Salve for the Evangelical Soul

In recent years there have been numerous books, almost a nascent genre, in which disaffected or “enlightened” evangelicals share how they were wounded by their childhood faith and have now outgrown it. I am always amazed when the new insights and startling breakthroughs shared in these books are things that the wider church has practiced for centuries. More amazing is how evangelical readers, who have largely ignored the historic church, seem so eager to receive the condemnation and kicks from these writers who are still somehow trusted as “one of their own.”

Doug Frank’s A Gentler God is not one of these books. When Frank writes “What is most interesting to me is not what evangelicals think, but how we feel” it is apparent that in many ways he is still an evangelical. Yet Frank’s book is a recovery project for himself and his readers. His aim is not so much to put their theological ducks in a row, but to comfort those who have been wounded by the faith of their childhood, in the hope that they might still be able to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ as good news. Frank teaches at the Oregon Extension, an intentional community in Oregon’s Cascade mountains that hosts a semester study program for students of Christian colleges. Almost certainly, much of what he shares here arose from years of conversations, very pastoral in tone, with these young evangelicals. (Sadly, Albatross Books, the Australian publisher, has a conflict with Amazon so the book is currently available only at wipfandstock.com and dougfrankbooks.com.)

A Gentler God is a rich and readable ragout of theology, American church history, pop culture, scripture, and psychology. It will be Frank’s reliance on psychology–family of origin, shame, anger, approval of father-figures–that will be soothing and healing for many readers, but will make others wary and uncomfortable.

In the first half of the book, “Breaking Free of the Almighty,” Frank recalls a mid-twentieth century childhood in which God was proclaimed as loving, big, and caring, but equally wrathful, frightening, and unable to abide sin. A cruel, almost mechanistic rendering of the penal-substitution atonement theory only compounded the problem. Frank calls himself a “serial conversionist” who went “ceaseless rounds of approach and avoidance” with this God. As a student at Wheaton College, Frank was introduced to a God perhaps more familiar to readers of this journal–a more cerebral, distant, and sovereign God. While eager to shed the shame of his fundamentalist background for this more respectable God, Frank points out that the God of his childhood, while angry and punitive, still seems to touch the human heart in ways the remote and sovereign God does not.

American evangelicals are wounded survivors, says Frank, who have learned to live with a difficult father. The wounds from this father produce “adolescentization”–illusions of integrity, moralism, and perfectionism, a valiant resolve to be shiny, happy people within a dysfunctional family.

“In the Company of the Human Jesus”–the second half of the book–is where Frank finds relief. Drawing freely from Moltmann and Luther, Frank wonders, “If Christians believe Jesus uniquely reveals the invisible God, why don’t we pay more attention to this visible fellow from Nazareth when we set out to describe God?” Good question, indeed.

In Jesus, Frank discovers God is small, weak and a “person not at war with himself.” Frank offers especially fresh and helpful insights on hell (which he does not dismiss, “Jesus believed in hell”) and compassion. His image of the inner “housekeeper” in all of us–who wants to manage us, tidy up our ugliness and avoid the messy freedom of grace–is delightful.

More than once in Frank’s discussions of Jesus, however, I found myself asking, “Is that it? Is that all Jesus does? It seems so small.” Since one of Frank’s central claims is that Jesus does reveal God to be small–whispering and weak, one whose hands are tied–then maybe I was simply reading Frank accurately. Still, I was left to wonder are there any cosmic dimensions to Jesus and his life? Is the kilter of the universe at all altered by incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection? And in asking such questions, I felt so doctrinaire, harsh, and Reformed. I can go a long ways with a “small reading” of Jesus–humble, vulnerable, kenotic. But at times Frank seemed instead to be moving toward a “subjective reading” of Jesus–where we heal our inner child in the embrace of Jesus, who joins in our sufferings.

Frank’s largely appreciative engagement with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son may be illustrative of my conundrum. He writes, “I hear Wolterstorff wrestling with the remnants of an Almighty lodged in the deeper wells of his consciousness” and “because Wolterstorff cannot let go of the magical, omnipotent God, he cannot evade the painful questions.” Do not misunderstand Frank as aggressively critical of Wolterstorff. On the whole he is supportive of where Wolterstorff eventually arrives. Nonetheless I couldn’t help but empathize with Wolterstorff–trying to wrestle with classic doctrines such as omnipotence (atonement or resurrection could be examples, too), to hold them lightly, to sense their mystery and to recognize their potential for abuse, but to hold them in some manner. Frank is nuanced enough not to reject classic doctrines bluntly. He isn’t recycling open theism or Abelard’s atonement theory. But his concern, to apply balm to the wounds from a vengeful and magical god, tends to nudge him in that direction.

And yet this book is compelling because of Frank’s own gentleness–gentleness that has conviction and energy, never mushiness. He reflects and embodies the God he presents. So often those who have struggled with or been wounded by their religious background are full of snide comments, resentment, and hostility. Not so here. One senses that this book is a life-work, an outcome of a long, patient journey where enough time has passed and enough wisdom been gained for sour grapes to have become sweet and nourishing.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is pastor of the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa and is an editor of Perspectives.