By LeRoy Lawson
C. S. Lewis left some big shoes to fill. When I was a young man struggling to define my faith, Lewis’s rational, commonsensical explanations of Christian doctrine gave me tools I have used ever since. Like so many others, I am his debtor. To this day Surprised by Joy, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, A Grief Observed, Miracles, The Four Loves, and of course Mere Christianity (to say nothing of his classic children’s works) resonate with thinking Christians everywhere. As a child of the Christian church, I especially appreciated and benefited from his distinction between the essentials and nonessentials of the faith.
Every few years since Lewis’s death, reviewers have touted this new book or that as the worthy successor to his influential Mere Christianity. In 2008 two such books have been nominated. Today we’ll look briefly at both of them.
Let the reader of this column beware, though. As far as this reviewer is concerned, the famous British don’s laurels remain securely his. Timothy Keller and Charles Colson (and his coauthor Harold Fickett) deserve a careful reading, but I think you’ll still want to keep your worn Lewis volumes in your library.
A DIFFERENT REVIEW
Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith: Given Once, for All (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
When I opened The Faith, I expected after finishing it to write a different kind of review than this one. Charles Colson’s odyssey from Washington powerhouse to disgraced convict to prominent evangelical leader has long inspired admiration. Had he never written a word, his life is argument enough for the power of the gospel. His ministry has transformed countless lives both inside and outside prison walls. So I wanted to praise his book, as many of my friends are doing.
Certainly one can praise his anecdotes, which are the best parts of The Faith. Few people have lived so broadly and experienced Christ more deeply than Colson. When he illustrates the principles of the faith as they are lived out by real people in real time, you want to hear more.
His stories have improved my sermons for years. The Faith adds to my treasury of Colson illustrations. The essence of the Christian faith, they remind us, is in the living, not the theorizing.
Colson was a fighter in Richard Nixon’s administration; that’s what got him into trouble. He’s still a fighter, and that’s what gets this book into trouble. Here’s the nub of the problem, from the Preface: “We have written this book with the deep conviction that this is what people need to defend and live the Christian faith in the midst of the extraordinary challenges of our time.”
Defend. That’s the operative word. The authors are on the defensive. As they explain, “Western culture is doing everything in its power to shut that door [the door by which all humans pass from darkness into the light].” So we must defend ourselves. The book, in other words, does not so much aim to persuade the secular reader as to buttress the besieged believer. The result is a work that comforts the already convinced but will have little appeal, I suspect, for the curious doubter.
A WELCOME DIALOGUE
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton/Penguin Group, 2008).
Here’s where Timothy Keller comes in. Although his title (The Reason for God) is a puzzler, as if there were one, singular, all-encompassing reason for believing in God, once past it you’ll hear welcome overtones of Lewis.
I like his irenic spirit. He doesn’t attack or proclaim. He actually converses. He invites dialogue, not argument. The longtime pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York takes all questions, welcomes all doubters, and treats his critics with respect and not with condescension (well, most of the time). Publishers Weekly concludes, “This is a book for ‘skeptics and the believers who love them.’” This is high praise.
My chief concern is that I sometimes found myself agreeing with him too quickly. That’s not so bad, of course, but I’m not his audience. What about the skeptic, the doubter? Will his case convince them?
Over many years Keller has asked Manhattanites to tell him their chief beef with Christianity. From their answers he has distilled a list of the seven biggest, giving each a chapter: (1) There Can’t Be Just One True Religion; (2) How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? (3) Christianity Is a Straightjacket; (4) The Church Is Responsible for So Much Injustice; (5) How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell? (6) Science Has Disproved Christianity; (7) You Can’t Take the Bible Literally.
As he addresses these criticisms, the author does not attack the doubters for doubting; rather, he encourages them to doubt their doubts. He admits there’s no single convincing proof of the existence of God, for example, but he offers what he calls “clues.” He treats readers’ doubts as sets of alternative beliefs rather than as justification for dismissing belief (and believers).
Like Colson and Fickett, he is well read, but he more frequently draws his material from sources skeptics would appreciate, including literature, philosophy, anthropology, and science. His familiarity with religious and secular material adds to his credibility.
A book that grapples with so many serious questions cannot be definitive. The Reason for God is really an opening round of discussions, an invitation to further informed debate among people who take God-questions seriously.
The second half of the book presents Keller’s reasons (“clues”) for belief, his case for “mere Christianity”: (1) The Clues of God; (2) The Knowledge of God; (3) The Problem of Sin; (4) Religion and the Gospel; (5) The (True) Story of the Cross; (6) The Reality of the Resurrection; (7) The Dance of God.
Hovering over these chapters is the author’s conviction that “we have come to a cultural moment in which both skeptics and believers feel their existence is threatened because both secular skepticism and religious faith are on the rise in significant, powerful ways. We have neither the western Christendom of the past nor the secular, religionless society that was predicted for the future. We have something else entirely.”
It’s that “something else” that holds his attention.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with CMF International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.