Book Review: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? by Martin Thielen

I recently was given the opportunity to read a galley version of this book, provided to me at no cost by the publisher. Subtitled “A Guide to What Matters Most,” Thielen’s purpose in this book seems to be to winnow out the essential tenets of the Christian faith from among the many doctrinal tangents that churches divide over and Christians argue about. For that purpose, it’s well worth reading. I have long felt that too many (all?) churches spend too much time focused on nonessential matters. Thielen addresses that issue, starting with a list of ten things that Christians don’t have to believe. He starts that list with the idea that “God causes cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes.” For each idea that he discards on this list, he offers a brief explanation for why it’s not necessary to believe it to be a Christian.
The second half of the book is Thielen’s list of (and justification for) the bare minimum concepts that a person must believe in order to be considered truly a Christian. That list starts with the obvious—Jesus’ identity—and continues with discussions of Jesus’ priorities, his work, his example, his resurrection, his legacy, his promise, and his vision. He ends with a discussion of what it means to be “saved.”
What’s the Least I Can Believe is well written and well reasoned. In concept I agree with much of what Thielen included on his lists. I disagree with some of his reasoning, in particular where he seems to rely on the idea that “God wouldn’t do (or support) this because it wouldn’t make sense.” My problem with Theilen’s reasoning in some of these areas is that he assumes that we, as humans with finite minds, are capable of fully comprehending the ways of an infinite God. Just because something seems unfair or unjust to us (e.g., sending some people to hell) doesn’t mean that God wouldn’t do it. While I agree that being a Christian doesn't require us to believe, for example, that Jews who don’t accept Jesus will go to hell, I hesitate whenever anyone imposes human standards of “fairness” or even “rationality” on God. As God reminds us in the book of Isaiah, His ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
For a long time I have thought that Christians spend way too much time focusing on, and fighting about, nonessentials, and that denominations in general have been built upon doctrines built upon a tortured interpretation of a few verses, rather than looking at the core concepts that Jesus himself focused on. I appreciated Thielen’s attention to Jesus’ teaching regarding the Great Commandment (“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all of thy heart, soul, and mind”) and the second that he said is like the first (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself). It seems to me that believers in Christ could both unite around those two principles and spend the rest of their lives trying to live by them, and we could discard a whole lot of arguing and law-giving.
Although I disagreed with some of Thielen’s reasoning, I generally agreed with his lists and found this book well worth the reading. It provokes thought, which always is a good thing. I recommend it to any of my thinking friends, Christian or otherwise.
What’s the Least I Can Believe is published by Westminster John Knox Press. Martin Thielen is Senior Pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.