Every time I get ready to write a book review, I start to feel like I'm about to do something huge–like lead worship with feeble guitar skills, or send out the starting line-up for a little league game, or get in the ring with a prize fighter. It's always nerve wracking and it's always a bit daunting–especially when the author of the book is someone who is fairly well known and fairly well respected.
With that being said, I have to ask an honest question: Why does anyone want to read a book by Barnabas Piper? And an extension of this question goes something like this: Can I read/review this book without making even that passing reference to his, arguably, more famous father? One shouldn't have anything to do with the other, right?
Yet this is exactly where my first question comes in: what has Barnabas Piper done in his life that is justification for reading his book about matters of faith, Jesus, Church, being a disciple of Jesus, and so on and so forth? Is it his struggles, his doubts, his family name, or something else? There is nothing novel or unique about what he says in this book. There is nothing extraordinary in this book that I haven't read before. There is nothing about this book that makes a little light bulb hover above my head.
I'm not saying it's a terrible book. I am saying that it's nothing new and so I wonder who it was written for, what the market is, and why I would want to buy this book. Can the book stand on it's own?
Piper states his purpose in writing: "My goal is to help you see that belief isn't blind faith and that questions, if asked well, are building blocks for strong faith rather than stepping stones away from it." (Kindle, Location 87). OK. This is good. But why should I trust that this particular author has the answers to these questions? And does the author, ultimately, accomplish his purpose? The first question, I am unsure how to answer. Some people will trust his answers, but I'm not sure they know why they trust his answers. This gets back to that second question I asked above which had something to do with whether or not I can read this book apart from the knowledge of who he is related to. I think other people will find his answers shallow or cliched. This is not a deep book, it's not a book that takes you on a whirlwind, big city adventure through the Bible. It's full of lots of nice quotes from famous people and anecdotes about his own personal journey.
The second question (does he accomplish his purposes) is a yes/no for me. Let me give you an example of the problem as I see it.
Piper asks some difficult questions in the book, but what if his particular theological disposition that underlies his answers is flawed? How do we understand his answers? So: "If He chooses who will be saved, then why are unchosen people held responsible for their actions and His choice?" (Kindle location 447; he does mention human free will at location 577, but I'm not sure how he means it given everything else he has written in the book). This is a question he asks that has a presupposition underneath it: God intentionally saves some and intentionally condemns the rest. I simply cannot agree with his proposition and it was difficult for me to separate what I suspect/know of his theological tendencies and the answers he gives to some of the questions in the book.
I just read this morning, 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (ESV) Or what about Paul in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth." (ESV) I think this is the main problem I have with the book. It is beholden to a theological proposition that simply cannot be maintained logically if one reads the entire Bible, observes human nature, and thinks logically. There is no way we can say that God wants all to be saved and then turn around and say that God only saves a few and that the unchosen are, well, lost. There is no way to say that God chooses some for salvation and not others unless you are willing to attribute evil to God.
This is the No side of my answer.
On the Yes side of my answer I had to wait until I got all the way to the appendix 1: Reading the Bible to Meet God. This was the most satisfying part of the book for me: "We must learn to read the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end." (Location 1449). I think in this part of the book he offers us the solutions that I had been waiting for through the entire book because it is here that he finally engages Scripture–to an extent–or should I say encourages us to engage the Scripture. It was most disappointing that this section only made it to an appendix–as if we will find more answers to our doubts and struggles by reading anecdotes about Piper's doubts and life instead of reading stories from the Scripture.
Nevertheless, the points he makes in Appendix 1 are quite good–I only wish he had explored them more in the main text because frankly they would have made better chapters: Read the whole Bible; look for Jesus; get to know Jesus; don't shy away from the hard stuff; start small (I'm iffy on this section); don't read the Bible as a set of rules; pray for the Spirit's help. These are actually the answers we needed when it comes to living in the tension between doubt and faith because the chapters he gives us are really only his beliefs and theological dispositions–many of which, as I noted above, are simply incompatible with the whole Bible he encourages us to read (such as his acceptance of the five solas; I still struggle with how there can be five 'onlys'. Kindle, chapter 2).
One final note of importance. I agree with the author that it is OK for the church or individual Christians to say things like 'I don't know.' I have had to learn this as a human who always wants to have an answer to the questions people ask me. I think we are afraid if we say 'I don't know' people will think we are stupid so we end up giving answers that absolutely confirm our stupidity. So it's OK for the church, or for Christians, to have no answers to all the suffering and violence that goes on around us. It's OK to ask questions: "Questions are an indication of trust." And here I think Piper answers his own questions well: "By revealing what He did in Scripture, God created a massive mystery. He gave us an enigma, a puzzle, a riddle with so many dimensions and plotlines and layers and themes that even just those sixty-six books have generated libraries of volumes of thought, argument, and questions" (Kindle location 225). Yes. Even in our doubts, in some mysterious way, we point to Jesus for answers even if our mouths happen to stay closed.
In short, we do not have to have all the answers to all the questions or perhaps better, we do not have all the answers to all the questions. It's OK to sit in silence for a while and pray. As the time worn conclusion goes, "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt." I think this is something that the Church in general should learn and I think Piper is right to emphasize this point. I think it's OK to live in the tension between grace and doubt and to let grace be sufficient. (See chapter 8, So What and What Now?, Kindle location 1381ff).
Overall, the book is not terrible. It's not the best I've read, but not the worst either. I think for some people it will be wholly unsatisfying and for others it will be a good introduction. He has some good and important things to say and he has some other insufficient things to say–especially as it relates to his theological under girding. I didn't come away from the book wholly satisfied, but I didn't come away wholly unchallenged either. I think if a person can weave through some of the theological underpinnings and get to the core of his discussion (which I confess was difficult for me) then there may be some fruit to be realized. At least Piper is humble enough understand that the church is bigger than his opinions and ideas and thoughts and for this I respect him (see the Afterward) and my disagreements with him theologically are not to be interpreted as personal attacks.
At the end of the day, his best advice was found near the end: "In God's infinite wisdom the best way to bring more people to belief is to show them a massively varied story pointed in one direction–to Himself" (Kindle location 1355). I think he is correct on this point and that he does well to point it out. Maybe soon the church will become the place where all such things are discussed in detail precisely because we are all looking for Jesus to arrive…because I'm inclined to think that Jesus will arrive long before any of us do. And this keeps us hungry. And humble. And searching. All things Piper suggests we need to do and be.
Doubt, in a way, keeps us safe because it keeps us moving forward in search of Jesus. Someday he will surprise us and be found. I know that I personally long for a church where I am free to live in the tension and find satisfaction in Jesus alone.
So, to answer my earlier question: Yes. I think this is a book that can stand on its own. I'm not buying all he is selling, but neither am I dismissing it. There's much to think about and much to enjoy.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Help My Unbelief David C Cook (Trade Paperback, $14.99) Amazon (Kindle, $9.99) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback, $10.99)
- Author: Barnabas Piper
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 176
- Year: 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley
- Interview with Barnabas Piper @Christianity Today
- Page numbers in this review are based on a Kindle version ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.