Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller: a Review

Author 
 Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is the author of several books, including The Reason for God. Making Sense of God is a prequel to The Reason for God.
Synopsis 

 The central premise of the book is that no one comes to their core beliefs by reason alone, or by emotion alone. Rather reason, emotions, experiences and intuitions have a role in forming our world views, regardless of which worldview we adopt.

 The book is divided into three parts. In part one, Keller argues that the rumors of the dearth of religion have been greatly exaggerated, and that the idea that religion deals with faith while secularism deals with facts is a non-fact that many have taken on faith. In part two, Keller shows how religion best serves the human need for meaning, freedom, identity and morality. In part three, Keller offers a rational case for the truth of the Christian religion.
Analysis 

 Keller is a rare combination of careful scholarship combined with pastoral compassion, and in this book, he exemplifies these qualities. He goes to great lengths to cite works by people who do no share his worldview, but recognize the truth of what he has to say on particular subjects. Keller shows no interest in building straw men, or simply echoing scholars with whom he agrees. Making Sense of God gently but firmly challenges the skeptic to reconsider the premises on which he has built his worldview. Moreover, the believer can benefit from this book not only as a resource for sharing her faith, but even thinking more carefully about it. Therefore, it is a book well suited for the skeptic and the believer alike. It is written for an educated reader, but a bright high schooler could manage it.

Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God by Wayne Rossiter, a Review.

Author

Wayne Rossiter is Assistant Professor of Biology at Waynsburg University. He received his B.S. from Otterbein University, his M.S. from Ohio State University and his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Dr. Rossiter teaches Principles of Biology, Ecology and Environmental Biology.

 

Synopsis

In Shadow of Oz, Rossiter argues that given the blatant incompatibility of Darwinian evolution and the Christian worldview, those who try to hold to both do so at the expense of the Christian worldview, and in the name of a paradigm that is in deep trouble.

The book is laid out in seven chapters. In Chapter one, Rossiter tells his own story, and that of the way Darwinian evolution undermines classical Christianity, and outlines the attempts of theistic evolutionists to hold to both. In chapter two, Rossiter argues that the two views are fundamentally incompatible. Chapter 3 is a brief(ish) explanation of the Darwinian model, as well as the problems with trying to reintroduce God into the picture. Chapter four focuses on the Christian view of man, which is the greatest area of incongruity between Christianity and Darwin. In chapter five, Rossiter argues that the theistic evolution would make God the creator of evil. In chapter six, Rossiter gives an overview of the newest findings of science, and the way they call Darwinism into serious question. Finally, chapter seven evaluates theistic evolution in light of the discussion of the previous six chapters.

 

Analysis

Rossiter’s approach is quite even-handed in that rather than evaluating theistic evolution from a particular sectarian point of view, he shows how incompatible it is with mere Christianity. Moreover, Rossiter’s critique of the neo-Darwinian synthesis is grounded in the latest research in the field of biology, not simply from the work of Intelligent Design proponents. His argument is that Christianity is not compatible with Darwinism, that holding to the best of science means one is justified in rejecting Darwinism, and therefore, theistic evolutionists are throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is, however, room for improvement.

 

In chapter 2, Rossiter notes the limited role granted by theistic evolutionists for God’s direct involvement in the world. I would add that they overlook God’s sustaining the universe in its regular adherence to the laws of physics, which itself demands an explanation.

 

While most of Rossiter’s arguments are cogent and well though-out, he seems to misunderstand the views of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. Plantinga and Craig acknowledge that “random” changes in an organism is compatible with theism just in case “random” is understood to mean “not occurring for the purpose of benefitting the organism.” Craig argues that for a scientist to go further, such as to say such changes are “undirected” is to step outside of their discipline. Both argue that such changes can look the same whether directed by God to degrade the organism, or truly undirected. Rossiter responds, “Apparently, suggesting that aliens are tinkering with mutations is fantasy, but supposing that a supernatural God is doing it behind the scenes is completely rational.”[1] Given that Craig and Plantinga can point to many points of evidence for God, while there is virtually no evidence best explained by aliens, it is in fact, rational. Rossiter goes on to claim “Craig concludes that it is logical to suppose that evolution is guided or directed by God.”[2] Actually, Craig concludes that it is logically possible that God could direct evolution, and that the scientist who denies this does so out of philosophical commitments, not scientific reasoning.

 

Recommendation

Rossiter’s book is an excellent primer on the latest in findings in the literature and why holding to Darwinism is not only unnecessary, it is ultimately a dead end. Shadow of Oz is accessible for readers with a high school education, and highly useful for understanding how a Christian ought to think about these issues.

 

 

 

[1] Rossiter, Wayne D. (2015-12-08). Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God (Kindle Locations 2149-2150). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

 

[2] Ibid., 2155-2156

Saving the Bible From Ourselves by Glenn R. Paauw A Review

 

Author

Glenn R. Paauw is a graduate of Calvin College and Calvin Seminary, where he studied Theology and Philosophy. He is the vice president, global Bible engagement, at Biblica and a senior fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading.

 

Thesis

Paauw was prompted to write Saving the Bible From Ourselves by research that showed while the average American household has four Bibles (and the average Christian home has ten) there is an increasing Biblical illiteracy. We have lots of Bibles, but no one seems to know what its message is. The cause of this seems to be a tendency toward isolated people reading

isolated verses. In this book, Paauw advocates a return to reading large passages in community.

 

Synopsis

The book is organized into 14 chapters, really seven couplets, in which Paauw describes an aspect of the problem, followed by a proposed solution.  In Chapters 1 and 2, we see the contrast between the “Complicated Bible” and the “Elegant Bible.” By complicated here, Paauw is referring to the manner in which the text on the page is cluttered and chopped with chapter and verse numbers, which have only been in use for the last 500 years, as well as chapter headings, cross references, and notes. An elegant Bible would simply have the text laid out to be read in a more natural reading. (I can tell you that for me, reading a Bible with all those notes and references is like a hound dog with ADD trying to heard squirrels.)

In chapters 3 and 4, Paauw addresses one of my pet peeves when he compares the Snacking Bible with the Feasting Bible. When we isolate verses, we tend to see them as bearing meaning in isolation. As a result, there is a whole cottage industry of putting verses on coffee cups and cross-stitched pillows, etc. There you can see verses like Jeremiah 29:11, “‘ For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Nice, right? So if verses are stand-alone ideas from the Word of God, why do we never see a coffee cup with Deuteronomy 28:65? “The LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart.” The point is that verse numbers were added to aid with research. They are not part of the text, and have caused some confusion. (Though I could imagine a bumper sticker with Numbers 21:16, “From there they continued on to Beer.”) As the author points out, using the Bible like this is like snacking on what Philip Yancy called, “Scripture McNuggets.” Rather, Paauw advocates reading large portions, whole books when possible. In this way, we feast, rather than snack. Moreover, such feasting leads to greater understanding of the text.

In chapters 5 and 6, Paauw argues that rather than seeing every single event in the Bible as a direct intervention from God, recognizing that the world is itself a direct intervention of God, and the realm in which he dwells with us and that the events are history that we need not look for the most outlandish understanding. An example he gives is how as a fourth-grader he was shocked to learn that the rainbow was probably not created after the Flood, but rather was already a thing, and God used that as a reminder of his covenant.

In chapters 7 and 8, Paauw challenges the idea that the Bible is a theological treatise, or a “how-to” manual. Rather it is an ongoing story, our story and His, and should be read as such. This is not to say that we cannot derive theology from it. We can and we should. However, when we lose the story, we lose the meaning. In chapter 9, we are encouraged to see how this would look in our lives.

In chapters 10 and 11, Paauw contrasts the “Otherworldly Bible” with the “Earthly Bible.” Here, he rejects the tendency to see Christianity as a means of escaping the evil physical realm to the heavenly one in favor of seeing our mission as redeeming the world God created.

In 12 and 13, he makes the case for reading in community by differentiating “My Private Bible” from the “Synagogue Bible.” Finally, in 14 and 15, the author laments the loss of beauty in the pages of the Bible where there once could be found bright, colorful illustrations, as well as beautiful script on high quality media.

 

Analysis

I find much of what Paauw says here compelling. As I mentioned above, the isolation of verses out of context, or “verse jacking,”[1] is a pet peeve of mine. I am a strong advocate of, as Greg Koukl teaches, “Never read a Bible verse.” That is, never read A Bible verse. The method of reading promoted here will avoid many of the pitfalls from isolating verses. Moreover, I have begun to read Books of the Bible, which is an edition of the NIV without chapter and verse numbers, as well as some other interesting features. I can tell you that my ADD is much less active in this text. I suppose it could be argue that Paauw’s book is a written infomercial for Books of the Bible, but that’s okay.

While I tend to agree with Paauw’s view that salvation entails far more involvement with the redemption of the created order than most Christians seem to think, I think that when he claims that the idea of gaining heaven or avoiding hell as a way to invoke urgency offers a false dichotomy. Scripture does seem to paint a clear picture of judgment. It seems reasonable to think in terms of both/and. We are saved to work for the redemption of the world and go to be with the Lord until the ultimate redemption, the resurrection.

 

Even if you find you don’t agree with all of Paauw’s conclusion, you will agree with me that the book is worth the read. It is accessible for readers at a high school level or higher.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The author cites, “The highly-descriptive and provocative term “verse jacking” was coined by my colleague John Dunham in “High Fructose Scripture,” Leadership Journal (online), June 5, 2007, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ le/ 2007/ june-online-only/ high-fructose-scripture.html.”

 

 

Enoch Primordial by Brian Godawa: a Review

Brian Godawa is an accomplished screenwriter and author. In addition to books on film and worldview, and the role of mythology, he has written several series of novels in the fantasy genre. One such series is The Chronicles of the Nephilim. Enoch Primordial is the second of this series.

Like the rest of the series, Enoch Primordial combines the biblical narratives of Genesis with apocryphal and pseudoepigrahic literature (non-canonical ancient Near Eastern documents) along with his fertile imagination to craft a compelling story that fills the gaps in the biblical narrative in a creative way. Godawa makes no claims that these events actually occurred. Rather, the story is a vehicle for communicating his worldview.

Some of my favorite parts include the pathos of Adam and Eve living hundreds of years with a memory of the close fellowship they once had with God. (That’s a long time to live with regret.) There is also the incorporation of the words of contemporary political figures in the mouths of villains. This may make some uncomfortable, as though Godawa was demonizing his political opponents. However, on the Christian worldview, our enemies are not human. If the ideas of our opponents are evil, it is right to attribute a spiritual source.

Enoch Primordial is an entertaining, enlightening read.

When a Good Church Goes Bad by Casey Sabella: A Review

Casey Sabella has been a pastor for over 40 years, currently serving as pastor of Motion Church. I have known him personally for about 25 of those. Having served as long as he has in leadership positions, he has an insider’s perspective that lends a poignant quality to this work.

When a Good Church Goes Bad is a case study of how trust can be abused. In this his second edition, Sabella adds what he has learned in the years since his experience how his own life experience beforehand contributed to his involvement with a church that went bad, and how he participated in that fall.

The book is arranged in twelve chapters, starting with Sabella’s own testimony of coming to faith. In the chapters that follow, Sabella charts the rise and fall of the church, including insights into the character of the pastor, Sabella’s own contribution to its rise and fall, as well as realization of how his background and upbringing set the stage for these events.

It is easy to think from the title that this is some kind of exposé on a church complete with salacious details. In fact, this is a cautionary tale of how our own baggage, combined with the absence of accountability, can lead to disaster. An important takeaway is, if my church has problems, I may well be part of the problem.

Casey Sabella handles this difficult issue with a good balance of honest introspection and critical analysis of leadership structures and practices. This book is a must-read.

Meaningful World By Benjamin Walker and Jonathan Witt: A Review

With a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics, Benjamin Wiker lends his expertise along with the literary insights of Jonathan Witt, Senior Fellow for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, to the question of just what kind of world we live in. Wiker and Witt do not simply disagree with the reigning paradigm of metaphysical naturalism found in science. They see it as harmful. They have written this book as an antidote to the “poison” that is “the assumption that science has proven that the universe is without purpose, without meaning—proven it so clearly that one need not even produce an argument.” (Wiker and Witt, Location 61.)

The question of meaning has implications for how all of reality is seen. For Christians concerned with preaching the gospel, juxtaposing a divine creator with a meaningless universe is incoherent. This is one of the reasons why the apologetic project is needed in order to make Christianity a live option in the marketplace of ideas. In this particular case, the meaningfulness of the universe needs to be recognized. The poison must be counteracted. Recognizing the fact that human beings are an integral part of the universe, and that we have lived, acted, and created as though the world has meaning, Wiker adds his analysis of the works of Shakespeare which are best understood if meaning were central to human understanding of the world, as well as a comparative analogy to the creativity found in nature.

“The book’s central claim is clearly stated: the universe is meaning-full.” (63) The authors make it plain that they reject the nihilistic paradigm that is claimed to be “proven” by science. They build their case beginning with a historical overview of how the idea of a random, meaningless world goes back to the ancient Greeks and found resurgence in Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx. The assumption of meaninglessness began to lose momentum as discoveries of order and specified complexity began to emerge such that even a hardened skeptic like Antony Flew was moved to theism. From this background, Wiker and Witt note that just as parts of the cosmos made sense in light of the whole, and perhaps only so, the same is clearly so in literature. Shakespeare’s works are examined to illustrate the point, showing that contrary to Dawkins’ illustration of “Methinks it like a Weasel,” the parts fit the whole, but also that the whole makes no sense if the works and their author are nothing more than matter in motion, or animals driven by the urge to procreate. The genius exhibited by Shakespeare is then used to illustrate the genius Euclid points to in mathematics. The authors show how on a materialist worldview, the existence of mathematics makes no sense, much less its applicability to the material universe. From mathematics, the order and intelligibility of the cosmos, chemistry (especially the periodic table) and biology is examined. Through each discipline, the antidote of structuralism is counteracting the poison of reductionism. Structuralism approaches these questions from the top-down, parts-to-whole view. Such a view is not even considered a live option if one starts from meaninglessness. In fact, it is the only way scientists can discern “the meaning of the data they gather.” Wiker and Witt present case after interrelated case for the meaningful whole of the created order into which each of its parts –matter, energy, chemistry, life in general, and humanity in particular– fits. While so many books of this type focus on particular arguments for God’s existence from specific areas such as cosmogony, fine-tuning, or information theory, Meaningful World looks at the big picture. If the other works study the trees, Wiker and Witt look at the whole forest. They show not only that these things fit, but also that they are made to be discovered as such. They do so with a clear, accessible style and a refreshing dose of humor. While their arguments are logically cogent, their discussion of Shakespeare’s literary acumen appeals to aesthetics. Moreover, while they mention some of the astronomically high levels of improbability of the world being the way it is by chance, they do not hang their whole case there. Another way the thesis of the book can be stated is, “Intelligent design? More like creative genius.”

The literary element they introduce by way of analogy and as a particular example is a rarity in books on this subject. Their use of Shakespeare to illustrate their point is not only a novel way to argue in this arena, but they inspire a new appreciation for the literature itself. Their presentation reaches the reader at the cognitive as well as the intuitive level. Moreover, they present a strong case in favor of their thesis, rather than simply relying on defeaters for its negation. They do more than show that reductionism is false. They present a powerful case for a meaningful world. More than merely meaningful, the authors offer a case for elements of genius in the created order that is analogous to the creative genius of Shakespeare. Wiker and Witt argue that the knowledge offered by the study of mathematics, cosmology, chemistry and biology have the depth, clarity, harmony and elegance one would expect to find in the works of geniuses. This is not design by a minimally intelligent mind, but a designing Genius.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the philosophy of science, or the history of the controversy over the Intelligent Design hypothesis. The book is accessible to the layperson without dumbing down the content. While the scholarship of the authors is evident in the content, the engaging style of the prose has none of the dryness that can come from the subject matter. The integrated approach will inform a more fully orbed apologetic than those books that focus on a narrower topic such as the origin of information or the complexity of the living cell. As important as these details are, this book will help you see the forest and the trees.

I Read How To Be an Atheist, and Now I Believe In Moral Subjectivism

 

 

Mitch Stokes is a Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.  He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame under the direction of Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen.  At Yale, he earned an M.A. in religion under the direction of Nicholas Wolterstorff.[1] In fact, being trained by Plantinga, van Inwagen and Wolterstorff made J.P. Moreland positively gush at Stokes’ credentials. That is high praise indeed. Stokes is the author of A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists, and the current book under review, How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough.

Many militant atheists pride themselves on their reliance on reason and science to tell them the truth about the world. They are especially confident of their views of science and what it can tell us about morality. Stokes argues that if they were to put their skepticism where their mouths are, they would be a little more hesitant to assert that science has proven that naturalism is true (and therefore theism false) and that morality is real.

How to Be an Atheist is a short book of just over 200 pages, broken into three parts. In part one Stokes shows the problem of relying on reason and science as articulated by one of the “heroes” of the Enlightenment, David Hume. In part two, science is examined to see the limits of what it can tell us, especially with respect to what is unobservable. This section includes a helpful explanation of how theories, which are neither easily dismissed claims nor iron-clad laws, are inferences that try to make sense of what has been observed. (Stokes also holds advanced degrees in engineering, so there is no anti-science bias here.) Also noted is the fact that many of the areas of physics most often cited as evidence for naturalism are instrumental rather than realistic, which is to say, the theories involving quantum mechanics and such are models used to make sense of what can be observed, but do not even claim to accurately describe what cannot be observed. In the third section, Stokes argues that if naturalism is true, then morality, actual good, bad, right and wrong, does not exist. They are merely expressions of human likes and dislikes.

It is this third section that prompted the title of this review. Stokes argues that all values are personal. The thing that makes something good (in a moral sense) is a value holder. Likewise, a duty or obligation is only held between persons. Many atheists would affirm this. However, this is not to say that morality is ultimately grounded in human persons. After all, if all morality is mere human preference, which human? Why this one and not that one? Why yours and not mine? It is not hard to see why this can lead right back to a kind of moral anarchy. As Stokes notes, Christianity has held to what is called “Divine Command” theory of ethics which is the idea that which is good, and that which we are obliged to do and prohibited from doing, is good, obligatory, or prohibited because God has commanded it. He further notes that the common “Euthyphro objection” is resolved when we understand that God commands what he does because his nature is good.

All this is not to say that morality is relative. Moral standards are person centered (or on Stokes’ view, Person centered.) Whatever the standard, whether a behavior measures up is an objective reality. However, it is not the behaviors themselves that are intrinsically good or bad, but these values are derived from the Value Holder, God himself.

 

Stokes’ book is highly accessible, well reasoned, and fun to read. Stokes has a flare for mixing humor into a technical subject. He is generous in his treatment of those with whom he disagrees, and sets quite the example in this. I highly recommend this book.

 

 

[1] CV taken from http://www.mitchstokes.com/about.html