Monday, April 6, 2009

David Dark on the Sacredness of Questioning Everything

Eugene Peterson says that David Dark is his "favorite critic of the people's culture of America and the Christian Faith." Dark's previous books, Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons and The Gospel According to America have become "must-reads" for anyone interested in the intersection of faith and culture. Dark's strength is his ability to be intensely critical and hopeful at the same time. What follows is an interview with Dark about his most recent book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Zondervan, 2009):

CPYU: What motivated you to write this book?

Dark: I suppose it began with the strange feeling of encouragement I felt when I noticed churchgoers reading, enjoying, and talking about some of the bestselling atheist authors (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins). I found this to be an inspiringly healthy phenomenon, one that runs counter to the idea that Christians should somehow piously confine their media consumption to whatever voices will further reinforce feelings of rightness concerning whatever we already believe. When Hitchens provocatively asserts that religion, as he understands it, poisons everything. I don’t think anyone’s response should begin with how such an assertion offends them or hurts their feelings. I think our first response should be something like, “Does he, in any sense, have a point? How might ‘getting religion’ be the worst thing that could happen to a person? How does it seem to often wreck the possibility of human decency?” Many of us won’t have to scratch too deeply to see the sense in which Hitchens has a point. I’ve long bristled under the suggestion, never stated outright but often implied, that thinking simplistically and not looking deeply into things is characteristically Christian; as if God needs us to steer clear of complexity and only asks that we remain dutifully submissive to a shallow view of the world. I wanted to argue that questioning isn’t just permissible, but necessary; that it’s probably even a primary form of religious faithfulness. No faith, in any redemptive sense, without questions.

CPYU: A main theme in the book seems to be a plea for religious people to be more humble. Why do you think humility is such an important virtue for Christians today?

Dark: Without it, Christians become people who can only communicate in conversation-stoppers, believing we’re the ones (the only ones) who bring truth and light to our interactions. We become impossibly bad listeners and largely impenetrable to the wisdom we might receive from those with whom we disagree. I think we should view ourselves as pilgrims among fellow pilgrims instead of thinking we’re the unique dispensers of the right information about God.

CPYU: Many of our readers are parents and youth workers. How do you think they would benefit from this book?

Dark: I’d like to think of it as a breath of invigoratingly fresh air. It tries to take on and, in some sense, exorcise the bad ideas that have us afraid to think more deeply about God, the world, and what it is we’re doing. And it champions the practice of sacred questioning not as some new fangled notion but as something we see at work in the biblical witness, religious history, the Civil Rights movement, and all manner of artistic expression (poetry, folk music, film). Each chapter includes (appropriately enough) a selection of questions to keep the thing helpfully interactive. My hope would be that the book might ignite some conversations and somehow do what I think any good book will do: Expand the sphere of the talkaboutable.

CPYU: As a parent and teacher yourself, how do you balance the desire to see young people learn to ask good questions, to not be afraid of questions, and yet also help to provide answers and solid footing for young people developing faith?

Dark: Well, there’s a way in which I think we often get it devastatingly backwards: Here’s what you have to believe to be right with God, so start believing it, hold on to it, and now you have solid grounding. If we’re redeemed and saved by virtue of how intensely we believe the right things, then sure enough, questioning is the last thing we should do. It’s cosmically dangerous. We run the risk of losing whatever fragile hold on God’s good graces we have. Contrary to this sort of thing, I’m compelled (and hope my own children and students will be similarly compelled) by a vision of an always-redeeming God whose hold on to us is more powerful and lasting than any concept we might hold to ourselves. What I would think of as solid footing within an always-developing faith that seeks further life and wisdom and freedom within God’s kingdom can’t be understood apart from the asking of good questions. I’m good with my daughter thinking of the Bible as a book that, in some sense, yields answers, but an even more solid footing might be an understanding of the Bible as a text saturated in questions, questions which penetrate and scandalize our understanding of ourselves, questions so charged that we still haven’t found an answer to them, questions that keep changing the world. I want her to understand that we seek God not by playing at belief but by prayerfully questioning our own ideas about God, the world, and how we’re doing at the job of dwelling lovingly and mindfully within it.

CPYU: A hot topic in youth ministry today is college transition. Many people quote statistics about the number of students that walk away from the faith in college. While you don't directly address this issue, what do you think your book could add to that conversation?

Dark: The book tries to define faith as closely allied to the practice of sacred questioning as opposed to faith as a set of beliefs one holds to for dear life in the face of rising waters of chaos and confusion. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who said that if you lose your faith in an Introduction to Philosophy class, it might not be true to say that you had a robust or meaningful faith to begin with. What you had was ideas. And entering into a season when you’re made to see that those ideas aren’t/ weren’t the ground of God’s being to begin with is probably a good thing. I wouldn’t say you have to lose your faith to find it (as if faith could ever be a possession or a cause for boasting). But I would say we have to hold loosely to our concepts of God if we’re to seek out or be faithful to the God who transcends and overflows our concepts. In this sense, questioning is crucial to the possibility of a Christian faith. I don’t know that we could say we’re even reading the Bible, for instance, if we come to it with no questions. What’s our relationship to it if we only come to the text hoping to find out what we’re supposed to believe or how we might corral certain verses to buttress our already made up minds?

C.S. Lewis said that many use the text but only very few receive it. I think we can argue that there is no discernment-- there is no reception of God’s word--if we have no questions. I’ve witnessed the ways the college transition goes weirdly for students and their parents, but I view disagreement as an opportunity for a conversation to break out. I was very blessed to have parents who believed I was learning things they had yet to understand and that their own growth and enrichment would involve, in no small way, asking me questions and listening to my answers. I hope I’ll have a similar posture of receptivity and anticipation when it comes to my own kids’ development. I hope I’ll have the wit to love them like my parents loved me, with lots and lots of open-ended questions. There’s nothing like them.


Unknown said...

Just because the brilliant Commander in Chief promises victory on the beaches doesn't mean the troops can throw their weapons overboard. The promise of victory assumes valor in battle. When God promises that his church will be kept from defeat, his purpose is not that we lay down our sword and go to lunch, but that we pick up the sword of the Spirit and look confidently to God for the strength to fight and win. Wherever the promised security of God is used to justify going AWOL, we may suspect there is a traitor in the ranks.

Anonymous said...

excellent interview! thank you

Anonymous said...

To calitatum,
In this world created by God there is no AWOL.

stephy said...


Dan said...

@ I was very blessed to have parents who believed I was learning things they had yet to understand and that their own growth and enrichment would involve, in no small way, asking me questions and listening to my answers.

I can only hope i have this same attitude when it comes to seeing how my kids turn out