A Feature Review of
A Flexible Faith:
Rethinking What it Means to Follow Jesus Today
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
In many ways, it’s not a new story: the church continues to divide, members continue to find problems with their own local church or denominations and switch memberships, Protestantism continues to protest. In some ways, though, the old story has taken a new shape: young Christians see rigid teaching in one church they can’t follow or deem theologically unsound, and they leave church altogether. Bonnie Kristian responds to this moment with A Flexible Faith and its look at the variety of views within Christianity. As she says, “I don’t want to see Christians becoming nones because they’ve been falsely told there’s just one way to follow Jesus. That’s why I think there’s a lot of value to introducing Christians to our siblings and even distant cousins in the faith” (6). With that idea in mind, she discusses doctrines, opinions, people, and traditions that show the various ways that Christians have found to explore their faith.
Greg Boyd writes the foreword, and his influence appears throughout the book. Kristian credits him with the concentric-circles idea she uses to explain her starting point. At the center, we have Jesus, surrounded by Christian dogma, or those beliefs necessary to the faith (these would likely be credal statements). Outside of those, we have doctrines, the important distinctions that often separate denominations. Finally, we have opinions, tertiary issues worth thinking about, but not central to the faith.
With that in mind, Kristian explores seventeen issues related to doctrine or opinion, including “What does it mean to say the Bible is God’s Word?” and “What does the Lord’s Supper Mean?” Within each of these discussions, she offers brief explanations of the most common ideas believed by Christians, all of which would generally be considered part of orthodox Christianity. Kristian’s lucid writing makes these encapsulations accessible and readable. Theology nerds might find quibbles here or there, but her introductions to the topic will serve most readers well.
It’s key at this point, to keep in mind the target audience for this book, which won’t be academics or theologians. Kristian writes for a general audience, and she does that well. A reader could keep this book handy for a quick refresher, or churches could use it for an easy Introduction to Theology sort of class. At the end of each chapter, she provides a list of texts for further learning. Boyd and Paul Eddy’s Across the Spectrum comes up so frequently that you might question why you wouldn’t just read that book, but it’s a more demanding text (and the topics don’t quite align). Kristian instead has created a work where any of the topics can be covered quickly and efficiently before moving on to more depth as time and interest allow, whether to patristic writings, academic monographs, Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, or other relevant material.
Each chapter closes with a quick biography of a figure whose life connects to the topic at hand. Some of these people (John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards) are well known, while others – and often the most interesting – have received less attention (Hildegard von Bingen). These bios introduce some thinkers clearly and concisely, but, more important, they show the breadth of Christian thinking and living over the past 2000 years. While someone like Augustine remains deeply embedded in Western theology, the story of someone like Jarena Lee shows the power that faith can have individually and societally. Margaret Fell Fox shows a particular way to live, as well as the history of ideas often thought to be new (like egalitarianism).
Kristian also explores a number of specific denominations or broader traditions. In between each topical chapter, she provides a brief Q&A with a member of less typically visible backgrounds. She doesn’t interview a leader from, say, the Southern Baptist Convention, whose views might be more prominent in our culture. Instead she finds representatives from a Latin American base community, the Coptic Orthodox Church, Messianic Judaism, and the like. These five-question surveys provide quick introductions not so much to specific doctrines, but to organized approaches to the Christian faith, revealing the variety of practices in existence.
For the most part, these talks successfully introduce their traditions in a few pages (a few respondents seem to drift into conversations they’d rather have rather than the one Kristian hopes for). The “elevator ride” conversations quickly pin down the specifics of the theology, and Kristian’s question “What is [your] unique strength in or contribution to the Church universal?” allows readers to see not just the difference within the broader church, but also the value of these varying ways to follow Jesus. That question particularly reveals why we should be in cross-denominational work and conversation. For anyone more interested in a given tradition, the representatives provide a short list or recommended resources for further learning.
That desire for further learning drives much of A Flexible Faith. The book works best as a conversation-starter. In particular, small groups from a given church or ecumenical reading groups might benefit from letting Kristian guide them in discussion. “What do you believe, and why?” becomes a questions more confidently addressed. Each of the seventeen topics covered in the book are topics that Christians should consider, and these chapters provide just enough material to get dialogue going.
The book serves those who don’t belong to a church, or to those who are uncomfortable with their own tradition, as well. Kristian provides a lengthy chapter on how “to explore church options and find one to which you can commit wholeheartedly” (227). She thinks through concepts like community, theology, and service style and then introduces some of the prominent denominations, broadly considered. Like much of the book, it is (and is meant to be) a good starting point. Covering this ground should be as helpful for Christians who have become disillusioned with the strictures of their own churches as it is for those new to the faith.
Ultimately, Kristian recognizes that all this theological diversity isn’t an inherent good, but that understanding alternate viewpoints can help us more effectively serve God and each other. She doesn’t argue that “all options of faith and practice are equally correct,” but she understands that in our imperfect world, we need to learn to work together across divides. A pastoral heart comes through as she closes the book with optimism; these chapters on seventeen points of doctrine aren’t meant to be simply a resource, but also a way forward. In a demanding time, Kristian’s vision and clarity should aid both thought and conversation.
Justin Cober-Lake holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. He’s also the co-founder of OneFocus Press.