Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.
Summary: Under eight headings, this book offers 145 short essays responding to lies, legends, and half-truths about Christian faith in contemporary discussions, giving concise, thoughtful and catholic responses (in the sense of representing the wide swath of Christianity) helpful both to the person exploring the faith and to apologists and others who proclaim it.
“Christianity is anti-scientific.” “Christians are creationists who deny evolution.” “Early Christians suppressed the true religion of Jesus.” “Protestantism is puritanical.” “Miracles are explained away by science.” “God is a product of structural and chemical arrangements in the brain.” “Nothing is true.”
Perhaps you’ve heard these ideas and wonder if there is a cogent response. Perhaps you believe them and wonder how Christians with a brain in their heads could still embrace Christian belief.
Jeffrey Burton Russell is a Guggenheim fellow and professor of medieval history who has probably written the landmark work on the concept of the devil in five volumes as well as a book that argues that 19th century anti-theists invented the idea that medieval Christians believed that the world was flat. So he comes with impressive credentials for debunking the debunkers.
Following a chronology of pre-Christian and Christian history, his book is organized around eight headings:
- Christianity is Dying Out
- Christianity is Destructive
- Christianity is Stupid
- Jesus and the Bible Have Been Show To Be False
- Christian Beliefs Have Been Shown to Be Wrong
- Miracles are Impossible
- Worldviews Can’t Be Evaluated
- What’s New is True
The articles range from a paragraph or two to five pages or more, depending on the subject. Because of the nature of this project, none can be considered an exhaustive response and in fact books have been written on many of the issues he covers (and he provides an ample bibliography at the end of the book for further study). At times, one wishes for greater nuance, as in his discussion of Christianity as a western colonial religion. While acknowledging the millennium long ascendancy of western Christianity, the plea that both early and contemporary Christianity is global in scope does not excuse the complicity of Christian institutions in colonialism at certain points in history. At other times, such as discussing Christian views of war, one finds a far more nuanced discussion. All this is to say that no one will agree with Russell at all points.
Nevertheless, what I found winsome was Russell’s discussion of the broad sweep of Christianity rather than one particular segment, particularly in a work published by an evangelical publisher. In discussing Mary, for example, he respectfully presents Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox views of Mary. He argues that what all have in common is that none permit the worship of Mary.
Sometimes his discussions are careful to define both what Christians mean and don’t mean by a particular term, such as “original sin”. This particular essay, as many others, included sparking insights, this being an example:
“Original sin is actually a democratic idea. Without believing in original sin, one person might pride himself or herself on being better than another and one group or race or nation might claim to be better than others. The idea that absolutely everyone is a sinner makes it much harder to be arrogant and judge others” (p. 263).
I think there are several groups of people who will find this book of help. One would be those who are considering Christian faith but have been given pause by one or more of these contentions. To read through this book, or at least sections on issues troubling one, is to listen to a cogent defender of the faith who provides good counter-reasoning to the myth purveyors and debunkers of Christian faith. Those whose interest is apologetics (the defense of the faith) will find this as a good primer on the wide range of questions that arise with pointers to more in-depth resources where further study is needed. Finally, many who preach or otherwise proclaim the faith will find themselves called upon to respond to many of the questions raised in this book. Most of the time, what is wanted is not a dissertation but a concise and thoughtful response, precisely what Russell gives us.