The books reviewed on this page are all by Christian authors and largely intended for a Christian readership. Seekers will find them useful in finding out about the Christian faith and how it helps us deal with the problems that life presents us with. You can link to Amazon.com by clicking on the title to purchase the book.
Handbook of Christian Apologetics
The Handbook of Christian Apologetics is as a good an introduction to the subject as you can hope to find. If you are a seeker looking to find out about the intellectual backing for Christianity then buy it now. Arranged in an easy to follow format it covers a vast number of subjects in reasonable detail. But this is just and introduction and anyone interested in a particular area will have to read further. The bibliography is very helpful in this regard but could have been more comprehensive.
The most important thing this book does is equips you with the vocabulary to understand the arguments. Before it is possible to follow the more advanced stuff a basic grounding in necessary. For example, one chapter contains twenty proofs that god exists. None is dealt with rigorously but the reader could move onto a long essay on any of them without feeling confused about the meaning of words like teleological, cosmological and ontological.
Other areas that are covered include the divinity of Christ. Kreeft is a fan of CS Lewis's trilemma ("Lord, liar or lunatic") but wisely expands it to the quintilemma ("Lord, liar, lunatic, myth or guru"). There is also a handy list of scriptural references to Jesus saying who he is. The chapter on the resurrection examines most of the possibilities and explains how Jesus rising from the dead is the only explanation that fits the data. The problem with these sorts of arguments is that they are not much of a defence against the extreme sceptic who will deny the data and not even bother with the conclusions.
The chapter on the bible is woefully brief and I would have liked at least twice as much on this (space restrictions not withstanding). Waving away the charge that the bible contains contradictions is not a sufficient answer to the most prevalent and dangerous of all the attacks on evangelical Christianity. That Kreeft is a Catholic is no defence in my mind! Luckily the bibliography supplies a good selection of books on this important subject.
Another subject at which the Handbook of Christian Apologetics fails is dealing with the problem of evil. Entire books on the subject fall down flat so this isn't a surprise. Still, I would have appreciated a fuller discussion rather than just appealing to the fall of man. This event is one we find it hard to take literally. One could almost say that we are all Pelagians now. On this even the bibliography fails to inspire.
However, I still recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the big questions of Christianity as well as seekers who want to give Jesus the benefit of their doubt.
Christianity for Modern Pagans - Pascal's Pensees
We should be profoundly grateful to Kreeft for producing this edition of Pascal's Pensees. He has culled the original 993 down to 203 and provided us with plenty of commentary. In fact, with all due respect to Kreeft, I fear that he gets in the way of Pascal's over riding genius. I stopped reading the notes after a couple of chapters and stuck to the Pensees themselves.
A better book would have had an introduction, a heading for each Pensee and notes at the end. I think the selection of Pensees presented is perfect, but Kreeft should have edited himself with the same vigour. He doesn't give us any background to Pascal's life and mentions Jansenism without saying what it is. My concern that Pascal had been tainted by this heresy was lessened slightly by the fact I hadn't the foggiest idea what it was.
Pascal's aim is simple. He shows that without God, weave all had it. Without Him, we are victims of our own vanity and ultimately of death. Death, says Pascal, makes a complete mockery of all our attempts to achieve something. No atheist can disagree with this; they can only say they don't mind that they're going to die. Pascal sees through this and lambastes their supposed indifference to their fate. He then explains how all the rest of us are trying to distract ourselves from the awful truth of death. I know this to be true from my own experience and watching my atheist friends. He explains how what we really need is God – how He fits the human lock – and ends up by challenging us with his wager.
Pascal's wager is justly famous but losses much of its power taken in isolation. Kreeft has given us the rest of the argument and by he time he gets to the wager, Pascal has already gutted his opponents and left them to hang out to dry. His explanation of why God hides from us and doesn't provide the scientific proof that many people so arrogantly demand is totally convincing.
I heartily recommend this to anyone interested in reading a Christian philosophy from one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen.
Should Anyone Believe Anything At All?
Sire is a much better populariser of philosophy than he is an apologist. This book is in two parts. The first answers the question of the title and the second is a brief and unsatisfactory Christian apologetic.
Part one surveys why people believe what they do but is written for an American college student. Those of us who are not American college students might find this rather annoying. What Sire is trying to do here is tackle the fact that nowadays no one really seems to belief anything. Students arrive at their universities and quickly loose the beliefs that defined them while they were children. However, nothing seems to replace these lost ideas and so we end up feeling all at sea.
Sire suggests lots of reasons why we might believe something: what makes us feel good, what we are taught, what we instinctively think etc. He sorts through all of this and decides that the only reason we should believe something is because it is true. This ignores a lot of interesting philosophical questions but remains probably the best answer to this question I've ever heard. Sire firmly believes there is an objective world out there, which we can find things out about. Scientists would applaud this view, as would most non-intellectuals.
Part two is much less useful and will not serve to convince a non-believer of the Christian faith. Believers will be bored as they will have come across all this material better presented before.
Universe Next Door
The Universe Next Door is Sire's masterpiece. Now in its umpteenth edition, it continues to be the best guide for Christians wondering what on earth the rest of the world is thinking of. Non Christians will hate it though, because Sire makes no effort to conceal his distaste for some of the other world views on offer. He tries to be generous but only manages to sound like a schoolmaster commending his daftest pupil for a good effort.
So, what's here? Well, we start of with a brief overview of Christian theism. Some Christians might be surprised to learn how well developed the philosophy they subscribe to actually is. Sire makes clear that as far as he's concerned, this is the right answer. As such, there is hardly any analysis and this chapter isn't terribly interesting.
We move logically on to Deism that Sire rightly plants into its eighteenth century roots. As a belief system for the enlightenment it had a brief period of popularity but is not seriously considered nowadays. However, a glance at the Internet site of the World Union of Deists will show you that it is enjoying something of a renaissance. I think this has something to do with scientific naturalism's problems with answering the big questions. In his chapter on this world view, Sire shows that the naturalist is usually hiding from the logical conclusions of his beliefs. These conclusions are embodied in nihilism that is simply too depressing and negative for anyone to actually believe.
Next, we look at existentialism which seems to involve being too clever for your own good. Christian existentialism remains the dominant world view of the liberal Protestant whereas atheist existentialism is the exclusive preserve of left bank philosophers
The examination of eastern philosophy and the New Age demonstrates just how strange they really are. Speaking as a Westerner, I join Sire in finding it very hard to swallow some of the tenants of these faiths. Even the Dalai Lama himself has recently asked that Western converts to Buddhism stop treating it as a glorified form of psychoanalysis. Sire finishes off with a look at post-modernism and attacks relativism as completely incompatible with the way we actually live and think. At worst, it is an invitation to forget about right and wrong completely.
The Universe Next Door is a book by a Christian for Christians who will find it equips them to discuss other world views without having to wade through loads of books on each one.
Basic Christianity is indeed pretty basic but also rather a tough read. Stott is seeking to set out what it means to be a Christian. For those brought up, as I was, in a mainstream Anglican way, this comes as a bit of a surprise. It seems divorced from the way I looked on Christianity during my atheist and arrogant late teens. Stott's Christianity is an altogether much more difficult and uncompromising religion.
The chapter on the Ten Commandments is especially challenging. On reading it, I nearly threw in the towel there and then. Religion sounded far too demanding. But there is better news later on. God knows perfectly well how hard it is for us not to sin and that is why he sent Jesus. If I am sounding uncharacteristically evangelical at this point that's because only Evangelicals seem entirely willing to spell this out. But when you get right down to it, nearly all Christians should believe this.
I found this book difficult and not very satisfying. This is a fault in me, not the book. Stoat simply refuses to bow to wishy-washy thinking and make things sound easier than they actually are. To the seeker, it is uncomfortable to be faced with such a stringent vision. Stott is mostly right in what he says but might win more converts if he said it a bit more tactfully.
The Case for God
Peter Williams is even younger than I am and part of the new breed of intellectual Christians in the UK who have grown up with modern science and are not in the slightest bit fazed by it. This book is a nice and easy look at the various arguments for the existence of God presented from a Christian point of view. Actually, this view point is the biggest weakness in the book which would have been better if it had presented as a general defence of theism.
Williams puts the problem of evil up front, before he even moves onto any positive evidence for God. This is a wise move but perhaps his attack on the problem is not as well focused as it might be. Indeed, he seems to depend on Christian theodicy whereas I might have argued more from the necessity of a universe like ours as any other would not actually work. He should also have reinforced the point that the problem of evil, while an argument against an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God is no argument at all against a being lacking any one of those three properties. I felt this was not sufficiently hammered home because to do so makes evil a useless argument for atheism.
The book continues on to examine moral arguments (well covered but perhaps over sold), cosmological arguments and design. For the treatment of fine tuning far more detail would have been welcome but the topic was clearly explained and discussed. However, Williams gives atheist JJC Smart much to much time and credit. Occam's razor is not nearly as useful a tool as it is often claimed to be and surely the ability to construct a universe that works does not entail knowledge of every single possible alternative universe. If that was the case we human beings would never be able to make anything at all. I don't even think an omniscient God would need knowledge of every potentiality.
The book is rounded off by a useful look at religious experience and William James in particular.
I hesitate to say Williams will convince non-believers but he does summarise the arguments for God well for someone looking for a general introduction to the subject. Notably he totally ignores the ontological argument which is a pity if only because, however unconvincing, it is a useful thought exercise and historically important.
Moved the Stone?
Whoever moved the stone is not something that we will learn for certain by reading this book. Morison assumes that the Gospels are pretty much entirely accurate and then constructs an ingenious harmony of the passion accounts. He believes that Mark represents the best account but decides that even Matthew's guards are entirely historical. This, therefore, is not part of the quest for the historical Jesus but rather a piece of apologetics.
Some of Morison's ideas are rather clever if a little far-fetched. He explains the delay between Judas leaving the Last Supper and his return with the arrest party by the Sanhedrin getting permission from Pilate before proceeding. He painstakingly examines who was at the tomb and what they were all doing. He identifies the man in white that Mark has meeting Mary and the women as none other that Mark himself! While this sort of speculation is good, clean fun we should take it with a pinch of salt. The fact is we don't know a great deal and will not find out this side of the grave.
Jesus I Never Knew
Philip Yancey insists on calling himself a journalist. This is fine by me but this book is not a piece of reportage. Instead Yancey looks at the Gospel's afresh and tries to rid his mind of all the pat ideas that are indoctrinated into us at Sunday school. The ideas that Jesus was tall and slender, had a beard, spoke in measured tones or was detached and unemotional. The gospels give an entirely different impression.
To go back to the Jesus we have in the bible is an interesting experience. Forget all that Christology that Paul gives us and look at the man. Yancey takes swipes at those who use Jesus for their own purposes and shows him as the friend of outcasts and the marginalised. Today Jesus would hang out with homosexual AIDS patients and homeless beggars. The clean, suburban Christians would not interest him very much. Instead they (we, as I am undoubtedly one of them) would be today's Pharisees. To get closer to Jesus modern Christians must stop condemning and judging and start reaching out.
This book has been lauded and become a best seller. I think it deserves the success and acclaim it will bring any Christian who reads it closer to Jesus. Note that this is a devotional work and will not be of much interest to sceptics. But those seekers who want to find out about the Jesus of the Gospels instead of that projected by the church will find it invaluable.
This is a collection of Yancey's columns from Christianity Today updated and edited. It first came out in the seventies and has reached a third edition. Some of this material can also be found in Yancey's other books.
I am becoming convinced that Yancey is one of the finest Christian writers around today. He is not a scholar but can communicate the very essence of Christianity better than anyone else I've read since CS Lewis. He comes from a fundamentalist evangelical background and went through the crisis of faith at university that claims so many. However, Yancey found the real Jesus behind the cardboard cut out often presented to us today and it is to Him that he gives his life.
These articles range from heaven to down town Chicago. Each section starts with a list of questions and then some musings on each one. Yancey is not afraid to attack bigotry whereever he finds it but remains at heart a conservative Christian who appreciates his fundamentalist upbringing. Reading these articles helps us realize that the questions we all have are shared by even the finest minds. But we also realize that it is possible to inch our way towards the answers.
Bible Jesus Read
The idea is excellent but the execution fails to live up either to this or Yancey's other books. This is a great pity as I really did want to find out something about the Old Testament and thought the clarity of vision the author showed in The Jesus I Never Knew might be repeated here. Not a bit of it.
We get a chapter on Job, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms and the Prophets. Yancey certainly could not of picked more challenging topics but with one exception is unable to meet that challenge sufficiently well. The exception is the chapter on Ecclesiastes, deeply nihilistic book that does not even seem to have any time for God. But it is very relevant today and explains the deep sense of alienation in our own successful Western societies.
As the central thrust of The Bible Jesus Read is that ordinary people do not read or know much about the Old Testament I was hoping to find background and information about it. Yancey admits in the first line of the Preface that I am not going to find what I want but it would have been well within his abilities, following on his work on the Student Bible, to produce something that was far more informative than this. Instead we just get personal musing and questioning which would have been fine in its place but cannot carry a whole book.
Where is God When It Hurts?
The problem of evil is a uniquely modern dilemma. Suffering was and is such an accepted part of life outside the comfortable West that no one ever thinks to ask 'Is this necessary?' But we do ask and this is the single best argument against the existence of the traditional Christian God. The old answer was that, because of the Fall of Man, we all deserved it. Today, no one except evolutionary psychologists believes in original sin any more.
Philip Yancey knows a fair bit about pain from research for his previous books and his long friendship with the pioneer of leprosy treatment, Paul Brand. The first part of this book shows us that nearly all the time, pain is a thoroughly good thing. A leper is someone who feels no pain and the consequences are catastrophic. Could God of done better than the system that evolution has kitted us out with? It is hard to see how.
What this book does not have is an answer to the question of suffering. No book, despite book shelves that groan under their weight, has that answer but this one does contain some useful thoughts and insights. There are also some stories about other people's suffering that both shock an inspire and which make this a far from easy book to read. All believers have to come to an understanding about their inevitable misgivings concerning the problem of suffering and evil. This book helped me reach out in that direction but it certainly does not have the answer.
© James Hannam 2000.