A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today, Bonnie Kristian, Hachette Book Group, 272 pages
Droves of Millennials are leaving Christianity behind, many to join America’s growing ranks of religious “nones.” But do these young people (and their compatriots from other generations) really understand what they are abandoning, in all its fullness and complexity?
That is the question Bonnie Kristian seeks to address in her new book A Flexible Faith, set to release next week. The book serves as a primer on Christianity’s considerable theological diversity, and covers issues as various (and controversial) as predestination, war, gender roles, baptism, and hell.
The Christian faith provides lots of room for thought, disagreement, and nuance, Kristian writes, all within the limits of orthodoxy. The faith Millennials think they know, via their own personal church experiences, may only provide half of the picture. A Flexible Faith, by presenting a thoughtful overview of faith disagreements within the church, seeks to tempt the doubting or frustrated to give Christianity another look—and to maybe consider switching denominations rather than leaving the faith altogether.
“A vibrant diversity within Christian orthodoxy—which is simply to say a range of different ways to faithfully follow Jesus—is a strength of our faith, not a weakness,” Kristian writes. “…We can get so stuck in our own little pool that we never notice the stream of orthodoxy is wide and deep and beautiful.”
Of course, suggesting that there are “many ways to follow Jesus” can be a controversial—and potentially heretical—statement. But Kristian is careful with her claim: she defines creedal Christianity and separates it from the realm of flexibility at the outset of her book. Some will still argue that Kristian’s denominational and doctrinal choices are too inclusive. But many of the issues she discusses are ones Christians tend to see as inhabiting gray areas: mysterious, open to nuance, and worth approaching humbly.
It’s important to note that A Flexible Faith is not meant to serve as some heady guide to biblical exegesis. Kristian’s chapters are, for the most part, quite short. She provides her readers with a summary of the doctrinal question involved, an overview of the most common opinions on that question, an introduction to a historical Christian who contributed important scholarship to that issue, a few discussion ideas, and a book list for those who would like to study the matter more. Kristian’s chapter on the equality of men and women, for instance, highlights complementarianism, egalitarianism, the legacy of Quaker Margaret Fell Fox, and a long list of books about women’s roles in the church. Kristian also includes a few Q&As with church and nonprofit leaders from various denominations, a fascinatingly diverse group of thinkers and activists. In some chapters, Kristian provides her own doctrinal stance as a safeguard against bias and a means of sharing her opinions. But for the most part, the book is a straightforward compilation without much editorializing: its tone, style, and structure is succinct and objective. Kristian’s concise journalistic writing stands out here as a bonus, offering as it does both a pithy and interesting condensation of these tricky doctrinal areas, and a very measured and gracious stance on issues that can be deeply controversial and contentious.
The book may seem deceptively simple to some readers. But it speaks to Kristian’s skill as a writer and scholar that she can so concisely and thoughtfully condense these issues.
“I don’t want to see Christians becoming nones because they’ve been falsely told there’s just one way to follow Jesus,” she writes. “That’s why I think there’s a lot of value to introducing Christians to our siblings and even distant cousins in the faith, particularly if that’s what it takes for some to remain in the family.”
But this also presents an assumption that many Christians will need to explore and grapple with. Although we know that the Scriptures and the Apostle’s Creed do not always provide easy answers to questions on the Book of Revelation or the nature of hell, it is still easy for us to reject or condemn the viewpoints of others. To what extent are we called to flexibility and empathy in our doctrinal choices—and to what extent should we stand firm?
This question becomes particularly important in reading Kristian’s chapter on homosexuality. Kristian argues that, though many Christians treat homosexuality as an issue of dogma (essentiality to the faith), it is in fact an issue of doctrine (open to flexibility and debate). After defining the traditional, celibate, and marriage-affirming positions that Christians hold on the issue, she closes with a petition for Christians to seek a “third way.”
“This is regularly cast as a two-sided topic debate with no middle ground,” she writes. “Everyone is either with us or against us, good or evil, friend or enemy.” She argues that “Christians can disagree here, too, and we must learn to do so without trying to kick our opponents out of the faith.”
Of course, a key difficulty here—as with other doctrinal issues in this book—is that, while homosexuality may not be covered in the Apostle’s Creed, it is discussed in the Bible. And the position one takes on this issue, as with many others, largely involves his or her willingness to adopt a more rigid or flexible interpretation of the Scriptures. Some issues, like involving women in the church, say, have obvious cultural and historical contexts that should be taken into account. Very few Christians today argue that women should have their heads covered during church services, for instance. But there are other Scriptures that are much harder to read loosely, to set in the “cultural context” box as opposed to the “eternal relevance” box. The more flexible we become, the more we must ask ourselves whether we are stretching the limits of orthodoxy to the breaking point. A key challenge in reading a book like Kristian’s lies in the question of how much we can or should test those limits. How “flexible” should our faith be?
It seems inevitable that some (especially those with strong attachments to their particular doctrinal beliefs) will be frustrated with or even offended by this volume. But I don’t think the reader has to agree with every one of Kristian’s doctrinal or denominational choices in order to benefit from A Flexible Faith. Its focus on diversity within the faith can and should prompt us to humility and a proper awe for the mysteries inherent within our religion. I cannot begin to describe the incredible spiritual wisdom I have gleaned from the writings of St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, R.C. Sproul, John Calvin, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, John Piper, Russell Moore, Watchman Nee, Amy Carmichael, and others. Is it a coincidence that they each come from rather unique church contexts? Is it wrong for me to borrow from the treasures of so many different denominations to add to my own biblical and philosophical storehouse?
Perhaps it is necessary at times to draw lines in the sand, to stake out a doctrinal position and to stand firm in rejecting all other stances. But Kristian is right to argue that we should be extremely careful about how, when, and whether we make those choices. Because the lines we draw may not just separate brother from sister. They might drive some of our siblings out into the cold of disbelief.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.