Alister E. McGrath, “Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths: Building Bridges to Faith through Apologetics”

The author of this book is both a scientist (with a Ph.D. in microbiology) and a theologian (with ties to Oxford and Regent College in Vancouver); he used to be an atheist and is now an Anglican priest.

The central focus of the book is explaining how to evangelize to intellectuals, especially by familiarizing oneself with the hurdles presented by various modern beliefs and misconceptions. It’s a good book, and it has a rather elaborate organization and a detailed table of contents that you can read to get a good idea of the topics covered — and which accordingly I herewith share:

Introduction

Part 1: CREATING OPENINGS FOR FAITH

Chapter 1. The Theological Foundations of Effective Apologetics [A. Apologetics Is Grounded in the Doctrines of Creation and Redemption; B. Apologetics Is Grounded in God’s Ability to Communicate Himself Through Human Language; C. Apologetics Is Theologically Informed; D. Apologetics Addresses Itself to Specific Audiences]

Chapter 2. Points of Contact [A. A Sense of Unsatisfied Longing; B. Human Rationality; C. The Ordering of the World; D. Human Morality; E. Existential Anxiety and Alienation; F. Awareness of Finitude and Mortality; G. The Point of Contact and Evangelistic Preaching]

Chapter 3. From Assent to Commitment [A. The Nature of Faith; B. Apologetics Does Not Create Faith; C. The Limitations of Apologetics; D. The Point of Contact as Point of Departure; E. The Decision to Believe]

Part 2: OVERCOMING BARRIERS TO FAITH

Chapter 4. What Keeps People from Becoming Christians [A. Intellectual Barriers to Faith; B. The Historical Associations of Christianity; C. The Problem of Relevance; D. Misunderstandings of the Nature of Christianity; E. The Hunger for Absolute Certainty; F. Prior Commitment to Another Belief System; G. The Problem of Personal Integrity; H. A Sense of Guilt or Inadequacy]

Chapter 5. Intellectual Barriers to Faith [A. God as Wish Fulfillment?; B. Suffering; C. Religious Pluralism; D. The Resurrection; E. The Divinity of Christ; F. Sin and Salvation]

Chapter 6. A Clash of Worldviews [A. Enlightenment Rationalism; B. Marxism; C. Scientific Materialism; D. Feminism; E. Postmodernism; F. The New Age]

Part 3: APOLOGETICS IN ACTION

Chapter 7. From Textbook to Real Life [A. Apologetics as Dialogue; B. Apologetics and Preaching; C. The Appeal to the Imagination; D. Apologetics and Literary Forms; E. The Appeal to Culture; F. We Have Time for a Few Questions …; G. Concluding Remarks]

Then: Appendix A. The Point of Contact in Classical Evangelical Thought: John Calvin; and Appendix B. A Critique of Presuppositionalism: Cornelius van Til. [Note: The appendices are rather odd and not given much explanation in the book’s text; the last paragraph on page 216 explains their connection but not their relevance.]

Finally: “Notes,” “For Further Reading,” and “Index.”

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As noted, I think this is a valuable book, both in its evangelical tips (“the best theological and spiritual arguments and insights can be compromised through lazy presentation and thoughtless application,” 186) and in its Weltanshauung analyses.

And I especially liked the discussion at 77-81 (“The Hunger for Absolute Certainty”), to which the author comes back frequently, that all we humans have on the big questions are probabilities, not certainties. And on that point, I’ll note that, while I’m grateful that there’s lots of C.S. Lewis in the book (for example, it has a good summary of his distinguishing pagan myths about dying and rising gods from Christianity, as well as gnostic redeemer myths, 121), there’s just one brief reference to Pascal (55), this blogsite’s other patron saint — whom he might also have cited at, say, 59-60 (“The Decision To Believe”) since, when we’re dealing with probabilities, we are confronted with a wager, are we not?

Speaking of C.S. Lewis — in this case, his point that non-Christian myths and the like provide or provided signposts to Christianity — I also found interesting this quote from the author’s fellow apologist Michael Green (116):

No faith would enjoy wide currency if it did not contain much that was true. Other faiths therefore constitute a preparation for the gospel, and Christ comes not so much to destroy as to fulfil. The convert will not feel that he has lost his background, but that he has discovered that to which, at its best, it pointed. That is certainly the attitude I have found among friends converted to Christ from Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. They are profoundly grateful for what they have learned in those cultures, but are thrilled beyond words to have discovered a God who has stooped to their condition in coming as the man of Nazareth, and who has rescued them from guilt and alienation by his cross and resurrection.

Also relatedly, to make the point that it is useful to use whatever literary media are at hand for apologetics, McGrath gives the example of the detective novel (203); I had recently read, in the book Peach Child, missionary Don Richardson’s evangelical use there of a cannibal tribe’s most powerful myth, and he has gone on to make essentially the same point as McGrath’s, namely that all cultures should be tapped by the apologist for media they can use to make the case for the Gospel compelling.

Unrelatedly, I liked McGrath’s point (207-08, as an example of “Don’t Give Hostages to Fortune”) that for an evangelist to bring up the doctrine of predestination can be counterproductive.

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Some quibbles:

  • I found it surprising that very many people would say that in their lives, even if Christianity were true, it would not be relevant (73-75). Really — for starters, the prospect of going to Hell doesn’t matter to you?!
  • I did not find the author’s discussion of original sin to be particularly helpful (138), and don’t understand why its problematic to think that sin is (mostly) about bad acts and failures to act.
  • He has, to me, a rather narrow view of rationality (see 145 #1, 147-48 carryover paragraph, 152 last paragraph). Maybe that’s one reason I thinks he’s unnecessarily hard on “Enlightenment Rationalism” (147-55).
  • Regarding “Feminism” (166-75), it’s true enough that Christianity is not oppressive to women, but that’s a point distinct from whether Christianity is true or not.