Perhaps every book has an ideal reader, one who feels the book is written with their needs in mind and that fits their life journey. The ideal reader for An Untidy Faith is likely someone who grew up in a conservative evangelical setting but has come to question some of the rigidity of that faith or culture. I confess that I am not that ideal reader for this book. While I’m familiar with that more rigid evangelical setting, having experienced that during my college years, I did not grow up with that, and I left it many years ago. Nevertheless, I resonate with much of Boyd’s book, and it has great value for certain readers.
A writer, speaker and Bible teacher, Boyd begins her book by contrasting her inherited faith, which “was tidy, checked all the right boxes and participated in all the right activities,” with the faith of a woman she met on a trip to Latin America, whose faith “was messy, inconvenient and sometimes dangerous.”
She goes on to describe what she calls her “process of deconstruction,” which began with that trip to Latin America. She realized that the brand of Christianity she’d grown up in was inadequate, and she needed to change. When people face such life-changing challenges to their faith, they either double down on their current faith, -demolish it and leave, or disentangle. She chose the last of these, realizing that “so much of what [she] thought about Jesus and Christianity was tangled up in [her] American culture.” As she did so, she learned that “disentangling is a lifelong journey and that it’s actually part of the discipleship process.”
As part of that process, she discovered that “much of what [she] thought was in the camp of orthodoxy [her italics] was actually very tied up with fundamentalism.” And fundamentalists, she writes, can be both theological conservatives and progressives. “Each side has their own list of beliefs one must have that makes them a superior version of Christian and keeps everyone who doesn’t agree out.” Ouch.
While there’s comfort in this kind of certainty, Boyd writes, “what is harder is embracing tension and holding everything up to the light with humility, willing to examine and be examined to find the truth in the tangles.”
She goes on to explore her journey back to belief by respecting the Bible’s boundaries, looking at the whole gospel, finding a more tangible hope, considering the kingdom of good (as opposed to domination), understanding our family legacy and confronting the pain in the promise.
Her insights in these chapters won’t be necessarily new to many Anabaptist readers, but they are good reminders. She notes that spiritual needs “are often wrapped in layers upon layers of other needs that must be tended to: physical, emotional, relational.”
Throughout she includes reflections on Scripture, particularly the Gospels, and draws on Jesus’ teachings and example. She draws the lesson that “living prophetically in the way of the kingdom means living a life of faithful disruption.” And that disruption can mean persecution, as she learned from some of the people she visited overseas. Surprisingly, she found that “most of the resistance [she] experienced when trying to live the way of Jesus was actually from those within the church itself.”
In the second part of the book, Boyd traces her journey into joyful practice. She writes of being compelled by compassion, of confidence in the Spirit, of being the heads, hands and hearts of Christ, of living in Spirit and truth, of the ties that bind us and of valuing connection over conversion.
She shares insights that may not feel new but are important: “Discipleship is the responsibility of all of us, not the few with lots of training and talent.” Or this: “Discipleship that transforms lives and communities starts with a safe place to belong, and it is only through a safe community that we can begin this formation process.”
The strength of Boyd’s book is her stories of Christians she met overseas — their simple yet courageous faith — and how it contrasted with the rigid, certain faith she grew up imbibing.
Thinking back to my early college years as a fundamentalist (the conservative kind), I could resonate with the burdens she felt: that she had to find or force a conversion moment, that she was responsible for sharing the gospel with every person she met and that she was responsible for making everyone believe exactly as she did. As we follow Jesus with our whole selves, she writes, “we will likely find that we aren’t just sharing the good news, we’re living it.”
Ideal or not, readers will find much to learn or to be reminded of as we seek to be faithful disciples of Jesus.
Gordon Houser of North Newton, Kan., is a former editor of The Mennonite and author of Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality.