I wrote that this summer after reading the manuscript of In Search of Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beauty Goodness and Heart of Christianity by Jim Belcher (IVP, 2013). The publisher asked me to write a recommendation for their use, so as Meg and I drove over the high plains on our way to Colorado, I read and read.
And the more I read, the more impressed I was. Belcher’s book is a story of his family’s pilgrimage for a year in Europe, seeing the places that were the geographic settings for the people who had shaped his soul. He wanted his children to meet them, “incarnate” so to speak, in the places they had lived, and died.
With his own hard-won gifts as both a political philosopher and a pastor, he has unusually well-developed lenses for making sense of what matters for human flourishing, and in each chapter we are drawn into who these people were, and why their lives still matter. We meet Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, Wilberforce, Lewis, Vanauken, Van Gogh, Ten Boom, Bonhoeffer, Von Trapp, and more, and as we listen, we come to know these people in ways that nourish us in the most important ways, a twining together that is intellectually and spiritually profound.
But if he is a political philosopher and a pastor, he is also a father. It is those several callings together that make In Search of Deep Faith so unusually good. We are never left in an ivory-tower, pondering the perplexities of the universe; rather Belcher’s ability to tell a very good story, with his hopes for his own children at the very heart, is the book’s great gift, and one that makes it “A Pilgrim’s Progress for the 21st-Century.” The longer I read, the more I wanted everyone I know to read it, and to read it aloud in family circles and small groups of every shape and size.
In their months in Oxford, living now in a very rainy, cold world after their years in southern California, we are brought into family hopes and heartaches, common to us all; while at the same time we walk with them as they discover the city of steeples and spires with its streets marked by martyrdom. We may know of Ridley and Latimer; Belcher invites us into the way they lived, and the way they died.
When the family travels to the continent, and spends months in France, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, we are with them, seeing some of what they saw, taking it all in too. From the concentration camps of Germany and Bonhoeffer’s execution, to the Austrian Alps of Maria Von Trapp, their pilgrimage becomes ours. For example, who among us knows much more about the Von Trapp family than we know through “The Sound of Music”? And yet the story he tells is richer and truer and deeper, and makes more sense of what we do know. As good as Julie Andrews was, there was more to Maria Von Trapp; she had a faith that was grounded in reality, and the reality of God and his work in the world, and that gave her eyes to see and a heart to imagine what might be done under the conditions of great social stress. Each of the stories are like this, a gift to us if we have ears to hear, because they take us to deeper truths, ones that form a deeper faith.
With unusual insight, Belcher takes up the astute analysis of Christian Smith, the scholar whose seminal work on adolescent faith is reshaping the way we understand pedagogy in the church. Drawing on the richness of his own varied educations and vocations, what we hear is his yearning for his own children to grow a meaningful faith. In his weighty and sober analysis, Smith argues that “moralistic, therapeutic Deism” is a more accurate description for the “faith” of the average young person growing up in the church. As hard as that is, I think he is profoundly right, even as I sigh deeply. Rather than honest faith honestly formed, rather than a deepening commitment to live orthodoxy, rather than a true commitment to mere Christianity, the church is producing a generation of people whose faith is severely malnourished, and of course a faith that is not sustainable. In Search of Deep Faith is just that, and Belcher’s vision is for the formation of a faith that is more than the tragically skewed version that Smith has observed.
The book is not a jeremiad, lamenting the sorrows of the church in the world, but Belcher is honest about what is required if people are to find their way to a faith that is believable and plausible in a secularizing and pluralizing world. We are given the grace of looking through the hearts of his heroes, understanding what they believed and why they believed. That is the best learning, and that is the best of the book.
I cannot speak highly enough about what he has written. Adolescents should read it, and their parents should too; in fact the best of worlds is that they would read it together. But adults should read it too, younger people and older people, wrestling with what faith has to mean if it is be lived. It is rare to find a book that is as intellectually honest and culturally engaging while at the same time spiritually rich. But that is who Belcher is, and his book is an invitation for us to join him and his family as they travel together over the centuries and across Europe, learning what is to be learned about lives that matter.
On the last page, he offers the words of Bilbo from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and they are for hobbits wherever they are found.
The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can.
That is the hope and promise of Everyone’s pilgrimage, and Jim Belcher is a gifted guide.