Category: Book Reviews (page 2 of 15)

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.


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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Weber on Surprised at Oxford

Weber, Carolyn. 2011. Surprised by Oxford: A memoir. Nashville, TN: W. Publishing Group.

Dr. Carolyn Weber taught literature to undergrads for 15 years, but now works from her home as an author and poet. She lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her husband and 4 children.

In Surprised by Oxford, Carolyn Weber provides us with a personal and detailed account of her life at Oxford University and how, eventually, she became a Christian while studying there.

Her book is not the usual kind of chronological biography, but is instead an interactive story of friends and acquaintances that benefitted her life and, eventually, led her to faith in Christ—or detracted her at times. Central in the story is the man (whom she calls TDH, for tall, dark and handsome) whom she several years later marries. He is a friend and debater with her throughout her journey to faith and one in whom she finds integrity and strength.

Life at Oxford is intellectually stimulating, with large doses of hedonism and post-modernism thrown in, as the reader is taken into the confines of classrooms and pubs, parties and isolated philosophical reflections. Throughout the foray, Weber provides verse by a range of poets and theologian-philosophers, including C.S. Lewis.

Most of her “memoirs” involve creative conversations, somewhat difficult for me to imagine. For example, her interaction and exchange with Professor Von X (the title of chapter 19, but referring ot a Dr. Condorston) seems overworked and contrived. Nevertheless, his antagonism toward Christianity undoubtedly represents the attitudes of other professors at the university.

Weber does, however, throughout her dialogues with peers and colleagues, cover most of the familiar criticisms of Christianity in general and God in particular, with Jesus receiving his share of university antagonism as well. In many chapters she is tangled with a continuing battery of doubts and confessions and her discourse about them forms the central part of her story.

Weber is an accomplished author and poet so, as we would expect, the book is highly readable and enticing. She weaves poetry and images throughout the book in the way that only a lover and learner of literature can. The images of Oxford are beguiling, where smells and sights abounding as conversations with her friends take place.

I bought the book expecting to read more about the inspiration of C.S. Lewis, in that the title reflects Surprised by Joy. In that respect, I was somewhat disillusioned but, as other readers have observed, the book is “honest and entertaining and well worth reading.


Quereshi on Seeking Allah, finding Jesus

Qureshi, Nabeel. 2014. Seeking Allah, finding Jesus: A devout Muslim encounters Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Nabeel Qureshi died of stomach cancer on September 16, 2017, leaving a wife and young daughter. Qureshi was raised as a devout Muslim and held Two MA degrees, an MD and an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity from Oxford University. He lectured to students in more than 100 universities and participated in numerous public debates in several countries. (For additional information see

In Seeking Allah, finding Jesus (SAFJ), Qureshi provides his account of a conscientious and sustained journey to understand the truth about Muhammed the Prophet and Jesus the Messiah, as well as about the Quran and Bible. His worldview of Islam is sympathetic, even as he outlines stories about the obligations of Islam, including detailed descriptions of the Muslim rituals and the Arabic words and phrases inherent in them.

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Nuland on Maimonides

Nuland, Sherwin B. 2005. Maimonides. New York: Schocken.

Sherwin Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, teaches bioethics and medical history there. He has written a number of books, resulting in a number of literary awards.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, was born in what is now present-day Sapin in 1135 (probably) and died in Egypt in December 1204. He worked as a rabbi, physician and philosopher and is known for his writings on Jewish law and ethics. His fourteen volume Mishneh Torah is a codification of Talmudic law.

Nuland devotes a chapter, “The Commentary on the Mishnah,” in which Moses, (another name for Maimonides), outlines the moral and social responsibilities of Judaism, as well as expounds its concepts, especially those which he believed had been misinterpreted.

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