Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Larry Taunton is a man I have admired for a while now. He is the founder and executive director of Fixed-Point Foundation, which is an organization dedicated to engaging a secular culture with the truth of Christianity (www.fixed-point.org). Larry also hosts a radio show called “The Larry Taunton Show,” which you can find as a podcast on iTunes. I had the opportunity to hear him recently at an apologetics conference in Greenville, SC. While I was there I picked up his book, “The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse The Corruption of Unbelief.” In its pages I found a book on apologetics unlike any I had previously read.

grace-effectAs a historian, Taunton is greatly concerned by the dangers of an atheistic worldview. Without an ultimate authority, where might this type of thinking lead us? One need only look to the 20th Century. Atheism was the driving force behind Communism, which made the 20th Century the bloodiest in human history. Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett note,

The body count from the two great barbarisms of the twentieth century, communism and Nazism, is extraordinary on its own. Communism’s toll ran to perhaps 100 million: 65 million in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2 Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1 million in Eastern Europe and 10 million in various other spots around the globe…Adolf Hitler’s death machine was equally effective, but ran a much shorter course.” (Vincent Carroll & David Shiflett, Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002, pg109)

In his book, Taunton recounts a conversation he had with the late Christopher Hitchens. These two men, despite their radically different beliefs, had become close friends. Taunton met Hitchens while sponsoring a debate. Their friendship grew, and Hitchens would eventually call Larry to let him know he had just been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Hitchens had not even informed his family yet. In the following months they would engage in private debate (while driving through Yellowstone National Park, reading through the book of John) as well as public debate (see the dvd “God or No God?”). Larry recounts in his book that, on one occasion, he asked an interesting question of Hitchens. They had come to an agreement that man, at his very nature, is evil. Larry then asked, “Then it seems to me…that the question is this: which philosophies or religions restrain our darker impulses, and which ones exacerbate them?” (pg 4) At this point, one would expect Larry to go into an apologetic of the evils of atheism throughout history (of which there are many examples) and the goods of Christianity (of which there are many examples). While there are many books on this subject, and while Larry does indeed discuss some of these topics, the book takes an unexpected turn at this point. Rather than turning into an “Oh yeah, well your worldview…” kind of argument, he tells the story of how his family adopted a young girl from Ukraine. Her life would become the ultimate apologetic.

Larry’s wife had taken their three sons on a mission trip to Ukraine, on which they worked in a filthy orphanage known simply as #17. It was here they met Sasha, and they immediately fell in love with her. The process of adoption was soon put into motion, and it would be a journey that would impact all of them forever. I will not go into detail of all that they experienced, but let’s just say, read this book before you consider adopting a child from Ukraine! It will make you clench your fists in anger at the corruption, bureaucracy, and incompetence of the Ukrainian adoption system, and will tug on your heart to consider adopting a child out of this horrible atmosphere. It is a society that does not care for the poor or the needy. In fact, it is a culture built on the worldview of atheism. Larry’s experience in Ukraine taught him two things: 1) The hopelessness of atheism 2) The hope of Christianity. The story of how Sasha is brought from one world to another paints an excellent picture of how Christ brings us from death to life when we accept His grace.

Larry explains how “The Grace Effect” simply refers to the difference Christianity makes in a society. What he is not saying is that atheists never do good things or Christians never do bad things. His point is that Christianity gives a moral fiber and foundation to society that cannot come from anywhere else. True, because we have God’s law written on our hearts (another way of saying “We have a basic conscience that helps us determine right and wrong”) we can do “good” things while not necessarily out of a Christian faith (although I would argue even these “good” things are not good in God’s eyes if they are done out of unbelief). However, does society benefit more from atheism or Christianity? Hitchens, while he was still alive, claimed that religion makes the world worse but atheism would lead us into a sort of utopian society. Larry, having witnessed and experienced a culture in which Christianity is suppressed and actively pushed aside, would say the opposite. Many atheists in America today claim to offer a morality apart from Christianity, when in fact they are drawing from what the Bible teaches. Upon a worldview of Darwinism, there is no such thing as morality. There is simply pain and pleasure. Who is to say that one thing is “good” and another “bad?” Only God, as Creator of everything (including the very idea of morality, which is whatever aligns with His perfect character) can give a society an objective moral compass.

Now, at this point, objections may come like “Yeah, well then how do you explain the Crusades, or the Inquisition, or the Salem Witch Hunts? Christianity has done much evil!” I would say that Christianity has not done this evil. Nor has Jesus. People have done evil in the name of religion. But this does not disprove the truth of the religion (just as the fact that atheist have done evil doesn’t alone prove that atheism is false). It merely shows that we do not live up to its standards. I believe the only reason we can even discuss morality is because God has created us with this concept in our nature. Where does morality come from if atheism is true? The question is, as Larry mentioned, Which worldview suppresses evil and which one encourages it? A worldview that says “Survival of the fittest” or one that says “Love your neighbor?” These are the kinds of observations Larry notes while describing the frustrating, eye-opening, but ultimately deeply fulfilling process of adopting Sasha out of the horrors of her atheistic culture.

If you are looking for an inspirational story, as well as a thought-provoking critique of worldviews and their effect on society, read this book. It is written in an intelligent, yet accessible manner. Whether you are a scholar, a skeptic, or simply a layperson in search of truth, you will benefit greatly from this book. You may not agree with everything Taunton says, but you will be forced to wrestle with some of the most basic questions of life and morality. You may also find your heart increasingly softened towards “the least of these” who suffer in our world, and who are in desperate need of love that Christ alone can offer.

Other books you might be interested in on this subject:

“Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry” by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett

“Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God” by Paul Copan

“Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies” by David Bentley Hart

“The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith” by Peter Hitchens

“Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians” by Mark Coppenger

Also see these debates on dvd (available at http://www.fixed-point.org):

“Can There be Morality Without God?” Peter Singer vs. Dinesh D’Souza

“God or No God?” Christopher Hitchens vs. Larry Taunton

“Is God Great?” Christopher Hitchens vs. John Lennox

“Can Atheism Save Europe?” Christopher Hitchens vs. John Lennox

Ok, so I have a confession to make…I sometimes get obsessed with teen fiction novels. Just to clarify, this did NOT happen with the Twilight series! But I have a younger sister who is an avid reader, and through her recommendation I recently discovered a genuinely good book called “The Hunger Games.”

You have probably heard of this trilogy, as it has been out for a few years now and a movie is in the process of being made. Typically, when something in popular culture makes a splash like this book has, I want to at least be aware of it. What I found was a powerful story of human nature.

The story is told in present tense by a teenage girl named Katniss. She lives in a world ruled by The Capitol, a powerful city where citizens live in excess and luxury. While the Capitol bursts with wealth and frivolous pass-times, the 12 Districts under its control suffer in poverty. At one point in history, the Districts rose up against the Capitol, but the rebellion was crushed and The Hunger Games were established. Each year, all 12 Districts are required to randomly draw the names of a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the Games. These two contestants will join others from each District in a modern-day gladiator arena. The last person standing wins. To make things even more gruesome, the whole event is played up similar to the Olympic Games, and every person from each District is forced by law to watch their representatives fight to the death on TV, as the citizens of the Capitol glory in the entertainment of it all. The purpose is to remind the Districts never again to rebel. When Katniss volunteers in place of her younger sister, she is in for a life-changing  journey. Placed in a giant arena filled with traps, weapons, and artificially controlled climates and geography, she must face 23 other teenagers in a battle of wits and violence.

This book is a powerful look into human nature. Other books such as “Lord of the Flies” have delved into this topic before, and what we get is a modern day illustration of human sin. While some may insist on the inner goodness of humankind, this belief is challenged when we are placed in desperate situations. Our true colors show when we must fight to survive, and we may find ourselves committing unthinkable acts. The book does a great job of capturing Katniss’s inner turmoil. On one hand, she is appalled at The Hunger Games and recoils from the prospect of killing, but on the other hand she is a survivor and longs to be reunited with her family. What will she do when forced into such a desperate position?

I also saw some similarities between The Capitol and our own culture. What?! No, we do not support anything as cruel as The Hunger Games…or do we? Technology has allowed us to watch unspeakable violence from our own living rooms. I mean, how many of us guys have popped in the movie “Gladiator” to watch only the bloody arena scenes? I stand guilty. We are comforted knowing they are only actors on a screen, but how long before we are desensitized enough where we can’t tell the difference? When the news shows scenes of horrific violence on TV, all we have to do is turn the channel and suddenly it’s like those events never even happened! Scenes on the news don’t bother us any more because we’ve seen much worse on the silver screen. We live in a culture that glorifies violence, so let us not pretend we are so different from the citizens of The Capitol. Anyone who has been to an action movie recently has likely been entertained by human characters inflicting violence on each other.

I believe we could be on a similar path as those in The Capitol because of our obsession with wealth. Materialism changes the way you view people. Materialism is an obsession with wealth and asks “How can this benefit me?” When we view things this selfishly, how long before we start to view people this way as well? When do those lines start to blur? It all comes down to the heart. A selfish heart is exactly that: a selfish heart. You cannot be selfish with material things and unselfish towards people. The heart does not make that distinction. Look at James 5:1-6.

“Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined: your clothes are moth-eaten; your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! Look! The pay that you withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned–you have murdered–the righteous man; he does not resist you.”

Do you see the downward spiral? It starts with being rich (verses 1-3), then turns to mistreating and using people (verses 4-5), and ends with murder (verse 6). Let verse 5 be a warning to those of us living in a materialistic culture: “You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.” I pray that God might change my heart to reflect His love in a culture that is obsessed with wealth. God help us if we follow this path to its horrifying conclusion. Perhaps then The Hunger Games won’t be so fictional to us.

Sam Harris is one of the leading atheist writers today. He hit the scene with 2004′s The End of Faith and followed it up with Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006. Just like the other “New Atheists,” he is appalled at religion (of all stripes and colors) and fervently preaches an atheism based solely on science and reason (which, apparently, religion cannot coincide with). By far the worst chapter in End of Faith is the one devoted to morality, so when I saw that Harris had recently written an entire book on the subject, my curiosity was peaked. The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Moral Values is Harris’ case that objective morality can (and must) be determined only by science.

In this book, Harris is trying to break down the myth that science has nothing to say about morality. In many ways, the biggest criticism against his atheism has been that he accepts objective moral values, yet has no authority on which to base them. If there is no God, who determines what is right and wrong? Because of this, many scientists have been wary to venture into the moral arena. Even ardent atheists have often admitted that religion’s strong points are that it speaks better about morality than Naturalism does. Harris doesn’t buy that, and sets out to prove why.

The problem with this book comes right in the very beginning. In order to speak about morality, Harris must determine what it is in the first place. Science does experiments using physical phenomenon. You can put bacteria under a microscope and write out your observations. But how does one do that with morality? Is morality something that can be placed in a test tube? Science determines physical facts, but can it speak to the metaphysical? Many scientists have said no, following in the tradition of David Hume that “You cannot derive an ought from an is.” There is a Facts and Values split that keeps them apart.

Harris disagrees with Hume’s conclusion. He bases his entire premise on “Well-Being.” What is Well-Being? Good question. Harris says, “Many readers might wonder how we can base our values on something as difficult to define as ‘well-being’? It seems to me, however, that the concept of well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists precise definition, and yet it is indispensable.” Ummm, so basically he is saying “I don’t need to define it because everybody knows and agrees on what it is.” I object! I imagine Hitler’s view of “Well-Being” (say, a world without any Jews) is far different from our view. But that’s the problem. It is like saying “Whatever maximizes happiness without taking away someone else’s happiness is the moral thing to do.” Is that true? What about self-sacrifice? What about altruism? Both of these have a hard time fitting into Harris’ Darwinian “Survival of the Fittest” thinking. Even if he could define Well-Being better than he does, why should we seek this? Why is your well-being important to me? As long as my well-being is maximized, isn’t that all that matters? If a rapist catches a young girl in an ally on her way home from dance class, and there is no way he will ever get caught, what stops him? Certainly not any consequences. Why does her well-being keep him from satisfying his own?

When it comes down to it, this entire book is built on the idea of “Well-Being,” and yet Harris never gives a good definition of it. I agree with him that we are all aware of certain states of consciousness that are more pleasant to us (at the time) than others. But why is that what drives morality? He says that the “good” is whatever maximizes well-being and the “bad” is what diminishes it. In the end, it looks very much like Utilitarianism, where pleasure is good and pain is bad. Therefore, maximizing pleasure is moral and causing pain is immoral. But then, Harris is not saying anything that hasn’t already been said (and better) by other atheists like Peter Singer (who said things like “Pain is bad, and similar amounts of pain are equally bad, no matter whose pain it might be.”). It is a Consequentialist theory that tries to predict the future to make a decision (“Will this action maximize pleasure or pain?”). It asks us to be seers as well as hedonists. Now, there are ways that Utilitarians try to get around such accusations, but what strikes me is how ground-breaking Harris thinks he is, when really he is repackaging old arguments, replacing “pleasure” with “well-being.” Since this problem comes up right off the bat, and the rest of the book is built from it, it means the rest of the book is pretty shaky.

When I Googled other reviews for this book, I was surprised by what I found. In an age where America seems to be moving into more and more secular territory, I was surprised to find that most reviewers did not like this book any more than I did. Sure, Harris is no idiot (practically 1/3 of the book is just footnotes). But the top reviews (from respected and definitely not “Christian” or “Religious Right” newspapers) had the same frustrations I had. Harris would likely explain the opposition to the fact that most people still see a split between science and morality as necessary when they shouldn’t. I disagree. I think science definitely plays a part, but it is not the final authority. A surgeon must cause pain in order to fulfill a greater good; a father spanks his child to ensure the boy won’t run into a busy street; a young man in the prime of life goes down with the Titanic because he gives up his spot to an 80 year old woman. Sometimes morality is more complicated than “pleasure” and “pain.” Science may measure such things, but it cannot answer the most fundamental question of morality: “Why?”

Similar Books:

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. This takes an aimed attack at conservative Christians in the U.S. However, Harris has obviously disregarded the wisdom of “know your enemy” since the picture of “Christianity” he gives is miles off base in almost every way.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. This is a broader attack on religion as a whole, focusing primarily on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. You will find lots of arrogant rants about “logic” and “reason” and “science” as if religious people have never heard such foreign words!

Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer. This is a good overview of Singer’s Utilitarian ethics, with exerts from his many writings. And yes, you will see where Utilitarianism (without God) ultimately leads: infanticide up to 30 days after birth.

My aunt, Connie Cavanaugh, has recently written a book that is now available in stores and online. Check out this interview with her about the book…

Blog Interview for Following God One Yes at a Time

Connie Cavanaugh’s latest book, Following God One Yes at a Time, has just been released by Harvest House Publishers. This book tells you how — one simple, immediate, possible yes at a time – to do what Jesus commanded when He said, “Follow Me.” This is “following God for dummies”; it is a simple way for ordinary Christians to follow Christ through the maze of our complicated lives.

Q: You begin by saying “God has a dream for every believer.” Could you explain that?

God does have a dream for every believer. In fact He has many overlapping, interlocking dreams for us: some big, some small; some lifelong, some seasonal; some manageable, some seemingly impossible. When His dream looks like a mountain we can’t climb, because we lack faith in ourselves and in Him, we think:

* This dream is too big; I don’t have what it takes.

* The process looks so complicated; I don’t even know where to start.

* The finish line is so far away; I don’t think I can go the distance.

* I’ve tried before and dropped out; I must be all out of chances.

* Is this God speaking or my own wishful thinking?

* People like me don’t get to do these things; I’m not worthy of this.

Q: Are these the barriers you refer to in the book’s subtitle Overcoming the Six Barriers that hold you back?

Yes, the biggest barriers to following God are internal, not external. It’s not situations, circumstances, tragedies, crises or even physical limitations but it’s things like fear, guilt, pride, shame, comparison, and doubt that hold us back from pursuing the dreams God has for us. Following God one yes at a time is about how God breaks down His impossible dream into manageable steps and once we begin to follow Him in faith, because He loves us, He sends us proofs that we’re on the right track.

Q: God sends us “proofs” when we follow Him? What do you mean by that?

Even though we talk about a God who is alive and personal, all Christians occasionally feel like He is remote and invisible. Once God gets us to say yes to His dream and begin following Him, He knows that we’re going to be battling doubts and fears so He sends us proofs that we heard Him correctly and we’re on the right track. These proofs are little assurances that we pick up in a number of ways – through our daily Bible reading or hear in a sermon or through music or circumstance or pretty much anything that God chooses to use. He’s not limited in the ways He communicates with us. These “proofs” are His way of encouraging us not to lose heart but to keep following.

Q: Where can people find this book?

You can buy Following God One Yes at a Time at most Christian booksellers and online bookstores. If your local bookstore does not carry it, they can order it for you.

It is available at these links: Amazon.ca http://www.amazon.ca/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dca-books-english-tree&field-keywords=following+god+one+yes+at+a+time+connie+cavanaugh&x=0&y=0

Amazon.com (also available in Kindle) http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_31?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=following+god+one+yes+at+a+time&sprefix=following+god+one+yes+at+a+time

Barnes and Noble http://productsearch.barnesandnoble.com/search/results.aspx?store=BOOK&WRD=following+god+one+yes+at+a+time&page=∏=univ&choice=book&query=following+god+one+yes+at+a+time&flag=False&ugrp=1

Chapters and Indigo http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/search/?keywords=following%20god%20one%20yes%20at%20a%20time&pageSize=12

Not long ago I wrote a book review on “God Is” by Doug Wilson, in which the pastor/apologist takes apart a book by atheist Christopher Hitchens. Well, I recently finished a different book by Hitchens called “Letters to a Young Contrarian.”

In one sense, this is Hitchens teaching others how to be exactly like him. However, it is also the complete opposite. “Contrarian” can have many definitions, but it is basically someone who thinks for himself. It is the ultimate form of “Don’t tell me what to do/think/say/be/feel etc etc etc.” A Contrarian is often described as a Radical, Dissident, Maverick, Loose Cannon, Rebel, Angry Young Man or any number of unflattering (not to the Contrarian!) terms to describe someone who thumbs his nose at anything not thought up by his own infallible intellect. In short, it describes Hitchens as closely as any definition could!

The book is a collection of letters written to a fictional recipient. Hitchens takes on the role of a “mentor” in teaching his student how to think independently. This is Hitchens’ manifesto for being a rebel black sheep without a cause! Of course, it is all written with a sense of irony since contrarians don’t really listen to anyone (even other contrarians).

Of course, that may not be entirely true. Indeed, we all take advice and learn from each other, and I’m sure Hitchens would not disagree with that. However, this book is his declaration that we ultimately only have ourselves to trust in this world of masks, fakes, smooth-talkers, agendas, vote-grabbers, indoctrination, and herd-mentality. Basically, kids, don’t trust anyone…not even me.

Hitchens says we should not be afraid to voice our opinion and disagree with the moral majority—even if it is unpopular. In fact, if it is unpopular, there just might be something to it! If Hitchens can be credited with one thing, it is that he is not afraid to mix it up in the arena of debate. If it weren’t for people like him (at least in his own eyes) we would all be blindly following the “cool crowd” into whatever ideas seemed most popular to the majority.

He includes a chapter devoted to religion, which showcases many of the arguments I’ve heard him use in public debates. It goes without saying that the man who would later write “god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” doesn’t hold a high view of the divine. His criticisms are rife with problems, but there are books and debates that uncover most of those (some are listed below), so I will not do it here. Except, perhaps, for one comment. For a man who believes in blind evolution, where we are simply animals acting upon the impulses of our DNA, he sure has a lot of moral criticisms. Of course, he also has no definition of morality. If it is truly just the consensus of the majority, well, that definition seems to go against the very premise of this book! But in order to make absolute statements on issues such as morality, you need to appeal to a higher standard. For him, that is the divine god of “Reason” (We’re not worthy!). Of course, what is reason and why should we follow it? Does he come to this conclusion by using reason? Isn’t that like saying “We should base morality on the Bible because the Bible says so”? But that is a debate for another time.

Basically, it comes down to this. Hitchens is a gifted writer. He is also a very opinionated (and educated) man. He has a wide range of knowledge on various subjects, and he approaches his writing with a wicked wit and cutting edge that draws you in. He pulls heavily from modern history, as one would expect a journalist to do. At some points, this got a bit much for me, since my knowledge of many of these events is limited.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. In this review, and in my “God Is” review I have made it clear that I disagree with Hitchens. I also believe that he is entitled to receive the same harsh language that he reserves for people like me (who apparently am contributing to the poisoning of everything!). But I don’t hate Hitchens. Yes, at times he is very easy to dislike (something I’m sure he is very proud of!), but my heart breaks for him as well. He is truly a rebel without a cause, filled with criticism, mistrust, anger, and ultimately, emptiness. An exert near the end of this books reads as follows:

“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity, for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

The problem is, in his atheistic worldview, none of this has any authority. We are all free to say “Thanks Mr. Hitchens, but no thanks. I will chose religion if I want.” In a world without a transcendent authority, his words get lost amidst the noise of so many others, all rising up to an empty sky of a universe that looks on us with blind, pitiless indifference.

But I have hope for Hitchens, because I believe God loves him and has the power to change the hardest heart. In a fascinating revelation in the documentary “Collision,” he recalls a conversation he had with fellow atheist Richard Dawkins. In it, Hitchens admits that even if he were able to convert every last believer–except one–to atheism, he couldn’t bring himself to eradicate religion completely. Not because there would be no one left to argue with. In fact, he admits that he doesn’t even know why, but he knows he would leave that last believer alone. Indeed, he would allow faith to live on. He concludes by saying, “And the incredulity with which he [Richard Dawkins] looked at me stays with me still, I’ve got to say.” One can only hope that all of Hitchens’ “free thinking” will one day lead him to the truth he so adamantly opposes.

Recommended Debates on DVD:

“Collision”–A very well-done documentary that follows Hitchens and Doug Wilson as they debate across the country in everywhere from pubs, to coffee shops, to university campuses. The gems, however, are in their personal conversations along the way.

“Does God Exist? A Debate” –A public debate on the existence of God between Hitchens and heavy-weight Christian apologist William Lane Craig. This is really the best of both sides going toe-to-toe!

“Can Atheism Save Europe?”–A debate between two Europeans: Hitchens and Oxford mathematician/philosopher/scientist/theologian John Lennox. Hitchens later admitted that he lost this debate to Lennox. I agree.

“God on Trial”–A debate between Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza. Although I disagree with him, I believe Hitchens actually comes out on top in this debate.

“God or No God?”–A debate between Hitchens and Larry Taunton (founder of Fixed-Point Foundation). This one is special because these two have become good friends. There is a civility and respect for the other person here that is often missing in other debates. It truly shows that, while we may strongly disagree, that is never an excuse not to love.

When I first read the book “god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (lower case g on “god” is not a type-o) by British journalist and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, I was hit hard. I had never come across such an explosive attack on my Christian faith. I found myself balling up my fists in anger at the blatant blasphemy laced throughout the pages. I had never heard of Christopher Hitchens. Indeed, many people hadn’t. Although an accomplished writer and journalist, Hitchens’ name was foreign to most of the American public until his written attack on religion. Of course, coming from a man who holds Mother Teresa in the same esteem as most Christians view the anti-Christ, his convictions are anything but surprising! But although it pained me at the time to subject myself to such critique, it was perhaps one of the best things I have done in recent years. It opened my eyes to a wider world of unbelief that is not content to sit in the dusty classrooms of Oxford, but is worming its way onto the bookshelves and into the minds of “your average Joe.” In the end, it forced me to think long and hard about the very foundations of what I hold to be true, and I have come away with my faith strengthened, not shaken. However, to the “untrained eye” Hitchens can appear very persuasive. He is a brilliant writer, spinning sentences with a sense of authority, wit, and shock value that will pull a reaction from even the most apathetic agnostic.

For those whose beliefs have been disturbed by the recent rise of atheist writers such as Hitchens, author/pastor/apologist Doug Wilson provides the perfect companion book. “God Is. How Christianity Explains Everything” is a chapter-by-chapter response to Hitchens’ work. This is the book I wish I had known about when I first read Hitchens! Wilson is perhaps the only apologist I have read (excluding C.S. Lewis) who can stand toe-to-toe with Hitchens and match him in wit and style. He likens Hitchens to an illusionist. His superior grasp of the English language alone is enough to send many believers sprinting out the church doors! However, as in the case of most illusionists, all it takes is someone with knowledge of how the tricks work to unravel the whole facade. Wilson is that man. He walks you through each of the chapters in Hitchens’ book and pulls the curtain to reveal the “wizard” cowering behind.

The criticisms of Hitchens begin with the title! As Wilson points out, Hitchens has no basis for morality if there is no God (for a Darwinist, it is simply as the book of Judges describes: “Everyone does what is right in their own eyes.”). Without a standard of right and wrong (God), who decides our morality? Who is the “final authority?” Well, I guess we are. That is all fine and dandy, until Hitchens spills his tea and crumpets all over himself throwing his arms up in unrighteous indignation! Religion poisons everything. So? Why, for an atheist, is that wrong? It is, upon their worldview, just a fact. An “is” that requires no more explanation. If we are created by a random evolutionary process, there simply is no right and wrong. There are only facts. In this argument alone, Hitchens’ whole purpose for writing the book is based on borrowed capital (indeed, he must borrow the Christians’ idea of right and wrong to be angry with us in the first place!).

In fact, perhaps “Religion” is not the problem after all. Wilson says, “When you compare abominable theistic societies and abominable atheistic societies, the variables are probably not the thing you want to appeal to in order to account for the constant, horrific result. We need to look for the constant. What might that be? People. People poison everything.” Of course it is easy for Hitchens to lump several thousand different worldviews all under the umbrella of “religion” and be done with it. My concern is not “religion” but Christianity. I just don’t believe I can be placed in a category next to a Wiccan who worships trees. However, what we both have in common is that we are people. Funny, we have that in common with the atheist too.

Wilson has many insights that I enjoyed. One is his observation of laws in the Old Testament. Hitchens sneers and mocks at the apparently ridiculous amounts of laws given in the first few books of the Bible that just seem so foreign to us post-Enlightenment/post-Origin of Species mammals. How can we take anything like that seriously today? Wilson responds, “The ancient Hebrews had Ten Commandments, and one slim volume commentary on those commandments. Go to the nearest law library and ask to see the regulations that you, enlightened modern man, live under. They will show you shelf after shelf of big fat books, and the incoming regulations will, on a daily basis, far surpass the Mosaic code in volume, and what they overdo in quantity they will make up for in pettiness, hubris, and incoherence.”

Hypocrisy is not limited to just the “religious.” While men like Hitchens may be appalled at the Old Testament law of stoning to death one caught in adultery, they are quick to condemn murderers to death in our own country. It seems it is simply a matter of “which sin deserves it?” for them. Of course, they have no standard to base “sin” on, but lets (as they obviously have) just forget about that!

This book is a gem of a response to Hitchens and men like him, and at just over a hundred pages, is easily read in one sitting. I recommend you get Hitchens’ book (somewhere used, so he will not receive another royalty check!) and this book, and read them together. You may just be surprised at how unstable Hitchens is when the rug is pulled from beneath his feet.

Other Recommended books on the subject:

“Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies” by David Bentley Hart. A more academic approach to how Christians (contrary to the complaints of men like Hitchens) have historically helped the world, rather than poisoning it. Worth the whole price just for the rant he goes on near the end!

“The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith” by Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher). Peter is also a respected journalist, but has chosen a very different path than his brother. It is interesting to see the world through his eyes, especially considering the family relation.

“Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry” by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett. Most of Hitchens’ criticisms rest on what he deems immoral acts committed by Christians throughout the ages. This book explains (but does not necessarily condone) the real history behind such Christian atrocities as the Crusades and the Inquisition, but also looks at how religion (far from poisoning everything) has led the way in abolition, education, and charity.

“Is Christianity Good for the World? A Debate” Interested in a debate between Hitchens and Wilson? Here it is. The topic is in the title, and the back-and-forth conversation of this debate is extremely engaging. Read along as Hitchens dodges every attempt by Wilson to get him to just explain “morality.”

“Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists” by Al Mohler. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary gives a quick overview of the “New Atheist” movement of which Hitchens is a leader. This is an easy way to get a handle on the current debate.

I recently spoke on the topic of grace. In preparation for my talk, I tried to read some good books on the subject. I came across a book I had in my library that I hadn’t read before called “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” by Philip Yancey. Here is a quick review and recommendation for this book for whoever is interested in reading more about the subject.

Perhaps what I like most about Yancey is his transparent writing style. He is a journalist who has seen the world and possesses a wide range of experiences, which he draws on throughout the book. He has spent time everywhere from the inner rooms of the Whitehouse to the hopeless ghettos of Russia. When you read Yancey’s writing, you get drawn in to these many experiences.

This book is actually the result of haunting story related to him by a friend. His friend in Chicago told him a story of meeting a prostitute looking for help. She had nothing: no food, no money, and no shelter. She was in desperate need for her and her two-year daughter. Then he learned a horrible reality. She had been prostituting her two-year old daughter! Apparently she made more money from her daughter than she did from her own services. When the shocked friend asked the woman if she had gone to a church for help, she replied, “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

In this book, Yancey asks why Christians today look so different from the Jesus they claim to follow. Indeed, Jesus spent his time around prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, and others that the religious leaders deemed “unclean.” But sadly, “Grace” is not the first word that comes to peoples’ minds when they think of “Christians.” In fact, it’s not likely in the top ten.

Yancey notes how Christians have become more concerned with political power and moral reform than they are about showing grace. This can be seen at any number of anti-abortion or anti-gay demonstrations. The “Culture Wars” have become increasingly more intense and ugly, with both sides mounting insults and criticisms upon their enemies. Yancey experienced this when he wrote an article on the faith of former president Clinton. After an extensive interview, he came to the conclusion that Clinton’s faith (while not perfect in practice) was a fundamental and genuine part of who he was. The backlash he received from Christians was unlike anything he had ever experienced! The hate-mail of those that claimed to follow a man who once said “love your enemies” was demoralizing.

However, Jesus himself didn’t seem too interested in political reform—he was concerned about people. In everything we do, Yancey says, we have the opportunity to show either grace or “ungrace.” The world desperately needs grace, and it is the job of the church to live it. He says, “I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.” He reminds us of the grace of God, which is free for us, but which cost the giver His only Son. This kind of grace is completely counter-cultural to our world. In fact, our world is a “dog-eat-dog” world not a “dog-forgive-dog” world. But it is only forgiveness that can halt the cycle of “ungrace.” Yancey claims, “The strongest argument in favor of grace is the alternative, a world of ungrace. The strongest argument for forgiveness is the alternative, a permanent state of unforgiveness.” One does not need to look hard to see what the world looks like without grace. Simply turn on the news or flip through any history book. Yancey relates a story from a Holocaust victim who comes face to face with a dying S.S. Nazi soldier asking for forgiveness from his deathbed. Could there be a more difficult test of forgiveness?

It is not Yancey’s goal to simply set his sights on where the church has messed up. However, if we are to learn from our mistakes, we must open our eyes to what is wrong. He notes how the church has learned to see past the sin of divorce and accept the individual, and yet it has reserved its most hateful and vindictive comments for homosexuals or those who’ve had an abortion. Can we live by this double-standard, where greed and gluttony are practically celebrated in church but a pregnant teenager would rather run away than enter a church building? Perhaps if Christians were more honest with each other about confessing their own sins, they would be more willing to show grace to others. As C.S. Lewis noted, we all show grace to ourselves. While we hate the sin in our lives, it certainly does not mean we stop loving ourselves! What would happen if we turned this selfishness into outward grace?

If you are interested in hearing thoughts on grace from a man who has seen both grace and ungrace around the globe, I recommend this book for you. It is written in the style of a journalist, chronicling his many experiences, interviews, and readings. He draws from a wide array of sources, including Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Hitler, and Tony Campolo. Here is compiled the thoughts of a man seeking answers to some of life’s toughest questions, and you will be rewarded by his findings. At times equally shocking and heartbreaking, this book will challenge you. Yancey reminds us that, “In the end it was the saints, not the sinners, who arrested Jesus.” What do our lives show a watching world in need of grace? Will this world be changed by our lobbying? By our criticism? By our moral policing? Or will is change person by person, as we become embodiments of grace? In the words of Philip Yancey, “A renewal of spirituality in the United States will not descend from the top down; if it occurs at all, it will start at the grass roots and grow from the bottom up.”

Also recommended by Philip Yancey: “The Jesus I Never Knew” Yancey looks at the life of Jesus from a journalist’s perspective, and you may be surprised at what he discovers.

Also recommended on the topic of grace: “Putting a Face on Grace: Living a Life Worth Passing On” by Richard Blackaby, for a story-driven insight into the living out of grace in our personal, everyday lives. Lots of laughs, some tears, but most of all the gripping challenge of Scriptural truth that will not leave you unchanged.