John Marks, Reasons to Believe

John Marks is a veteran journalist and a former producer of 60 Minutes. He decided to investigate American evangelicalism after a conservative Christian couple asked him if he’d be left behind at the rapture. In the course of this task, Marks revisited a faith that he had left behind. He had accepted Christ as his personal Savior at age 16, only to abandon Christianity later in life. His investigation was his second look at evangelical Christianity. The product of his research is a book entitled, Reasons to Believe: One Man’s Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

I identified with many aspects of Marks’ journey. He became a Christian because he was ashamed of the mean things that he did to others, and that was a big reason that I converted to Christ. He kept an insightful, reflective journal throughout his faith life, the same way that I write about my spiritual journey in my blog. He began to lose his faith when a Christian friend told him that “God doesn’t like artists because they ask too many questions,” and he chose the path of asking questions rather than seeking to win people to a particular dogma (evangelicalism). At the same time, he explored other religious options, such as Sufism and Hinduism. Like Marks, I’m reluctant to tell others that a closed-minded version of Christianity contains all of the answers to life’s questions, and yet I seek some place of rest and solace. I differ from Marks in that I continue to find a lot of beauty and wisdom in Christianity, and I choose to share that with other people. But, even when Christianity does not appeal to me, I make a decision to hold on tenaciously to God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. I cannot lose my faith–not without my consent.

The problem of evil inhibits Marks from re-embracing Christianity. One event that had a huge impact on him was when he was in Bosnia, and a father was hanging on to some thread of hope that he’d see his family again. That gave him the will to go on. When Marks learned that the man’s family had been slaughtered, however, he (Marks) despaired that there could be any purpose behind such evil. At the end of the book, Marks affirms that he chooses to be left behind simply because there are too many bad things in the world, things that God should not permit.

I too wrestle with the problem of evil. In my case, I think about people with Asperger’s Symdrome, who struggle to develop relationships or find jobs. I wonder if God even has a plan for them (and “them” includes me). And, as for those Western Christians who are so “blessed” in life, maybe they’re just lucky. They don’t have to struggle with a social handicap. Plus, they live in a prosperous part of the world. It’s easy to say “God has a plan for my life” in those kinds of circumstances!

And, yet, everyone has problems, including American evangelicals. This was true of Don and Lillie McWhinney, the couple that asked Marks if he’d be left behind. They were prosperous people, for Don was an big-time executive in the oil business. But Lillie confessed to Marks that she once had a lot of fear, which Jesus helped her get through. And, in the course of the book, they lose their manic-depressant son in an accident.

What helps them through that whole ordeal is their belief that they’ll see their son in heaven. Their son had lots of issues, but at least he accepted Christ as his personal Savior. But what if he hadn’t? How would they have felt then? Can one rely on this sort of belief system for comfort, especially when so many people in the world die without knowing Christ? Marks touches on this issue when he relates that the McWhinneys bought a Hot Wheels toy for his son, who is half-Jewish. “I couldn’t get out of my mind that they were gifts for a boy doomed for cosmic incineration,” he says (8).

And that’s something that surfaces in Marks book: there are all sorts of people in the world, who have done a lot incredible things. They have their own unique stories. For example, there’s the transvestite who courageously survived Hitler and Stalin before coming to America. Where do they fit into the evangelicals’ universe? Is a view that says, “They’re wrong, and they’re going to hell” the only legitimate way to think about them?

Marks talks in detail about a sermon by the McWhinneys‘ pastor, Tommy Nelson. Nelson preaches on Romans 1, arguing that even those who have not heard the Gospel are doomed to hell, since they’ve rejected God and his moral law. And, yet, Nelson is clear that God cares about each and every place in the world, for Revelation 7:9 says that people from EVERY nation, tribe, people, and tongue will stand before God and the lamb. “God will populate eternity with one, at least, someone, from every place,” Nelson claims. That’s actually a profound thought! God has his loving eye on every nook and cranny in the world, even a tribe in Tim-bick-too, which hasn’t heard the Gospel! I wonder how someone will be saved in such a tribe. I’ve heard stories about Muslims who have dreams about Jesus, so maybe that’s how God does it. Personally, I wish God would do that for everyone!

A lot of the book is about searching for hope in the face of hopelessness. Marks encounters many Christians who have experienced healings, miracles, and other out-of-the-ordinary events, which tells me that God is doing something in this broken world. Even the McWhinneys experience God’s healing hand after their son’s death, for they become friends with the man who caused it, who is himself a Christian. They manage to find something redemptive in a tragic situation.

And God also works through his body, the church. In the book, Marks interviews Pastor Bob Russell, who offers a different interpretation of Matthew 16:18, which says that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church:

“For years[,] our concept of that Scripture was that we’ve got the church, and we’ve got gates around the church, and Satan’s going to pound up against those gates, and he’s not going to prevail against it. But someone pointed out that Jesus isn’t talking about the gates of the church. It’s the gates of hell, and the church ought to go right up to the gates of hell and rescue people from hell. That’s why we’ve got support groups for people with alcohol addictions, for people who have gone through divorce, for men with sexual addictions. We’re here to rescue you when you’ve fallen, to say, hey, there’s nothing you’ve done, there’s no journey you’ve taken from God, but what you can turn around and he’ll be right there. He’s still reaching out to you” (151).

And Marks presents inspiring examples of Christians who boldly confront the gates of hell, as they strive to make a positive difference in a fallen world. There’s the African-American church, which for years has fought for social justice out of a matter of necessity. There are the evangelicals who helped communities rebuild after their devastation by floods and hurricanes. There’s the group of anti-social church leaders, who haven’t done too well in American congregations, yet have the courage and tenacity to go overseas and build churches in the very midst of radical Islam. And then there is Renda Berryhill, a Christian conservative school board member from the suburbs, who shocked her neighbors by moving “into an abandoned hotel on one of the roughest drags of Odessa to meet the needs of troubled women” (286). All of these people act out of a love for Christ, as they carry him and his message into some of the bleakest areas.

The book discusses other issues as well. It features David Barton, a conservative Republican from Texas who collects artifacts from U.S. history that demonstrate America’s Christian heritage. His presentations receive standing ovations even from staunch non-Republicans, particularly within the African-American community. Marks talks about a friend of his, a professor of film at a Christian college, who thinks that “a film containing obscenity, nudity, drug use, and violence [like Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia] might be more God-filled than” a lot of the mediocre Christian movies out there (206). Marks delves into the world of Christian music, as he discusses music’s power in light of the shofar. And he spends time in the evangelical intelligentsia, as he observes debates in the Discovery Institute and the Evangelical Theological Society.

Marks’ book is a worthwhile read, for he highlights the multi-faceted nature of American evangelicalism. Some of it makes me uncomfortable, but other parts move me to tears.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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