Waving Bye and Hi to God: a ★★★★★ book review

This isn’t an apologetics book, though I took from it what I normally get from one (a rationale or some ground for continued belief). Mike McHargue, also known as Science Mike, doesn’t set out to convince you of your spiritual path. Finding God in the Waves is a memoir of McHargue’s own spiritual journey. I love memoirs, especially ones with a Hobbit-like shape ( There and Back Again). McHargue describes both losing his faith, and finding God again (SPOILER ALERT) in the waves. Along the way he shares the scientific and philosophical axioms which allow him to hold on to faith in the face of science, reason and doubt.

sciencemikePodcast listeners will be familiar with Mike McHargue from his Ask Science Mike podcast or from The Liturgists podcast which he does with Michael Gungor. The name Science Mike, a vague discipline combined with his personal name, doesn’t really communicate anything substantial about McHargue’s credentials. It is kind of like calling yourself Humanities Jane, Literature Harry, or Theology Bob. Rob Bell christened him as Science Mike, so what are you going to do?  McHargue’s bio doesn’t tell you what kind of scientist he is (or if he is), you just have his assertion that his years as an atheist, when he could examine evidence without religious ideological lenses, made him a better scientist. Perhaps, but this book is more science-y than anything approaching hard sciences.

McHargue grew up in a devout Southern Baptist family. He said the sinner’s prayer at the age of seven, grew up as an evangelical praying to Jesus and believing. Hormones and playing in a band transformed him from an nerdy fat kid into someone more likeable and cool.  For a season he broke from the church (which frowned on premarital sex), until he fell victim to the flirt and convert. Jennifer Carol Frye, a girl he was smitten with, demanded that if he was serious about her, they attend church together. So he did, trading bar gigs for church camp and a worship band. By the time he was twenty-five, he and Jenny were married and McHargue was serious about his faith.

Then his faith fell apart. The cracks came when his dad left his mom for another woman, after almost thirty years of marriage. McHargue saw no biblical ground for divorce and  wanted God to fix his parents’ marriage. He began reading the bible through at a voracious pace and praying fervently. He noted contradictions in the Bible which he didn’t know were there before (i.e. the differences between the Genesis 1 and 2 creation accounts) and doubts began to form. Reading Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis helped him move past the need to fix his parents marriage and showed him that you could be honest about your doubts in the life of faith.

His Christianity weathered his parents divorce but not its next challenger: Richard Dawkins. An atheist friend got him to read The God Delusion. McHargue read it, along with dozens of other works from skeptics. His faith fell apart, particularly as Dawkins parsed the evidence against answered prayer. He became an atheist albeit a secret one. He had no desire to undermine the faith of his wife or others. He continued to teach Sunday school and be a deacon at his church. Eventually his wife (and mother) uncover his collapsed faith, but he remained a secret atheist to everyone else until he was roped into attending a religious conference put on by Rob Bell.

Remember I mentioned the Hobbit shape of this memoir? McHargue does make it back to the shire of belief, but just as with Bilbo, the landscape changed for him because of the journey. Rob Bell, a beach house and the waves, shake him out of atheism into an Eucharistic encounter with the divine, but he doesn’t return to the fundamentalist, evangelicalism of days of yore. He finds a progressive church that he feels comfortable worshiping in and writes axioms which allow him as believing skeptic to give a rational account of subjective religious experience and its benefit (i.e. the physiological benefits of meditation and contemplative prayer).

I really liked this book and found McHargue’s story a compelling one. I found I could relate to parts of his journey. Like him, my evangelical parents’ marriage dissolved after almost thirty years and I was left there to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all. Like him, my reading of books by skeptics and believers alike stretched my understanding of God, the Bible and the life of faith. I haven’t ever walked away from the faith but I know the experience of dissonance between outward expression of faith and doubts swirling around my insides.

McHargue doesn’t provide trite answers to tough question or cherry-picked evidence that demands a verdict. However, his axioms are a starting point for others on their way back to belief. These axioms make smaller and more general claims than the orthodox Christian tradition about God, prayer, the afterlife, salvation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church or the Bible. I am unhappy with McHargue’s axioms as guiding principles for life and faith but I  appreciate the way he frames what he says. Each axiom begins by explaining what each element (i.e. God, sin, salvation, etc.) are  “at least.”  He gives skeptics a provisional place to begin their explore God. Just enough.

I give this five stars and highly recommend it. Those who have wrestled with religious doubt will appreciate the honest way that McHargue explores his own doubts. Not every skeptic will be helped by his answers and many believers will wish he voiced things with a little more theological precision and substance; Yet if you have walked this road, you will appreciate the way McHargue names the in-between-places. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for my honest review.

A New M.O. for Christian Apologetics: a book review

When debating Atheists, new and old. many Christian apologists labor to demonstrate the good reasons for theism. There is a tendency to ground arguments philosophically (i.e., in metaphysics or epistemology). The result is often a demonstration of the reasonableness of believing in a godbut very little is articulated about the Christian God and what belief in Him actually looks like. Davide Robertson proposes a new ‘m.o.’ for apologetics–a ‘magnificent obsession’ with Jesus Christ.

When Robertson conceived of Magnificent Obsession, he intended it to be a response to Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great (15). He had already published a book in response to Richard Dawkins (called The Dawkins Letters) and observed that Hitchens has very little to say in his book about God (Hitchens focused his criticisms at religion in general rather than God). So he began writing this book examining Jesus, the God we Christians believe in, as a response to Hitchens; however it morphed into something more (14). In this book Robertson aims at describing the content of Christian belief for those who would leave atheism behind. Robertson returns to a  the letter writing format (like the Dawkins Letters). The letters are addressed to “J,” a conflation of many of the people that Robertson has had coffee with, corresponded with or chatted about ‘these things’ (14). So the ten chapters are ten letters which examine aspects of Jesus: his life and mission.

Chapter one describes Jesus ‘the man’ and makes the case of the historic reality of Jesus. Chapter two and three describe the miracles and message of Jesus, respectively. These chapters explore the significance of Jesus’ life and ministry. Chapter four explores Jesus’ murder–the scandal of the cross and how it atones for our sins. Chapter five, simply titled “marvelous,” tells about the remarkable turn around at the heart of Christian belief–Christ’s resurrection. Chapter six explores the ‘meaning of Jesus’ and what Christians mean when they call Jesus God (or Son of God, or part of the Trinity). Chapter seven describes ‘Christ’s mission’–the establishment of the church. Chapter eight deals with modern objections to Jesus and Christian belief (especially ‘New Atheist’ objections). Chapter nine explores Christian hope and the second coming of Jesus. Finally in chapter ten Robertson shares his own journey with his magnificent Messiah and invites “J” (and by extension all of us) to commit our lives to him. Robertson’s conclusion is a ‘letter to the reader’ where he suggests further reading for those interested in exploring the themes of this book (and theology) more in depth.

There is something fundamentally right about this book. I loved the focus on Jesus as a framework for apologetics. Too many approaches to the apologetic task begin with ‘Science versus Creation’ or allow atheism to define the contours of the debate (i.e. what is reasonable for modern people to believe). By framing apologetics around the person of Jesus, Robertson gives proper weight to biblical revelation. Christians do not just believe in God. They believe in Jesus–our God with a human face. I appreciated this approach and find it instructive for how to engage unbelievers. Furthermore, although this is a short book, Robertson covers a lot of ground and does so engagingly and thoughtfully.

My one critique of this book is that I think Robertson tries to do too much with this book and it takes him off focus. I agree with him that Jesus is a sufficient and comprehensive answer for what ails humanitY, I  share Robertson’s magnificent obsession; yet I found at times he drifted away from addressing unbelievers about Jesus and turned his sight to other Christians. Three times in this book he mentions Rob Bell, his liberalism and how unhelpful it is. He makes clear reading Love Wins is a waste of time. I only wish he kept focused on describing what he sees as Christian truth (rather than debating alternative visions) because I know unbelievers could care less about Christian theological debates (and are turned off by it).

Besides this, I think that this will be a helpful book for non-Christians and Christians alike. Magnificent Obsession is instructive for Christians because it demonstrates the Christological focus on sharing our faith. I also think this will be a helpful book to gift to a non-Christian friend who is a seeker. I don’t think Robertson’s book will answer every question and assuage your friend’s doubts (apologetic books never do); yet he frames the gospel and the issues well and a book like this can deepen conversation about the nature of Christian belief. I give this book four stars: ★★★★.

Thank you to Christian Focus Publications for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Beyond the Battle: Another Approach to Apologetics (a book review)

The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and other Apologetic Rabbit Trails by Randal Rauser

The evangelicalism I grew up in placed a high premium on apologetics–being able to give a reasoned answer to the hope we have within us.  For us, that meant defending the faith against any and all challengers. I had trite-answers-for-tough-questions which were silver bullets designed to shoot down any objection. I knew enough logic to explain to the heathen when they had committed various fallacies and I could tell you why the scientific worldview was wrong, The funny thing was whenever I engaged in apologetics I would sometimes win arguments but I didn’t win converts.

Theologian and apologist, Randal Rauser also grew up where the basic understanding of apologetics was  a battle against non-Christian belief systems. However he  now understands apologetics as ‘the rigorous pursuit of truth in conversation. (12)’ Thus when he gets into an apologetic argument. . .er, I mean discussion, he and his dialogue partner are mutual seekers of truth and not opponents engaged in spiritual and intellectual turf warfare.

In The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails Rauser presents a fictional dialogue which demonstrates his approach. He takes us (the Reader) to the local coffee shop, the Beatnik Bean, where he engages one of the spry young atheists into the ‘grand conversation.’ He does this by strategically placing a copy of Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion on the table. A guy named Sheridan (sporting a ‘there is a sucker born again every minute’ T-shirt) spots the book and is reeled in. And so the conversation begins.

Sheridan has issues with religion in general and Christianity in particular. He is firmly convinced that science has dispensed with the need for the God-hypothesis and he thinks that there is no more basis for belief in Jesus Christ than there is in Zeus the thunder God. As the conversation unfolds, you discover that Sheridan has had his run-ins with Christian types before (included a step-dad who came on a little strong) and is bothered by the hypocrisy he’s experienced.  The conversation which unfolds between Rauser and Sheridan is far ranging, covering the geographical particularity of religious beliefs (i.e. the experience of Swedish atheists and scuba divers are both governed by significant environmental factors),  God’s sovereignty and human freedom, the hypocrisy of those in the church (and outside), heaven and hell,  evaluating competing religious beliefs and what ‘signposts of the divine’ can be seen in the world. Like most conversations, the topics unfold in a somewhat circular way, and Rauser and Sheridan often come back to cover the same (or similar) ground.

Rauser’s major contribution to the discussion is his insistance that Sheridan judge Atheism by the same standard  and intellectual rigor that he judges Christianity and religious belief.  The converse is also true. Rauser isn’t looking for special treatment for Christians and does at various points also scrutize the Christian tradition.

You may be suspicious, as I was, about whether a Christian apologist’s fictional conversation with an atheist was merely setting up a straw-man; however, the conversation that unfolds between the two men seems thoroughly plausible ( and based in actual conversations).  Neither Rauser or his atheist counterpart leave this conversation converted. If any change is brought to the character of Sheridan, he is a little less dismissive of religious belief and more thoughtful about what he actually believes about God and the world.

I really like Rauser’s writing. Admittedly I may be biased. Rauser teaches at a seminary in the city I was born in (Edmonton), got a masters at the same graduate school I got mine at (Regent College) and he got a Ph.D. under one of my favorite theologians (Colin Gunton). He is witty and good humored throughout this fictional interchange and the conversational tone allows him to talk some hardcore theology and philosophy without talking over his readers head.   This is not a book of apologetic answers to various philosophical and theological problems (read Peter Kreeft’s classic Handbook of Christian Apologetics if that is what you are looking for). Rather it is an example of a mode of apologetics which isn’t about trumping the competition  but engaging them in a quest for truth. Not that Rauser doesn’t have good answers and ask some great questions along the way, but this is much more than an apologetic answer book

If you have an interest in apologetics or wonder how to share your faith with those who do not share your faith or religious tradition, this is a great book with some great food for thought. You need not agree with Rauser on every point (I don’t) to find him a helpful resource. This also would be an okay book to give to your atheist friend (or read it with them).  Sheridan and Rauser’s conversation could be good fodder for deeper dialogue and can help believers and unbelievers alike clarify what they really believe about God and the universe.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Take a Shot and You’ll Be Stoked: a book review

Mitch Stoke's Shot It is no secret that since the twin towers fell just over ten years ago, certain atheists have gotten louder and much more forceful in their opposition to religion. The late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, are dubbed the four horseman of the new atheism and have set to work showing up religious believers for their lack of evidence, failure to reckon with modern science, and the manifold ways that religion drives war, injustice and cruel acts (like Sept. 11, for example). In the face of such vitriolic opposition what are believers to do? Does belief in God even make sense?

Mitch Stokes has written a thoughtful book aimed at bolstering the faith of ordinary believers by augmenting their beliefs in God with some of the thoughtful arguments provided from Christian philosophy. Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, Stokes was an engineer before earning a masters in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, and a Ph.D in philosophy at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. If these names ring a bell then you know that Stokes has a good academic pedigree, but this is not a book of academic philosophy. Rather it is meant to present the insights of Christian philosophy at a popular level.

Stokes organizes his book into four sections (3 parts with an intermission between Part One and Two). In Part One, Stokes tackles the conjecture that belief in God is irrational by demonstrating that neither Christians and atheists simply trust the evidence, but have to accept certain facts as ‘basic beliefs.’ The motto’follow the evidence’ in bequeathed to us from the Enlightenment, but it is impossible for us to only believe what we have personal evidence for. Rather we accept certain things as basic. Christianity can be ‘rational’ and not reliant solely on evidence for faith in God. In fact, according to Scripture it is the Spirit that reveals Himself to us and not our reading of the evidence.

In a short intermission, Stokes lays out what you can expect or not expect from an argument. He doesn’t think that you can argue an atheist into the kingdom of God (not the purpose of this book) or dismantle every argument but does see the importance of argument for intellectual engagement and giving believers confidence that there are actual reasonable supports for the faith.

In Parts Two and Three, Stokes engages the two main arguments against the existence of God from athiests: the challenge of science and the challenge of evil. He argues that science no where disproves God and that the inference for design may be made from many findings. He challenges the claims of purely naturalistic evolution. He argues that the existence of evil is due to human freedom and that God’s ways transcend our own (he might have good reasons for allowing evil that we don’t understand from our vantage point).

I really enjoyed this book and thought that it would be accessible to a general audience (though not necessarily an easy read for all). I think that Part One, where Stokes dismantles evidentialist claims. I think his weakest section is part three where he tackles the problem of evil. I generally agree with his conclusions but he introduces the problem of evil as a cosmic problem (the existence of parasitic wasps observed by Charles Darwin) but then seems to restrict most of his discussion to human evil (in two short chapters!). I think he should have unpacked this problem a little more.

That being said, I think this book is welcome apologetic resource for Christians who are perturbed by the claims of the New Atheists and other antagonists.

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.