By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
Nearly 3 out of 4 Americans—the vast majority of us—describe ourselves as Christian and 1 out of 4 Americans is comfortable using the term “evangelical Protestant,” according to Pew. That means at least 80 million Americans are struggling these days to reconcile what they’ve always been taught about the Bible with rapid changes in our national culture, values and policies.
Of course, the number of Americans uncomfortably caught between a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other is probably higher than that. For example, many Catholics also are experiencing this dilemma. If this describes you or someone you know, then you probably will enjoy meeting Peter Enns, an evangelical Bible scholar who has just published his first book with HarperOne. His approach is reflected in his book’s full title, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs.
“My audience is men and women who consider themselves Christian, of whatever tradition or stripe, and who respect Scritpure enough that they believe what the Bible says must be accounted for somehow in their lives and the world,” says Enns in an interview. “People who consider themselves evangelicals do have the greatest tension between their deep commitment to Scripture and the many challenges they see arising in the world.”
What is so compelling about Enns’ approach for Christian readers is that he writes about his own deep faith in God. If you’re judging this new book by its cover, that may come as a surprise. Yes, Enns remains an evangelical, his book’s title notwithstanding. In recent years, books with similar titles have come from a wave of atheist writers wanting to toss out faith entirely as a dangerous relic of the past. Books with similar titles also have come from writers who advocate picking and choosing among spiritual disciplines while knocking down religious boundaries.
Enns is content, much like the late Marcus Borg, in affirming the value of Christianity—while focusing on changing traditionalist concepts about how to read the Bible within the church. It’s no accident that Enns’ HarperOne editor is Mickey Maudlin, who was Borg’s colleague in publishing until Borg died in early 2015. For years, Borg talked about Maudlin and the team of editors at HarperOne as friends and colleagues. In his new book, Enns makes a point of thanking Maudlin as well. There is clearly an ongoing connection here for regular readers of HarperOne titles.
If you do decide to meet Enns—by ordering his new book and perhaps by following his ongoing columns via his website—you will quickly spot passages that echo Borg’s teaching. Examples from his new book:
“A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relieve our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life. Only deep trust can hold up. … Letting go of the need for certainty is more than just a decision about how we think; it’s a decision about how we want to live. … The need for certainty is sin because it works off fear and limits God to our mental images. And God does not like being boxed in. By definition, God can’t be.”
In our interview, Enns talks about these issues in a similar tone:
“I want people to know: The Bible is not a Christian rule book. It’s not a cookbook for how to be Christian.” (Have you seen these quotable lines before? These are ways Enns likes to describe his point of view in recent media reports.)
Enns likes to describe the Bible this way: “It’s modeling for us the expressions of faith of ancient people engaging God as they understood God. We need to look at it from that point of view. It models for us our own journey of faith.”
Even in these brief lines, long-time fans of Borg’s work can connect dots between his approach to teaching these concepts and what Enns is saying.
But there’s something distinctive about Enns’ voice. It’s refreshing. He’s a remarkable storyteller—and he also enjoys sharing classic stories with readers. For example, fans of the children’s classic Bridge to Terabithia will find a special treat in this new book, because Enns describes how he was moved by watching the Disney version of that Newbery-winning novel. He uses Terabithia to make some fresh connections for us as readers.
In fact, Enns is downright quotable. And here’s an aside to the many preachers, writers and small-group teachers among our ReadTheSpirit readership: If you buy his book, you’ll soon find that your copy will be ragged with turned-down pages, Post-it notes and scribbled reminders in the margins!
For example, rather than a full-frontal assault on judgmental Bible literalists, Enns poses the problem from another perspective. In a chapter late in the book, he asks readers to be honest for a moment about their preferences in daily life. Stop and consider: What kind of people do you enjoy spending time with during your day? Do you enjoy spending time with people who seem obsessed with …
- unflappable certainty
- vigilant monitoring of who’s in and who’s out
- preoccupation with winning debates
- conforming unquestionably to intellectual authorities and celebrities
Ugh! Doesn’t that sound like a description of a high-school bully or perhaps the head of a nasty clique? To his credit, Enns is a kind enough teacher that he doesn’t actually use the term “bully” as he describes what evangelical traditionalists can look like to friends, neighbors and co-workers.
He’s holding up a mirror to readers who may find themselves too rigid about the Bible—and he’s suggesting that being “right” isn’t the same as being a caring part of a community of faith. If we cling to literal interpretations too tenaciously, Enns argues, then we stop being “members and participants” in a compassionate Christian community and we spend our time, instead, trying to be “masters and conquerors.”
LIKE TALKING TO A FRIEND
This new book and his 2014 book for HarperCollins, The Bible Tells Me So, together represent a significant milestone in Enns’ writing style. If you are curious as a reader, explore his author page on Amazon and look at some of the earlier books he published with Baker and Zondervan. Since 2014, there is a new conversational freedom in Enns’ style—coinciding with his move from teaching at the more traditionalist Westminster Theological Seminary to his current post as Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania.
“I think the voice you find in some of my earlier books is the way I thought of my audience and my teaching when I was at Westminster,” Enns says now. “In recent years I’ve been moving toward writing for a much more diverse audience. But, it’s not as though this new writing style is something that I’ve somehow trained myself to do. The way I’m writing now is really the natural way I talk and teach. People who know me and have read my two most recent books say, ‘When I read this, I can hear you talking to me.’ ”
Even if some old friends may no longer want to talk to him, Enns remains a Christian insider talking to other Christians who have felt the painful dilemma of questioning their religious traditions. “Church is too often the most risky place to be spiritually honest,” he writes in the new book.
“In many churches, you don’t find much room for the struggles so many of us encounter,” he says in the interview. “In the Western evangelical tradition, there’s less room for a ‘spiritual journey.’ This particular tradition of being ‘right’ about the Bible has been brewing for a few hundred years until questioning is seen as ‘opposition’ or ‘wrong thinking.’ Before you know it, you can find yourself being defined by others as opposed to ‘correct thinking’ about God or the Bible. It’s a painful experience. And it’s a shame.”
He continues: “Words like ‘quest’ and ‘dialogue’ and ‘spiritual creativity’ aren’t welcome in the more conservative branches of the church. This puts a lot of pressure on a person to be ‘right,’ which usually means agreeing to what some authority is telling you is ‘right.’ ”
‘A FRESH REASSURANCE’
Of course, Enns is talking from the perspective of his own journey as a scholar in recent years. “If people do choose to read this book, I hope they find encouragement here that not being certain about everything does not mean that you have ‘a weak faith.’ You’re not ‘broken.’ You don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ You’re not ‘wrong’ and need to get ‘right’ because God is somehow angry at you.
“If you read this book, I hope you walk away with a fresh reassurance that you’re fine—and your spiritual journey is going to be fine. You’re going through something that people have been going through for thousands of years.”