A Book Review
If you ever doubt we live in an era of polarization, bellicosity, and vitriol, a quick scroll through what some of the social media posts from the sweetest people in your church might convince you otherwise. Joshua M. McNall’s new book, Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space Between Doubt and Dogmatism was written for such a time as this.
But perhaps first, the book’s subtitle requires some clarification. McNall fully recognizes the rightful place of both uncertainty and confidence. We simply cannot understand everything about God and His revelation. But there are many matters of faith we can have complete and utter certitude on. So then, McNall’s two-pronged warning is against disbelief on the one hand and harsh and/or unwarranted know-it-alledness on the other.
Practically speaking, our confidence on matters of biblical teaching should equal the Bible’s clear teaching on such matters. The message of this book is that believers need to learn to say “perhaps” when answering those questions for which we lack grounds for absolute certainty. Sometimes the best possible answer to a difficult question is “Maybe.”
Drawing from Scripture, church history, literature and popular culture, Perhaps takes us on an exploration of theological imagination and “sacred speculation” (19). By no means is this an invitation to embrace unbridled “what-iffery” (29). In fact, we are warned to exercise caution. There’s an entire chapter that provides ten key “guardrails” to abusing the use of “perhaps.” One such guardrail is honestly acknowledging what we do not know. Others include recognizing our potential biases, submitting to Scripture, seeking noncontrastive connections between ideas, and not confusing mystery with bad logic.
The book’s final three chapters are ones literary aficionados will particularly enjoy for their use of well known fictional works as conversation partners to explore the application of “perhaps.” One chapter uses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to assess possible responses to Darwin’s doubt over how God could allow animals to suffer. The following chapter uses Steinbeck’s East of Eden to propose how a believer might understand election and freewill according to Romans 9:22–23. And the third enlists C. S. Lewis and The Great Divorce to explore the permanence of damnation. While these three expanded examples were insightful, I would have appreciated more examples of where answering with “Perhaps” can help us.
Whether or not you agree with the usefulness or conclusions of McNall’s examples, there are matters of uncertainty for the Christian. Uncertainty has even led to deconstruction, as McNall speaks to in this book. His goal is to show from Scripture how there is room to ask questions without jettisoning the truth of Scripture. Written with a pastoral heart, this book reminds us that the people in our churches are grappling with questions that matter to them. How can we help them? This book encourages us to love the truth and answer questions with creativity and humility. Ultimately, this book echoes the tenor of the prophet Micah when he called God’s people to “love kindness” and “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Special thanks to IVP Academic for a free review copy of this book. This did not affect my thoughts so far as I know.