Book Review: ‘A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions’ by John Dickson

January 25, 2015 in Book Reviews, Religion, Reviews

spectator's guide

My dear Christian friend has been giving me religious-themed books as gifts for years, not so much as a tool to convert me but more as a friendly nudge in my ongoing spiritual journey. His latest present, decidedly in more neutral territory, is A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions by John Dickson, an Aussie Christian minister and religious historian who has written more than a dozen books.

Having read more pro-Christianity and anti-Christianity literature than most sane people, I found this book to be an excellent and insightful experience that achieves its central aim — to educate people about the world’s five major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism (even though Sikhism, as I shockingly discovered, is actually more widely practiced than Judaism).

It would be natural, of course, to be sceptical of a Christian writer setting out to “introduce” readers to a book about four other religions, though unlike the furore sparked by Reza Aslan’s Zealot a couple of years ago, Dickson’s book barely caused a ripple when it was first released in 2004. Like Aslan, however, Dickson is a bonda fide historian with the credentials to back it up (he’s an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University), AND he tries really really hard to maintain a neutral stance in this book. If anything, he could be criticised as too cautious in his approach, as he sometimes goes overboard in defending himself to forthcoming doubters about his Christian background.

On the whole, however, Dickson does an enviable job of laying out the history and fundamental beliefs of the five major religions with fairness and respect. He starts with Hinduism because it’s the oldest, and ends the youngest of the five, Islam, which he spends perhaps a little too much time in defending — though to be fair, the defense needs to be placed in context because the book was written in the aftermath of 9/11.

The ideas and terms, especially those in Buddhism, are sometimes difficult to grasp, though for the most part they are described as simply as possible. The book is, after all, merely an “introduction” (it’s only about 240 pages),  so those interested in any particular religion are encouraged to conduct further research.  Most helpful is the summary section at the end of each chapter, where Dickson would boil everything about the religion down to a couple of pages of bullet points. A great cheat sheet for anyone doing an exam on the religions.

Another strength of the book is that it is not, at least on its face, proselytizing any religion in particular. Each religion is given roughly equal treatment, with the focus being on what the converts believe about their religion as opposed to whether the religion itself stands up to historical scrutiny. The message Dickson sends in the book, as summarised in a rather unnecessary final chapter, is that religions are not “all the same,” and that each religion deserves to be respected on its own merits. For me personally, I found the tone of the final chapter a little condescending, as though readers can’t make up their own minds from reading the rest of the book, but perhaps it might strike a chord with some of the agnostics out there.

The subtle way Dickson promotes Christianity in this book is by making readers read between the lines (and look, it wouldn’t be fair for a Christian minister to not even try, even if it’s subconsciously). By contrasting the religions against each other, Dickson highlights the unique nature of Christianity in that it is the religion with the most “witnesses” and the most  down-to-earth foundation, and that the Bible is probably the “reliable” religious text of the big five religions. When pitted against Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism look airy-fairy, Judaism seems archaic, and Islam is just all based on the words of a single man. There are lots of fundamental questions about all religions, but when framed in this way, Christianity appears to have the least. It doesn’t necessarily make Christianity a “truer” religion, but the book at least sows a couple seeds in that field.

I don’t want to suggest that this book is not balanced because it is — and much more so than I had anticipated. I’d recommend it to anyone with an open mind about religion and wanting to learn about the basics of the big five. It hasn’t turned me into a religious expert, but at least I now have a better grasp of general knowledge stuff like the differences in the central beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists and the ideological split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

4/5

Book Review: ‘Heaven is For Real’ by Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo

March 27, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

heaven

After having read Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander last year, my spiritual journey continues with Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. This bestseller, which has a film adaptation coming to our screens soon, is written by conservative American writer Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo, the father of Colton, the little boy who supposedly went to heaven when he was 4 years old and came back to tell everyone about it.

It’s an easy book to read, and with just 163 pages, the type you could breeze through in a sitting or two (it took me three, which is pretty impressive by my standards). The writing is solid and builds suspense in a natural and unforced manner — largely through Colton’s medical ordeal which led to the alleged out-of-body experience, then through the bits and pieces of “heaven” he reveals to his family following his return. The story is told from the point of view of Todd, who shares his astonishment as his young son begins telling him things the 4-year-old couldn’t possibly have known (or so he says), including a miscarriage that had been hidden from him and the youthful appearance of a great grandfather he had never met.

The story is sold as nothing but a miracle of Biblical proportions, and the details of it as told by the Burpo family are certainly incredible. A lot of the stuff little Colton says are goosebump-inducing stuff (we’re talking Jesus and angels and Satan and the whole shebang), but the whole thing comes across as a little too neat and a little too packaged, which is no wonder why the book has polarized readers.

You see, the one crucial  thing I’ve withheld about the book is that Todd Burpo is a pastor who decided he was going to devote his life to God from the age of 13, and his whole family seems just as passionate about the Bible as him. Accordingly, unlike Proof of Heaven, which purposely avoided references to religion and heaven in a Biblical sense, Heaven is for Real is ALL ABOUT the Bible, and how Colton’s experience “proves” that the stories and descriptions of things in the Good Book are literally real. For example, when the Bible says Jesus sits on a throne in heaven, that’s exactly what it means, according to Colton, because that’s what he saw when he was there. When the Bible says Jesus sits “on the right hand of God,” it means he literally sits on God’s right hand side in heaven (like all the time?). And of course, Colton also saw Mary there with them because the Bible says that too. These are just a few of the plethora of such examples in the book.

Christians, especially those who embrace a literal interpretation of the Bible, will love this book (and they do). It’s got a great story and an inspiring message at heart. Todd Burpo had been questioning his faith after a string of personal woes, from financial difficulties to broken bones and a cancer scare, and his mental and emotional state were in the dumps when his beloved little boy was hospitalised with a life-threatening condition. He got angry at God, but he also prayed and asked for a miracle, and God delivered, saving his little boy and restoring his faith forever. And with the way the book has been selling, it looks like the financial troubles have been obliterated too.

But for people who have a healthy scepticism of these types of claims, there are also plenty of ways to dismiss Heaven is for Real, with the most obvious being that the kid has clearly been indoctrinated from birth. His entire life up to that point revolved around his religion — his parents read him Bible stories every night, he goes to church all the time, he attends Sunday school every week. Even the movies they watch have Christian themes (eg, the Narnia series). Todd Burpo says his son talked about things in the Bible he couldn’t possibly have known, but that could be just parents underestimating their kids. I know I’m often amazed at some of the things my 2-year-old knows and says every day, wondering how the heck and where the heck he picked them up. Throw in a “leading questions”-type approach from the parents, a bit of wishful thinking and a touch of literary embellishment, and it’s not hard to conclude that little Colton was likely suffering from a wild imagination and a desire to please his parents, who had probably subconsciously encouraged him with their excited body language and readiness to believe whatever he said.

The kicker, which I forgot to mention, is that there was never any medical proof, or even suggestion, that Colton was medically “dead” during his surgery. How can someone have a near-death experience when they’re not actually close to death?

That said, I think being completely dismissive of the book is being unfair to the Burpos, who seem like wonderful people and devout Christians who genuinely believe what happened to them was a miracle. This is where being a pastor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand you could say it supports the view that he would not lie and that it makes perfect sense why God would want to reward a family like theirs for their faith, but on the other you could just write it off as a biased preacher hearing what he wanted to hear and skewing everything in the direction that matches his beliefs.

My view is somewhat mixed. Some of the things Colton says defy explanation, and even if you don’t believe he went to heaven you have to admit they are eerily compelling. However, out-of-body experiences, not just NDEs, are not uncommon phenomena (there’s a never-ending amount of literature out there for open-minded people who want to read it), and while most of them have both common and unique elements (such as Eben Alexander’s experience in Proof of Heaven), few come close to meetings with Jesus or corroborating the literal truth of the Bible.

What the literature suggests is that the afterlife, supposing there is one, is a subjective, almost tailor-made experience. People tend to see things and meet people that comfort them, even family members they haven’t met before or don’t remember meeting. Now, I can’t possibly know if little Colton had an out-of-body experience or just an awesome dream, but if we assume he did, could it be that what he saw, given his uber religious upbringing, are just the things that comfort him the most? The things that he would want to, or even expect to, see when he dies? I’m not even sure that makes sense, but it’s food for thought.

Anyway, Heaven is for Real was a fun read that has the potential to be a good or extremely awful movie. I actually enjoyed the first half, about the Burpo family’s struggles and Colton’s frightening health scare, than the second, when the Christian imagery started raining down on the pages and tedious chunks of Biblical verses began getting rolled out to match everything Colton was saying. Christians will say it proves the truth of heaven and the Bible, while non-believers will say it only proves the depths of human stupidity and naivete. Overall, it’s still a book I would recommend to people I think will appreciate it for what it is — a story that will make us think about the nature of life and asks us what we ultimately want to believe when we die.

3/5

PS: Here’s the trailer for the film, starring Greg Kinnear, scheduled for an April 16 release.

Comprehensive Review & Analysis: ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ by Reza Aslan

January 28, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Religion, Reviews

Aslan sketch_10.indd

Like everyone else, I found the title Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth too provocative to ignore. “Zealot” carries certain negative connotations, and the use of the word in the title is clearly by design, intended to stir up a shitstorm which it of course did upon its release.

But beneath all the controversy, Zealot is actually a fairly readable, robustly researched academic work that makes a strong case that the Biblical Jesus Christ is a very different person to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. This is probably already something a lot of non-Christians, and even some more liberal Christians believe, but what this book does is flesh out all the arguments through an analysis of historical documents and the Bible itself, stringing together a narrative that delves into how the religion of Christianity was created in the first place.

Zealot is written by Iranian-American Reza Aslan, who coincidentally shares the same name as the lion from CS Lewis’s Narnia books, which are allegedly veiled Christian stories where the lion is actually God! A lot has been made about the fact that Aslan is a Muslim who converted from Christianity and that he currently works as a creative writing teacher. Both are accurate but overblown because he is also a scholar of religions, someone who holds a PhD in the sociology of religions from the University of California. And really, all you have to do is read a few pages of Zealot to realize that this is not some fanciful creative writing project of some Muslim nut trying to destroy Christianity, but rather a thorough academic work from someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about, or at least projects that image anyway. The Da Vinci Code this is not.

Of course, this is not to say Aslan’s theories about the life of Jesus are correct or that he doesn’t have an agenda (of course he does, and I think it’s motivated by $$$ more than anything else), but most of the accusations that have been hurled his way are pretty embarrassing.

Contrary to some reviews I have read about the book, Zealot is not a straight, blow-by-blow chronological biography of Jesus of Nazareth. The first couple of chapters set up the all-important historical background that helps readers understand the type of world Jesus was born into 2000 years ago, after which each chapter of the book tackles a different aspect or period of Jesus’s life through analyses of the Bible and other historical records. The final chapters, which I found the most fascinating, deal with the resurrection, followed by how Christianity as we know it came into being.

Zealot is also not a piece of “historical fiction” as some have suggested. Granted, Aslan does occasionally delve into what can be described as “creative non-fiction” in some of his descriptions, but to say he is just making things up is a gross exaggeration. For the most part, the book is driven by critical analysis that points out what was likely and what was not likely based on what we know about that time today.

Review

First and foremost, it is important to remember that Zealot is essentially an academic work that has been written with a wider audience in mind. There is accordingly a certain level of historical and religious detail and complexity in what Aslan writes, a lot of which would be difficult for the layman to follow, let alone fully comprehend.

It is a difficult book to get through at times because he blows through a lot of names of people and places very quickly, and people who don’t have at least a bit of knowledge about the Bible or this period of history could find most of it flying straight over their heads. Compounding the situation is that a lot of people back in those days have the exact same names, which means you might have to re-read certain sections if you want to fully understand all the details. I’ll admit I couldn’t be bothered most of the time.

Considering what a tough job it is explaining such a complicated part of history and the need to do it well, Aslan does about as well as you could have expected in keeping the narrative relatively simple and flowing. It is not easy to strike a balance between being comprehensive and informative against being readable and accessible, and I think the fluidity of the narrative and the confident voice with which the story is told is a testament to Aslan’s impressive knowledge of the subject.

The problem with Zealot is that the whole book is written under the presumption that Jesus was not, and could not have been divine, and the narrative is built entirely around the premise that the Biblical Jesus and the historical Jesus are two completely different people. What I mean by that is instead of analysing the available and reliable historical information to reach certain conclusions, Aslan appears to cherry pick parts the Bible and other ancient documents to back up his preconceived conclusion.

Another major problem, which Aslan highlights in the first few pages of the book, is that because there is insufficient information on certain details of Jesus’s life, he is often forced to make “educated guesses” on what was most likely under the circumstances. However, as he appears so self-assured about everything he says, it becomes difficult to distinguish between when he is making a statement based on irrefutable “facts” and when he is making a “guess”, which, even if “educated”, could be biased or skewed so that he can reach certain conclusions that suit his agenda.

To get a clearer picture of how much guesswork was actually involved, you’ll have to rummage through the extensive notes section at the end of the book, which adds about another quarter to a third of the book’s overall length. I would hardly call this section compulsory reading because the majority of it is just additional sources for interested readers to explore. That said, there are some interesting bits in there that elaborate on a lot of the arguments Aslan makes throughout the book, though sometimes they actually undermine his theories by making you realise that there are equally convincing counterarguments.

Of course, if everything was as obvious as Aslan paints it to be, he wouldn’t need to write a book about it. I’m sure plenty of Christian scholars and apologists already have and will continue to poke holes in his so-called “facts” and “educated guesses”, which is simply something that comes with the territory when writing about stuff no one can really know about for sure.

On the whole, Zealot offers no earth-shattering revelations, but it is nevertheless a well-written book with a strong central argument. While not exactly a page turner because all the context and background it needs to constantly provide, readers interested in who the “historical Jesus” might have been should find it an educative and fascinating read.

Key arguments of the book

Aslan essentially summarises the central argument of Zealot in this paragraph: “The firstcentury Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.”

What he is saying is that the Bible is far from inerrant (as some loonies claim) and is likely skewed by evangelists with an agenda. He does a great job of providing the context in which the Biblical stories of Jesus came into being, explaining to readers that it was a very different world back then where 97% of people were illiterate and driven by superstitions. His analysis suggests that certain parts of the gospels were likely to have been completely made up by the writers or at least twisted to make Jesus’s life fall in line with Old Testament prophecies.

One technique Aslan employs is to compare and contrast the the gospels to show how the later gospels may have built on myths created by an earlier one. For example, he suggests that John the Baptist apparently once had a huge following as well, with some believing he was even greater than Jesus, but the gospels intentionally tried to lessen his influence and make it abundantly clear that, despite being a great man himself, John was nothing compared to Jesus. Aslan illustrates how through time, John goes from the one who baptizes Jesus to just bearing witness to Jesus’s divinity, when historical records suggest that Jesus likely began his ministry as just another one of John’s disciples and only built his own after John was arrested.

By the way, none of this suggests that Jesus is not who the Bible says he is. But what it does argue is that any suggestion that the Bible is an inerrant document is a joke, and that in reality it is a very flawed book driven by different agendas and plagued with historical and factual inaccuracies and contradictions.

So how did the documents that make up the Bible become this way? Aslan points the finger at Paul, a former Pharisee who never met Jesus when he was alive but inexplicably became a believer after a supposed miraculous meeting with a divine, post-resurrection Jesus, after which he started declaring himself greater than the 12 Apostles and as the one chosen by God to build a new religion.

According to Aslan, Paul (who is painted as a bit of a nutcase) had a different agenda and beliefs to the rest of the remaining members of the 12 Apostles and Jesus’s brother James, who advocated something much closer to what the real life (and non-divine) Jesus preached. Paul’s version of a divine Jesus was completely different and often contradictory to the Jesus who lived. It does not narrate a single event from Jesus’s life and provides little insight into who the living Jesus was — nor did he seem to care.

The two sides actually battled bitterly over Jesus’s legacy, leading to the Apostles demanding that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings in 57CE. It was not only the destruction of Jerusalem, which destroyed just about all records of Jesus’s life and link to Judaism, that Paul’s side emerged victorious.

“The transformation of the Nazarean into a divine, preexisting, literal son of God whose death and resurrection launch a new genus eternal beings responsible for judging the world has no basis in any writings about Jesus that are even remotely contemporary with Paul’s (a firm indication that Paul’s Christ was likely his own creation).”

Aslan goes on to claim that the only writings about Jesus apart from the so-called Q document that existed in 70CE were the letters of Paul, which became the primary vehicle for the Christian movement and a heavy influence on the gospels. Tellingly, more than half the 27 books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul. Two millennia later, as Aslan says, “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”

To be fair to Aslan, he is reasonably objective when it comes to certain aspects of Jesus’s life that might suggest divinity. For example, he admits that there is ample historical evidence that Jesus healed the sick and performed “miracles.” Aslan does, however, place Jesus’s remarkable feats in context by pointing out that so-called miracle workers were very prevalent back in those days (in fact, there was an entire industry), with the only difference being that Jesus did not charge for his services.

On the pivotal question of the resurrection, Aslan is unable to answer definitively, saying that it is a “matter of faith,” though he argues what is clear is that  if Jesus did rise from the dead he did not do so “according to the scriptures” (ie, it was not prophecized) as claimed in the Bible.

Aslan also concludes that the resurrection as described in the Bible is “not a historical event” because by the time these stories were written, six decades after the event, the evangelists had heard “just about every conceivable objection to the resurrection, and they were able to create narratives to counter each and every one of them.” The result, Aslan claims, is that the resurrection as described is not a historical event but “carefully crafted rebuttals.”

Having said that, Aslan also recognizes the wealth of evidence supporting the resurrection. “However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony,” Aslan admits in the book. As he points out, these people died not because they were asked to deny matters of faith, but because they were asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. 

This may come as a disappointment to some readers hoping to find something that will challenge what are arguably the most incredible claims in the Bible, but full credit to Aslan for admitting that there is insufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that these miraculous things can be dismissed outright.

Other claims

Some of the other arguments Aslan makes and “facts” he points out in Zealot include:

– The term “zealot”, in the context of Jesus’s time, is someone who believes in only the one truth god and no others. That’s the “zealot” he is referring to in the title of his book.

– Practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.

– No one has ever seen the originals of the gospels and it is generally accepted that the gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) were not written by the people after which they have been named. Accordingly, it’s impossible to tell whether the copies (even the oldest one we have) that are in circulation now have been tampered with.

– People back in Jesus’s time did not have a sense of what the word “history” meant, meaning they were not documenting things for future generations, and what the writings meant was more important to whether they were factually accurate.

– 97% of people back in Jesus’s time (including possibly Jesus himself) were illiterate and prone to manipulation.

– “Messiah” did not necessarily mean “God” back in those days as the prophecies in the scriptures were not clear and were confusing and contradictory. There were in fact many messiahs throughout history and even just in Jesus’s time.

– The narrative of Jesus’s birth is riddled with problems and contradictions, including claims in a couple of the gospel that he was born in Bethlehem as opposed to the obscure village of Nazareth. Aslan says Jesus almost certainly had many brothers and sisters, which shoots a big hole in the Catholic claim that Mary was a virgin for life.

– Jesus started off as merely just another disciple of John the Baptist. Jesus’s earliest disciples only started following him after John was arrested.

– Contrary to claims, Jesus was in fact very aware of the political landscape. Aslan tears down the image of a Jesus who only cared about preaching the word of God. He claims that Jesus’s prophecies about being arrested, tortured and crucified could be seen as either made up by future generations or simply “predictable” because that’s what happened to every self-proclaiming messiah who dared to challenge Rome.

– Jesus’s so-called trial before Pontius Pilate was a complete fabrication as Pilate would have never given Jesus the time of day given that at least a dozen similar “trials” were conducted on the same day. Likely also to be a fabrication is the entire narrative from the Last Supper to Jesus’s arrest up until his crucifixion.

– The story that it was the Jews who wanted Jesus crucified made absolutely no sense. It was likely made up for a Roman audience and thus tried to shift the blame away from Rome, though as a result it has sparked 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.

– Jesus was crucified alongside other lestai, which Aslan claims actually means other revolutionaries like him, rather than the general “evildoers” used in Luke’s gospel because he was uncomfortable with its political implications.

– The truth is that Jesus was executed for sedition, not blasphemy for claiming he was divine as the gospels claim, as the laws state clearly that the punishment for blasphemy is death by stoning, not crucifixion. Aslan says the “flagrant inaccuracies” of the procedures and rituals and traditions in Jesus’s trial and execution show a complete lack of understanding by the early evangelists.

– Jesus’s predictions about the the arrival of the Kingdom of God and a new world order never arrived. In fact, Aslan claims that “Kingdom of God” back then did not mean “heaven” as we know it and actually referred to a Jewish realm on earth where people followed the rules of a deity as opposed to a human king. The suggestion is that Jesus wanted to crown himself “king” of the new order, but a king who will serve the people as opposed to the other way around.

– Jesus did not perceive himself in the way early church leaders did. He never openly referred to himself as messiah or the Son of God (he actually called himself, ambiguously, Son of Man), which in any case did not mean that he was literally God’s offspring but was instead the traditional designation for Israel’s kings. Even King David was called Son of God multiple times in the Bible.

– Stephen, the first person to be martyred for calling Jesus “Christ” and stoned to death for blasphemy, had never met Jesus, was never involved in his life, nor witnessed his death. In addition, Stephen was not a scribe or scholar and did not know the scriptures well, plus he preached to an uneducated and illiterate crowd.

– Luke attributed a long speech to Stephen which was likely to have been made up. Luke says Stephen looked up to the heavens and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which became a favourite image of the early Christian community — and that was how Jesus became God. As Aslan writes: “One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is that last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth.”

– The original Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, including remnants of the 12 Apostles, clashed with the Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews, the ones who claimed Jesus was God. And it was their conflict that resulted in two competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion, one led by Christian convert Paul and the other by Jesus’s brother James. Paul’s version of the divine Jesus won out after the destruction of Jerusalem.

– The story of how Paul met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, including his blinding and subsequent cure, is “a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke, one of Paul’s young devotees,” Aslan contends, as Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus nearly a decade after the crucifixion.

– There are some great stories about the boy Jesus in the gnostic gospels, especially The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which a petulant Jesus flaunts his magical powers by bringing clay birds to life or striking dead neighborhood kids who fail to show him deference.

Conclusion

The ideas in Zealot will be debated to death and I don’t have the requisite knowledge to throw in my two cents about what I think of Aslan’s arguments, as compelling as they are. At the end of the day, no one really knows, or else there wouldn’t be a whole market of books advocating and dissing the truth of Christianity. What Zealot does do very well, however, is provide an alternate version of events to the Bible and point out likely fallacies of the Holy Book, which Aslan paints — at the very least — as an unreliable or undependable account of historical events. Ultimately, what you believe about Jesus remains a matter of faith, though having said that, Zealot could go a long way in helping you make or prevent you from making that leap.

Rating: 3.5/5

Vatican Preacher: Accusing Church of Abuse Akin to Anti-Semitism

April 4, 2010 in Religion, Social/Political Commentary

Rev Raniero Cantalamessa, who made the comments on Good Friday

I don’t usually like to comment on religious or political things, but this latest Vatican furore has gotten me worked up — and after all, it’s Easter.

At the Good Friday service delivered by Pope Benedict XVI’s personal preacher, Rev Raniero Cantalamessa, read out a letter from a friend which likened the recent persecution of the Catholic Church over clerical sex abuse cover ups to the “more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.”

What could have possibly possessed Cantalamessa to compare the allegations of feigned ignorance or blatant cover up over child sex abuse by the Catholic Church to the unspeakable horrors stemming from anti-Semitism?  Rather than whine about and give lame excuses over the flack the Church has copped (and justifiably so) over the child abuse and cover up claims, why not actually do something about it?  Or at least make it look like they’re doing something about it?  By all means, make the point that the Church as a whole is being unfairly blamed, and that not all priests are pedophiles.  But do it in an intelligent way that does not unnecessaily stir up the already sensitive public.

And of course, the expected public backlash/overreaction is equally frustrating.  It’s typical of the media to pick one little bit of a sermon by one person of the Church and blow it out of proportion by saying it’s an insult to all the Jews that perished in the Holocaust.  No wonder the Pope (and the Vatican) is trying to distance himself from the comments.

However, at the end of the day, it’s really just another example of the arrogance and naivete of certain members of the Catholic Church in thinking that they can play the “victim” card in the child abuse saga and expect to get away it.  And to use anti-Semitism to draw parallels is just plain stupid.

In particular, I found the comparison interesting given that the Catholic Church has played a prominent role in both the child abuse cover-up scandals and in perpetuating theological anti-Semitism throughout history.

Book Review: “God, Actually” by Roy Williams

August 10, 2009 in Book Reviews

The obvious cover design is a good indication of the type of people 'God, Actually' is targeting

The obvious cover design is a good indication of the type of people 'God, Actually' is targeting

Here’s my long overdue review of the book ‘God, Actually’ by Australian writer Roy Williams, a former lawyer who struggled for years with his faith.  It was a gift from my devout Christian friend, who has recommended many such texts to me over the years in his attempts to convert me (after I told him I read ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins!).  And I must say, out of all the things I have read, ‘God, Actually’ is the only book that has really done anything to clarify some of the fundamental issues I have about religion and Christianity in particular.

I should make it clear from the outset that you are unlikely to find any ground-breaking arguments in this book.  So if you don’t start off with an open mind, you’re likely to scoff at what Williams has to say.  However, what I did like about the Williams’ approach is how he applies (or at least tries to) reason and logic to religious issues and does not take an unreasonable, hard-line stance to the more controversial questions.  While I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, he does end up espousing a form of ‘liberal’ Christianity that I think a lot of people on the fringe can relate to, and perhaps even believe in.

Who is Roy Williams?

We’ve all seen those Christian books written by ‘former skeptics’ on the shelves; people who were once atheists that became advocates because of some life-changing experience or because they actively sought God.  Sure, it makes the book seem more compelling and the transformation more amazing, but when you actually read a couple of pages you realize that these people were probably (closet) Christians all along just using a clever marketing ploy.  They never answer the tough questions that true skeptics or unbelievers would ask.

And so I had my doubts about the author when I first started reading the book.  A former lawyer, Williams claims he was a skeptic about Christianity for most of his life, even though his great-grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.  It was not until his mid-thirties, through ‘prodigious reading’, parenthood and a bout with depression that he became a true Christian.  Is this guy a Christian in skeptics’ clothing or a genuine converted?

Well, a bit of both.  Reading ‘God, Actually’, I got the feeling that Williams was not a ‘pretend atheist’, but the seeds of Christianity were always inside him, ready to bloom.  He had a Christian upbringing and never strayed too far from the church, though his heart was not in it and was disheartened with it all.  However, he says that his journey back into Christianity occurred when he and his wife decided to send their daughter to Sunday school.  That raised alarm bells – why would someone who was truly skeptical about Christianity want to do that?

Nevertheless, I didn’t allow that to cloud my judgment when it came to the merit of Williams’ arguments.

Main issues covered

The book is divided into 3 parts.  Part 1 covers ‘Reasons to Believe in God’, in which Williams tackles evolution and the human mind, in particular the emotion of love.

Part 2 discusses ‘Reasons to Believe in Christianity’, which explains why Christianity ought to be preferred to other religions – and the reason, of course, is the ‘evidence’ of Jesus and his resurrection.

Finally, in Part 3, Williams provides answers to some common objections to Christianity, such as suffering, other religions and the concepts of Heaven and Hell.

What I liked

What I liked most about Williams is that he does not talk down to the reader – he merely offers his personal point of view on why he believes the arguments against God are unconvincing to him, and why the arguments for God are.

However, just like the way Christian apologists can find a way to break down any argument propounded by atheists, I have no doubt atheists can do the same to all of William’s arguments.  But Williams doesn’t deny this – he is putting forward his view and hopes to convince the reader.  As he says, if he can convince just one person, then his job has been a success.

From the start, Williams tells his reader that it is impossible to be 100% certain about the existence of God (think of the implications, he says!), and thus it is necessary to adopt a deductive approach.  Faith is ultimately required.  It’s a reminder that no matter how much you read about religion, at the end of the day, it’s a matter of faith – either you have it or you don’t.

Williams is what I would call a ‘liberal’ Christian, and in some ways that may be problematic because many fundamental Christians probably won’t agree with his views, particularly those on the difficult issues of abortion, euthanasia and cloning.  But because it emphasises substance rather than form, the Christianity that Williams advocates is one that a lot of non-believers may accept.  For instance, he recognises that culture plays a crucial role in shaping a person’s religious beliefs, and that God (if he exists) will take a fair and overall approach to evaluating a person’s life when they die.  So someone who was born, lived and died in a place without access to Christianity will not be judged unfavourably.

On the issue of evolution, he puts forward a view that is not new, but is at least plausible from a logic standpoint – that evolution does not disprove God; rather, it’s just the mechanism of God’s design.  On Jesus, he puts forward a compelling case based on the Gospels, deduction and comparisons with other deities, much like Lee Strobel did in The Case for Christ, but more objectively.  It doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s well-argued and a solid discussion nonetheless.

Another thing I liked was the constant references to literature and films in his examples and analogies – like Shakespeare, Jane Austen and The Matrix.  Needless to say, I could relate!

What I didn’t like

While Williams starts off well in tackling the main arguments raised by atheists, as he moves on, he too often lapses into preach-mode, citing verses from the Bible as evidence and proceeding on the basis that God exists as fact.  He may start off on a topic objectively (or at least try), but he can’t help but make the same mistake that a lot of Christian apologists do.  For example, Williams uses the emotion of ‘love’ as justification for God’s existence – because it’s such a wonderful thing.  But that argument depends on the presupposition that God exists, not the other way around.

Another common trap that Williams falls into (and to be fair, many atheists do too) is that he sometimes argues why people SHOULD believe in God rather than whether God exists as a matter of fact.  For example, he says that we should believe in God because of his love for us, or because he ‘created’ us.  But God either exists or he does not – whether we SHOULD believe in him is irrelevant.

Williams also makes some incorrect or dubious assumptions.  For instance, he suggests that humans are wired by God to believe in a deity – but judging from the number of atheists and agnostics out there, the applicability of that statement is limited.  He also says that people must seek God to be saved – but what if someone really tried, really put in an effort, and yet still didn’t find God convincing, or believed in the wrong God, or a different God, or no God at all?  That seems awfully unfair if God punishes you for not reaching the conclusion that he wants – especially if he was the one that ‘created’ you to be this way.

There are also some inconsistencies in Williams’ arguments.  On the question of suffering, he says that God doesn’t intervene when humans suffer because of free will.  That I understand.  However, on the other hand, when things are favourable (eg we haven’t been blown up by nuclear weapons despite numerous close calls), Williams attributes this to God’s grace.  God either intervenes or he does not.  To say God does not intervene because of free will, and then to say the fact that we have not blown ourselves up (something totally within the control of humans) is evidence of God’s grace is inherently contradictory.

But perhaps Williams’ biggest problem is that he too often explains something by saying that it simply ‘rings true’ to him.  The thing is, the same argument won’t necessarily ring true to everyone, and it may actually have the opposite effect.  What if something rings true to him but rings false to someone else?  Does that mean his instincts are right and the other person’s are wrong?  I understand it’s a personal view but it doesn’t make a good argument.

Oh, and I didn’t like Williams’ explicit use of his ‘lawyer’ training to support his arguments.  For example, he applies his lawyer skills to the inconsistent records of Jesus, in particular the Gospels.  He says he would be more skeptical if all the records matched up.  Well, aren’t inconsistencies the first thing that a lawyer would look for?  Sometimes that’s all it takes to generate reasonable doubt.

Conclusion

‘God, Actually’ provides viable alternatives to atheist theories.  Whether they convince you or not is beside the point – what it does well is put holes in some atheist arguments and suggest that these arguments are not irrefutable.  In a way, this book best helps people who are ALREADY believers in the Christian faith who have doubts because of atheist theories and arguments.  Williams’ arguments may put away those lingering doubts.  But what it falls well short of is convincing atheists from switching sides or agnostics from falling towards Christianity.

That being said, it’s about as objective of a book as you can expect to find from a Christian apologist.  It would be great if one of these books could be written by a genuine agnostic and not someone who has already fallen firmly into one side or another (Christian or Atheist) and analyses the arguments objectively without providing a subjective conclusion – instead, allowing people to decide for themselves.

[PS: for those with a bit of time, check out this thread on Dawkins’ website where his loyal supporters trounce poor Roy Williams’ book and then the man himself when he joins the discussion.  It’s highly entertaining and somewhat cringeworthy at times – but what it demonstrates is that no matter how hard Christians try, some people will never be convinced.]