Friday, May 13, 2011

Good Enough For The Right Audience

  In How Good Is Good Enough? Andy Stanley offers a quick and easy read that tackles the question clearly stated in its title: Can I earn the everlasting life after this one, and if so, what or how much must I do--how good must I be? Stanley addresses the assumption lying in back of the minds of many, namely, that if anyone goes to heaven, it must be the good people. He then outlines the Biblical view that all have broken God's commandments, and that due to this none are “good enough”. This is followed by an exposition of the solution also found in Scripture, that Jesus died and was resurrected to cover the cost of sin, and to provide a way of reconciliation and everlasting life with God.

Stanley's book is admirable in that it is a brief, to the point, and readable treatment of the Gospel message, as applied specifically to a mindset that seems best described as nominally Christian. It's a book to hand to a friend who thinks she's ok with God because she's, comparatively speaking, a good person—the sort of person who, when asked what she means by “good”, might answer, “Well, it's not like I'm killing people or anything.” For this person, Stanley's book can clarify her standing before God, as well as the Gospel message.

However, Stanley's book assumes a great deal of what I would call prerequisite background beliefs for believing in Christianity. What I mean is that the audience this book seems intended for—such as the hypothetical person mentioned in the preceding paragraph—already believes the following: God exists, there's something like objective morality and sin (otherwise why would being good set one apart from those who are bad?), there's an afterlife in a heaven of some kind, etc. This is fine, given that one recognizes the limited audience. However, giving this book to an atheist, an agnostic of various stripes, or folks from non-Western religious backgrounds may have limited impact, due to a lack of common worldview ground. At the risk of redundancy, consider an atheist who grew up in a completely non-religious family. Talk of God, sin, and the goal of making the cut into heaven may seem not the least bit plausible, and perhaps absurd. In these cases, what I think is helpful is what Francis Schaeffer referred to as “pre-evangelism”, or helping to bring into place the requisite beliefs concerning God's existence and the rest.*

For the audience it targets, Stanley has put together a handy, effective little book. I can recommend this book as one worth offering to a friend who believes (or leans toward believing) in God already and is actively asking questions about Christianity; or a nominal Christian who hasn't thought enough about Christianity.

* I realize the idea of "pre-evangelism" will come across distastefully to some Christians, possibly as suggesting that Scripture or faith is not enough. Unfortunately, this post isn't the place to address such issues. But if you disagree with me on this, we ought at least to agree that reciting "Jesus died for your sin" will be less plausible/meaningful to someone who doesn't agree in the first place that God exists. And assuming we both agree that writing off such a person as unreachable is the wrong move, well, it seems the next move is the address stumbling-block questions this person may have. But that's pre-evangelism.

“I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review”. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

God, Our Planet, and Polar Bears

   In God Gave Us the World, Lisa Tawn Bergren (author) and Laura J. Bryant (artist) offer families a children's book that, as I see it, aims to promote three main values: diversity, environmental concern, and an awe for God the Creator. These values are wrapped in a cute, well-illustrated story about a polar bear family who visit  a museum. I'll briefly outline how Bergren presents these values, though I'll try to avoid retelling the story here (such as it is, being a short children's book).

[Shameless begging: support a poor student (yours truly!) and, after reading this review, rate it using the rating doohickey below. Thanks!]

    The main part of the story is the polar bears' visit to the museum, which is showcasing a "Bears Around The World" exhibit. Much attention is given to the diversity of bears in the world, and that though they are all bears, they like different foods, look different, and live in different places. When Little Cub asks, "Do all bears have pink tongues," Mama responds, "...God is creative...he made all kinds of different bears...and all kinds of different bear tongues." Little Cub is relieved that American grizzly bears eat fish, or "normal food", (emphasis in original), like she does. Mama explains that "even though other bears eat what you might not like, we're all bears." When Little Cub asks if other bears miss the snow, Mama responds, "Do you miss the sand of the desert?...We love what we know, because it's home to us" (emphasis in original).
    I do appreciate diversity, if by diversity we mean recognizing and valuing our differences in non-moral ethnic and cultural things, like skin color, food, housing, etc. But if Bergren intends the vagueness of Mama's reply that "we love what we know" to apply also to things like, for example, moral values, Biblical values, etc, then the author is inserting in her story a relativism that's not going to sit well with a lot of people. But I couldn't tell for sure, so I don't claim the author does this. Still, the vagueness, considering the sway moral relativism holds in our culture, annoyed me slightly.

Environmental Concern
    Clearly, Bergren is trying to teach children (and their parents) to be concerned about the environment. I'm cool with that (forgive the pun). As a Christian, I hold that God created the world and placed humans in stewardship over it. So we ought to take care of it. (And just in general, messing up your own home--our planet--is not wise, though I'm not here taking a position on whether humans are responsible for climate change.) But I have a few gripes, though I'll only mention two. First, Bergren tells children that God might get "mad or sad" if we "hurt our world." And again that "He'd be sad if we hurt it." Ok, God doesn't want us to mess up our planet. Got that. But "hurt" it? Maybe the intent is just to use language a small child will understand, but it's neither accurate nor Biblical nor healthy, frankly, to teach kids that the world "hurts" or feels. That sounds like Gaia, or animism, or at any rate, something not belonging in the Christian worldview. We can damage our planet, but not hurt it.
    The other thing is the polar bear thing. Obviously, the main characters are chosen to be polar bears for a reason; which, obviously, is that polar bears are the poster animals for the global warming movement. But that's using emotionally loaded images about disputed claims (i.e. that polar bears on crumbling icebergs are human-caused, as opposed to solar cycle-caused or something of that sort). Maybe that's true, but maybe not. Either way, tons of conservatives will probably be annoyed about it.

God the Creator
    I like that Bergren infuses into her story a sense of awe about God being Creator or all things. But, again, I shall gripe. I think the author has inserted some bad theology, and some controversial theology. Mama Bear explains that God created our world because "it's in his nature to create." But that's actually quite a substantial claim, and one I don't think Christians should make. Why? Well, to say that x is in Y's nature, is to say that x is essential to Y--that Y wouldn't be Y unless it had x. But that means that God has to create--He doesn't have an option. But that's not the (classical) Christian view. God is not constrained to do anything. He created us, and all things, freely; but He could've opted not to, if He so desired. To say God had to create has important (in a bad sense) implications (which this review isn't the place to outline). Now, maybe Bergren was just being loose with her wording. Fair enough. But that's how ideas take root, and young children aren't going to be able to discern the difference.
    The other thing is that, and quite unnecessarily, Bergren seems to go out of her way to suggest that the Earth is extremely old. Little Cub asks Mama if she remembers when God created the world. Mama responds that it's "older than anyone can remember...older than my great-grandmother's great-grandmother," and that it's older than "that huge ol' tree in the forest." Now, that doesn't rule out young-earth creationism, but I've never known a young earth creationist to repeatedly emphasize the world's being old, and neglecting to emphasize that the world is young (relative to the accepted scientific view). Now, I don't have a gripe with Christians who hold to old-Earth views (I'm one), but it's utterly unnecessary to insert that in a children's picture/story book like this; and it's sure to cause the large number of young-Earth creationists to be upset with the book.
    To conclude, I want to soften this review a bit. God Gave Us the World really is a cute, well-illustrated little story. The characters--Little Cub is the main one--are lovable. God is honored. These are good things. The story doesn't have much plot (even for a children's book), since it's mainly a value-instilling device, but it's still fun. (Who doesn't like polar bears that catch snowflakes on their tongues?) I would just recommend that when reading it to your kids, you stop here and there to explain a few things, that's all.
“I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review”.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lewis and Warfield: Read Theology For Devotions


It's not just me! (See below.) Personally, read-the-Bible-in-a-year plans and warm-feeling devotionals tend to mildly repel me rather than bring spiritual growth. Instead, it has always seemed to me that, for me, studying and engaging an interesting or controversial theological topic brings excitement, refreshment, and growth in the knowledge and experience of God.

From Justin Taylor's blog:
C. S. Lewis:
For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await others.  I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.
B. B. Warfield:
Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. What! Than ten hours over your books on your knees?”

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

About to Get Medieval--Wouldn't Be as Bad as You Thought

Edward Feser in a recent blog post lists a number of books and online articles that aim to dispel much of the popular myths about the Middle Ages' terribleness. Preceding the list of resources, Feser quips:
During the Middle Ages, the Church was a cesspool of corruption, people wore chastity belts and thought the earth was flat, and humorless Scholastics debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin while burning witches by the bushel. Right? Well no, of course not. Given the ridiculous urban legends about the period that permeate high school history lectures and pop science books, you could probably get a less misleading picture of what medieval times were really like by watching The Cable Guy.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Discerning the Will of God? -- Just Do Something, by DeYoung

I like and agree with the central idea of DeYoung's Just Do Something--that God is not in the business of revealing every Christian's plan and path before it unfolds, so one ought to use one's mind and Scripture, and pray, to make important life decisions; and not to become paralyzed by waiting on God to communicate one's next move in every situation (even, maybe especially, the important ones). However, I think some of DeYoung's delivery and auxiliary ideas were a bit careless and not well thought through. Additionally, the book is presented in a way that is likely to be unconvincing, and even mildly insulting, to folks with the very ideas the book argues against, undoubtedly hobbling it's impact. Finally, if your theology is not that of a compatibilist/determinist Calvinist, you probably won't see eye-to-eye with how DeYoung grounds his view of decision-making and God's will (though I think you still ought to agree with his central thesis).

Still, I think if you're a Christian you ought to read this little book.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

University + "Diversity" = Uniformity: Brainwashed, by Shapiro

Shapiro's Brainwashed is largely a huge collection of categorized (by issue) statistics and citations of professors and school administrators showing their hard-leftism and the overwhelming non-diversity of thought in the vast majority of American colleges and universities. It's revealing, though it does get a little tiring.

Contrary to what I'd thought beforehand, unfortunately, this is not an expose of UCLA; only parts of the book relate Shapiro's experiences there, though worthwhile parts those are. So the real value of this book is in opening the eyes of parents and students to what goes on, ideologically, in most institutions of "higher learning". The final 'Solutions' chapter contains what seem to me to be great suggestions for beginning to remedy the problem of extreme left indoctrination in our country's colleges and universities.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Introducing Your Mind - Feser on Philosophy of Mind

I found Edward Feser's The Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction to be a wonderful introduction to philosophy of mind that makes clear the intersection this area of philosophy has to other important areas. Feser winds his way through the contemporary debate and approaches to the mind-body problem, not at all neglecting the historical development of these positions, making for a guided tour that is anything but mentally unengaging.

About halfway to two thirds of the way through the book, I realized Feser was purposefully guiding me somewhere, constructing and framing the debate with some definitive design; and in the end (though already being familiar with Feser, I expected this), he makes a none-too-veiled pitch for a Thomistic approach to dualism, cleverly presenting its advantages to several of the important challenges Cartesian dualism faces if it is to clearly (or cleanly) overcome materialism, not to mention convince materialists. He leaves the reader--or he left me, anyway--wanting to next pick up a book on Thomism. (Conveniently, he's written such a book!)

P.s. I wish I'd had this book back when I wrote my paper defending a dualistic approach to the mind-body problem!