Book Review – Uncommon Decency

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  • Paperback: 187 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (August 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Richard Mouw’s blog
  • At the heels of the January 2011 shootings in Tucson that left six dead and many wounded has come the suggestion that our manner of discussing the issues of the day has become acrimonious.

    Comments citing the “vitriol that comes out of certain mouths” and “level of angry rhetoric,” and pleas to “bring down the rhetoric [that] . . . has become pervasive in our discussion of political issues” have abounded in the days after the tragic event.

    Is our age more caustic in our treatment of political and cultural disagreements than previous ones? Probably not. But the question of how to address differences has recurred.

    Richard J. Mouw’s newly revised Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (InterVarsity 2010) is a welcome discussion on . . . discussion. How should anyone, specifically Christians, present opinions about the issues of the day? We need to start with our own sinfulness and others’ humanness, and recognize that many issues are not easily resolved. Accept that we can learn from someone we disagree with. Even pray for the welfare of Babylon, Mouw advises, citing Jeremiah’s injunction to the exiled Israelites: “Seek the welfare of the city . . . and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4–7).

    Mouw tackles some of the familiar topics we tend to be uncivil about, but avoids clichéd responses. For example, he raises the concept of pluralism—a topic conservative Christians sometimes view with dismay, as though such a reality is detrimental to our practice of the faith. He lays out a reasoned and interesting conclusion, though, as to why Christians actually ought to embrace a pluralistic society.

    A strength of the book is his inclusion of issues within and without the church, discussions among believers, and between Christians and those who aren’t. He says Christians often become polarized—and may embrace polarization—even concerning different approaches to sharing the faith. We can obey the call to spread the gospel even while we listen to others, sincerely aim to understand them better, and even to get their perspective on us. Sadly, much incivility occurs within churches, whether in a local church setting or in a public denominational split.

    He recognizes the difficulties of engaging with culture without compromising convictions and offers examples of those whose road can be bumpy while doing so. His chapter on “When There Is No ‘On the Other Hand’ ” expands on this theme. Mouw’s approach to issues is nuanced, and he recognizes that “there will come times when civility alone is not adequate for dealing with our differences.”

    The chapter on whether or not hell is uncivil is fascinating.

    Mouw supports his reasoning with historic persons and contemporary examples, remaining thoughtful and fresh throughout. He concludes that “without grace, civility cannot endure.”

    Uncommon Decency is a welcome addition on how to discuss issues, get involved with others, address matters and persons with civility; a sensible, pleasing, and challenging read, highly recommended.

    —Reviewed by Pam Pugh, General Project Editor, Moody Publishers

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Top Posts of 2010

    Below are some of the Cloud’s top posts of 2010.  Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read, comment, or critique. May you know and love God more and more in 2011!

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    Book Review – Generation Ex-Christian

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  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers (October 1, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Drew Dyck on Twitter
  • Recent statistics on the religious commitments of young people are alarming. Surveys show that 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claim no religion, and 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the ages of 18 and 22. The church is losing its youth at a disturbing rate. But behind every statistic is an individual story, and Drew Dyck contends in Generation Ex-Christian that most of these “leavers” fall into one of six broad categories: Postmodernists, Recoilers, Modernists, Neo-Pagans, Rebels, and Drifters.

    He devotes a chapter to each, which includes a description of the category, interviews with those who fit the category, and advice for how to reach out to each type of leaver. I found the interviews compelling and appreciated how they brought what could be merely abstract concepts to life. If you’ve spent much time sharing the gospel with different kinds of people, you will quickly recognize many of these “types” of non-believers (though Dyck acknowledges that every person has a unique story).

    I was most interested in the Modernists leavers, who appear for the most part to be new atheists. As part of his research for this group, Dyck attended a meeting of the Wheaton Atheists Group and describes his interaction with the skeptics there. One of the members, a young man named Dan, admitted that he had grown up in the Assemblies of God and had just recently left the faith.

    What had caused his crisis of faith?

    “I always believed the earth was 6,000 years old,” Dan said bitterly. “But now I know it’s not.”

    For years Dan tried desperately to maintain his belief in the young earth theory. He read material from Answers in Genesis, a Christian apologetics organization, consulted his pastor and people in his church. But ultimately he said he just couldn’t deny what he saw as the evidence that the world was much older than 6,000 years.

    “That’s when I realized that Christianity just wasn’t true,” he said.

    Inwardly I cringed at the false-alternatives scenario that Dan had set up in his mind. For him, one geological question (which the Bible doesn’t even address explicitly) was the deciding factor for faith.” (79-80)

    I cringe as well when I hear those kinds of stories and lament the fact that peripheral matters like the age of the earth are taken to be reasons for rejecting the gospel. But I’m discovering that these kinds of stories are common.

    Another atheist, Shane, had been drifting from his Christian faith for some time. What pushed him over the edge was the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

    “I’ve heard this from people in the atheist community, over and over again. September 11 made us all realize that you can’t be a fence-sitter on this issue. We realized that religion is causing these problems. It’s holding belief in things which are not empirically verifiable. That’s what’s wrong.” (104)

    Dyck ends the chapter with several pieces of good advice for reaching out to Modernist leavers. He encourages listening carefully and asking questions of skeptics, and not assuming common ground that doesn’t exist (e.g., the belief that the Bible is reliable or inspired). Relevant and suitable questions to ask include those that encourage a skeptic to follow the logical consequences of their worldview, including the loss of objective meaning and morality (some skeptics will deny this, but many don’t and readily admit it).  It will likely be necessary to point out the consequences of adopting a non-God worldview.

    Dyck also wisely encourages Christians to confront atheists with the fact that they themselves have a worldview that requires defending and offering good reasons for. In my experience, the majority of atheists believe that their skeptical position is somehow neutral ground that requires no justification to hold. But as long as anyone is making a positive claim of any kind (e.g., God doesn’t exist, Christianity is false, etc.), he or she is under the same obligation as the Christian to provide reasons and evidence for their claim. If someone just doesn’t know, then they should adopt the agnostic, rather than the atheistic, viewpoint.

    The other chapters of Generation Ex-Christian are as good as this one, so I heartily recommend this book, especially to those who need help understanding and reaching out to the leavers they know.

    The first chapter can be downloaded here.

    — Reviewed by Chris Reese.  In the interest of full disclosure, I work for Moody, the publisher of Generation Ex-Christian.

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    Book Giveaway – Moral Choices by Scott Rae

    I used Scott Rae’s book Moral Choices in two different ethics classes in seminary and benefitted from it a great deal.  It’s now in it’s third edition, and thanks to the generous folks at Zondervan (@Zondervan on Twitter, Facebook here), I’m giving away a copy at Cloud of Witnesses.

    As the subtitle says, the book is an introduction to (Christian) ethics.  In the first four chapters, Rae lays out some theoretical groundwork by pointing to various elements of a Christian approach to ethics, and then surveys various ethical systems such as utilitarianism, deontological approaches, and virtue ethics.  Chapter 4 provides a general framework for making ethical decisions.

    Chapters 5 through 12 take up a variety of ethical issues and treat them from a Christian viewpoint.  These timely topics include abortion, cloning, euthanasia, sexual ethics, war, and economics.  Each chapter includes review questions, case studies for discussion, suggestions for further reading, and helpful sidebars.

    If you’re looking for a concise but comprehensive survey of Christian ethics from an evangelical perspective, Moral Choices is one of the best in print in my opinion.

    Giveaway Details:

    To enter the giveaway, comment on this post and tell me the best book you’ve read recently.  (Please include your email address in the comment form so I can contact you if you win.)  Also, please share this post on the social media site of your choice (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).  I’ll announce the winner this weekend.

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    Philosophy Word of the Day — Nicolaus Copernicus

    Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica

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    “Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) was a mathematician and astronomer who proposed that the sun was stationary in the center of the universe and the earth revolved around it. Disturbed by the failure of Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe to follow Aristotle’s requirement for the uniform circular motion of all celestial bodies and determined to eliminate Ptolemy’s equant, an imaginary point around which the bodies seemed to follow that requirement, Copernicus decided that he could achieve his goal only through a heliocentric model. He thereby created a concept of a universe in which the distances of the planets from the sun bore a direct relationship to the size of their orbits. At the time Copernicus’s heliocentric idea was very controversial; nevertheless, it was the start of a change in the way the world was viewed, and Copernicus came to be seen as the initiator of the Scientific Revolution.” (continue article)

    — Sheila Rabin, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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    Dawkins and Company Fail to Engage

    I and other contributors to Cloud of Witnesses have observed before that the most visible leaders of the new atheism fail to properly represent religion and fail to engage the most articulate, sophisticated arguments for God’s existence and the rationality of Christianity.  Now Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, joins the throng of critics who have pointed this out, in a post at the New York Times Opinionator blog.

    Religious believers often accuse argumentative atheists such as Dawkins of being excessively rationalistic, demanding standards of logical and evidential rigor that aren’t appropriate in matters of faith. My criticism is just the opposite. Dawkins does not meet the standards of rationality that a topic as important as religion requires.

    The basic problem is that meeting such standards requires coming to terms with the best available analyses and arguments. This need not mean being capable of contributing to the cutting-edge discussions of contemporary philosophers, but it does require following these discussions and applying them to one’s own intellectual problems. Dawkins simply does not do this. He rightly criticizes religious critics of evolution for not being adequately informed about the science they are calling into question. But the same criticism applies to his own treatment of philosophical issues.

    . . . . [T]hose, like Dawkins, committed to believing only what they can rationally justify, have no alternative to engaging with the most rigorous rational discussions available. Dawkins’ distinctly amateur philosophizing simply isn’t enough.

    The entire article presents a fine critique of Dawkins’s arguments for atheism.


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    Book Review — Life in the Spirit

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  • Paperback: 270 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2009)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com
  • IVP Page, with Sample Chapters
  • Life in the Spirit, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis, is an excellent collection of essays on the Holy Spirit and Christian spirituality.

    Topics in Life in the Spirit are varied, and are grouped under the headings of “Theological Contours,” “Historical Approaches,” “Spiritual Practices,” and an epilogue.

    The “Theological Contours” section includes two essays on spiritual formation, and an essay entitled “Getting the Spirit Back in Spirituality.” This latter essay was written by Gordon Fee and it is, in my opinion, the best essay in the volume. Fee urges readers towards the realization that the Holy Spirit is fully active and alive in the church and to open ourselves up to the presence of God. Fee’s article was simply fantastic, and this entire section on Theological Contours is perhaps the highlight of the book.

    The “Historical Approaches” section features four essays that focus on Christian spirituality throughout history. I found each of these essays interesting, particularly Lawrence Cunningham’s “The Way and the Ways” which discusses Roman Catholic spirituality. His insights on different “Ways” within Christianity and spirituality were enlightening. His points could be equally used for other denominations, such as his advice to analyze Catholic spiritual practice by asking, “Do we follow Christ by this practice, or by reading that book, or by participating in the liturgy, or by seeing Christ in others? By the use of that criterion we can then judge whether this vast panoply of Catholic devotional, ascetic, spiritual, liturgical and diaconal practices . . . are worthy of attention” (96).  I urge readers to consider the various “schools” or “Ways” Cunningham discusses. My single complaint about this section is that it seemed a little unbalanced to have two out of four essays on Roman Catholic spiritual practice. Surely there are other spiritual traditions worth exploring within Christianity! Catholicism would obviously be one of the top choices, but to dedicate half the essays on the historical perspectives to it seems a little extreme.

    Part 3 focuses on “Spiritual Practices” and features five essays on the topic. These essays are wonderfully diverse. I was particularly excited to see that the essays weren’t all on topics that were to be expected, such as prayer (though the essay on prayer by James Wilhoit is great). Of particular interest to me was David Gushee’s essay on “Spiritual Formation and the Sanctity of Life” in which he urges Christians to “establish . . . the sanctity of human life as our utterly fixed, unshakable and immovable moral standard” (215).

    There are difficulties with reviewing a work of such a broad scope, as it seems unfair not to deal with each essay individually. I trust this doesn’t reflect on this fantastic work, but instead on my inadequate review. I highly recommend Life in the Spirit for both interested laypeople and scholars. The diverse array of topics alone makes it worth buying, but the incredible insights the authors offer make the book essential.

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. blogs on philosophy and theology at Always Have a Reason.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Interview with Jim Spiegel – Part Two

    Today we continue with the second half of our interview with Jim Spiegel on his new book, The Making of an Atheist.  We’re continuing to collect questions for a follow-up Q&A post, and everyone who submits a question is entered into the drawing for a free copy of the book.

    * * * *

    Chris Reese: Your approach to apologetics in the book seems to have a lot in common with a presuppositional stance. Do you find much that you agree with in that method of apologetics?

    Jim Spiegel: I’m not a presuppositionalist, but I do appreciate the insight of this approach that sin has a warping effect on the mind, that there are, as Alvin Plantinga puts it, cognitive consequences of sin. And it is just this dynamic that I think explains both a person’s descent into atheism and the ongoing obstinacy of atheists when faced with clear pointers to God. Having said that, I believe the study of the evidences for the faith is profitable in many ways, as it can quell believers’ doubts and clear away obstacles to belief for those who are sincerely investigating the Christian faith.

    CR: Mainstream apologetics has tended to pass over issues of psychology and morality in relation to belief in God or Christianity. Why do you think that’s been the case?

    JS: There are probably several reasons for this. For one thing, it might seem like a distraction to explore the psychological determinants of false beliefs about God when there are so many positive evidences to discuss, not to mention skeptical objections to refute. Also, it might appear to be an ad hominem fallacy to theorize about the moral-psychological roots of disbelief. But, to be clear, my thesis commits no such blunder, because an explanatory account of atheism, such as I give in my book, is different than an argument against atheism. My book does not aim to prove theism or disprove atheism (though I do mention many noteworthy evidences along the way). Instead, I aim to explain how atheistic belief arises.

    CR: What do you see that’s promising as well as lacking in apologetics or Christian philosophy of religion today?

    JS: It’s hard not to get excited about all that is happening in the area of intelligent design, both at the cosmic and organismic levels. The data regarding the fine-tuning of the universe is becoming more astounding every day, as is the evidence for design in cellular biology. (That such data prompted the theistic conversion of Antony Flew should make even the most hardened atheist think twice.) As for what is lacking, we badly need to see more work connecting ethical and psychological insights (e.g., about self-deception, moral weakness, the role of the emotions in belief-formation, etc.) to skeptical attitudes toward God and religion. And I would like to see work connecting aesthetics to philosophy of religion (e.g., developing arguments for God and/or against naturalism based on the reality of beauty in the world).

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    Interview with Jim Spiegel – Part One

    It’s a pleasure to welcome Jim Spiegel to Cloud of Witnesses to answer some questions about his recently released book, The Making of an Atheist.

    I will post the second half of the interview tomorrow, and as mentioned last week, I will collect a few follow-up questions from these posts for Jim to respond to.  So, we welcome your questions related to the book or the interview.  In addition, everyone who posts a question will be entered into a drawing for a free copy of The Making of an Atheist.

    * * * *

    Chris Reese: What prompted you to write The Making of an Atheist?

    Jim Spiegel: As I’ve followed the new atheist movement and Christian apologists’ responses to atheists’ arguments, I’ve been dismayed at the lack of attention to the moral-psychological roots of disbelief. Since this is so heavily emphasized by the biblical writers, I thought someone needed to address it. Also, I wanted to confirm an intuition shared by many Christians who read the new atheists—that their books are more the product of anger and bitterness than an even-handed, dispassionate look at the facts.

    CR: What has the response been so far to the book and website?

    JS: The response has been largely positive. In fact, I have never received so many encouraging notes from strangers who wrote to thank me for writing the book. But there have been some negative responses as well from some atheists and agnostics who insist that their rejection of God has been purely an intellectual matter.

    CR: Many atheists will be offended at the thesis of your book. What would you say to an atheist like this who claims he grew up in a basically normal home and is a decent person, but just doesn’t feel there’s good evidence to believe in God?

    JS: I would note that growing up in a basically normal home doesn’t preclude moral rebellion. And regarding those who insist that they are morally “decent,” I would be curious as to what they mean by this. Before I was a Christian there were many things that I considered to be morally permissible—from sexual promiscuity to resentment and certain forms of revenge—which I now recognize to be immoral and even distorting of one’s perception of reality. The fact that a person passes his or her own test for moral decency is hardly reliable as a gauge for their actual virtue.

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    The Making of an Atheist Blog Tour

    Cloud of Witnesses is pleased to be one of the stops for the newly launched Making of an Atheist blog tour.

    I’ll be posting a two-part interview with Jim Spiegel beginning next Monday (2/15), and I welcome your questions and comments in response.  I’ll collect three or four of the most interesting follow-up questions, and ask Jim to respond to them.

    In addition, everyone who posts a question (and supplies their email address to be contacted) will be entered into a drawing for a free copy of The Making of an Atheist.  I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

    You can learn more about Jim by visiting his blog, Wisdom and Folly, or his website.

    Other blog stops on the tour include:

    Apologetics.com

    Truthbomb Apologetics

    Triablogue

    Mike Austin’s blog

    The Seventh Sola

    EPS Blog (Up now here)

    Doug Geivett’s Blog

    Apologetics 315

    Just thinking…

    Oversight of Souls

    Constructive Curmudgeon

    A-TeamBlog

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