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Frequently Avoided Questions:
An Uncensored Dialogue on Faith

by Chuck Smith, Jr. and Matt Whitlock
Baker Books, 2005

review by Marcia Ford

Legend has it—or so I was once told—that a wine-tasting monk used to roam about the Northern Italian countryside sampling each vineyard’s offerings in search of the perfect wine. Once, upon leaving a certain vineyard in the Asti region, he excitedly wrote the words “Si! Si! Si!” on the establishment’s roadside sign. Everyone knew his intended meaning: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”—he had found the real deal.

It’s not surprising that I remembered that story, which I heard decades ago in a now-forgotten bar, very early on as I was reading Frequently Avoided Questions. That’s because the words “Yes! Yes! Yes!” kept flashing through my mind as I turned each page. (Those words also escaped my lips during an in-flight reading session, which prompted my seatmate to inch toward the aisle and inadvertently bless me with more elbow room.) The point is, I too had found the real deal.

But first, to the authors. Matt Whitlock is a twenty-something faculty member at Youth With a Mission’s University of the Nations in Hawaii who has his fingers on the pulse of today’s society and refuses to allow the religious establishment to handcuff him to traditional ways of thinking and doing. Chuck Smith, Jr. is the fifty-something senior pastor at Capo Beach Calvary in California and, as his name implies, the son of Chuck Smith, Sr.

The elder Smith founded the Calvary Chapel network of churches, which grew out of a single congregation during the 1970s Jesus Movement and helped save the lives and faith of countless young people—including me. I’m now fifty-something myself, with a faith that more closely resembles Whitlock’s than that of many of my generational peers. Hence the resounding triple “Yes!”

Second, to the structure of the book. The authors begin by clearly defining their terms and their purpose. They choose to think of the Boomer-and-pre-Boomer period of the church (specifically, the evangelical church) as “old school” and the current era as “new school,” what others would likely call postmodern. Their purpose is to discuss the difficult-for-old-school and not-so-difficult-for-new-school issues that create such a stark contrast between those two segments of the body of Christ.

Each chapter poses a “frequently avoided” question that Whitlock answers out of personal experience and the thinking of someone his age. Smith then responds from his perspective, that of a Boomer who grew up learning all the “right” answers to difficult questions and who has had to grapple with the premise that there are right answers in the first place.

If for no other reason, I’d give the authors and publisher high marks for the creative way they handled the structure of this book, avoiding the awkward “I (Matt)” and “my (Chuck’s)” constructions that litter too many dual-author books.

Now, to the questions that form each chapter title. They range from broad issues like “Why the Bible?” and “Where Is Your God?” to specifics like “Do I Have to Go to Church?” and “Is It Wrong to Take a Job in a Bar?” Out of the 14 questions they pose, over the last 30 years I’ve tussled with roughly…um…14 of them. And so have lots of my evangelical peers, many of whom left the church, and, more tragically, their faith in God when they discovered that simply asking those questions brought condemnation from either the church leaders or their fellow believers.

No matter what the question, the authors’ responses highlight the contrast between old-school certainty (or better, obsessive need for certainty) and new-school willingness to live with uncertainty. New-schoolers “are not interested in clarifying all mysteries,” Smith writes, “because mystery itself is necessary for their experience of the sacred and for evoking reverence.” What’s more, he says, they are comfortable with chaos and a worldview that isn’t necessarily logical.

By contrast, old-schoolers believe that there is a clear biblical answer for every question and that it’s the leaders’ responsibility to tell people what they should believe, based on those biblical applications. As a result, Whitlock writes, “Many young people are being outfitted to fight battles that are no longer being waged with weapons that are no longer effective.” In context, he’s referring to the creation-vs.-evolution battle, but the principle applies across the board.

And here’s the value of this book. For readers from a variety of backgrounds

  • New-school evangelicals will find themselves shouting “Yes!” as I did, grateful that Whitlock and Smith gave voice to the questions that have troubled them, possibly for decades.
  • Open-minded old-school evangelicals, if nothing else, will get a better handle on new-school thinking and may even find themselves challenged to change their perspective on at least some of the issues.
  • Non-evangelicals will definitely come away with a better grasp of why some Christians make such a big deal out of a subject like evolution, which as the authors point out isn’t even an issue in the larger culture.
  • Close-minded evangelicals will likely just dig in their heels and become more doctrinally rigid than ever, though I suspect they wouldn’t even pick up a book like this, which is a shame.

Toward the end of the book, the authors describe the difficulty they faced in paring down their long lists of frequently avoided questions to a manageable number. After mentioning a few they had to omit (my personal favorite: “If God is so awesome, why is church so boring?”), they ask readers to send in the questions that have proven to be problematic for them. Could that mean a follow-up book is in the works? One can only hope.

©2006 Marcia Ford

Frequently Avoided Questions
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