Sunday 31 August 2008

Christian writing for children - Part 2

In my last post on Christians writing for children I suggested that:

"The gospel of Christ is the central narrative to which virtually all other narratives have some relationship – certainly in the Western cultural tradition and literature."

I pointed out that the focus of the Bible is Salvation History, with its central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his Son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death. A plan that provides a way for God's creation to be restored to a relationship with him. Salvation for those who repent of their sin, seek the mercy of God and in faith commit their lives to following Jesus.

I also suggested that there are at least five forms or genres of writing for children that Christians could attempt, ranging from Bible stories that present the gospel explicitly or which teach biblical truth, through to literature for children that weave elements or themes of biblical salvation history into the narrative. In the latter, these references to, or echoes of God's salvation narrative have a key role in shaping the plot, characters and language of the stories. In this post I want to talk more about this form of writing and the motivations for writing it, because I believe that it is where Christians can make a greater contribution.

I find it depressing to examine the children's section when I visit Christian bookshops. Why? Well, at least three reasons. First, because I observe that virtually all of this material is what I referred to in my last post as Type 1 or 2 writing. While this is important writing for Christian families and for sharing biblical understanding with the children of non-Christian families, and I want Christians to write it, I know that most of it will never be read outside Christian families. Second, I know that much of this material is of doubtful literary and artistic quality (yes, there is good stuff too, but there is much dross). It is frequently not as well written, nor as well illustrated, as secular children's literature. Third, I know that there is little Type 3, 4 & 5 writing on these shelves and that when children and parents want these books they will need to go to secular bookshops to find them and that there will be few Christian writers who have written the books from which they will make their selection. But the good news (and the thing that encourages me) is that due to God's sovereign rule and his common grace, that much of this material will be used by him. Even in the literature of those who don't know Jesus, we find glimpses of the biblical salvation narrative and biblical truth. John Calvin while recognising hereditary corruption and the total depravity of humanity acknowledged that through the work of the Holy Spirit and what remains of the image of God in a fallen people, that God still works:
"In reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, ii, p16).
While knowing that God can work through all things for the good, our desire is to promote his purposes, to honour his name in all that we do. Christians have a responsibility to engage with and use literature for God's purposes in all of its forms. And now here's the rub (as they say), children's love of literature and their literary history is going to be shaped mostly by type 3 to 5 literature. This is what they will often read at school, and this is what fills the bookshelves of libraries and bookshops, and this is what their friends will read. Just as adult Christians are enriched by narrative accounts that are not based directly on the Bible's gospel narrative, or written deliberately about biblical truths, so too children will have a natural thirst for story. A thirst for story, for story is about relationships, and God made us to be relational beings. Related first to him and secondly to each other. We crave stories that offer insight into the human condition and we share much of ourselves through story.

I grew up in a non-Christian home and for many years when I reflected on my early literary experiences concluded that while my parents seemed to do nothing to encourage a love of literature or writing, I was influenced by two great storytellers. First, my father who was a consummate oral storyteller. He shared his life story through anecdotes – tales of mine tragedies, the deadly Rothbury riots that he was part of as a teenager, tales of great Scotsmen, sporting triumphs, the glory of the trade union movement, the merits of communism and the evil of the employers like the major mining companies. My father’s memories shared through story were vivid and lively. They were shaped by his values, his history, his fears, his prejudices, his hopes and the culture and class within which he was raised. His stories marked me in some way that I was unable to grasp until he was dead and I had reached middle age. This was long after I had rejected some of the underlying truths of what he had taught me in his stories of tough life as a miner.

The second storyteller was my Grandfather, a conservative Christian with Brethren background who was also of Scottish descent. A brilliant and inventive man who loved God and had a rich literary tradition shaped by the Bible, classic literature, Australian ballads and Scottish poetry. As a child he immersed me in Scripture as he spoke the Psalms and Proverbs to me and as he recites poetry at a moments notice when it seemed relevant. These somewhat conflicting storytellers helped to shape me through their stories and the narratives of others. God used each to shape me and prepare me to receive the truth of the gospel at the age of 31 years. I praise him for his grace and mercy and tremble at the thought that he would choose to spare me the wrath that is due to me, and instead place it upon his own perfect Son (Romans 3:21-26).

The Challenge

My challenge is simple. Where are the new Chronicles of Narnia, this century's Pilgrims Progress, the 21st century cautionary tales (or some equivalent), a new Christian Dr Seuss with strong biblical knowledge and intent? While professing committed Christians represent just 5% of the population in Australia, we are people of the Word and many of us have the potential to be writers. Language is central to God's communication of salvation and we are stewards of this Word and the gift of language. If Christians spent less time in difficult to win moral arguments about literature (see for example the argument about the word "scrotum" here) and more time encouraging Christian writers to write quality literature published by secular publishers, we would see a change in the mix of books available to the children of Christian and non-Christian families.

I've written widely for educators, teachers and researchers about the role that literature has in shaping knowledge, attitudes, values and family relationships. One of my key points has always been that story and narrative is part of the way that we relate to our children and how we build on these relationships. For Christians nothing can and should take the place of the Bible itself as the core of our teaching and nurturing of our children. But story in all its forms is part of the glue that binds us together as a family; part of our shared history - scarily, even television has a place for most people! One of the reasons that I have been so concerned at the potential demise of the book as the major vehicle for story is that it isn't clear to me what would replace it (I've listed a few previous posts below that touch on these issues from my blogs). There will always be children's stories published in some form, but what impact will new media have on the quality of these stories. If we look at the rise of adult literary forms like the mobile phone novel (see previous post here), and the impact of online newspaper delivery on investigative depth, the quality of writing and the content, I have some justification for my concern. But whether literature is delivered via a device like the Kindle (see post here), or via traditional books, matters less than the content and quality of the work. Christians must be involved in this, writing some of it and seeking to shape (or at least influence) discussion. We need to be questioning the motives and worldview of those who promote new technological forms, anticipating potential collateral damage to the literary form. What might happen should we embark on a brave new world filled with multimodal texts where word, image, sound, video, music etc are massaged together into a postmodern blancmange? Could we end up with a new textual form with lots of technological bells and whistles but with little of the substance that reflects the Bible's central salvation narrative?

My two posts about Christians writing for children and my presentation to the Faithful Writers' conference have multiple messages and intent, but there is one that I want to stress once more. I want to challenge Christians who have demonstrated the ability to write (and this doesn't just mean that you have a university degree - writing a children's book is not the same as writing an assignment in engineering, law, literature or theology), to consider writing for children. Here's how you might start:
  • Read lots of children's books - see what makes the difference between good and bad writing for children.
  • Test some of the books you like by reading them to children of different ages, including other people's children.
  • Try writing a simple short story for children. Test it with some children (not just your wife, your husband or your mother - they'll all think its great even if it's terrible).
  • Begin collecting ideas for writing (get a book and write them down) - words that you love, words that make children laugh or take notice, topics that children seem to like, unusual things that you've deserved, opening lines for a poem or novel, rhymes that amuse you etc.
  • Again test these ideas by writing something, then re-write it, and then re-write it and then...(you get the message).
  • Then get some advice about submitting manuscripts, research the publishers to see what they publish and submit a manuscript.
You might just be able to write a successful book at your first sitting but for most writers it takes years of effort and multiple rejection letters. Give it a try.

Some related previous posts

Christian writing for children - Part 1

Truth and the Internet
Mobile phone novels
Books that stand the test of time
Death of the book?

Other related CASE references

In the latest issue of our CASE quarterly magazine there are a number of articles that have indirect relationship to my post. The theme of this issue was God, Creativity and Creators - Case

Anna Blanch (2008). Echoes and patterns. Case 16, pp 13-16
Trevor Hart (2008). Creation, incarnation and redemption - in the arts? Case 16, pp 9-12
Andrew Lansdown (2008). Fantasy and its place in the Christian imagination. Case 16, pp 4-8
Scott Monk (2008). The Word and the wordsmith. Case 16, pp 17-21

Sunday 24 August 2008

God, Creativity and Creators

The next edition of the Case magazine has as its theme, ‘God, creativity, creators’. Why this theme? Trevor Hart comments in his contribution to the magazine that artistic imagination is among the greatest gifts of God. But like many (if not all) gifts of God, it can be used to pursue mixed motives and purposes.

Readers of this blog know that I have spent more time than usual considering the work of one artist in the past few months (you can read the posts here). The Bill Henson controversy has been challenging. Like the contributors to the next edition of Case magazine, I see the arts as part of the way we express our humanity, creativity and giftedness. The arts can be used to the glory of God as an expression of the creative gifts he has given us, or they can be a diversion from him, rather than a celebration of all that is worthy of our praise.

John Calvin, had no difficulty seeing God’s purposes in the arts. In commenting on Genesis 4 and Jabal as the ‘father of all who play the lyre and pipe’ he noted that

‘… the invention of arts, and of other things which serve to the common use and convenience of life, is a gift of God by no means to be despised, and a faculty worthy of commendation.’

Genesis 4 provides an account of the beginnings of civilisation in a fallen world. Eve gives birth to Cain then Abel. Cain slays his brother Abel and the consequence of sin and man's downward spiral is obvious. God places a curse on Cain and his offspring.
"And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth" (Gen 4:11-12).
And yet, from his people there is still productivity and purpose. Cain's destiny to be "a fugitive and a wanderer" separated from God, does not mean that his life will have no value; God uses all parts of his creation according to his purposes. Even in a land of fugitives and wanderers we see a city built (Gen 4:17), a family fathered (Gen 4:18), rural industry develop (Gen 4:20), musical expression on the lyre and pipe (Gen 4:21), and forging of iron and bronze (Gen 4:21). Civilisation develops outside the Garden, even in the land of rebellion and separation from God there is productivity, culture and art. God does not abandon Cain, but places him under a protective shield rather than allow vengeance to run unrestrained. God's common grace touches all of creation.

Calvin offers further comment of relevance here:
"...Let us know then, that the sons of Cain, though deprived of the Spirit of regeneration, were yet endued with gifts of no despicable kind.....the excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused through the whole human race."
The arts reflect humanity’s unique position in creation as the ones who are made in the image of the Creator. Creativity and humanity's creations are a gift from God that can give us joy and pleasure. Praise God that the arts speak in some measure of his creative grace.

The themed content of the next issue of Case Magazine will cover a variety of themes within the theology of the arts and creative human endeavour. Subscribers will receive their copies this week.

Brief overview of Case #16

Andrew Lansdown argues for the special role of fantasy in stimulating the imagination. In addressing the criticisms against fantasy he focuses on four common concerns: the place of the occult in fantasy; the disconnection between fantasy and reality; the perception that fantasy distorts reality; and, the criticism that it can be escapist.

Professor Trevor Hart considers the arts more broadly, and argues that artistic imagination and expression are part of the creativity of God himself. He suggests, “…we should embrace creative expression as an act of sharing in and celebrating God’s own creative activity.”

Anna Blanch discusses the intersection of literature and theology as an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary field of study. She posits that such study provides space for scholars to examine how the human desire to know and understand God is expressed in the arts. She asks, could the exploration of imaginative texts help us understand Christian Scripture better and awaken our minds to its beauty?

Scott Monk brings the perspective of a writer of teenage fiction and offers an interesting insight into the dilemma Christians face when writing for secular audiences. He describes the ‘balancing act’ he faces when negotiating the complexities of the different moralities of his mainly youthful readership.

Tied to the theme of this edition are two excellent book reviews by Greg Clarke and Rob Smith. Rob reviews Professor Jeremy Begbie’s book Resounding Truth: Christian wisdom in the world of music and Greg reviews Peter Conrad’s secular book Creation: Artists, gods and origins. Both books will be of interest to readers wanting to consider the theme of this issue of Case.

How to subscribe?

Case magazine is a 32-page full colour magazine that is published quarterly. You receive case as part of the cost of becoming a CASE associate. You also receive access to other CASE resources online, reduced prices for CASE events and access to specific CASE seminars. Cost to individuals is just $55 per year, $35 for students, and $25 for an overseas electronic version. You can more information here.

The New College Lectures

Our focus on the arts will continue in the 2008 New College Lectures (2-4 September, 2008) on the theme "God and the artist: Human creativity in theological perspective". The lectures are free.

For more information on the lectures and how to RSVP (which is essential) consult the New College website here.

Monday 18 August 2008

The sexual paradox: Boys and girls are different

Journalist and psychologist Susan Pinker has written an interesting book, The Sexual Paradox, in which she argues that there are significant differences between men and women that are not simply cultural or the result of learned behaviour. Such differences she argues help us to explain some of the startling statistics about male and female behaviour. For example, in discussing biological variations across genders, she addresses differences in relation to risk-taking, and suggests we need to ask:

Why are 10 times more men in prison?
Why do 9 times more males die in accidents involving risk taking?
Why are there more women who are depressed but more male suicides?

Pinker suggests that it does neither gender any favours to pretend girls and boys, men and women are the same. She argues that the sexes are motivated differently and respond to competition quite differently. This shows itself in the ways boys and girls behave, young males take more risks and women adopt different views of the place of work in their lives.

When talking about women and work she points out (while acknowledging exceptions) that "when you ask women what they want from work, they place great emphasis on the quality of their relationships at work and on working with people, not things....An interest and an ability to contribute to a field are more powerful drivers for women, on average, than higher salaries, job security and benefits. Having a position of power is their lowest priority."

"There's an element of volition in women's choices that simply isn't being recognised," says Pinker.

Pinker's book is yet another example of secular research and writing mirroring biblical teaching and wisdom about the different but complementary roles of men and women. I've written in Case magazine about this topic (here).

Other resources to explore

You can read a review of the book here

You can also view a video of Susan Pinker being interviewed about her book.

I have written a number of previous posts in the area of gender differences:
  • Boys and reading success here
  • Single sex schools here
  • The importance of fathers and their role in boys education here
I've used the above photo in a previous post. My granddaughter Rebecca was playing with a miniature tea set.
Her brother Jacob joined in, but note the different way they play with the china.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

God and the artist

In an article for the upcoming Case magazine with the theme "God, Creativity and Creators", Professor Trevor Hart challenges readers to "recognise artistic imagination among the greatest gifts of God". He suggests that:

"The artist has not....always been a figure whose contribution to human life has been valued, or towards whom any great appreciation has been shown. On the contrary, imagination in general and ‘creative’ or artistic imagination in particular, has often been treated with great suspicion, not least in Christian circles. The products of human imagining have regularly been viewed as at best a frivolous distraction from serious engagement with things (whether that be scientific, economic, political, religious or some other form of engagement). At worst they have been thought of as a dangerous hindrance to such engagement, weaving a skein of falsehoods that distance us further from truth rather than facilitating any meaningful contact with it." (Trevor Hart, 2008, Case, No. 16, p.9)

Professor Hart will take up this issue as part of his exploration of the theology of the arts and creativity at the annual New College Lectures. It should be a stimulating and thought provoking series of talks.

Trevor Hart is Professor of Divinity and Director of the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He teaches and publishes in Christian doctrine and systematic theology, with particular interest in the engagement of Christian theology with philosophy and literature. He has been brought to Australia by New College and CASE for the sole purpose of presenting the 2008 New College Lectures.

His series of three lectures is titled God and the Artist: Human creativity in theological perspective.

The details of these free public lectures are as follows:

Tuesday 2 September
The lunatic, the lover and the poet': divine copyright and the dangers of 'strong imagination'

Wednesday 3 September
The 'heart of man' and the 'mind of the maker': Tolkien and Sayers on imagination and human artistry

Thursday 4 September
Givenness, grace, and gratitude: creation, artistry and eucharist

For more information on the lectures and how to RSVP (which is essential) consult the New College website here.

Friday 8 August 2008

Christian writing for children - Part 1

Last Saturday New College hosted the 2008 Faithful Writer Conference. In all, 120 people came to discuss and learn about writing. The event was jointly sponsored by Matthias Media and CASE (which is part of New College). The plenary speaker for the day was Mark Tredinnick a well-known writer, poet, editor and teaching or writing. As well, seminars were run on essay writing, writing for sceptics, editing other people’s work, poetry writing and writing for children. I ran the latter seminar and thought I’d share some of the things I discussed.

Writing for children

The starting point for my seminar was the central proposition that the gospel of Christ is the central narrative to which virtually all other narratives have some relationship – certainly in the Western cultural tradition and literature. The central focus of the Bible is Salvation History; with its central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death. A plan that provided a way for his creation to be restored to a relationship with him.

Drawing on the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien I suggested that the central Bible narrative account of God’s redemptive plan and work is the central narrative that gives shape to all other narratives. In every story there is a sense in which there is an echo of the biblical narrative.

J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfils the tales and shows us what they mean.”

Lewis and Tolkien both saw the gospel narrative as the central or foundational human narrative.

Drawing on this central proposition I suggested in my seminar that for Christians there is much fruitful writing that can point children towards Jesus. I suggested that there are a number of very direct forms of narrative writing for children that are worthy of our time, energy and creativity (I’ve add an extra one in this post that I didn’t share at the seminar):

Type 1 – Stories that directly present the Christian gospel explicitly, often in the form or the retelling of Bible stories suitable for children. Children’s Bibles and collections of Bible stories fall into this category.
Type 2 – Stories that allegorically present the gospel (e.g. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress).
Type 3 – Stories that present or address essential biblical understandings and teaching; where the key elements of the Biblical plan of salvation are woven within the story, or can be seen as explicitly reflecting the key elements of the divine narrative (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis). While some would see the latter as allegory, Lewis denied this and instead claimed that the narrative came first and the biblical parallels followed.
Type 4 – Moral tales that have direct biblical parallels or that reflect moral principles consistent with the Bible’s teaching (e.g. evil will be punished; sin has consequences; honesty is better than falsehood). Nursery rhymes and many fairy tales fall into this category as do many cautionary tales (of course not all such tales reflect biblical moral insights, but many do).
Type 5 – This is really a variation or extension of the above. Here the links or parallels are at the thematic level rather than in the form of moral teaching. Stories of this kind demonstrate or echo biblical teaching (e.g. salvation narratives, stories of redemption, parallels to biblical narratives or parables). These narratives parallel the gospel narrative without explicit commentary. Such stories can be read at one level as simply a nice tale, but at another level the key themes parallel biblical themes that can be discussed. The following examples demonstrate what I mean.

Example 1 – “Charlotte’s Web”, by E.B. White

This is a well known book written for 6-10 year olds. It is a beautifully written tale about a group of talking farmyard animals, a spider, a rat and a little girl named Fern. While it makes no attempt to teach the gospel narrative, or even disguise it within an allegorical telling, it has themes that parallel key themes within the biblical gospel narrative. At one level, it is the celebration of loyalty, love and friendship. But it is also a salvation narrative. The story of a runt pig rejected by the farmer, sentenced to death but then rescued first by a small girl and later by the work of an intelligent and literate spider. At this thematic level, the narrative points to the power of faith, hope, love, charity, sacrifice and new life.

Example 2 – “Why do you love me?” by Martin Baynton

This is a beautiful little picture book written for 3-6 year olds. It is essentially a dialogue between a dad and his little boy, prompted by the boy’s question, “Do you love me?” This is one of those conversations that only a parent could full appreciate. The little boy asks, “Why do you love me?” “Do you love me because I’m kind?” “..brave?” “..funny”? “…clever”? “…good”? “…naughty?” To each question the Dad says “Yes”. “So why do I try to be good” says the boy. “You tell me,” says his dad. “Because I love you too”, replies the boy. The echoes to the biblical account of God’s grace are evident. Like God whose love towards us is an unconditional act of grace not linked to who we are and what we do, the father loves the boy in spite of who he is and what he does unconditionally. He loves him through the good and the bad. And the boy, in response to the love of the father, loves his father as well and seeks to please him.

Example 3 – “Cowardly Clyde”, by Bill Peet

This is a picture book written for children aged 4-7 years that tells of a brave (foolish?) knight and his trusty (cowardly stead) who set out to solve the problem of an ogre who is devastating the countryside. Clyde is terrified but the knight (Sir Galavant) heads into a dark forest to kill the ogre. They follow the trail of horse bones and find him. Clyde turns and runs, reaching the edge of the forest only to turn and discover that Sir Galavant has gone; the victim of a low branch. He goes back, and in an act of bravery bites the tale of the ogre to divert its attention from Sir Galavant. The ogre pursues him to the edge of the forest only to explode just as he grabs Clyde’s tale and disappear in a puff of smoke as the sun’s rays strike him, “An owl-eyed monster who thrives on darkness and gloom can’t last ten seconds in the bright sunlight, and he knew it….” The parallels are not as strong as the above examples but they are there – good conquers evil; and evil belongs to the darkness and cannot survive the light.

The qualities of good Christian writing for children

My conclusion to this seminar was that there is great merit in Christians seeking to write literature in its many forms for children. I suggested that such writing needs to first meet the basic criteria for good writing – good tales well told; language used well; narratives that work at multiple levels; rich authentic characters; interesting ‘page-turner’ plots. But beyond this they should:
  • offer knowledge that is a celebration of God’s world and his purposes;
  • act as a mirror allowing the reader to reflect on life and their future;
  • lead us to consider aspects of the human condition (life and death, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, frailty, brokenness etc);
  • point to the central redemption narrative of the Bible.
Related Links

'Between Two Worlds' link to this post (here)

'Christian writing for children' - Part 2 (here)

Sunday 3 August 2008

The Reason for God

I wrote an earlier post on Tim Keller's book The Reason for God in January (here) just before its release in the USA. I've finally got around to reading it and offer a full review in this post.

Timothy Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York; the city that many see as one of the world's most cosmopolitan, pluralistic and liberal societies. Keller has seen his church grow by God’s power and grace to 5,000+ members. The church has now planted over a dozen “daughter congregations”.

Why this book?

Keller has seen a need for a new book to aid him and his church in reaching New Yorkers. He acknowledges that C.S. Lewis has both influenced him and this book. In his own words he states “Lewis’s words appear in nearly every chapter”. In many ways this book is Keller’s attempt to present a new version of “Mere Christianity”. When talking about the book prior to publication he said:
“I think Lewis' book is peerless, and foolish would be the author who tried to replace him! However, the issues in the public discourse around Christianity have become much more complex than they were in the mid and late 20th century. The questions are now not just philosophical (e.g. Is there evidence for God's existence?). They are also now cultural (Doesn't strong faith make a multicultural society impossible?), political (Doesn't orthodox religion undermine freedom?) and personal……when C.S. Lewis was writing, there was general agreement that rational argument and empirical method were the best ways to discover truth. That consensus has vanished."
It’s clear for whom Keller has written the book:
  • People who have doubts about Christianity.
  • Christians who want to be better equipped to share their faith.
Keller is a pastor/teacher at heart. This shines through so clearly in this book. I suspect it has taken him almost 20 years to write the book that in his words he “always wanted for sceptical New Yorkers”, because he has been so busy engaging with the many people who pass through his church. He states in the introduction that “respectful dialogue” with secular liberal people is his aim. Some might hear alarm bells ringing with these words – is he presenting a cautious and polite gospel leaving out all the hard stuff? I don’t think so. I don’t see him doing anything more than Paul did in Athens on Mars Hill within a society just as pluralistic as New York. Like Paul (on this occasion), he seeks to evangelise the biblically illiterate with worldviews far removed from his own. Paul’s approach here was different to that which he used in other places (e.g. Pisidian Antioch) and was no doubt deliberate. He begins with respect and restraint (Acts 17:22) and seeks to identify what his hearers believe. He then presents or addresses key themes or beliefs that are essential to an understanding of the gospel. And when he has touched on the key elements of his worldview he turns to the resurrection of Jesus. (Acts 17:16-31). Keller uses a similar apologetic approach.

What does the book cover?

Part 1 of the book is sub-titled ‘The Leap of Doubt’. Keller answers the 7 most common moral and philosophical objections to Christianity. Keller’s material in this half of the book is shaped by the many conversations he has had with sceptical New Yorkers who he obviously enjoys asking, “What is your biggest problem with Christianity” (a nice apologetic starter). The seven chapters cover seven key problems or objections to Christianity:
  • There can’t be Just one religion
  • How could a good God allow suffering?
  • Christianity is a straightjacket
  • The church is responsible for so much injustice
  • How can a loving God send people to hell?
  • Science has disproved Christianity
  • You can’t take the Bible literally
This first half of the book attempts to tease out the underlying beliefs that lead to the key objections to the faith. Keller strives to find some common ground on which to outline his biblical reasons for the faith. But first, he seeks to shed light on the beliefs that are driving the sceptic’s views before attempting to critique and dismantle them. The chapters are all written in a disarming style that draw on conversations (which he quotes) with people he has met at Redeemer. In taking the reader through these conversations he draws on key writing and thinking from apologists (Lewis key among them), philosophers, theologians, sociologists, new atheists, sceptics and so on.

While the first part of the book is all about discovering why people don’t believe, the second half is all about providing biblical justifications FOR believing in Christianity - ‘The Reasons for Faith". The chapters are:
  • The clues to God
  • The knowledge of God
  • The problem of sin
  • Religion and the gospel
  • The (True) Story of the cross
  • The reality of the resurrection
  • The dance of God
So does the book succeed?

My short answer is yes, for both the intended audiences. Keller does succeed in providing a useful new resource for sharing with sceptical friends, colleagues, neighbours and family members. Mind you, they’d need to be middle-class educated sceptics if you wanted simply to give them a book. For others the book would be a good resource to read with and discuss one-to-one or in small groups. Keller also succeeds in writing a book that is a useful reference for any Christian who wants to present the gospel to non-Christians.

Are there any weaknesses? Not many in my view, but some will take issue with some things. For example, some won’t like the apologetic tone (pun intended) when discussing sin and its consequences. While Keller talks of the consequences of sin “personally”, “socially” and “cosmically” he stops short of speaking of God’s wrath and impending judgement. Gordon Cheng has quite rightly (and politely – well done Gordon!) pointed this out both on Tim Challies site and on his own blog where Tim Keller responds to the criticism

Tim Challies when he reviewed the book also pointed to a few areas that will concern some Christians. But in doing so, he also acknowledges how much there is to learn from this book.
“Nobody but Tim Keller could have written this book. It seems likely to me that nobody but Tim Keller will agree with everything he says. For example, many believers will be uncomfortable with his defence of evolution - not the naturalistic evolution of so many sceptics, but a theistic evolution that attempts to reconcile rather than ignore the creation accounts of the Bible. Others will take issue with his description of hell and the thread of ecumenism that runs throughout the volume. But if we heed his exhortation to major on the majors, to look to what’s most foundational to the faith before focusing on matters of secondary importance, both believers and sceptics have a great deal to learn from this book.”

What do I think of the book and should you buy it?

I like it a lot and yes, it's worth buying. Of course, if you don’t like apologetic approaches then you might not like this book. If you believe that the gospel can only be presented in pure form with every element writ clear, and if you’re they type who - lacking trust in God’s sovereignty in using our inadequate words and explanations - is racked with pangs of pain and frustration when you don’t manage to get each bit of the gospel explained, done and dusted; then you might find this book too messy around the edges. But if you’re the type of person who gets up every morning well prepared and desperate to be given conversations with friends, colleagues and family members that you can turn to the gospel, then this is your book. For the Christian there are three key things to learn from Keller if you read this book:
  • that gospel conversations are often messy (I don’t think he says that, but he demonstrates it);
  • that we need to take the time to listen to the voices of non-Christians, to unpack their beliefs and to present the truth of the gospel simply and honestly;
  • that we all need to be ready and equipped to give a reason for our faith.
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15, 16)

Other resources to support the book

You can download a video in which Tim Keller talks about his reasons for writing the book.

Redeemer Church also has a website dedicated to the promotion of the book and to other useful resources. It offers three sermons that relate to key topics:

* How can there be just one true religion?
* What should I do with doubts?
* Why the gospel is not religion or irreligion, but something else (The Prodigal Son)

The site also has a free readers guide for individual or group use.

The book isn't on sale in Australia as yet but you can buy it online as I did and get it quickly. Amazon has it for $US16.47 plus postage.