By John Pierce
Christianity, along with other faith traditions, is often soiled by the abuse of power, harsh legalism, and the accommodation and even advocacy of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Religious faith often looks very ugly.
Martin Thielen doesn’t hide from that fact in his book, The Answer to Bad Religion is Not No Religion: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics and Believers (2014, Westminster John Knox). In fact, he faces it head on.
The pastor of Cookeville (Tenn.) United Methodist Church, and a former Baptist editor, affirms what should be obvious but is sometimes missed: Ugly religious expressions, though much too numerous, don’t represent the millions whose faith motivates them to live in ways that are kind, loving, generous, and even sacrificial.
Therefore, it is possible (and wise) to reject “bad religion” — without generalizing those negative characteristics to all expressions of religious faith.
Thielen is not on the defensive. He rolls out all the ugliness that is often spouted from the mouths of religious leaders or carried out in the dark corners of religious enterprises. He offers as much condemnation of such hostilities and abuse as any outsider.
Instructively, however, he shifts in the second part of the book to the fair but sometimes missed reality that eliminating all religion because some religion is bad is neither wise nor possible. The Soviet Union and China had that quest, he noted, and it failed.
Thielen does some good theology in chapter seven, addressing the toxicity of bad religion, the abuses that can come from those claiming belief in a literal Bible, and the mysteries (that honest believers acknowledge) resulting from the problem of suffering in the world.
“One of the major challenges to religion is the problem of suffering,” he writes. “I don’t pretend to have easy and simple answers to this issue. However, Christian believers do have some thoughtful responses…” — which Thielen addresses well.
To reject religious faith in toto does an injustice to those whose faith commitments to justice have a remarkable influence on society — even when facing opposition from those with bad religion. The civil rights movement, led by Christian ministers and headquartered in African-American churches, is but one good example.
Thielen writes in a popular style that is intelligent, yet easy to read. He brings good theological insights mixed with historical context as well as recent accounts in the news.
His book will find a spot in my study on the shelf with Wayne Oates’ When Religion Gets Sick (1970) and Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil (2002), along with other good writings on this subject. These are important lessons to be learned and remembered.
The fear of scientific discovery by some believers, the selective hostility toward gay and lesbian persons by some pulpit pounders, the continued oppression of women by some churches, denominations and other religious groups, the ugliness of funeral protestors (whose name I’ll not acknowledge), and the numerous examples of tragic abuse of children and others in some religious circles, deserve sound condemnation and rejection.
Such ugliness, however, does not represent the millions whose faith motivates them to free the oppressed, care for the vunerable and speak truth to evil. That’s not a defensive position, just a fair one.
The creator God made known in Jesus Christ needs no human defense. Yet the image of God is soiled as well by those who claim divine blessings on their narrow-minded bigotry and acts of evils.
Rejection of that kind of misrepresentation is needed as well. For as I’ve said before: I don’t believe in the god that people who don’t believe in god don’t believe in.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.