How Christians Should Approach Controversial Books

By Sarah Welch, Editorial Assistant

I thought a lot about reconciliation while reading Daniel Crane’s book 7 Books that Rocked the Church, which discusses—you guessed it—seven books which at different points have unsettled leaders and members of the Christian church. Included are well-known titles like Darwin’s Origin of Species, and one or two I was less familiar with, such as The Gospel of Truth, discovered in 1945 among the Nag Hammadi scrolls. Crane writes to explore the ways in which these books conflicted with church teaching, the church’s various responses, and what Christians today can learn from this history.

In Chapter 6, Crane talks about Sigmund Freud and his work The Future of an Illusion. Published in 1927, this book is where Freud explicitly stated his belief that religion is nothing more than, well, an illusion: something nice to believe in when we get frightened by our own depravity. Crane writes that The Future of an Illusion called religion “an illusion, a wish fulfillment, created by society for the purpose of mediating civilization’s cruel edges. Religion provides the illusory comfort that, after infancy, there is still a father figure to protect us” (112).

It’s not hard to imagine that a book like this caused an uproar in the church. However, Crane holds up the response of one pastor as an example of the right way to engage with ideas that seem to oppose the message of the church: Oskar Pfister, a Lutheran from Switzerland. In his public response to The Future of an Illusion, Pfister criticized Freud’s “excessively empiricist approach to the truth…that ignored the importance of intuition and sensation” and his failure “to understand the evolutionary progress in religion” (125). But Pfister didn’t only respond with criticism:

In his private correspondence with Freud, Pfister went even further, suggesting that Freud was performing a greater service for Christ than most Christians. Pfister related Freud to Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28–31), one of whom verbally refused to work in the vineyard but eventually did, and the other who compliantly agreed to work in the vineyard but never did. Pfister compared Freud to the first son, whom the parable taught had actually done God’s will:

Will you be angry with me for seeing you, who caught such glorious rays of the eternal light and consumed yourself in the struggle for truth and human love, as figuratively closer to the throne of God, despite your supposed lack of belief, than many a churchman who mumbles prayers and performs ceremonies, but whose heart never shone with understanding and good will toward man? And since for the Gospel-oriented Christian everything depends on doing the divine will and not on saying “Lord! Lord!,” do you understand how even I could envy you? (126)

Pfister accomplished two things in his response to Freud: he conveyed respect for the person behind a provoking idea, and he searched for the good among the bad rather than adopting a “one of us is right and the other is wrong” mindset. He was convinced, as he wrote to Freud, that “a powerful-minded opponent of religion is certainly of more service to it than a thousand useless supporters” (132). While some other prominent Christians reacted to Freud in a similar manner, many others wrote him off entirely as a “dirty old man,” failing to recognize either his humanity or ways in which he might even help the church. While many of Freud’s theories concerning psychoanalysis no longer hold water from a scientific standpoint, he is still a polarizing figure.

I’m not convinced this should be the case, and neither is Crane. In his conclusion, he asks the church how we should encounter “the next seven books” (153), and his answer—in fact the thesis of his whole book—is that we must “engage affirmatively, openly, and in good faith with works that challenge conventional Christian beliefs” (159). In other words: if we are to move toward reconciliation in the world, we must not respond to books that challenge us in fear; rather, we should listen, discuss, and learn.

7 Books that Rocked the Church urges us to listen first, search for truth, and learn from the mistakes we’ve made in the past—to respond to challenging ideas the way we want non-believers to respond to the Bible. After all, Jesus brings true and total reconciliation, and he leads by example. Jesus engaged in conversation with his enemies; he answered their questions and asked his own in return. If we, his church, truly desire reconciliation, surely we can start there.

Sarah Welch is an Editorial Assistant at Hendrickson Publishers. She graduated with honors from Gordon College, where she researched intersections between religion, nationality, and medieval English literature. These days, she’s catching up on all the reading she didn’t have time for in college and is constantly on the lookout for new teas to try.

For more information about 7 Books that Rocked the Church, visit our website!

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