Jon Meacham is best known as a biographer of Presidents, whether his excellent look at Thomas Jefferson’s life (my review here), or his Pulitzer-winning biography of Andrew Jackson. His recent work, The Hope of Glory, is a short reflection on Jesus’s words from the cross. I grabbed it after I got an email from Goodreads in which Meacham described his perspective and talked about his faith. I thought it might be interesting to see his perspective, but have to admit I was a little worried due not wanting to see some sort of patriotic deity paraded in front of me. I shouldn’t have been worried. What I found instead was a pithy, frank discussion of faith alongside some theological reflection. I found it helpful in my own reading as I’ve been reconstructing faith.
Meacham writes that, “For the thoughtful believer… there is nothing more certain than the reality of uncertainty, nothing more natural than doubt…” (12). He notes the difficulty with seeking certainty: “Fundamentalist believers and fundamentalist atheists would both do well… to acknowledge that literalism may be comforting but is ultimately dangerous, for an uncritical acceptance of one worldview or another (whether in religion or politics) ends more conversations than it begins” (13). Though I feel more certain now than I had before, a lot of that is due to my decision to “go public” with my own thoughts about faith. The common saying about the more you know, the more you know you don’t know seems so true to me in regards to Christianity and faith. While once, I felt so certain that I could demonstrate my beliefs were superior to those of others’, I no longer feel that way.
Fundamentalism is a frequent target of Meacham, and he even goes so far as to note that it can be sinful: “Literalism is for the weak; fundamentalism is for the insecure. Both are sins, too, against God, for to come to believe that we are in exclusive possession of the truth about things beyond time and space, and thus hold the power to shape lives about things within time and space, is to put ourselves in the place of God” (69-70). Over and over again, I see people who talk about the “clear teaching of Scripture” and how those who disagree with them are sinning due to their rejection of God’s word. But if that’s true, how is it possible that people do, seemingly in good conscience, disagree on so many of these “clear” issues? I think that we need to be very careful about what we say is so clear. What is clear for one of us may not be clear to all. We get in danger of reductionism when we push for the “yes or no” clarity of certainty.
Meacham notes that we as Christians “are called to use our minds as well as our hearts in reading the Bible…” and that we need not ignore possible difficulties in the Bible. He goes so far as to say that one can hold the Scriptures are “perhaps inspired but certainly fallible” (42). His wording is strong, to the point I’m not sure agree (I would affirm the Bible is inspired, for example), but part of his effort seems to be to force readers to think through their assumptions and certainties and see where there may be problems.
Meacham writes about hell, and he argues that one can find verses to contradict each other on the topic, such that a reader who wants to insist on literal interpretations will end up in a “guerrilla war that never ends” as they “fight… verse-to-verse” (90). One thing I’ve contemplated a lot as I reconstruct faith is the notion of the polyvalence of Scripture. I don’t remember where I first heard the term–it may have been Peter Enns–but I know I reacted poorly the first time I heard it. But more and more, I’ve thought about it as I’ve read and reflected on Scripture in my reading and devotion times. I think about how Kings and Chronicles portray the Kings of Israel and Judah in different, sometimes apparently competing ways. What does that mean for our own reading of Scripture? What does it mean as we try to take it seriously and read at as inspired?
Meacham’s book is a fascinating, challenging read that highlights his love of Jesus while also noting his own perspectives related to Scripture and believers. It’s worth reading and challenging yourself to look beyond individual quotes and think about what he says. Like me, you may find yourself nodding along at times, while at others you may sit back in contemplation and wonder about your own faith journey.
Reconstructing Faith– Read other posts as I search for truth and navigate the messiness that is faith.
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