On one recent weekday evening, I was sitting in a circle in a concrete garage praying Compline, a traditional nighttime liturgy, by candlelight. Within our small intentional community in London, we often recite these strange, rhythmic old sentences stitched together from the Psalms.
Our visitors, though, likely found them unfamiliar. Around the flickering flames, I could see a philosopher, a Marxist (and polyamorous) political theorist, a prominent feminist, a historian of ideas, and a columnist for a major magazine. None of them would call themselves Christians, but all had willingly chosen to join this nightly ritual.
Justin Brierley’s new book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, names this phenomenon, which I have experienced for several years: a new openness to spiritual matters among those we might have thought hostile. Brierley, until recently, hosted the long-standing apologetics radio program Unbelievable?, which has welcomed many serious public intellectuals. Having witnessed numerous debates between those inside and outside the church, he reports a dramatic “change in tone and substance.”
A century and a half after the poet Matthew Arnold heard the “long withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith, Brierley opens with a provocative observation: Seas don’t withdraw forever. The tides go out, and then they come back in. Brierley is betting the sea is on the turn.
As evidence, he tells the stories of several recent high-profile converts (like writer Paul Kingsnorth) and Christian-friendly skeptics (like historian Tom Holland). He spells out that many outside the church today are not acidly dismissive of faith but are curious, even wistful, for its ideas and communities. He tells these stories both to encourage believers and to warn the church against “answering yesterday’s objections, rather than engaging with those who are asking a different set of questions altogether.”
Brierley rightly sees that such questions are rarely seeking purely intellectual answers. Whereas the New Atheists rejected religion because the Bible didn’t read like a science textbook, those now feeling the pull of the church are driven by “the meaning crisis,” to cite psychologist John Vervaeke. Beset by existential angst, they hunger for a story in which to orient themselves. Take Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and cultural commentator Brierley makes central to his narrative. He, and those under his influence, praise Christianity for its imaginative resources—its myth and ritual, its moral clarity.
Brierley offers an astute analysis of this new spiritual atmosphere, in which many are drawn to Peterson and like-minded figures partly because they “talk about people as though they have a soul. As if beauty, truth, and meaning really exist.” What Brierley believes (and I do as well) defines this new spiritual openness is how imaginative and experiential it is. And this is a challenge for the more analytical, book-learned parts of the church, those who are nervous about imagination and emotion. The “spiritual but not religious” don’t always mix well with the “religious but not spiritual.”
At points I wished Brierley would take more of the medicine he is prescribing. While his first concrete advice for those wishing to engage this coming tide is “Embrace Both Reason and Imagination,” he clearly feels more comfortable with reason. Indeed, a few chapters digressed into the kind of content you would have found in a solid apologetics primer from a decade ago.
I was also nervous about Brierley’s enthusiasm for Peterson, who has encouraged a generation of young men to respect the Scriptures but has done so without (as far as we know) personally surrendering to Christ. His culture-warrior approach makes me anxious about anointing him a savior of the faith.
Another noteworthy aspect of the book is its disproportionate focus on men. Many are thick-skinned controversialists, always ready to wade into debates. Brierley never asks whether spiritual revival is showing up mainly among men and, if so, why that might be. I see similar longings expressed in the recent novels of Sally Rooney and Patricia Lockwood, two progressive, feminist literary superstars who have an outsized influence on my generation of women. They are also suffering from a crisis of meaning but would be nervous about a church that embraces a macho and contemptuous tone.
Brierley notes how many of his stories involve center-right figures, but for balance he only names Marxist academic Terry Eagleton, an old New Atheist sparring partner. I’d love for Brierley to examine the openness I am seeing among environmentalists whose existential terror and burnout has them seeking a stable place to stand. And there is a related wave coming from those who have taken psychedelic drugs and found them to undermine their materialist worldview. More than once, I have spoken with someone who wants to hear about Jesus after meeting him on a mushroom trip.
These groups might be more challenging for the church to welcome, but if we neglect them, we will have betrayed the Great Commission. Part of the strength of Brierley’s public ministry is precisely this willingness to listen to anyone, and I wish the book had gone further in modeling that virtue.
Some of the book’s freshest and most moving moments come when Brierley considers stories from ordinary people. Tamara, for instance, answers the question of why she converted with this beautiful stream of consciousness:
The person of Jesus; the fact that everyone I know wants love, relationship, connection; the fact that everyone I know is often living somewhere between angst and misery and wanting “more” (mixed with times of happiness); because people create and because beauty matters; because of morality.
Another respondent, Dean, says, “Intellectually I’m kind of there. But there’s something missing. There’s a spiritual and an emotional ingredient that I’m looking for.”
I hope Dean meets someone with the imaginative breadth he clearly needs. Brierley encourages believers to “keep Christianity weird.” So if you meet a Dean and you need somewhere to start, consider extending an invitation to pray Compline by candlelight.
Elizabeth Oldfield is host of The Sacred podcast and a former director of Theos, a UK-based think tank.
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