Book Review: Questioning Christianity by Dan Paterson and Rian Roux

Disclaimer: Dan is a friend, and a review PDF was provided to me free of charge. Dan is the founder of Questioning Christianity.

If Sam Chan’s books on evangelism (reviewed here and here) are the sorts of textbooks or handbooks you give to Christians to provide a framework for how we share the good news about Jesus in a post-post-modern, post secular context, then Questioning Christianity by Paterson and Roux is the book you give to Christians to give to their friends (and a book you give to your friends) who are seeking to make sense of the world we live in.

I’ve written here, and elsewhere (part 1, part 2), about the power of story in a post-post-modern world — the snapshot summary is that if post-modernity involved the death of ‘grand narratives’ about life (including the idea of God), the pushback against post-modernity’s overreach — whether that’s ‘post-post modernity’, meta-modernity, or the “new sincerity” — has included a rediscovery of the place of, and existential satisfaction connected to, a meta-narrative. Meta-modernity basically fuses post-modernity with the reaction against post-modernity — recognising that post-modernity rightly reacted against modernity’s disenchanting atomisation of life into a series of propositions, and while it killed ‘metanarratives’, it replaced those big stories with stories and recognised experience and emotion as legitimate parts of the human quest for truth (even if that truth was largely ‘subjective’ and in the context of one’s own story). A summary of meta-modernity says the difference is:

“Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.

Evangelism and apologetics in this age is going to look different; it’s going to look like the skeleton you find in Sam Chan’s work, and the fleshed out body you find in Questioning Christianity (and also, hat tip to Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story, that applies this model to a particular ethical question — around sexuality). It’s an ambitious book — it aims to serve multiple audiences and both present a positive, sincere and hopeful account of the Christian story as the story that organises the universe (and life within it), while also engaging big questions that might be raised in response.

The ‘big story’ — the book’s first section — charts the Biblical story through narrative settings — garden (Eden), tower (Babel), Nation (Israel’s story), Cross, Church, and City — and matching ‘character developments’ — created for good, damaged by evil, chosen to bless, redeemed by love, sent together to heal, and set everything right. There’s a sort of ‘hero’s journey’ going on in that set of movements for those familiar with Joseph Campbell’s work on the shape of stories.

Though the book works with a narrative framing, it manages to teach the importance of profound doctrines, with real and appealing clarity, along the way — for example — zeroing in on the importance of the Trinity and God as loving-community in the chapter telling the Garden story

There’s a commitment to a Jesus-centered Biblical Theology here that is rich and good. There’s a small quibble I have with the way the book zeroes in on the ‘universality’ of the ‘mythic’ shape of the Bible (that is, the way it functions to provide a meta-narrative for all human people). It’s a quibble the book seeks to address, but may not fully resolve. The Bible’s story is not merely archetypal in a way that answers, say, the Jordan Peterson’s of this world who see the power of myth and archetypes in organising life here and now, but also in C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien’s sense it’s the ‘myth that became history’ and the ‘eucatastrophic tale’ that ‘hallows all other tales’ — the “true fairy tale” — it’s not just a story that mirrors and meets our desires and quest for a true self, but first God’s story about Jesus that becomes our story through our union with Christ. I think Questioning Christianity threads that needle. Especially with this paragraph, recognising this dilemma:

“Perhaps one of the most unique and striking elements of the Christian story is that it is not merely religious philosophy or ideology, for its central claims are based on historical events that can be investigate and verified. That Jesus is history is what makes the gospel good news rather than simply a good idea. Christians believe that the One who made the world has left His historical footprint on it.”

Another minor quibble is that I think while the narrative does good work with God’s presence (Eden) and exile from Eden, and then Israel’s exile, I think I’d’ve liked to have split the Israel chunk of the ‘metanarrative’ a bit more decisively around the land, and exile into the nations — and done a bit more on recognising that we modern (gentile) readers are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, not of Israel, and that Israel’s exile in Babylon represents them joining the rest of us in need of re-creation.

The way the story becomes our story is, in part, a function of God’s redemptive commitment not only to Israel through its Messiah, Jesus, but for all nations through the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, who is exalted to the highest place above all powers and principalities. Our position as readers of the Old Testament is as those brought in not through heritage, but through God’s gracious act to unite us to himself in Jesus, so our lens, in the Old Testament, isn’t only what’s going on for Israel, but what’s going on in the hearts of the Babylonians. Where Israel is ‘chosen to bless’ — it’s not just chosen to experience God’s blessing, but to be a blessing to the nations (like it is, for a moment, under Solomon). It’s, in part, the failure to do this that leads to Israel’s exile. That gets a sentence or two along the way, it’s not missing from what is an excellent retelling of the Biblical narrative, but, personally I’d have made it a bigger deal. As I say, this is a minor quibble. I do think it’s a quibble that leaves us with a slightly different question, as gentile readers, at the end of the Old Testament to the ones listed in the book, something like: “If it isn’t clear God is blessing Israel, does God care about non-Israelites like me?” The payoff to adding this thread might’ve come in the section on the church, and on Pentecost, where the Spirit descends as a clear sign that not only is exile over for God’s faithful Israel, those who recognise Jesus as the Christ, but as the Spirit spreads with the proclamation of the Gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea, to the ends of the earth — our exile ends as we are united in Jesus. And, again, this is not absent, it simply enriches the story as it is presented — but, more importantly, it shows how this story about Jesus becomes my story as an Aussie (gentile) living in the 21st century.

“This moment marked the birth of the church, where God’s holy presence was no longer cloistered in tents or temples built by human hands. Now He dwelled in His people. Christians became mobile temples, taking God’s presence with them wherever they went as hotspots of heaven on earth. And God’s power animated them to do the impossible.

Where God had scattered humanity by confusing their languages at Babel, now at Pentecost He began a global gathering of tribes and tongues by enabling Jesus’ followers to tell the Christian story in languages they never knew.”

Once the story has been told, Paterson and Roux shift to showing how we step into that story. Before, I again, offer some quibbles (that may actually simply be expressions of my different theological tradition), I want to say this attempt to move from the abstraction of ‘narrative’ to something more tangible and concrete is often the missing link in the shift back to metanarrative; part of the move from modernity (just believe propositions) to post-modernity and beyond is trying to capture the language of belief/faith/trust that is more than simply ‘give rational assent to’ — and there’s whole theological schisms around this stuff (think the New Perspective), but capturing the sense of inhabiting and embodying a story does seem to sit in a rich vein of both Old and New Testament writings and practices. I think Questioning Christianity offers some really helpful language to bridge this gap.

That said, I do think this section would sing, even more, if the language around relationship was grounded in Union with Christ, not only ‘believing and following’ (though I recognise those are fundamentally Gospel invitations in that they are what Jesus calls for in the Gospel. This is, for what it’s worth, how I understand the language of repentance in the New Testament — not so much as a call to ‘reject sin’ but to ‘follow Jesus’ (and so reject sin). This slight change in language would’ve represented a shift to seeing ourselves positioned in this grand story ‘in Christ’, by the author of the story — rather than us choosing this story as the one we’d particularly like to inhabit, but maybe that’s my Calvinism coming through…

“Perhaps the best way, though, to come at defining Christianity is to let the Bible shape our answer. As best we can distill, becoming a Christian is fundamentally about stepping into the Christian story in response to Jesus’ invitation to believe in Him and follow Him. And first and foremost that means beginning a new relationship with God.

This is the beating heart of the Jesus movement.

From here, a new life story begins to emerge as we embrace a new community gathered around the gospel, receive from God a new identity as our foundation for self-understanding and expression, follow Jesus’ roadmap into a new way to live, and launch into a new purpose for our lives.”

I have not-insignificant concerns around the use of the word ‘identity’ here, and the way it freights in the ides of ‘self-understanding and expression’ via consumer choice; but this is a pretty niche concern of my own, and I simply would’ve replaced the word “identity” with “character”, and connected that back to the quote from Alisdair MacIntyre that Paterson and Roux share up front. And yet, this is such a helpful section in what is, overwhelmingly, an excellent book that sits in a unique position in the landscape. As a pastor of a church, I found the chapter on church within the broader work incredibly encouraging.

Each of the chapters in this section moves from ‘abstract’ to concrete transformative practices and resources, and these bits are terrifically helpful and memorable distillations, grounded in the Scriptures. They’re also where the six-stage framework setup in the first section are brought to life in helpful and integrated ways.

It’s one thing to commend the goodness and beauty of the Christian story — and life in it — which this book does admirably in parts 1 and 2, it’s ‘next level’ to then engage deeply with the questions raised by Christianity, which is both the heart of Dan’s ministry organisation Questioning Christianity, and this book. The book could’ve been an adequate evangelism resource — an excellent one even — if it finished up after section 2. But section 3 tackles big apologetics questions: what if the snake was right? How can a good God allow suffering? Why isn’t God more obvious? Has Science disproved God? Can I trust the Bible? Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? How can God be good when the church is so bad? Dan cut his teeth as an apologist working with an international apologetics organisation, and these chapters distill his time on the road answering big questions into erudite and tight answers that don’t simply assert a bunch of propositions, or get hyper-defensively aggressive, but seek to resonate with experiences and curiousity — engaging the questions as good faith exercises in the pursuit of truth (a bit like Paul in Athens).

A questioning faith is a robust and growing faith, and the book gives a grammar for the sort of Christianity that can withstand the pressures of the world we live in, and produce resilience rather than fragility. This section is, I think, as much for Christians to create and grapple with questions we should be wrestling with as it is for non-Christians coming at them for the first time (or over a long period of time).

God is not afraid of your questions. Why? Because if some- thing is true, then any doubts, rather than subverting faith, should serve as a doorway to a deeper faith. For the healthy response to any doubt is to launch an open investigation. Doubts should spark you to study the reasons for faith, and upon embarking on that journey, if your curious questions are met with credible answers, then you can emerge with a more fully-orbed trust that there is a substantial why behind the what of your beliefs. Serious space should always be made for questions and questioners to explore whether the Christian story can stand up to scrutiny. Such is the hallmark of any true story.

Truth invites questioning.

Yes and amen. There’s been a substantial debate within evangelistically minded Aussie pastors (and podcasters) around how we should promote Christianity in our present climate; whether we should emphasise the ‘good’, or acknowledge the place we now occupy in the post-Christian landscape. Whether our language should acknowledge and create doubt and curiousity or push toward certainty. I think there’s scope both for surprisingly positive presentations of the Gospel to people who’ve dismissed it (the first third of the book), and for engaging with the hardest form of the real questions (and accusations) people bring to the church, even in forms people might not’ve considered yet.

Paterson and Roux offer us an engagement with questions people are actually asking, which is better than hypothetical questions that people in were asking back in modernity — there’s a shift, in some sense, that I’ve observed from ‘is Christianity true’ to ‘is Christianity good’ and even if it’s held to be true, if it isn’t good, people don’t have a place for it in their lives. Questioning Christianity presents a Christianity that is good and true, and an account for why sometimes it hasn’t seemed either.

I must confess that these aren’t the existential questions I grapple with — I’m a bit weird — maybe. But they are questions that get asked (anecdotally, I’ve now had a series of people call my phone number, listed on our website, to ask about the apocalypse and Covid and a sense that we’re in the midst of a massive socio-political moment, and those have been fun conversations).

I’d love to see a follow up book applying the first section (the story) to ethical issues and questions — a bit like Harrison’s A Better Story — not just those the church struggles with, but those that are evidently problems that any grand metanarrative has to answer (around things like justice, personhood, the environment) — places where the goodness of the Christian story shines through (even if the church has been an agent of Babylon at times).

This is a good book — one that like Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens left me inspired to view my faith as an adventure — a story to engage in — not just dead letters or propositions — and so I’d urge you, wherever you sit on the spectrum from unbelief to unquestioning Christian, to pick it up and give it a read. Maybe you, like the authors, will find truth and goodness in questioning Christianity again, they describe their experience living in this story as follows:

“We have found rich meaning and help and hope in following Jesus. And perhaps the most exciting aspect of becoming a Christian, of joining Jesus on the road, is the unpredictability of God. For it is when you hand over the pen of your own life story that you find yourself swept up into an adventure as wild as the imagination of God.”

That’s also my experience.

Buy a bunch of these for your friends — and, be sure to follow Questioning Christianity on the socials.

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