Notable Books Read in 2013

Here are some raves and rants pertaining to some of the books I read in 2013 (they may have been published some other year). Enjoy ~

Must Reads:

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King. It is a shame that the only thing I knew about Thurgood Marshall before I read this book was that he was the first African-American Justice on the SCOTUS and that he argued Brown v. Board of Eduation. His work on behalf of the civil rights movement is truly heroic. Nor had I any idea that Florida was second only to Mississippi in lynching. While good history rarely involves a plot framed in terms of good guys versus bad guys, this one truly does. My favorite book of the year. Kept me up late turning the proverbial digital pages.

Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction by Allen C. Guelzo. Anyone who can tell the story of the how the Civil War began, how it progressed, and how it ended, including the nightmare of Reconstruction, under 600 pages is to be commended. By one of my favorite historians to boot.

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The Making of an Atheist

James Spiegel’s The Making of an Atheist is a curious book in that it seeks to articulate a Christian view of atheism, that is, an explanation of atheism according to Christian theology. While plenty of Christian thinkers have offered up assessments of atheism so as to defend the rationality of Christian belief, not many spell out a cogent theology of atheism in systematic terms. The burden of any theology of atheism will be to explain why, assuming their is  overwhelming evidence for God’s existence, there is obstinate disbelief in God. Basing his case on Romans 1:18-24, Ephesians 4:17-19, and Psalm 14:1, Speigel argues that atheism is not the result of a lack of evidence for God, but a lack of obedience to God. Along the way, he argues that the atheist has no evidence for the nonexistence of God from the argument from evil, and that disbelief in God is caused by emotional problems with a cosmic authority figure, which stem from an absent or abusive father and the desire for sexual liberation. In short, atheists are atheists because they are bad people. While they may be very smart, it is their defective will, not their rationality, that leads them to their self-deceived conclusions.

I came to this book with some interest, because I am convinced that our attitudes towards obeying God (if he exists) deeply influence whether or not we do in fact believe in God. I’ve explored some of these things in my review of Paul Moser’s work, namely how a cosmic authority problem functions as a non-rational factor in religious belief formation. That authority problem is best articulated by Thomas Nagel (who Spiegel also quotes):

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

It seems safe to assume that there is a kind of “cognitive rebellion” or at least an intellectual vice, which refuses to entertain any search for God’s existence or an honest evaluation for theistic evidences, that must be overcome before there can be any genuine belief in God. This is because God is identical with the greatest possible being who is utterly worthy of worship. Belief in God entails a duty to worship and obey God, and that is something we may not want to deal with if we are honest with ourselves.

I was expecting Spiegel’s book to explore this fascinating tension between the authority of God and the autonomy of human beings in greater detail, but I was disappointed. To be sure, some of that was there and this is the better part of the book. But most of its pages are dedicated to a heavy-handed psychological analysis of adherence to Kuhnian “paradigms” buttressed by clumsy apologetic arguments . Here is one example:

The objection from evil does pack some punch, and it is a genuine problem for theists. But it could never count as grounds for atheism. Even if successful, it only undermines certain beliefs about the nature of God. It does not—nor could any argument—disprove the existence of a world creator and designer.

At most, evil should prompt us to reconsider what kind of God exists, not whether God exists.

Suppose he is right about this and the problem of evil provides evidence not for the non-existence of a creator-God, but only a not-so-good God. Would such a God be worthy of worship? Of course not, and it would be perfectly within our rights (or perhaps our duty?) to rebel against such a God. Anyone who fails to be good is not worthy of worship, and if the argument from evil provides evidence for the badness of God, then Spiegel shouldn’t be so hard on atheists for failing to obey God.

Another odd feature is that the Spiegel often vacillates between giving a Christian account of atheism and defending the obviousness of theism. But these projects are quite different as he presupposes the truth of Scripture for one and appeals to natural theology for the other. Conspicuously absent from the “clear” and “obvious” evidence for God’s existence is any appeal to evidence for Christ’s resurrection, which would make his account more distinctively Christian. The fact that Spiegel doesn’t include this shows that the paradigm of “theism” is quite different from the paradigm of “Christianity.” It would then seem that the “immorality leads to unbelief” thesis would be true in Jewish and Islamic thought as well. Perhaps this is enough to satisfy Spiegel, but if he was trying to give a Christian account of atheism, there is nothing distinctively Christian about it.

I’ve been looking for a helpful introduction to non-rational factors like the cosmic authority problem and the will to believe so as to recommend it to lay people who might interested, because Moser’s work can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated (as I was told by my poor father). Sadly, Spiegel’s work is not it.

My Favorite Excerpt from Are Women Human?

From Dorothy Sayers essay The Human-Not-Quite-Human

God, of course, may have His own opinion, but the Church is reluctant to endorse it. I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha and Mary that did not attempt, somehow, somewhere, to explain away its text. Mary’s, of course, was the better part-the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him. But we will be careful not to despise Martha. No doubt, He approved of her too. We could not get on without her, and indeed (having paid lip-service to God’s opinion) we must admit that we greatly prefer her. For Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple, male or female; and that is a hard pill to swallow.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man–there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God helpus!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature. But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe it, though One rose from the dead.

Answers for The Swedish Atheist

The first time the rationality of my Christian belief was challenged was in high school; I was ill-equipped to handle the objections. Flustered by being unable to answer the hard questions posed by my exceedingly clever friends, my dad took me to the local Christian bookstore to buy an apologetics book. “Apologetics” was a new word in my limited vocabulary, and all I really knew about it was an ostensive definition–CS Lewis did something like that. I don’t remember why, but I didn’t buy Mere Christianity, a book that had a profound effect on my father and my grandfather before him. Instead, I bought Answers for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Thoughtful Skeptics by E. Calvin Beisner. The big red-lettered words ANSWERS grabbed my attention: “Hey! That’s just what I’m looking for,” I thought!

I was not a savvy book buyer then (why didn’t I read the first chapter before buying it, I don’t know), but when I got it home, I was sorely disappointed (you can read the Amazon reviews to get a sense of why). The book was written as an imaginary dialogue between two friends, one a believer, the other a “skeptic”–if you could call him that–which was supposed to model how certain knock-down, drag-out arguments for the Christian faith were supposed to go. It was awful. First, the sorts of answers I was looking for weren’t there; second, I felt as though I had to learn how to manipulate a conversation to go the way the author did and then remember how to deploy a form of reasoning I did not fully understand; third, I realized that if I was ever going to learn how to talk confidently with smart friends, I would have to learn some philosophy, something I thought would be impossible.

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God or Godless?

Many thanks to Baker Books for supplying a copy to review!

As the subtitle explains, God or Godless? is the product of one atheist, John W. Loftus, and one Christian, Randal Rauser, taking on “twenty controversial questions.” Both Loftus and Rauser are popular bloggers who inspire vigorous disagreement among their respective readers, and it appears their book is the result of a friendship that was formed through occasionally sparring with one another. While both have published book-length arguments in the past, this volume exhibits a pattern only bloggers can appreciate. Each author submits ten theses, which they either affirm or deny with 800 words of prose. They are then allowed 150 words of rebuttal, which is then followed by another 50 words of closing statements. Every exchange reads like a blog post with two follow-up comments. The skill of each author is on display as they both jam a lot of content into a short space, and for that I can appreciate how much I have to learn about the art of dialoguing with few words to spare (sadly, this introduction is already over 200 words).

Instead of giving a blow by blow account of each argument, I want to make a few observations about the general strategy of the contenders along with some commendations and criticisms of what I took be the heart of their main arguments.

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What Is Marriage?

As an extension of their 2010 Harvard Law Review article, Girgis, George, and Anderson (G&G&A, hereafter) articulate the most careful, secularly grounded argument against the view that the members of the same-sex can be married. This is because their argument rests on a a metaphysical claim: marriage is constituted by the permanent and exclusive union of only two complementary members of the natural kinds male and female for the purpose of sharing a domestic life that is conducive to the rearing of children. In this view, which they call the “conjugal view” of marriage, procreation is not necessary for the marriage to exist; but since the marital act is oriented towards reproduction, and any resulting children find their natural habitat and flourish best in families of which their biological parents are stable parts, the state has vested interest in protecting it. The fact that the unions of two men or two women inherently lack this biological fecundity is sufficient to disqualify them as marriages. If we were to legalize same-sex marriage, we would embrace what the authors call the “revisionist view” or marriage: the union of (two?) adults who commit to loving and caring for each other as well as sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life; the requirements of permanence and exclusivity depend on the mutual consent of the partners.

G&G&A begin their book with a story about a pair of wealthy socialites from New York who met, fell in love, and got married. They were a man and a woman who each felt they had met their soul mate. But in order to tie the knot, they had to divorce their spouses! This, says G&G&A is the outcome of the revisionist view of marriage, and it is a blight on an institution that historically has been understood as a conjugal relation. Even in ancient Greek culture when same-sex relationships were acceptable, the union of one man and one woman for life was thought to be the norm. But why? According to G&G&A, it is because the act of coitus was the only sex act that was truly marital; in it male and female become one reproductive unit oriented towards the creation of children. Again, since same-sex couples cannot engage in coitus, they cannot exemplify the type of bodily union necessary for marriage.

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Mind and Cosmos

It isn’t clear to me that anyone could like Thomas Nagel’s latest book Mind and Cosmos if by “like” one means “agree with.” There is something in it for everyone to revile as it defies the traditional categories of naturalism and theism, at least how they are typically construed. Most take issue with the subtitle: “Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” Critics as prominent as Brian Leiter (along with Michael Weisberg) and Elliot Sober have weighed in; either they express bewilderment over Nagel’s quixotic quest to undermine science or question the plausibility of his key assumptions. Others like Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland are more sympathetic, but contend that he doesn’t go far enough. (The title of Moreland’s review captures the discontent nicely, “A Reluctant Traveler’s Guide for Slouching Towards Theism.”)

So what is all the fuss about? Nagel is sorely unconvinced a Darwinian mechanism could produce the following in a physicalist universe:

  1. The emergence of life from a lifeless universe in such a short time.
  2. The preponderance of diversity and complexity among life forms in such a short time.
  3. The production of consciousness from unconscious matter.
  4. The existence of objective standards of value and rationality and creatures endowed with the cognitive equipment to grasp them.

For Nagel, these sorts of things are produced by something purposeful, though he cannot bring himself to invoke a intentional supernatural agent for their cause; rather, he appeals to the shadowy concept of “natural teleology.” That is to say, there was a purpose built-in to the initial conditions of the universe such that creatures like us were “in mind”–a panpsychist view of nature if there ever was one.

I refrain from reviewing the main argument of the book, because there are more competent and complete reviews you should read (see above, and this one). But I recommend it to anyone who wants to take the time to slog through it for three reasons: (1) the thesis is fascinating, (2) Nagel’s skill of being able briefly summarize vast swaths of literature is worthy of imitation, and (3) it is a good example of how to “do” philosophy with respect to sorting out contentious subjects without losing sight of the ‘big’ questions.

The Bible Made Impossible

I should have liked Christian Smith’s latest commentary on evangelical Christians and Scripture, but I didn’t; The Bible Made Impossible never really hit an interesting target even though Smith shoots a scatter gun at what he calls “biblicism.” What is biblicism? Smith lists ten things that function as biblicist beliefs:

1. The words of the Bible are identical with God’s words written inerrantly in human language.
2. The Bible represents the totality of God’s will for humanity.
3. The divine will for all issues relevant to Christian life are contained in the Bible.
4. Any reasonable person can correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. The way to understand the Bible is to look at the obvious, literal sense.
6. The Bible can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, or historic church traditions.
7. The Bible possesses internal harmony and consistency.
8. The Bible is universally applicable for all Christians.
9. All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through inductive Bible study.
10. The Bible is a kind of handbook or textbook for Christian faith and practice.

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Evolving in Monkey Town

I came to this book thinking that it was about someone coming to embrace evolution over creation. That seemed like a fair assumption in light of the fact the author is from Dayton, TN and the title has the word “evolving” in it. But I’m glad this was a mistake on my part; the content of this book was far more delightful. Rachael Held Evans tells her story of growing up in the fundamentalist ethos of the South, the painful process of doubting what she was taught to believe, and learning how to adapt to the changes so as to retain her faith. While her spiritual memiors were published when she was only twenty-seven years old, Monkey Town displays a maturity and wisdom that is well beyond her age.

While the metaphor of evolution she uses to describe her process is not always apt (her “mutations” were not random), Evans gives a detailed account of how she changed from being  passionately certain of her “Christian worldview” to learning how to live with her perplexing questions while continuing to trust Jesus. The beauty of her story is not found so much in the sorts of answers she suggests, but in how she is impacted by the questions and learns to cope with the misery of doubt. Her doubt was good for her faith in that it functioned as a kind of “agent of selection,” weeding out bad beliefs and allowing the good one’s to flourish.

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A Year of Biblical Womanhood

In a book that has generated no small controversy, Rachel Held Evans pulls off something remarkable as she is able to be charming and punchy at the same time. Somehow she strikes a perfect balance between being acerbic, but approachable. Its no surprise that she has a massive following; her ability to evoke feelings of empathy is an admirable one.

But sometimes she displays an annoying habit (which is not unique to her) in that she seems to relish recalling her days as a benighted fundamentalist who was unwittingly bamboozled into a confounding belief system by a backwards upbringing. The point: we are meant to get the impression that she has come a long way down the road less traveled of theological sophistication. Allow me to rant on this a bit. While there is a healthy sense of wonder one can have upon reflecting on how much one has changed, there is something oddly self-serving about hastily re-imagining oneself as a paradigm example of closed-minded ignorance so as to set up a contrived contrast with the present, broad-minded self. I call this the ‘Frankie Schaeffer Syndrome’, and it is a particularly obnoxious style of autobiography that seems to ail those who resent something about their Christian upbringing and write spiritual memoirs about it.

Why do I take time to point this out? Reading the autobiographical statements of the Ronald L. Numbers in his seminal volume The Creationists, I noticed that while he now strongly disagrees with the teaching of his Seventh Day Adventist upbringing, he maintains a charitable and admirable respect for his past. This is no mere empty sentiment. It informs his posture towards his historical subjects and sets the stage for a fair representation that is recognized by all sides of the public debate over creation and evolution. How this is relevant to Evans is that deep down, I think she is more like Numbers than Schaeffer. So why does she write with the posture of the ‘Frankie Schaefer Syndrome?’ I suppose it is more stylistically entertaining, but it detracts from the substance of her point. To this we now turn.

Evans is concerned that evangelicals are too liberal with their use of the word “biblical” to modify whatever subject they deem perfect and true. This is fair insofar as it goes, but when it comes to things like marriage and sexuality she is particularly exasperated with those who would deploy this word to “create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things.” Well doesn’t he? Anyone who reads the Bible and believes what it says might thinks so. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that when it comes to determining what the Bible says, everyone “picks and chooses” texts that speak for the whole Bible while ignoring others. Hence, her project is meant to ridicule this state of affairs by taking every text that talks about women into account, no matter what the context, and putting them into practice. If it’s between a leather-bound book cover with the words “Holy Bible” on it, it’s “biblical.”So Evans spent a year trying to abide by every text as literally as possible.

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