Title: Why I Still Believe
Author: Mary Jo Sharp
Publisher: Zondervan, December 2019
(Very) Short Review!
Former Atheist Mary Jo Sharp describes her journey from Atheist to disillusioned new Christian to becoming a Christian Apologist and defending Christianity. An excellent alternative to the current trend for deconversion stories. If you’ve ever doubted your faith or been turned off by the bad example of Christians but still had that nagging sense of God then you’ll benefit from this book.
Why I Still Believe isn’t your average Apologetics book. While there are many Apologetics books available what sets this apart is that it is structured as a memoir-like journey. There are plenty of books available on Apologetics and the deconstruction of atheistic humanism views. Many of those books don’t however give valuable insight into the personality of the author. In my view this sets Why I Still Believe apart from the rest (or the rest that I’m aware of). The unfolding story is of a sceptic from an atheist background who, as a new Christian, is rocked by the hypocrisy she witnesses at first hand in the church including being criticised for her clothes. She can’t reconcile this with what she knows about Jesus and how Christians are supposed to behave. Many Christians will empathise with her anticipated welcome being shattered:
“You’ve just been criticised…where was my “welcome to Jesus” moment? …About to publicly share the biggest decision of my life, I did not expect to be greeted with a comment about my clothing….My first worship experience as a Christian had been sufficiently corrupted. The rest of the morning I forced a smile.”
This will be a familiar story to many and some have gone from similar experiences to abandoning their faith and Christianity. This is where this book is so important in today’s deconversion climate. Mary Jo Sharp takes a different course. Through a series of providential pathways she faces her doubts (both self doubts and theological doubts) head on and emerges, not with every single thing answered definitively (as the final chapter No Tidy Endings makes clear), but with new found insight into who we are, both as humans and Christians, and why we act the way we do.
While there are many stand-out events in this book what struck me was the insight into the author’s intellectual journey from scepticism and doubt to the makings of a Christian Apologist. We read of someone growing more confident expressing their faith and answering doubts, someone who never sought a public role finding herself in public ministry. It’s both an apologetics primer and an opportunity to delve deeper into apologetics and theology and is suitable for both the beginner and more advanced student. It is funny and serious and insightful and is marked by a disarming honesty including brief snapshots into conversations with her husband Roger as she traverses the obstacle rich pathway God is guiding her through. Amongst others things, these personal aspects of the author’s journey help humanise what in another writer’s hands could be a straight theology/apologetics textbook with the danger of getting bogged down.
“…in addition to handling the drama of the church, my husband and I lived below the poverty line, with a baby, in a run-down apartment in a very challenging neighborhood – while trying to finish up college, hold part-time jobs, and minister full-time. Through my husband’s ministry, we had grown the youth group to one-third the size of the total church membership. After five years with no health insurance, and nearing bankruptcy, we had to move on to another church to survive.”
Any accusations of ‘being in it for the money’ run aground here. This human aspect is also why it deserves a prominent place on church bookstalls and home libraries and one would hope the public library as well.
I confess I would be keen, perhaps in a future edition, to have a closing appendix or similar with some of Roger’s thoughts. Their mutual journey has bumps in the road but also forms a stronger bond. It is this honest personal insight which connects the author to the reader in a more immediate way. The chapter where the author teams up with David Wood and the late Nabeel Qureshi is one highlight among many. In fact it read to me like a cross between the formative makings of an apologetics team and a sitcom! Another highlight is defending the resurrection in an email exchange with a sceptic. These are personal highlights but every chapter has something insightful to say.
Different readers will take different things from it but for me there are two stand out themes. First, the puzzle of reconciling the beauty of the world with the suffering and ugliness in it. Second, the facing of doubts and scepticism head on and emerging stronger yet acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers.
If you’re anything like me then you might have a desire to defend and promote Jesus to a sceptical world but you don’t always have the confidence. You will see much of yourself in Mary Jo Sharp’s story. I think it was Christian Apologist and Philosopher William Lane Craig who once replied to someone asking him what they should do about their doubts, “Chase them into the ground!” In other words don’t let them fester but seek answers even if that means facing sometimes uncomfortable truths and reaching accommodations you wouldn’t have considered previously. The journey further into God’s kingdom can be both exhilarating and frightening but to emerge stronger in faith and confidence is worth its weight in gold! While Why I Still Believe is set very much in an American cultural context the experiences with the church, theology and sceptical climate the author faces are universal and you’ll recognise your own situation. I’m Scottish and the story could just as easily be set here.
This book is an easy five stars and is a very timely antidote to the pattern of those turning their backs on their faith. Indeed, another important emphasis is that while some reject Christianity in favour of atheism, the author highlights the inability of atheism to provide any kind of solid foundation for life and living.
You don’t have to agree with everything (I’m pretty sure the author would applaud the critical thinking anyway) but it’s well worth reading. You can find out more information and resource links at the author’s website maryjosharp.com