Book Review: Good Faith Hunting by Henry Stewart

As a transitional Baby Boomer myself, I know a thing or two about spiritual journeys. One cannot grow up in the 1950s, 60s or 70s and not have faced great questions about spirituality, faith, and ourselves. Society went through massive changes early in my life, and here in the middle of my life we are facing still more huge changes as a truly global cyber-society becomes a reality. I have traveled a long way in my journey of faith, and that in itself might make a good book for someone to read, but not today. I can summarize my faith journey briefly like this: raised attending a Methodist church, refused to go anymore at age 14, spend nearly 30 years as an agnostic, met up with Christ at 43, and have since become a deacon, Bible teacher, and writer. That’s the short version, and it will have to do for now.

As someone who has been through some radically different faith explorations, I kind of had my hopes up for reading Henry Stewart’s Good Faith Hunting (Wipf & Stock, 2012). (That is an unfortunate title, because it is not about “hunting” for faith but about “journeying” in our faith. But I guess the temptation to use a title that resembled an Oscar-winning film’s title was too great?) I myself have written about faith journeys quite a bit, and I continue to teach about such journeys in the Bible studies I have led and still lead on the books of Joshua and Judges. As I started into Stewart’s book, I thought I had hit on something that might give me insight into how others of my generation might have traveled their roads. More importantly, I had hoped to see an examination of how our modern faith journeys can be understood through the lens of the Bible’s many journeys. The good news is that is sort of what I found, and the bad news is it was only sort of what I found.

Stewart starts off by talking some about how he came to write this book and about how history has gotten us to where we are in the Western church, with denominations bleeding congregants and middle-aged folks leaving churches and exploring other avenues to express their faith. Chapter 2 then talks about the different “Stages of Faith” that Stewart is going to use for the rest of the book, a framework for helping us understand the spiritual journeys of a generation. Those stages are based on the work of James Fowler, whose own work is based around psychological development theories. The six Stages of Faith make a certain sense on their own, and there is a usefulness to knowing that everyone—not just Baby Boomers—go through such stages in their faith development. However, I almost felt like the whole Stages of Faith thing was grafted onto the book. True, it was the place where Stewart’s doctoral thesis started, but I think he might have been better served to keep the Stages of Faith as just a starting point and talked more about journeys rather than stages.

After those introductory chapters, the book gives short Biblical examples of faith journeys, interspersed with stories and partial interviews of some of the people who participated in the study he did for this book. While the stories themselves are interesting and varied, I think Stewart tries too hard to pigeonhole people into the Stages of Faith rather than simply letting their stories speak to our own journeys. At the end of each chapter are questions for study and reflection, and in an Appendix at the end of the book are the very questions asked in Stewart’s interviews for the book. (I plan on writing out my answers to those interview questions as a way to help me see my own journey.)

For me what is most striking about this short book is not so much what it contained but what it didn’t contain. In examining the Biblical stories, I felt like Stewart was only giving us snippets, the beginnings of things larger and more complex than he cared to spend time explaining. Abraham’s story itself is not nearly so simple as the mere three pages dedicated to him would have us think. The Israelite’s Exodus is a beautiful metaphor for many of our faith journeys—leaving sin behind, traveling through deserts, facing the Promised Land only to know fear and doubt, losing a whole chunk of our lives in wandering, only to come home again to God. And yet Stewart spends more time on the medieval John of the Cross than on the long and rich Biblical narrative. After reading a few of these short-shrift chapters, I felt like Stewart was trying too hard to fit too many Bible stories and characters into too short a space. And yet if we are to understand Baby Boomer faith in light of the Bible, wouldn’t it be better to spend more time studying the Bible itself than wandering through chapters on the early Church’s desert fathers and the medieval mystics?

What was most striking to me was that Stewart completely missed the boat on the story of the apostle Peter, whose journey of faith has more connections to Fowler’s Stages of Faith than does Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich. Peter’s life is a case study in spiritual growth: expanding faith, personal disillusionment, and eventual martyrdom as he transcended his earlier doubt to become the very rock upon which the Church was founded. How could Stewart have left that out? I don’t know why. He just did.

The stories from the interviews were well-chosen to illustrate the many paths people have traveled in the past six decades. We come from many different backgrounds, many different paths in life. Many of us grew up in broken homes, faced massive changes in society, knew personal tragedies, and are now seeing our children finally mature in their own ways. We are embarking on second and in some cases third careers, and we have lived long enough to see the denominations of our childhood transform into something very different. In our youth we explored mysticism and spirituality, and now in our middle age we are coming back to those explorations with more maturity than curiosity. In short, I enjoyed the stories themselves, and I saw my own journey reflected in the lives of my peers there. It is too bad that the tiny Biblical chapters did so little to support those modern stories. I wish Stewart had cut down the number of Bible stories and expanded the few that remained, so that the modern stories had more context in the Biblical narratives.

In the end, I came away from this book feeling like I’d only read a summary of what was to come, almost as if this were a book proposal rather than the actual book. I did get the message—”Baby Boomers need to be allowed to explore their faith”—but I don’t feel like Stewart proposed any solutions for us Baby Boomers. I was left with more questions than answers, such as: How we can approach our own churches about our journeys? And how can we church leaders find ways to encourage and utilize such journeys in our church’s life? There has been a lot of talk in evangelical circles recently about how churches need to allow for and utilize the many stories of people’s lives. It is not simply enough to know where someone is now, we must also know where they’ve been and where they want to go. Yes, I understand that many folks are quite happy with a simple “stage one or two” faith. And yes, I get that middle-aged folks have been and are still on journeys of faith beyond that. But how can we prevent Baby Boomers from simply leaving churches and instead integrate their journeys into the life of the church?  There are hints of answers to that question, and there is some good background here in which to ground our answer, but Stewart himself never really answers the question.


About Glenn Pettit

I am a deacon at The Well of Iowa, and a father and grandfather. Called to teach and to preach, I write fresh messages about the Bible every now and then.
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