When a book wins as many plaudits as this one, I’m always disposed to not like it. A few pages in, I felt that familiar hipster smugness, thinking ‘Reads nicely but too in-house language. Are we persuading ourselves or telling other people?’. It then occurred to me that actually, this was a book that serves a purpose partly in encouraging Christians about their faith, but also begs to be given to friends and family who don’t know Jesus, to invite them to consider and confront the claims that Christianity makes about itself – and the claims that folk make about Christianity.
McLaughlin begins her book by recognising the reality of the world we live in, or, at least, the Western world: “In Western Europe and North America, the proportion of people identifying as religious has certainly shrunk. But at a global level, not only has religion failed to decline, but sociologists are now predicting an increasingly religious world“. She raises that fascinating challenge – pondering whether or not Christians are in fact the Gospel’s worst enemy: “To some extent, of course, we Christians have dug our own grave. The entrenchment of the culture wars has led many believers to lose touch with their heritage, while Christians and atheists alike assume that secular means normative“. This is an intelligently written book, doing apologetics in a chatty and relaxed way, but with what can only be described as a depth of data and research just waiting in the wings (or the notes). The twelve questions that McLaughlin engages with can be broadly divided into two kinds: ‘traditional’ apologetics questions, that aren’t going away yet, and more ‘contemporary’ questions, which are the particular flashpoints of the present cultural moment.
On the classic questions, McLaughlin does an excellent job:
- How Can You Say There’s Only One True Faith?
- Doesn’t Religion Cause Violence?
- Hasn’t Science Disproved Christianity?
- Doesn’t the Bible Condone Slavery?
- How Could a Loving God Allow So Much Suffering? – McLaughlin writes “suffering is not the wrecking ball that knocks Christianity down but rather the cornerstone on which, painfully, brick by brick, it has always been built“. She goes on to flip the script, challenging the atheists with the better hope that Jesus offers: “From an atheist perspective, not only is there no hope of a better end to the story; there is no ultimate story. There is nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. From a Christian perspective, there is not only hope for a better end; there is intimacy now with the One whose resurrected hands still bear the scars of the nails that pinned him to his cross. Suffering is not an embarrassment to the Christian faith. It is the thread with which Christ’s name is stitched into our lives“
- How Could a Loving God Send People to Hell? This book might seem like twelve disconnected essays. But it isn’t. The way threads come together is really nice – especially in this, the final chapter:”This connective tissue between love and judgment has been recently exposed by the justice-bringing scalpel of #MeToo. The #MeToo movement has gained traction because we are finally willing to say that sexually harassing or abusing women can no longer be excused or covered up—whatever the status and accomplishments of the abuser.” Not what you expected for a quote from a chapter about hell? Well, you should probably read this book!
On the more current questions, I think McLaughlin also does an excellent job, not least by actually engaging with the questions people are asking:
- Aren’t We Better Off Without Religion? One of the joys of this book is how careful McLaughlin is: “to say that religion is bad for you is like saying, “Drugs are bad for you,” without distinguishing cocaine from life-saving medication“. Sometimes blanket statements are true, but more often, they need to be teased open and unpacked.
- Doesn’t Christianity Crush Diversity? I noted at the start of this review that McLaughlin is well aware of the reality of the church today – not least in the West. Similarly, as she observes, “For many, the idea that Christianity is a white, Western religion, intrinsically tied to cultural imperialism, stands as a major ethical barrier to considering Christ.“. She engages with this well. Not least because history is more nuanced than some would have us believe. For example, “Christianity took root in India centuries before the Christianization of Britain“.
- Doesn’t Religion Hinder Morality? This is a vital question – linked to particular questions, but also inspired by the damning reality of abuse by religious leaders and other travesties.
- How Can You Take the Bible Literally? This question is a perennial one – the challenge today would be from what I would call liberal Christianity, wherein picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to trust becomes something of a strange spectator sport!
- Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women? McLaughlin does a great job with this question. She focuses on what the Bible says – not on what its despisers or defenders say that it says (usually to fit an agenda). For example: “Viewed closely, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of common conceptions of “traditional” gender roles that have often amounted to privileging men and patronizing women. In the drama of marriage, the wife’s needs come first, and the husband’s drive to prioritize himself is cut down with the brutal axe of the gospel. This is no return to Victorian values. Rather, it is a call to pay attention to the character of Christ. If we hear the call to husbands as a mandate to oppress and dominate, we are forgetting that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, not to lead an army but to give his life as a ransom. When husbands are called to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” the word translated “gave up” is the same one the Gospels use when Jesus is handed over to be crucified.“
- Isn’t Christianity Homophobic? Echoing the concerns of many in Western culture, McLaughlin observes that “If we reduce Christian community to sexual relationships and the nuclear family, we are utterly failing to deliver on biblical ethics“. Her counter-challenge is right on: “Sex is to be valued, treasured, and enjoyed. But sex is not an ultimate good: it is a mark of a particular covenant, a means of multiplying image bearers of God, and a glimpse of a greater reality.“
You can probably tell that a) I liked this book, and b) would encourage you to read it. If you would call yourself a Christian, whatever you might believe about various aspects of your faith, this book will be a healthy challenge and invitation, as C. S. Lewis puts it so well, to go ‘further up and further in’. If you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, then I think that this book engages with some of the questions you have, and you will be surprised at how they can be answered. As McLaughlin writes, “disagreement is not evidence of disrespect. Indeed, I debate hardest with the people I respect the most, because I take their ideas seriously“. I’d invite you, dear reader, to ‘confront your Christianity’, or ‘confront Christianity’, by reading this excellent book!