Monday, November 28, 2011

Book Review: Surprised by Oxford

I was pleasantly surprised by Carolyn Weber's memoir Surprised by Oxford. I enjoyed it to such a degree that I had to keep reading. Carolyn, who comes from a loving but broken home and is highly averse to religion, heads to Oxford to study literature. While there, she meets all sorts of wonderful (and not so wonderful) people, engages in conversation, and is challenged by what she learns about Christianity from a friend who breaks the stereotypes she has held about believers.

The writing is a bit disjointed at times but the author uses language beautifully and describes Oxford University in ways which made me want to study there. She also shares her gradual and subtle journey from agnosticism towards Christianity. This journey sometimes includes a few cliched responses to questions that are issues for Christians but, on the whole, does not dominate the narrative.

To begin with, I wondered whether my interest could be sustained for over 400 daunting pages. But it was. With evocative descriptions of Oxford, reference to classical writers and poets, delightful turns of phrases, a bit of romance, it makes for a genuinely fresh reading experience. It's the sort of book you can relax with and be carried along on a gentle journey of delightfully meditative reflections. Beautifully honest and insightful.

Click here to learn more at Amazon: Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. 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.”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book Review: The God Debates

John Shook's The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists and Believers (and everyone in between) is a stunning addition to the sometimes highly volatile contemporary arguments over God that are so prominent. The author takes a serious in-depth look at just about every argument used by apologists of religion (particularly Christian) and teases them apart, describing how they are constructed, and uncovering the many flaws that make them ineffective.

Shook categorizes arguments for God in the following way:

  • Theology from the scripture - arguments for God based on special revelation and apologetics
  • Theology from the world - arguments for God derived from the natural world, morality, human experience, and human analogy
  • Theology beyond the world - cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, and arguments from the laws of nature
  • Theology in the know - Reformed epistemology, foundationalism
  • Theology into the myst - arguments based in mysticism, relativism, existentialism, and scriptural interpretation
In a section dealing with each of these categories, Shook describes the various arguments and ruthlessly analyses them and evaluates their validity - and most (if not all) of them fall short in terms of their evidence and/or logic. The final chapter presents a summary of where the God debates are now. He describes 12 modern worldviews and presents them in a diagram showing how each relates to the ones next to it and differs radically from those opposite. I've reproduced the diagram here: 

After surveying each of these and their contributions to the relationship to faith and reason - the big question in the God debates - he argues that the best possibilities for the future development of ethical principles will come from humanism - not secular or religious humanism but ethical humanism. Based on reason and experience and without the what Shook sees as the flawed supernaturalism of religious apologetics, Shook sees ethical humanism as the providing the most hope for grounding of morality in a secular culture.

The God Debates is excellent reading and both Christian apologists and atheists will benefit from this comprehensive analysis. Christian apologists will see how inadequate most of the arguments for God's existence are flawed and the challenges they need to meet if they are going to be persuasive - a very difficult task indeed. And atheists will see a model of scholarly dialogue that avoids the emotive rhetoric of the so-called "New Atheists". They will also gain a deeper understanding of the structure of religious apologetics.

The God Debates is must reading for thinking Christians and thinking atheists. It sets a standard for future dialogue around the existence and nature of God and the role of faith and reason in developing a moral framework for those who do not believe in a supernatural being. It will be challenging for both - but, in particular, Christians (and other religions) are going to have to work very hard to sustain a belief in God in the face of this author's critique. I'll be looking forward to the responses of Christian apologists to this one!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Book Review: God Without Religion

Andrew Farley has followed up his previous book, The Naked Gospel, with another brilliant turn in God Without Religion. Farley has the gift of making profound things simple - and nothing is more in need of simplifying than religious teaching about the gospel that persists in keeping Christians in bondage.

The central point of God Without Religion is that Christians now live under the New Covenant which has jettisoned the Mosaic Law and replaced it with a new ethical foundation in the gospel of grace soaked in the power of the Holy Spirit. For Farley, many Christians have not grasped the freedom they have in Christ. They are bound up (the original meaning of the term from which religion is derived) in the oppressive belief that the have to keep the at least some of the Old Testament laws.

Of course, many will object to this message of grace plus nothing and frequently appeal to NT passages about behavior, law, and obedience. But one of Farley's gifts is to exegete Scripture and he looks at these common passages, teasing out there actual meaning in their literary and historical contexts. His explanations are clear, simple, and penetrating and I often sat breathless as I wondered why I hadn't seen these things before.

If you are living a religion that insists on defining rules or laws for you that you must live by then you must read this book. St Paul, in Galatians 5, provocatively drives home the fact that the whole point of Christ's ministry was to bring freedom. And the only way to live as a Christian is to live by the Spirit - not by being lashed to the Mosaic Law. As Farley points out, the law can only provoke us to sin. It was never intended as a tool for Christians to live their lives by. The fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, and so on) are produced in us quite separate from law.

God Without Religion is a stunning second book from Farley. He uses analogies and stories to good effect; he makes the Bible come alive; and he makes controversial issues, that have plagued the church, practical and relevant. Get this book without delay and come to know God without religion.

Book details: Farley, Andrew (2011). God Without Religion. Baker Books.