Review: “The End of Our Exploring” by Matthew Lee Anderson

Full disclosure: I had a hand in this book. Well, a few fingertips. Matt is a friend, and I helped with this project some six months ago.

Matthew Lee Anderson’s second book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith, is a book that is all at once pensive and provocative, thoughtful and incisive, meandering and direct. In his exploration of questioning itself, Anderson takes us on a journey that feels familiar; after all, we have all spent time questioning. Some have made lifestyles out of it (the movement in Christianity that emphasizes “doubt” and “questions” as a modus operandi), others have assumed that questions make our faith weak (“If you doubt God, God will doubt you!”), but few have (recently) taken questions as a careful combination of movement and destination. Regardless of the place of questions in your life, Anderson asserts that questions are worth facing; I’m inclined to agree with him.

There are a lot of strong chapters in the text. I’ll highlight two of them here before getting into my critique, but I’ll save you time if you’re the sort who doesn’t read entire reviews: I recommend the whole book. And now, on to the best chapter.

My favorite section in the entire text is the discussion on Adam and Eve that takes place in chapter 2. This chapter may be a bit too exploratory for the tastes of some (how can you really be talking about what was going through Eve’s mind?), but I think the exploration is exactly right for this sort of project. The serpent comes to Eve and asks a question, carefully reframing the world in such a way that Eve is immediately at a disadvantage. In Anderson’s words: “The serpent’s question leads to death because it originates in a false picture of the world.” [p.38] The entire discussion is illuminating; somehow in all the times I’ve considered the story of Adam and Eve, I’ve never spent time working through what it means that the serpent asked a question, rather than something else. But the helpfulness of the discussion goes further: by actively considering the weight of a question that changed the world, we are simultaneously reminded both of the power of questions and our own responsibility to question well.

The other chapter I’ll highlight is the chapter on friendship. If that seems like an odd topic for a book on questioning, the rationale is pretty straightforward: questioning is often a way that we disagree, or at least how we explore whether or not we disagree, and so Anderson works through what it means to be friends with someone that you disagree with strongly. When describing a good friend of his, Anderson writes: “My respect for him is nearly boundless–which is why I do him the courtesy of disagreeing with him in the most vigorous way possible when necessary.” [p. 144] While he keeps in mind that friends must have something in common, Anderson also argues that the friction in our friendships–that is, the disagreement–can lead us both to better places; inquiry means learning about the world and about each other.

I don’t have many critiques to offer–I genuinely believe this is a worthwhile read–but I’ll offer a few. The first is that, depending on your education, you may find that a lot of this book is familiar. Anderson and I were similarly educated, so I found many of his insights well stated but not particularly novel. The chapters I highlighted above are exceptions–as is the chapter on intellectual empathy–but the point remains. The second critique is the organization of the book. While some chapters tie together relatively clearly (the chapter on communities is followed by the chapter on friendship), most feel as if they could fit at almost any point in the book. This is useful for teaching (if you were to use the book for this), since you can assign chapters at will, but it made each chapter feel isolated. Perhaps the book didn’t need more full-length cohesion (outside of the broad topic), but it was a noticeable issue, at least for me.

The book is well written (if you know Anderson’s work, you won’t expect anything less), and is fairly accessible, even as it leans toward an academic tone. The text refuses to linger too long, spending just the right amount of time in each chapter. In that sense, the pacing is excellent. I never wanted Anderson to “get to the point,” nor did I wish to skip ahead. If you’re looking to question questioning, there’s no question about this: The End of Our Exploring is where you should look.

And if there’s a time to buy this book, it is now. Not only is it new, but you can even send an electronic copy of the book to a friend. For more details on how that works, check out this page. In short, though, if you buy a book, you can tell Moody (the publisher) to send a copy to whoever you’d like. Pretty sweet.