Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Mere Apologetics

Book Review: "Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith," Alister E. McGrath, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012. 197 pages.

Alister McGrath is the president of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics in London, England and regularly engages in debate and dialogue with the leaders of the New Atheist movement. I read this book at the suggestion of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in preparation for this year's Summer Institute. It is written as an introduction to Christian apologetics (taken from the Greek "apologia," meaning defense.) So apologetics is simply a defense of one's position, in this case, the Christian faith.  

McGrath begins by explaining that there are three basic tasks for an apologist: defending, commending, and translating. In defending, the apologist is dealing with barriers that have been erected to faith, whether misunderstandings, misrepresentations or existential issues. In commending, the challenge is to help the audience (whether 1 or 1,000) grasp the relevance of the Christian message. Finally, in translating, the goal is to relate the core ideas of the faith in language and story that makes sense to the hearer.

The second chapter - "Apologetics and Contemporary Culture" looks at the cultural context within which we must function. An approach that may work well in one culture will likely not be as effective in another. So, the challenge is to understand the culture; to be able to determine the common framework through which our audience views the world: ie. modernism and  post-modernism, and to adjust your approach accordingly.

He then deals with the theological basis for apologetics, that there is an important, yet limited role for apologists in helping people find faith. "Apologetics is grounded in a deep appreciation of the intellectual capaciousness and spiritual richness of the Christian faith." It is not about formulas and systems; nor wisdom and reasoning, but simply in helping to break down barriers to faith. It is God, ultimately, who transforms lives.

Next is a section on "The Importance of the Audience." An individual or group's background can differ from another's in many ways, so the method may need to be different as well. We see this modeled in the New Testament as Peter preached to the Jews in Acts 2 using one line of reasoning and reference; and Paul spoke to the Greeks in Acts 17 using another one entirely. They both ended at the same place - Jesus Christ - but they began from different points. We need to ask what our audience believes and why.

Chapter 5 speaks of "The Reasonableness of the Christian Faith." The Christian worldview is truly unlike any other in its capacity to explain things as they are. As C.S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." There are two ways to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith. One of them is by showing that there is a good evidential base for the core beliefs of Christianity. The second is by showing that the Christian faith makes more sense of reality than its alternatives.

McGrath then deals with "Pointers to Faith" or approaches to engaging others. "Reality is emblazoned with signs pointing to the greater reality of God. We need to connect the dots and see the overall picture." Some of those signs include: Creation - the origin of the universe; the appearance that the universe is designed for life; the structure of the physical world; the universal longing for justice (morality); the spiritual nature of mankind; our appreciation of beauty, etc...Where do these come from? Apologetics helps to point people to the source.

"Gateways for Apologetics" follows logically from the previous chapter - it's all about opening the door to faith. Many people have never considered the claims of Christianity, may even be antagonistic, and would be more likely to respond to one approach over another. So, what are the gateways? The first is explanation, which requires an ability to share the basics of the faith. The second is argument - building a rational case leading to faith. Examples include the argument from design or the argument from morality. The third gateway is stories. This approach is particularly useful in dealing with postmoderns, who have a tendency to reject an appeal to reason. The final approach mentioned is images, which builds upon the previous model. Postmoderns tend to prefer pictures, not words, in their communication. C.S. Lewis was a master at these last two gateways.

The last chapter before the conclusion is "Questions about Faith." This deals with helping people at the point of their own stumbling. Some have had bad experiences with Christians; others may be from a Muslim background and stumble at the church's history of the crusades. Many stumble at the question of evil. What are the keys to dealing with someone with real questions? Be gracious. Look beyond what is said to the real question. Don't just give prepackaged answers; be genuine. Learn from other apologists.

This book provides help for those trying to develop their own skills as an apologist. It is not so much a list of arguments to use, but rather it is a guide to help to develop and refine one's approach. I'll end with some good common-sense advice from McGrath: "Before we can answer the questions others ask about our faith, we need to have answered them for ourselves."

Related Articles:
Book Review: "Why I Still Believe"
Book Review: "Has Christianity Failed You?"
"Truth" - by Ravi Zacharias
Book Review: "Why Jesus?"
Are Christianity & Science Incompatible?


Friday, November 09, 2012

Book Review: Who Is This Man? Review: "Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus," Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. 219 pages.

When you have such notables as Max Lucado, Patrick Lencioni, N.T. Wright, Phillip Yancey and Dallas Willard writing testimonials and Condeleeza Rice providing the foreword, you know you're in for a treat! I may have found another new favorite book. Leave it to John Ortberg to hit it out of the park.

I grabbed this book when I heard John mention it at this year's Leadership Summit. I was intrigued by the question that is implied by this book: what would this world look like without Jesus? What difference did He really make? As Ortberg shares, our world would be barely recognizable without his influence.

Jesus is the ultimate paradox. Born in obscurity to an oppressed people, never traveling more than 200 miles from his home, rejecting the normal avenues to power, limiting his public ministry to only three years, being struck down in his prime: none of these hint of a world-changer. Yet, as historian H.G. Wells wrote, "The historian's test of an individual's greatness is 'What did he leave to grow?' Did he start men thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By this test Jesus stands first."

Ortberg shares a myriad number of ways that Jesus has impacted our world for the better - many of which would surprise our secular world which has lately been studiously trying to erase any vestige of him. The rise of Western Civilization is largely due to the principles taught by Jesus in his public ministry. We can begin with the promotion of human dignity which changed the way that society treated women and children.

While some cultures may have valued women and children, it was Jesus' followers who spread those values to the world. Before Christ, in the world  ruled by Rome, women were viewed as chattel, children were often abandoned to die if they were born weak or the wrong gender (read female). Jesus accepted women as disciples, and the church which he established became the first egalitarian organization on earth, according to historian Thomas Cahill. All were welcomed and valued. Abandoned children were adopted by Christians because Jesus had taught them that each of them were created in God's image and were loved by Him. It was Christ-followers who established the first orphanages.

Mother Teresa
When plagues struck cities, the healthy would leave the sick to fend for themselves. It was Jesus' followers who would go and care for them, nursing them back to health and caring for them until their death. They cared because Jesus taught that caring for the hurting was a reflection of loving him. They established the first hospitals that even cared for the poor and they advanced the medical profession. Christ-followers like Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa, in turn, left their imprint on society.

Because Jesus valued children, Christians began to teach them - all of them. Education was restricted in Roman culture to children of the wealthy and privileged. Christians taught children of the poor and slaves alike, wanting to help them to serve God with their minds as well. Philosopher Mark Nelson writes, "If you ask what is Jesus' influence on medicine and compassion, I would suggest that wherever you have an institution  of self-giving for the lonely (and for practical welfare of the lonely), schools, hospitals, hospices, orphanages for those who will never be able to repay, this probably has its roots in the movement of Jesus."

The first universities found their impetus in the monasteries. Christ-followers devoted their lives to study - not just of Christian works, but of the classics and pagan works as well. In fact, after the sacking of Rome, it was these Christian communities, particularly in Ireland, that preserved the great works of ancient literature for future generations. Christ-followers established the first universities, like Oxford in the 13th century, whose motto is taken from Psalm 27:1 - "The Lord is my light." The Sunday School movement was largely responsible for the foundation of the first public schools. The first law to require mass universal education was also enacted by Christ-followers - the same ones who founded Harvard and Yale and William and Mary and Princeton, etc...

It was Christian missionaries who found languages that had not been committed to writing and who devoted their lives to doing so. They compiled the first dictionaries, wrote the first grammars and developed the first alphabets. It was Methodist missionary, Frank Laubach who was called "the Apostle to the Illiterates. He traveled to more than a hundred countries and his organization developed primers in 313 languages.

Contrary to popular thought today, Christianity was largely responsible for the development of modern science. As Alfred North Whitehead, one of the dominant thinkers of the twentieth century asked, "What is it that made it possible for science to emerge in the human race? It's the medieval insistence on the rationality of God." The vast majority of the pioneers of science were believers in Christ, men like William of Ockham, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Copernicus, Blaise Pascal, Joseph Priestley, Louis Pasteur, Isaac Newton, etc...

The book also deals with Jesus' influence on government and the arts, technology, architecture, marriage and the family and so much more. As Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, "Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western Culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of the history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?" How much, indeed.

Whether you are a skeptic or a Christ-follower, I recommend you read this book. It will change your thinking of this man called Jesus, the one I am so blessed to call my Saviour.

Related Articles:
Book Review: I Am A Follower
Made For Relationship
The Power of the Mind
Book Review: "Why Jesus?"
What Is A Christ-follower?