Category: Book Reviews (page 1 of 14)

Samples on Classic Christian Thinkers

Samples, Kenneth Richard. 2019. Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction. Covina, CA: RTB.

Samples is a senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe and an adjunct instructor of apologetics at Biola University. He is the author of several books, including Without a Doubt and 7 Truths That Changed the World.

Samples introduces us to nine scholars: 1) Irenaeus (Architect of Christian Thought); 2) Athanasius (Defender of Christian Orthodoxy); 3) Augustine (Theologian of Grace); 4) Anselm (Patriarch of Perfect Being Theology); 5) Thomas Aquinas (The Quintessential Catholic Philosopher); 6) Martin Luther (Father of Protestantism); 7) John Calvin ( The Reformation’s Systematic Theologian; 8) Blaise Pascal (Historic Christianity’s Renaissance Man); and 9) C.S. Lewis (Mere Christian Apologist and Writer).  His conclusion is for us to “Take Up and Read.” There are two appendices: A) Church History and Historical Theology Timeline and B) Promoting Truth, Unity, and Charity within Christendom.

Here we summarize only the chapter on Lewis: Samples notes his life and events, influential writings and the key positions Lewis held. He outlines seven key arguments that Lewis used as inferences to prove Jesus’s identity. One of them is the longing for meaning, suggesting that “A person’s profound longing for meaning and transcendence in life is best explained as a pointer to God” (171).

Lewis also argued from reason, as in The Case for Christianity and Miracles, as well as from morality, as in both Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man. Lewis’s underlying idea in Mere Christianity is that “individual believers cannot live as ‘mere Christians’ but rather must embrace a fuller version (a denomination or branch) of the faith” (174). But, regardless of denominational affiliations, genuine Christians must stand together.

Samples evaluates Lewis by looking at his books. In The Screwtape Letters “Lewis describes human moral virtue and shows how that integrity can be corrupted” (177). Lewis values apologetics and uses it as a basic kind of reasoning that emanates from God’s grace and demonstrate a faith that perseveres.

Samples closes his account of Lewis by observing his influence on today’s apologetics, by giving a timeline of his life, noting resources on C.S. Lewis and asking five questions about how Lewis has influenced anyone reading the chapter.

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Buechner on The Remarkable Ordinary

Buechner, Frederick. 2017. The remarkable ordinary: How to stop, look, and listen to life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Buechner has been writing books for a long time: He is 92 years old and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. His 30+ books include novels, memoirs and theological works.  According to Wikipedia, an Institute was inaugurated  in his name in 2008 at King University, the former King College. The Institute is dedicated to the work and example of Buechner, exploring the intersections of faith and culture that define our times.

The Remarkable Ordinary, a slim book of 120 pages, is divided into three parts: I) Stop, look, and listen for God; II) Listening for God in the Stories we Tell; and III) Telling the truth.

The first chapter of part I is about “the remarkable ordinary” that we encounter in life without thinking much about the small things we see about us, as well as in art and music. Buechner encourages us to stop, look and listen to the creation and nature around us, which reflects “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” and to look “with X-ray eyes” (31).

The second chapter is called “To See is to Love, to Love is to See,” in which we are encouraged to pay attention not just to what gets into the headlines, but also to the mighty works in our own lives. If you want to love your neighbor, you must see your neighbor—someone to love, but we must “look with the imagination as well as with the eyes,” with compassion and empathy (41).

Chapter 3 is the first part of part II and is called “The Laughing Room of Maya Angelou.” Buechner met Maya through lectures, conferences and conversations. Maya, although different than him, had stories about racism (she is black) and prejudice, but told with humility and laughter.

Chapter 4, “The Subterranean Grace of God, or Why Stories Matter,” includes wisdom and insight on the use of our life stories. (I could have used this chapter and book at the course I taught on “storytelling” some years ago.) Bible stories need to be retold because they “are like coins that have been handled so long that the images rub off” (57). Stories are basic to our faith and in telling them we “discover cracks in the ground” of our lives and are “able to glimpse the subterranean, life-giving grace of God” (66).

“A Long Way to Go” is the title of chapter 5 and is a brief but compelling autobiographical account of Buechner’s early life, including the influence of his grandmother and education.

Chapter 6, “Holy Moments,” demonstrates the influence one person can have in a life. In Buechner’s case it was George Arthur Buttrick, a pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Buechner wanted advice on going to seminary and, after some hesitation, Buttrick drove him to Union Seminary. It was the right fit for Buechner and, while there, he met the faith healer Agnes Sanford, who “was the real deal, there was no question about it” (91). She was not only a physical healer but later in her life a “healer of memories” as well. Through her, Buechner “found myself for the first time really daring to pray for people who came to me for help, as she always did and as Jesus did before her, with her hands on the head of the person and praying for healing” (92).

“Better Than I Used to Be, But Far From Well,” is the creative title of chapter 7. Buechner recalls that he was certain that the good life around him was not going to last—it was just too good. Bad things did happen and Buechner needed therapy to help him through them and, as the title indicates, “The journey continues; I do what I can. The great problem is to try to live in the present, not the past, not the future, but in the now” (105).

The book concludes with chapter 8, “The Presence of Peace.” It is mainly about prayer and problems, such as his daughter’s decision to move to Florida. But the theme is also about joy and getting rid of the superstitious feeling that if you talk about something good it will bring it “to an end when the demons come and gobble it up” (114). God gives us glimpses of joy through the ordinary “even through you see only through a glass darkly, even though lots of things happen—wars and peacemaking, hunger and homelessness—joy in knowing, even for a movement that underneath everything are the everlasting arms” (120).

This is a great little book of Buechner’s stories, told with a style that only he can use so effectively. You cannot read the book without identifying closely with the events and responding with emotions of your own.

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MKs

Vandrick, Stephanie. 2019. Growing up with God and empire: A postcolonial analysis of ‘missionary kid’ memoirs. Critical Language and Literacy Studies: 25. Bristol and Blue Ridge Summit: Multilingual Matters.

Vandrick analyzes 42 memoirs written by children of North American Protestant missionaries. The editor’s preface says that Vandrick is “a highly respected researcher, well-versed in postcolonial, feminist, anti-racist” and has “class-based theories” (xii). She is also a missionary kid (MK) who has rejected Christianity and reflects a strong bias against “colonial attitudes,” which she claims to have somehow expunged from her own worldview. She does dedicate the book to her parents, missionaries in India where she spent 10 years of her childhood.

Her purpose in writing the book is from several viewpoints: 1) purely academic; 2) to “examine gender, race and social class privilege in missionary settings” (16); 3) to connect with other disciplines in “sociopolitical  issues”; and 4) because the topic has “social justice related implications.” Because MKs have “not much written in scholarly venue,” she will address the colonial themes “evident in their memoirs” (17).

Vandrick identifies MKs as “third culture kids,” who are “migrants, travelers, border-crossers and border-dwellers (7), portraying both and insider and outsider status. She reflects on the “psychological and social aspects” of MKs and admits that mission societies have begun to address such problems.

Vandrick uses the stories that MKs have written in their memoirs to justify her position that  “Feminist scholars have been particularly supportive of narrative as scholarly inquiry” (28). She is firmly entrenched in feminist camp and uses her “own life experiences to interrogate and shed light on the experiences of the MKs and the ways in which the memoirists express their feelings” (30). There is little doubt of her feminist bias, which is reflected throughout the book.

In a post hoc manner she outlines the criteria that she uses for choosing the memoirs (pp. 32-33), providing a table of the authors, date of publication, gender of the MK and the country they lived in. Among other variables, she omits the number of years they lived there, their knowledge of the language(s) of the country and their ages.

There is, quite naturally when discussing missionaries, a chapter (3) on the “exotic” with comments on food, animals, the appearances and behaviors of local people, ceremonies and rituals, illnesses, geography, hardships and lasting effects—the ways in which “the missionaries and their children were enmeshed in colonial (and sometime racist, although generally not consciously so) attitudes and practices” (50). This is but one example of her strong bias and claim that MKs are colonial products and anything “colonial” is assumed to be bad.

Chapter (4) outlines how Vandrick sees MKs treating the local people, with headings that reveal her adverse views of MKs: 1) condescension, criticism and mocking of local people; 2) the memoirists’ stereotypes, conscious and unconscious; 3) sense of superiority; and 4) treatment of servants. However, she is somewhat nostalgic, sentimental and ambivalent in relating her own experience with servants.

MKs often attend private schools and Vandrick denotes chapter (5) to this topic. Her assessment of boarding schools reveals their “feelings of homesickness, unhappiness, abandonment and grief” (70) and how reentry into the American culture is often just difficult.

Chapter six examines MKs in reference to learning the local languages (“or not,” as she says). It is hardly surprising that some learn the language and some do not; some have positive attitudes toward the languages and some do not. Vandrick did not learn the local languages (88), which she regrets, although she claims to know the Telugu language (where her parents worked), which she learned when two years old—a remarkable feat!

Chapter 7 is on “gender,” a topic that any feminist writer will grind axes on. She notes the increasing number of women missionaries and speculates on their roles, including the “memoirists’ perspectives on gender” (96). They, as children, “absorbed the sexist attitudes they observed, even applying them to their own families, in particular their mothers” (97). However, “Fortunately, some matters related to gender equality have improved…on the mission field. Regrettably, on the other hand, many such matters and issues still exist” (98).

“Race and social class” is the title of chapter 8 in which Vandrick claims that “Race was always a fraught issue for white missionaries” (100) anda that bad attitudes have prevailed and intersected with gender. The memoirists did not, in general, write about race. They accepted their social and economic status and the only redeeming factor Vandrick can find is that the MKs were not any worse in their attitudes and lives than what is found among other North Americans (109).

Before her final “personal epilogue” Vandrick outlines a number of implications from her study, including how missionaries and MKs have contributed to spreading English and how they made out “the other” as exotic people and treated them as such.

I did not find Vandrick’s analysis of MKs memoirs particularly convincing—my wife and I have raised two MKs and both of them believe that their cross-cultural experiences greatly benefitted them. They identified with the people and their languages and greatly value the friendships they formed. I have found such positive experiences most often resonate with other MKs—quite the opposite of Vandrick’s conclusions.

Fortunately for them, Vandrick respects missionaries like her parents “who genuinely cared about helping people and made a difference in the world” (120). Nevertheless, her own perspective perceives MKs as part of the “colonial enterprise” and the only difference her book will probably make in the world is to reinforce a negative stereotype of MKs.

Karl Franklin
March 2019

Surprised by Meaning

McGrath, Alister E. 2011. Surprised by meaning: Science, faith, and how we make sense of things. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

McGrath, from Ireland, is a theologian, priest, apologist and intellectual. He currently holds the Andreas Ireos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford and is Professor of Divinity at Gresham College. He has a PhD in molecular biophysics and a DLitt from the Division of Humanities for his work in science and religion.

The book is based on lectures he gave from 2009-2010 at King’s College London, the University of Scotland, the London School of Theology and at Hong Kong Baptist University.

McGrath believes that “We need a mental map of reality that allows us to position ourselves, helping us to find our way along the road of life” (13) and his book attempts to provide one.

We begin by observing certain things about the universe: what do they point to? and how do scientists make sense out of their observations? Darwin, the example of evolutionary scientists par excellence, “limited his view of reality to what could be proved” (18) and constructed a theory of natural selection that scientists go far beyond and have an “aversion to any suggestion that atheists have beliefs” (21).

In Chapter 4 McGrath discusses how we make sense of things: “We observe things on the surface of reality and try to work out their deeper meanings” (22). We look for causes and the “best explanation” for our theory. We also look for “unification,” but cannot find it because there is a level of intelligibility that is deeper than what science can provide.

McGrath, himself once an atheist, examines the “New Atheism,” which makes its appeal to the natural sciences as the sole basis of reliable truth” (33). Yet when the scientific method is applied it “does not entail atheism,” so those who try to pit science and religion against each other need aggressive rhetoric and ridicule, even rewriting the history of science, to do so. In fact, “metaphysical interpretation is being presented as scientific fact, or the same level as empirical statements” (37).

We need to look “beyond the scientific horizon” (the title of chapter 6) because, although scientific proof may be exact, it is incomplete (40).  It cannot deal with questions of meaning or value, such as whether God exists. The natural world is malleable and is subject to various interpretations, such as by an “atheist, deist, theist, and many other ways” (47).

The “Christian Viewpoint” (chapter 7) “involves believing that certain things are true, that they may be relied upon, and that they illuminate our perceptions, decisions, and actions” (50). Certain things verify this Christian viewpoint: for example, the deep structure of the universe (chapter 8), with only the earth having the constant elements to provide life, the electromagnetic and gravitational structures that exemplify design and not accident or chance. Our world is indeed fine-tuned to allow “the mystery of the possibility of life” (chapter 9). However, McGrath claims that the “fine-tuning of the universe proves nothing” (72)—it is, however “highly suggestive” in providing a big picture of reality.

In Chapter 10 McGrath considers some of the tenants of Darwinism and recent books by militant atheists. Darwin did not discount design, nor did Thomas Huxley, his main interpreter. However, “the New Atheism vigorously asserts the fundamental moral and intellectual autonomy of humanity” (82), with no appeal to a God, which is simply a human invention. There is no notion of our being made in the image of God. Atheism believes that human progress is inevitable and technology will be our savior.

However, as McGrath concludes and illustrates in chapters 12 and 13, our hearts have a desire for meaning. He refers to C.S. Lewis in some detail in showing that our heart’s desire points toward a homeland but that “a door must be opened so that we can enter into another world, within which our true satisfaction and joy are to be found” (100). It turns out that “meaning is embedded deep in the order of things” (103). The Christian worldview allows us to see reality, confirming the view of Lewis, who said “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”

Meaning, as a result of our Christian worldview, gives us identity, value and purpose—how we can make a difference in the world. Our “foundation and focus is the living God, the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3)” (114).

This small book should be required reading for young people who are about to enter college or who are already studying there.

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Neuhaus on Death on a Friday Afternoon

Neuhaus, Richard John. 2000. Death on a Friday afternoon: meditations on the last words of Jesus from the cross. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Father Neuhaus has titled his book “Death on a Friday Afternoon” because that is when Jesus died. But his meditations on the seven last “words” of Jesus (actually, the seven last utterances) provide an explanation that will lead thoughtful readers into the meaning of the resurrection as well. Neuhaus, however, does not want readers to get to the resurrection without pondering carefully what is meant by the seven words on the cross, a compilation from the Gospel accounts.

The following are the seven last utterances of Christ, each a chapter in Neuhaus’s book:

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