I'm still catching up after a conference last week, so I'm pleased to have this review by our ministry partner, Nick Peters.
Puzzled By This Book
I recently received from my ministry partner, J.P. Holding, a copy of Alex McLellan's "A Jigsaw Guide To Making Sense of the World," with the reason being that since it was a book more along the lines of my interests, that I should review it for Tektonics. I was glad to do so. I liked the idea at the start being a fan of jigsaw puzzles and I was expecting to see much that was good since Ravi Zacharias, a personal hero of mine, endorsed it.
But in the end, I was puzzled.
Why? I do agree with McLellan's approach overall, but as I went through the book, I found that very little was said and some aspects seemed quite contradictory. Repeatedly I was told that under naturalism the world does not make sense and theism makes sense of the world. I was told that under theism there is a basis for objective morality and there is not one under atheism. I was told told that Christianity does make sense of the world.
All of these statements I agree with, but what was missing was why I should agree with them. The only arguments I remember seeing for God's existence other than meaning were the first cause argument, fine tuning, and morality. None of these were really spelled out. There was about a single paragraph on saying how the apostles were willing to die for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead (A dangerous statement to make since we don't have a firm foundation for the deaths of ALL of the apostles), and in the final chapter, an end note could lead someone to the works of Walter Kaiser and F.F. Bruce on if the Old and New Testament documents are reliable.
Much of the book read as a psychology of religious belief. More and more my personal psyche seemed to be being discussed. There were times that I thought McLellan was about to deliver a great point, but I was let down. Instead, it all became more and more internalized and I was left thinking that this might work on someone who is more emotionally geared, but if someone is not, then what is one to do?
An example of the way the message seemed contradictory was that in the third chapter which is on belief, he does say that we should not emphasize feelings. He gives the illustration of how Mormons came to him and what did they go to but their inner testimony of the Holy Spirit? He tells the story about how an atheist spoke to a crowd once and no one knew how to answer him until a preacher got up and said he didn't have any learning really, but then got an apple out of his bag and began to eat it and asked the atheist how it tasted. Was it bitter or sweet? The atheist said he couldn't answer since he hadn't tasted the apple. The preacher responded saying neither had the atheist tasted his Jesus. The crowd applauds and the atheist leaves. McLellan rightfully says that this is not the right approach.
Yet all throughout the book, it seems his approach is on feelings. He talks about how we just know that there is something wrong with the world. We all know that reality is supposed to be meaningful. We all know that there has to be something more. Now I do agree with the idea that life is meaningful and there is to be more, but an atheist reader who was informed would see right through this and say "There you go. They only believe for emotional reasons."
This is quite sad since there are many points McLellan gets right. He points out correctly that faith is not blind and even points out on page 107 that the Greek word translated as faith is translated as proof in Acts 17:31. Unfortunately, he does not state anywhere I recall what faith really is. There is no idea of it being seen as trust in the one who has been providing and that it is thus necessarily based on evidence.
On page 134, he rightly states that too many people are disappointed with what they receive at church today as the culture is superficial and unwilling to dig deep into the truths of Christianity, or religion period for that matter. He is correct in that. He is right in that even people of faith do not know the treasures in their midst. He then goes on to describe studying under Robert Saucy and how it was. At this, I have two concerns.
First, McLellan talks about systematic theology, but the book he cites of Saucy's is not a systematic theology per se but a book on the church. This is part of systematic theology, but not the whole. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a book that just covers a part. I am not saying every book on theology has to cover every aspect.
Second, and this was the far greater concern, was that after hearing about the awesome resources the church is missing and hearing about the grandeur of God McLellan said he was learning, I expected to hear more. Instead, I heard nothing. I was told we should reflect on what we believe, but I was not told what exactly it was that makes God so awesome. This was a recurring criticism I had. McLellan gives the impression of bouncing from point to point without diving in deep into any of them.
On page 160, he says atheism is at a disadvantage when we take a common sense approach to making sense of it all. As one who has debated a number of atheists over the years on the internet, I can state with certainty that the atheists will say the exact same thing. They are the position of common sense and we who believe in miracles and something "supernatural" are those who lack common sense. I always have a problem with an appeal to common sense. If you need to state it, it's not common sense. If it is common sense, why bother stating it?
On page 164, McLellan writes that some will answer that if this world is broken due to our freedom, it would have been better had God not created it. McLellan replies with "Apparently not, since God created us with it, and he delights when people use it to reach out and ask him to start putting the broken pieces of their lives back together."
This was extremely problematic to me. I view it this way. The argument is against God's nature and existence saying "A good God would not create people with freedom knowing they would use it for this kind of evil." This is a real objection and fortunately people like Plantinga and others have answered it. McLellan's response comes across as "But we know that God created this way." That's the very point under dispute! It does not answer the objection to say "God thought it was worth doing" since the questioner is confused on God's existence.
I do think McLellan could have dug a bit deeper and given some good thorough answers to questions and good apologetic arguments. I do not doubt he knows them, but there was little presentation of them. New atheists are sometimes cited, but not really responded to. One of my criticisms of the new atheists has been that they do not interact with Christian scholarship in their works or evangelical sources. I have the same problem with McLellan's book.
Another looming problem is the constant pointing to one's own experience, although that does not seem valid when he addresses the Mormons. If anything, for most of us, our problem is that we think about ourselves far too much. I am told often in here about how God longs to have a relationship with me. I find this odd since this is not anything I find the apostles teaching. I see them teaching the kingship of Christ over the cosmos and we need to get in line. This focusing on ourselves heightens an individualism that is more problematic than the problem McLellan wishes to address.
It is my contention that one will still be better off elsewhere. For a good start on Christianity, one should read something like "Case For Christ" by Lee Strobel or "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. For the question of doubt and belief, excellent material can be found in Gary Habermas's "Dealing With Doubt" and "The Thomas Factor." Both of those are in fact free downloads that can be found on his web site.
Perhaps McLellan will write another book soon to further flesh out the argumentation, for at this point, I am indeed, still puzzled.