Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book: I Am Christ

I Am ChristI Am Christ by Michael Sherlock
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

According to the bio at the end of the book, ’Michael is deeply troubled by the infirmities of this world and will not rest until he has done everything in his power, to at least attempt, to remedy them.' One of those infirmities is "belief" and, in this book, Michael sets out to disabuse the world of this life and death threat.

There are lots of good points made in the book but the problem is that they are buried amongst overwrought hyperbole and highly emotive, sarcastic language (the author sees himself as ’sarcastic and slightly antagonisitic’). But “slightly” is an understatement. The entire first part of the book is highly emotive, full of hyperbole, and written in a style that undermines the intention (I assume) to present a rational, objective case against belief - particularly the beliefs of Christianity (especially fundamentalist Christianity). By the end of the wordy and repetitive first section I really felt irritated and had to resolve to persevere onto the next section. The title of the first section is ’Belief: Cognitive Constipation’ - the subtitle being an apt description of its contents despite making an essentially good point.

Parts 2 and 3 are a polemical attack on Christianity and the historicity of Jesus Christ. Once again, there is some good material in these sections but, once again, the style of writing is confrontational, sarcastic, antagonistic, and laborious.

One of the more serious criticisms I'd make of the book is its lack of fair-mindedness. While the author does, at times, summarise some of the arguments opposing his view, they are not presented in a way which communicates good faith and an unbiased perspective. The author clearly has a vested interest in the issue and, unfortunately, he does not take care to present his case in rational, objective language free of emotionality. This feature of the writing would undoubtedly alienate many readers, particularly fundamentalist Christians, who one assumes, if his intention to liberate people from the prison of belief is genuine, would be included in the intended audience.

The are a whole range of other problems with the book which I don't have the time or inclination to document (eg, caricatures of general Christian beliefs rather than recognising the diversity of perspectives; engaging in speculation similar to that the author criticises to mock certain fundamentalist doctrines; and so on).

The problem with all this is that, to glean what is good from the book, an enormous amount of critical thinking needs to be done unless, of course, a person is already persuaded of the perspective and just wants to laugh along at the sarcasm, mockery, and attempts at humour (some of it successful!) thrown at those the author thinks are liars or stupid. There is no genuine engagement with the best Christian scholarship on the subjects covered and quite a few “straw men” that are easily destroyed.

In my opinion, there are much better books on the topic which take a critical look at the claims Christians make about the Bible, Jesus Christ and their beliefs. This book could have been so much better if a good editor was to be involved. I look forward to a second edition if that process was ever engaged in.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book: Tales of the Rational

Tales of the Rational:  Skeptical Essays About Nature and ScienceTales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science by Massimo Pigliucci
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent read. Needs a good proofread but otherwise Pigluicci writes with clarity, balance and reasonableness. Covering philosophy, science, religion and more, the author offers fresh insights with wit and substance. I lost a bit in the first part of the chapter on chaos where he explains the basic ideas, but apart from that his discussions have all the hallmarks of good thinking and communication. A must read!

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: Reclaiming Reason

Reclaiming Reason: A Christian's Guide to Recognizing Logical FallaciesReclaiming Reason: A Christian's Guide to Recognizing Logical Fallacies by Adam Murrell
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book is so bad I couldn't read any further than the introduction and first chapter. The title is interesting - Reclaiming Reason. Reclaiming from who/what? It reads like he wants to reclaim it for Christians back from those evil non-believers who use bad reasoning to tempt vulnerable Christians away from the faith. Adam Murrell is really wanting to give his readers the ability to resist objections against Christianity by atheists and other non-believers (and, of course, to identify bad thinking in oneself!). The problem is that Murrell can't see how poor his own reasoning is. The whole Christian world-view is assumed to be true without any evidence of actual critical thinking about the Christian beliefs (as he defines them). Some examples:

After describing the way in which the Gallup Polls show declining trust in religion to answer 'all or most of the problems of the time' and increasing belief that 'religion was largely old-fashioned and out of date' he blames Christians for not giving '... serious thought to the foundation of their beliefs or reasoned through the logical ramifications of their worldviews. Had they spent more time in sombre reflection, the poll numbers would presumably reveal a different story.' Really? What about the possibility that people may have critically thought about their beliefs and concluded, for good reasons, that their trust in religion was misplaced?

How's this for thinking critically: 'The spiritually developed Christian should bring all thoughts captive to the Word and allow Holy Write to guide his or her every decision.' This is not critical thinking - this is deciding a priori that everything the Bible says is correct or that one's interpretations are always right. In other words, if your thinking doesn't agree with what the Bible says, your thinking must be wrong! Where is the critical reasoning in that?

The real agenda of this book is expressed by the author when he writes that the '... book shows you how to respond to nonbelievers and likewises furnishes you with a new perspective so you will be able to answer Christians when they are being inconsistent regarding their beliefs.'

Murrell engages in simplistic examples to prove his own points. For example, did you know that the difference between the creation of '... a republic on the North American continent that enshrined religious liberty in her constitution, enabling generations of Christians to practice their religion without fear of reprisal or fear of persecution...' and '... the chaos and the nihilistic slaughter of the French Revolution...' was the use of words that influenced the emotions either positively or negatively? Ah! That explains everything!

It goes on and on... every point made by the author is dependent on his own interpretation of the Bible which he assumes is the right one. Some of his assertions are actually offensive. He writes, 'Would it be unreasonable to assert naturally destructive occurrences could be used as a gentle reminder for people everywhere to repent and believe before it's too late? Is this too great a possibility, especially if judgement is to be weighed upon the earth?' 'What if God is truly showing his compassion by reminding us, through natural calamities, of a future, certain judgement?' Did you get that? When tsumanis, earthquates, volcanic eruptions, etc occur it's possible this is God being compassionate!

Murrell offers another response to objections to Christianity that are based on criticisms of God's non-involvement in protecting people from natural evil. Apparently we hear too many examples of people being killed or injured and we overlook the times people are actually protected - and we don't know how many people have been protected by God because it's not obvious!

According to the author, many arguments made against Christianity are emotionally manipulating. For example, 'We are made to feel guilty if we believe God instituted marriage and, as a result, strive to uphold a union between one man and one woman.' Oh... really? He goes on, 'Instead of interacting with these fair concerns [eg, the shared benefits of society as a result of traditional marriage], we are insulted and made to feel guilty if we respect the boundaries established by God by rejecting all forms of perversion to the divine institution of marriage.' I think you get the picture.

And, if you happen to disagree with the author's point of view, you need to remember that 'God must first grant a new heart before it can properly assent to truth and righteousness and before it can be trusted to serve as a guide and moral compass.'

There are so many more examples that could be provided and I'm only identifying issues in the first chapter! This book is not about identifying logical fallacies at all - although that is what it is ostensibly about. It's really about providing Christians with a shield to ward off any criticisms and with easy answers to objections from non-believers - at least, that's what I have gleaned from the first chapter.

If you want a good book on logical fallacies, don't start with this book. There are plenty of other books out there. Also, check out this website for free information about logical fallacies ( Then, if you really must read this book, watch out for logical fallacies while you read!

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Book Review: 40 Questions about the End Times

40 Questions about the End Times40 Questions about the End Times by Eckhard J. Schnabel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's always been interest in the end of the world across many cultures. Western culture has always had those who try to predict the end of the world based on Nostradamus's prophecies, the Mayan calendar, or passages in the Hebrew and Christian bibles. ALL attempts at setting a date for the end of the world have failed. But that doesn't stop continual date setting by foolish "gurus" who attract just as foolish followers.

Eckhard Schnabel's book focuses specifically on the Hebrew and Christian bibles, examining every passage in them that talks about the end of times. So if you are interested in the whole issue of the end of time and, specifically, what the Bible might have to say about it, Schnabel's book is a must read. It avoids sensationalism, date setting, and all other nonsense that abuses the text to fit a particular agenda.

Instead, Schnabel takes a literary interpretive approach where he tries to interpret the texts within their own literary, historical and cultural contexts. He most certainly comes from a Christian perspective in accepting the authoritative nature of the texts for Christians. But he deliberately avoids labels and preconceived ideas (as much as one can) and provides fresh insights into the meaning of these ancient documents. Refreshingly undogmatic, it's a pleasure to read and would make a good entry into this genre for those starting that particular journey. It would also provide a reference point for evaluating other works on the subject.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book Review: The 5 Money Personalities

The 5 Money Personalities: Speaking the Same Love and Money LanguageThe 5 Money Personalities: Speaking the Same Love and Money Language by Scott Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Typical self-help book based solely on the authors' anecdotal evidence culled from their practice as financial advisors. Some helpful advice but I get really irritated with this sort of quasi-psychology. Given that it's written by two Christians, I was pleased that they didn't try and make it all "biblical". God is only mentioned near the beginning in passing so could be read by anyone as it is mostly good common sense.

Book Review: Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace & Community

Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and CommunityReframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community by Mark Strom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most interesting part of this book is the survey of the Greco-Roman world which formed the context of the letters written by St Paul found in the Christian New Testament of the Bible. The author discusses what he calls the social, historical and personal frames of the ancient world and compares these to Paul's. The essential point of the book is that St Paul has been misappropriated by the Christian evangelical movement in developing a structure that is controlling, ideological, and self-perpetuating. At the heart of the social fabric of evangelicalism is a resistance to genuine conversation that is open, creative, radical and subversive in positive ways. An actual analysis of Paul's writings in the context of the thought and experience world of his day shows that there is no biblical authority for what evangelicalism takes for granted as being "determined by God". What the average Christian experiences when they attend church is worlds away from the freedom St Paul envisaged for the Christian. Instead, evangelicalism is all about conformity. The author describes the stifling power of evangelical structures and processes in the following paragraph:

Conformity requires ideals, ideals require persuasive oratory, the orator needs to feel he knows the truth; persuading others of the truth is the basis of conformity. The conventions of preaching establish boundaries for the comgregation's thought, feelings and behaviour. The effect is to make the whole system seem self-evidently true and to pull people back from the storms of their questions and doubts into the shelters of authorised explanations and ideals. They must be calmed before they find grief, anger and freedom.
For the author, the key to Christan freedom in community is "grace-full comversation". 'Conversations marked by grace. Conversations full of grace. Conversations that bring grace. For the author, the rhetoric of grace abounds in the church but the structures and processes of the evangelical community are inherently resistant to its being experienced in everyday life. This situation leads to many people leaving (or being jettisoned from) the traditional church. If only we could recover grace-full conversation the Christian community might have a chance.

The last section of the book provides a sense of what grace-full conversation might look like in practice and the challenges of implementing such conversations within the evangelical system. The negative effects of traditional preaching, absolutist theologies, idealism and authority are explored leading to the breakdown of meaning experienced by contemporary believers. In the last chapter of the book the author shares his own personal journey attempting to nurture a grace-full community - including the warts and disappointing outcome. The second-to-last paragraph on the power of grace to subvert is excellent and a good place to finish this brief review:

Grace is subversive. It undermines the ideals and standards of those of us who cannot tolerate weakness in others (or in ourselves). It undermines the pride of those of us who search out every vestige of unbiblical belief and practice. It undermines the presumption of those of us who preach the pure gospel to cure all ills. It undermines the safety of those of us who throw off the shackles of abusive and codependent relationships only to exclude grace from those who have hurt us. It undermines our need to find the ideal, the answer, the method, the cure. We ate left with the weakness of grace-full comversation.
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