Monday, January 23, 2017

Review of Butterflies in the Belfry--Serpents in the Cellar, by J. Michael Jones

Book Review
Butterflies in the Belfry—Serpents in the Cellar: An Unintended Pursuit for a Natural Christianity
J. Michael Jones, Naked Christian Press, 2016, 235p.

My friend Michael Jones has written an intriguing and poignant memoir in which he describes his journey from the destructive aberrations of Christian evangelicalism to a more holistic and “natural” style of Christian faith. His journey takes him from East Tennessee to Egypt where he experiences a crisis of faith. Upon returning to the States, suffering deep depression and failing to find healing in the evangelical churches and ministries he had previously known, Jones begins the “unintended pursuit” for understanding the Christian faith as it has developed in Western culture. The author shares this journey with the reader as, through his study and travel in other cultures, he comes to see the destructive impact that Greek philosophy has had in Christian culture. Philosophical dualism, whether of the Platonic or Aristotelian variety, has, in his view, resulted in unbiblical or unnatural forms of Christian faith. In sharing his experience, Jones offers the reader a more honest and healthy way of faith than is found in perhaps most churches of modern Western culture.

This is a very honest and helpful book. I can identify with the author's pursuit because I have walked much of this journey myself. Coming from similar religious backgrounds (small-town Southern Baptist Churches) to the same college and para-church ministry organization, we have seen some of the same unhealthy and destructive tendencies in fundamentalist and evangelical Christian faith. We have arrived at different places in our journeys, but his experience resonates with my own in many ways.

I was concerned when I saw the sub-title of the book: “an unintended pursuit for a natural Christianity.” Is that “natural” as opposed to “supernatural” I wondered. But no, what Jones was pursuing is a Christian faith in its purest form, a more Biblical faith, one not so affected by the corrupting effects of dualistic thinking. I appreciate that effort. He does a fine job of describing the historical consequences of Christian faith being over-laid with Platonic idealism or Aristotelian materialism. Yet I am not convinced that Christianity's use of Greek philosophical categories is all a bad thing, as Jones seems to think. Believing that “all truth is God's truth,” and that even pagan philosophers, through the use of reason can perceive that truth, I believe that, with much of Christian thinking, at least in the West, Aristotle and Plato can be very helpful. Nevertheless, I would agree that dualistic thinking, especially in its Gnostic tendencies, is a huge problem, and for Christians, Biblical revelation must not bow to Greek philosophy.

I wish that the author had explored the divide between Catholic and Protestant thinking to some degree—Luther's rejection of Idealism in favor of Nominalism and its effect on evangelical faith and practice would be a beneficial study to include in this pursuit, I believe. I think the historical overview could be improved by avoiding the historical bias revealed in the term “Dark Ages,” and I would want him to study further the suggestion that “during its first millennium, the Roman Catholic Church had ignored or even destroyed the original writings of the Greek philosophers” (p. 144). I would suggest Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization and Rodney Stark's Bearing False Witness as helpful correctives to what may be a bit of anti-Catholic bias in the author's reading list.

But these are minor reservations. This is a fine book and I am very glad he published it. The author is an excellent writer. I found myself close to tears as he narrates the desperation of his family's crisis in Cairo, and I felt the joy of his healing as he marvels at the goodness of God's creation. This book is an intelligent and honest portrayal of one man's struggle of faith in the contemporary world—it perhaps can bring healing and hope to others. It deserves a wide readership and I highly recommend it.