March 2009: Books Read

Once again, it’s the list that proves to you that I’m really doing something when I’m sitting around.

1. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey. I’ve heard about this book over the past few years, and since my church is going through the Truth Project (a DVD curriculum that trains Christians to have a biblical worldview) together, I thought I’d read a book about worldviews.

This book has a lot in it. Pearcey studied under Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, and you can see his influence in the way that she paints with a broad brush, surveying all of western culture. She writes that secularism has pushed religion (specifically Christianity) to the margins of society, and Christians ought to reassert Christianity as public, all-encompassing truth. She spends a particularly large chunk of the book dealing with Darwinism, saying that it has begun with science but seeped through the rest of society as its own all-encompassing worldview. Then she tells the story of how evangelicals became so anti-intellectual, and expresses her desire that the trend be reversed.

This book also has a lot going for it. Many of her insights I thought were right on. I liked the fact that she went out of her way to be irenic when it comes to dealing with culture:

Our first response to the great works of human culture – whether in art or technology or economic productivity – should be to celebrate them as reflections of God’s own creativity. And even when we analyze where they go wrong, it should be in a spirit of love.

I also liked it that she does not seem to have been taken in by the false notion – so widespread among evangelicals – that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

In fact, if there is one factor especially distinctive of the second [Great] Awakening, it is a surprising lack of critical distance from the political ideology of the American Revolution. – 274

Instead of offering a distinctively biblical perspective on the current political culture, many evangelicals [during the Second Great Awakening] virtually equated spiritual liberty with political liberty.

And this lack of critical distance, which has a 200-year history, continues.

One area that I think Pearcey went astray was when dealing with Christians who believe in evolution. At the end of her chapter which makes the case for Intelligent Design, she claims that those who are theistic evolutionists are pawns of scientific naturalists (not her words, but I think her sentiments), allowing their beliefs about God to be shunted off to the private realm and only accepting as real the scientifically verifiable.

I’m not sure that this is entirely fair to theistic evolutionists, one of whom (Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project) she quoted favorably just 13 pages before. It is far from evident that theistic evolutionists all experience God as an optional add-on, living their lives settled in the “naturalist’s chair” (as opposed to the “supernaturalist’s chair” that Christians ought to be in). Unfortunately, Pearcey doesn’t really deal with them directly. Pearcey says

Christians are called to live out their entire lives, including their scientific work, from the perspective of the supernaturalist’s chair, recognizing the full range of reality. This is what it means to ‘walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), with a day-to-day awareness of the unseen dimension of reality.

I would like Pearcey to explain exactly how scientists ought to conduct scientific research through appeal to unobservable things. Pearcey does not seem to acknowledge that it is not just naturalists who have truncated the “range of reality” available to scientific investigation. Rather, science just deals with the observable. It isn’t atheists who came up with these rules. The bad guy here, it seems to me, is not the one who conducts science based on observable facts. The bad guy is the one who then claims that facts observable by science are all there is. Theistic evolutionists don’t claim this, and so I think Pearcey ought to be kinder to them. As it is, her brief (pages 203-205) dismissal of them is likely, unfortunately, to lead to misunderstanding and alienation within the body of Christ.

Another area where I think Pearcey went astray is in her repeated insistence that Christianity is “objective truth.”

To bring about a restoration of the Christian mind, we would do well to follow the Intelligent Design movement in challenging the Baconian model of autonomous or neutral knowledge in every field. We must reject the presumption that holding Christian beliefs disqualifies us as ‘biased,’ while the philosophical naturalists get a free pass by presenting their position as ‘unbiased’ and ‘rational.’ Most of all, we need to liberate Christianity from the two-story division that has reduced it to an upper-story private experience, and learn how to restore it to the status of objective truth.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Pearcey seems to contradict herself in this paragraph. First she says that the idea of “autonomous” and “neutral” knowledge should be challenged, and then she goes on to say that Christians should claim Christianity as “objective truth.” Part of the very definition of “objective” is that it is unbiased and neutral. Instead of trying to shout louder than naturalists that we are unbiased and rational, why not argue that naturalists are just as biased as we are, and that bias is inescapable in finite human beings? I think that this has a lot more potential to be fruitful, since it would be awfully difficult to argue that Christians are any less biased than naturalists. Bias is OK; it just needs to be taken into account.

But I’ve rambled on enough. All in all, I thought this was a worthwhile book with a couple of weak spots. If a Christian wants to know what it means to have a biblical worldview, I’d recommend this book. I would also recommend that person to not stop there.

2. John Stott: The Making of a Leader by Timothy Dudley-Smith. This is the first in a two-volume biography of the well-known evangelical leader John Stott. I’ve benefited a great deal from his writings, and when I saw this book in a used bookstore in Grand Rapids last December I snapped it up.

It follows Stott from birth to approximately age 40, following him from his London childhood to his school days at Rugby, then on to Cambridge during WWII, theological studies at Ridley Hall, curacy at All Souls Anglican Church in London and finally his promotion and subsequent career as Rector of that church.

A couple of highlights for me were reading about his “instinctive pacifism” as he was preparing to and beginning to study theology during WWII, and his deep concern for evangelism. Within his own parish he began training laypeople in evangelism and led regular Guest Services for outreach. Outside, he met and befriended Billy Graham during the 1950s, and even led a few university missions of his own, both in the UK and overseas. The book also spends some time on his lifelong interest in birdwatching.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and the pages flew by. The only thing I wanted more of was discussion of Stott’s theological shaping. There was some talk of why he was drawn to pacifism during his student days, but once he entered parish life there is much discussion of his actions and little direct discussion of his theological growth and deepening.