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.