Review: The Answer to Bad Religion is Not No Religion

Bad Religion - No Religion

The Answer to Bad Religion is Not No Religion, Martin Thielen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.

Summary: Discusses the characteristics of “bad religion”, contending that the answer is not to reject religion altogether but to embrace “good religion”, the marks of which are discussed.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… 

(John Lennon, “Imagine”)

John Lennon is not the only figure to imagine that the world would be better without religion. Martin Thielen considers that for many who have had bad experiences, particular as he had in conservative, judgmental contexts, the temptation is to give up altogether on “the religion thing” and maybe consider that one’s life, if not the world would be a better place where people lived in peace. Thielen makes the case that there is a third alternative –better religion, which he describes in terms of his migration to mainline Protestantism.

After describing his own journey, Thielen discusses the marks of bad religion: self-righteous judgmentalism, negativity, arrogance, intolerance, and absolutism, partisan politics and excessive nationalism, and a nominal commitment to Christ and church. This last was interesting because he takes on the fact that for many church-goers, the local Rotary or their kids soccer teams, or their travel plans take precedence to worship, giving, and service in a church, which gets marginalized.

Thielen then discusses the “no religion” alternative and contends that this would create an “always winter but never Christmas world” and that religion, and particularly the Christian faith provides meaning, transcendence, ethics and law, inspires great art and more. Religion has resulted in universities, hospitals, is the source of much charitable activity, and stood against many injustices. And I think he raises a good point. Many atheists would also support much of this, but the question is, in the absence of a religious heritage and the cultural capital this has created, would atheism create and sustain these cultural goods?

The book then concludes with a description of “good religion”: which impacts our whole lives, engages in service, provides a prophetic voice in society, builds community, is hope-filled, open-minded, forgiving, grateful and practices evangelism with integrity. The chapter on forgiveness was particularly helpful with practical steps for practicing forgiveness with safeguards about forgiveness when people are physically or emotionally dangerous to the one forgiving. There are also appendices on additional resources and how we should view the Bible–seriously but not always literally.

There was much here I thought helpful. In my work in collegiate ministry, so many of the militant atheists I’ve met came out of the bad religious experiences described in the first part of his book. How I wish for many of them to see that the alternative to their bad experiences is not no religion but something better. Thielen writes in an accessible style with a number of stories from pastoral ministry to illustrate his points. And the kind of “religion” he argues for as an alternative is certainly far more commendable and attractive.

There are two things that particularly concern me. One is the problem of the excluded middle. He assumes two poles: either conservative, narrow, judgmental, intolerant churches, or the mainline characterized by all the qualities of goodness he describes. It seems that he leaves Catholics and Orthodox believers out all together, nor does he recognize the many more progressive evangelical churches that still are scripture focused, Christ-centered, and reflect the same qualities that he contends for in “good” religion.

My second concern is the use of the term religion and the association of this with lots of good works as opposed to bad tendencies. The work of Christ was not absent from his account, particularly so in the chapter on the hope of the resurrection, but it wasn’t clear to me that this was central. While I can concede there are certain legitimate uses of the term “religion” in connection with Christian faith, I have always appreciated that idea that Christianity is about redemptive relationships, both with God through Christ, and with others, not “religion”, and the good works are works of love that flow from being the beloved redeemed children of God.

The value of this book lies in the argument suggested in the title that for those who have encountered bad religion, there is something better than no religion. If the book helps those who have had bad experiences with the church consider that this may not be what all Christians are like and, like the author, take the risk to see if others could be different, then the book will have accomplished its purpose. If the book helps those who sense their own brand of “religion” is unhelpful to figure out why, this would also be helpful. However, I think it would have been better if the author could see beyond recommending just his own type of church as the alternative to bad religion. Might that also be “good religion”?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian

C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian
C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian by Gregory S. Cootsona
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book does something different from most books about C. S. Lewis or his works. The purpose of this book is neither biography, nor an exposition or critique of part or all of the writing of Lewis. Rather, the writer seeks to introduce Lewis through the lens of the existential crises of life, as Lewis experienced them, as the author experienced them, and as we may experience them, either as atheists or Christians or in our common humanity.

Cootsona summarizes the life of Lewis around crises he experienced as an atheist, apologetic crises he grappled with as a Christian, and the existential crises of suffering, evil, and death that every human being must face and that Lewis faced in his own losses of mother and wife, as well as in his own final decline.

But this is not simply biography. Around these three major types of crises, Cootsona introduces us to what Lewis said and wrote about these matters. Thus, this book could serve as an introduction to the relevance of Lewis’s writing for a new generation of reader.

First of all he concerns himself with “crises” of atheism. One of these is the self-contradictory and self-defeating nature of naturalism–if there is no design, if all is random, and if rationality is an epiphenomenon, then our certainty about these assertions, and this very sentence are up for grabs. Naturalism can offer no real sense of meaning, yet we act as if life is meaningful. Finally, even though we can posit no basis in naturalism for any transcendent moral law, we act as if it is so, that there are things that are really wrong.

Then he moves on to crises peculiar to embracing Christian faith. One of these is the crisis of pluralism: how may we believe in the uniqueness of Christ when there are so many alternatives. Isn’t this simply one myth among many? In this context, Coosona introduces us to Lewis’s famous “liar-lunatic-Lord” trilemma. Secondly, he explores the question of authority and the nature of biblical authority. Here he “outs” Lewis as not among the inerrantists. Yet Lewis believed the Bible was authoritative because of Christ and the Church’s witness, because, for its human faults, it carried the Word of God, at even sections Lewis might consider “mythical” (such as the creation accounts) were not fictional but true, and that the Bible forms the lives of those who read it, including Lewis. Lewis believed the miracles that were recorded as historical facts, including the miracle of the resurrection. Thus, Lewis challenges both fundamentalists and liberal skeptics in the way he reads and understands the scriptures.

The final section explores existential questions. One is the question of emotivism. Ought I base my decisions simply upon feeling or are there moral standards that I might live by regardless of feelings? Second, how do we make sense of suffering? He explores not only the arguments in The Problem of Pain but also those in the more intensely personal A Grief Observed that explore both where purpose may be found in suffering and yet the fundamental mystery we face in much suffering. Finally we see how Lewis regarded death, including his own approaching death.

Throughout, Cootsona weaves together his own experiences, Lewis’s life and writing, as well as how this has proven helpful to others. Cootsona introduces us to some of his own archival research along the way where this illumines how Lewis might approach a question. Yet his priority focus is to demonstrate how the works of Lewis that are available to most readers address these crises of life.

That begs the question: do we need this book if we have Lewis’s books on our shelves? Strictly speaking, the answer is no. But for the skeptic or young believer who is not well-acquainted with Lewis, this book can serve as a helpful doorway into the works of Lewis. The book also serves as a basic apologetic for Christian faith for a person who is asking the questions or wrestling with the crises the book explores. I do think the book would be helped with recommended readings of Lewis at the end of each chapter relevant to the chapter discussion. There is a bibliography at the end that includes some material on where to start in reading Lewis and includes a lists of his works, biographies, and other scholarly work on Lewis.

[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]

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