A Feature Review of
Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith
Hardcover: HarperOne, 2017
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Benjamin Corey’s latest book Unafraid began with a spiritual crisis. Corey was paralyzed with fear, and he realized he could trace his problems largely to a flawed view of God. He had a fear of God – not the healthy sort of awe and respect, but a terror that one false move would bring him to God’s wrath. As the thinker best known for his blog Formerly Fundie, he could have seen this problem in the roots of his early faith, but he also saw the same sort of issues prevalent in the context of his newer progressive outlook. His “fear-based faith” was limiting and destructive, and his new book mixes memoir, theology, and practice to look into religious fear and find a way to the God of love.
Corey countered the fear initially by naming what he didn’t believe. He eventually realized that what he could accept anymore was any “belief getting in the way of love” (217). In seeing God as a terrorist intent on punishing us, he was missing the point. Corey recognized “that if I believed in God, I believed in a God who was exactly like Jesus” (34). Without seeing that picture of God, we could easily make fear the foundation of our faith: fear of vengeance, fear of getting it wrong, fear of Hell, etc. That fear inhibits intimacy, blocks us from truth, and twists us around.
Corey finds that much of this problem comes from the way we read the Bible. In picking and choosing our passages, and how we use them, we treat the Bible like a Swiss Army knife, with many different tools and many different uses. That approach allows us to use the Bible the way we want to use it, selectively developing meaning as it suits us. A danger arises in that we can elevate the Bible to a position equal to God Himself, an approach that Corey describes as “a dangerous and toxic religion called ‘Biblicism’” (54). He adds that Biblicism “picks this idea of following the Bible over following Jesus and thus is able to reject him with a deep sense of piety and religious superiority” (66).
In a Biblicist worldview, we lose sight of Jesus in our obsession with the Bible. We maintain a set of beliefs that we’ve drawn out of the text and criticize those who don’t recognize our rightness (and, in the process, endlessly divide Protestantism into thousands of denominations. He likens the approach to that of the New Testament’s targets, saying, “the Pharisees were book-centered, not Jesus-centered” (63). Corey’s work here is more than a little reminiscent of Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet, and both authors offer a valuable point while risking an uncomfortable heterodoxy.
For Corey, describing heterodoxy as a “risk” is part of the problem that Unafraid seeks to address. The question might be: why do we feel fear at getting something wrong about our thinking? Do we expect to end up in hell for a poorly articulated theory of the atonement? Are we afraid of what our fellow Christians will think if we take a new position on gun control or homosexuality (issues Corey’s wrestled with in his public thinking)?
Interpretive anxiety reveals to the heart of our error, of our seeing God as mean and violent, and that viewpoint stems largely from faulty hermeneutics. Like McKnight (and many thinkers from various traditions), Corey finds that value of thinking through the Bible as a story. In following the revelation, the closer we come to Jesus, the more clearly we see God. Corey rejects the Marcionism that could be read into this argument, but he also questions the inerrancy (as opposed to usefulness) of the Old Testament.
That idea can pose a challenge, and while Corey writes clearly and patiently in thinking through this hermeneutic, he doesn’t necessarily do the heavy lifting he should. An academic foray wouldn’t suit either the style or the focus of the book, but a little more explanation or even some footnoting would strengthen his argument (for a more developed argument of this sort of Christocentric reading approach, something like Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God offers a fuller approach).
Corey’s book in general suffers a little from insufficient theoretical work. It’s not meant to be that sort of treatise – and Corey may be at his best in his more personal moments, describing his own journey – so there’s no need to criticize it for what it shouldn’t be, but when the author takes up positions likely to challenge readers who may most be in need of understanding his work, some added explanation and, particularly, exegesis, would be beneficial.A central concern of the book is that God is love (and not love plus something else), and the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Knowing that God is love should help us escape our fears and to approach God fearlessly. That relationship also enables us to see ourselves more clearly. Corey writes intelligently and movingly on identity formation. He connects that dots that if God is love and we’re made in His imagine, then “it is helpful to remember that this means we are actually created in the image and likeness of love” (86). That epiphany liberates, re-centering our ideas of who we are and opening new opportunities for growth and healing.
Even so, Corey could have done just a little more of the grunt work here. The insights work, but he doesn’t show his work. He doesn’t explain why fear is the opposite of love. He presumably draws this idea from 1 John 4:18 and while it works, a little more precise writing on the topic would made the book more powerful. Corey’s hermeneutic can drift too far from the Bible itself, and if he could develop his argument through both a bird’s-eye view of Scripture and concrete exegesis, he’d have something more potent.
Corey thinks in terms of bounded sets and centered sets (building on the work of Paul Hiebert). He explains the need to get away from a list of rules that determine an in-group and to think of the idea of a circle with Jesus at the center. We’re somewhere in the circle, and we “want to be moving toward Jesus” (188). This is less about figuring out the right answers and more about asking, “What if this is just about trying to be like Jesus” (187). There’s a danger (that concept again!), though, that this opens up too many ideas; it’s easy to wander far from capital-t Truth if everything can be a little mushy. Corey has shown in his blog his commitment to quality exegesis, and he doesn’t support a flippant theology, so it would have helped his case to make some hermeneutical suggestions. He’s offering a corrective, but readers may run too far with what seems like freewheeling approach to scripture.
With that caveat, Unafraid still has much to offer, particularly to its intended audience of Christians struggling with fear in their spiritual life. The most obvious fear to overcome is that of a tyrant God, but Corey presses in to find the ways that this fear spreads to our views on ourselves and our relationships with others. Corey writes that we should allow “what we think about God to change and shape what we think about ourselves. It is far easier to change our minds about who we think God is than to change our minds about who we are” (89). When we adopt the idea that are most inherently evil sinners and bad people, it permeates our lives; when we recognize, as mentioned above, that we are created in the image of love, it helps us see properly and move toward shalom.
As we take on some of the ideas Corey talks about, we may find ourselves to be “parking lot” Christians, those people who are left standing in a church parking lot, unsure if they should go in, feeling not quite welcome in any group. With an unhealthy fear of God, we can fall prey to the power of “Christian tribalism.” Fear causes groups to carefully monitor who’s included, and getting either orthodoxy (on the right) or orthopraxy (on the left) can lead to exile. These sorts of divisions don’t reflect the true nature of God’s people, though, even sucking members into a commitment to the group above a commitment to Jesus. “If Jesus is the key to a life-giving faith,” Corey says, “and Christian labels separate us from him, then those labels have to go” (151). Understanding both ourselves and our relation to others in a paradigm of fearlessness allows us to discard those labels and move toward Jesus.
In the end, we recognize that “love doesn’t reject on the basis of technicalities or oversights” (183). Our embrace of God shouldn’t be predicated on a fear of His wrath, and as we discard that idea, we can get to more honest living. We can hold more accurate, better views of ourselves and those around us. Importantly, being unafraid isn’t simply about escaping a burden, it’s a way “to expand our capacity to love” (217). Whether Corey was actually in a crisis or just moving toward the middle of his circle, his experience offers hope to those caught in a similar trap.
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.