That’s a funny way of putting it, isn’t it? I mean, it seems perfectly obvious: people want to find something out, so they make an inquiry. What else could a question mean, if it’s more than that?
It’s pretty popular these days to say that Christians ought to ask the Hard. Questions. And for good reason: it’s true. There are challenges that deserve serious attention, questions that we should carefully consider. Faith isn’t the sort of thing that will endure as long as our eyes are closed. The opposite, in fact: faith helps us see, and that means not shrinking from the ambiguities and the difficulties that provoke our most profound questions.
I’m a fan of questioning. In fact, I have been ever since I entered the Torrey Honors Institute, a place where questioning is treasured more than anywhere else I know. My education was built on the notion not only that we need not fear questions, but that by the grace of God we had the safety and security to rush headlong into them and find ourselves better for it on the other side.
The past decade of my life I have, in one form or another, continued that process of inquiry and exploration and discovery. This little corner of the internet has played a key role in that, as my own questions have often played out in various ways through my writings here. I can’t claim to have always had the right sort of disposition about my inquiries. (And all his friends and his spouse said “Amen!”). But I have never once quit caring about the learning, about the growth that is before us and the questions that will lead us into that.
Which is why I want to turn the question in on itself, to step back and examine how questioning fits within the Christian life. It’s not enough to simply announce that Christians should question everything. We have heard that message before, as it has been very ably stated. My concern is that in our embrace of questioning we learn to question well, that even in our uncertainty and our exploration we not give up the task of walking worthy of the calling which Christ has placed upon us.
What does it mean to question well? That’s a good question. I’m working out an answer, over 30,000 words available in the early summer of next year. The whole thing even has a title. The End of our Exploring: Questions, God, and the Confidence of Faith. Which is, frankly, a title that I love.
Writing is a dangerous practice. The last time I set out to compose a book, I failed in serious and soul-damaging ways. I became consumed by sales, turned Mere-O into a platform for sinful self-aggrandizement, and reduced readers–you–into conduits for recommendations to friends or links on social media.
Writers are witnesses. Their role must be self-effacing: they point beyond themselves and the words, toward the substance and matter of the subject at hand. The last time my hopes that the book would be welcomed as a Really. Important. Work. actually had the paradoxical effect of undermining my ability to simply say what I saw and to say it with the distinctive voice and witness that I have been given. And that, in turn, had the corollary of commoditizing all my relationships in order to make up the gap. “Error’s endless train,” I think Spencer’s line is. I found myself in it, and the witness is ultimately what suffered.
That’s a lot for a book announcement, but I say it to make a point: my concern this time around is different than the last. In a real sense, I am not worried about this book “starting a conversation” or “making a dent” or whatever other sorts of big-splash type language I used last time around. My goal is to say something true about the subject, and to say that truth with as much beauty and life as my words can convey. And that is enough. All the marketing strategy, all the building of a tribe, all the requests for links on Facebook to drive Amazon rankings and sales—the sort of tactics and techniques that the marketers will swear by but which I place no hope in. Let the work speak for itself and if it cannot move an audience to tell their friends and neighbors, then I can die knowing that in the vocation to which I have been called I have only sought to be faithful. One man plants, another reaps: the same is true of books and the fields they enter as it is of anything else.
I have more thoughts about how our mindset as writers relates to marketing, and maybe we can talk about all that on another day. But let me close with one other thought and then a few requests.
I am really humbled to have this opportunity. I can’t tell you how humbled. And excited. This has been a very difficult year for me. I don’t write about my personal life here much at Mere-O, because I am a big fan of maintaining a large domain of privacy so as to avoid making the online world all about me (still, it doesn’t seem to work!). But suffice it to say, deciding where to go to graduate school, uprooting my life, and then trying to pay for it all has posed a number of challenges that at points worn me thin.
But this, well, this has been invigorating at points in ways that I haven’t felt in my writing in quite a long time. I am really humbled to even have the chance to explore the subject. I mean, me! It’s hilarious and awesome, all that same time.
The chance is really due, in fact, to two people in particular. One is Erik Wolgemuth, who for some bizarre reason offered to become my agent. He’s been invaluable, not only in terms of helping me secure the contract for this, but in terms of putting up with my idiosyncratic rantings and encouraging me along the way. I like to joke that I must be the strangest client he has. It sounds narcissistic, but trust me: I’ve got good reasons to believe it.
The second is Randall Payleitner at Moody Publishers. In fact, Team Moody is doing simply fantastic work these days. They’ve published my friends Rhett Smith and Tyler Braun’s books, and they’re about to publish Scott McClellan’s new book on narrative, which I’ve not yet read but looks really sharp. Randall, particularly, had me from the first moment we talked about my proposal. When we got down to business, he said very clearly, “Well, we really hope you publish this book with us. But frankly, I passed it aroud the office and we all decided that it didn’t matter who published the book—we wanted to read it.” I mean, how do you top that as an encouraging word? Frankly, to me, you don’t. It’s humbling to work with folks who like your project as much as you do.
Finally, there’s you, Dear Reader. We’ve had a terrific year, filled with plenty of ranting and raving by me and lots of great stuff by other folks. I am so grateful for all the kindness you’ve shown us, and for the questions you have posed and the conversations you’ve had in the comments. Every time I see people on Twitter rant about how terrible commenters are, I smile because I know that the loyal crew that does show up in the comments happens to be among the most interesting on the internet.
Now, for a request. Or rather, three requests.
First, I want to seriously and quite candidly ask for your prayers. And by “ask for your prayers,” I mean ask you to actually and intentionally remember me and your wife when you are talking with Jesus. Especially between now and the end of December, when my first draft is due. My term ends December first and my draft is due two weeks later. Your prayers for the words, for my writing, and for our marriage are precisely the sort of gift that you can give that goes far beyond anything else.
Second, I would ask for your help. Not your help marketing the book, because you’re my “tribe.” No, your help with the book because you want it to be a book befitting of the subject. If you are interested in reading an advance copy and doing some critical feedback sessions on it, leave your name in the comments and I’ll get in touch. I am not sure yet how it’s going to go, or how many I’ll ask. But I am pretty confident that it will require reading the book through the holidays and talking with me in early January (which is a short turnaround).
Finally, you can help in this way: I’m just curious to hear (a) your favorite question from a novel, (b) your favorite question you’ve ever asked, (c) any quotes about questions that have been particularly meaningful to you, or (d) any thoughts about questions that you have. I won’t be able to respond to all of them, but I am thoroughly interested to hear what you’ve read and thought about on this subject before.
These are fun days to be working. Now then, back to the task of learning to question well.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.