in our spiritual quest. I certainly agree with her that many, whose faith has unraveled, need to pursue growth outside of the communities they are no longer a part of.  Honest, vulnerable doubt is preferable to quiet pretense.  But personally I hold out hope for God’s self revelation in Christ as a shining star in the midst of our wilderness wanderings.

If you forgive me my Evangelical quibbles, I think this is a very good book and I am grateful for Escobar’s insights. In the spiritual life we need more openness to mystery and wonder and less slavish obedience to some imposed standard. If it takes a faith shift to open us up into a new way of exploring God and fatih, I am in favor. I give this four stars. ★★★★☆

Notice of material connection, I received a review copy of this book for the purposes of this review.

Question the Living: a book review

I remember sitting, once, in the audience at a Christian conference where  author, Philip Yancey, described how at time he feels like the most liberal person in the room and at other times, the most conservative. This captures in part my feeling while reading Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. In this book, authors David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy take us through some of the distinctives of the ‘progressive-Christian’ perspective. As a avid (okay, occasional) reader of progressive Christian bloggers, I figured I would resonate with this book. Unfortunately for me, I felt out of step with much of what this book argues for (or against).

There are three parts to this book. They are: Journey, Reconciliation, and Transformation.  These are three really great words which describe the Christian spirituality.   However I have serious qualms with where Felten and Procter-Murphy go with the first and frustration with parts of their use of the second (I more-or-less like their use of word number three).

Felten  and Procter-Murphy invite us on a journey. This journey involves asking good questions, taking the Bible seriously (just not too-literally!), thinking theologically, and realizing that a couple of creation accounts in Genesis (Genesis 1 and 2) and how little we know about the historical Jesus makes room for us to believe whatever we want (i.e. alternative pictures of cosmology and Jesus’ role). In part two, they focus on how Christ brings reconciliation between God and humanity, between all peoples and creation. Here I found myself challenged by Felten and Procter-Murphy’s call to take relationships and creation-care seriously as a significant part of Christian spirituality.  Alas, their commitment to debunking biblical literalism lost me when they focused on the silliness of objective aspects of the atonement and the bodily reality of the resurrection. For me, part three was the most fruitful. In discussing transformation, they talk about the importance of social justice, incarnational spirituality, prayer, compassion and creativity in the spiritual life.

I found myself at loggerheads with much of Felten and Procter-Murphy’s material. First I was alienated by their source material. I have read some John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan. I respect some of the scholarship (more Borg and Crossan than Spong) but find many of these conclusions overdrawn. Felten and Procter-Murphy quote these three (and others) as justification for liberal, progressive views but offer no argument as to why as a reader I need to take their words seriously.  A lot of what this book does is appeal to so-called experts, make dogmatic (or anti-dogmatic?) claims and then expect you to simply buy in and feel freed up by it.I don’t. There are so many assertions in this book that are made and assumed without any argument at all. Why should I question the reality of the bodily resurrection? Why should I simply see it as a metaphor? I am puzzled by this and why they felt the need to debunk every historical Christian claim as a relic of an unhealthy literalism. Christianity is a historically rooted faith and God is God. I can see questioning some narrow fundamentalist interpretations but I think this book goes too far in the other direction.

However the call to justice and incarnating the kingdom now seems appropriate. I have my evangelical roots and find many of Felten and Procter-Murphy’s ‘answers’ too liberal and loosey-goosey for my tastes. Yet I agree that questions are appropriate and necessary for anyone seeking to deepen their faith. I do not fault the questions, I just don’t think this book does the work to provide secure answers. There is too much conjecture and assertion and not enough real exploration. I give this book three stars: ★★★.

Notice of material connection: I received this book through the Speakeasy blog review program in exchange for my honest review.