How (Not) To Be Secular (Book Review)

My wife and I used to frequent the local Barnes and Noble bookstore on our dates out on the town.  Instead of dinner and a movie, for a while it was dinner and a book.  Yeah, we’re a bit nerdy.  I miss those days when a person could discover new books—real, tactile books—without needing to click-surf Amazon’s catalog.  Anyway, one book caught my eye on the Christianity shelf one evening back in 2014.  It had a quirky title and a bizarre cover photo accompanying it.  A scowling old white dude, clean shaven but sporting hoary brows, and with a wayward glance to the left, somehow illustrating “How (Not) To Be Secular” (HNTBS).  That guy is Charles Taylor, one of the most important living philosophers and professors who you’ve probably never heard of.  I hadn’t.  But I did recognize the name of the book’s author, James K.A. Smith, a Christian professor of philosophy, theology, worldview, and cultural analysis who teaches and writes at Calvin College.  Back in my seminary days I read one of Smith’s books that kinda turned me off to his take on things, with appeared to me as a tad too friendly with the post-modern conception of truth and metanarrative.  So when his book-length treatment on reading Charles Taylor jumped out at me, I don’t remember thinking, “I need to read this book.”  But I wish I had.  Because four years later I’m the richer and wiser for allowing Smith to introduce me to Taylor’s insights on what it feels like to live in a secular age.

A Secular Age.”  That’s the name of Taylor’s magnum opus.  From what I gather it is a long, dense, poorly edited (long and rambling), but immensely perceptive analysis of how we, as homo religiosus (religious man), feel haunted by a nagging sense of transcendence in a culture that does it’s very best to concentrate the immanence of this world.  Essentially it’s an attempt to provide a comprehensive account of how the West got to our disenchanted, immanence-dominated secular age from the transcendent enchantment of the medieval age.  No small goal because a lot of happenings and history have transpired in the last 500+ years!

A few people smarter than you and I, who have read and understood Taylor, have taken up the task of translating and explaining him for those of us who profit from a more straight-forward, plain-English presentation.  That is what Smith aims to do in his book HNTBS.  By devoting a short chapter (typically 30 pages or less) for each of Taylor’s corresponding sections, HNTBS functions not so much as an imagination-less summary, but rather something like a good book guide.  The difference is the separate feelings and experiences you might have if you chose to explore a museum with an accompanying tour guide compared to merely ordering the official museum coffee-table book and staying home to browse it.

So what does Smith want us to know about reading Charles Taylor?  It turns out quite a lot, but here are three things. Continue reading

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Refuting Compromise (Book Review)

Yeah, that’s gonna be fair

“Let’s boxers fight in their weight class.”  That’s what I often want to tell folks who are studying a topic.  In order to maintain a fair argument, and not grant an unequal advantage to one side, it is so important to allow polemicists to pick on someone their own size.  When it dawned on me some years ago that I was making this mistake whenever looking at both (or more) sides to a topic, I started noticing that tons of people were making the same “weight class” mistake.  For example, I’d allow a book to refute an article, not realizing that books have unfair length advantages over essays.  Or I’d let a book by a scholar writing in his/her field of expertise trump a book authored by a studious amateur.  That reading strategy unfairly tips the scales in favor of the scholar by the expertise advantage.  Still another way we tend to allow unfair arguments is to give preference to an author’s response to a write who did not know he was in a debate!  I call this the challenger’s advantage.

The length advantage, expertise advantage, and challenger’s advantage are all methods that people try to make it appear they have won an argument.  But none of these advantaged “fighters” are actually boxing in their “weight class.”  Fairness demands when we compare and contrast conflicting ideas, we must allow a fair debate and give preference to venues that foster discussions that aim at discovering truth, not scoring debate points.

My boxing analogy was constantly in my thoughts as I read Dr. Jonathan Sarfati’s book-length response to Hugh Ross’s doctrine of “progressive creationism.”  Like two heavy-weights going toe-to-toe in the arena of biblical and scientific creationism, Sarfati attempts a systematic and thorough rebuttal to Ross’s published teachings.  Refuting Compromise: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of “Progressive Creationism” (Billions of Years), as Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross (hereafter RC), is the closest book I’ve yet discovered that seeks to wrestle against the Scriptural and scientific tenets of old earth creationism (OEC).  Sarfati, who is a young earth creationist (YEC), proves to be an intelligent, capable, and scientifically qualified opponent to OEC. Continue reading

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Justice and Judgment

The book of Job is deep, profound, and therefore notoriously difficult to nail down all the questions it raises. But it’s not hard to follow the basic flow. Essentially this very ancient book explores the mystery of why the righteous suffer. Job was such a man. He was the paragon of virtue in his time and place, and his life was a picture of blessing…until it all fell apart in one day when he lost his children, his home, his wealth, and even his health. When Job’s friends show up to comfort him, it’s not long before they are hurling accusations of secret sin because NO ONE can crash that badly unless he somehow deserves it. As moralists, at least that’s the way they see the world: in black and white. Garbage in, garbage out. Throughout the book Job maintains his innocence, and in Job 29 he mounts his final defense. Here we learn for the first time that Job is not only passively innocent of the charges, but he is actively righteous and just. That’s important, because the Bible teaches very clearly that righteousness is not merely a matter of passively avoiding sin (keeping your nose clean, staying out of trouble), but it also entails actively practicing righteousness: what we might call “justice” (Isa 1:16-17). You may not often long for justice and judgment, but Job certainly did. His longing is meant to awaken yours, because if you’re a Christian the seeds of that longing are in your heart.

We all long for justice and righteousness to flourish in our hearts, our homes, our communities, and even throughout the world. But we fail to rule our hearts, our society, or our world in justice. We long for justice and judgment, but we suppress the longing because we know deep down that we would never survive righteous judgment turned on us. And so we ignore the longing and withdraw from getting too vocal, too involved, and too entangled in the work of helping the helpless because we fear being exposed as a hypocrite. We’re left feeling insignificant, powerless, and defeated in the face of injustice because “who am I to say or do anything?” So how can the Bible, particularly the message of Job 29:1-25 speak to our longing for justice? Here is the central lesson we find. When a person renders justice for the helpless, many will celebrate and honor him, but if later God allows unexplained suffering in his life, some will accuse him of hidden sins. Despite our works of justice, all must confess some complicity in injustice. So trust in Christ the Judge who alone is just and justifier. Continue reading

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The Two Towers (Book Review)

Last summer I delved into the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) book trilogy for the first time since high school.  Previously I told the tale of how my 12th grade self read the first of three installments (The Fellowship of the Ring) but wasn’t focused or mature enough to really appreciate it.  But now that I’m an adult who has come to appreciate the beauty and value of fiction—in this case mythological fantasy—my dive into the trilogy is a completely different experience.

Just like my second go-around with part one of LOTR, part two (“The Two Towers,” hereafter LOTR2) took me two months to finish.  But with the foundational plot established and main characters developed in part one, LOTR2 didn’t take much time to get me going.  Actually the action begins immediately, picking up right where the story left off—with the fellowship separating into two parties.  Frodo and Sam continue on their predestined journey to the heart of Mordor in order to fulfill Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.  The others, including the dwarf Gimli, the elf Legolas, hobbits Merry and Pippin, and the human Aragorn, head off to battle.

As the second episode in a trilogy, LOTR2 obviously and primarily serves as a bridge to the epic conclusion when the king will return to Middle Earth to rule and restore peace.  But there are compelling plot developments that make this part of the story interesting in their own right.  Like LOTR1, LOTR2 is divided into 2 “books” (Book 3 and Book 4), each following one of the two plot threads.  Book 3 details how the others decide to take up a new goal in the adventure to defeat the forces of the evil wizard Sauron and his wizard henchman Saruman.  Early on in the narrative hobbits Merry and Pippen are captured by Orcs while the rest make their way to Gondor to warn their king of the coming armies of Sauron.  Eventually both parties and reunited as the hobbits escape and make their way to the first tower with the help of the Ents (ancient mobile tree-like creatures).  When the hobbits finally catch up with their friends they find that Gandalf has returned from the dead more powerful than before.  Now it appears this party that makes up a subset of the severed fellowship just might have a fighting chance against the evil one. Continue reading

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The Message of Galatians (Book Review)

Man, is it ever true!  You can’t judge a book by its cover.  Another truism: wonderful books are finally being adorned—at least occasionally—with appealing cover designs they so often deserve.  Back in the day many books looked so blah.  And Christian book covers were certainly not exempt.  But hey, computer artistry has come a long way.  Be thankful.  Because the content of some great books were obscured by, for lack of a better term, “meh.”

Speaking of content, not many Bible commentary series can boast superior readability, brevity, profundity, and faithfulness.  That’s a tough mix of goals to meet.  But “The Bible Speaks Today” series has proven itself in these respects over the decades.  The first volume in this series is John Stott’s The Message of Galatians [MOG], and it ably sets the bar others to follow.  Published in 1968, Stott’s exposition remains one of the best short treatments on the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. Continue reading

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Galatians For You (Book Review)

What’s your favorite book of the Bible?  To some, that might seem an odd question.  For me, I’ve always said Galatians.  Ever since my late teens, when the church my family attended spent considerable time preaching and studying this earliest epistle of the apostle Paul, Galatians has been for me a “Declaration of Independence” of sorts.  Chapter 5 verse one reads, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  For years that sentence summarized how I felt about the book.  But now?  After recently leading a group study through Galatians with a roomful of men and women in my church—Christians who are ever-eager to read, study, discuss, and apply God’s Word—my favorite book of the Bible is now my favorite for more than one reason.  What I discovered in a closer look at Galatians is that IT’S ALL THERE.  The gospel shines forth in such brilliant clarity that I can’t imagine any follower of Jesus not being caught up in excitement by Paul’s defense and presentation of the good news of salvation in Christ.  In that group study, we utilized a study book (a devotional commentary of sorts) that guided us through our reading of Galatians.  Tim Keller’s Galatians For You (GFY), in the God’s Word For You series, proved to be a clear, deep, incisive, accessible, and trustworthy resource for personal or group study of Paul’s first gospel masterpiece. Continue reading

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Good Faith (Book Review)

Most people in America have heard of the Barna Group.  It is a Christian sociological research organization with expertise in statistical polling of the population.  Fewer folks have heard of Q.  “Q” is a community devoted to learning and education by hosting interactive talks with speakers on a variety of cultural topics.  Q seeks to mobilize Christians to think through complex and controversial issues by cultivating dialogue and the forgotten disciple of good listening—all for the advancement of society’s common good.  Both Barna and Q make it their mission to equip Christians to engage our neighbors and cultural gatekeepers with the truth, goodness, and beauty of the historic Christian faith.

The heads of both organizations, David Kinnaman (Barna) and Gabe Lyons (Q), teamed up for an ambitious book project aimed at helping Christians in postmodern America live “good faith” during our present cultural moment when it seems society thinks we are no longer assets but liabilities.  Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (GF), is the book that distills their research into a compelling philosophy of life for Christians living the world today.

Both authors function as a new generation of thinkers and leaders.  Kinnaman is a Gen Xer and Lyons is a Millennial.  Their ages are significant because, unlike their Boomer parents, they represent two generations of Americans who have grown up in a multicultural, multiracial, religiously pluralistic society that is very different from previous eras in the USA.  We ain’t livin’ no more in the 1950s, 1960s, or even the 1970s.  So by experience the kinds of things they observe and are willing to consider for cultural engagement in order for Christians not only to survive but thrive are refreshing. Continue reading

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