It was sitting on the shelf of a bookshop at Melbourne airport. Everthing seemed to catch my eye. 'New York Times bestseller'. The title - and more importantly, as often seems the case these days, the subtitle - 'Letter to a Christian Nation: a challenge to faith.' There was even an endorsement from today's most celebrated unbeliever, atheist Richard Dawkins: 'I dare you to read this book. It will not leave you unchanged. Read it if it is the last thing you do.'
I said to myself, "OK, you're on. I'll open myself up to your 98 page challenge. I'll read your attempt to dismantle my Christian faith. You have the flight home to Auckland to convince of the attraction of unbelief."
Having read this book by Sam Harris, here is a handful of reflections:
ONE ... focusing solely on an American brand of Christianity, as he does, is not going to be convincing. It may have the money and the power, the publishing houses and the media - but it is no longer the centre of gravity in what God is doing in the world. This centre has moved from North to South and from West to East and until Christian faith in these settings is engaged the book will not impact me much. To undermine religious fundamentalism in America is not going to undermine Christian faith in the world.
TWO ... anyone can pick holes in the Bible. Goodness me - there are things recorded in the Old Testament that God hates to read. Just because it is on the 'sacred page' does not mean it receives God's endorsement. Then when he jumps from Thessalonians to John to Leviticus to Exodus to Ephesians to Timothy with just a handful of intervening paragraphs ... sorry, I just tune out. Until the little difficult parts of the Bible are interpreted in light of the big clear story of Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is not being taken seriously enough to draw me into the critique.
THREE ... the suffering in the world is a common rock which the atheist hurls at the believer. But I don't really need it hurled. I feel the weight of it enough already. It can seem that God is either absent or unfair. However alongside this must be placed the reality of a God who suffers. I am not aware of another religion or faith where this is emphasized as it is in the Christian faith. Part of the reason why I am a Christian believer is not just because of the triumph of Easter Sunday - but because that triumph followed the pain of Good Friday and the despair of Bad Saturday ... the two darkest days in history and God was actually present in both of them.
FOUR ... there are difficulties not just in the Bible, but in the history of the church. It is a story of flawed sinful people making mistakes - and this book just revels in those mistakes. Even that ol' favourite - the persistence of slavery down through the centuries - gets a few pages. But if you are going to write a book to destroy Christian faith you have to get beyond the Christian story to the Christ story - engaging with the Jesus who lives in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and spending time with him - and with the way he has been transforming people's lives by the power of the Holy Spirit ever since. I fear Harris has made the shining mistake of poor research: painting the opposing view in its poorest light and shooting that down. Such shots can only ever be cheap shots...
FIVE ... this book pushes the believer onto the backfoot. It makes us defensive. That's OK. We need to do that with humility and with care. However we also need to get on the front foot as well. A pluralist society that prioritises tolerance makes space for us to do so. The believer needs to get on the offensive - graciously and courageously. Alongside considering what Christianity looks like through an atheist worldview, we must consider what atheism looks like through a Christian worldview. Under FOUR above, why not commence by noting that the eventual abolition of the slave trade was due to the persistent activity of Jesus-following believers, not atheists?!
If this little book has troubled you or someone you love, can I suggest another book that is often sitting on shelves in similar bookshops: Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (Doubleday, 2004). It just must be read alongside...
I confess that there was a moment where I was distracted away from the book on the flight home to Auckland. The movie A Night at the Museum was playing. I find the pastoral counselling given to the premodern atheist, Attila the Hun, to animate my funny bone. I could watch it on a weekly basis...
nice chatting - and my congrats for getting this far!