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gungorEvangelicals were taken aback this summer by popular Christian contemporary musician Michael Gungor’s denial of the historicity of several Old Testament narratives. This came just weeks after Jars of Clay’s lead singer, Dan Haseltine, took to Twitter to debate the merits of same-sex marriage. Both situations provoked celebration from the left and consternation from the right.

Why such a fuss over Christian musicians’ theology and ethics?

For better or for worse, evangelicalism’s lack of authority structure and ecclesial identity open the door for campus ministries, parachurch organizations, and singers, writers, and moviemakers to fulfill the role of quasi-theologians. This is why, when celebrities cross the boundaries of their conservative audience, they get an earful from their constituency, who, rightly or wrongly, feel betrayed by the star’s defection.

The left’s response to Gungor and Jars of Clay was to celebrate an artist’s willingness to boldly “ask questions,” to be “authentic,” and to reformulate Christianity in ways that take into consideration our contemporary setting. The conservative response was to decry these artists as defectors from the faith and to write them and their questions off.

My Facebook feed was filled with both responses – those who praised the courage and creativity of Gungor, and those who condemned their unorthodox views. Both attitudes left me unsatisfied. Here’s why.

The Celebration of Doubt

The left’s response to Gungor is to breathlessly cheer anyone who “steps out of line” doctrinally as they “explore their faith.” This kind of reaction is frustrating for two reasons.

First, it implies that one must leave the bounds of historic orthodoxy in order to explore their faith. As if it’s courageous for a fish to say, “The ocean is not big enough for me!” and then flop onto the sand. “Exploring our faith” ought to mean we move into the deep end of the pool of orthodoxy, not that we get out altogether and mock the other swimmers. (And how is it the “broadminded” progressive is the one who narrows the number of miracles to believe?)

Secondly, it implies that asking questions is always a good thing. Doubts are exalted and certainty is demonized. Or at least, doubting is courageous and certainty is suspect.

But questions are never just questions. As Mark Galli says, ”There is no such thing as a neutral inquiry when it comes to questions about God.”

Galli contrasts two kinds of questions, one that arises out of a “trusting faith” and another that arises out of “a desire to have God prove himself on human terms.” The left’s celebration of doubt fails to deal adequately with the self-justifying tendencies of the human heart:

“Given human nature… we can safely assume that the questions are largely driven by a desire to justify ourselves, to put God in the dock, and to don those judicial robes.”

The problem with celebrating doubt is that all questions are treated the same, as if the motives are always pure and innocent. The truth is, the spirit behind a question can either be faith seeking understanding or unbelief seeking justification. 

Gungor’s remarks were dripping with condescension toward people whose interpretation differs from his, which is why his “questions” provoked a heated response from conservative Christians.

The Condemnation of Doubt

While the left sees doubt as courageous and certainty as suspect, the right inverts this picture. Recognizing the smug attitude in many who “question,” conservatives can easily assume that all our questions arise from a rebellious heart seeking to capitulate to cultural pressure.

Our response to the wrong kind of questioning can unintentionally shut down the right kind of questioning.

This attitude is problematic because of the message it communicates to the people in our churches: the recently-converted physics professor in the row behind you, the teenager at your house for a Disciple Now weekend whose best friend just came out as gay, or the man in your small group who just buried his wife after a long battle with cancer. I’m afraid the vehement response to Gungor and Jars of Clay, though understandable as a response to feeling “betrayed” by these evangelical celebrities, tells churchgoers, It is not safe to ask these questions here. It is not safe to be honest about your doubts.

Many Christians already feel guilty for internally questioning the authority of their church’s teaching or the reliability of God’s Word or the cohesiveness of Christian theology. But since we live in a culture in which we breathe the air of Enlightenment rationalism, the Sexual Revolution, and the consumerism of Amazon, shouldn’t we expect people in our congregations to wrestle with questions regarding the historicity of Bible stories? Shouldn’t we expect people to wonder why the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality is good and beneficial to society? Shouldn’t we expect people to be curious about why they belong to this particular Christian church and not another one, especially when it’s as easy to change churches as it is to change shoes?

Church leaders say they want to provide a safe place for people to be honest and open about their struggles, but if we are not careful, our denunciation of public expressions of doubt may cause some of the sincere doubters in our own congregations to climb into their shells and never ask the substantive questions. This facade gets tiresome, of course, and it is the reason some people just drift away from church altogether.

The good news is, Jesus loves doubters. He never stopped loving His disciples. Thomas got a reprimand, but He also got a close-up of Jesus’ scars of love.

God can use doubt in a similar manner to the way a broken limb can actually wind up stronger and more fortified at the very place the break occurred. We don’t have to see broken limbs as a good thing to observe that good things can come from the healing process. Many times, our experience with doubt leaves us stronger in the end, with people who truly own their faith.

The Way of Faith

So, let’s make sure that when we express our disappointment in evangelical leaders who cast doubt on fundamental truths of the faith, or who question Christianity’s distinctive sexual ethic, we don’t imply that all such questions are wrongheaded. As Matthew Lee Anderson writes:

“The way forward is the way of faith, a faith that does not deny questioning but orients questions toward understanding and grounds them in love. For faith is the pretext for questioning well, the atmosphere that sustains patient, longing inquiry.”


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24 thoughts on “Gungor, Questions, and the Doubters Among Us”

  1. Thanks Trevin. I am very disheartened by many “conservatives” who place their own traditions (the way they interpret specific texts) as the supreme arbiter of truth. What absolutely amazes me is they think they are being “conservative” or that they are “inerrantists” by holding to a specific interpretation… actually, the opposite is true. (I just wrote a post about this). What is true is God’s word, our interpretations are flawed. The belief in inerrancy allows for MORE freedom to seek the truth and compare ideas because we are tethered to the truth. I’m just flabbergasted by people who say “you must believe this way” or “you can’t hold to that view…” and these are dogmatic positions that didn’t even exist 200 years ago. As an inerrantist and a fundamentalist myself, I’m mostly ashamed of what those labels are put on (by people who claim them, and those who oppose them). Lord help us…

    1. G.D.A. says:

      Saying “God’s word is true, not interpretation” is very misleading and unhelpful. It shows a fault in Protestantism’s inability to see the good in tradition, due to connotations with the Roman Catholic Church. Simply saying “God’s word is what is true” does not prove Satan incorrect when tempting Jesus in the wilderness. God’s word means nothing if the wrong interpretation is applied. This is why patristics and tradition of “interpretation” is important. Remember, scripture says: “and they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine.” (Acts 2:42) There is not something wrong with one who seeks to connect himself with the ancient interpretive traditions. There is however something wrong with the innovations of people who refuse to submit to the pattern of the early church.

      1. johnc says:

        God’s fingerprints are all over Creation. Acting as if there is nothing to learn about God apart from the stories of the Early Church is shortsighted.

  2. Wesley says:

    Great post Trev. I especially like the differentiation between the two types of questioning you brought up from Gali – that is a key distinction that needs to be made, viz. what is th emotive behind the question. Not always easy to put your finger on what that motivation is behind the question. As you say, in Gungor’s case, it seemed a bit more apparent, but perhaps he was simply anticipating the opposition and ended up pushing too hard to compensate?

  3. Keith Kraska says:

    The difference between questioning and doubting is perfectly illustrated in the responses from Mary and Zacharias to the announcement of their children.
    “How can this be?” Mary asked.
    “How shall I know this?” Zacharias asked.
    Both asked questions, but as in Galli’s terms, one was in faith, the other in demand. One was graciously answered, and the other was punished.
    The Bible has nothing good to say about doubt.

  4. EricP says:

    So believing the earth is 6000 years old is a foundation of the faith? There’s no room for old earth creationists in TGC?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      No… plenty of old-earth creationists in TGC. I think the alarm was regarding other Old Testament accounts, such as Adam and Eve and Noah, stories that Jesus referred to historically.

      1. EricP says:

        Thanks for the reply, Trevin.

        Jesus referring to a story does not make it any more than a story. I found this article that gives a pretty decent rebuttal (IMHO) to Adam & Eve needing to be real. http://www.patheos.com/jesuscreed/2013/06/04/jesus-on-adam-and-eve-rjs/

        1. John K says:

          Did the people Jesus was talking to about marriage believe it was a real story? There’s no indication that they did not that I see. Jesus is dealing with a serious issue, and giving a serious response, referring to a historical event.. If he believed it was only a story, why did he refer to it in such an authoritative way, instead of correcting them on their understand? Yes, Jesus referred to parables and such, but can you show us an instance where Jesus clearly refers to an OT historical narrative as a not actually historical parable? When Jesus tells parables, they weren’t recorded Old Testament stories.

          1. John K says:

            “Understanding”, not “understand”, sorry.

      2. Pamela says:

        Plus he also implied that Jesus may not have known what he was talking about or even out and out lied. That goes way beyond the old earth, young earth, theistic evolution debate, it speaks to the very heart of who Jesus is.

  5. Cody says:

    Great thoughts, Trevin. It seems to me that we in theologically conservatives circles feel so embattled that allowing questions that cut to the core of our theology seems like “giving up ground.” It’s unfortunate, really. I have wrestled with many questions of this nature but don’t like to discuss it much because I feel like I’d be branded as someone who doesn’t believe the Bible rather than someone trying to honestly seek truth. This ‘my way or the highway’ approach, if you will, doesn’t seem to blend well with a loving community of Christ followers.

  6. Derek says:

    Good article Trevin (as usual). Great thoughts.

    I particularly appreciate the wisdom in this quote:

    “The problem with celebrating doubt is that all questions are treated the same, as if the motives are always pure and innocent. The truth is, the spirit behind a question can either be faith seeking understanding or unbelief seeking justification”

    For a few years I was an advocate of the “question everything” movement. I still believe that people need the freedom to question and explore and even doubt, and they shouldn’t be judged or shunned for doing so. But what I didn’t take into consideration (and what many of my friends still don’t) is that there are always motives behind the questions.

  7. Tara says:

    Trevin, do you have any resources on what proof there is for stories like Adam and Eve, Noah, etc? Just curious as to what is out there. I don’t really know what I think, but had actually never heard the idea that Noah might have not been “real” until Michael pointed it out.

  8. Jason says:

    Apparently I missed the part where Gungor was asking any honest, soul searching “questions”, looking for help with issues he was wrestling with. All I read was him telling others the Genesis creation account, the first man Adam and Noah’s flood were myths not to be taken literal, that people who believed otherwise were not rational thinkers, and that Jesus, too, could have been wrong about His own statements concerning them. Gungor came across as arrogant and condescending.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      It might help to read the post. I am not defending Gungor’s type of “questioning.”

  9. Stephen says:

    I appreciate the article and agree wholeheartedly with your points. I do wish you had noted, however, that in the case of Jars of Clay singer Dan Haseltine he specifically responded about the nature of his questions. He gave a detailed explanation of how his questions were not what many people saw them as or what thye might have appeared to be on the surface, and also gave an apology of sorts for the forum (Twitter) and wording of his questions. Granted, he could have been lying. If we offer even a basic benefit of the doubt, though, we should put him in the camp of he honest searcher.

  10. Dan McCoy says:

    Good reasons to ignore and/or dislike “contemporary Christian” artists.

  11. Hi guys, I just wanted to clarify that I was severely misunderstood time and time again through that whole deal. I never intended to say anything disparaging towards people who read Genesis differently than I do. My words were only “dripping with condescension” when they were being misinterpreted. For instance, one quote that keeps being used is that I said that no reasonable person believes the Bible completely literally. If you look at the context of that I wasn’t saying that people that take the Bible completely literally aren’t reasonable, I was saying that NOBODY takes the entire Bible literally. Even people that claim to. The example I used was “God is a rock.” Are we to take that literally? I was simply pointing to the fact that the library of the Bible uses all sorts of genres that we all interpret whether we like to admit it or not. I wasn’t at all saying that people that don’t agree with me aren’t reasonable. And that’s the case for every one of the quotes that were taken out of context in this ‘story’ that was somehow assembled from old blog posts and interviews. I know that people much smarter than me disagree with me on how to properly interpret Genesis. But for the sake of what this sort of bad journalism does to people like me (gigs canceling..etc) , I would certainly encourage you to do a little more homework before writing articles like this. Thanks!

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Michael,

      Thank you for stopping by. I’ve been blessed by your musical and lyrical abilities over the years. The song “Beautiful Things” is spectacular.

      My blog audience is well aware of the difference between “literalistic” and “literal” interpretations of the Scriptures, as well as the use of various genres. When I read the blog posts you wrote, the vibe was clearly condescending toward more conservative readers (the comparison to belief in Genesis narratives to Santa Claus, for example). Many evangelicals have differing opinions on how creation came about, but there has been a relatively stable belief in an historical Adam and Eve. Surely it is not surprising to you that many of your fans would be upset to hear you throw Adam and Eve and Noah’s flood into the purely mythological category, especially when Jesus spoke of these stories with the assumption of their historicity.

      1. Hey Trevin, the Santa Clause comment was another example of misunderstanding the context. I wasn’t ‘comparing’ the intellectual acumen of someone who believes in a literal Adam and Eve to believing someone who believes in Santa Clause. That was a parenthetical comment in a blog post about the nature of belief. I was arguing that we have very little ability to self-determine our basic assumptions about reality. That comment was an example and a point about my own assumptions about reality, not about how one should interpret Genesis. There was nothing about that comment that was intended to be disparaging towards someone who believes in a literalistic Genesis account.

        1. Trevin Wax says:

          I understand the point you were making on the blog and the context in which you were making it. But it appears you don’t understand that – even in that context – it feels condescending and disparaging. Here’s why:

          Your point is that our metaphysical assumptions about reality determine how we interpret Scripture so that you’re not in a position of disbelieving or rejecting these ancient narratives: you simply cannot believe them due to your presuppositions. The reason this feel condescending to conservatives is that you are questioning the underlying assumptions that lead them to see ancient miracles as possible in a transcendent universe with an active God. Your point about underlying assumptions is that it prohibits you from belief, in this case, whereas the traditional Christian would say, “We need Jesus’ underlying assumptions, and He apparently believed this narrative.” It feels condescending to the conservative because you are implying that an assumption that prohibits belief in these narratives is superior and more enlightened than an assumption that allows for the miraculous view. Does that make sense?

          1. My point wasn’t about interpreting Scripture, it was about epistemology and the nature of belief. But yes, of course, that underlying lens would impact how one would interpret Scripture. I still don’t understand though why an implication that my assumptions are more true than other people’s assumptions would be condescending. Who doesn’t believe that their assumptions are more true than other people’s assumptions? That’s the nature of assumptions. What could be condescending is if I said something about disparaging about people that disagree with me about my assumptions. To accuse someone of condescension for expressing their viewpoint simply because you disagree with it doesn’t seem like a fair argument to me

            1. Trevin Wax says:

              I sent you an email offline in hopes we can continue this conversation in private.

              Of course you are right that communicating underlying assumptions do not necessarily have to be condescending. Again, the issue is that you expect your audience, who up until now has believed you share a wide range of similar epistemology and conclusions of belief, to be fine not only with your rejection of what the majority of Christians through the years have always believed but also with your rejection of an epistemology that lends itself to open-mindedness regarding the miraculous. Someone could use the same statement you have about epistemological foundations in order to rule out virtually any New Testament miracle, including the virgin birth of Christ or the bodily resurrection. (Not accusing you of this, by the way, just extrapolating the principle beyond the Old Testament stories.)

              Conservative evangelicals have every right to expect that the musicians and songwriters hailed in the worship movement share common presuppositions and assumptions that lead to belief in more miracles, not less. I was not pleased with the online outrage leveled against you and made that clear in the article, primarily because I am more concerned with how we treat people in our congregations who are wrestling through things like this. At the same time, I find the evangelical disappointment understandable, since many probably assumed you share the same epistemological outlook and biblical interpretive conclusions.

              When you find your favorite Christian band has more in common with Schleiermacher than Billy Graham, naturally, there’s an element of disappointment there.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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