Two points to make first. One, I was sent a free copy of this book to review. Two, if you click on the link and go on to buy the book (and you’d be the first person ever to do this to anything I’ve ever linked!) then I get a small amount of commission. If you don’t want me to get commission (and so delay my retirement to Barbados), feel free to use another method to purchase the book.
This book is written as an undermining of Christian intellectual arguments. It is a novel, but in the dialogue between key characters, arguments are presented and then attacked (though the word attack suggests aggression, which there isn’t really much of in the book!)
In the original email I received offering me the book, I read:
Whether you consider yourself emergent, missional, organic, or just plain willing to engage, Cross Examined is a rich opportunity to engage the worldview of an atheist with depth who’s conversant with Christianity.
Bob Seidensticker has certainly gone to a lot of effort to present a clear defense of atheism, and in many ways he does this well. For those interested or involved in apologetics, there might not be may surprises, but the atheist character in the novel, ‘Jim’, is eloquent and clear without the aggression of, say, Dawkins. Pascal’s Wager (the, ‘you may as well believe in God because if you don’t and you’re wrong, you go to hell, and if you do and you’re wrong, you just end up living a nice life and then die without knowing you were wrong’) is all very well, for example, but once more than one religion exists, it rather crumbles…
However, I think I have a problem with this book. That is, Christianity is not just attacked intellectually (which I don’t mind – Christians need to be well equipped in apologetics). Rather, Christianity is undermined through the presentation of the key characters in the book. There are basically three characters in the book: Samuel, a church leader; Paul, his ‘apprentice’ – an ex-orphanage rescue project; Jim, an agoraphobic atheist. The atheist is someone who you want to feel sorry for, because he has been wronged by the church, his life history is painful and Christianity has driven him, in many ways, to the brink. The pastor of the church, on the other hand, is borderline megalomaniac (this may be a more American view perhaps; I’m not sure we have the structures in place to foster too many megalomaniacal church leaders here in England…) and will happily trample the needs and emotions of others to pursue his own vision. For example, he tells Paul, who has been visiting Jim:
“Visiting this man takes away from your work. He’s a diversion—discard him.”
This doesn’t seem like it should be words that come from the mouth of a pastor. Now, I know as well as anyone (either inside of outside the church) that Christians can be the absolutely worst adverts for Christianity, but I think there’s only one Christian character in the book that I can think of that comes out of it all looking like a decent member of the community.
There are also occasional lines that present what I would consider to be slight distortions of the truth. For example, Samuel says to Paul, ‘The Bible makes clear that an eternity in hell is what awaits the person who falls away from the church.” I would disagree with the end part – ‘falls away from the church’. Perhaps the author was trying to convey ‘rejects God’, but that’s not what he has Samuel say in this example. I suspect this was deliberate. Later, we’re told, ‘Faith is permission to believe something without good reason’. (Later still, we’re told, ‘faith is belief despite a lack of evidence’) Again, I would argue that faith is based, at least in part, on reason. If you had no reason to have faith, you wouldn’t have it, would you?
We’re also told, through Jim, ‘Think what a waste the entire universe is if the goal was simply to build one tiny home for humans’. Whilst I can follow the apparent logic in this, I wonder on what grounds precisely the universe is a ‘waste’…
Further on, Jim argues,
Who would even consider worshipping a make-believe god when he was cared for by the very Creator of the universe? The only explanation is that the other gods were actually tempting, that they looked similar to the Israelites’ god
That’s not the only explanation, is it? Isn’t that like saying, ‘who’d be tempted to be unfaithful to their wife when they’re the most beautiful woman in the world’, or even, ‘who’d be tempted to eat unhealthily when they’re offered the finest healthy fare’? Surely part of our problem is that we’re tempted to do things that we really shouldn’t, however illogical they might seem. After watching The Matrix, I, feeling emboldened and mostly invincible, decided to walk on the edge of Kingsgate Bridge [do NOT try this!! It's stupid and dangerous]
Kingsgate Bridge, in Durham.
It was something I really shouldn’t have done, but that didn’t prevent me from doing it. The argument above suggests that I woudn’t do this. Yes, it’s true to say I shouldn’t have done it, but I did. Saying, effectively, ‘people wouldn’t do something illogical’ is, sadly, untrue.
Paul ends up rejecting Christianity (don’t worry – I haven’t completely ruined the book for you! There’s more to it than that.) And this is part of the narrative:
He thought back on the shackles he’d left behind. Only in the intensity of the debate had he finally seen the world through godless glasses. He’d been a misfit within the church, but the defect wasn’t with him but rather his belief.
The medieval Christian constraints were gone. He felt a door to the twentieth century swing open, and he entered a rational world governed by intellect and logic.
Now, I suppose it’s inevitable that, as an atheist himself, the author would present it like that, but still it illustrates for me the underlying assumption that Christianity and Christians are backwards and (to a varying extent) bad. Maybe I’m being hypersensitive, but that’s my take on it
Finally, I’m not sure what to make of the ending. If someone could explain it to me, I’d be much obliged… I put it down to sleep deprivation, but I honestly can’t work out quite what the author is trying to convey…