The Decade of Atheism?

Nathan Jacobson from Afterall.net:

“Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt concluded 2009 by broadcasting a debate about God between polemicists Michael Shermer and Gregory Koukl, thereby bidding adieu to what he called “The Decade of the New Atheists”. It was indeed a remarkable cultural phenomenon how four atheologians in particular rose to prominence by selling scads of books: Sam Harris with The End of Faith, Christopher Hitchens with god is not Great, Daniel Dennet with Breaking the Spell, and, of course, Richard Dawkins with The God Delusion. But just as noteworthy, perhaps, is the cavalcade of able critics who rose to these challenges to Christian theism. As with the cottage industry of criticism that accompanied Dan Brown’s and then Ron Howard’s The Davinci Code, these broadsides served as provocation for countless apologists. Of course, none of these apologists were remotely as successful as their atheistic rivals in terms of sales. One wonders whether they will slip into oblivion just as Hume survives in philosophy readers, while most of his contemporaneous critics do not. Whatever happens, the swift and mostly scholarly response to this one decade’s worth of the now perennial barrage on Christian theism leaves it an open question whether, in the final analysis, it was the atheists or their counterparts who owned the aughts.”

It’s an intriguing question. Nathan has also posted a list of published books and articles that have responded to the New Atheists. It’s worth checking out and judging the debate for yourself.

Book review of Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible

Nathan Pitchford has just written a review of the book, Sola Scriptura, released by Reformation Trust. Edited by Don Kistler, the book features several essays by prominent evangelical authors such as Joel Beeke, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, and James White, defending and explaining the sufficiency of Scripture.

Initiating conversations about the Gospel

Author and pastor at Summit Church in North Carolina, J.D. Greear has written a post talking about how to share Christ with others in everyday conversations. There isn’t an easy formula for witnessing and we must remember that the Holy Spirit goes where He wishes (John 3:8) but Greear does offer some good practical tips. Not all will carry over to a New Zealand context and I’d argue for a greater role for apologetics when encountering a “happy pagan”, but there is still plenty that is useful.

Here are some of his points:

– Look for subtle metaphors to bring in spiritual things.
– Build relationships. People respond less positively to strangers.
– Ask people how you can pray for them.
– Invite people to your church.
– Guide the conversation according to the acronym FIRE:  Family, Interests, Religion, Evangelism.
– People don’t like to be preached to, but they do like to be asked their opinions, and they do like to hear your story.
– Pray.
– Don’t underestimate the power of a consistently kind and joyful life.

Read the whole thing here.

(HT: Justin Taylor)

Os Guinness on the Essence of Apologetics

BeThinking.org have posted some talks by Os Guinness given to the L’Abri fellowship in the UK. Although the lectures were delivered some time ago, they are a great introduction to the issues involved in the task of defending Christianity. Guinness is an important contemporary evangelical thinker and commentator, and has written books such as Time for Truth, The Journey, The Dust of Death and Fit Bodies, Fat Minds.

There are four lectures in the series:

Part 1: What is the essence of apologetics?
Part 2: A Biblical basis for the essence of apologetics.

Part 3: How to communicate in apologetics.
Part 4: Persuading the hard-hearted [to be posted]

Some of the lecture notes:

Part 1: What is the essence of apologetics?

In Part 1, Dr Guinness considers reasons that some people are wary of apologetics and highlights some of the limitations that can apply to apologetics.

Some limitations of apologetics:

* Much apologetics is limited in appealing only to the open and the interested. What about the other 95%?
* Much apologetics is limited in appealing only to the needy.
* Much apologetics is limited in appealing only to those with a similar worldview to us.
* Much apologetics is limited in appealing only to the rational, literate, abstract thinker.
* Much apologetics remain within Christian circles and never makes it’s way into the world.

“… to transcend these limitations, we’re going to have to develop an apologetics which is flexible enough to communicate to anyone at any level of consciousness, any religion or worldview, of any nationality or language or whatever. In other words, the tough thing in modern apologetics will be to develop a persuasive cross-contextual communication. That’s what the best apologetics always was in the past – and is in the Scriptures. It’s what the modern situation calls for and what some of the best modern theory points towards.”

Part 2: A Biblical basis for the essence of apologetics

In Part 2 of this series, Dr Guinness considers whether there is a Biblical basis for apologetics, from both Old and New Testaments.

Some conclusions from the New Testament evidence:

1. Apologetics is Biblical, not post-Biblical
2. It has nothing to do with ‘being apologetic’
3. The New Testament metaphors are mainly legal, not military
4. Covers the formal and informal defence
5. It is for all Christians, not just for some
6. It is used with ‘insiders’, as well as ‘outsiders’
7. It is profoundly intellectual, but it is equally powerful morally and spiritually

“Apologetics is pre-evangelism, which is communication that clarifies what is obscuring and obstructing the good news. And in this sense, it is the necessary foreword or preface wherever there is indifference or complacency or resistance or hostility. It is the intellectual, moral, spiritual bush-clearing operation that is the preparation for the gospel to come in.”

Part 3: How to communicate in apologetics.

Four parts of cross-cultural communication:

Identification
Persuasion
Translation
Justification

Finding out where a person is:

1. Listen to people as individuals
2. Learn the language of their worldview and lifeworld
3. Know how unbelieving minds work

Aspects of unbelief:

Part-inversion
Part-suppression
Part-exploitation
Part-tension
Part-deception

(I’ll update the post, when the following two lectures have been added)

Teleology in nature: biology's next paradigm shift?

The debate over the presence of design in nature is a fierce and intractable one. Not everyone, however, accepts that Intelligent Design theory or Darwinism offer the only positions in this debate. Some have argued that there is room for a recognition of intentionality in nature that does not depend on the notion of a designer.

J. Scott Turner, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at State University of New York in Syracuse, has written a recent book called The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges From Life Itself, arguing for a position in this middle ground. With the inadequacy of modern evolutionary biology to explain certain biological phenomena (as pointed out even by evolutionists such as Stephen J Gould), Turner defends the indispensability of the notion of unconscious intentionality in nature and tries to show how this arises.

Turner is not alone, and in fact suggests that “we’re on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology”. It will be interesting to see what effect this will have on the current debate. Some Christian theists have welcomed this renewed thinking in the classical teleology of Aristotle and Aquinas. Edward Feser, who contends that the Darwinian criticisms of William Paley do not necessarily count against Aristotelian teleology, follows Aquinas’s belief that the existence of natural teleology is clear but that we must supply additional arguments to show that this teleology requires God.

John Farrell has posted an interesting discussion with Scott Turner on Farrell’s blog:

John Farrell: Ed Feser had an interesting post a while back about how both sides of the ID/evolution debate misunderstand classical teleology. The ID types think proving teleology in nature means the existence of a Agent Designer (i.e., God) will be much easier to demonstrate, and the militant atheists shun teleology basically because …they agree. But Ed argues–rightly in my opinion–this is because both sides misunderstand Aristotle and Aquinas.

My first question is, as a scientist, do you feel based on your experience that this is true: i.e., that your colleagues who are materialists/atheists react to the subject of teleology negatively because they think it is intrinsically tied to an ID perspective?

Scott Turner: I’m inclined to agree with Ed Feser, but not completely. It’s obviously true that the ID issue is pretty polarized, needlessly so in my opinion, and I agree that there has been a bit of “closing of minds” on “my” side about purposefulness (or teleology), largely because ID has been pushing the issue so publicly, and also because of a bit of a “those icky creationists are back” mindset. Yet the whole issue of purposefulness and teleology has been at the heart of evolutionary thought since before Darwin, and there’s been quite a lot of deep thought about it since, I think. Unfortunately that’s all been submerged by the heat of the current rhetoric (Richard Dawkins and his cult followers have done us no favors in that regard.). This has pushed the more superficial arguments to the fore which can easily give the impression that the two sides are largely ignorant of the issue. So Ed Feser is correct in that regard. It does not credit the fact that there’s a pretty large body of biological thought that has grappled seriously with the idea.

I decided to write The Tinkerer’s Accomplice in part because I thought biological design was a serious and unsolved problem, and in part because I thought both the Neodarwinist and ID camps were missing something essential about the problem. In short, I wanted to write a book that took the issue of design seriously and proposed a scientifically credible way forward. Even the hint of design was a red flag, however. I had people refuse to review the book, and reviewers who branded it a “stealth ID” book. One reviewer opined that I was a “closet deist”, and I recently found myself described as a “known creationist.” I never knew that about myself! And there has been some private correspondence from colleagues that, to put it mildly, surprised me. So the issue itself does seem to unhinge people a bit. But on the positive side, there have been many people who have taken the time to consider the book seriously and to work through the ideas carefully and to tell their friends. So, even though the reception of the book was a bit negative at first, it’s slowly getting more positive.

John Farrell: Do you think teleology gets short shrift because–from a methodological stance– most evolutionary biologists think it’s really not much use anyway? In other words, unless teleology can make some predictions or offer some obvious questions worth researching (something the Intelligent Design movement has repeatedly failed to do), scientists just can’t be bothered with it?

Scott Turner: We biologists are trained to think very skeptically about teleological arguments, and rightly so, I think. Again this mindset has long predated the ID issue. In fact, I think ID is so emotive because it has inflamed already latent tensions in our thinking rather than caused them.

While there is clearly a radical materialist/Neodarwinist school of evolutionary thought, evolutionary biology is not monolithic in this regard. Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) is probably the most prominent area that has grappled seriously with the issue of teleology. Niche construction theory is another…

John Farrell: In an earlier email, you wrote: “Right now, I think we’re at a very exciting time in evolutionary biology because the idea is emerging that we are now bumping up against the limits of the materialist/atomist philosophy, and are coming to realize that there is indeed something special about life that simply must be understood. There are various opinions out there about just what that special quality is (my two cents is the special quality of homeostasis), but no matter how it comes out, I think we’re on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology.”

I assume you see specialists like Sean Carroll (Evo Devo) on this side? And Kirshner and Gerhart (The Plausibility of Life). In your experience is there already a clear cut divide, for example, when biologists get together at conferences and symposiums, where the reductionists are more vocal and hostile to teleology and the other side content to keep working away at the research and entertaining different theories of how designedness comes about?

Scott Turner: I’m not sure I’d describe it as a divide so much as a re-emerging perspective. Ever since the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics, there’s been this debate about the role that genes play in Darwinian evolution. At first, of course, the rediscovery of the Mendelian gene was thought to be the death knell for Darwinism. This is what makes the Neodarwinist synthesis–the reconciliation of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection–one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time. Once that was achieved, though, the question became whether genetic natural selection could explain everything (what might be called the “parsimonous” explanation), or whether there is something else involved. Richard Dawkins, of course, has been the most vigorous defender in our time of the “parsimonist” idea. But even though, for much of the 20th century, the scientific case seemed to be swinging decisively in favor of the “parsimonists”, the other side never really went away, and it has re-emerged in schools like evo-devo, or niche construction theory, or in Simon Conway Morris’ ideas about the importance of convergence. Most of these ideas that are bubbling up are, in fact, rooted in older ideas–evo-devo draws heavily on the work of D’Arcy Thompson, for example, who was a trenchant critic of Darwinism–that were part of an incredibly rich intellectual debate over evolution that was thriving prior to the modern synthesis. Those other perspectives submerged for a while, just because the modern synthesis seemed to settle so many things. But we’re seeing now that even though it solved a lot, it didn’t settle everything. And that is why, in my view, we’re seeing these ideas emerging anew.

Of course, that’s not to say the debate isn’t heated. For the most part, that’s fine–it helps keep us all honest. But it does have its down side. For example, I often run into criticism of my notion that homeostasis makes evolution a far more intention-driven process than the Darwinist idea can comfortably accommodate. Nearly always, the criticism is that intentionality is not necessary, that we can explain everything without it–the parsimonist idea. Never mind that it actually can’t explain everything–there’s no good Darwinist explanation for the origin of life, for example–but there’s a deeper issue. The parsimonist defense of Neodarwinism usually invokes Occam’s Razor–always go for the simpler explanation. But this is a fundamental misreading of Occam’s Razor, which really says that you must not make hypotheses without necessity. If you don’t believe intentionality is a real phenomenon, than invoking it is indeed unnecessary. But what if intentionality is real, actually is a necessary attribute of living things? Then in this case Occam’s Razor becomes Occam’s blinders. Which is never a pleasant thing to hear.

Read the whole thing.

The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges From Life Itself is available on Amazon.

(Source: Edward Feser)

James Cameron has saved cinema but can he save your soul?

Contains some spoilers.

The box-office receipts are in. The critics agree. James Cameron has done it. After almost ten years of filmmaking exile, the Academy Award-winning director has returned with a sci-fi crowd-pleaser that might just change the way movies are made. With technology that pushes the sight and sound barrier, Avatar offers an immersive cinematic experience that is exactly what an industry – beleaguered by online piracy and in-home entertainment – needs: a reason to go back to the theater. Of all the film’s attractions (exotic alien worlds, aerial dogfights, jungle chase-sequences, and epic battles) its greatest achievement is that these moments are best enjoyed on the big screen and in 3D. If there was ever a film to see at the movies, Avatar is it.

Set in 2154, the film takes place on Pandora, an alien moon with lush forests, mountains suspended in mid-air, and wildlife straight out of the Cretaceous period. It also happens to be the location of a rare mineral ore that can save earth from the jaws of a crippling energy crisis. The only problem? An indigenous population is camped out on the richest concentration of the ore. Enter Jake Sully, an ex-marine played by Sam Worthington (seen earlier this year in the disappointing Terminator Salvation). After a combat injury left him without the use of his legs, Jake is offered the opportunity to replace his dead brother in an experimental program and pilot a genetically engineered ‘avatar’. The avatars are composites of human and alien DNA: built to look exactly like the indigenous aliens and therefore enable the SecFor mining corporation to interact with the blue-skinned Na’Vi. In signing up for the program, Jake manages to find unlikely acceptance among the Omatikaya clan and is allowed to learn their history and traditions. But as the mining corporation grows weary over finding a diplomatic solution, Jake falls for both the Na’Vi princess and their forest and is forced to make a decision that will put him at odds with the humans and their military might.

James Cameron is responsible for some of the best action and science fiction movies of all time (Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, and Terminator 1 and 2) and there’s little doubt that Avatar will be added to that list. Cameron’s imaginative muscle rivals George Lucas and his painstaking attention to technical detail supersedes even Michael Mann. However, it is Cameron’s ambition (or lack of restraint) that clearly sets him apart from other contemporary directors. Avatar is one of the most expensive movies ever made, with a production budget of $230 million (that’s over $900 per frame), and required film and motion capture technology that had to be built from scratch. But unlike the other big loud spectacle films of 2009, Cameron has successfully joined technology and storytelling and delivered a transportive adventure that is equal to the hype.

Since Jurassic Park and even Cameron’s own Terminator 2, image and computer generated technology have become important parts of the narrative experience of film. In Avatar, Cameron pushes the boundaries once again and shows us that 3D is no gimmick. The photorealistic alien world of Pandora is both beautiful and terrifying, with breathtaking sights of phosphorescent flora and vertiginous, misty landscapes filled by believable eco-systems. More impressive, however, is the way Cameron is able to locate the action within his simulated world. This is not a video-game, or a Pixar film, but a seamless blend of CGI and live action that effectively reboots the wonder and magic of movies.

The actors themselves give adequate performances (Sigourney Weaver, as an impassioned but prickly scientist, and Zoe Saldana, from the inside of a catsuit, particularly stand out) but Cameron’s films are not remembered for their acting. Neither are they known for their narrative complexity. Avatar is no different. The story does not deliver any twists or surprises, and the characters never deviate from their one-dimensional caricatures. Cameron, who himself wrote the script, has absorbed (and even defined) the narrative austerity that is common to this genre of film. Borrowing storylines from films such as Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas, Avatar follows a familiar formula, but it is compelling enough to mobilise audience attention and sustain the film’s ongoing spectacle.

Science fiction is a popular vehicle for storytelling because of the way it enables directors to interact with ideas that speak to the present in ways that other films cannot. Works like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blade Runner, Gattaca, Dark City and last year’s excellent Moon are simultaneously fantastical and yet able to ask questions that are firmly rooted in the here and now. As an allegory of contemporary issues, Cameron’s Avatar has much to communicate. There is strong political commentary, from America’s foreign policy in Iraq (the villainous Colonel Quaritch declares a preemptive strive on the Na’Vi under the presumption that the humans must “fight terror with terror”) to fears over global warming and our impact on the environment (in Avatar, Earth has been denuded of its natural resources). It is also, as one commentator has pointed out, an exercise in historical revisionism, wanting to redress the history of the Native America Indians, in much the same way that Tartartino’s Inglorious Basterds is a reimagining of the ending of the second World War.

Cameron’s strongest messages in Avatar are about capitalism, technology and nature. However, these messages are paradoxical at best, and ultimately undone in their telling. Avatar‘s assault on corporate exploitation and capitalist greed comes packaged in ironically one of the most costly, commercially bloated movies in history. The film’s criticism of technology too is problematic. Cameron (who is responsible for the ultimate inspiration of industrial terror,  Skynet), extols the virtues of a simple, natural way of life and attacks technology, seen especially in the final (thrilling) battle between Jake and the exosuited Quaritch. Technology has created dehumanized, disembodied souls. But what is Cameron’s solution to this hyper-technological unease?

Well, more technology, in fact. One of the central moral values in Avatar is the virtue of seeing through different eyes. And technology is the means of achieving this moral end. Compassion for ‘the other’ in Avatar only occurs via technological incarnation (much like another sci-fi film that came out last year, District 9). The mining corporation CEO, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), and the SecFor soldiers embody a kind of blindness as they view the Na’vi as nothing but savages and a hindrance to the extraction of the mineral ore. Jake himself is only able to undergo a conversion of understanding by taking on the body of an Avatar and living amidst the Na’Vi. This culminates in his relationship with Neytiri and in being able to meaningfully express the phrase “I see you”. And, of course, this is the point. With Avatar and its wonderland of technological tricks, Cameron has given the audience new eyes to see. At the close of the nineties, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix protested our Cartesian technological imprisonment, and it is interesting that this last decade has ended with Cameron’s promotion of deeper technological immersion.

Another paradox is also found in Cameron’s handling of spirituality. The deity of the Na’Vi is the “All Mother” or Eywa, who inhabits nature and connects all energy and life. Imbibing the New Age theosophy universal to Hollywood, Cameron presents us with a pantheistic god who is morally indifferent and who, as Neytiri tells Jake,  will not “take sides”. But Cameron cannot hold true to this vision. In the climactic third act, when the characters are confronted with the horror and presence of evil, the pantheistic god is forgotten and Cameron must employ a very literal deus ex machina. He wants the amoral, quasi-mystical ecological god but knows he needs the moral judge of Christian theism who does in fact take sides. Like all stories, including the more real one we find ourselves in beyond the walls of our theater or cinemaplex, there can be no resolution unless God steps in to end evil.

Avatar is a sensory-action feat that deserves an audience. Cameron has delivered a ride that has taken the medium to new heights. But where the director’s goal isn’t just to gratify the senses or present an escapist experience, the film falls flat. With Avatar, Cameron has returned to his place at the top of the world – but we can be grateful that the throne of David is already occupied.

Our Greatest Need

“If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.”

– D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker Book House, 1992) (HT: Of First Importance)

Look But Don't Touch

Recently, I had the privilege or misfortune to see the BBC documentary Alesha: Look But Don’t Touch. The show follows Alesha Dixon, singer and former member of girl band Misteeq, who sets out to expose the promotion of an idealised body-image, particularly the feminine figure in the beauty and fashion industry,  including the effects this has had and is having on the culture and the self-esteem of people.

While I can readily agree with most of what was said, there is one thing that bothered me while watching. The presentation was completely one-sided. It was so completely one-sided it appeared to have presupposed the conclusion; the industry is at fault, and something – we know not what – needs to be done.

During my training in Visual Communication for my Bachelor of Design degree this issue was something I was confronted with. Knowing there was a distinct possibility that I might end up performing tummy-tucks and face-lifts, etc. with Photoshop the ethical issues were something I had to wrestle with. Moreover, as a theologian with a bent for cultural critique, I see the need to be even-handed and not emphasise one side over another.

The problem can be expressed in these two penetrating questions; Does the idealised image of bodily perfection come from the creative designer and/or advertising producer, or does it come from the consumer? Does an image conform to a pre-existing ideal in culture, or is an ideal created new and adopted by culture?

We were taught of a never-ending circle;

1) Industry feeds culture,
2) Culture feeds industry.

The documentary focused on the first, but completely ignored the second. This is a “chicken-and-egg system.” That is a system with mutually dependant components – in this case culture and industry. Neither can exist without the other. As such no blame for any effect can be laid entirely at the feet of one or the other.

From a biblical worldview perspective, the reason for the downward spiralling problem can be correctly diagnosed and equally attributed to both the culture and the industry which are composed of fallen creatures. That is people are existentially in a state of estrangement from God, their essentially good nature corrupted with sin. Ultimately it is this marred human condition which is responsible for the idealised image of perfection, the ever increasing need to seduce consumers, the low self-esteem of those who consciously and unconsciously imbue it, and then are deceived into placing a higher priority on appearance than what should be.

Christianity can furnish the self-image of individuals and communities with lofty resources. That man looks on the outside, but God looks at the heart, thus eternal value is pegged to the condition of ones inner life rather than outward appearance. That Male and Female were made in the image of God. Their creation was the crown that made a good thing “very good.” Christ loved us, even though we were in a fallen, sinful and repulsive state of existence, so much he gave his life as a substitute for us. And in Him alone are all the deepest needs of the human heart fulfilled.

It is no wonder the program had no solutions forthcoming. Alesha could not diagnose the problem.

One Minute Answers To Skeptics

This month, a new and revised edition of Charlie H. Campbell’s One Minute Answers to Skeptics: Concise Responses to the Top 40 Questions has been released. The book is designed to offer succinct but solid answers to common questions that Christians frequently encounter about their faith. Campbell is the director of the Always Be Ready apologetics ministry and a frequent speaker at churches and on campuses in the US.

With answers to questions ranging from God and suffering to the fate of those those who have never heard about Jesus, the book seeks to equip high school or university students or anyone else who wants to be prepared to respond to skeptics. Brian, at the Apologetics315 blog, offered these comments in his review of the book:

Campbell intentionally gears his answers to be useful for conversion. He provides scriptural references and citations as needed, but the overall answers he provides offer an encapsulated, concise response that will be an appropriate starting point for ongoing dialogue with the skeptic. With this goal in mind, the book achieves its purpose of being a starting point for the conversation; it is not intended to provide a complete, comprehensive answer. If the reader is looking for a substantial treatment of the questions that are posed, he will need to do further digging elsewhere.

This book is a fine beginner’s primer for the complete novice in apologetics or for young people who are asking questions. For those who want to be ready with sound conversational answers and who have a good understanding of the meat of the issues, this small book may also be a good tool to have alongside other apologetics texts.

Brian makes some good points, and with those things kept in mind, it is a book that could be very helpful. If you are thinking of picking it up, I would recommend it with a few further caveats:

  • Don’t rely on superficial answers. Recognize the limitations of a memorized technique or a series of prepared steps. While these can be handy for those who are nervous about evangelism, they will have weaknesses and not work in all contexts. Often the questions we encounter are serious obstacles for some people and should not be dismissed lightly. One-liners may work in brief encounters but for other situations, we should prefer thoughtful answers. Our responses can be simple without being simplistic.
  • Take the questions seriously. One of the dangers in apologetics is not listening. Don’t answer a question that hasn’t been asked. And be honest, if you don’t know an answer, don’t hide your ignorance. There are many things we do not know or understand. The Christian mind is a fallen, finite mind.
  • Cultivate intellectual integrity. Dig deeper and develop your own intellectual resources. I find that that the best answers come from asking questions of yourself and in your past experience in dealing with doubts.
  • Realise that apologetics is person-variable. This is key. The goal of apologetics is not merely to produce sound arguments but to persuade people, and it is important to remember that not every sound argument will be equally persuasive with everyone. Persuasion involves much more than the soundness and validity of the argument. One size does not fit all. It is vital to treat inquirers as indivduals and try and understand their particular needs and develop an apologetic that is geared toward those needs. As Douglas Groothius has said, “Don’t reduce people to cliches.”

The book is published by Harvest House Publishers and you can view a chapter from the book on their website.  Here are some endorsements:

“This is a handy book with helpful answers for busy people.”
—Dr. Norman Geisler, author or coauthor of more than 70 books, including The Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics

“A refreshing model of ‘conversational apologetics’! This book will equip you to be ‘always ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within you.’”
—Nancy Leigh DeMoss, author and Revive Our Hearts radio host

“I hope many seekers will give serious consideration to the thoughts so well expressed in this timely and pithy book. Well worth reading.”
—Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and author of more than 20 books

“I have heard that one definition of genius is taking complex things and being able to simplify them. I was impressed that such difficult questions could be adequately answered in such a few lines. I think the majority of Christians who want and need answers to tough questions like these often want a simple, sufficient answer without having to read an entire book on the subject. In quick, simple answers, Charlie has done it. I know this was not easy, but on behalf of Christians everywhere in all sincerity, thanks.”
—Bryan Newberry, pastor,  Calvary Chapel San Diego, California

"The single most incompetent logical argument ever made"

David B. Hart has written a favourable review of The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution over at First Things, but has some pretty strong passing comments of Richard Dawkins’ previous work:

[W]hat makes The God Delusion so frustrating to any reader who has a shred of decent philosophical training and who knows the history of ideas is its special combination of encyclopedic ignorance and thuggish bluster. Repeatedly, Dawkins discusses such issues as Thomas’ “five ways” (which he, as many do, mistakes for Thomas’ chief “proofs” for the “existence” of God); but he never bothers to consult anyone who could explain these issues to him. And he is desperately in need of such explanations, given how utterly bewildered he is on every significant point. He cannot distinguish questions regarding the existence of the universe from questions regarding its physical origin; he does not grasp how assertions regarding the absolute must logically differ from assertions regarding contingent beings; he does not know the differences between truths of reason and empirical facts; he has no concept of ontology, in contradistinction to, say, physics or evolutionary biology; he does not understand how assertions regarding transcendental perfections differ from assertions regarding maximum magnitude; he clumsily imagines that the idea of God is susceptible to the same argument from infinite regress traditionally advanced against materialism; he does not understand what the metaphysical concept of simplicity entails; and on and on. His own pet proof of “why there almost certainly is no God” (a proof in which he takes much evident pride) is one that a usually mild-spoken friend of mine (a friend who has devoted too much of his life to teaching undergraduates the basic rules of logic and the elementary language of philosophy) has described as “possibly the single most incompetent logical argument ever made for or against anything in the whole history of the human race.”

That may be an exaggeration. My friend has spent little time among theologians. But that is neither here nor there. All of these failings would be pardonable if Dawkins were capable of correction. But his habitual response to any concept whose meaning he has not taken the time to learn is to dismiss it as meaningless, with the sort of truculent affectation of contempt that suggests he really knows, at some level, that he is out of his depth.

Read the whole thing.

Hart is the author of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

For a collection of reviews of The God Delusion, visit this page.

(Source: Justin Taylor)

How Pat Robertson was wrong and right

At a time when the world should be focused on the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake and how we can best help the people of the Carribbean nation, Pat Robertson’s insensitive comments are an unwelcome distraction. If he wasn’t so well-known, Pat Robertson could be easily dismissed. Instead, his claim that the Haitian earthquake was a result of a Satanic pact has caused Christians to both cringe and join in the outrage of others. If you haven’t heard, Robertson’s comments came on the Christian Broadcasting Network, where he explained to viewers:

…something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it, they were under the heel of the French, uh, you know, Napoleon the third and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the devil, they said, we will serve you, if you get us free from the Prince, true story. And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free, and ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. . . the Island of Hispaniola is one island cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is, is, prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty, same Islands, uh, they need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come, but right now we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.

Robertson has made many injudicious statements in the past, but this has to be his most stupid. It is a difficult thing to read into God’s intentions concerning specific disasters and it is never acceptable for us to pronounce why God has done something unless He has actually already told us. While the Bible reveals that God has often judged nations in the past, and has used natural disasters to implement that judgment, it does not follow that every natural disaster is an instance of His judgment. Our understanding of these events should be set in the context of Jesus’ response in Luke 13:

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5 ESV).

Suffering should remind us of our own self-centeredness and finitude, and force us to reconsider our theology by the cold light of reality. John Mark Reynolds also makes some good points about the appropriateness of Robertson’s comments:

Robertson has been inhuman in two ways.

First, even if he were right, he has picked a horrid time to pontificate. When my friends is suffering from cancer, even if it is his fault, it is the wrong time to remind him that I told him he should have stopped smoking. It is ugly and useless.

Heal the sick, bury the dead, feed the hungry and then deal with root spiritual causes. Safe to say every nation, and Haiti is surely one, has made philosophical and practical decisions that help cause tragedy. We can talk about that when the people of Haiti have been helped by the Church.

Second, even if his theology were sound, he has stated it in such a way and at such a time that it will be misunderstood and will be mocked. He has pronounced a “truth” that (he must concede) would be hard for our culture to hear in a way and at a time that brings that “truth” into derision.

If Robertson were right in his theology and philosophy, his timing has fed his pearls to swine on a silver platter.

Recently Robertson faced major health problems and rightly asked for our prayers. It would have been wrong to be facile and associate his problems with sin. Robertson should grant the people of Haiti the same treatment that he demanded in the case of his illness. (HT: JT)

Melinda on the Stand to Reason blog also makes the important point that for all the ridicule that Robertson is receiving we should not ignore the fact that he is not wrong to remind us of the real-world consequences to religious beliefs. She writes,  “The consequences not only affect our lives now, but also have eternal consequences.  Religion is real and the choice is serious”. Melinda goes on:

“Pat Robertson had no grounds to claim he knew the earthquake was God’s judgment on the Haitians for voodoo.  He was right to point out that practicing voodoo is evil and results in a curse, as do all false religions.  People are truly lost when they follow a lie, and are truly saved when they follow the truth.  There are consequences to practicing false religion because the spiritual world is real.”

Pascal on Human Happiness

Penguin has put out a new series of books, called ‘Great Ideas’, that corral some of the important writings in the history of human thought. Each title is published in a slim, accessible format (some are just excerpts from the original works) with absolutely gorgeous cover art. For those that might otherwise have been intimidated by reading Locke or Dostoyevsky, the Penguin collection represents an excellent introduction to many great literary classics.

Human Happiness by Blaise Pascal is one of their titles in the third series of the ‘Great Ideas’ collection. It is a composite of excerpts from the writings of the seventeenth century Christian philosopher on the condition of man and the felicity of the religious life. Although Pascal was well known to the European scientific community because of his involvement in debates about mathematical and empirical concepts, little of Pascal’s writing was published in his lifetime. It was after his death in 1662 (Pascal was only thirty nine), that his thoughts about religion were posthumously arranged by his family and friends and released (entitled Pensées). Pascal is most well known today for the application of his mathematical genius to restore an old apologetic argument (that it is more prudent to bet on God existing rather than on his not existing), but he also one of the best philosophers to grapple with both the topic of man’s concomitant wretchedness and glory and the problem of God’s hiddenness. This book in the Penguin series contains only one-fifth of the total fragments available but seeks nonetheless to give Pascal’s thoughts on the human pursuit of satisfaction and real joy in life.

Douglas Groothius, author and professor of philosopher at Denver Seminary, has recently written a good review of the Penguin book:

Does Human Happiness succeed as a primer for Pensées and Pascal’s other writings? The answer is, Yes and No. It does succeed in presenting an assemblage of the more assessable and psychologically pertinent fragments concerning the mysteries of being human. But it fails as a primer for two reasons. First, as mentioned above, some crucial texts on Christ go missing. A good primer cannot, of course, include everything and still be a primer. But it should never expunge the essential. Second, given the extraordinary nature of Pensées (an incomplete work of Christian apologetics written in the middle of the Seventeen Century), the neophyte is owed more introductory material to initiate them to the intellectual ambiance of the work. However, this want of prolegomena is overcome somewhat by the timeless and lapidary quality of many of Pascal’s fragments—e.g., “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.” (One may find some assistance in understanding Pascal’s thoughts, life, and world by consulting my book, On Pascal [Wadsworth, 2003].)

In a time when literacy is in deep decline and when so many are learning so little about things that matter so much, I commend Penguin for the Great Idea series and for this particular installment. A close and contentious reading of Blaise Pascal can indeed transform the way one sees oneself—and how one sees God.

You can read the whole thing here.

The book that Groothius mentions (On Pascal) is also available on Amazon.

If you’re interested in reading Pensées, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library has a version online and freely available to view.