Reading Reviews - May 2019

Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin. The "tough questions" book is a mainstay of Christian apologetics (the practice of defending and explaining the Christian faith). My go-to for this sort of book has, for a while, been Tim Keller's The Reason for God. McLaughlin's book is excellent, and in some ways superior, but also has some weaknesses compared to Keller's modern classic to fulfill this role.

First, the strengths. To start with, McLaughlin just answers more questions (12 of them). This fills in some of the gaps in Keller's work, discussing questions like gender, homosexuality, and slavery in the Old Testament in detail. She speaks with particular insight and credibility on the first two of those common discussions, being both a woman and same-sex attracted (the label I believe she would choose). This makes the book stronger, as one of the problems with the Reason for God is that it only briefly discusses those topics.

However, in some ways as a result of that direction, the book also has some weaknesses. One is that, while McLaughlin does a great job of engaging somewhat-secular people, she doesn't have the sort of insightful engagement with secularism itself you find in some other works (I'm thinking especially of Keller's Making Sense of God). Part of the struggle in modernity is that we need to answer not just the question "is this true" but also "why should you care." While McLaughlin touches on this topic along the way, the book would probably benefit from a more robust exploration.

This is an outgrowth of the other weakness of the book. Part of why Keller's book only discusses seven objections is because it then spends its second half making a positive case for Christianity. While Confronting Christianity does some of this along the way in its answers, it doesn't do as good of a job of asking the world questions, challenging its assumptions and giving reasons for belief.

However, that said, this is a very good book. It is not the new single work I would recommend to those with questions, but it is definitely one of a few that I would suggest people read. In addition, Rebecca McLaughlin is a different and winsome voice to add to the apologetics conversation, which by itself puts this work high on my list.

The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson. For years I have heard this book and the lecture series that preceded it praised by people I respect. After finally getting around to reading it, I can see why. Ferguson uses the Marrow controversy, an obscure debate in the 18th-century Scottish Presbyterian church, as an entry point to discuss central theological issues about how we embrace and live out the gospel.

His central premise is this: legalism (seeking to justify ourselves or encourage obedience through God's law) and antinomianism (discouraging obedience to God's law) tend to be seen as two errors with faithful Christianity lying somewhere between. As a result, we tend to try to correct mistakes in one direction by simply pushing in the other: legalism is countered by lawlessness and vice versa. To Ferguson, this is a mistake of category: the gospel is really something wholly different than either legalism or antinomianism, and they, in fact, both rest on the same errors. As a result, what we need in response to either error is to return to a proper understanding of the person and work of Jesus.

I really can't praise the content of this book enough. Its form, however, is going to be inaccessible to some. Ferguson is writing for theologically (and somewhat historically) literate readers who probably already have a decent familiarity with the Reformed tradition. This makes the book hard to recommend to many laypeople, but if you fit that bill or if you want to be stretched in some good ways, it is well worth a read.

Jesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham. Let me just start by offering a ringing endorsement: every pastor should have a copy of this book.

What Bauckham does, with really remarkable succinctness and breadth, is survey the entirety of modern historical Jesus studies, recognize many of the helpful insights it has supplied (Jesus and the kingdom of God; Jesus's place within second-temple Judaism) while efficiently eviscerating the nonsense that surrounds it. His section on higher criticism as applied to the gospels is especially effective in this regard.

Of course, such a slender volume can't begin to cover the complexities of this debate. I'm not at all recommending this is the only book someone interested in such scholarship should read. However, for someone wanting the lay of the land, and even more for someone who has been exposed to one or two volumes of more skeptical Jesus scholarship and who wants a more holistic introduction, I have never encountered a better book.

Deep Work by Cal Newport. Cal Newport's basic argument is that many jobs in the modern knowledge economy require and reward "deep work" - the ability to enter fully into a concentrated, focused state of mental engagement - while realities of modern work culture and technology make it increasingly hard to engage this state for prolonged periods. He then spends most of the book discussing practical ways to (re)discover these habits and organize workplaces to encourage these productive rhythms.

I engaged this book on someone's recommendation, having already noticed some of the basic things Newport discusses. Pastoral ministry is certainly different than his core audience, but elements of my work (particularly study and writing) do fit with his picture of knowledge jobs. I had picked up on the fact that I am often most productive in short bursts of a couple hours (I think of it as "being in the zone") and that distractions, especially technological distractions, were interfering with my ability to enter that zone. Newport helped me think through some of why that is the case and some practical ways to structure my week so that I can leave those times undistracted and undisturbed while doing the visitation and administrative parts of my job the rest of the time.

Whether you will benefit from this book largely depends on what you do for a living. Some people will (I suspect) find it almost revolutionary, especially if your work is in one of the fields on which he focuses. Others will find little of value, although even there some of his suggestions about handling things like e-mail might be helpful. I was happy to scavenge it for good ideas where it applied.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. I never know what to say about classics in these review columns. This is the definitive work on utilitarian theories of liberty and individualism. Reading it today, the strength is certainly in how Mill argues plainly and with impressive clarity. Most of the arguments for things like free speech and a free press are foundational to how we still think about freedom in the 21st century.

That said, reading it with the distance of history, certain weaknesses also become apparent. To me, the single biggest flaw is its utilitarian commitments - like most consequentialist arguments, it smuggles objective value assumptions (rights, the inherent goodness of self-determination) in the back door and fails to reckon with humanity's inevitable tendency to seek its own good at the expense of others. Mill also relies heavily on a modernist "march of history" way of thinking - for instance, he views dialog as necessarily leading to more truth rather than the possibility that falsehood could be more persuasive to many. While I as a Christian would support most of his ideas about liberty, it would be on a fundamentally different foundation - I am not sure modern secularism can consistently defend liberty against its detractors.

True Story by James Choung. One of those books that come so close to being excellent but falls short in ways that make it hard to recommend. I applaud its core thesis, which is an attempt to give a tool for sharing the gospel that rests on the whole biblical story rather than just one tiny subsection of it. I myself regularly use a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration summary in evangelism, which is basically what Choung is doing.

Unfortunately, it falls into many of the traps shared by "emerging church"-style books of a decade ago. By unfolding the illustration in the form of a story, Choung invites certain readers to greater engagement, but by making the story about a set of characters who are conveniently both incredibly ignorant about their faith and insufferably predictable in terms of the ways they do and don't apply it, many readers will be left feeling excluded or scratching their heads. On a deeper level, Choung falls into the all-too-common trap of pretending like ideas are brand new and revolutionary when in fact they have been around for centuries. The fact that certain corners of fundamentalist evangelicalism lost touch with the riches of historic theology should not encourage us to offer it as a brilliant idea we just had but rather to nudge them back to the deep wells of church history.