UNAFRAID: Moving Beyond Fear Based Faith. By Benjamin L. Corey. San Francisco: Harper One, 2017. 227 pages.
You have heard it said: "Put the fear of God in him (or her)." Unfortunately (in my estimation), Christians have often used scare tactics to gain converts or enforce social norms. While parents will put the “fear of God” in their children to get them to behave (or tell them Santa is watching to see if they’re naughty or nice), religious communities have been known to evangelize non-believers with a message of: "If you don't believe in Jesus then God will send you to hell, where you will burn forever." One must ask whether this is a wise course of action. Is it in accord with the way we see God? That is, if we believe that God is love, is this something God would do simply because one is unable or even unwilling to make a confession of faith in Jesus?
Benjamin Corey, the author of the book under review, notes that many Christians expressed outrage when they encountered reports of ISIS militants burning alive a Jordanian pilot whose plane had been shot down. Yet, many of these same Christians had no problem believing that God would do much the same thing to this same pilot because he was not a Christian. Corey writes that "if the theology of hell is correct, God is like an ISIS terrorist—but like one on steroids" (p. 2). I doubt there are many Christians who wish to see God in the guise of an ISIS terrorist. Yet, many view God as being willing to light unbelievers on fire for eternity. So, as Corey asks of us, is this vision of God in line with the message of Jesus? This isn’t a question about divine wrath. It’s about divine intention. Another way of putting this concerns the biblical revelation that perfect love casts out fear. Therefore, if God is love, then how can the fear of God be in us?
These are the kinds of questions that Benjamin Corey addresses in this thought-provoking and well written book. I have some questions and perhaps concerns to raise, but overall, I think that he has an important message for people of faith. I would say that while he writes as a Christian to Christians, there is much in this book that is applicable across faith traditions. Corey’s book is a response to those who would use fear to define the Christian faith. While he writes as one who grew up in a narrow fundamentalist culture that emphasized the fear of God, a culture from which he eventually broke free, he also has some similar critiques of the progressive Christians he encountered as he moved from one side of the religious spectrum to the other. He discerned a similar spirit on the left end that he experienced on the right, only the form of fear had changed. With fundamentalists on the right, it was having the right beliefs. On the left, it was doing the right thing. Either way, the message was fear-inducing, and such a vision caused spiritual discomfort. What we have this book is a call for balance. More specifically, it is a call to center one's faith in Christ, and be less focused on boundaries.
This is a very personal book. Corey tells his own story in order to invite those caught up in fear-based faith a path to a more balanced non-fear-inducing faith. While he admits that the book is about himself, he contends that he wrote it for others who find themselves trapped within fear-based traditions (whether on the right or left). As one reads such a personal effort, it's important to remember that each of us has a different journey, and therefore different vantage point. As I read the book, having spent time in both ends of the spectrum, and thus having some parallels to his, I was never in quite so narrow of communities as he found himself in. So, my own approach to these questions might be somewhat different. At the same time, I’ve seen the damage done by those espousing narrow fear-based ideologies.
Corey’s journey began with a spiritual mid-life crisis that led to a loss of his church, pastorate, friends. The issues that led to the crisis were his changing views on guns and gays. He found himself questioning his faith, and on the verge of leaving all together, but found liberation among progressive Christians. While he felt a sense of new freedom at first, he eventually faced a different set of challenges. As I read his story, I saw a pattern present that I've seen in others. It seems that many who start out in very conservative (and possibly liberal) environments swing all the way to the other end of the spectrum. They end up equally frustrated. Perhaps it's safer to have shorter swings, which is my own experience. I must admit that while I did spend some time among rather conservative Christians, and took on some of the narrow beliefs of that community, I didn't start out there. In fact, I started out in the Episcopal Church, where the fear of hell was never emphasized. So, when it came time to leave behind some of my more narrowly conservative beliefs, my sense of attachment wasn’t as strong as it may have been for Corey. And, I’ve never gone quite as far to the left in my journey, so again each of us has a different story. However, I see where he has gone, and its unfortunate that we can face boundary police at both ends of the ideological spectrum.
Not being especially attracted to fear-based religion, I found much to like about this book. I believe there is a need for an alternative narrative, that is both liberating and healing. Nonetheless, I have a few qualms with the book (at one point, for instance, I thought I saw a bit of supersessionism, when Corey was dealing with how one reads the Old Testament; fortunately, he didn't linger there). My greater concern is what I didn’t find emphasized, and that is the importance of community. While he mentions community a few times, this seems to be a rather individualistic journey. He says little if anything about being involved in a congregation (as a pastor I know that even the best congregations have their issues and I am tempted to abandon the community on occasion!), and I wish he had said something about what it means to be in community. He seems averse to tribes and labels, but at least in most mainline circles, there is little overt tribalism. Yes, we have our distinctives, but they don’t cut off relationships. Additionally, I'm an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which was an early "no-labels" effort. So, I know that “no-labels” is still a label. As far as my relationships with those outside my “tribe,” I rather enjoy working across tribal boundaries. So, I'm wondering, has Corey experienced that ecumenical reality?
With that said, I do appreciate the emphasis on love over fear. To be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, should not be defined by fear. I gave up "hell-fire" a long time ago. I stopped for a while at annhilationism (as a means of final judgment), but ultimately, I came to believe, as I believe Corey believes, that God is not finished with us until we are ready to enter the realm of God. We might lose a bit of dross in the process, but the realm awaits. With this as the baseline point, Corey invites us to enter a more centered position, one free from boundary police. By centrism I don’t mean “moderation.” What Corey has in mind is known as centered-set thinking.
Corey has doctorate in Intercultural studies from Fuller Seminary. In that context he learned about the difference between centered-set reality and bounded-set. That language was developed by Paul Hiebert, a long time Fuller professor of mission and anthropology. I too have embraced that vision (I'm a Fuller graduate as well, though from the School of Theology). In that vision, faith is understood in terms of moving toward the center, which is Christ. If, Jesus reveals the essence of God, which is love, then that center toward which we are moving is love. If we move toward love as evidenced by Jesus, then we can say good bye to this God of Fear.
Corey writes near the end of the book that his "in-versus-out approach to the Christian journey--one that was measured by either right thinking or right doing -- had completely side tracked me from my ultimate purpose of living. Instead of expecting me to rigidly focus on getting my theology right or getting my behavior right, God really wanted me to focus on moving in the direction of Jesus, which naturally expands our capacity to love" (p. 219).
My hope is that this book can help others who are stuck in fear based religion to break free and find a new vision. As we do this, we need to be careful with how read Scripture, especially the Hebrew Bible. As a Christian I read the entire Bible through the lens of Jesus, but if I'm Jewish I will read it with a different lens, and still experience God's love. One can enjoy living within a faith family without engaging in tribalism. I'm a Disciple because that fits me, not because it is a superior tribe. In the end, let us heed the word of the angel to the shepherds in the fields as they witnessed the angel choir singing praise to God: "Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy!" Indeed, Fear not, for God is love, and Jesus reveals that love to us.