I recently was reading the story of a former evangelical Christian, profiled by Tony Kriz in his new book,Neighbors and Wise Men.After growing up in a small, insular expression of the faith, he discovered a wider world outside it. In particular, this passionate believer discovered an environmental movement that spoke to his soul while his church home ridiculed the environmentalists. So, he switched his allegiances: "The Christian church has no coherent answer for earth care. And for that reason I now know I could never be a Christian."
Initially, this remark angered me. The evangelical movement has more than a few dissenters from the typical attitude toward environmentalism. They could have saved this man's faith. But as I gained some sympathy, I realized that the man's apostasy illustrates our need for faithful dissenters, insiders who stay true to the movement while critiquing its failures. These dissenters add diversity and show us new ways to be faithful followers of Christ.
It wasn't too long ago—when political evangelicalism was loud, and its hypocrisy easy to see—that I, immature and ignorant, wanted to lodge my own critiques against the church.
A faithful dissenter
Thankfully I discovered Ed Dobson, the faithful dissenter who voiced my own critiques while remaining inside the evangelical fold. Dobson was formerly a board member of the Moral Majority, a spokesperson for Jerry Falwell, and a vice president at Liberty University. Dobson had since become a successful pastor, leading a megachurch in Grand Rapids, and he remained a powerful voice in the pulpit and in his books. He was named "Pastor of the Year" by Moody Bible Institute. Dobson was an evangelical of evangelicals. He was a religious righter of the Religious Right.
And he gave me an answer to the problem of the church entwined with politics. In Blinded by Might, coauthored with fellow Moral Majority member Cal Thomas, they blame the Religious Right for that entwinement: "We have confused political power with God's power." Dobson and Thomas argue that the church has been compromised and distracted from its central mission. In 2008, Dobson voted for Barak Obama, telling ABC news that Obama "more than any other candidate represented the teachings of Jesus."
Dobson was a dissenter even during his days as a student at Bob Jones University. He turned away from, but never fully rejected, those who once nurtured him. Dobson speaks fondly of his days in fundamentalism and doesn't deride those he left behind. As Dobson has matured beyond the fundamentalist and Religious Right communities, he has simply pursued greater faithfulness and obedience to God for himself, his congregation, and the church at large.
Another kind of leadership
Now, Dobson is embracing a new role. After several years living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, Dobson is breaking the mold of the public figure diagnosed with a terminal illness. Such personalities typically retreat into private, preventing the public from seeing them in a weakened state. Or, these figures blandly assert that the disease will have no effect on their responsibilities.
As his body dies, muscle by muscle, Dobson is speaking at conferences, writing books, and is starring in a series of videos about his ALS, called "Ed's Story." Having left politics and now the pulpit, Dobson has embraced a new ministry. He is now teaching Christians to die well. Because learning to die well requires us to discover the meaning of a good life, Dobson's final journey instructs us all.
The church has always given an ear to its members who were near death. Today, travelogues written by children who visit heaven are our bestsellers. But earlier evangelicals read stories of transformation at the end of life and the narratives of faithful dying. Such stories filled religious periodicals. They weren't offered as eyewitness proof of Sunday school pictures of heaven. Obituaries never told about "battles" with illness but of abiding faith, deepened relationships, and glorious entries into heaven through the sad reality of death.
By taking his dying public, Dobson stands in this tradition. His latest book, Seeing Through the Fog: Hope When Your World Falls Apart (David C. Cook), offers the lessons Dobson has learned while dealing with a disease that kills slowly and painfully. In one of the Ed's Story videos, he says, "Every person knows that they are going to die. The difference is I feel it with every twitch of my muscles. I feel it in the very depths of my being."
Dobson writes about his fog of despair after his diagnosis, the difficulty of leaving his position as pastor, the challenge of prayer, and the constant worry when living with terminal illness. He writes about learning to give thanks—not for his disease, but for the many things ALS had yet to take away and for which he still could be thankful . Dobson writes about heaven and his powerful desire not to be there yet. He writes about his prayers for healing and the horrible things people say about faith and miracles.
To Die Well
The Christian tradition of dying well often has taught believers to hope for a slow death. It allows time for the preparation that a good death requires. Seeing Through the Fog, and particularly the Ed's Story videos, offers more than lessons in hope. It teaches the old practices of ars moriendi—the art of dying.
One Ed's Story video tells hows Dobson made a list of people from whom to ask forgiveness. Kathy had been a staff counselor at Dobson's church who was let go. The process had hurt Kathy, and she laid part of the blame at Dobson's feet. He knew she deserved an apology, and Dobson went to her, kneeled at her feet, and said he was sorry. "I found out much later that this was an event that marked her for the rest of her life," he said. "I didn't do it to mark her for the rest of her life; I did it because it was the right thing to do. I did it so that I could live my life without regret."
Dobson had intended to call Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, but he received a call from the radio host first. It is a generous anecdote that reveals a softer side of James Dobson. He had called to say he had been praying for Ed. When Ed asked for forgiveness, James asked the same from Ed. "Those few moments on the phone were incredibly liberating for me," Dobson writes.
Any serious illness will require a person to give up aspects of his life that were once considered essential. For the terminally ill, this giving up is a permanent and painful choice. Dobson shows his readers how he confronted the need to give up his lifelong role as a speaker. Whether speaking on television or preaching in the pulpit, Dobson's voice has been his life. But ALS destroys the muscles that control speech as well.
During one service after his diagnosis, Dobson spoke on giving. The offering plates had just been passed, and Dobson asked for one. He said we shouldn't just put a few of our possessions in the plate, but rather ourselves. Dobson delivered the rest of his sermon while standing in an offering plate.
In the hallway after the service, Dobson asked himself, "What am I holding back from the offering plate? ... I realized that my speaking and preaching should be in the offering plate." Dobson prayed, "I am now surrendering my speaking and preaching to You. I'm putting it in the offering plate. If the day comes when I can no longer speak or preach, I want You to know that it's okay with me."
An answer to death
I've had the opportunity to speak to a number of people who have been personally diagnosed with a terminal illness, or have known a family member who was similarly diagnosed. They're often surprised that dying today is only rarely a quick process. Most people die slowly over months and years. This is an experience that shakes their faith.
For anyone who needs to hear Christianity's coherent answer to the problem of facing one's death, or who needs a dissenter from popular narratives of near death experiences, Seeing Through the Fog is an excellent place to start. It is by no means the sum of the breadth of Christian teaching on dying well, but many readers may need to go no further than this book. The Ed's Story videos, which have received a good deal of media coverage, offer much of the same advice in a powerful, personal, and deeply touching way. I was disappointed that Seeing Through the Fog didn't evoke as powerful a response in me that the videos do.
Dobson's advice is soaked in Scripture, befitting a pastor who teaches from the Word. His generous spirit hasn't produced an upbeat book. He is brutally honest about the process of learning to die. His writing is at times stilted, suggesting the fact that he can no longer type but talks his writing using voice recognition software. Yet he writes with hope and joy of a deeper walk with Jesus.
Today, Christian's don't talk about death, but about near-death experiences seen to offer a kind of magical proof of the good life to come. For those Christians who, seeing today's bestsellers, wonder if Christianity has a coherent answer to suffering and death, Ed Dobson offers one. A faithful dissenter, Dobson offers real hope, meaning in the midst of suffering, the expectation of Jesus in the life to come, and ongoing transformation that brings us closer to him today.
Rob Moll is a CT editor at large and author of The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come (InterVarsity Press).
Editor's note: Some readers of an earlier version of this article thought it stated Tony Kriz holds a negative view of evangelicals' commitment to environmental stewardship. We have edited the article to make clearer that the quote at the beginning of the review was given to Kriz by an interview subject.