Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book recommendation: Deconverted: a Journey from Religion to Reason

Deconverted: a Journey from Religion to ReasonDeconverted: a Journey from Religion to Reason by Seth Andrews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent, enjoyable read from the host of The Thinking Atheist website and podcast who shares his journey from fundamentalist Christianity to atheism. The author obviously loves language and tells a great story full of pain, humor, and intelligence. Definitely worth putting on your reading list.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bible Thumper to AthiestBible Thumper to Athiest by Tom Crawford
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Before writing my review, I'd like to remind you that I am not averse to atheist literature. Some of it is very good indeed. For example, excellent atheist books I have read recently include David Eller's Ahtheism Advanced and John R Shook's The God Debates. I mention this because I am going to go against the trend by other reviewer's of praising this book and giving it high ratings. And my comments about the book are not because of any bias I have against atheist literature. That said ... on to the review ...

This is the worst book I can remember reading from an atheist perspective. The book is essentially in two parts. The first part is a brief description of the author's journey from "bible thumper to atheist". The second section is a series of 388 questions about the Bible and related matters.

The autobiographical section is interesting in providing some background of the author but is pretty superficial with little depth of reflection on the dynamics of his movement from fundamentalist Christian to becoming an atheist. It is primarily descriptive and, of course, needs to be accepted at face value as someone personal experience.

The largest section of the book - the 388 questions - is atrociously superficial and demonstrates an ineptness of dealing with hermeneutics. At no point does Crawford show any indication of having interacted with biblical scholarship, modern critical hermeneutics, or literary analysis of ancient texts. It is as though Crawford hasn't moved on from his Christian fundamentalist approach to reading the biblical text and now criticises the biblical documents from an equally naive fundamentalist, albeit atheistic, position. This should be disappointing to atheists as it is doesn't represent an intelligent, sophisticated critique of Christianity or the biblical documents.

Some examples: Crawford writes:

... the Bible tells us that God created everything and it therefore follows that if he created everything, then, by definition, everything must include evil.

There is most definitely a significant problem of evil for Christians to deal with. But evil is not a "thing" that can be created like a tree or rock or person. It is a moral category. Constructing the problem of evil in the way that Crawford does is naive and philosophically ignorant. Crawford also completely ignores the important free will defence which, although it may be criticised, is something that any critic of Christianity needs to be aware of.

Another example is Crawford's handling of the book of Job. He makes the sweeping statement that 'Christians believe this story to be true.' Many, many Christian scholars would understand Job to be a sophisticated folktale consisting of a combination of prose and poetry to raise questions about suffering rather than to answer them. Crawford's approach to Job is simplistic and ignorant of the contemporary scholarship of the book.

The examples could go on and on. He criticises the OT for not mentioning Satan, not realising that most biblical scholars recognise that the OT writers did not have a well developed concept of Satan. Throughout the book, the author displays a complete disregard for the cultural and historical contexts of the texts he is 'analysing' and raising questions about. He also ignores the presence of metaphor, hyperbole and other literary devices and raises questions that are the product of reading the text in a fundamentalist literalistic way. Crawford also ignores the symbolic nature of apocalyptic literature such as the NT book of Revelation. Nor does he seem to demonstrate any understanding of the translation of an ancient text, criticising translators for changing the words of the Bible on the basis of manuscript analysis.

My criticism of Crawford's analysis of the Bible is not meant to imply that there are no serious questions to be asked of the biblical text. There are and some of them are intractable. But Crawford's book is not the place to go to find out what they are. If anyone were to take Crawford's questions and repeat them to educated Christians it would be laughable and only bring embarrassment.

So if someone is looking for a serious, substantial critique of the Bible, don't start here.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Book Review: God: All That Matters

God: All That MattersGod: All That Matters by Mark Vernon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A simple, articulate summary by an agnostic Christian of a few of the major issues related to the idea of God. Considers questions from a broader perspective than the Judeo-Christian and tackles some of the contemporary issues under discussion. But the brevity of the book means there is limited breadth and depth and lacks a necessary critical strength. Good for a quick introduction that can be followed up by suggested books in the provided further reading list. Includes a a brief appendix commenting on the nature of the traditional "proofs" of God and another listing 100 ideas (including people) significant in the development of religious concepts.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Western Values Versus the Gospels - What Jesus Really Values and Why We Shouldn't Agree with HimWestern Values Versus the Gospels - What Jesus Really Values and Why We Shouldn't Agree with Him by Peter Woolcock
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm just over half way through this book and have given up on it by jumping to the conclusion which is a good summary of the main argument. The essential message of the author is that the values of Jesus in the gospels, as the author construes them, are mostly incompatible with Western values, as defined by the author. The author's view of Jesus' values can be summarised by a paragraph at the start of Chapter 8:

... the only thing that Jesus believes to have intrinsic value is God himself. Humans only have a conferred value, one conferred on them by God's valuing them. The special feature possessed by humans that God specifically values is their capacity to worship him out of gratitude for the benefit he has bestowed upon them in creating them.

The author, Peter Woolcock,takes a very cynical view of Jesus' values. While it is definitely worth considering whether or not the values held by Jesus (and by many Christians) are instrumental rather than intrinsic to being human, Woolcock can only arrive at his view of Jesus's values by completely ignoring the historical and cultural context of the gospel narratives. In the gospels Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jewish people, including the "professional clergy" who were steeped in Jewish law and culture. Jesus was speaking to them in the framework of that culture and their historical situation. In fact, Woolcock makes the same mistake that many Christians make when they take the biblical narratives as propositional content and lift it from its context making it universally applicable.

Woolcock's writing is boringly repetitious - after the first couple of chapters the pattern is the same. First, show how one of Jesus' values is theocentric and instrumental (purely to please God and God's intentions) rather than something that is inherent in being human. Second, compare that with a Western value construed in the most positive way possible to show that it is better to subscribe to Western values than Jesus' values.

Woolcock's interpretation of the gospel narratives frequently draws on an evangelical conservative study bible commentary on the one hand and citations from the controversial Jesus Seminar on the other. His interpretations of Jesus's values basically ignores the best scholarship around Jesus' subversion of his culture's values and the terms "presumably", "it may be the case", "it seems to me" occur over and over again hinting at the biased perspective. Woolcock would do well to read some of the covenant theology for a more nuanced understanding of what values non-fundamentalist Christians support within a new covenant framework. For example, Woolcock assumes that the ten commandments are what are binding on Christians when this is not the case according to the best covenant theology. There is also the interesting idea of disinterested benevolence which specifically addresses the need to love others for their own sake rather than any instrumental or salvivic value they may or may not have.

Let me end by saying that I agree that values must be intrinsic rather than instrumental. I think Woolcock has a point. He is right in what he affirms but wrong (in my view) in what he denies. Too many Christians see the entirety of reality in terms that are only about what God wants - even to the point of making the abhorrent suggestion that God is involved in bringing suffering on people to achieve God's purposes. Woolcock quite rightly criticises, for example, William Lane Craig for his offensive comments regarding the slaughter of the Canaanites.

I agree that many Western values are excellent and we see these values coalescing and being clarified as more proponents weigh in on the discussion, including atheist contributions. Ultimately, this book is a provocative position worthy of consideration but is undermined by cynicism, bias, and boring writing.

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Unfortunately, the Twitter feed widget is broken at the moment so you won't see my Twitter posts until that gets fixed by someone! But click the Facebook badge just above this post to see my latest commentary on movies, books and TV shows.

Going on the run ...

Hi there

Because of my busy life I've decided to change the way I do movie and book reviews here on the Thinking Christian blog. Most of my activity will now be on my new Facebook page called OntherunMoviesAndBooks. You are very welcome to head there and make that the place where you get all my comments/reviews on books and movies. Because I am going for brevity (without losing quality and usefulness I hope!) I can comment on more movies and books than I can with longer reviews. If you look above this post to the top of the page under the title, you'll see a Facebook badge with the first few words of the latest post. Click on the badge and it will take you off to the page so you can read the whole post and other stuff on my page. You'll also continue to see my Twitter feed on the right of this page. Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book Review: “The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails

The title of Randal Rauser’s book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails raises the expectation of an innovative approach to Christian apologetics that presents new arguments from provocative directions. But in essence the book presents old arguments dressed up in a dialogue that favours the Christian apologist.

The book takes a somewhat Socratic form with the Reader as a silent observer in a coffee shop listening to an argument between Randal and a “random” passerby called Sheridan who is enticed into the conversation when seeing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion sitting on the table. A range of topics are explored with uneven treatment in what becomes a “teaching” session where Randal becomes the professor and Sheridan is the “student”.

The positive elements of the book are that 1) Sheridan is not ultimately converted – instead, the culmination of the argument leaves Sheridan to go away and think more about what he has heard and 2) it provides an engaging survey of the most common arguments in support of theism and, in particular, a form of Christian theism that is, at least, not fundamentalist in nature.

The most disappointing aspect of the book is that it pits a well-read, well-informed, contemporary professor with a wide background in philosophy against an “average” educated guy who has to constantly admit not knowing concepts and offering weak arguments in order for the apologist to teach the reader basic ideas of Christian apologetics. If, instead, an equal “opponent” had been the dialog partner, some serious objections could have been raised against the arguments offered.

I was, however, particularly impressed with the discussion of Old Testament stories of genocide and other elements that modern people would consider highly immoral if not downright evil. Randal takes a genuinely humble and necessarily non-inerrantist approach to this issue. And the dialog on hell at least presented the annihilationist alternative as a viable biblical option.

The worst part of the book, in my view, was the discussion of providence which failed to explore the logical implications of the author’s view and strained credibility.

In my opinion, The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails will be most valued by the already convinced Christian and provides a pleasantly humorous (if somewhat cheesy) introduction to contemporary Christian apologetics for the beginner. There is no doubt that the author attempts to freshen up apologetics with contemporary cultural references, some dipping in to classic literature, and a few interesting analogies.

Book details: Randal Rauser. The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails. IVP Books. 2012.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Book Review: The Dark Side of Charles Darwin

Jerry Bergman's The Dark Side of Charles Darwin: A Critical Analysis of an Icon of Science was a very painful book to read because it has been so poorly edited. It reads like a series of articles that have been thrown together resulting in considerable repetition. The author is clearly a creationist and this agenda, at times, detracts from the objectivity of the book. Rather than being an “impartial” analysis of Darwin's beliefs, attitudes and errors the underlying agenda of the author to discredit Darwin and his ideas in order to promote creationism overtakes the analysis and diminishes the credibility of the author.

Another weakness of the style is the reliance of the author on secondary sources. A large amount of the text consists of direct quoting of others opinions and conclusions about Darwin rather than the author reporting on his own research of Darwin's primary sources (although there may be some of that). The strong impression is that the author is “preaching to the choir” rather than presenting a scholarly piece of work.

The quality of the material is very uneven and often is not directly related to what I expected of the book. Part 1 (’Darwin and Christianity’) has overstated chapter titles such as ’How Darwin Overthrew Creationism Amongst the Intellectual Establishment’. The chapter entitled ’Why Darwinism Demands Atheism’ completely ignores scholars who remain theists AND accept evolutionary theory.

Parts 2-4 of the book gradually become better as information is provided on Darwin’s alleged mental health issues, his passion for killing animals, and his views on race, gender, and eugenics.

The section on claims that Darwin plagiarised his ideas is interesting.

There is no doubt that Darwin was a deeply flawed character if the evidence in this book is to be believed. But that doesn't necessitate that his ideas are wrong, of course. The author does go on to argue that the central ideas of Darwinian evolution are incorrect and lacking in evidence but generally accepted because of the suppression of critical analysis of evolutionary theory. In my view, the author needed to support this claim with a more substantial argument than he has provided including a discussion of the ways in which contemporary evolutionary theory may differ from Darwin's original publications.

In summary, an uneven, poorly executed book that gains more value in the latter sections. Despite that it is worth a read to obtain some sense of the somewhat neglected darker side of a famous man.

Book Details: Jerry Bergman (2011). The Dark Side of Darwin: A Critical Analysis of an Icon of Science. Master Books.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Review: Why Men Hate Going to Church (rev ed)

Christianity is not attractive to men at the moment. In fact, men hate going to church, according to David Murrow, the author of Why Men Hate Going to Church. Murrow argues that Christianity has become feminized since the industrial revolution to such an extent that men are leaving in droves or avoiding church like they avoid housework (my example - not his!). The men who do dominate the leadership positions in churches are actually feminized men who feel comfortable with, and demonstrate the characteristics of, women - intimacy, verbal communication, emotions, caring, touching etc.

The entire thesis of this book is premised on the assumption that men and women are completely different in their natures. (The author draws on the popular Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray.) Murrow believes that most people conceive of Jesus Christ as living out the values ’that come naturally to women.’ The way that church is structured (in most Christian churches) appeals to women because of this belief about Christ and, therefore, men are left out in the cold. Christianity is seen as a "soft" faith and, if men are attracted to Christianity it is because they are ’highly verbal, sensitive, and relational.’ ”Real” men are into power, competition, achievement, practical skills, results, setting goals, etc. All of this is not deliberate, of course. But it's a very real problem.

How do we get men back into the church? Reverse the feminization of Christianity and bring masculine elements back into church worship and life. If the Church is to reverse the declining membership of its congregations (in the West, in particular) it needs to get men back into the pews. Women, it turns out, like churches with lots of men so the focus needs to shift to making the faith more masculine - and the women and children will follow.

Why Men Hate Going to Church is a passionate, fast paced read. It's powerful and persuasive. A lot of the material sounds reasonable and some of Murrow's assertions are backed up with empirical evidence. The idea of “masculinising” aspects of Christian belief and worship is certainly needed? For example, images of Jesus need to become more real than the effeminate versions of much Christian art. And the praise songs that have men singing to Jesus as his lovers definitely need to go!

But I experienced a degree of discomfort as I read this book. Firstly, the differences between men and women seems overly stereotypical. Very little is discussed in the book about the commonalities between men and women. The simplistic distinctions between men and women as described by, for example, John Gray have been criticized as excessively reductionistic and not reflecting how similar men and women are in so many respects. The picture drawn by Murrow seems to "black and white".

Secondly, Murrow's passion and enthusiasm for making his point sometimes borders on sexism. While the feminine is occasionally affirmed it would be easy to infer that the bad aspects of Christian worship and life are the product of female nature. I've only read the book once, but I can't recall any occasion where the author has remotely suggested that “masculine” Christianity may have its problems or any hint at the historical abuse of women by men who have suffered at the hands of men in power. I don't believe this is intentional but Murrow needs to be more careful about this aspect of his views.

In summary, Why Men Hate Going to Church is a passionate plea for the reconsideration of men's needs in our churches. It's a plea also being made outside the church in areas such as education. Men and boys do need healthy masculine role models in the church. Murrow's passion and enthusiasm for the concerns of men is great to see. For me, though, I would have liked to see a more substantial, objective argument presented for rejuvenating Christian worship for all. But then, maybe I'm not a “real” man!

Book details: David Murrow (2011). Why Men Hate Going to Church. Thomas Nelson.

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.”

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Movie Review: Hope Springs

Hope Springs is a deeply insightful movie about growing old, both in age and in relationships, that I found emotionally moving and profound.

Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) are in a marriage that is stultifying, oppressive, monotonous, and unrewarding - at least for one of them. Kay and Arnold sleep in separate beds, get up at the same time every day, meet in the kitchen for breakfast (Arnold reads the paper while Kay cooks the food), there is a perfunctory goodbye, and Arnold leaves for work. When Arnold returns from work, he watches TV (without any consideration of Kay's wishes), and they retire to separate rooms. The next day it all starts again. Arnold seems happy but Kay is desperate for a more meaningful relationship and can't bear it any longer. She explores her local bookshop for inspiration and discovers a book by Dr Feld (Steve Carell in a straight role), a successful marriage counsellor who runs a retreat for couples. Arnold very reluctantly agrees to go to the week long retreat where Kay and Arnold travel on a difficult journey to ... well, I'll let you find out.

Hope Springs brings Streep and Jones together and both are superb in their roles. I haven't been a fan of Meryl Streep for some time but this role seemed to fit her like a glove. And Tommy Lee Jones is surprising as the husband with Steve Carell playing the therapist with a straighter face than I've seen him do before.

Most of the story occurs in Dr Feld's office and is highly dialogue driven. But the sensitive performances of the cast had me totally engaged and, by the end of the movie, I really cared about these two characters in so much pain. Hope Springs is more drama than comedy or romance - although there are some very humourous moments and the romance is deeper than most of the fluffly type we are usually forced to sit through.

At one point in the story, Kay, speaking of Arnold, says that 'he is everything. But I'm ... I'm really lonely. And to be with someone, when you're not really with him can ... it's ... I think I might be less lonely ... alone.' Surely there are people suffering loneliness despite having others around them. It is one of the most difficult pains to bear. But Kay proves that hope springs eternal in the human breast and Hope Springs will, hopefully, inspire us to work at our relationships so that we do not find ourselves alone while just eking out an existence under the same roof as our partner.

Positive Review

'I think everything about the movie is too subtle and real to appeal to the Batman demographic, but for mature audiences who have forgotten how to smile, it takes up where The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel left off.' - Rex Reed/New York Observer

Negative Review

'When the sing-song Jones and beatifically smiling Streep are allowed to carry the dramatic weight, you can see the raw, tough-love film that Hope Springs wants to be - until Frankel starts trying to be lighthearted and cute, at which point you see the movie's real troubled marriage in full bloom.' - David Fear/Time Out New York


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Review: An A-Z of Critical Thinking

There is an urgent need for Christians to learn how to think carefully and critically. Too many are taken in by the latest fad or the oldest misinformation. If it is true that Christians are to love God with all their mind, theN learning to think well should be a top priority.

Beth Black and her co-author's have put together a very helpful dictionary of critical thinking that explains ideas clearly, accurately and with useful examples. They deal with controversial issues fairly (the definition of critical thinking being one of them!).

An A-Z of Critical Thinking will be helpful for lay people, teachers, students, and anyone else interested in critical thinking. Because it is a dictionary and valuable for dipping in to, those who have not read anything else about critical thinking would do well to get hold of a book that introduces critical thinking in a more structured approach. But Black's easy-to-read resource is a welcome reference to have on the bookshelf.

Book details: Beth Black et al. 2012. An A-Z of Critical Thinking. Continuum.


Book Review: The Valley of Unknowing

I really enjoyed Philip Sington's The Valley of Unknowing. Set in Communist East Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bruno Krug is handed an anonymous untitled manuscript for his evaluation which he later discovers is authored by a rival writer. The manuscript is excellent but its ambiguity can also be interpreted metaphorically as a strong critique of Workers' and Peasants' state. What should he do?

At the same time, he falls for an attractive music student from the West and somehow she may be tied up with the author of the manuscript. Bruno decides to engage in a small deception in order to have the book published - but deception is a dangerous game and can have devastating consequences in a state where the distinction between deceiver and deceived can be a life and death situation.

The Valley of Unknowing is a gentle, subtle thriller - unsensational but compelling. I kept turning the pages to see how it was all going to turn out. The author uses language beautifully and the story has been informed by his wife's memories of actually living in the GDR before the Wall came down with the collapse of Communism.

Definitely worth reading!

Book details: Philip Sington. 2012. The Valley of Unknowing. Vintage Digital.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Movie Review: Brave

Head off to the movies with your kids as soon as you can to see the delightful, fresh animation Brave. It's the first Pixar movie with a heroine at its center.

Brave tells the story of a little Scottish girl, Princess Merida, who defies the fate imposed on her by tradition and uses her archery skills to break an ancient curse. Beautifully voiced by the likes of Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson, spectacular Scottish scenery, action, adventure, romance, humor and a wholesome message about daughter-mother relationships, make this superb viewing for the whole family. If you can, see it in 3D which is stunningly rendered.


Positive review
'Brave has a manic, almost daffy energy and sense of humor.' - Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald

Negative review
'This isn't the NASCAR-fellating cash grab that is the Cars franchise, but it's still Pixar on preachy autopilot.' - Keith Ulich/Time Out New York

Content advice
some scary action and ride humor

  • AUS: PG
  • USA: PG
You will probably like this movie if you liked Coraline, Anastasia, Tangled, Mulan

Book Review: "New Proofs for the Existence of God"

Robert J Spitzer's book New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy has pulled me back from the brink of atheism. For some time I have been seriously evaluating my belief in God given some very compelling arguments offered by many of the better contemporary writings on atheism available now. There is so much irrationality promoted by many theists and their arguments do not often stand up to serious scrutiny. Many of those arguments are circular in nature, presupposing what they are trying to prove, or engage in inconsistencies and logical flaws that frequently ring the death knell on theism. But the bell has been rung too soon. Spitzer's book offers a deeply rational, coherent set of arguments that demonstrate that belief in God (defined correctly) is a logical necessity given what we now know about physics, cosmology, and philosophy. One thing atheists cannot do is to claim that all forms of theism are irrational and/or naive. It turns out, instead, that using rigorous reasoning, atheism is demonstrably illogical and incoherent. How does Spitzer demonstrate this?

His argument is divided into three parts:

Part 1 examines contemporary Big Bang cosmology and identifies elements in the theory that indicates some form of creation and supernatural design. At the end of this section, Spitzer concludes:

When the logical and metaphysical necessity of an efficient cause, the demonstrable absence of a material one, and the proof that there was an absolute beginning to any universe or multiverse are all conjoined with the fact that our universe exists and its conditions are fine-tuned immeasurably beyond the capacity of any mindless process, the scientific evidence points inexorably toward transcendent intelligent agency as the most plausible, if not the only reasonable explanation. (p. 104)

An atheist reading this conclusion will probably jump to the conclusion that the argument preceding it is a rehash of Intelligent Design (ID). This would be a mistake. Spitzer's arguments turn on the values of universal constants. The difference between Spitzer's argument and those of ID proponents is that

The latter presume an anthropic universe and seek an explanation for how highly complex integrated biochemical and biological systems could arise from far less complex ones. Pure chance (random occurrence) does not seem to be reasonable, because a random emergence of a highly complex system from a far less complex one is highly improbable.

The argument for supernatural design in [Spitzer's approach] does not address these biochemical and biological "leaps" in complexification. It focuses solely on the incredibly high improbability of an anthropic condition of the universe itself. It therefore does not focus on the process of evolution so much as on the initial underlying conditions (in the universe) that make such anthropic processes possible. It focuses almost exclusively on physics (particularly the physics of the early universe) and leaves the explanation of highly improbable leaps in biochemical and biological complexification to other domains of inquiry. (pp. 51-52)

In addition to a positive argument, Spitzer also responds to the range of proposed theories (eg the idea of a multiverse) that attempt to avoid the conclusion of some sort of supernatural entity. He shows that these are logically incoherent and inconsistent.

In Part 2 of the book, Spitzer turns to philosophical arguments. He discusses the nature of philosophical proof and argumentation before laying out a five-step metaphysical argument for the existence of God. The steps are:

    • Step 1: proof of the existence of at least one unconditioned reality
    • Step 2: proof that unconditioned reality itself is the simplest possible reality (the word simple here has a philosophical definition)
    • Step 3: proof of the absolute uniqueness of unconditioned reality itself
    • Step 4: proof that unconditioned reality itself is unrestricted
    • An interim conclusion
    • Step 5: proof that the one unconditioned reality is the continuous creator of all else that is

At the end of this argument, the conclusion is deductively stated to be

that "the unique, absolutely simple, unrestricted, unconditioned Reality itself which is the continuous Creator of all else that is" must exist. This Reality generally corresponds to what is generally thought to be "God". God, as defined, must exist. (p. 143)

The remainder of the second part of the book explores some other approaches to proving the existence of God including proof of a creator of past time and an ontological explanation of real time. One very interesting chapter is the author's discussion of various methodological considerations related to argumentation around God's existence and the impossibility of disproving God's existence. He also demonstrates what he describes as 'the tenuous rationality of atheism' and explores, briefly, the problem of evil and suffering.

One of the criticisms of traditional philosophical proofs of God's existence is that they never support a particular version of the nature of the god being proved. It could be any god - unless one turns to specific religious texts. In Part 3, Spitzer moves to discuss the nature of the 'unrestricted simplicity and unrestricted intelligibility' of the unconditioned Reality proved in the first two parts of the book. I don't have the space or the competence to outline Spitzer's argument here, but he draws on the fact that

... human consciousness seems to possess five aspirations or desires that can be satisfied by ... ultimate Home, ultimate Truth, ultimate Love, ultimate Goodness, and ultimate Beauty....

If God is present to human consciousness as its fulfillment in truth, love, goodness, beauty, and being (home), then human reason can go beyond confirming the existence of God as a unique, unconditioned, absolutely simple, unrestricted Creator, to unveiling the nature of this God as perfectly truth-filled, loving, good, and beautiful. Following these discussions, he explores the implications of these arguments on the nature of human freedom. (p. 240)

In my opinion, Spitzer's book is brilliant albeit complex and dense to read. It is a purely philosophical argument grounded in contemporary physics and does not suffer the circularity of many apologetic arguments put forward by theists. I also like the fact that Spitzer lays out an agenda for demonstrating the inadequacy of his arguments if atheist philosophers choose to take up the gauntlet. I'm yet to find a sustained objective critique of Spitzer's book - and would be grateful for anyone directing me to one.

New Proofs for the Existence of God needs to be read by those who have a moderate familiarity with philosophy - so it is unlikely to be of use to the "average" Christian (no disrespect intended). But for anyone willing to tackle a meaty discourse that will stretch their mind it will be deeply reassuring (if you are a theist) and deeply challenging (if you are an atheist). Whatever your starting point there is gold to be mined and lots of thinking to do. Highly recommended!

Book details: Ronert J Spitzer (2010). New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philisophy. William B Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Review: The Young Atheist's Handbook: Lessons for Living a Good Life Without God.

I really enjoyed this autobiographical apologetic for atheism. There is a gentleness and sensitivity in the author's approach that permits a relaxed engagement with the ideas that contrasts with the more strident writings of some other atheists. It's a very personal narrative that wraps within it some of the traditional arguments against theism which provides the book with a seductive pull that enables one to listen to the author rather than react adversarially - at least, that's how I experienced it. A narrow-minded fundamentalist of any persuasion will probably not even read the book given its title. That would be a shame. Even committed theists would do well to start listening to the journeys of non-theists if only to have a genuine understanding of the "other's" point of view.

It is also refreshing to hear about atheism from an ex-Muslim perspective. The majority of atheist writings (I think) deal with the specifically Christian versions of theism. Of course, there are many other forms of theism within which believers struggle and emerge into some form of atheism. This story enriches atheist writings with nuances that would be beneficial for atheists also to read.

One of the most compelling aspects of this book is the way in which it illustrates the power of experience in shaping our beliefs. Very few people are convinced to change their beliefs by argument - even ones that are logically compelling. Our culture, family history, life events, where we're born - all of these and more are more influential than argument in shaping us. The author, by telling his life story, supplemented later perhaps by supporting arguments, illustrates this beautifully.

This is not a book to argue with - it's a story to listen to and meditate on. It's not a handbook as the title implies; it's an honest telling of one man's experience that everyone should read, no matter their theological stripe. 

Book details: Alom Shaha. The Young Atheist's Handbook: Lessons for Living a Good Life Without God. Scribe Publications. 2012.

You will probably enjoy this book if you enjoyed The Australian Book of Atheism.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: A Shot of Faith {to the head}

a shot of faith to the head

There is a plethora of books available that argue the case for theism. Most of these are quite repetitive offering pretty much the same arguments. But Mitch Stokes’s book A Shot of Faith {to the head} takes a fresh approach drawing together three lines of argument in support of his contention that ‘atheism is undone’.

In three sections, Stokes explores rationality, design and absolute standards suggesting that atheism has no explanation for these without allowing for the supernatural. These three lines of argument are not new, in themselves. What I found striking was the way he connects all of these by the concept of right function.

His argument goes like this (as far as I understand it):

  1. A rational belief is one which is formed by a brain that is functioning properly within an appropriate context.
  2. It makes no sense to talk about something functioning properly if there is no standard of right functioning.
  3. To have a standard of right functioning implies that something is designed for a particular function. Without design there would be no sense of right function – in this case, of the brain’s cognitive ability.
  4. Currently, there is no natural explanation for the concept of right function. If something can be judged to be incorrectly functioning apart from our personal opinion, there must be some objective standard which supplies the definition of proper function independent of human thinking.
  5. If that independent standard of proper functioning exists independently of human thinking then that standard must be external to the natural world.
  6. The idea of a standard external to the natural world that provides this concept of right function, which in turn implies design, requires a designer external to the natural world. The name for this designer is God.

Given this argument (which is fleshed out in the book) the atheist is caught on the horns of a dilemma. As Stokes summarises it:

… if the atheist is right, and there is no divine designer, then there’s no such thing as rationality (or irrationality, and so belief in God isn’t irrational). If the atheist is wrong, on the other hand, and there is a divine designer, then the atheist is irrational… (p. 222)

Alvin Plantinga, one of the most well-known philosophers today, describes the book as ‘[a] fine book: lively, clear, accessible, but also deep, and deeply competent.’

I would concur with that judgment – but there are some problematic aspects of the book. Firstly, the book has an unfortunate subtitle: Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists. While there are a number of well-known atheists who give atheism a bad name, many atheists are genuine about their non-belief in theism and engage in deep thinking about the various arguments for and against the existence of God. Labelling atheists as cranky in this generalised way won’t attract atheists to read the book (I wouldn’t have thought). I hope they can see past this unnecessary name calling.

Secondly, I don’t think the argument offered in this book deals with the possibility that rationality may be something inherently and eternally present in the universe itself. If Christians can assert that God just existed eternally, then why can’t matter and the laws of physics just exist eternally? I would have liked to have seen how Stokes might deal with this question.

In my opinion, this book is not likely to change anyone’s mind. Stokes does make the point that the book is primarily aimed at believers who may wish to strengthen their belief with a coherent argument. And the atheist reader will likely raise many objections to the arguments offered. At its heart, the book is a retelling of the intelligent design argument.

A Shot of Faith {to the head} is definitely worth reading. I thoroughly enjoyed it and anyone who understands basic philosophy will find it an easy read. It will be especially helpful to Christians who need a shot of faith to the head – faith doesn’t have to be irrational and this book provides one example of how faith can be rational.

Book details: Mitch Stokes, A Shot of Faith {to the head}, Thomas Nelson, 2012.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Movie & Book Review: "An Improbable Feast" & "The Way"

I'm reviewing a book and a movie on this occasion because of a serendipitous coincidence. First, my good friend, Geoff Boyce, gave me his new book An Improbable Feast to read. Geoff, has asked for an honest review (something I'd provide even if he didn't want it!).

Geoff has been the Uniting Church Christian Chaplin at Flinders University since 1997. From discussions I've had with him, and from reading his book, Geoff's ministry is rigorously focused on acceptance and inclusiveness. Using the metaphor of a feast, he describes how he has navigated through the challenges of ministering in a pluralist context where faiths ranged from atheism to paganism to Islam to Christianity to fundamentalist Christianity.

Notice I have placed fundamentalist Christianity on its own. One of the greatest ironies described in Geoff's book is the way in which the fundamentalist Christian chaplin contingent resisted inclusivity - one of the core values of the Christ they claimed to follow.

The arrival of a pagan chaplain provides the most powerful aspect of the story. As Geoff describes his own journey coming to know the pagan chaplain and setting a place at the table for her, the essential theme of the book is articulated - hospitality. As Boyce points out, hospitality has been an essential aspect of all faith traditions. So hospitality provides a natural "womb" (my word) to 'nurture spirit, build community'. As the concept of hospitality is teased out we are witness to a highly engaging journey as a group of chaplains struggle to identify a shared purpose for their service to the university community.

Geoff Boyce is a "heart" person and his heart is evident on every page of this book. Told with deep sensitivity and empathy, this book provides a model, not only for chaplains of all faiths, but also for anyone living life in contemporary multifaith societies. We are constantly meeting the Other in our journeys and this book is a delightful piece of wisdom applied to the real world revealing an authenticity not evident in much "spiritual' discourse. It will be especially useful to anyone who is engaged in chaplaincy work.

Book details: Geoff Boyce, An Improbable Feast: The surprising dynamic of hospitality at the heart of multifaith chaplaincy. 2010. Self published (I think) but available on Amazon.

On page 53 of Geoff's book, he introduces the reader to an ancient, but still practiced, pilgrimage that many take to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It's a long and demanding trek. Along the way, there are the Refugios where pilgrims can stop for a bed, rest, and refreshments. Geoff's brother has completed the pilgrimage and some of his stories are shared in Geoff's book to illustrate aspects of hospitality.

So imagine my delight when Emilio Estevez's movie The Way arrived in my local cinema. The entire film occurs on this same pilgrimage route! And what a delightful movie it is.

Tom (Martin Sheen) receives a call from Spain informing him that his son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez - Martin Sheen's son in real life) has died in a climbing accident near the start of his pilgrimage along the Santiago de Compostela. Tom hasn't heard from his son for a long time and travels to Spain to recover Daniel's body. When he arrives, he decides to have Daniel's body cremated so that he can carry Daniel on the rest of his journey. On the journey, Tom meets various colorful people who challenge his approach to life and death and everything in between.

The Way is a deeply moving meditation. The story is as slow as the pilgrimage but every step is engaging and saturated with meaning. Fortunately, Estevez's directorial hand is light and there is no preaching. Even at the end of the journey, we are left to draw our own conclusions about what each character in the story has gained from their journey. There's a privacy to the experience that is the opposite of the modern inclination to uninhibitedly bare all to the world.

Martin Sheen is excellent as the father and all of the supporting cast bring enjoyable nuances to the story. It's a deeply spiritual film and, at times, favours a Catholic approach to some of the issues it traverses. But it is a satisfying movie in ways that a lot of contemporary cinema isn't. I would imagine that many people would be impatient rather than allowing themselves to be carried on at the pace of the narrative. But it is most definitely worth persevering with this beautifully contemplative fare.

The fact that this movie is a father-son movie with real father and son working together adds an interesting layer to the story. One has to wonder just how much of the move has grown out of their actual relationship - something I'm not willing to speculate about.

Positive Review
'There's a contemplative loveliness to The Way, an affecting personal project both for Emilio Estevez, who wrote, directed, and plays a small role, and for his father, Martin Sheen.' - Lisa Schwarzbaum/Entertainment Weekly

Negative Review
'With "The Way," writer-director Emilio Estevez has made a respectable failure. What's respectable - and undeniable - is that this is a sincere effort to make a film of sensitivity and spiritual richness.' - Mick LaSalle/SanFrancisco Chronicle

You will probably like this movie if you liked The Bucket List, Up, City Slickers, Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries


USA: PG-13


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Geoff Boyce | Not without my neighbour

Check out my good friend, Geoff Boyce's, blog. He is a chaplain at a secular university and has lots of wisdom to share!

Geoff Boyce | Not without my neighbour

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Movie Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

exotic marigoldWhat a wonderful celebration of life The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is! A group of British retirees, desperately trying to find meaning in life as they grow old, travel to India to stay in the luxurious Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Problem is, the advertising brochures presented a “future vision” rather than the actual state of the hotel and the guests are initially very disappointed. However, as events unfold, the charm of India begins to work its magic on their hearts – at least for most of them.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a charming piece of comedy drama that explores friendship, ageing, relationship, hope, regret, racism, guilt and romance. That list might seem heavy. But Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, and Maggie Smith lead a wonderful cast who bring their long experience in the movies to deliver some richly nuanced characters and great one-liners. But the comedy is woven around deep attitudes about life and what is really important. Dev Patel, who played the older Jamal in Slumdog Millionnaire, gives a standout performance as the manager of the hotel.

The cinematography is superb and brings the vividness of India to life on the screen. (I know this because I happened to be sitting next to an Indian woman who spent the first 26 years of her life there. At the end of the movie, she sat back in her chair and exclaimed, ‘That brought back so many memories!’) The script is witty and fast moving and, while I found it got a little bogged down in the middle, overall was well paced with little predictability.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a delightful cinema experience and is worth seeing on the big screen to appreciate the Indian cityscape. Don’t miss this joyful movie!


Content Advice
mild themes, sexual references and coarse language

USA: PG-13

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Book Review: The Skin Map

Ley lines are straight lines "located" around the world that allegedly connect various geographical sites deemed to be significant historically or metaphysically. These alleged lines have been explained using various hypotheses - some scientific and some pseudo-scientific. Some believe them to have mystical or magical powers. Stephen R Lawhead has made these ley lines the basis of the first book of his The Bright Empire series, The Skin Map. It's a very enjoyable fantasy/adventure/sci-fi yarn.

Kit Livingstone is thrust into a remarkable adventure when his great-grandfather appears to him and takes him on a journey to another time and place to introduce Kit to the power of ley lines - portals around the globe that have the power to transport one into parallel worlds in the multiverse. The problem is that, without a map showing the locations of the ley lines, it's impossible to predict where and when you may end up. However, there is a map. And it's tattooed on the skin of an intrepid explorer who risked life and limb to chart this new and secret territory - believing that the map would be lost or stolen if he didn't literally keep it with him! But the skin map is not really valuable for itself. It's what it can lead to that makes it valuable and not everyone desperately wanting to find it has high ethical purposes in mind. Kit and his dull girlfriend are caught up in these events that require the courageous risking of everything they hold dear.

Stephen Lawhead is a prolific writer of mostly fantasy but, of his books I have read, I enjoy his science fiction the most. In The Skin Map, there are hints of philosophical paradoxes (always inherent in time travel fiction) and ethical issues. But more than anything, The Skin Map is thoroughly entertaining. It's rich with characters, historical information, and moves along at a good pace. It's a real page turner and the ending of the first book leaves the reader hanging on the edge for the next book of the series. Highly recommended,

You'll probably like this book of you enjoyed Ted Dekker's Circle Trilogy, Stephen Lawhead's Byzantium, Stephen Lawhead's Dream Thief.

Book information: Stephen R Lawhead, The Skin Map, Thomas Nelson, 2010.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the ... 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, March 25, 2012

Book Review: The Logic of the Heart (James R Peters)

James Peters' The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal and the Rationality of Faith is a profound exploration of what it means to believe in God. I've been struggling with the tension between reason and faith for many years and have found few answers that were satisfying. Enlightenment rationalism which refuses to accept the legitimacy of any belief without empirical evidence, radical postmodernist relativism which promotes the idea that all truth is merely the construction of human culture(s) and the rejection of any form of meta-narrative (other than its own), and the blind faith of the fundamentalist theist who firmly shoves their head in the sand and denies the legitimacy of modern scientific understandings of the cosmos - all of these just don't stand up to rigorous scrutiny - at least not for me. What a breath of fresh air, then, to come across James Peters' thorough, in-depth, nuanced discussion of these matters.

The book is essentially a Socratic "dialogue" between the ideas of Augustine, Pascal and Hume. Intriguingly, Peters describes the similarities between Hume (one of the most famous a-theists) and Augustine's and Pascal's critique of the possibility of human rationalism/empiricism in the pursuit of truth. There is a deep desire in humans to inquire and discover with a paradoxical human limitation in succeeding at that pursuit. So Peters passionately affirms the legitimacy of much that Hume writes about the limits of reason.

Just as passionately, Peters shows how Hume, when he comes to discuss Christianity, seems to argue inconsistently with his own understanding. Peters ultimately shows how an Augustinian and, in particular, Pascalian approach to reason and faith is more holistic than Hume's.

One of the strongest features of this book is a sustained analysis of radical postmodernism and, in particular, a great analysis of Richard Rorty's thinking - a telling critique highlighting the self-referentially undermining nature of his approach.

So, what is the essential point of The Logic of the Heart? I hesitate because I know I'm not going to do justice to the ideas and argument in this book. It is that there are some things we need to commit to in order to know the truth of them. One example is trust in another person. When we first meet someone we need to commit ourselves to trusting them before we can enter into a relationship to test their trustworthiness. For Peters, it is the same with belief in God. In order to know of God's existence it is necessary to take a leap of faith in order to know of God's existence through direct experience.

Now this is a paltry statement of the essential point of the book. Peters has a broad and deep knowledge of philosophical literature and demonstrates the rationality of such a position though extended discussion, argument and dialogue with a host of "interlocutors" past and present. His perspective offers a midway between Enlightenment "worship" of reason and postmodernist emphasis on freedom and self-rule.

Who should read this book? The first criteria is that the reader needs to be familiar with general philosophical concepts related to epistemology and, in particular, the debates that arise from the dialogue between empiricists and postmodernists over epistemology. Apart from that, you need to be prepared for a dense, challenging read. Peters' argument is sustained and rich and it's most definitely not a book you can read in a few hours. There is much to chew over. In my opinion, every well educated Christian and atheist would benefit from this book. Peters provides a view worth considering for those who are unhappy with so-called new atheist perspectives and naive fundamentalist evangelicalism. And for Christians who are constantly berated for believing in in the irrational it is a rigorous argument demonstrating that faith can be a rational act of believing.

To finish: a quote from the book (p 22):

I have written this book out of the conviction that the basic Augustinian and Pascalian position on faith and understanding is well suited for a post-modern age disillusioned with the idols of hard facts, passionless reason, absolute foundations,mand the amoral rhetoric of consumerism and materialism. Augusrine’s and Pascal’s conception of a situated and dialectical reason, of a reason dependent on the heart, of a reason nurtured and transformed by God’s love, provides a viable middle ground between the Enlightenment idolatry of reason and the radical postmodernist’s idolatry of autonomy and its call for the end of traditional philosophy and theology as unwarranted and oppressive metanarratives. Both Hume and Pascal tried in their own ways to caution us against the pretensions of philosophers who insist that we live by reason alone. I shall attempt in what follows to place these two dialectical opponents against each other. In the end, whether we opt for Hume’s or Pascal’s position on the merits of Christian faith depends on a question at the core of our human nature: “What are people for?"

For a refreshingly challenging read go get this book!

Book details: James R Peters (2009), The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith. Baker Academic.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Rollie Busch Memorial Lecture: Nancey Murphy

Philosophical dualism has been with us for a long time. It’s one of the key components of Western thought: good and evil, masculine and feminine, subject and object, and the big one for this week’s program—mind and body. Nancey Murphy is a Christian philosopher who doesn’t believe in the soul. She’s a physicalist, which means she believes that 'the soul' is really just a by-product of neurobiology. But if all our rational decisions come down to brain impulses, where does that leave moral responsibility? And what kind of Christian doesn’t believe in the soul anyway?

Rollie Busch Memorial Lecture: Nancey Murphy


Monday, March 05, 2012

Book Review: My Imaginary Jesus

Back in 1952 J B Phillips published what is now considered a classic little book Your God Is Too Small. In it, Phillips critiqued a number of "gods" - "Resident Policeman", "Grand Old Man", "Meek and Mild", "Managing Director" - and shows how these conceptions of God are inadequate in meeting the needs of people.

Matt Mikalatos has done a similar job for contemporary Christians in a suitably contemporary style in his delightful book My Imaginary Jesus. Matt loves Jesus a lot. He's got a lot in common with Jesus. But one day he discovers that the person he thought was Jesus is not the real Jesus. The Jesus he has come to know is an imaginary Jesus! He decides he's going to go in search of the real Jesus and the result is a wonderfully satirical, very amusing, and very provocative look at the Jesuses that people construct in their own image.

When I started the book, the first few pages didn't do much for me. But when Matt starts meeting various Jesus impostors, guided by Pete the Apostle and a talking donkey called Daisy, things really start to warm up. Mikalatos clearly has a great sense of humour and he has captured some of the superficial, inane, distorted, and egocentric wish-fulfilments that have been presented as the real Jesus in modern Christian culture. For example, there's Political Jesus, New Age Jesus, Testosterone Jesus, Healing Jesus, Magic 8 Ball Jesus, and Perpetually Angry Jesus. We meet each of these Jesuses as individual characters. That's all I'll tell you... you'll need to read the book to see how it all turns out.

My Imaginary Jesus is an absolute pleasure to read. So go read it and see if you meet your Jesus somewhere as you journey with Matt (and Daisy). It's a great, accessible way to think about who Jesus is/was and the way in which we distort Jesus to fit our own needs rather than be confronted with the story of Jesus as found in the gospels.

Full book details: Matt Mikilatos. 2012. My Imaginary Jesus: The Spiritual Adventures of One Man Searching for the Real God. BarnaBooks. Publication date: March 16 2012.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley 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.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the great writers of all time with novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. One of the most famous passages, "The Grand Inquisitor", in The Brothers Karamazov, is a profound parable where an Inquisitor tries to show the returned Christ how his presence on earth is interfering with the mission of the Church. I've read all of these except Crime and Punishment which is on my to-read list. But until reading Peter Leithart's Fyodor Dostoevsky I knew next to nothing about the man.
Leithart, in a brief 200 pages introduces Dostoevsky using a fictionalised dialogue between Dostoevsky and a close friend near the end of his life. The dialogues are based on writings by Dostoevsky and other sources with a few speculative ones to round out the story.
Dostoevsky was a deeply flawed man (as we all are) but produced some profound literature and was a very popular social figure in Russia in his time. He was also deeply religious and believed that Christ was the answer to Russia's problems in the 19th century.
Leithart's book is a reasonably interesting introduction to Dostoevsky but doesn't really become engaging until about halfway through the book when Dostoevsky starts to write his major works and engage in public life. I'm not convinced that the novelized dialogue is the best approach for a biography - the conversations are often stilted and artificial relying, as they do, on written material. But if you don't know much about Dostoevsky it's not a bad place to start. It's easy to read and I ended up knowing more about Dostoevsky than I did before. I'm also motivated to read Crime and Punishment!
Peter Leithar (2011), Fyodor Dostoevsky. Chrisitian Encounters Series. Thomas Nelson.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com 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.”

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Grey

The most profound moment in The Grey (for me) is a scene that turns metaphysical/philosophical. The main protagonist, in a a moment of abject despair, cries out to God for help and receives no answer.

Ottway (Liam Neeson) is employed by an oil rig in Alaska to kill off animals that may endanger the workers. The men on the rig are tough and living in a tough environment. Ottway becomes stranded with a group of brawling, beer swilling, violent group of men after a plane crash lands in the middle of nowhere. Unused to being vulnerable, they struggle to survive whilst trying to maintain their tough exteriors - for a while at least. Their common enemies, the environment and territory defending wolves, bring them together in ways that strip them raw - physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.

The story is a pretty straightforward survival narrative. But Neeson brings a power and presence that lifts it into the extraordinary and riveting. And when the story turns briefly to its metaphysical themes - without fanfare or preachiness - the viewer is confronted with the age old question - if God is all-powerful and loving, then why doesn't God do something in our deepest need?

The answer that is given will be completely unsatisfactory for most Christians (it is contained in a quote from Ottway's father) but the question cannot be avoided.

The Grey is a forceful, hard hitting experience. But its power comes as one looks back over the story from the view of the pivotal moment I've referred to and the final scene. And the question about how one should live life in the context of a silent (or non-existent) God lingers long after the final credits roll.

PS: Stay to the end of the credits for a final scene!

You will probably like this movie if you liked The Flight of the Phoenix, The Crash of Flight 401, The Edge, Vertical Limit

Positive review

'It's a fine, tough little movie, technically assured and brutally efficient, with a simple story that ventures into some profound existential territory without making a big fuss about it.' - A O Scott/The New York Times

Negative review

'Neeson is always compelling, even in a movie as ridiculous as The Grey.' - Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald

AUS: MA15+


Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Voice™ New Testament

the voice nt

The Voice™ New Testament is a new dynamic translation that attempts a '... retelling [of] the story of the Bible in a form as fluid as modern literary works, yet remaining painstakingly true to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts.'

Most of the text is in a standard font, however the translation follows the practice of italicising words that are not connected to the dynamic translation of the original text. One unique feature of this translation is the inclusion of material in the flow of the text, delineated by horizontal lines, that expand on the themes of the passage being read. Another unique feature is the use of a "screenplay" format where dialogue occurs. This has two effects: it makes dialogue clearer to follow and also "cleans up" the text of '... endless repetition of conjunctions, articles, and certain verbs.'

Unlike most translations which rely primarily on language scholars, The Voice™ New Testament has also included a group of modern writers, musicians and poets to ensure beauty as well as accuracy in the translation. The group of translators and "artists" have attempted to maintain the unique "voice" of individual book authors rather than a flat style throughout.

The front matter of The Voice™ New Testament has a very helpful discussion of the translation process and some of its challenges. There is also a discussion of the Greek word Christos, usually transliterated as Christ, which has been rendered throughout the New Testament as the Anointed or the Anointed One in the belief that these terms convey the meaning of the title of Christ rather than it being mistakenly understood by readers to be part of the name of Jesus. An explanatory phrase, the Liberating King, has also been added at times to '... remind us of the primary mission and of the reason God elects and empowers Jesus in the first place.'

The front matter also includes four different reading plans of the New Testament for Advent, Lent and Easter,  reading the New Testament in 24 weeks, and a series of readings entitled 40 Days with God. There is also an introduction to the New Testament using covenant theology as a framework for understanding.

Let me say up front that I am not a language scholar and my review is based on reading the front matter and the letters of Paul to the Romans and Galatians - my two favourite books of the New Testament. I have mixed feelings about this translation. There is a certain freshness in most new translations due to the variations of phrasing from what one is used to. The screenplay dialogue is also interesting and definitely makes the to-and-fro of speakers easy to follow – particularly in the gospels and the book of Acts. So there is certainly value in this new version of the New Testament. The thematic expansions, while they are delineated by lines before and after, do tend to break up the flow of the text and I think they would have been better included as notes at the bottom of the page or end of the chapter. On the other hand, including them in the flow of the text was useful as I read the text on my Kindle and it meant not having to jump back and forth using links to read this material.

My greatest concern about this translation is the inserted italicised material. While the italicisation does indicate that this material is not derived from the original text, I think much of it is unnecessary and is sometimes biased toward a particular interpretation of the text. For example, Romans 16:3, in the New American Standard Bible ( very literal translation), reads:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus...

The Voice™ New Testament reads:

Give my best to Priscilla and Aquila; they are not only my colleagues in my profession of tent making, but more importantly they are my fellow servants of Jesus the Anointed. (italics in original)

Notice, in the italicised section, a completely unwarranted statement that Priscilla and Aquila are colleagues in tent making. In other words, the suggestion is that they are not equal workers in the pastoral work that Paul does. Compare this with some other translations:

Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus ... (New Revised Standard Version)

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus ... (English Standard Version)

Give my greetings to Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus ... (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

One has to wonder whether the translators/editors of The Voice™ New Testament are trying to avoid any suggestion that women can be equal partners in ministerial/pastoral work by inserting this extra material. While this is only one example, there are frequent interpolations of the text which, in my view, should be left out as they are not derived from the original material.

Overall, I think The Voice™ New Testament is an interesting new addition to bible translations. But, as with all translations, there are advantages and disadvantages. None are perfect. The more translations a Bible student uses the better as comparison helps to maintain some objectivity about what is certain and what is not in any one translation. So, it is a worthy addition to one's library and provides yet another perspective and enrichment of the biblical material and its meaning.

Buy the The Voice New Testament: Revised & Updated'.

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, January 29, 2012

Movie Review: War Horse


Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, AI) is having a strong run with two movies on at cinemas at the moment. There’s the wonderfully enjoyable The Adventures of Tin Tin and the more serious epic War Horse.

Set during World War 1, War Horse tells the story of Albert (Jeremy Irvine) who enlists in the army after Joey (played by 6 different horses apparently), the horse he raised and loves, is commandeered by the cavalry. We follow the fortunes of both Albert and Joey as their journeys separate and cross in what, for the most part, is an exciting and sobering portrayal of the effects of war on both human and horse along the Western Front.

War Horse is classic epic story telling by a master of the art. Unfortunately, the quality of the film is undermined by the beginning and end of the story which comes across as cheesy and overacted. Apart from two memorable scenes – one of Joey running riderless through “no man’s land” and becoming entangled in barbed wire; and another near the beginning of the movie, where Albert has to entice Joey to plough a field – most of the film is simplistic – possibly the result of trying to make the movie straddle the whole family as its audience.

The actors do a worthy job but the real winners in this movie are the horses that portray Joey. I heard an interview with their trainer who stated that managing a horse, in a movie, without a rider is a particularly difficult challenge. For me, the horse was the most believable and enjoyable part of the movie.

War Horse is definitely not up with the best of Spielberg’s movies.


You will probably like War Horse if you liked The Black Stallion; Empire of the Sun; Saving Private Ryan

Positive Review
'There isn't a moment in the movie where you don't feel Spielberg's passion, and this time, the film is worthy of his enthusiasm. It's a knockout.' – Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald

Negative Review
'Director Steven Spielberg doesn't have a steady grip on War Horse's careening tone, but he'll be damned if there's not 15 minutes in there for everyone.’ – Amy Nicholson/Boxoffice Magazine

Content Advice
intense sequences of war violence and themes

AUS: M15+
USA: PG-13

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Atheism 2.0

Very interesting lecture by Alain de Botton on what atheism can learn from religions. A good reminder for Christians, too, about some of the better aspects of religion.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Book Review: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

pleasures of readingGrowing up in a conservative Christian home, I was taught that fiction was a waste of time and that I should be very careful about what I read so that I wouldn’t be seduced by error. I’m grateful that I completely ignored both of those rules. However, I used to read for information and, although I was a voracious reader and enjoyed reading, underlying my reading was always an instrumental assumption that I could use what I learned to advise others or make myself a better person. I also tend to be a person that likes to be organised in my reading – I keep lists of books I want to read and, until recently, I tended to read the next one on the list. It was difficult for me to just “randomly” pick something to read just for pleasure and just because it was of interest at the moment. And I also felt that, at some time in my life, I really needed to read all the “classics” or “great books” in the Western “canon”.

Apparently, I am not alone. According to Alan Jacobs in his delightful book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction these types of approaches to “responsible” reading are widespread and part of the way we have been educated to read. But Jacobs will have none of it! He brings a breath of fresh air to reading that lifts any burden we might feel and, instead, recommends we read what we find pleasurable – without shame!

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is a meditative reflection on reading that avoids telling the reader what they should read. No rules here other than some guidelines about gaining the most from reading. Instead, we are to read at Whim. He writes:

… my commitment to one dominant, overarching definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim (italics in original)


Read what gives you delight – at least most of the time – and do so without shame.

Jacobs is not suggesting that we do not sometimes read the so-called “great books” that require us to commit to a demanding read. But he likens those to what we might eat at an elegant restaurant – we eat sometimes but not every day. Reading at Whim cannot be the only reason we read. But it is a type of reading we need to recover.

Jacobs does distinguish between lower-case whim and upper-case Whim. The lower-case version

…is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.

Jacobs explores the difference between the two using examples from literature – demonstrating a vast richness of ancient and contemporary sources.

The idea that we can read at Whim is liberating! This book has already changed the way I read. He embraces new technologies (he has a fascinating discussion of the benefits of reading with a Kindle compared to a traditional book) and iconoclastically sweeps away a whole lot tired assumptions that make reading so burdensome for many people.

So… if you want to consider a new approach to reading that has the potential to enliven it again for you, then check out this excellent, Whimsical little book.

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