Questioning the evangelical answer machine

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As Christians, we like to have the answers. It’s the whole “asking questions” part we’re not so sure about.

Take a look at how much energy the evangelical industrial complex devotes to giving answers. If you search for products with the word “answer” in them, one Christian retail site has more than 16,000 results. The Jesus Answer Book. The Bible Answer Book. The COMPLETE Bible Answer Book. The Big Book of Questions and Answers. The Big Book of Bible Answers.

We have Answers in Genesis to allay our nagging concerns about the origins of the universe. We have our very own Bible Answer Man. We’ve outsourced questioning so that others can come up with the answers for us.

But what’s the underlying motive to this preemptive strike on questions? Is it fear? The fear that if you ask one wrong question — or one too many questions — the whole edifice of faith will come crashing down?

If you take a closer look at the scriptures, you begin to see just how little they resemble our modern-day obsession with answers. The biblical story is full of unanswered questions.

The whole book of Job is an exercise in asking hard questions, a reminder how little we know, how little we can be sure of. What’s even more amazing about this story is that God is summoned to give an account to account by a riches-to-rags alleged miscreant.

The better part of Job is taken up by his friends’ attempts to silence his questions. They accuse him of wrongdoing. They insinuate that he’s guilty of heresy and blasphemy. They posit canned answers to Job’s complex questions.

Yet Job persists.

You have to give him credit. Job was bold. He assumed the right to question God. The language of his complaint is that of a lawsuit, of someone taking their adversary before the judge — except, for Job, his adversary and judge are the same person.

In other words, Job just wants his day in court. He wants permission to ask the hard questions.

And he’s convinced that God will be OK with that… if only God would show up:

If only I knew where to find him;
that I might come even to his dwelling!

I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.

I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.

There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

When God does finally show up, Job doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for. Only more questions, a stark and humbling reminder that the universe is big and mysterious and that our knowledge — our answers — don’t even scratch the surface.

But Job was not condemned for asking questions. Job was vindicated. His friends, on the other hand, were rebuked for trying to shut him up, for trying to silence his questions with hastily contrived answers.

How many of us could stand in for Job’s friends? Afraid to ask questions. Desperate for airtight answers to supress our nagging doubts.

It’s not that answers are bad — when there are some to be had. It’s what kind of answers we seek. If the answers you give (or receive) are meant to end the conversation rather than nurture it, they are probably the wrong kind of answers.  

To follow God is to ask a lot of questions, including some that can’t be answered — not even by all 16,000 answer books at your Christian bookstore.

6 thoughts on “Questioning the evangelical answer machine

  1. I suppose it’s all in what you mean by “nurture the conversation”. This reminds me of an RHE post where she essentially argued that maybe God had intentionally made the Bible confusing so that we’d stay up late with friends arguing about it and thus grow in relationships – because that’s what is REALLY important, growing in relationships. And furthermore maybe a lot of these questions we fight about don’t even have answers we can figure out. And I remember some commenter said “yes, but don’t forget, the only reason we argue all night long about what the right answer to a question is, is because WE BELIEVE THE QUESTION HAS A RIGHT ANSWER!” I wanted to hug that anonymous soul.

    Obviously this post reminds me of that post – actually, answers that end conversations, because all involved agree they are the right answer, can be a great thing. Fake answers designed to shut people up or placate them are stupid – but let’s not confuse the two. Of course a right answer doesn’t have to mean you stop talking. There are certainly people out there who want an answer because they are afraid of the unknown. There are also plenty of people who *don’t* want an answer because they might find they don’t like it. Seeking God is fashionable – finding Him can get you in a lot of trouble.

    I have to say too that one of the great benefits of certain answers is confidence – this is why some of us love creeds and confessions. What is your only hope in life and in death? The answer is not “I’m not really sure, let’s talk about it” – that question has an answer. And it’s beautiful.

    • I would argue that growing in relationships IS really important. And that the process of wrestling with the questions can be every bit as important/meaningful as the answers we come up with. Such high regard for the process of questioning/wrestling is embedded in the Jewish faith tradition. What I’m suggesting is that it should be highly valued by our tradition as well.

      That said, my point was not to suggest that there are no answers whatsoever. We could say there are (at least) three types of questions: (1) those with relatively straightforward answers, (2) those we’re pretty confident we know the answers to but should hold with humility, and (3) those we should accept as having no easy answers. I’m not denying the existence of 1 and 2; I’m suggesting there’s a lot more of 3 (including in the Bible itself) that we might realize. (Side note: This is part of what led me away from Calvinism; there are certain assumptions about sovereignty, predestination, etc. that I’d be more inclined to put in categories 2 or 3, but which some Calvinists seem to regard as a 1.)

      For what it’s worth, I share your love of creeds and confessions. Perhaps not all of them equally, and we may not like all the same ones as each other. But I’m about as far from being anti-credal as you can get. I use the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds regularly, both in individual and corporate worship…because, like you said, I believe they provide a beautiful summation of the hope we have.

  2. Thank-you for this post. I’ve always had plenty of questions and not answers that I found satisfactory to whatever need I had. I am now much more comfortable with not-knowing and with mystery. I think being more open to mystery and not having all the answers was a huge help for me in living life more fully.

    • I know I’ve found this kind of openness helpful in my own life. (Especially since I have a tendency to be something of a know-it-all!) I’m glad to hear embracing mystery has been a great help to you.

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