The Christian Story As Our Deep Longing: a book review

Christianity is good news. But how is it good news for us? Philosopher Gregory Ganssle says the Christian Story is the answer to our deepest desires. In Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations, Ganssle describes how the good news of Jesus Christ makes sense of our longings and fulfills our common, human desires. Ganssle (Ph.D., Syracuse) is professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Biola University and the author of several books of theistic philosophy and apologetics.

5182In part 1, Ganssle describes what the Christian story has to teach us about personhood, our purpose and meaning, and our capacity for relationships. In part 2, Ganssle claims that Christianity answers our deep expectation for moral goodness. Part 3 explores how beauty points us toward God. In Part 4, Ganssle delves into what the Christian Story has to offer us by way freedom (and how it relates to Christian truth and hope).

As Ganssle explores each of these longings, in turn, he contrasts how the Christian story describes reality, with atheistic and materialistic stories and ways they answer these questions of desire. He differentiates the Christian faith from materialistic Darwinism, existentialism, utilitarianism, and thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Fredrick Nietzche, the New Atheists, etc. Ganssle does this all, with an accessible conversational tone, full of personal anecdotes and pop-cultural references.

IVP Academic classified this book as “RELIGION/Christian Theology/Apologetics”(back cover).  I think the ordering of these is essentially correct. Ganssle offers thoughts about the value of Christianity which I think will be instructive and beneficial, primarily for Christians as we think through a Christian understanding of reality, and what difference this makes for our lives. Ganssle explores more the ‘why Christians believe,’ than the ‘what’ Christians believe. This doesn’t mean what Ganssle says is solely subjective, but his emphasis is on the lived benefits of the Christianity—how it gives us meaning and a purpose and the ways it illuminates the true, the good and the beautiful and brings us hope and freedom.

This emphasis on the ‘why’ more than the ‘what,’ characterizes how Ganssle handles the Christian story. Ganssle uses ‘the Christian Story’ as shorthand for what Christians believe about the nature of reality. Ganssle doesn’t explore the narrative of scripture in great detail, though he does note along the way: creation, the fall, redemption, and consummation. Most of Ganssle’s Scriptural references are drawn from the New Testament (though he does reference Genesis 1-3, and, Psalm 19:3). Missing from his Christian Story is both the story of Israel and the Church’s story.  However, he is not telling us all of the what, but why the Christian Story answers our deep desires. 

As an apologetic, Ganssle doesn’t offer any ‘knock-down arguments,’ but his contrasting of worldviews highlights the ways in which Christianity speaks meaningfully to human longing. Ganssle notes in his introduction “If you recognize your own deep values in what I discuss, you may see that, indeed, Christianity makes a good deal of sense” (13). Seekers who are interested and exploring what the Christian story has to offer may find Ganssle’s answers compelling. The committed atheist will not find these brief reflections as persuasive. But I think one of the most valuable things about apologetic works, is that they show clear thinking and a rational basis for faith for those who are drawn into the Christian story or are staring back from the other side of conversion and wonder if they thought stuff through the issues well enough. To that end, Ganssle describes cogently how the gospel is good news, fulfills our deepest longings. That is pretty valuable.

I would recommend this book for believers and seeking-unbelievers who are exploring, or at least open to, Christianity and are curious as to what the Christian faith has to offer.  I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection, I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Lessons for a Bad People (Hos. 4-5)

Abraham Heschel observed, “The striking surprise is that prophets of Israel were tolerated at all by their people. To the patriots, they seemed pernicious; to the pious multitude, blasphemous; to the men in authority seditious” (The Prophets: An Introduction, 19). Hosea’s message was not a popular one. The  prophet had hard words for Israel. He had to tell them they were wrong.  After the third chapter, Hosea never mentions his wife’s adultery and prostitution again, though adultery and prostitution remain his major theme. He focuses his prophetic critique on Israel’s adultery—their unfaithfulness to God.

Chapter four opens with this charge against the Israelites:

Hear the word of the LORD,  people of Israel,
for the LORD has a case
against the inhabitants of the land:
There is no truth,  no faithful love,
and no knowledge of God  in the land! -Hos 4:1 (HCSB)
A three part charge: (1) no  truth, (2) no love, (3) no knowledge of God in the land. The next two chapters, “Chapters four and five evoke courtroom imagery as evidence of these charges set forth.” (Richard Alan Fuhr, Jr. & Gary Yates, The Message of the Twelve, 73). Hosea describes Israel’s guilt—they were a bad people; however we can’t listen to Hosea’s declamation dispassionately. We too are implicated in Hosea’s threefold charge.

אֱמֶת

emet-truth, trustworthiness, and faithfulness. There was a lack of truthfulness in Israel. The people abandoned the truth and failed to act truthfully.  “There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery” Ho 4:2. The princes of Judah (the leaders of the Southern Kingdom) are also guilty of the same lies as the Northern Kingdom in moving the boundary markers (cf. Hos. 5:10).  The truth is short-shrifted as Israel chooses to chase the lie of idolatry.

What about us? Wouldn’t the prophet indict us as well? We are only a decade past the types of predatory sub-prime lending that led to a global economic collapse and the 2016 US election ended with the Electoral College disagreeing with the Washington Post about which major candidate’s lies were most significant. We decry fake news but we are each skilled at finding media outlets which gives us our preferred version of events. Untruth rules the age. Most of us are more worried about being taken in then we are about trustworthiness, and while “truth in advertising” may be the law of the land, doesn’t that sound more like a punchline?

חֶסֶד

hesed-faithful love:  The Hebrew word hesed is a covenant word. It is variously translated as loyalty, loving-kindness, faithfulness (or faithful love, as above), graciousness, goodness and mercy. This is the word used throughout the Old Testament to describe the relationship that Yahweh has with His people. Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible gives one of the greatest descriptions of  hesed, “a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (JSB,36).

But despite God’s covenantal commitment to his people, there was no hesed in Israel—no faithful, covenant love for God. When Hosea uses the language of adultery, he is describing  Israel’s broken covenant in chasing after other gods. Because Ancient Near East religions utilized temple prostitutes in their worship, Hosea’s language is a metaphorical description of Israel’s spiritual idolatry, and a literal fact. Baal worship involved “participating in Canaanite fertility rites and worship” (Fuhr & Yates, 74). Israel broke their relationship with God by chasing foreign gods and wanton sex:

    My people consult a piece of wood,
and their divining rod gives them oracles.
For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray,
and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.
They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains,
and make offerings upon the hills,
under oak, poplar, and terebinth,
because their shade is good.
    Therefore your daughters play the whore,
and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.
I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore,
nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery;
for the men themselves go aside with whores,
and sacrifice with temple prostitutes;
thus a people without understanding comes to ruin. ( Ho 4:12–14 NRSV).
Again:
    17Ephraim is joined to idols—
let him alone.
18When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies;
they love lewdness more than their glory.
19A wind has wrapped them in its wings,
and they shall be ashamed because of their altars. (Ho 4:17–19, NRSV).
Also:
    Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the LORD. (Ho 5:4, NRSV).

Sex and religious ritual may no longer be intertwined to the same degree in our Post-Enlightenment age; but we too have forsaken our relationship with God to chase idols. This is, in Hosea’s phrase, the spirit of whoredom. It manifests itself in three ways (at least!):

  1. Alternative spiritualities– Dissatisfied with what we encounter in churches, we chase new spiritual options. For some this means choosing another religion, for many it means a choose-your-own-religion spiritualism. We blend aspects of Eastern religion, humanism, New-Age-mysticism and therapeutic pop-psychology. We end up rejecting a relationship with the God of the Bible, for some nebulous god of our own making.
  2. Materialism- Believing what we see, touch and feel, and feeling angry about injustice done in the name of religion, we deny the reality of anything that can’t be measured. We declare the supernatural a farce. We stand on evidentialist grounds (and we know that there are angles all around).  We no longer have a relationship with God, because, for all practical purposes, we live like He doesn’t exist.
  3. Whatever gets us through the night- Good old American individualism and pragmatism encourages us to find whatever it is that works for ourselves. Certainly consumerism feeds into this (retail therapy!). As does the pursuit of all kinds of pleasure, and our self-medicating strategies of distraction. If we think of God at all, it is not because we love and honor Him. We want to know what He can do for us.

Whatever causes us to sever our connection to the Triune God is adultery/idolatry. Hosea could name the god that Israel chased (Baal). Our gods are called Legion for they are many.

דַּעַת

da‘at-knowledge: “There is no knowledge of God in the Land.” They do not know the LORD (Hosea 5:4b). Israel was ignorant and lacking in a basic understanding of God:

    My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:6, NRSV).
Ignorance is not bliss. Israel was supposed to represent the LORD to the nations, declaring to all peoples the goodness and greatness of God. They could not mediate God’s presence to the world because they no longer knew who this God was.
Coming to terms with our own ignorance and lack of knowledge may be the most difficult charge for us to grasp; Yet where there is no truth, and no love, there is no knowledge of the Other.

❇❇❇❇


What is the lesson Hosea had for his bad people? Heschel writes, “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind” (Heschel, 12). On Hosea in particular, he writes,”It is Hosea who flashes glimpses into the inner life of God as He ponders His relationship to Israel. In parables and in lyrical outbursts the decisive motive behind God’s strategy in history is declared. The decisive motive is love” (Ibid, 47). Hosea writes to make vivid God’s broken heart for Israel (and us) and call us to return to him. The charge has been spoken and our guilt laid bare. Yet this accusation is not meant to compound our sense of alienation. It is spoken with restorative intent:

    I will return again to my place
until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
In their distress they will beg my favor:
Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up. Hosea 5:15–6:1, NRSV.
The word for Israel and for us is love.