Book Review: The Church of Irresistible Influence (Robert Lewis, Rob Wilkins)

One of the most inspiring books that I read last year. In a day and age where the church is increasingly getting a bad name, this tells the tale of a church has become beloved by its local community. Fellowship Bible Church in Arkansas, hit a crisis in the 90s. They had around 2,500 members, but they were feeling dissatisfied.

Everyone loved being there, but they felt as if they were really just talking amongst themselves. Finally, after a church retreat, they decided to take seriously Jesus’ call to “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Nowadays, the church is largely known in the wider world for disagreeing with things. Otherwise, I’m not sure that people know a lot about what goes on. So I was really inspired to read about a church that decided to become known for its love for the community first and foremost.

So Fellowship proceeded to restructure its entire church so that it is built around groups offering various services to the community. (Anything from working in schools in rough areas to helping the poor. You name it.) The book is not a narrative as such – it’s actually a non-fiction book to guide other churches through the same thinking – but the results speak for themselves.

Now Fellowship and the other churches that partner with it in Arkansas are known and as well as their regular services, every year, they will mobilise large scale operations to help their community. Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if 300 Christians decided to spend a weekend fixing up the most falling-apart school in your city, for free? That’s just one of the things that happened as a result of this church’s change in focus.

For those that are theologically worried that the church got too caught up in social work and lost sight of the Gospel, the book deals with that too. It’s a nice companion piece to The Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller, which I reviewed recently.

5 out of 5.

 

Book Review: The Ministries of Mercy (Tim Keller)

I read this last year as part of some research on how our church can start to get involved with serving the community around us. This book was a really good place to start. (The other one was The Church of Irresistible Influence – review coming soon.)

The book is essentially divided into two parts – the first is primarily theological, arguing the case for the church’s involvement in helping those in need. This might seem like a pointless thing, because didn’t Jesus talk quite a bit about helping the poor? Not to mention the early church, and the apostles?

Well, yes, they did. But despite that fact, for the better part of the 20th Century, there was a major split between those churches that valued social involvement over adhering to the tenets of Christianity (the “social gospel” we normally call it) and those who were big on the truth of the Scriptures, over and above getting involved in social issues. So it got to the stage where, if an evangelical church was to consider getting involved in any kind of social action, they’d be looked upon as being a bit suspicious – as if they were getting liberal.

So we can all thank God for this book, where Pastor Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian in New York tackles the issue head on. He argues the case consistently and persuasively that the call of Jesus is one of not just sharing the Gospel and meeting people’s spiritual needs – but helping their physical needs as well.

This then leads into several sub-discussions that are important as well. If you’re going to help people, what are the limits? Who do you help? Should you draw a distinction between “deserving” poor and “undeserving” poor? The chapter in there on our money and finances is one of the hardest-hitting I’ve ever read, and well worth a look.

The second half of the book details more practical matters. How do you get such ministries off the ground? (Keller recommends mobilising small grass-roots groups, and if some of the ministries take off and get series, putting more resources behind them.) There’s also a really helpful framework on how to deal with people who could potentially become dependent on the church for handouts – by putting limits on your support to them in a spirit of grace (you want to help them support themselves) rather than a spirit of vindictiveness (“They’re always scabbing off the church – let’s not give them any more time or money.”)

There’s not a lot of books floating around in evangelical circles on this topic, so I highly recommend anyone interested in the subject get a hold of this book. Better yet, grab some church friends, read it together and then start seeing what sort of needs you can meet within your local community. Really encouraging stuff.

5 out of 5.

 

Review: Kids Flag Page

I don’t often get asked to review something, so I was very excited when Family Matters – an American organisation that promotes the works of Dr Tim Kimmel, author of Grace Based Parenting and other books – asked me to review one of their new products: the Kids Flag Page.

Quite simply, the Kids Flag Page is for parents who have woken up one day and discovered that their kids are not robots. Do you know what I mean? If you’ve had kids, you’ll know that for about the first year or so of their life, it’s not too hard to work out what they want. They’re either hungry, they need their nappy (diaper for the Northern Hemisphere folks) changed or they want a cuddle.

Now fast-forward a couple of years and you’re having a massive fight with your 3-year-old over whether you put her pajamas on first or whether you brush her teeth first. You can’t see that it makes a difference. Your toddler is on the floor in tears. What have you done wrong?

Even assuming that you work out what’s going on with that child, then things get more complicated if you have other children. All of a sudden, all the tricks that worked for #1 don’t work for #2 and who the heck knows what’s up with #3?

Into the midst of all this chaos steps the Kids Flag Page. With the cute subtitle – The Operating Manual That SHOULD Have Come Wtih Each Of Your Kids … But Didn’t – this kit brings parents a step closer to understanding what’s ticking away in their child’s minds.

The concept is fairly simple – this kit is designed to tell you your child’s Country. Not their country of birth, but rather their personality type country. Are they from Control Country, Fun Country, Perfect Country or Peace Country? These correspond more or less to the commonly known personality types from many other books: Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholy, Phlegmatic. However, I don’t know about you – but I find Control, Fun, Perfect and Peace a lot easier to remember.

The kit contains a game board and 36 motivation cards. The idea is that you sit down with your child and go through all 36 motivations, which are in the form of little statements like: “I Make People Laugh: It’s easy for you to make people laugh and everything is funny.” Or “I’m One Of A Kind: You love being different. You’re glad you’re not like anyone else.” With your child’s help, you sort the cards into three piles: Always Like Me, Sometimes Like Me, Never Like Me. Then, from there, they take the first two of those piles and work out what is their favourite motivation, and their next five favourites.

From here, parents can quickly work out a numerical score which will tell them what Country their child belongs to and their Adopted Country (which is their next most dominant personality). You can then put stickers on a “flag page” for your child, so they can see exactly which country they belong to.

There’s a 100+ page book by Tim Kimmel that comes with this, which then breaks your child’s personality down into further detail and explain more about the motivations. It also offers illuminating information on what kind of child you get when you combine two Countries (because most children will be a hybrid of their home country and their adopted country).

Most importantly, Tim provides an introduction to his concept of “grace based parenting”, which he has laid out in other books. This is so you’ll not only know what type of child you have – but also a strategy for parenting that child. I actually found this explanation of GBP to be one of the clearest he has given. While  the practicalities of it all aren’t gone into in great depth – the kit points you in the direction of Kimmel’s other books for this – the concept comes across pretty clearly: grace based parenting is a fine balance between being flexible and being firm. A parent who never budges on anything will squash their child, especially given the concept that’s now been explained that every child has a unique personality. However, a parent who is permissive and gives in on everything, will create a child with no boundaries who doesn’t know how to function properly.

So with that in mind, the book that accompanies the kit aims to explain what things to be flexible on with each personality and what boundaries need to be carefully maintained to stop the excesses of that personality type going overboard.

On the whole, I think the Kids Flag Page is a great idea. Because it’s in the form of a game that you play with your child (rather than a book that you read about your child, it shows your child that you are actively interested in understanding and appreciating them. (A great thing for any child.)  The only catch with this is that the kit is designed for children age 6 and up. If you’ve got children under the age of 6 (and my oldest daughter, who we made a flag page for, is only 4), you can still create a flag page for them, but it’s not really something you can do with them.

But each kit comes with enough stickers and flag pages to make three flags, so you can easily make one now by doing your best guess on the motivation cards, and then try it again in a few years when your child is old enough to work through the cards by themselves. I’m certainly looking forward to trying it with my daughter in a couple of years’ time.

One other benefit of this kit is that the book comes with study questions, so if a bunch of parents wanted to buy a kit each, they could meet and discuss their children over the course of a few weeks, which would be a helpful thing.

My only quibble with the kit, which is an issue I took with Kimmel’s book Grace Based Parenting is that I feel the book is a bit light-on in constructing a Biblical defense of its parenting style. I have nothing against Kimmel’s concept of grace based parenting – it’s very similar to the way we parent our children, and I’m really happy with the type of kids they are becoming. But I often find that the books which are promoting a more heavy-handed, “It’s my way or the highway” type parenting, often do so with Scripture prooftexts on every paragraph. By comparison, some of the ideas in this kit sound like they were borrowed from a mixture of popular self-help books.

But this is a minor detail, and will only really cause upset to those people who like to see a large quantity of Bible references throughout their Christian books before they’ll take the advice seriously. For anyone else – especially parents who want to have a close connection with and understanding of their children in their formative years – I recommend giving it a go.

Another drawback, which I just discovered, is that I don’t think this kit is available in Australia yet. I had a check around the web and it seems to be only available in America and Canada. If you visit the Family Matters website, you can order it in one of those countries, but they don’t seem yet to ship to Australia. However, if enough of you ask your local Christian bookstore, I’m sure some will arrive soon.

UPDATE: Family Matters has informed me that they will be able to post to Australia. In their words:

Just a note about the product’s availability for Australia, if the Aussies go to the website and place an order, we will be able to ship it to them.  Our software will not properly calculate the shipping, so they will simply leave their information and we will contact them via email to coordinate shipping, but we are definitely willing and able to send resources Down Under!  In reality, Australians may pay a similar rate to ship products as Canada because tariffs and taxes are so cumbersome for Canadians.

FREE GIVEAWAY! In the meantime, Family Matters have very kindly offered to give away a complimentary kit to someone on my blog. So if you’d be interested in receiving a Kids Flag Page, leave a comment below, and I’ll get my four-year-old to draw a name out of a hat on Sunday 13 October.

For more information about the Kids Flag Page and to see a video where Tim Kimmel explains how the product works, click here.

Book Review: The Prodigal God (Tim Keller)

The Prodigal GodThis book is so short (with nice double-spaced lines to pad it out even bigger) that I almost feel that if I tell you what it’s about, there’ll be nothing new to read in the book. (Except for the fact that Tim Keller writes much more persuasively and smoothly than I do, so certainly don’t stop at reading this review.)

The premise of this book is pretty straightforward, but one which many people (my wife included) have found absolutely eye-opening. It’s an expansion the parable of the prodigal son. However, Christians have traditionally focused on the prodigal son, who went off the rails and was welcomed home by his gracious Dad. However, also in the story, is the son’s older brother, who complains that his Dad shouldn’t have shown grace to someone as bad his younger brother.

The point with this, Keller makes, is that there are two ways to displease God – one is the path of open sin (like the younger son). But there’s also a way to outwardly do all the right things and tick all the right boxes – like the older son – but not have a right heart towards our gracious God.

This is the theme which is unpacked for the rest of the book. I think it addresses some important issues in the church, and by explaining the older son’s issues, Keller explains the concept of grace really well.

I didn’t find it as mind-blowing as some people, but at the same time, there’s never a bad time to be reminded again about the theology of grace that underlies Christianity. An encouraging read.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Boundaries (Henry Cloud and John Townsend)

The premise of this book is rather simple, but has very far-reaching consequences – in life, some things are our responsibility, and some things are other people’s responsibility. We need to have clear boundaries in our lives so that we’re quite sure what is in our court and what is not.

For example: If you find yourself with an acquaintance or friend who is always pushing you around and calling the shots in the relationship – and you find yourself giving in all the time, and resenting it – you both have boundary issues. Your friend has an issue with respecting the boundaries of others by always trying to get their own way. You have a problem with boundaries, because you’re scared of putting up a boundary of saying “no” to your friend, in case something bad will happen.

The book is laid out in a fairly straightforward way – the first half sets out what boundaries are, and what they should look like, and then chapter by chapter, the authors take us through some of the outworkings of boundary problems in various areas of life. The kind of topics are: People who are grown adults, but still feeling under the thumb of their parents. Parents learning how to enforce boundaries with their toddlers. Friends learning to set boundaries with each other. Husbands and wives learning how to set boundaries to work out where loving your spouse ends and putting up with a selfish person begins. Work boundaries – knowing the difference between doing a great job and becoming a workaholic because you can never say no to your work colleagues or bosses.

As someone who struggles with being a people pleaser (ie my natural instinct is to say “yes” to anything anyone asks me), this is one of the more important books I’ve read this year. If you have no trouble saying “no” to things, then this may not be for you. But if you have ever felt like you’re giving and giving and you’re exhausted, it may be that you have trouble saying “no”. In which case, learning about boundaries will be really helpful. I certainly wish I’d been thinking about this stuff several years ago.

The only real concern I have with the book is that, being written by Christian psychologists, they are trying to emphasise the Christian part as much as possible by putting lots of Scripture references in the book. I’m not against Scripture references, but often the book feels like it’s trying to stretch Bible verses to fit their boundaries model, rather than fitting the model to the Scriptures. Of course, I think this is done in all sincerity – if I was to ask Cloud and Townsend, I’m sure they, in all seriousness, think they’ve handled the Scriptures correctly. I’m not so sure.

With many of these books written by psychologists that you can pick up at Koorong or Word, I’d be more happy if they just said, “Look, these principles aren’t strictly found in the pages of the Bible. But we’re comfortable that they don’t disagree with the Bible, and they’ll provide a useful framework for how you can relate to others.”

But that aside, I think the advice in this book is great, and will affect many, many portions of your life. Pretty much, if you answer “yes” to either of these questions: Do I always feel like I’m giving and I’m resenting it? or Do I have trouble saying no to people and it’s overwhelming me? then I can guarantee you’re going to get a lot out of this book.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: unChristian (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons)

This one has been sitting in my reading pile for far too long. While only brief, I think it is one of the more important Christian books to be written in the last few years, and one that I would actually like all Christian leaders (actually, make that all Christians) to read and think about.

Quite simply, this book documents the results of a variety of surveys conducted on 16-29 year-olds in the United States to understand their attitudes towards Christianity. It was quite extensive, and covered both non-Christians and Christians. Dave Kinnaman is clearly a lover of statistics, and has done a great job, I think, of letting the results of the survey speak for themselves, rather than just putting in his opinions. Which is just as well, because the results that came back were pretty unflattering to Christians. I’d recommend reading the book to get into the details of it, but the summary of their findings were that most non-Christians aged  between 16-29 though that Christians were:

Hypocritical – always telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, but then living however they wanted.

Only Focused on Seeing Non-Christians “Saved” – keen to see non-Christians get “saved”, come down the front, pray a prayer, or whatever form it might take; but not actually interested in them as people.

Antihomosexual – Christians don’t just teach against homosexuality (which this book wasn’t disagreeing with), but many Christians have used that as an excuse to treat gay people as second-class citizens (or worse).

Sheltered – Christians hide in a bubble and have no real proper interaction with the world.

Too Political – Christians are too focused on taking over America via Republican politics.

Judgmental – Christians are more interested in criticising everyone’s actions, rather than helping people, and display very little grace.

The interesting thing about most of these statistics was that a lot of young Christians would agree with the above as well. I would too. As the book goes into, it’s not saying that Christians should completely compromise on their doctrines or never get involved in politics, etc. But they are suggesting that the way we’ve treated people and the fact that we’re more known for who and what we don’t like rather than any positive contribution to society, should give us pause.

The authors have lots of helpful suggestions along the way for how we can reverse this image problem, without compromising, and I think if many of their suggestions were taken on board by Christians, we’d have a lot less negative press than we do. While I don’t believe that people are suddenly going to flock to church if all Christians start treating them nicely, I do believe that we’d be getting closer to what the Bible talks about in the book of 1 Peter, where Peter says that we should live such good lives among non-Christians that even if they don’t particularly like what we stand for, they will notice a difference and want to know more about God.

If it’s ideas are taken on board, I think it will become one of the most important books for the next generation of Christians.

4 1/2 out of 5.

www.unchristian.com

Book Review: Does God Believe in Atheists? (John Blanchard)

This book is quite mammoth (655 pages). In it, John Blanchard has attempted the rather ambitious (but worthwhile) goal of attempting to construct both a critique of atheism and a defense of Christianity all in the one book.

He starts by going through a history of atheistic ideas, then proceeds to pull it apart on various aspects (everything from it’s failure to explain why everything is here, perceived design in the world, lack of a moral framework – the usual stuff). Blanchard helpfully takes things a step further by defining theism as Christian theism. This helps because rather than just defending the idea of God in general (which could encompass many religions which Christians wouldn’t believe in either), it’s tied down to the one faith.

It also means that, using that definition, an atheist can be someone from another religion who doesn’t believe in the Christian God, thus allowing for some critique of the other major world religions and agnosticism as well. (Though at the same time, he is careful to distinguish between them – so an atheist needn’t worry that he’s going to be painted in the same brush as a Muslim or an agnostic, for instance.)

Overall, I liked the structure of the book and I liked that John Blanchard was trying to write it for an atheist to be able to think through his or her own position, plus also the evidence for Christianity. This is good, because sometimes atheists don’t necessarily seem to have responded to all the arguments that Christians have put  forward, or they’ll just use a blanket dismissal of anything that comes from the Bible, just because it is the Bible. (But I’ll be the first to admit that Christians have spent a lot of time recently answering objections that nobody’s really raising as well, so it does take two to tango.)

It’s also a nice mix of all the different arguments involved – some are philosophical, regarding how you determine truth and morality. Others are evidentiary – what does historical evidence say about Christianity? So it tackles atheism on many levels.

As a broad brush introduction to the Christian responses to atheism, I’d recommend it, but I have two reservations about it, one minor, the other more major.

The minor quibble is just that the book is so formidably dense (it feels like an average of five endnotes per paragraph) because Blanchard is doing his best to represent a well-read critique of atheism that has actually understood his opponent’s position. However, I felt the same points could have been made in a shorter book.

But the more major point is that there is a large chunk missing in temrs of how the Bible reconciles with science. I believe Blanchard has written another book on Christianity and science and how they’re compatible, and I’m sure he left it out because of space reasons, but I think it leaves a gap in the argument. I believe one of the biggest issues that modern Christianity faces is that when Darwinism first arose, the weight of scientified evidence seemed to clash with the creation account in Genesis. I haven’t looked too closely into the issues, but I know many Christians who take the opening chapters of Genesis fairly symbolically – not to be taken as a literal account of creation. However, if I was a skeptic, I would want to know: if it’s okay to discount the opening chapters of the Bible because they clash with science, why insist so strongly that a guy rose from the dead – which also clashes with science?

I think the answer lies in understanding the presuppositions that support how we view the scientific evidence as well as an understanding of how the opening of the Bible is meant to be read, and I would have loved to have seen some thinking along that line.

But instead, Blanchard spends an entire chapter demolishing evolution, but never gets around to explain what he’s replacing it with. He clearly believes that God created the world, and that there is intelligent design – but how does that all work? Did the world evolve, but evolve in a designed way? Is it a young earth that looks old? An old earth with some reinterpretation needed for how we understand Genesis? I think all of this is imporant (especially with the attention being drawn to Charles Darwin in this anniversary time) because the perception that I get from many non-Christians is that Christians cling to believing in a book which can’t possibly be true, because science has disproved it. To my mind, while I believe there is strength in the notion of a creator to explain an ultimate cause for everything, and while I believe there is merit in intelligent design, I think it needs to be more strongly linked with the evidence that is out there. Anyway, that could well be in Blanchard’s other book, so I’ll have to track that down at some stage. (After doing some atheist reading, because I think it’s important to make sure we’re not misrepresenting the other side either.)

That said, this is a great introduction to various streams of Christian arguments against atheism, and it’s nice to see someone grappling with the arguments that atheists are using.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Family (B.M. Palmer / J.W. Alexander)

This is probably going to go down as the book that’s had the biggest influence on me in 2009. Though it should be said that it’s actually two books in one volume, published by Sprinkle Publications, a publishing house in Virginia which specialises in old Christian books from the 1800s, which they reprint in beautiful hardbound facsimile editions.

The first book in this volume is The Family In Its Civil And Churchly Aspects by Benjamin Palmer, pastor of First Presbyterian in New Orleans in 1876. It’s split into two parts. The first part explains how the Biblical model of family (monogamous husband and wife, with children) is at the very core of society.

Because God has created the institution of families, children grow up learning how to obey authority, how to treat each other kindly, in an environment with just the right mix of affection and discipline – thus preparing them to be model citizens of society.

He then goes on to expound this point with a chapter devoted to each role in the family (husband, wife, parents, children, and – most controversially – servants).

I must admit, I was expecting a book from 1876 to be full of cringeworthy advice along the lines of, “The husband calls the shots. The wife does blindly whatever she’s told. The children obey or get smacked.” I’m not sure why I thought this was the standard view of the 19th century – but that’s what I was expecting.

However, I was amazed at one of the most balanced descriptions of marriage and parenting that I’ve ever read. The chapter on the authority of parents is worth the price of admission in and of itself.

The second part of Palmer’s book on the church was a little bit less convincing for me, because I had more trouble tracing his line of thought, compared with the first part. I understand that he sees family as showing us something of the relationship of Christ and the church, but it wasn’t made as clear as the first part. Still worth a read, though.

After a very strong first book, I thought the second book in this volume would have to be a strong contender to match it. It was.

Thoughts on Family-Worship by James Alexander (pastor of a Presbyterian Church in New York) and originally written in 1847, is the most sustained and passionate argument for families to worship together in their homes that I’ve ever read.

Chapter by chapter, Alexander hammers home at families (especially fathers) that they should be gathering their family every day to read the Bible, sing praises to God and pray together. He spells out the benefits for fathers, for children, for families, for what it does in hard times, for how it benefits society, how it benefits the church, etc. etc.

While there are bits here and there that may be legalistic (for instance, I’m not sure where Alexander gets the idea that kneeling is the only legitimate position for praying), but the overall vision that he paints of what could be achieved in the church and amongst Christians if we took the time to focus on God every day (and he’s arguing for morning and night, by the way) is challenging and inspiring. It made me realise that if many of these old stalwarts of the faith were to show up in 2009, they might think those of us calling ourselves Christians are a bit soft . . .

Anyway, I didn’t need to read very far in the book, before I got back in the habit of gathering my family together and reading the Bible and praying straight after dinner. I’m not sure how many of my Christian friends (especially those who are fathers), would make the time to read two books written in somewhat flowery language from the 1800s, but the ideas in this book have given me the most refreshing re-think about my family that I’ve had in years.

5 out of 5.

Book Review: The Impotent Argument Against Biblical Baptism (W.A. Mackay)

I’ve done some reading off and on about this subject over the years, but the old question of baptism by immersion vs sprinkling popped up on my radar again, so I decided to read this very short little book that had somehow ended up on my shelf.

It’s very short, but immensely helpful.

It was written in 1884, by presumably a Presbyterian Minister – though all we’ve got is his initials and last name to go by – W.A. Mackay. While I’m not sure of the exact circumstances surrounding this book’s publication – the situation is remarkably similar to our own time.

Basically, as the author states in his opening section, you could go 20 or 30 years in a Presbyterian / Reformed church and never once hear a sermon on why we baptise by sprinkling or pouring vs immersion. Meanwhile, the Baptists of the day (the same as now) were making it quite clear to the Christian world that they didn’t consider anything other than an adult immersion baptism as a valid baptism. And considering that is the sign of being a Christian (according to Baptist theology), it’s a serious charge to level.

So Mackay sets out to finish the issue. The book is divided into two parts – the first half is dealing with the sprinkling vs immersion issue. The immersion section was excellent, because it looked at the the original Hebrew/Greek words (which is ultimately where you need to go) and also highlighted some of the reasons why Baptists were misunderstanding the Reformers’ position (which is also important). The section on infant baptism was good as well, but I still prefer the book Children of the Promise by Randy Booth for the best discussion on that particular topic. (However, the Booth book doesn’t touch immersion vs sprinkling, so the Mackay is still a great one-volume treatment.)

After reading this, I went and had a flick through the Baptist book I’d read back when my eldest daughter was little. At the time, I hadn’t been convinced by the Baptist argument, and I’m still not.

I understand how they arrive at their position, and I understand why it makes sense to them. I also believe that it’s not the make-or-break point of Christianity. But I’d encourage everyone – Baptist or Reformed alike – to make sure they understand the theology behind this sacrament, because if there’s one thing you can’t ignore – it’s that baptism is an important sign.

To try to ignore it and pretend that it doesn’t really matter is missing out on a really spectacular ritual that God has given to us.

5 out of 5.

Film Review: Collision

I was rather excited that this film got a theatrical release, because I’d heard about it a few weeks ago and it was pretty much going straight to DVD. But Dendy Newtown brought it out for one night (albeit courtesy of a church in the area who sprung a Q&A on us after the film was over).

The story behind this documentary is that Christopher Hitchens, the prominent atheist – an Englishman residing in Washington DC – wrote a book a few years back called God Is Not Great – Why Religion Poisons Everything. From what I understand, in 2007, he invited any religious people who wanted to debate him to come and have a go. Many people have, and for most people who are unprepared, I think he’s pretty much eaten them alive.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, in 2007, a Reformed pastor from a place called Moscow in Idaho (how bizarre is that?) called Douglas Wilson, decided to take Hitchens on and so the two men had an online debate on www.christianitytoday.com. It’s also not mentioned anywhere, but Doug wrote a reply to Christopher’s book called God Is. How Christianity Explains Everything. Anyway, they collected the back and forth debate into a small book called Is Christianity Good For The World? and then someone got the smart  idea of sending the two of them on a debate / book launch tour.

This film is a documentary that covers those three days on the road. For 90 minutes, we watch them debate, sign books, drink beer, ride in taxis, ride in limos, debate, followed by more conversations in cars. And somewhere in there they got a helicopter ride as well.

Considering that there were about three two-hour debates in there (from what I could work out watching the film), there is no way in 90 minutes, you’re really getting the full weight of either of their arguments. And the filmmakers don’t try. Director Darren Doane deliberately steered the film away from being about getting one message across or another and instead tried to make it, as much as possible, about the conflict between the two men. (This does lead to some slightly corny slo-mo scenes where Hitchens and Wilson are filmed in split screen, with gangster rap over the top, to make it look like Theists In Da Hood. But as one friend told me, at least if gave your mind a brief rest before the next round of debating took off.)

What of the arguments themselves? I’ll let you track the film down for yourself – you can get it from Amazon.com – to see the full thing, but as far as I could tell, Christopher Hitchens was arguing the case – most of the time – that Christianity (or religion in general) was just an extra crutch people were trying to use to prop up morality (which could exist quite fine on its own) and that, in fact, it had produced quite the opposite. (You’ll hear the killing of the Amalekites mentioned on quite a few occasions.) I’m sure if we’d seen more of the debate, we’d have come across other objections such as Christanity being unscientific, relies on the supernatural, etc.

Douglas Wilson, on the other hand, was using what’s known as a “presuppositional” argument. He’s right up front in assuming that there is no such thing as neutrality, there’s no “neutral” platform to stand on and engage with facts – instead you have a set of preconceptions. So he’s quite comfortable with believing the Bible is true, and then building his entire worldview around that. The rest of his argument was then pointing out that, if you adopt a certain set of assumptions, you have to live by them. For instance, if you believe, as an atheist, that everything evolved by chance and that there is no rhyme and reason to why we’re here, then you can’t really have any set reason for assuming objective moral standards. You can make some up, to make your life easier, but there’s no reason that they should be true for everyone in the whole world – if we’re all random bits of protoplasm.

Which turned out to be the chink in Hitchen’s armour. It started to clog up the last 30 minutes of the film, but Wilson seized onto the fact that Hitchens kept wanting to use moral terms against Christianity (“It’s a wicked cult”, etc) without giving any justification for his morals (apart from that we “intuitively feel” that certain things are right and wrong). That’s still not likely to convince somebody to become a Christian (human nature is that we like to have justice, but we don’t really like the idea of a God breathing down our neck that we have to answer for), but for me, it’s enough that I could never be an atheist. I couldn’t live with the level of uncertainty that they have to have.

I don’t know that you’d claim that anyone “won” the film, but I would say that Hitchens probably carried the argument for the first hour of the film, because he’s a very good public speaker. Wilson, on the other hand, seemed to be thinking of so many things at once, that his thoughts would come out a bit fast and furious. Also, because Wilson makes no bones about assuming that the Bible is true, when he starts talking about something like Jesus prophesying the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, I’m sure it would have sounded quite foreign to non-Christian ears. (Hitchens’ body language at that point certainly conveyed that he  felt like he was stuck next to the village idiot.) However, over time, this becomes a bit of a strength, and we watch (especially in the non-debating moments) as Wilson is actually teaching Hitchens things about the Bible that he never really knew before.

The last scene of the film is also quite an interesting one, albeit it for no other reason, than it proves yet again that alcohol brings thing out that we cover up  in our everyday conversation. I won’t spoil it for you, but it shows that there may be other things going on that are underneath the level of the positions being argued.

To finish, the best thing about this film was simply that I got to get together with a bunch of friends on the Christian side of things and on the atheist/agnostic side of things and have great conversations afterwards. That doesn’t happen very often in our polite, Aussie society where religion and politics are off the table, so I was very grateful to Hitchens, Wilson and co. for the opportunity to have the discussion.

4 1/2 out of 5.