When I am hiking in the Rockies, with each turn in the path presenting a new postcard view of mountains and valleys, I can feel my stress and anxiety melt away. As many scholars have proven, being out in the wild is good for our souls as well as our bodies. That has certainly been my experience. But then I start to imagine what being out in the wild might have been like for our ancestors. Would I still feel peace if there were predators lurking? Would I find gardening so relaxing if I knew a marauding army could come over the rise for their annual rape and pillage? What if what I was planting was my only reliable food source? What would I feel when I looked to the skies to see changes in the weather?
I would feel fear—and rightly so. Yes, there would be other strategies for dealing with these threats besides fear, but fear itself would be an important guide and resource for guiding my actions. Otherwise, I might not survive.
Today, however, I don’t worry about predators or marauders or about starvation, and yet I still feel fear, even in the Rockies. My fears are more pervasive and abstract compared to past threats. I am afraid our country will unravel, that the future world my daughters will face may be a dark one. Because of our inability to solve our problems, I fear that our health care system may implode along with our civics, our economy, and all that binds and holds us together. In the past my faith held back the tide of my anxieties. But now I even fear the church, since a large portion of it has traded its role as the champion of the weak and disenfranchised for desperately clinging to a nostalgic vision of the world that is simply no longer true or accurate. We have seen the truth—and decided to overlook it. Why? Because we are afraid.
This is why I found Ben Corey’s new book Unafraid so fascinating. He describes the slow and multi-staged unfolding of his discovery of how much of his Christian faith was built on a foundation of fear. Like other progressive Christians, he had already worked out that traditional understandings of hell, the last judgment, and Jesus’s death on the cross did not conform with the idea that God is love. Still, he struggled, haunted that his faith and life were falling apart. This is when he discovered the deeper work he needed to do, that deep down in his soul, despite his new and improved doctrinal understandings to the contrary, he remained scared of God, the Great Punisher.
Fear can be pernicious, a dark power that is not easily domesticated or cast away by better thinking. Sometimes spiritual exorcism is needed. In the rest of the book Ben works out not only how fear worked its way so insidiously into the bowels of American Christianity but, more importantly, how he discovered what Christianity looks like when positioned on the foundation God worked so hard and so sacrificially to reveal to us: on love, forgiveness, grace, and justice. The result is not only a breath of fresh air but a reintroduction to the radical newness of Christianity and to the hope and comfort the gospel offers.
And that is something I can hold on to when I am afraid.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor