Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: God, Actually

Over the years I have read a lot of books arguing for the Christian faith. Walk into any Christian bookshop and you will see row-upon-row of works arguing with absolute certainty that God exists, Jesus was divine, and Christianity is definitely the truth. Most of those I read said the same things and used the same evidence. There is nothing wrong with this per se. But I had become tired of reading these sorts of books.

In this sea of certainty, imagine my surprise when, on the New Release shelf at my local Christian bookstore, I saw a title of a book that repeated the word probably. I had come across Roy Williams's book God, Actually: Why God probably exists; Why Jesus was probably divine; and Why the 'rational' objections to religion are unconvincing.

As I flicked through the book, I could see that here was an author who took doubt seriously. Who understood the nature of evidence and persuasion. Who realised that, in a contemporary world, to speak of absolute certainty is to overstate the capacity of human beings to know without any questions remaining. Who takes seriously the necessity of faith as a fundamental feature of reality.

Williams was a skeptic/agnostic with a leaning toward atheism when it came to Christianity. In the beginning of the book, he shares his journey from skepticism to faith. As a lawyer, trained in rigorous, deductive thinking, his acceptance of Christianity did not come easily. And even now, his faith, although based on what he considers to be persuasive evidence, still remains faith that values doubt and uncertainty as a necessary part of that faith.

After we have heard about his journey, which continues to the present day, Williams explores what a deductive approach to Christianity might look like along with it advantages and limitations. He ends his preface with a statement of his goal for the book:

If anything in this book causes just one person to begin to think more closely or more clearly about even one issue, then it will have served a valuable purpose. My hope, though, is that many readers will be persuaded that the likelihood of the Christian God's existence lies well above 50 percent on what Richard Dawkins has called the 'spectrum of probabilities'. At least, some might reassess the all-too-common attitude that Christianity is a refuge for charlatans, killjoys and well-meaning dopes, and is certainly not something for 'sophisticated people'. In fact, the more sophisticated you think you are, the more carefully you need to consider it. (p. 8)

Then Williams takes us on a superbly fresh examination of the evidence for Christianity and the reasons it makes sense to believe that, at least, its claims are probably true. That is all that is needed for the beginning of faith.

Rowan divides his discussion up into three sections: reasons to believe in God; reasons to believe in Christianity; and answers to some common objections.

After providing a fresh survey of the physical universe and the human capacity for cognition and conscience, Williams spends a superb chapter discussing the nature of love and how that provides evidence for a belief in God. Then he turns to a penetrating analysis of, and response to, arguments against a designing God.

When Williams turns to Jesus and the resurrection, even when he is representing the standard evidences, his approach and perspective enliven and engage in a genuinely contemporary discussion that deeply respects the person who struggles to believe.

In the final section of the book, Williams turns to some objections constantly raised against Christian belief: the problem of suffering; the extremes of Christian involvement in politics; Christianity's relationship to other religions; and the traditional doctrines of heaven and hell. All of these issues are profound and problematic. Williams attempts some creative approaches to them which seem to me, in a number of places, to be somewhat strained and, themselves problematic. For example, he affirms a form of purgatory that I find unsupported in Scripture. Despite that, Williams models the sort of dialogue and willingness to question assumptions that are so important to a rigorous exploration of faith. Even here one has to give Williams his due even where there is disagreement. But the disagreement would not be a problem to Williams as he values the presence of uncertainty in the journey of faith.

God, Actually is a brilliant book. Williams writes with wit and a masterful command of language and sensitive argument. He displays a deep respect and empathy for his reader and his approach is reassuring and inspiring. Williams confidently engages with the ideas of contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins.

If you are looking for a reasonable basis to believe, or have friends that are averse to dogmatic expressions of religion, then God, Actually may just be the book you need.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Review: Blest Atheist

The title of this book captured my attention. How often do you hear an atheist use the language of blessing? Before I read the book, I wondered whether it was a current atheist writing about how they were blessed despite being an atheist. That wasn't so. Instead, the author, Elizabeth Mahlou, is a Christian who once was an atheist.

Mahlou describes her horrific childhood of constant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Through it all, she has an indomitable spirit that always hopes and always survives. She recounts the way in which, looking back from her now Christian perspective, she sees how God blessed her, even when she was an atheist.

For Mahlou, God is intimately involved in everything that happens(ed) in her life (indeed, in everyone's life). Prior to her conversion, she ascribed all the "miracles" of coincidence to Serendipity, not realising, at the time, that it was God working in her life.

Mahlou developed into a scholar with expertise in K-12 education and many languages who travelled widely and was highly influential (it would seem). She calls herself a Good Samaritan because of her natural tendency to help those in need — seeing this tendency now as the impulse of the divine working in her life.

Mahlou writes poetically. There are some inconsistencies here and there and, in my opinion, she gets bogged down in detail at times — I became bored with some of the story. And, at times, one gets the impression that she praises herself a little too much, despite the ultimate message of the book that the glory should go to God. But perhaps that can be forgiven when you think of her origins and what she has had to overcome.

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was the story of her conversion to Christianity and her move from a predominantly rationalist view of reality to one which is quite mystical. The book finishes on a very spiritual note with a hope that atheists (and others) who read the book may come to appreciate the reality of God in their lives even before they may come to recognise God. Some may find it hard to describe as miraculous some of the coincidences that Mahlou describes (I certainly did). But whatever you think about it, the story of her journey from abuse, to atheism, to Christianity is interesting. I just would have liked her to spend a bit more time on those mountains rather than spending so much time in the valleys of detail.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Movie Review: Knowing


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The end of the world has been "near" for millennia. Every age sees signs of impending annihilation. Apocalyptic literature, such as the book of Revelation in the Bible, link the end of all things with catastrophic events in nature or the deteriorating moral milieu of society.

Despite the range of possible interpretations inherent in apocalyptic literature, people have always wanted to see definite predictions in the text. But if we interpret these texts in ways that predict events with accuracy and certainty, deep philosophical questions arise about causality and determinism. There are two extremes when it comes to the nature of causality: determinism and randomness.

Determinism postulates that every event has directly antecedent causes. If we comprehensively knew the current state of all things, we could predict with certainty all future events.

On the other hand, some postulate that the fundamental nature of reality is randomness. Things just happen and what we see is some form of "average" product of the randomness.

The contemporary apocalyptic thriller, Knowing, directed by Alex Proyas, tackles these themes head-on. The central character, John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), is a scientist who, since losing his wife in a disaster some years before, struggles with the question of whether there is any inherent meaning in the events that occur (based on some form of determinism) or whether what happens is random and arbitrary.

Knowing opens in 1955 in a school where students are participating in a competition to come up with a celebration of the opening. Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) wins the competition when she suggests the school bury a time capsule with drawings of what the children think the world will be like in 50 years time. Lucinda's image is a page full of seemingly random numbers that she writes frenetically and is not able to finish because she is interrupted. She goes missing and is later found in the school's gym frantically scratching the remaining numbers on a closet door.

Fifty years later, in the same school, the students remove the time capsule on the anniversary of the school's opening. John Koestler's son, Caleb (Joshua Long) is given the envelope containing Lucinda's page of numbers. He opens it and takes the page home because he wonders whether it is a puzzle that can be solved.

His father, John, notices a pattern in some of the numbers that consist of the date and number of deaths of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. John gradually realises that the numbers are the details of the major disasters that occurred from the 1955 up until the present day. Thus begins an edge-of-your-seat thriller as John tries to uncover the meaning of the numbers that indicate a significant disaster in the near future. Adding to the suspense is growing belief that all this has something to do with his son -- particularly when Caleb begins to hear voices and see strange men trying to make contact with him.

Knowing is a tense, gripping, roller-coaster ride to a profoundly religious conclusion that postulates a hope of redemption for a devastated earth destroyed by the ultimate natural disaster. Viewers who are culturally literate will notice numerous allusions to religious and biblical themes. In many ways, the future vision of Knowing is bleak with only some being saved. But that mirrors the biblical themes of the destruction of heaven and earth with those who hear the call being rescued to populate a new earth.

Knowing is an intriguing film based on an intriguing premise. We are living in a world which seems to recognise the fragility of the planet and the realisation that we may be nearly at the point-of-no-return when, if we don't change the way we relate to the earth, there may be no earth to relate to. There is no hope unless salvation comes from outside the planet. It is the knowing that is important -- to be saved, you need to know the right person. That is far more important than knowing the details of the future which are not as predictable as Knowing suggests.


Positive Review
'Knowing is among the best science-fiction films I've seen -- frightening, suspenseful, intelligent and, when it needs to be, rather awesome.' - Roger Ebert/Chicago Sun-Times

Negative Review
'Isn't prophetic ... just pathetic.' - Joe Neumaier/New York Daily News

Content Advice
disaster sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language

USA: PG-13