What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian -- Review
The title of the book does leave one with the sense that the author might be espousing a rather minimalist faith, but that would be a misreading of the book. The author is a United Methodist pastor who left the Southern Baptists after the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. That decision was brought on by the feeling that he no longer fit within the church in which he had grown up, been educated, and had served as a pastor, educator, and publisher. Ultimately he would find himself serving as pastor of First United Methodist Church of Lebanon, Tennessee.
In a book that is written for a lay/general audience, and that would be very useful for an adult education program (an online leader’s guide is available from the publisher), the author offers what this reviewer would consider a broad, middling, moderate understanding of the Christian faith. Although the book might seem liberal to some, it will seem rather conservative to others, and yet it lifts up for discussion issues that tend to divide and confuse contemporary Christians.
The book is broken into two parts, the first of which lifts up ten issues that “Christians don’t need to believe,” while the second part focuses on eleven items that he believes Christians should believe – what he would consider essentials. At the end of each chapter Thielen places a brief summary statement – what he calls the “bottom line.” So, for instance in the chapter in which he deals with women in the church, his bottom line is: “Women are fully equal with men in marriage, in church, and in society” (p. 23).
The first section of the book focuses on ten “don’ts,” which aren’t merely non-essentials. Instead, for the most part these are perspectives that one would best reject, either because the misrepresent God or they reflect an anti-intellectual perspective that is best left behind by modern Christians. These topics include the suggestion that God causes things like cancer, car wrecks, and catastrophes, as well as the suggestion that real Christians won’t have doubts about their faith, believe in evolution, or think that women can’t be preachers. In a brief opening paragraph to this section, Thielen takes us back to the old gospel song that declared “Gimme That Old-Time Religion.” He suggests that while much of that old time religion might be good or noble, it could also be downright dangerous to the body, to the mind, and to the Spirit. Not only did it give us the Crusades, the Inquisition and religious wars, it also oppressed women, supported slavery, and suppressed science. There are, therefore, aspects of the old form of our religion that we’d be better off casting aside.
The second part of the book focuses on eleven things the author thinks you do need to believe – what he considers essentials or the “least I can believe and still be a Christian.” These are the areas of the faith that he believes matter most. Being that this is written for Christians it should not be surprising that the focus is on Jesus, beginning with what some call the “good confession” (Matthew 16:16), and deals as well with issues such as grace, the presence of God, Jesus’ example, his death and resurrection, the church, the Holy Spirit, and God’s vision of the future. The final “essential” seeks to answer the question as to whether mainline Christians believe in salvation. He insists they do, but he wants to clarify what that means.
This is a good little book that should be of value to many in the church. It might be used as an introduction to the Christian faith for those exploring the faith or who have questions about the Christian faith. It could also provide a foundation to needed conversations about what is important and not important to the life of the church. Although the book is written with Mainline Protestants in mind, at times I felt like Thielen was trying to convince the more conservative elements of his Baptist past of a better way forward. That may explain the moderate and even evangelical tone of the book. This tone is especially present in the final chapter of the book, which seeks to answer the question: “Do Mainline Christians believe in getting saved?” Now the answer to this question is framed in a more progressive fashion – it depends on what you think we’re being saved from or for, but the mere phrasing of the question in this way seems to address concerns among a more conservative audience. This isn’t meant as a criticism; it’s just meant to demonstrate the perspective that’s evidenced in the book.
Ultimately what we have here is a gentle, moderate, Christocentric faith, one that represents the perspective of a large portion of Mainline Protestantism. Thus, the author supports women in ministry, a commitment to social justice, an intellectually engaged faith that embraces evolution, while taking a more middle of the road approach to homosexuality. On this issue he points out that this is an area upon which not all mainliners agree, but suggests that the best description of the current climate is “welcoming but not affirming.” In that chapter, the author doesn’t take a strong position, but you get the sense that he falls into the majority view (though being open to conversation).
While this isn’t a perfect book, and really doesn’t break new ground, I sense that it will prove to be useful to the church. This is true in large part because Thielen reminds us that we should focus on those things that matter most, rather than focusing on the tangentials that tend to divide and rarely edify.