Review: What is Man?

What is man

What is Man?Edgar Andrews. Nashville: Elm Hill, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the answers different worldviews come up with to the question of what it means to be human, making the case for a Christian view of humans descended from a historical Adam who was created in God’s image, through whom sin entered the human race in the fall, and for the redemption of all who believe through the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

The question of who we are, and our place on Earth and in the cosmos, is perhaps one of the most important questions that we face. The author of this work, Edgar Andrews, an emeritus professor of Materials Science, looks at three of the possible answers on offer today–that we are evolved from the family of Apes, that we (or our predecessors) arrived here from an alien world, or that we were created by God, descended from a historic Adam.

The book consists of three parts. The first considers our place in the cosmos, and perhaps did we come from somewhere else? He considers the origins of the cosmos, and whether it is possible for the cosmos to be self-generating and he describes the search for extra-terrestrial life and the absence of any substantive finding, albeit many worlds have been identified that may be candidates for such life. He lays out a form of the “fine-tuned universe” argument advanced by Sir Martin Rees, and the counter explanations of multiverse theories. All of this suggests at very least that our existence in the cosmos may be a fairly singular event begging explanation.

The second part of the book explores man and the biosphere, that is, evolutionary explanations for our origins. He raises a number of questions about our descent from the apes in terms of the distinctiveness as opposed to the commonality of our respective genomes and he contends that paleontology has very little conclusive to tell us about our forebears. Finally, in one of the more fascinating chapters of the book, he discusses the challenging question of how human consciousness is to be explained. Using the analogy of a house, he discusses materialist, epiphenomenalist, and dualist explanations and contends that humans were created with material bodies and a nonmaterial, self-aware mind.

In part three, Andrews considers the biblical account of what it means to be human. Beginning with a discussion of worldview, and how we know what is real, he contends that the Biblical account warrants belief as being consistent with our understanding of ourselves and the cosmos, has made accurate predictions of future events, passes tests of historical accuracy, and leads people into transformative experiences of God through faith in Christ. The remainder of the book then unpacks this Biblical world view of a sovereign and immanent creator God, human sin, accountability, and the person and work of Christ. He argues for a historic Adamic couple from whom we are all descended, against other explanations of our progenitors, and what it means for us to be in the image of God distinguished as creatures of soul and spirit, language and logic, creativity and competence, and law and love. The book then concludes with two chapters on Christ as the second Adam and the evidences for Christ’s resurrection, and the implications of this truth for our salvation and eternal destiny.

Andrews writes about fairly technical scientific material in clear, and sometimes witty, language, using readily understood analogies. I find it a bit puzzling that he at times uses scientific arguments (the Big Bang and Fine-Tuning) to advance his argument and then turns around and is utterly skeptical and questioning about anything to do with the evolution of human beings. I would have liked to see more engagement with scientists like Francis Collins, who not only see God’s design in the human genome, but also do not see evolution as antithetical to the creative work of God, or even a historic Adam.

Rather than attacking evolution, I think it would have been more helpful to attack the underlying worldview of evolutionism, a worldview that assumes there is nothing more or other than the material world, and that only what may be confirmed empirically is real or true (of course this statement itself cannot be confirmed by such means!). Such assumptions not only preclude the activity of God in creating but also in sustaining the world. There are many who study evolution who see the hand of God at work, as they do in other “natural” processes. Andrews seems to suggest they have to choose between their science and their faith.

Nevertheless, this book addresses an important question, and eloquently describes the human dignity we enjoy as creatures in the image of God, and the wonder of Christ’s redemptive work, and the joyful destiny of those who partake of his redemptive work and the power of the resurrection in salvation, Christ’s living rule over his people, and the certainty of his return. Christian teachers and apologists will find this helpful–particularly, I think the discussions about fine-tuning, and about human consciousness as well as his delineation of what it means to say we exist in “the image of God.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Scars Across Humanity

scars across humanity

Scars Across HumanityElaine Storkey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A description of the global crisis of violence against women, possible explanations, and the measures being taken to address different forms of violence.

Selective abortion and infanticide. Female genital mutilation. Early, forced marriage. Honor killings. Domestic violence. Sex trafficking and prostitution. Rape. Sexual violence in war. From the Congo, Egypt, Pakistan, southeast Asia, to the metropolitan centers and suburbs of Europe and North America, there is a pandemic of violence in various forms against women–most of it perpetrated by men.

One of the signal contributions of this work, written by Elaine Storkey, an advocate for women, is to rigorously document this pandemic, describing specific instances as well as the overall prevalence of the forms of violence against women listed above. Some of the descriptions are graphic and heart-breaking of women facing debilitating physical injuries and psychic scars of the violence done against them. Nine of the thirteen chapters in this work delineate the extent and nature of this violence. Her comments on the effectiveness of gender-based violence as a tactic of war that “inevitably hits the target” is chilling.  Along the way, Storkey reports on efforts being taken in advocacy, law, and support to address the violence, much of it after the fact. Much remains to be done. For example, Storkey notes that “603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is still not a crime.”

All of this begs the question of why is this so universally a part of the human experience (a “scar across humanity”) and particularly why is violence against women so pervasively a male behavior? Three chapters explore evolutionary, patriarchal, and religious explanations. Each, to some extent, offer some explanation for this behavior but none are completely satisfying, and none can be used as a warrant to ever justify violence. A problem that I saw with the chapter on religion is that it focused exclusively on Islam. I felt a broader treatment would have been more even-handed and would avoid feeding anti-Muslim stereotypes (although she does describe movements defending the rights of women within Islam).

The final chapter on Christianity and gender acknowledges the sad history of patriarchy and a turning of a blind eye to domestic violence in the church but also notes how scripture gives warrant for the dignity, equality, and full partnership of women in marriage and the church, and no warrant for any form of violence. She notes the “texts of terror,” but argues these are descriptive rather than ever prescriptive. Finally, Storkey traces the root cause of gender based violence to human rebellion against God–sin. She writes:

“At a far deeper level than either ‘biology’ or ‘culture,’ then, ‘sin’ helps us explain the ubiquity of violence against women. We are responsible. Patriarchal structures are a product of human choices and attitudes; oppression and brutality are rooted in the power sin exercises in human communities. A Christian theology of sin places accountability for attitudes, culture and actions firmly on human shoulders; we have to own what we create” (p. 223).

This is good a far as it goes, and I would agree with everything here, but I found her brief treatment less than satisfying in explaining why violence against women is a preferred male expression of our fallen sinfulness, particularly in light of her extensive treatment of evolutionary and patriarchal explanations. For this, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s Gender and Grace goes into far greater depth.

Storkey’s book is an important one for men to read. This cannot remain a women’s conversation. As men, we need to own what we have created and face our collective “heart of darkness” and the tragic mayhem we have wrought across the globe, from date rape to femicide. We need to own that we are the reason that no girl or woman from eight (or earlier) to eighty can live without fear in our presence. This book faces us with the ugly consequences of the abuse of our masculinity and challenges us to join our mothers, sisters, and daughters as advocates and allies rather than aggressors. It challenges us to live redemptively, joining with Jesus, who elevated the status of women throughout his ministry.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Stolen Identity

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“I’m a patriot, I will help the President build the Wall, I have an A+ rating with the NRA, I’m pro-life and I am a conservative Christian.” This is a mash-up of language I’ve heard in our most recent primary election and it deeply offends me. I feel like I’m a victim of identity theft.

My real beef is with the very last word of this statement. Why? I am a Christian. And I feel like my identity has been stolen, or at least misappropriated in statements like this.

Sure, while logically you can argue that such a statement doesn’t intend to identify all these positions with Christian orthodoxy, there is the implication that if you are the right kind of Christian, you will believe in these things and vote for this candidate.

Please understand. I do not question the Christianity of those who would affirm these things, or the genuineness of the faith of candidates who use this language. I even agree with them on some things. But I do not like the implication that this version of patriotism, or being pro-gun, or pro-life, or anti-immigrant is what those who are truly Christian will embrace at the ballot box.

Sure, I get it. “Conservative” Christians are perceived as a significant constituency for a particular political party. And for the person wanting to get elected, winning the favor and the votes of this constituency is what it takes.

What troubles me most are not the political positions of the candidates, which they have every right to advance, but the identification of those issues with being a real Christian. The reason I’m so troubled is that I have literally known people who have turned away from exploring the teachings of Jesus because they assume that they will need to embrace these issues along with Jesus. This language may win elections but it loses converts to the Christian faith. I work in ministry with college students and watch kids leaving churches over these things. I work as part of an international fellowship of Christians who often wonder if we love America more than the global kingdom of God.

I’m disturbed by how such language limits both the issues I can care about as a Christian, and how I think about those issues. I don’t like how this rhetoric makes at least a certain group of people captive to a political party. Instead of being able to support on some things and challenge on others, there is a party line that must be adhered to if you are to maintain influence and stay inside the party’s tent, and in some cases, the good graces of one’s congregation.

What do I want instead? I want people to stop using their “faith identification” to get votes. Certainly it is not wrong for voters to know what a person’s faith is, but the identification of Christianity with a set of political issues and positions needs to end. Every time politicians do this, they misappropriate the identity of Christians.

I also believe the church needs to stop allowing itself to be played by politicians. The truth is, we are being used by politicians for the one simple thing politicians care about–getting elected. We’ve allowed leaders inside and outside the church with a political agenda to have greater influence than the whole counsel of scripture from Genesis to Revelation that challenges the positions of every political party and calls us to a far more radical life.

Above all, I want both politicians and leaders in some segments of the church to stop stealing my identity as a Christian for political ends. What it all comes down to is that this is not why Jesus lived, died, and rose. However, the wedding of religion and political power was the major reason why he was killed. Will we continue to sacrifice Christ for political ends?

 

Review: Faith Unexpected

Faith Unexpected

Faith Unexpected, Rick Mattson. St. Paul, MN: Pavement Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The stories of ten people from diverse backgrounds who never expected to find faith in Christ and how they found the unexpected.

For some people, turning to faith in Christ is just not on the radar. They were turned off by the church. It all seems irrelevant to their lives. Or they’ve done too much “stuff” that they could never believe God would forgive. Maybe they’ve just never thought about it.

This is a book of stories of people like this. They come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. A Latino macho man. An urban black athlete into parties and women. A liberal arts college feminist. A Native American woman literally haunted by the spirit of her deceased father. A couple of atheists, one nicknamed “Satan” for his knack of de-converting Christians. A secular Korean Buddhist photographer. A military pilot. An Asian American student at UCLA averse to risk. And the author, whose early life consisted of music gigs, golf, and girls.

The stories are as different as the people. For some, an event that can only be described as supernatural played an important part. For others, it was an impulse to attend a church, conversations with a believing friend, a book, even a song. For many, it was multiple influences pointing in the same direction. For most, coming to faith didn’t happen instantaneously. For many, it felt as much that they were found, or that they stumbled into faith, as finding faith.

This is a book that inspires hope. You may find yourself reading and thinking, “if that person could discover a living faith, anyone could. Even I could. Or my friend could.” This makes it a great gift for friends who have shown some spiritual interest. Or if you are wondering what it might look like to believe, here are ten renderings. One might sound a bit like you. The stories are short and the book is an easy and quick read.

This may be helpful to one other group. In some cases years or decades have passed since we’ve come to faith. Perhaps we never remember a time we did not believe. That’s not how it is with everyone and this book can help with understanding the journeys to faith of those not like us and perhaps help us to become aware of the ways spiritual stirrings might show themselves in our friends.

I found myself encouraged as I read this book, that God delights in bringing people from all kinds of places into relationship with himself. There is no barrier too great, and even if we are stumbling along the way to God, God finds a way to us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Single, Gay, Christian

single gay christian

Single, Gay, ChristianGregory Coles. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017 (forthcoming August 22, 2017).

Summary: An autobiographical narrative of a young Christian who becomes aware of his attraction to other men, his struggles against this within a Christian context, his experiences of “coming out,” and how he has decided to follow Christ through all of this.

This book had me at the first page. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t quote so extensively, but I know nothing better to give you a sense of Gregory Cole’s story, and of his exquisite writing:

“Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other.

I promise to tell you my story. The whole story. I’ll tell you about a boy in love with Jesus who, at the fateful onset of puberty, realized his sexual attractions were persistently and exclusively for other guys. I’ll tell you how I lay on my bed in the middle of the night and whispered to myself the words I’ve whispered a thousand times since:

“I’m gay.”

I’ll show you the world through my eyes. I’ll tell you what it’s like to belong nowhere. To know that much of my Christian family will forever consider me unnatural, dangerous, because of something that feels as involuntary as my eye color. And to know that much of the LGBTQ community that shares my experience as a sexual minority will disagree with the way I’ve chosen to interpret the call of Jesus, believing I’ve bought into a tragic, archaic ritual of self-hatred.

But I promise my story won’t all be sadness and loneliness and struggle. I’ll tell you good things too, hopeful things, funny things, like the time I accidentally came out to my best friend during his bachelor party. I’ll tell you what it felt like the first time someone looked me in the eyes and said, “You are not a mistake.” I’ll tell you that joy and sorrow are not opposites, that my life has never been more beautiful than when it was most brokenhearted.

If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me.”

In succeeding chapters, Coles unfolds, often in a self-deprecating yet not self-hating fashion, his growing awareness that he was gay, his silence and attempts to cover this up by dating girls and even of trying to awaken heterosexual desires through them. He describes the scary and wonderful moment he comes out to his pastor, who listens, and loves, and keeps on loving.

We trace with him his journey to reconcile his faith, his orientation, his understanding of biblical teaching, weighing but rejecting “affirming” interpretations, which precludes for him acting on his gay attractions by pursuing intimacy with another man, and what it means for him to believe that God has nevertheless made him good.

He helps us hear what is often said in churches that affirm a “traditional” view from the perspective of a gay person. I cringed here as I read things I’ve said. He also leads us into a broader conversation about sexuality and how the fall has affected it for all of us, gay or straight.

He speaks about his choice to live single, both the heartache, and the joy. He raises the question of views of discipleship that never involve suffering or self-denial. He casts a vision for a life that is full, and has a unique capacity for relationships because of who he is as a gay man. Where the church often sees LGBTQ persons as a threat, Greg helps us see persons like himself as a tremendous gift.

Coles speaks with a voice of conviction without dogmatism. He speaks for himself and his own journey, allowing that others might conclude differently. As he writes in his introduction, he tells us the truth about himself, and lets us decide.  He doesn’t see himself as any kind of role model but simply as a “half-written story.”

I deeply resonated with his comments about encountering the “are you side A or side B?” question. He writes, “I didn’t want to be reduced to a simple yes or no. I wanted a new side.” I find myself deeply in sympathy with him. And perhaps this book might take us a step closer to that new side.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Qu’ran in Context

The Qu'ran in Context

The Qu’ran in Context, Mark Robert Anderson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: A study by a Christian theologian of the Qu’ran in its seventh century AD context exploring its teachings in relation to Christian teaching, noting both similarities and points of divergence in the hope of encouraging open and honest dialogue between adherents of these two faiths.

There is a strand of public discourse, drawing both upon the ideas of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, and incidents of terror, that propose that there is a war or clash between Islam and the West, or at least between elements of Islamic cultures and the west. Then there are others who pursue perhaps a quieter conversation proposing that given the clashes that have occurred and a desire to maintain and protect a pluralist society recognizing freedom of conscience and belief, that some effort needs to be made between Christians and Muslims to find common ground. The most newsworthy was a statement by a group of Muslim clerics, “A Common Word,” with responses from other major religious bodies, calling for interfaith dialogue and action based on commonly shared teachings around the love of God and neighbor.

Some who would take the former view criticize, in my view justly, some of the efforts of dialogue that minimize or altogether mute differences or take at face value assertions about Islam without careful textual study. In The Qu’ran in Context Mark Robert Anderson offers a resource grounded in a Christian perspective that seeks to read the Qu’ran both sympathetically in its seventh century AD context, delineating its teachings, noting both similarities with Christian teaching and places where these diverge. He writes:

“My goal of encouraging dialogue should need little justification from a Christian
perspective. The psalmist says how pleased God is when brothers and sisters live together peaceably and the New Testament calls us to do all we can to be at peace with everyone (Ps 133:1-3, Rom 12:18, Heb 12:14). In our global village, that demands dialogue.

But true dialogue does not deny or minimize difference. Rather, it begins with an honest acknowledgement of difference no less than similarity. Without that, we cannot be truly heard and understood. Using the term neighbor in its broadest sense, Jesus commands us to treat our neighbor as we want her to treat us (Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 10:25-37). Paul also counsels us to do good to everyone, Christian or not (Gal 6:10). So we lovingly speak what we hold to be true and graciously listen as our Muslim brother or sister does likewise. And we remain ready, as Peter charges us, to offer a defense to anyone who seeks the reason for our hope, doing so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet 3:15-16). So our truth telling is to be marked always by kindness and honor for our partner in dialogue—as a Thou, not an It, in Martin Buber’s terms.”

Anderson proceeds along the following lines to do this. Part One of his book looks at the origins of the Qu’ran and the history of Muhammad and his context. It is particularly fascinating to understand the tribal rivalries of the Arabian peninsula in this time and the mix of pagan religion and contexts with Jews and Christians through trade.

Part Two is the longest part and considers what Anderson calls the “Qu’ranic Worldview.” He explores the Qu’ran’s teaching about God, God’s immanence and transcendence, and justice and mercy. He explores Adam’s creation in an extra-terrestrial garden, and his fall, with Satan, and humanity’s reprieve from the judgment of God. He explores the concepts of sin and salvation, the ideas of prophethood, scripture, and revelation, and the devotional, social, and political dimensions of Qu’ranic spirituality. While noting points of similarity, he also contrasts the aloofness of God, the absence of grace, and the differing ways the two faiths engage the political realm, among a host of other differences.

Part Three focuses on Jesus in the Qu’ran: his origins and person, his words and works, his death, and the community he established. He shows how Jesus is both exalted and marginalized such that the supremacy of Muhammad as prophet is maintained. In particular, it highlights bizarre instances of miraculous works by the child Jesus, while showing him deferring to the disciples as an adult. He also explores the conflicting claims he finds in the Qu’ran about the death of Jesus.

Part Four then summarizes the discussion and explores the relation of Bible and Qu’ran, including the claim that the differences between the two may be accounted for by intentional distortions and falsifications by both Jews and Christians (even though these two were opposed to one another for most of the relevant history). He notes three critical biblical themes running through both testaments and contrasts these with the Qu’ran:

  • Friendship with God
  • The free grace of God
  • The humility of God

One place where I could see this work facing criticism is the approach, which Anderson, drawing on N. T. Wright, calls critical realism, approaching the text in its historic context and prevailing worldview. He does not ignore Muslim interpretive traditions, particularly where they differ from his reading of the text, but does significantly background these, while admitting evangelical and reformed presuppositions in reading the Christian scriptures. I suspect this may work fine where lay evangelicals are in dialogue with lay Muslims where the focus is comparative study of texts and discussion, but would be much more nuanced between scholars of both faiths, whose understandings are shaped by a millenia or more of interpretive tradition as well as study of the text in its context.

However, I would commend this as a helpful resource for interfaith discussions in universities and community contexts. It models both grace and forthrightness of approach without a combative spirit. While trying to meet the Qu’ran on its own terms, it doesn’t pretend to be less than what it is, “a Christian exploration.” Also, it demonstrates another truth often discovered through interfaith conversations: that participants may come to a deeper grasp of the contours of their own faith, as well as that of the other, through these encounters.

Might we avert the much touted clash of civilizations? That remains to be seen. Certainly, there will be violence in the name of religion. What Anderson’s book gives us is a picture of the real work and perhaps the harder struggle that must take place if adherents of Christianity and Islam are truly to understand each other’s sacred scriptures and beliefs, to find ways to co-exist, rather than to fight and seek to dominate each other.

 

Review: The Very Good Gospel

very-good-gospel

The Very Good GospelLisa Sharon Harper (foreward by Walter Brueggemann). New York: Waterbrook, 2016.

Summary. Through a study of the early chapters of Genesis with application to contemporary life, Harper explores the theme of shalom and how this enlarges our understanding of the good news.

Have you ever felt that there must be more to the gospel? This is a question that Lisa Sharon Harper has struggled with in her own life and for which she found profound answers as she explored the biblical theme of shalom as well as the early the early chapters of Genesis, that begin with a vision of shalom, explore how shalom was broken, and the effects of that brokenness on our relationships with God, ourselves, between genders, in the creation, in families, around issues of race, and relations between nations.

In each chapter, Harper explores the Genesis text, develops the idea of shalom, and through this weaves in other biblical material from both testaments. In the process, she weaves in her own life as a black woman, from a flawed family, experiencing issues with her own self-image, with relationships, and in the journey to pursue racial reconciliation and justice. As she does so, she develops a vision of the gospel that is so much larger than just me and my sin and Jesus rescuing me from hell so I can spend eternity with Him. It is a gospel that explains both God’s incredibly wonderful intention for the world, and how our choice to love something more than God and believe a lie damaged the fabric of relationships, broke shalom. From the sacrifice of an animal in Genesis 3 to the sacrifice of Christ, she explores how God has restored shalom, which is indeed very good news.

The final chapter was the most moving. She talks about death, and her own struggle with dealing with death, including her silence when a close friend lost her father. And she movingly describes the breakthrough she experienced when Richard Twiss, a Lakota Indian ministry leader was dying and she had a vision of anointing his feet with oil, confirmed by a friend who had a similar vision.

     “On the way to the hospital, I read the story of Lazarus and the grave (see John 11:1-44) and felt called to read it over Richard. When I arrived, I learned during the day, Richard’s kidneys had failed. I shared the two visions–mine and my friend’s–with Katherine, Richard’s wife and cofounder of Wiconi. She gave me permission to read the passage over Richard and to anoint his feet. As I read, we all wept. I never noticed this before, but the passage begins with an explanation that Lazarus was the brother of Mary, the woman who anointed Jesus feet for burial. I anointed Richard’s feet and prayed.

. . .

“I can’t help but think back to the moment when I anointed Richard’s feet. It is clear now. We were anointing our brother’s feet for burial. As I moved the oil over his feet, I repeated the words that Richard’s editor had said to me when we talked earlier that night: “Beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news.”

I think there are many like Lisa who have feared death, who never have been alongside someone as they were dying in the hope of Christ, the hope of Jesus’ resurrection, whose body with anointed feet was laid in a grave, only to walk out on those feet when the stone was rolled away. Lisa described this moment as “devastating and sweet.” She describes how we both grieve and yet hope because of this very good news.

This is a book for the believing person who is wondering, “is that all there is?” when they think of the gospel, particularly if they wonder about the relevance of the gospel to the brokenness they see around them. This is a book for new believers to help them understand the fullness of what they have believed. And it is a book that the person considering faith might also read, both because of its exposition of this “very good gospel” and for the honest yet winsome account Harper gives of her own growing understanding of that gospel.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Truth About Science and Religion

the-truth-about-science-and-religion

The Truth About Science and Religion, Fraser Fleming, foreword by Gary B. Ferngren. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Summary: A historical, scientific, and theological survey of the interaction of science and religion around the big questions of purpose, beginnings, the rise of life, the rise of human beings, the nature of mind and consciousness.

“Science and religion are intertwined like DNA. Science and religion provide two perspectives on reality that speak to life’s most fundamental issues: purpose, meaning, and morality.”

With this statement Fraser Fleming, head of the Chemistry Department at Drexel University, introduces this book which explores the intersection and interaction between science and religious faith, often thought to be a highly contended space. The author, however, explores the possibility that these two perspectives may be mutually enriching and together may give us a larger grasp on reality, though not without posing to us challenging questions that go to the core of what it means to be human and to exist in this world.

The first four chapters of the book survey what we know about the cosmology and biology of how we got here and the questions this poses and how science and faith have interacted around these. Chapter one considers the beginnings of the cosmos, the fine-tuning of the universe that has made the rise of biological life possible and the questions of whether this demonstrates a certain design and purpose inherent in the universe and how this is to be understood. Chapter two turns to the very beginnings of biological life on the planet, the emergence of cellular life from some form of pre-biotic soup, how the information code for all of life, DNA, arose, and eventuated in living cells. And how does all this relate to religious accounts including the early chapters of Genesis. Chapter three explores what is known of evolution from single-celled organism up to higher primates and explores the questions of whether randomness and natural selective forces are sufficient to account for the emergence of increasingly complex forms of life. The question is posed of how we are to understand pain and suffering, even before humans came on the scene. This, then leads to chapter four and the rise of human beings including homo sapiens, how we think about the development of religion, the existence of Adam and Eve. In each of the chapters of this section Fleming considers different explanations that have been advanced and ways religion and science have sought to address the fundamental issues of existence without arguing for or directing the reader to a particular conclusion.

Chapter five then takes a more theological turn, and particularly a Christian one, give the author’s own faith perspective. He considers the supernatural in the person of Jesus Christ, where he believes God and human experience intersect in the historical person of Christ. Under this heading he explores prayer, miracles, what he calls “the causal joint” (the intersection of the supernatural with physical processes in the world), and the resurrection.

Fleming then returns to science in chapter six, one of the longest chapters, in which he surveys science from its Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek roots, and up through the contribution of Islam. He then chronicles the rise of modern science, which he considers significantly aided by Christian premises. He profiles key figures of the modern period from Copernicus to Kepler to Galileo (whose ego leading him to go afoul of certain religious figures may have been much of his problem), up through the differing beliefs of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. He shows how each engaged religious concerns, and in various ways approached religious faith or skepticism.

Chapter seven then explores the presently emerging field of neuroscience which raises all kinds of questions of what makes us “us.” To what extent is our consciousness, our mental processes connected to the neural networks of our brains? How are we to understand free will? What do we make of mystical and near death experiences, and what of us survives our deaths? From here, we move in chapter eight to a kind of summing up of the different models of how science and religion have engaged, from warfare (actually less common than thought), through separate spheres of inquiry to some form of integration of science and religion. The question is whether religion makes any difference. And this leads to the concluding epilogue where the author relates his own journey to Christian faith, and while admitting that other may see things differently, invites people to explore and seek for themselves.

What I appreciated about this work by a committed Christian was the even-handedness with which he dealt with science, religion, and their interaction. It is clear that as a scientist, he takes scientific inquiry seriously, is willing to look honestly at different explanations, consider hard questions, and leave room for differing conclusions. While it is clearly evident that the author would hope others follow him in embracing Christian faith, one never feels a pressure to do so or that one is being proselytized. I was struck with his honesty posing hard questions, for example why God’s revelation of himself comes so late in human history, and why there is so much pain and suffering before “the fall.”

This spirit of honest exploration of these important questions continues in the discussion questions at the conclusion of each chapter and the diverse recommendations for further readings reflecting a spectrum of views. His discussion presses skeptics, explorers, and people of faith to go deeper and wrestle with tough and important questions. I would highly commend this to groups of faculty, or others who are scientifically literate who are concerned about how science and faith address the most important questions of existence.

Review: Unparalleled

Unparalleled

Unparalleled, Jared C. Wilson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: A book that makes the case for Christianity by proposing that the unique elements in Christian faith’s account of God, humanity, Jesus, salvation, history, and the end make it  both worthy and credible.

I love to tell the story;
’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it,
more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story,
for some have never heard
the message of salvation
from God’s own holy Word.

-Katherine Hankey

I not only love telling the story of the Christian faith but listening to others tell it, even when they are speaking of things I’ve heard before. Reading Jared Wilson’s account of the compelling character of the Christian faith in its “unparalleled” claims was “wonderfully sweet” and I commend reading such books even by “seasoned” Christians so we can better tell the story ourselves.

In a conversational style, Wilson recounts his own efforts to tell the story, and along the way, highlights how so often the good news that we share is a message most have never heard before and shatters their misconceptions. He speaks of a God who is great, utterly good and just, and yet who may forgive even the most heinous crimes. How can that be? He talks about the challenging matter of a God who is three and yet One, and whose relational character serves as the basis of all loving relationships.

He explores how the Christian view of humanity reveals us as both beautiful and yet broken reflections of the beautiful God. He opens up to us the uniqueness of Jesus, who had the audacity to claim to be God, lived a life that backed this claim, and then amazingly died and rose to triumph over evil and death. All this was to accomplish a salvation that rests utterly on what he has done, and not what we do, and propels the forgiven and beloved into global mission that speaks bring a message both universal and unparalleled that anticipates a new heaven and earth, a glorious future that transcends both our own lives, and life on earth as we know it.

I think there are several good uses for this book. One I’ve already alluded to is that it helps Christians, both young and old alike, to crystallize our message for this generation. A second use is as a more accessible version of a book like Mere Christianity to offer those exploring the faith and how it could possibly make sense to become a Christian. For both, this is not a book so much of apologetics as that upon which good apologetics is founded, a good explanation of basic Christian belief, or doctrine.

The only thing that mars this book in my opinion are the few places where the author feels compelled to speak critically of Christians outside his own (Baptist Reformed) tradition, taking shots at points at both emergent and mainline Christians. There are other places where this kind of engagement may be appropriate but it detracts from the “mere Christianity” feel of so much of the book that is its strength.

That said, I found myself enjoying the old, old story being told by a new generation of story-teller. No doubt, I will draw upon this book as I have chances to share that same story.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Christ and Crisis

Christ and Crisis

Christ and Crisis, Charles Malik. Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2015 (originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962).

Summary: Contends that the deepest crisis of his (our) age is a spiritual crisis that the church properly addresses by laying hold of all the resources and pursuing the calling of people of faith.

Charles Malik was a Lebanese diplomat and a drafter of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as a later U.N. convention against genocide. He presided over the 1958 U.N. General Assembly and later taught at Harvard, Dartmouth, Notre Dame and American University. He was a thoughtful and deeply committed Orthodox Christian involved in several international ecumenical causes.

Malik wrote this book as the world faced the aggressive advance of Communism in the years following World War II, when nations were gaining dependence from colonial powers and the West was attempting to re-define the place of democracy in the world order. It was a time of crisis and activism and Malik was in the midst of it all.

Contrary to what you might expect, this book is not a call to Christian social activism, to political engagement in the crises of the day. Rather Malik, especially in the opening address (the book is a transcription of seven addresses Malik gave in this period), argues that the most significant crisis the world is facing is a crisis of spirit and the most significant calling of the church is to pursue the disciplines of devotion, the practices of holiness, and courageous witness to the message of the gospel. At one point he speaks disparagingly of churchmen who wade into international affairs and social issues about which they know little.

In some respects, he sounds like more modern writers like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas in calling for the church to be the church and as such be its own distinctive order in the world. But there is a crucial difference–he is not a pacifist but one who might be in the principled just war camp. He writes at one point:

War is terrible, and not only will a Christian not provoke it, but he will do everything in his power to prevent it from breaking out. But six things do not follow from this: (1) It does not follow that if war is forced upon him that he will not defend himself; (2) nor does it follow that he will not in advance prepare to defend himself, since there is nothing to guarantee that war will not be forced upon him; (3) nor does it follow that if and when war is forced upon him he will not fight like a man or will not fight for complete victory;  (4) nor does it follow that, since cold war is a kind of war, he will not fight it to victory; (5) nor does it follow that under conditions of war, whether cold or hot, he will blaspheme God and cease to be a Christian, loving Christ above everything else and his neighbor as himself; (6) nor, finally, does it follow that, if he is opposed to war, he has any right to be opposed only to that form of war which is “international,” namely, war between the nations, while saying nothing whatsoever about that other form of war which goes by the name of “class war,” namely, war between social and economic classes which could be just as terrible and just as unjust and just as devastating as any so-called “international war.” (p. 100)

Here we have thoughtful, nuanced, and “both-and” thinking, that while not finding agreement with everyone, transcended simplistic and polarized positions of his time and ours.

While addressing the great crises of his day, he also spoke trenchantly to the challenges all Christians face that he summarizes as coming on six fronts: the world and its temptations, our own memories, our tendency to sloth, our inveterate pride, our daily temptation to worship things and objects, and finally, the lures of the Enemy (pp. 65-66).

This is a book that speaks into our own activist age. Those who identify as progressive may not agree, but I hope they will engage with his critique of his own age and his analysis of the spiritual dimensions of the crises we face and our response to them.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”