The title “Experiencing God Without Losing Your Mind” (Stephen J. Bedard) intrigued me so I had to pick up a copy. It has been an ongoing observation of mine that the Christian Church (at least in Western Canada where I have been able to observe it) seems to pick between experiencing God and thinking about him. I’m not the only person to observe a broad strain of anti-intellectualism in the Church.
Don’t get me wrong, there are also some in the church who reduce the entire concept of religious Faith into a rational discourse about propositional truth claims. Theology is about debate and education, not about growing in the fullness of our knowledge of God (heart, soul, mind and strength; not just mind). These folks are the minority, yes, but it strikes me that their error is just as destructive to the Church as the error of anti-intellectualism.
Within that context, then, comes a book with this title. It attempts to bridge the divide. And if ever there was a divide worth bridging, this would be it! What I was expecting was to read about was an exploration of how the experiential and intellectual aspects of faith intersect. How does our head knowledge of God inform our heart knowledge? How does our experience of God drive our desire to learn more about him; to study his Word and the Church’s 2,000 year history of Theological reflection on that Word.
The book partly delivers, but not as I expected. Here is a breakdown of the Table of Contents:
- What do we want from God?
- The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth
- O God, Where Art Thou?
- As the Good Book Says…
- That Mean Old Testament God
- God is Good, God is Great
- Jesus: Hit or Myth?
- Jesus Gets a Raise
- Jesus: Like Father, Like Son
- Now That’s Good News
- What On Earth Are You Doing?
- Will the True Religion Please Stand Up?
My biggest observation was that the first chapter dealt with the “Experiencing God” part of the equation and the rest of them dealt with the “Without losing your mind” part of the equation. The first chapter described our cultural tendency to default to our emotions, showed some of the follies of placing too much stock in our emotions, and briefly describes a few Biblical role models (Mary, Paul, Job) we might look to as we consider how to bridge the divide. After the first chapter, though, the rest of the book more or less focused on various intellectual objections to the Faith. As these objections were explored very little reference seemed to be made to integrating these subjects back into the “Experiencing God” part of the equation. For instance, after reconsidering the caricature of “That Mean Old Testament God” (chapter 5) that seems to give so many Christians difficulty, it would have been great to explore the question, “now that we understand God a little better, how does this impact our experience of him?” It would be interesting, for instance, to consider how one might frame a Sunday morning worship service around the question, “Why did God command the Israelites to kill the Canaanites?” Which songs would the worship leader choose? What does it mean to worship a God who issues marching orders? How do I pray to a God like that? We are used to thinking of God as healer but would we experience him differently if we also recognized that he takes life as well? That kind of integration would have been wonderful to consider but that’s one loop that never quite got closed, at least not to my satisfaction.
Part of me was somewhat disappointed by the apparent imbalance, but another part of me had to step back and recognize the cultural setting within which this book is written. We live in a time of history where the Christian Church has largely lost its intellectual potency. We are not taken seriously in the broader cultural setting precisely because so many of us have accepted this idea that Faith in Jesus is all about loving him with all our Heart and that’s it. Maybe our Soul, too. Our Mind is totally optional, but definitely not our Strength because that sounds like Salvation by Works. For a Church that is so obviously lopsided in one direction, a book like this may be just the right remedy. The question of “How does this newly acquired head-knowledge integrate back into my experience of God?” is a question almost every Christian will naturally ask without having to be prompted and/or spoon fed the answers. My initial doubts about the book simply reminded me of the audience Stephen Bedard probably had in mind. For that audience this book is almost certainly spot on.
In fact, considering the audience, the rest of the book makes a lot more sense. Christians seem to enjoy going through books as group studies, and each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions that would work well in a group setting. We live in a culture with a short attention span; each chapter is short and to the point. In fact, the entire book is less than 100 pages. There are quotes sprinkled throughout, and most of the quotes are from competent scholars who have written excellent books further exploring individual issues. For the interested student there are resources available to explore these matters to a greater depth. The subject matter that gets explored is very broad and covers the major points of contention an unbeliever is likely to have with the Faith, so the reader who takes the subject matter seriously isn’t left with any glaring blind spots. It almost feels like an “Apologetics 101” kind of book; a great introduction to the field, from a high level. But it’s Apologetics with a Heart, if you will.
My initial hesitation about the book was only applicable to me because I am not that “statistically average” Church-goer. I am one of those prone to over-analyzing and under-relishing God. In some ways I envy those with profoundly moving, mystical, emotional experiences of God because that has not been a major facet of my experience over the course of my life. I hoped the book was written for me, but it was not. However, those for whom it was written will be well served by reading it. I recommend this book to anybody whose Faith is defined by a somewhat consistent experience of God, but who is perhaps a little concerned that if they dive into “that academic stuff” such inquiry will stifle the relationship they have with Jesus. Bedard does a great job of introducing them to the field of Apologetics (and explaining its importance) while helping them see how studying this material will deepen their experience of God rather than destroying it.