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Book reviews

Looking for more inspiration? We have reviewed key apologetics books from the perspective of seeking to pass on your faith to your children.

The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel

Zondervan

Lee Strobel, one-time investigative-journalist at the Chicago Tribune brings his talents to bear on the evidence for the Christian faith. The result is a partly autobiographical journey from doubt to faith via a series of interviews with the leading lights of 1990s conservative evangelical thinking, with Strobel playing the role of the sceptic, and weighing the answers provided by experts.


It’s a pseudo-forensic examination of the reliability of the new testament and the person and claims of Jesus, unfolded as a narrative and punctuated with anecdotes (sometimes hair-raising) from Strobel’s time as a crime reporter. This gives the book a certain pace, which helps to make it compelling, aided by Strobel’s easy and accessible style. The vignettes of the academics interviewed conjure the vitality of their respective faiths and encourage the reader to warm to them; a welcome human dimension to what might otherwise be a dry dissection of documents.


The book is arranged around the interviews, one per key subject, covering areas such as eyewitness, documentary and scientific evidence, as well as looking at the psychology of Christ and specific pieces of evidence around the resurrection. Whilst the experts he has chosen are from one part of the scholarly spectrum, Strobel takes great pains to emphasise how eminent they are in their respective field, and the list of academic accolades is frequently impressive.


This is a popular level book, though not so popular as to gloss over difficult objections to the faith. The most common problems are also the less sophisticated, and for this reason, this is maybe not the book to lend to a well-educated, hardened sceptic. This is not to detract from what the book has achieved; each of the subjects covered could generate a library of works in their own right. It’s an overview; a primer, and it does cover what most western men and women might immediately raise as objections.


I first read this book over 20 years ago, and whilst I liked it, I didn’t fully appreciate its’ value at the time. I had been raised on the more philosophical style of C.S. Lewis and prefered the illumination of logical approaches as opposed to an examination of the historical subject matter. In time I would grow to appreciate the historicity of the New Testament as well.


Where the book excels is introducing new readers to the wealth of evidential support the faith enjoys, and for this reason, according to Strobel it has proved especially popular with 16-24-year-olds. It is, therefore, a book that can be warmly recommended to your older teenager.


In the final chapters, Strobel summarises his coverage of the topics and encourages his readers to make a personal commitment to Jesus.


Strobel closes with an interview in which he discusses the impact of the book over the last 2 decades. He attempts to address some of the criticisms by sceptics, as well as outlining the direction the evidence has taken subsequently.


As I re-read the material I found it very encouraging. My faith has certainly benefited, and I think Strobel is to be congratulated on such a successful contribution to Christian Apologetics.

 

Fool’s Talk

Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion

OS Guinness

IVP

This is the book that every would-be-apologist should read before they take the plunge into the world of Christian evidences and natural theology. It’s a distillation of decades of wisdom by an authentic evangelical thinker who is keen to place apologetics in its proper context; the persuasion that makes evangelism effective.

 

Guinness is at pains to show that ‘the heart of apologetics is the apologetics of the heart’; that fundamentally our approach to unbelievers and our wider culture must be holistic. Guinness uses ‘Christian advocacy’ as a synonym for apologetics, highlighting the our role as ambassadors for Christ, and the need to develop subtleness and flexibility to be winsome and persuasive. For this reason, he warns about the pervasive use of formulas in evangelism. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach can ride roughshod over the unique perspective of the person opposite us, as well as the dynamics of the conversation. Such an approach is often strangles the responsiveness and creativity that inform persuasiveness.

 

Guinness replaces formulas with general principles, and strategies. ‘Turning the tables’ for example, relies on sensing where an unbeliever is in tension between their worldview and wider reality and reflecting this in the dialogue. ‘Triggering the signs’ of transcendence drawing on common human experiences such as the moral law, and of joy, to point out where unbelief is at its’ most sterile.

 

This work seeks to balance out arguments within the church for and against apologetics and between different apologetic approaches. Guinness employs a pragmatism that encourages us to think biblically about the nature of unbelief, and to start with a genuine openness about where the person opposite is at in their life story.

 

It encourages us to be honest about the nature of religious hypocrisy, and to grow in the humility and love that are the hallmark of Christian persuasiveness.

 

Given that the work is partly about the employment of rhetoric, Guinness flowing style is not overly technical, and often the same idea is stated several times throughout the book in different contexts. It makes for a more accessible prose, but sometimes left me with the impression that some of his points were less than fully-focussed.

 

Nevertheless, this is major injection of sanity into the project of Christian apologetics, and its calm wisdom puts our efforts at Christian advocacy into a healthy perspective.

The Universe Next Door, James Sire

IVP

Neither philosophy or theology, Sire's work is a powerful apologetic for Christian Theism; showing how it measures up to alternative ways of looking at the world.


It's a 'catalogue' of worldviews, which are 'commitments of the heart expressed as a story or a set of propositions' about reality.


Want to understand why rational people choose to believe there is no afterlife, despite having no evidence? You've come to the right place.


Naturalism is the main context in which Western Christians seek to witness and maintain their faith, and it is the power of naturalistic worldview presumptions that will most likely challenge the faith of your child in the years to come.


Sire puts naturalism in its context; the development out of Theism and Deism and the progression on from naturalism to nihilism, the denial of all value that results for naturalists who are rigorous.


The mere act of putting naturalism in its place is deeply subversive, as its adherents are keen to portray it as the only sane way of looking at the world. Yet they have a worldview too, which needs to explain and justify itself.


Sire moves through nihilism to the naturalistic attempt to affirm value in the face of death through the existentialism of Satre and Camus.


The critique of naturalism can be encountered in any number of apologetics works, but Sire's treatment of Eastern Pantheism and New Age worldviews offer fascinating insights into areas decidedly more exotic.


The final chapters deal with postmodernism and Islam. Postmodernism is a frequently misunderstood topic, but Sire represents it well, before handing over to another author to look at a version of theism that has already had a profound impact on the geopolitics of the 21st century.


Sire's style is careful but eloquent, cautious yet fluent. It's an overview of a host of hugely complicated topics, and those wanting to explore in more detail are directed to the copious footnotes in each chapter.


Overall it's value is in showing how worldviews succeed and fail at explaining reality as we experience it, and helping us to detect the outlook of those we want to witness to.


The Reason For God, Belief In An Age Of Scepticism

Timothy Keller, Hodder

Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, has given us a dialogue between evangelical Christian Faith, and the prevailing cultural mood in North America and the West.


The book is structured around questions that sceptics ask; the people Keller has spoken to over the last 30 years or so as part of his ministry, and his distillation of intelligent, articulate answers. For example, chapter 3 is entitled “Christianity is a straightjacket” and opens with quotes from young unbelievers who feel that the church’s attitude towards having the truth “endangers everyone’s freedom”. Kellers reasoning is clear, sophisticated-and crucially-persuasive showing how such perspectives have their own unexamined assumptions.


It is Keller’s obvious pastoral experience and perspective that make this a genuinely engaging work. A certain level of humility comes through, which is necessary, as Keller is honest about the failings of the church and about how people of faith have frequently been poor ambassadors for Christ.


Whilst The Reason For God contains some natural theology in the form of the arguments for God’s existence (which Keller calls ‘clues’), it is the explanation of the broad themes of Christian theology that are the most persuasive and distinctive. Keller discusses the authority of the Bible, the existence of hell and the reality of sin and manages to treat these topics with perspective and grace. This is why this is a book you will want to give to an enquiring unbeliever; it’s unashamedly evangelical, concluding with practical advice on how to take the first steps in becoming a Christian.


I would also recommend giving this book to your (older) teenager, as it will prepare them for the usual dialogues with sceptics they will encounter. Beyond that though, it is also a book that challenges established Christians to examine whether they are living in the right way, and building their self-identity on the grace available to us because of what Christ has achieved.

Is God a Moral Monster?

Paul Copan

Baker Books

As the Author L.P. Hartley once said, “The past is a foreign country”. Can there be any destination more foreign to us than the world of the old testament patriarchs?

 

In reading the Old Testament we encounter stories that appear disturbingly strange, violent, misogynistic and repugnant. And behind all this, there is the character of the God the Christian faith recommends to the world as worthy of worship. There is plenty here to upset a sensitive believer, let alone the hardcore polemicists of the so-called ‘New Atheists’, of which there are many.

 

Whether it's Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac, to the question of slavery, to the barbaric and apparently divinely sanctioned acts portrayed as part of the conquest of Canaan, there are serious issues for the Christian to contend with, if they wish to maintain their faith and dialogue with their surrounding culture.

 

Copan’s excellent popular-level treatment of these issues deserves to be widely read. Drawing on several disciplines, from form criticism to archaeology he takes us inside the ancient near-eastern culture in which these stories and legal codes originated. In so doing helps us see how our own cultural conditioning has distorted our understanding of these ancient texts.

 

Many of Copan’s observations are generalisations that need to be absorbed but Christians of all persuasions, as they read the OT, such as God’s purposes in giving the law (calling his chosen people to holiness and separateness from the surrounding cultures), and that many commands were not meant to be normative for all peoples at all times. Likewise, an understanding of ancient near eastern jurisprudence highlights the problems with many examples of supposed unequal treatment of men and women under the law, as well as the fact that case-law is trying to make the best of a bad situation.

 

Perhaps the most important point to be underlined is that the OT law, though imperfect shows Yahweh accommodating his demands to the conditions of his people at the time they were given, whilst instituting very significant moral and legal improvements over the legal codes of the surrounding cultures.

 

The conquest of Canaan is arguably the most troubling of all the subject matter, and here Copan’s treatment is honest and illuminating, even if it may not finally remove all of the cause for concern.

 

The book closes with an examination of the rhetoric around religion and violence, seeking to draw distinctions, clarify misunderstandings and contradict outright lies. One of the best parts of the closing chapters is Copan’s description of all the positive ways the Judeo Christian culture has influenced culture in the west.

 

As a popular level work, this book is accessible and has an easy conversational style, despite not shying away from difficult and sometimes gruesome subjects. It is an excellent achievement and deserves to be part of your apologetics library.

A Recipe For Disaster

Four Ways Churches and Parents Prepare Individuals to Lose Their Faith and How They Can Instill a Faith That Endures

John Marriott

Wipf and Stock

 

Some books take your faith through the wringer; they are profoundly disturbing. Being disturbed can be because of an intelligent polemic, or because a faithful friend has helped you see what you were trying to avoid looking at. Marriott is the latter, and being unsettled is exactly what is called for.

 

Using case studies, often of people who are well known, he tells the stories of people who turn their back on Jesus and walk away from the faith. The result is a searing evaluation of the way we socialise people into Christian observance, and how they are socialised out. Marriott uses a cooking metaphor for our preparation of believers, identifying 3 stages; the ingredients (the intelligence and personality of the person in question; how they are prepared (how the person’s faith is influenced by their parents and by church) and how the recipe is finalised by the cooking process (meaning how the believer is influenced by wider culture). Marriott argues that we only really have influence over the ‘preparation stage’.

 

In examining the stories of ‘deconverts’ he identifies key themes, such as the loss of credibility of the bible and belief in God, the unrealistic expectations we set believers up to have, and how people are disaffected by other Christians.

 

What makes the book so unsettling is that Marriott puts the problems in their most persuasive form, quoting at length from those who have deconverted. The result is a visceral connection to the animus against Christian belief shared by our cultural milieu, without any real softening by apologetics, at least initially.

 

Having distilled the essence of deconverts’ grievances, the Christian reader is left with mounting tension as the book proceeds, waiting to see how Marriott can possibly resolve the issues in favour of orthodox belief. He does this in the final chapters with humility, clarity and honesty, avoiding simplistic answers, but giving satisfying yet challenging advice to parents and churches.

 

Reading this book is hugely worthwhile, if emotionally exhausting. It is well worth engaging with just for the advice about how we manage expectations around the inerrancy of the Bible, a vital topic to teach our children about before they leave home. So much of the advice is tempered expectations and common sense, and in reading it you will get a sense of the scale of the problem facing Christian parents seeking to prepare their children for the life of faith in the 21st-century.