An Inconvenient Loss of Faith

Author Interview

What is An Inconvenient Loss of Faith about?

At its core the novel is about a doubting southern clergyman who loses traditional faith, quits the ministry, and forges a new life and faith beyond the constraints of institutional religion. However, it’s far more than that. It’s a love story between a minister named Paul and a scientist named Sarah. It’s a story about best friends. It’s a story about a specific United Church of Christ congregation between the years 1991 and 2001. It’s also a story about some of the most challenging theological issues of our time.

 Why did you write this book?

I had multiple motivations. For example, the intersection of faith and doubt has long interested me. I’ve engaged in church work for decades, so the context of institutional religion is a world I know well. Another motivation for writing this book comes out of a unique dynamic I have experienced over the past ten years. For reasons I cannot explain, numerous people—both lay and clergy—have shared stories with me about losing their faith. They didn’t choose to lose faith. They didn’t reject it. They simply cannot believe traditional religious doctrines anymore. Some remain in church, primarily because they want to be part of a community. Others have left the church. Part of my motivation for writing the novel was to give voice to this painful experience of losing faith, which is rampant in today’s culture. I also wrote it to suggest that if you lose faith in a traditional God, you can still maintain faith in a nontraditional God. And, if you lose faith in God altogether, you can still affirm and follow the human Jesus and find significant meaning in that. However, my primary motivation for writing the novel is that I am, at heart, a storyteller, and I wanted to tell an engaging story about the life of a faith-conflicted pastor, a story I can relate to on many levels.

So, is the story autobiographical?

The answer to that question is both yes and no. On the one hand, some of the story comes from my pastoral experiences, including some of my own faith struggles. On the other hand, most of the story is fiction. So, while my own journey has informed the novel, it’s ultimately a work of fiction.

You present a robust critique of religious-right fundamentalism in the novel. Why is that?

Because I believe religious-right religion is toxic faith. It’s done enormous damage in the world and in people’s lives, including mine. And it’s turned millions of people away from Jesus and the church. People look at the arrogant, partisan, judgmental, negative religion of fundamentalism and think, if this is what Christianity is about, I want nothing to do with it. Religious-right fundamentalism is the polar opposite of the grace-filled spirit, example, and teachings of Christ. Jesus firmly challenged the life-diminishing fundamentalist faith of his time, and we need to do the same today.

A major story line in the novel is the debate over faith and homosexuality. Why did you choose to include that controversy in your story?

Because it is the most divisive issue in American Christianity today, and it’s a long way from being resolved. Other than conservative evangelicals, who overwhelmingly condemn gay relationships (and always have), every denomination in America either has or is currently engaged in major conflict over this issue. My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, is on the verge of schism over it. Given that reality, a realistic novel about the church in America in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries cannot ignore this story. The main character in my novel, Reverend Paul Graham, makes the case that gay people should be fully included in the church. However, he never completely wins that battle, even in his progressive congregation. Sadly, that is still true in most parts of the church. But I do see hopeful signs for the future, especially among young people, who are far more accepting and inclusive.

Your novel includes several other controversial topics. Can you briefly speak to that?

The novel raises a lot of pressing theological questions. For example, is hell real? What is the fate of non-Christians? Did Jesus have to suffer and die in order for God to forgive humanity? Should the Bible be taken literally? Does God providentially care for the world and individual people? Do miracles actually occur? Was Jesus truly divine? Is God a personal being? People struggle with these kinds of questions in today’s world. So, to be authentic, the book needed to grapple with them. No doubt, these topics will make some people uncomfortable. But they need to be addressed. My hope is that the novel will spark thought and dialogue around these and other important faith issues.

One of the themes of the book is the relationship between faith and science. Why did you choose to tackle that theme?

Because it’s an important issue in the twenty-first century, one that must be addressed by modern believers. Sadly, some Christians reject science, including belief in evolution and human-caused climate change. The main characters in the novel, one of whom is a Ph.D. college science professor, advocate that faith and science can peacefully coexist. I attempt to make the case in the novel that choosing between faith and science is a false and unnecessary choice. In short, people can believe in both God and science.

You seem ambivalent about the church in the novel. On the one hand, you harshly criticize it. On the other hand, you affirm it. How do you really feel about the church?

If I seem ambivalent about the church in my story, it’s because I am ambivalent! The church has deeply blessed me. The church has also deeply wounded me. Sometimes I love the church. Sometimes I’m overwhelmingly disappointed in it. Most of today’s problems in the church are self-inflicted wounds. For example, as noted above, religious-right Protestant fundamentalism has done massive damage to the reputation of the church. So has the horrific Roman Catholic epidemic of pedophile priests, and the inexcusable cover-up by bishops. And many mainline Protestant churches have damaged their cause by refusing to adapt to a rapidly changing world. It’s hard to make any blanket statements about the church. Some churches are life giving, some are life diminishing, and most are a mix of both. People in the twenty-first century have to make a hard decision about institutional religion. Every person has to answer the question, Will I be a part of a local congregation—all of whom, even the best, have flaws? I cannot answer that question for anyone else. I struggle with it myself. But we also need to remember that God is bigger than organized religion. I know Christians who no longer belong to traditional institutional churches, yet they are still faithful followers of Jesus.

 What do you think is the most likely future of the American church?

That’s anybody’s guess right now. We are in a time of turbulent change, and nobody can fully predict what’s next. It does seem clear that the church in America will be smaller in the years ahead. People are leaving in droves, especially young people. The fastest growing religious group in America is people without religion. The church is also likely to look different in the future than it has in the past. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New models of doing church are forming, and some show great promise. For example, small intimate house churches are making a comeback. It’s a challenging yet interesting time for the American church. Nobody knows yet how things will turn out. But clearly, massive changes are on the horizon.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

If you count college and seminary, I’ve been involved in church work for over forty years. I’ve worked in two denominations: The Southern Baptist Convention and The United Methodist Church. I’ve pastored small, medium, and large churches, including a megachurch of 10,000 members (adults and children). I worked as an editor, a consultant, and an adjunct seminary professor for my old denomination. I’ve written seven nonfiction books, one novel, and hundreds of articles. I’ve been married for over forty years. My wife and I have two grown children and two young grandchildren. I recently retired from The United Methodist Church in order to pursue nonwork interests, spend more time with family and friends, and devote more time for writing. I’m currently working on a new novel called A Highly Ambitious Minister and another nonfiction book, God Is No Longer a Working Number: Rethinking Christianity in the 21st Century.

 If your readers want to further explore the issues raised in your novel, especially faith and doubt, what resources would you recommend?

A growing number of people are struggling with traditional faith. As a result, books are being written about that interesting dynamic, mostly in the nonfiction world. Some of the books I recommend exploring are Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor, Grounded by Diana Butler Bass, The Great Spiritual Migration by Brian McLaren, God: A Human History by Reza Aslan, How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower by Tom Krattenmaker, A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz, Why I Left, Why I Stayed by Tony and Bart Campolo, Bitten by a Camel: Leaving Church, Finding God by Kent Dobson, The Gospel of Christian Humanism by Arthur Broadhurst, The Heart of Christianity, and The God We Never Knew by Marcus Borg, and most any book by John Shelby Spong, especially Why Christianity Must Change or Die, A New Christianity for a New World, Jesus for the Non-Religious, and Unbelievable. You also might want to look at two of my previous books, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? and The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion.