2017-07-12
Help My Unbelief
By Fleming Rutledge
Eerdmans, $22, hardcover, 273 pp.

I am a homeless soul, rhetorically speaking. Caught between the orthodox but immature rantings of the evangelical community and the wise, cool heresies in mainline circles, I feel estranged from both. If I spend too much time imbibing in either camp, I grow nauseated at the community's toxic tendencies--an avoidance of depth and nuance for evangelicals and the inability to talk about the living and reigning Lord Jesus Christ without embarrassment among mainliners.

Which is why I find the sermons of Fleming Rutledge to be a homecoming and a reassurance. Her preached words reassure me that I am indeed on the right path, that wisdom and traditional Christian faith belong together, that I can have a big view of God while simultaneously reading sophisticated pundits and opinion journalists (her first collection of sermons was called "The Bible and the New York Times").

Rutledge, an Episcopal priest, says this collection is designed for the "faithful doubter" or even an "unbelieving believer," but that is overly dramatic. These sermons are what all true disciples should drink, a full-bodied draft of the deep logic of Scripture. Besides, I have met very few actual open-minded seekers in church--at least not enough to warrant a book of sermons aimed only at them. And any 21st-century Christian is a faithful doubter at times, especially when insurance premiums are due.

Much of Rutledge's power comes from her readiness to credit God with being, well, God. In "Moses and Monotheism: A Response to Dr. Freud," she tackles the story of God's revelation in the burning bush: "Now Freud would say that all of this is nothing more than a projection of human wishes and human longings." But this is a misreading of the biblical writers' basic message: "The Bible forbids us to think about the text this way. If we rewrote the story by saying Moses imagined that God spoke to him, it changes into something else altogether. You may not believe a word of the Bible, but it isn't fair to recast it in terms other than its own. With rather staggering audacity, it presents us with something that we could not have imagined: a God who discloses himself over against human fantasies." And what does God disclose? That He acts. He is not merely a philosophical abstract or the sum of our longings but Someone who walks with us, who goes before us, who gets us to do things. He is the kind of God who partners with "disreputable people" like Moses and Paul and "maybe even Al Sharpton." God is an actor in the drama he created.

The best way to read "Help My Unbelief" is devotionally, in small bites, a sermon at a time. Many of her sentences need to be savored and chewed slowly: "It is far better to look disbelief straight in the face than to make up a god to suit ourselves." Or, in a reflection on Romans 5, "We all hope for good things to happen in the next millennium, which are genuinely possible, like a cure for cancer, but human nature being what it is, it is also possible that our grandchildren will contract smallpox in a bioterrorist attack. Such is our world as Paul describes it for us." In an attempt to recapture 1 Corinthians 13 for the church, she writes, "Love does not lead to God; God in Jesus Christ leads us to love.... Agape is not an ideal for me to aim at; agape is already actively at work in me from beyond myself."

An avid reader, and reader of culture, Rutledge draws on recent events and writings to help us confront afresh the Word of God. For instance, she uses the news story of Serb-oppressed Kosovar refugees, victims of terrible injustice who nonetheless turn around and try to tear a Gypsy boy limb from limb, to illustrate Paul's concept of sin. She takes on Jay McInerey's essay in The New Yorker about his frustration over his dying mother's faith to explain the mystery of the work of the Holy Spirit. Four decades of wrestling with Scripture from the pulpit allows her to say the hard-to-hear truths and the hard-to-understand teachings of Scripture.

There is precious little that tickles the soul in these meditations. Rutledge's sermons are more like spiritual RET (Rational Emotive Therapy), hard-hitting confrontations with the truth. Where others see examples of human goodness, Rutledge sees God's gracious goodness that he allows sinful human agents to participate in his work. The reader does not come away feeling one's self-esteem has been massaged. "The good news is that God's ultimate purpose of mercy for humanity is not for our sake--it is not because we earned his mercy or because we deserve it; rather, it is for the sake of his holy name." I can almost hear the healing "ouch" from the therapist's couch.

Rutledge runs so much against the "feel-good, felt-need" preaching of today, she runs the risk of being unpopular and difficult to market. I hope she finds her satisfaction in pleasing her Lord and not in her royalty checks. We who desperately need this tonic of biblical wisdom, who may feel spiritually homeless, let us spread the good news that there is a preacher among us who can show us the way.



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