I write in books. I mark up the stories and circle the insights I want to be able to find later. I argue in the margins and sometimes warn future readers away in the front.
The books I write in most are the ones I plan to keep for future reference. “Know Doubt” by John Ortberg is one of those. The subtitle is: “The Importance of Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith.”
It’s a mother lode of great quotes and insights.
Ortberg, pastor of a Presbyterian church in Menlo Park, California, is turning out best-sellers at a Max Lucado pace. The first one I read was “If You Want to Walk on the Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat,” and I’ve recommended it far and wide ever since. (In fact, I seem to remember that the Dean of the Graduate Faculty at our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary at the time, Perry Hancock, gave me that book. He’d used it in some of his classes, I think.)
Anyone who gives you a book by what turns out to be a favorite author has done you a great favor.
Growing up on the farm, the nuts and fruit we ate came from our trees and not from Sam’s Club or a grocery store. The best nuts on our farm were black walnut, partly, I suspect, because the “goody” was so hard to get at.
Black walnuts are mostly wood. The shell is hard and thick and must be broken with a hammer. The payoff–what we kids called the goody–was small, but delicious.
I’m not suggesting you skip purchasing Ortberg’s “Know Doubt” by telling you some of the “goodies” in it, but rather hoping to whet your appetite for the whole thing.
What follows are some of what I marked in his book….
1. “Every child is a testimony to God’s desire that the world go on. Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who doubts sometimes, has written that the reason so many babies keep being born is that God loves stories.” (p. 18)
2. “A number of recent best-sellers by professional doubters are part of what is being called the New Atheism, a kind of reverse evangelism. They are written by people who are quite certain that God does not exist, and in some cases they are mad at him for not existing.” (p. 21)
3. “A historian friend of mine said perhaps a little unkindly, that ‘The DaVinci Code’ is the only book after which you’ve read it, you’re dumber than you were before you started.” (p. 22)
4. “I do not think professional doubters will make faith go away. The predictors keep dying and the faith keeps spreading.” (p. 23)
5. “Others, like Rabbi Harold Kushner, try to explain suffering by saying God too is pained by death but cannot do anything about it. (Elie Wiesel once said in response to Kushner, ‘If that’s who God is, he should resign and let someone competent take over.’)” (p. 25)
6. “But a philosopher named William James responded that sometimes Clifford’s advice (William Clifford had written since we cannot know ultimate things, we should just sit back and enjoy our agnosticism) is bad strategy. He said doubt is the wrong alternative when three conditions are met: when we have live options, when the stakes are enormous, and when we must make a choice.” (p. 29)
7. “The question of faith is never just a question of calculating the odds of God’s existence. We are not just probability calculators. We live in a burning building. It’s called a body. The clock is ticking.” (p. 32)
8. “Everyone believes, for there is no other way to live. Even those who say they know, that they have no need of belief, are throwing the dice. They are just throwing harder than most.” “We all have, in the most literal sense, skin in the game.” (p. 35)
9. “‘Life is a great surprise,’ Vladimir Nabokov wrote, ‘I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.'” (p. 35)
10. “But even nihilists, writes Michael Novak, devote beautiful October days to sitting indoors at their computers pecking out messages in the faith that someone will read, that someone will be enlightened, and that what they say will have meaning in a universe they claim has none. ‘They are men and women of faith, our nihilists.'” (p. 36)
11. Ortberg cites a great quote from Madeleine L’Engle: “Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God Himself.” (p. 39)
12. On page 45, I found an error, a minor one for most folks but a rather serious one for a preacher, which makes me wonder if Ortberg was assigned an actual editor at Zondervan’s. He refers to Elijah praying that God would open the eyes of his servant, who then saw the heavens filled with angels and chariots of fire. But it wasn’t Elijah; it was Elisha. II Kings chapter 6.
13. One more thing that made me question whether Zondervan is helping this excellent writer is the reference Ortberg makes to our Lord’s “longest recorded talk,” referring to the Sermon on the Mount. However, that “talk” takes place over chapters 5-6-7 of Matthew, whereas the “Upper Room Discourse,” found in John 13-14-15-16 (and chapter 17, too, if you count the high priestly prayer) is longer. Had the word “talk” been changed to “sermon,” we’d have no argument.
14. In the chapter titled “Longing for Home,” Ortberg remembers walking through the empty house where they had raised their children. The furniture was on its way from Chicago to California where he had taken a new pastorate. He walks through the shell of their old home and speaks out loud: “You were a good old house. You were good to my children. I’m so glad you were my home. There will be other houses for me, I know, but none of them will mean to me what you did.” He adds, “How was I to know there was a real estate agent in the back bedroom?” (p. 61)
15. “‘Christianity is like a nail,’ Yemelian Yaroslavsky, chairman of Stalin’s League of the Militant Godless, complained. ‘The harder you strike it, the deeper it goes.'” (p. 76)
16. “Sometimes one of the biggest obstacles to faith in Jesus is the incompetence, complacency, and arrogance of his followers–followers like me.” (p. 78)
17. “There is a wonderful, tiny verse in a rarely read New Testament book called Jude: ‘Be merciful to those who doubt.’ (vs. 22) (p. 80)
18. He quotes Homer Simpson (the cartoon character) who had helped some people build a new church: “Well, I don’t know much about God, but we sure have built Him a nice little cage.” (p. 86) (The context is the story in I Samuel where Israel takes the ark of the covenant into battle against the Philistines. They thought God dwelt in that box.)
There’s lots more great stuff in this book, but I’ll end with this memorable story…
19. “In the early twentieth century a hobo named Cliff Edwards was barely staying alive, but he pinned his hopes on his one great gift–a voice that could slide up three octaves with pure quicksilver magic. He started singing at a restaurant where he billed himself as ‘Ukelele Ike,’ got discovered, and became one of the great vaudeville and Broadway stars of the 1920s as well as a star of early talkie movies. He is credited in some circles with inventing scat singing. And if you picture a 1920s singer carrying a ukelele, you are venerating his memory.”
“Edwards got what he hoped for, but it wasn’t what he wanted. And he began the long slide down–alcoholism, gambling, tax troubles, bankruptcy, and drug addiction. He died forgotten, broke, and on welfare in 1971; he outlived Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and his own fame by many decades. I have a soft spot for him because of the last big movie part he got before his long, final descent–when his inimitable voice gave life to the role of a plucky, chirpy, irrepressible character named Jiminy Cricket. ‘When you wish upon a star…'”
I wrote in the margin of page 96, “Holy cow!”