Quick review: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

The Atheist Who Didn't ExistThe Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science is the only sure method for knowing things.

Faith and reason are opposed.

People believe in God because they’re needy.

Atheism is not a belief at all – it’s just non-belief.

You can discover goodness without God at all.

If you’ve heard statements like these then you and I are living in the same world. They’re relatively common in the so-called ‘New Atheism.’

But if you’re convinced by any of these statements, then you’ve been duped. These arguments, and others like them, are all bad arguments, according to Andy Bannister. Note the alternate title for his book Or: the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments.

This book is all about the arguments of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens. And written in an accessible and light style. If you like quirky British humour – and I do – then you’ll find it even better (as well as find plenty of jokey distraction in the hundreds of footnotes).

Bannister is a Christian, but this book does not aim to present the Christian Gospel, I think. The news of Jesus is there, in brief snatches (especially the last chapter on Jesus and history). But the aim of this book seems to be what comes before presenting the Christian message: to convince us that it is worth looking at the message.

That is, Bannister urges readers not to prematurely write off the question of God and Jesus. And if it’s Dawkins and his buddies who have convinced you not to go near the God question, Bannister’s warning is that you’re really a victim of empty argument.

So The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist is apologetic and pre-evangelistic. Apologetic: for it gives reasons why it’s worth considering Jesus. Pre-evangelistic: because it opens the door to an honest reading of the Bible.

I loved the humour (except for Bannister’s disdain of goat’s cheese – he’s definitely wrong there). And I’d definitely give this book away to people entrapped by the empty arguments of Krauss, Dawkins, et al.

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Unlucky Friday 13th

This month includes a Friday 13th.

It also includes a Friday 20th, but that date never seems to get any special attention. Though difficult to spell, we are all aware of paraskevidekatriphobia: fear of Friday the thirteenth.

Christians are to be people who know the Spirit, but also know the foolishness of superstition. Christian preaching caused a riot, led by a silversmith who made lucky charms – he could see his business withering (Acts 19:23-41). Before Israel reached the land of promise, they were warned against charms (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

So I well know that Friday 13th is dumb.

Why, then, does it still register? Why does it always cross my mind that there could be an unlucky day, when I know it’s rubbish?

That’s not the only example. Without following the superstitions, I still note: when a black cat crosses my path; when there’s a ladder I could walk under; when Australian cricketers are on a score of 87. All folly – and all still in my mind.

I think this is a clear example of what each Christian struggles with: the persistence of sin and folly.

In Philippians 3, Paul warns against false teachers in church, those who would enslave us to laws and pride. Paul himself was the perfect candidate for such empty confidence, but he gave up all his ‘achievements’ in order to know Christ.

But note how Paul admits his ongoing weakness and failure. He’s not yet there:

not that I have already attained this or am already perfect

I do not consider that I have made it my own

I press on towards the goal

Do you struggle with sin? Does persistent error get you down? That’s normal! What’s not normal is thinking the Christian life is easy and always godly. Jesus will complete his remodelling of everyone who trusts him, but renovation is always messy.

So how about we use Friday 13th as a fun reminder. Let’s laugh at the folly of thinking one number can affect us (but only on a Friday), as we laugh at the folly of our own sin. And let’s remember to ‘press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’.




Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History Of Nearly EverythingA Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson’s affable style can work for more than travel – science, it turns out, is just as whimsical and revealing as any other human activity.

When I first heard of A Short History of Nearly Everything I did not know it was about science. At a guess, I thought that it would be about the broad sweep of human history: empires and cultures and languages. Wrong!

Instead, it includes a history of science and current thinking on plenty of topics. The solar system and the universe, the weird world of the sub-atomic, continents that move around on an earth filled with hot liquid metal, dinosaurs and their bony evidence, the life of cells, the history of hominids, and much more (sorry, no steak knives).

In short, it a great example of popular level big history.

Bryson introduces this book as written by a science noob. Maybe that was true, but he hides it well with impressive chapters covering the whole sweep of many complex arguments. And, when possible, he tells us the fun details that – I believe – should be more central to all science education.

Some stories are old. I think people might be more interested in all the stuff Isaac Newton did if we mention the experiment of shoving a leather-working needle in his eye socket and jiggling it around to see what would happen (page 41).

Some stories are more modern. Did you know, for example, that the man who developed leaded petrol (thus spawning a very profitable industry who lied through their teeth about the ‘non’ damage of lead toxicity) also developed chlorofluorocarbons? Thomas Midgley, therefore, not only poisoned the air and earth, but also burnt holes in the ozone layer with a greenhouse gas 10,000 times more efficient than carbon dioxide. (See chapter 10.)

Quite often the tales reveal a lot about the paradox of humanity. Take the story of a US songbird, Bachman’s Warbler.

…by the 1930s the warbler vanished altogether and went unseen for many years. Then, in 1939, by happy coincidence two separate birding enthusiasts, in widely separated locations, came across lone survivors just two days apart. They both shot the birds.

As a vaguely science-interested guy, I only found a couple of slightly questionable parts to the book. I reckon that’s an acceptably low number of potential ‘errors’ for such a wide-ranging work, although I know my science knowledge is very limited. (But I was disappointed that Bryson seems to have gone for mythology of the famous but misrepresented debate between T. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce.)

But some other reflections are in order. Particularly this: why is this book history, not science?

‘History’ makes the whole of physical reality a story, it seems to me, rather than mere events. Bryson never imposes a meaning on anything, he’s much too genial to force worldviews on people. But he has chosen a style that inherently assumes a story going somewhere – and this even when when (correctly) identifying that genetic modification and evolution as non-directional.

The Bible, of course, also has a history of everything: an extremely short history of everything, in one verse. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

I don’t believe Bryson’s book has any conflict with God’s book, in this regard. It’s just that God’s summary is even more concise. And God goes on to explain the story itself: the reason and purpose of creation, the why and who questions, and the answer to all questions in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).

It’s great to enjoy knowing some of ‘the all’. It’s essential to know Jesus, who is the one who ‘fills the all’ with life purpose and certainty.



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Not all desires are equal

Not all desires are the same.

Kind of obvious? Yes! But important in a world whose ethical arguments depend so much on desire. What rights rule today, in the western world? The right to self-determination, to self-expression, and to self-definition. Desire is all-knowing.

If I will it then it is OK. (The usual illogical caveat that follows is as long as it hurts no one.) And more than OK, if I will it then it’s morally required. Desires reign.

Proverbs 6 shows how false that is. The back end of the chapter warns at length about giving in to the desire for illicit sex: don’t go to the strange woman, the adulteress, your neighbour’s wife.

But in the flow of the argument, there’s comment about stealing food. Why? Have a look at these verses (29-32).

So [burned] is he who goes in to his neighbour’s wife;
    none who touches her will go unpunished.
People do not despise a thief if he steals
    to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
    he will give all the goods of his house.
He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

In the middle of warning against adultery, here is a hungry thief. He steals out of poverty and hunger. His desire for food is reasonable. We understand, and we don’t despise him for his crime. But we still punish him.

Theft remains theft, even when driven by the understandable desire for food.

But the point is not that the thief will still receive punishment. Not ‘the thief gets punishment, so too will the adulterer’.

The point is this: theft driven by hunger (though wrong) makes sense, but adultery is just plain stupid. Adultery is always self-harm.

He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

Proverbs compares two desires here – the desire for food, the desire for sex. The comparison is in the realm of wrongdoing (stealing and adultery). And the comparison tells us to treat different desires differently.

Now there are lots of ways we need to heed this point. It’s pretty plain that there’s a trendiness in pushing for same-sex marriage. And it would be easy for me to go there (‘just because two people desire sex with each other does not mean it is good, or needs state validation’).

But I’d prefer us to see that ethical difference between desires applies all over the place. Perhaps I – and maybe you too? – need to consider where I err in this matter?

We might think of:

  • Any sexual desire outside of committed, life-long marriage
  • The desire to enjoy alcohol
  • Longing to see more of the world
  • The desire to succeed in your chosen employment
  • The longing for a successful ministry
  • A desire to be well thought-of
  • The desire for physical or mental health, for self or a loved one

And on and on we could go. Again and again, I believe, our desires take us. Then our reasons and arguments follow along to justify what we want.

So let’s remember that our desires can take us into error. Even the good desire for food can go feral. Jesus (in the final verse quoted below) said to desire first what is truly first – God’s kingdom.

The desire of the righteous ends only in good;
the expectation of the wicked in wrath. (Proverbs 11:23)

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)



Quick review: One Forever

One Forever: the transforming power of being in Christ (Guidebooks for Life)One Forever: the transforming power of being in Christ by Rory Shiner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How do I feel about this book? Answer: I wish I had a whole pile of copies to give to my Christian friends (as well as to non-Christians interested in this whole Jesus-business).

This is a short work, written after the material initially appeared as conference talks. So my rating is for that kind of book – a relatively quick but oh so important read. (It would be unfair to rate it for what it never tries to be.) One Forever is a book for any reader.

One thing I have found among all Christians, myself included, is the slip in grooves of language. Take the example of prayer. We know that he will always start, ‘Dear God’, while she says, ‘Loving Father’, and yet another invariably says, ‘Lord and Saviour …’ None of these are wrong, but words can lose meaning by being uttered without reflection.

The same is true, even more true, for the way we discuss our connection with God. I suspect one reason we become stale in our walk of faith is that we become stale in the descriptions we use for our walk of faith.

This need no be so. God’s word uses many beautiful colours and powerful patterns to describe how believers know God.

Being united with Christ is one such description. We should treasure it, and Shiner’s book is a tool to help us do precisely that.

Unity with Christ, or being ‘in him’, is a wonderfully all-encompassing description of the Christian life. One Forever, in eight short chapters delves into some of these. For instance, being one with Jesus in his death, or being one with Jesus in his resurrection, or being one with Jesus in his body.

I won’t include much more detail, because I don’t want to write one of those reviews which allows us to think: Great, that’s helpful and now I don’t need to read the book. Please do read it! And I think you’ll be encouraged by thee content, as well as the practical changes that follow a serious commitment to living in the light of union with Christ.


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Ashley Madison and the search for security

The folly of sin is when we flee from security in search of security. We run away from what’s good and justify it as the search for good. It’s a daily universal pattern. Sometimes this pattern becomes even more clear than usual.

Earlier this year there was big news for the customers of Ashley Madison – their personal details had been hacked and published on the internet.

This would be poor form for any online business, but was more nerve-jangling for these clients since Ashley Madison exists entirely to promote infidelity and sexual unfaithfulness. Who cares about credit card details once the whole world knows your secrets?

The irony of this hack is that it was a security breach of the company whose business model was to breach security.

Ashley Madison promote married dating (ie, cheating). They target people who have made promises to a partner, people who have also heard promises from their spouse.

Of course no marriage is perfect. Yet it’s wonderful that men and women seriously promise each other the security of life-long commitment, “until death.” That’s a basis for security!

But at some stage the clients of the Adultery Madison Ashley Madison opted for the fragile security of an on-line business. “Oh look”, they might have thought, “they have secure socket layer security. I will definitely trust that!”

And so the potential adulterer says farewell to the security of a spousal promise, and entrusts privacy to the security of the internet. Dumb choice.

That is like sin in the heart of every person. Just as in the Garden of Eden, where the man and woman lost the whole garden because they opted instead for the one banned fruit.

Or, in the Lord’s words through his prophet, “my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

The folly of sin: we run away from what we really want, under the impression that we will find what we want.

So Ashley Madison is a jolt to all of us, not only the individuals named.

  • It’s time to turn back from seeking good things in bad places.
    Repent of the adultery sites, of ‘financial security’, of looking as good as whitewashed tombs.
  • It’s time to turn back to the living water himself, Jesus Christ our good Lord.



Quick review – Compared to her …

Compared to herCompared to her by Sophie de Witt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good and very short look at the problems that follow compulsively comparing ourselves with others. Not all comparisons are bad, just most of them.

If comparison-itis is the negative, the positive is contentment, found only in the sure blessings of Christ. De Witt explains all of this around three axes: significance, satisfaction, security. These three, helpfully, crop up again and again as de Witt explains cause, effect and treatment of the curse of comparison.

This is a book aimed at women, with plenty of women’s voices quoted throughout, but I’d say it is just as valuable for men.

There is one omission, or neglect, that I consider worth comment. De Witt’s method appears to focus on understanding and comprehension (of ourselves, of Jesus, of the hope we have in God). But there is little – perhaps nothing – on trust, or faith. I would expect an explanation that confidence and contentment flow from trust in Jesus, not just comprehension.

Nonetheless, recommended!


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The Christianity of Les Mis

Les MiserablesLes Miserables by Victor Hugo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a huge novel. Imagine how much was left out for the stage musical. And imagine how much is left out in any review.

And I am also a leaver-out. Because, apart from enjoying the storyline, my reaction to Les Miserables is to ponder the kind of Christianity it presents. Everything else I will leave out.

This novel’s Christianity has high regard for Jesus, but not for the gospel. It loves the practice and consequences of Christianity, but not the heart of Christianity.

Consequently, I think, it is deficient. But more than deficient – this deficiency is also misrepresentation.

Time for some detail, to see if my impression fits the details.

Firstly, the high regard for Jesus. This is from the start to the end. The first primary character is a humble, servant-minded bishop. He lives on almost none of his stipend, in order to give it away – he copies Jesus. It’s the encounter with this bishop that transforms the life of Jean Valjean, Les Mis’ central character.

In the final pages, Jesus and the cross appear again. A crucifix features, with subtle significance, and Jesus is named as the true martyr.

But secondly, I think there’s no gospel. Jesus is good as an example to follow but no more. The bishop imitated and sacrificed, Valjean sacrifices too. Therefore they are demonstrated as real Christians.

They sweat and toil in efforts to copy Jesus. They do not seem to have any time to joyfully rest by faith in the grace of God’s forgiveness. There is no grace, and therefore no ‘faith apart from works’.

Valjean’s immense strength is physical, but I believe it’s also a symbol of his spiritual status – he’s a hero because of what he does. He’s an impressive man, and it feels like it’s all his own work.

It’s telling that the frequently-used divine name – the good God – is perfectly austere and distant. The God of the Bible is not Immanuel, God with us in the grace of Christ’s gospel. He is, rather, the mysterious force who ordains, and desires that we turn ourselves into good people.

Finally, this is not just a deficiency but misrepresentation.

It is perfectly possible to talk truly about God, but never possible to say everything about him. There is a point to God-talk, despite our limits! This is, we might say ‘deficiency but truth’.

Unfortunately, Les Mis is so lacking that the omissions twist God into a lie. The God of Valjean is not Father, gracious, forgiving, welcoming. He is instead austere, stern, and clinically pure. This God is not quick to condemn, thankfully – not judgemental over minor error. Yet neither is he the Abba, Father of Romans 8:15.

Going back to the plot, I think this deficiency drives one of the features of the novel. Valjean is decidedly committed to following his conscience (which is actually called ‘God’ at one point). But he remains disconnected from people, hiding facts and ‘protecting’ those he cares for. I think, in the end, Valjean’s relationships with people are all duty and not really love. In this, the hero relates to people just as he relates to God.

So, let’s enjoy Les Mis! It’s rightly a classic. And let’s enjoy the fact that it does not disparage God, but places him at the centre of concern for the miserable of the world. But do not be tricked – this novel does not present to us the God of the Gospel, the true God whom we meet by faith in the Lord Jesus.

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Optimism unbounded

Reading Les Miserables is a lot longer than going to the musical. And it’s full of a lot more (extreme!) detail, including heaps of politics and social theory. That makes sense, since the novel is about the underclass of miserable suffering.

Written in the 1860s, it often harks back to the glories of the French Revolution (1789, but not ignoring the violence of 1793), and Napoleon’s career. It’s not disdainful at all about Christian religion, either. But I’d say the real topic of the novel is the future.

Specifically, how good that future will be, because of human progress. The narrator thinks so. Characters in the novel think so too.

Here are the words of Enjolras at the barricades of 1832, a stirring ‘sermon’ on why they rebel:

Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then, there will be nothing more like the history of old, we shall no longer, as today, have to fear a conquest, an invasion, a usurpation, a rivalry of nations, arms in hand, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, on a birth in heredity tyrannies, a partition of peoples by  congress, a dismemberment because of a failure of a dynasty, a combat of two religions meeting face to face, like two bucks in the dark, on the bridge of the infinite; we shall no longer have to fear famine, farming out, prostitution arising from distress, misery from the failure of work and the scaffold and the sword, and battles and the ruffianism of chance in the forest of events. One might almost say: There will be no more events. We shall be happy.

Well. How did that seem to you?

The long sentence of extended prediction, I think, contains a perfect description of what actually did happen in the happy twentieth century.

There’s a note of warning for us, especially if Christian.

One: never underestimate the serious problem of human sin, it’s not so easy to ‘fix.’ Two: never overestimate the importance of those who believe in progress.



John’s gospel signs

I finished a sermon on John 4:43-54 with a ‘take-home exercise in believing’: Find the signs of John’s gospel.

John’s gospel includes a number of signs, but he only numbers the first and the second. It is as if John says to us, “I made the first two easy for you, now you find the rest – pay attention!”

These signs (as I said in the talk) are not dead signs. They are living signs. Dead signs are like street pointers. Once you can find the street you forget the sign. Dead signs do their job once or twice, then disappear. They point 100% away from themselves.

Living signs, in contrast, never outlive their use. We meet Jesus precisely in the signs of John’s gospel. As we see and reflect on the sign we trust Christ – if we do it right.

So to help you in this take-home exercise, here are the places where John mentions a sign or signs. There can be signs where he does not use the word, so view this as a starting point.

2:11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

2:18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”

2:23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.

3:2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

4:48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

4:54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.

6:2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.

6:14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

6:26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

6:30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?”

7:31 Yet many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?”

9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them.

10:41 And many came to him. And they said, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.”

11:47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs.”

12:18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.

12:33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

12:37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him

18:32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

20:30-31Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

21:19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

(All verses quoted in English Standard Version.)

So what do you notice? How does this help you to know John’s gospel, and to trust Jesus?