New Here?
     
Posts tagged "The Faith and Doubt Issue"

The Art of Subtlety in Faith (and Doubt): Our Interview with Meghan O'Gieblyn

The Art of Subtlety in Faith (and Doubt): Our Interview with Meghan O’Gieblyn

Our first peek into the Faith & Doubt Issue is this interview with Meghan O’Gieblyn, author of the new book of essays, Interior States. We also were lucky enough to republish parts of her essay, originally published in The Point, “The Insane Idea.” Copies of Faith & Doubt can be gotten here, and here.  If […]

See It, Believe It! The Faith & Doubt Issue!

As early as January 30, we will be putting the thirteenth issue of The Mockingbird onto mail trucks to readers like you. We’re incredibly excited for you to see it. It’s colorful, it’s insightful, and believe it or not, despite the heady-sounding theme, it’s as winsome and down-to-earth and heartfelt as all the others. But don’t take our word for it! Jump on it! Over half of our inventory will be out the door Thursday… until then, here’s Ethan’s Opener and the Contents page.

The “I Surrender” List

More often than not, pop culture depicts the faith of ordinary people about as badly as it depicts, well, ordinary people. People of faith are always “extra” somehow: ultrasincere, overeager, ubercaffeinated. On the rare occasion, though, you find a source that gets it right.

Last year the podcast StartUp—which normally follows one new business for an entire season—followed a different kind of venture taking the runway: a church plant. Eric Mennel, the journalist covering the story, is himself struggling with faith and decides to join the head pastor AJ on a silent, all-day retreat. AJ recommends Eric try the following journal exercise to jumpstart his prayer time: take three pages and make three separate lists: “I want…” and “I fear…” and “I surrender…”

The first two lists come easy: “I want someone to care for me… I want to fall in love…” And then, “I fear I’m not wanted… I fear there is no God…” But when it is time for his “I surrender” list, Eric stalls, and eventually resigns himself to leaving the page blank. When the day is up, AJ has of course had a splendid time with his best pal Christ. Eric, on the other hand, is despondent. He tells AJ, “The idea of surrendering is a real sticking point for me. I have a lot of trouble trusting God…trusting God will be around…or even if God would be that helpful.”

AJ tells him he can relate. Who can’t? Even if you are the prayerful, retreat-loving type, transcendent experiences of God are probably rarer than you’d like. And meeting people like AJ can often exacerbate the feeling that faith is a wished-for athleticism the flabby multitude will never achieve. Certainty is impressive. Those who “have it,” have it 100 percent, and the doubters who don’t, don’t. This is the popular caricature drawn by old-time religionists and New Atheists alike: that faith and doubt are two rival schools of certainty, and never the twain shall meet.

Faith isn’t certain, though. And neither is doubt. Both are by definition uncertain, always circumscribed by the unknown and unaccountable. This is why I appreciate Eric’s hesitation: I don’t even believe the neighbor when she says it’s recycling day. How could I possibly believe this Jesus nonsense? As the writer Richard Rodriguez says, any honest person going to church is also bringing their “inner atheist” down the communion line.

So, in working up the essays that came to make up this issue, it has become clear that the opposite of faith is not doubt—doubt is the enduring human companion, even in faith. No, the opposite of faith is control, the need to be in the driver’s seat for every turn in the road. Just like Eric facing that silent room and that blank page, the invitation to faith also means a resignation of will, namely your will. Faith means surrendering the notion that you are the Higher Power guiding your life, and realizing instead that it might be better off in Another’s hands.

Surrender is never considered a virtue, though, especially in a culture which champions, uh, champions, those who don’t surrender. Surrendering means failing—raising the flag of defeat or incompetence. And surrender is especially dubious when the terms are chartered by some less-than-appealing Religious Authority. Faith simply isn’t worth the risk with a God Who Vindictively Punishes or God Who Is Church Lady. But with a God Who Forgives?

Our friend Jason Micheli tells the story of a Lutheran pastor named Jim Nestingen, a hulking 6’6” Minnesota beer drinker with the belly to prove it. Jim was boarding a plane to fly coast-to-coast when he saw who he would be sharing a row with: a man just as big as him. They awkwardly wedged up against one another and exchanged niceties, preparing for the long haul, basically sitting in one another’s laps. In response to the obligatory job question, Jim said, “I am a preacher of the Gospel.” The man next to him responded loudly, almost allergically, “I’m not a believer!” Jim assured him that was okay, and they kept talking. Turned out that the man had been an infantryman in Vietnam and ever since had carried with him all the awful things he’d seen and done there. As the plane flew from one end of the country to the other, the man dumped his entire story out into the lap of his seat mate.

When he had finished, Jim asked the man, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

The man balked. “Confess? I haven’t confessed anything!”

Jim boomed back, “You’ve been confessing your sins to me this whole flight long. And I’ve been commanded by Christ Jesus that when I hear a confession like that to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, you have any more sins burdening you? If so, throw them in there.”

To which the man balked again, “No, that’s all. But I’m not a believer! I don’t have any faith in me!”

Jim unbuckled his seatbelt mid-landing and stood over the man, which caused quite the stir with the flight crew. “Well, that’s quite all right, brother,” he said. “Jesus says that it’s what’s inside of you is what’s wrong with the world. I’m going to speak faith into you.” And he proceeded with the absolution: “In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

Flabbergasted, the man balked again: “You can’t do that!” To which Pastor Jim responded, “I can! And I just did! And I will do it again!” And he did. The man began weeping uncontrollably until finally he began laughing uncontrollably, all the way down the tarmac to the gate. As the two men were grabbing their overhead luggage, Jim grabbed the man’s hand and gave him his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or a week from now. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep on doing it until you do—you really do—trust and believe it.”

The man did. He called him—no joke—every day until the day he died, just to hear the declaration spoken over him in Christ Jesus. Surrendering to this absolution became something he couldn’t live without.

What if this were the kind of surrender on offer for the rest of us weary, incredulous passengers? What if the good news was actually this good, that no matter how many times you balked, no matter how many misgivings you had about belief, and how much you’d prefer to keep matters in your hands, the forgiveness of sins remained? As the man says to Jim, “It’s just too good to be true. It would take a miracle to believe something so good.”

It takes a miracle for us all. And this is the theme we’re exploring in this issue: in the fluctuations of faith and doubt, the persistence with which God bestows his grace. We have words from Francis Spufford, Sally Lloyd-Jones, and Gordon Marino. We talk existentialism, the Flat Earth Movement, and anger at God. But through it all, this is what we’re getting at: that despite our earnest questions and heavy burdens, and even still our empty “I surrender” pages, Christ is our answer. He has surrendered all, and it is on his account, believe it or not, that we have hope.

To subscribe to The Mockingbird, click here. To order Faith & Doubt alone, click here. 

ORDER NOW!