Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book recommendation: Deconverted: a Journey from Religion to Reason

Deconverted: a Journey from Religion to ReasonDeconverted: a Journey from Religion to Reason by Seth Andrews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent, enjoyable read from the host of The Thinking Atheist website and podcast who shares his journey from fundamentalist Christianity to atheism. The author obviously loves language and tells a great story full of pain, humor, and intelligence. Definitely worth putting on your reading list.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bible Thumper to AthiestBible Thumper to Athiest by Tom Crawford
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Before writing my review, I'd like to remind you that I am not averse to atheist literature. Some of it is very good indeed. For example, excellent atheist books I have read recently include David Eller's Ahtheism Advanced and John R Shook's The God Debates. I mention this because I am going to go against the trend by other reviewer's of praising this book and giving it high ratings. And my comments about the book are not because of any bias I have against atheist literature. That said ... on to the review ...

This is the worst book I can remember reading from an atheist perspective. The book is essentially in two parts. The first part is a brief description of the author's journey from "bible thumper to atheist". The second section is a series of 388 questions about the Bible and related matters.

The autobiographical section is interesting in providing some background of the author but is pretty superficial with little depth of reflection on the dynamics of his movement from fundamentalist Christian to becoming an atheist. It is primarily descriptive and, of course, needs to be accepted at face value as someone personal experience.

The largest section of the book - the 388 questions - is atrociously superficial and demonstrates an ineptness of dealing with hermeneutics. At no point does Crawford show any indication of having interacted with biblical scholarship, modern critical hermeneutics, or literary analysis of ancient texts. It is as though Crawford hasn't moved on from his Christian fundamentalist approach to reading the biblical text and now criticises the biblical documents from an equally naive fundamentalist, albeit atheistic, position. This should be disappointing to atheists as it is doesn't represent an intelligent, sophisticated critique of Christianity or the biblical documents.

Some examples: Crawford writes:

... the Bible tells us that God created everything and it therefore follows that if he created everything, then, by definition, everything must include evil.

There is most definitely a significant problem of evil for Christians to deal with. But evil is not a "thing" that can be created like a tree or rock or person. It is a moral category. Constructing the problem of evil in the way that Crawford does is naive and philosophically ignorant. Crawford also completely ignores the important free will defence which, although it may be criticised, is something that any critic of Christianity needs to be aware of.

Another example is Crawford's handling of the book of Job. He makes the sweeping statement that 'Christians believe this story to be true.' Many, many Christian scholars would understand Job to be a sophisticated folktale consisting of a combination of prose and poetry to raise questions about suffering rather than to answer them. Crawford's approach to Job is simplistic and ignorant of the contemporary scholarship of the book.

The examples could go on and on. He criticises the OT for not mentioning Satan, not realising that most biblical scholars recognise that the OT writers did not have a well developed concept of Satan. Throughout the book, the author displays a complete disregard for the cultural and historical contexts of the texts he is 'analysing' and raising questions about. He also ignores the presence of metaphor, hyperbole and other literary devices and raises questions that are the product of reading the text in a fundamentalist literalistic way. Crawford also ignores the symbolic nature of apocalyptic literature such as the NT book of Revelation. Nor does he seem to demonstrate any understanding of the translation of an ancient text, criticising translators for changing the words of the Bible on the basis of manuscript analysis.

My criticism of Crawford's analysis of the Bible is not meant to imply that there are no serious questions to be asked of the biblical text. There are and some of them are intractable. But Crawford's book is not the place to go to find out what they are. If anyone were to take Crawford's questions and repeat them to educated Christians it would be laughable and only bring embarrassment.

So if someone is looking for a serious, substantial critique of the Bible, don't start here.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Book Review: God: All That Matters

God: All That MattersGod: All That Matters by Mark Vernon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A simple, articulate summary by an agnostic Christian of a few of the major issues related to the idea of God. Considers questions from a broader perspective than the Judeo-Christian and tackles some of the contemporary issues under discussion. But the brevity of the book means there is limited breadth and depth and lacks a necessary critical strength. Good for a quick introduction that can be followed up by suggested books in the provided further reading list. Includes a a brief appendix commenting on the nature of the traditional "proofs" of God and another listing 100 ideas (including people) significant in the development of religious concepts.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Western Values Versus the Gospels - What Jesus Really Values and Why We Shouldn't Agree with HimWestern Values Versus the Gospels - What Jesus Really Values and Why We Shouldn't Agree with Him by Peter Woolcock
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm just over half way through this book and have given up on it by jumping to the conclusion which is a good summary of the main argument. The essential message of the author is that the values of Jesus in the gospels, as the author construes them, are mostly incompatible with Western values, as defined by the author. The author's view of Jesus' values can be summarised by a paragraph at the start of Chapter 8:

... the only thing that Jesus believes to have intrinsic value is God himself. Humans only have a conferred value, one conferred on them by God's valuing them. The special feature possessed by humans that God specifically values is their capacity to worship him out of gratitude for the benefit he has bestowed upon them in creating them.

The author, Peter Woolcock,takes a very cynical view of Jesus' values. While it is definitely worth considering whether or not the values held by Jesus (and by many Christians) are instrumental rather than intrinsic to being human, Woolcock can only arrive at his view of Jesus's values by completely ignoring the historical and cultural context of the gospel narratives. In the gospels Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jewish people, including the "professional clergy" who were steeped in Jewish law and culture. Jesus was speaking to them in the framework of that culture and their historical situation. In fact, Woolcock makes the same mistake that many Christians make when they take the biblical narratives as propositional content and lift it from its context making it universally applicable.

Woolcock's writing is boringly repetitious - after the first couple of chapters the pattern is the same. First, show how one of Jesus' values is theocentric and instrumental (purely to please God and God's intentions) rather than something that is inherent in being human. Second, compare that with a Western value construed in the most positive way possible to show that it is better to subscribe to Western values than Jesus' values.

Woolcock's interpretation of the gospel narratives frequently draws on an evangelical conservative study bible commentary on the one hand and citations from the controversial Jesus Seminar on the other. His interpretations of Jesus's values basically ignores the best scholarship around Jesus' subversion of his culture's values and the terms "presumably", "it may be the case", "it seems to me" occur over and over again hinting at the biased perspective. Woolcock would do well to read some of the covenant theology for a more nuanced understanding of what values non-fundamentalist Christians support within a new covenant framework. For example, Woolcock assumes that the ten commandments are what are binding on Christians when this is not the case according to the best covenant theology. There is also the interesting idea of disinterested benevolence which specifically addresses the need to love others for their own sake rather than any instrumental or salvivic value they may or may not have.

Let me end by saying that I agree that values must be intrinsic rather than instrumental. I think Woolcock has a point. He is right in what he affirms but wrong (in my view) in what he denies. Too many Christians see the entirety of reality in terms that are only about what God wants - even to the point of making the abhorrent suggestion that God is involved in bringing suffering on people to achieve God's purposes. Woolcock quite rightly criticises, for example, William Lane Craig for his offensive comments regarding the slaughter of the Canaanites.

I agree that many Western values are excellent and we see these values coalescing and being clarified as more proponents weigh in on the discussion, including atheist contributions. Ultimately, this book is a provocative position worthy of consideration but is undermined by cynicism, bias, and boring writing.

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Going on the run ...

Hi there

Because of my busy life I've decided to change the way I do movie and book reviews here on the Thinking Christian blog. Most of my activity will now be on my new Facebook page called OntherunMoviesAndBooks. You are very welcome to head there and make that the place where you get all my comments/reviews on books and movies. Because I am going for brevity (without losing quality and usefulness I hope!) I can comment on more movies and books than I can with longer reviews. If you look above this post to the top of the page under the title, you'll see a Facebook badge with the first few words of the latest post. Click on the badge and it will take you off to the page so you can read the whole post and other stuff on my page. You'll also continue to see my Twitter feed on the right of this page. Let me know what you think!