Monday, December 13, 2010

Critical Review: Shaking the Unshakeable

I have another medical appointment today, so I once again hand the reins to ministry associate Nick Peters, for a review of Josh and Sean McDowell's newest book. Nick himself would covet your prayers as he has some minor surgery today; see thread on TWeb here and see here for more on how you can help his ministry.


Josh McDowell has been a name around for awhile in Christian apologetics and now his son Sean has entered that same area. Together, they have written a book called The Unshakable Truth. I have no doubt that the truth is unshakable, but I have great doubt as to whether the presentation given by the McDowells is unshakable.

The book is laid out to present one with twelve great truths. Each truth is covered in four chapters. The first chapter is to explain what that truth is. The second is to give evidence of that truth. The third is to tell what difference that truth makes. The fourth is to give ways of applying that truth.

I have no problem with that layout. It is my belief that too often most churches have solely application. However, to simply have arguments I don’t think works in our day and age either. I believe we not only need to know, for instance, that God is triune, but why it matters anyway.

My problem then is the content. Most in the book is basic. That’s fine to an extent as there needs to be a place to begin, but there are far better presentations that can be found in the works of people like Lee Strobel. There is very little scholarly effort in the material. Most deal with individualized thinking about the truths of the Bible and those who think they have an unshakable truth here are likely to be chewed up in the blogosphere and on internet forums.

Consider the bibliography. I count six references in there to Wikipedia as a source. They are to the age and size of the universe, the brain, pantheism, deism, the caterpillar, and the Salvation Army. My disappointment was great upon seeing this. It gives the image of one sitting at the computer not knowing what to say about a topic and just looking it up on Google. This is especially the case with pantheism and deism. I certainly would not want to read a book by an atheist attacking Christianity and read that his source for understanding my worldview was Wikipedia.

I cannot help but wonder why the McDowells did not just go to a library and check out a book on each of these topics? Would the reader not have better information? What are we to say when that Wikipedia article gets changed by, well, whoever?

Josh McDowell has been said to place a large emphasis on personal testimony and that is the same in this book. There’s a section on how to give your testimony. I recall an atheist on TheologyWeb saying he can’t stand it when Christians give personal testimonies. I can understand that. I think testimonies have their place, but only after firm truth has been presented. It would do us better to spend more time understanding the apologetics arguments instead of understanding our testimony.

An instance of this being used comes with another problem the McDowells have. Verses are not given from translations. They are paraphrased. I found this extremely bothersome. Of course, we all will give interpretations of verses and at times paraphrase is acceptable, but this was a constant refrain. The time this happens in conjunction with testimonies is Philippians 3:3 which is said to say, “We put no confidence in human effort. Instead, we boast about what Christ Jesus has done for us.” (Page 253) The NIV translates the verse this way: For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh The problem with this is that this is not the kind of testimony that most people would look down on that Paul gives. What does he say? He was zealous with keeping the law before Christ came. That means he did not commit adultery! He did not lie! He did not steal! He honored his parents! He was faultless in righteousness! Imagine now being told “I used to be faultless in righteousness, and then I became a Christian!” He even states in verse 4 that he has all reason to boast.

Revelation 12:11 is also cited as an example since it mentions the blood of their testimony. This verse has nothing to say about having a personal testimony. Instead, it is referring to those who are willing to face persecution for the cause of Christ and their righteous living before the Roman Empire.
The emphasis on this leads to a view that is centered on the individual. It is about how God relates to the individual rather than how the individual relates to God. God is not defined by His relationship to us. Instead, we are to be defined by our relationship to Him. This comes at a great expense.

At times, I felt sorry for God reading this. Why? Because I get the picture of a God who is just so broken-hearted by people nor loving Him and how much He just wants to have a relationship with us. It’s giving the impression that we need to do this so God will be happy. This is one reason I am a strong believer in impassibility, that God does not have emotions.
Can my sin really make God sad? Can I somehow make God happier? By no means! God does not desire that I sin and God does delight in righteousness, but those are eternal unchanging realities. His delight is in that which corresponds most to Himself. If I do not worship Him, it is not God who is at a loss. It is myself who is at a loss.

This focus on the self is best seen in the constant refrain given of Exodus 34:14 paraphrased as “He is a God who is passionate about his relationship with you.” The NIV translates it this way:
Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. The verse says nothing in it about the nature of the people. It instead tells them how they are to relate to God. The McDowells have it as it is a verse about how God relates to His people. In an ancient context, jealousy would mean that God has exclusive rights to His people and because of that, they are to be faithful to Him. For an example today, as a married man, I can rightly have jealousy for my wife in that she is to exclusively have a marital relationship with me and no one else. She could say the same about me of course.

This book is already on Google books so I got curious and typed in part of the paraphrase the McDowells have. I got no fewer than eleven pages as hits and I know on some pages it is repeated more than once. I wonder about the reader who wants to use this verse to someone who’s a fan club of someone like Oprah and is instead told “That verse says God is jealous! What kind of petty God do you serve that gets jealous?!”
The focus on the self will not serve our generation well. It will only make us look more to ourselves.

I am increasingly concerned with a generation that believes they have to have a feeling of passion or desire in order to act. Feelings and emotions are good things, but they are not to be what pulls us along. Christians are called to serve God regardless of how they feel. They are not to wait and pray for a great desire to serve Him and then to serve Him. They are to serve Him regardless of the desire.

As for defenses of some topics, there is great lack. I do not believe objections are really treated as seriously as they should be. I count few references to non-Christian works in the notes. I would be surprised if there were fifteen. This is an objection I have concerning atheistic literature. It is a shame I have to make the same of Christian literature.

An example of this would be the defense of the church. Absent from the chapter is any mention of the multitude of denominations that an unbeliever will raise. There is no mention of the Crusades or the Inquisition. The budding apologist who thinks he has a defense of the church to give to his atheistic friends will quickly be torn to shreds. Let’s hope there’s some scholarly material they can get their hands on on church history lest they think that the McDowells have given the best.

I really did not like writing this review because I genuinely don’t delight in being critical of Christian authors. I do appreciate the candidness Josh McDowell had about his growing up life that was revealed, but I think for a good work on Christian apologetics, more is needed. I consider that it was almost like the McDowells just wanted to put together a book as quickly as possible and send it off, hence Google research and little interaction with atheistic material.

In an age where the new atheists are becoming more and more prominent, we do need skilled apologists to rise up. Such would be better off however focusing on argumentation rather than the constant appeal to how God desires to be with you. A lowering of God will result in a lowering of the defense we have for Him. If our defense is mainly our personal testimony, then we are going contrary to the biblical style and making God all about what He does for others, instead of making others all about what they can do for God.

1 comment:

  1. Nick Peters here. For all concerned, I am recovering. Thank you for your prayers and support.