John W. Loftus’ new book, The End of Christianity (Prometheus, 2011), a collection of essays by atheists, was just released a few weeks ago. It serves as a companion volume to last year’s The Christian Delusion. And it wears its raison-d’etre on its sleeve. I intend to provide a review of the book in the weeks to come after I finish up some other overdue reviews. (Of course most of the time I make promises about the things I must do or will review it doesn’t get done so don’t hold your breath.)
I provided a blurb which appears on the book’s back cover and which reads as follows: “Should Christianity end? I think not. But unthinking Christianity definitely should. For that reason I am grateful to the authors of this outstanding collection of essays.”
This brings me to the subject of this post. The topic is neither about The End of Christianity nor about my blurb about the book, at least not directly. Rather, it is about the ethics of Christians blurbing books that are hostile to Christian faith such as I have done. And it is prompted by a question that was posed to me by a puzzled Christian. The individual asked simply “Why did you blurb that book?” but in the background one could gather a whiff of “WHY DID YOU BLURB THAT BOOK?” It’s a great question (in both forms).
The first reason: it is well done. I wouldn’t blurb a book of Christian shlock, even if I was asked because if I believed it was a bad book it would be disingenuous for me to blurb it positively. (Incidentally I know of a certain highly esteemed Christian scholar who has probably blurbed hundreds of Christian books. It is a bit of a running joke that this scholar’s imprimatur is so widely available across so broad a swath of published literature. Once one of this scholar’s students actually asked in a classroom “Do you actually read all the books you blurb?” The scholar refused to reply. I never found out how the student did on his final exam.)
I review books the way Roger Ebert reviews films. Ebert reviews films relative to genre. For example, picture a buddy film where three guys pile into a 66′ Pontiac convertible and drive Route 66, getting in all sorts of shenanigans along the way. Ebert could give the film 4 stars, scatalogical humor and all. The rating reflects not a conviction that it is high art or in the running for an Oscar (though it does reflect Ebert’s conviction that it ought not win a Razzie.). The point rather is that this film is an excellent token of the type “crude buddy comedy” (or whatever). By analogy, think of a “great” limerick. Limericks are not a high form of poetry like sonnets, but a particular limerick may nonetheless be a great example of the type limerick.
I approach the books I review and blurb in this way. An excellent token example of a particular type of argument can thus receive a positive review even if I am not persuaded by the overall argument. (This introduces an interesting sliding scale. Is it possible that there be a great book defending Mormonism? Certainly. The Branch Davidians? Perhaps conceivable but much less likely.) Along those lines The End of Christianity is a solid example of the type of book it represents, an atheological critique of Christianity.
But hold on. Don’t you have a pastoral responsibility to warn Christians away from such material? After all, the more effective it is, the more insidious it is, no?
I think that is the wrong way to view the matter. If we begin with the assumption that arguments which challenge our views are “insidious” and “wicked” we ensure that we will not change or develop in our thinking. If we have a God’s eye point-of-view to know that all our beliefs starting out are perfectly correct then this is perhaps a good procedure. But the fact is that none of us has such a perspective. We’re all fallible human beings. And so marginalizing arguments that challenge our belief systems as insidious or wicked or (my favorite) “tools of the enemy” is little more than a way to become insular and stagnant in one’s beliefs. If you want to see the effect this has on a belief system in the grand scale look at the Catholic Church between Vatican 1 and Vatican 2. You can’t ignore the world outside your door. Sooner or later you’ll have to engage in aggiornamento, opening up the windows to the world outside. If not even the Pope and his minions can lay claim to all truth, why think you are more lucky?
But what if a young Christian reads the book and their faith is destroyed?
Okay, that is possible. But first off, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Some faith needs to be killed so that it can be resurrected again to new life. And the reality is you never know how a book will be received. When I was at Princeton Theological Seminary in March a student told me how as a young man he had dreaded reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian. But he felt he had to read it to know what a great intellect like Russell had to say. After he finished this student felt liberated. “That’s it?” he thought with relief. And with that he reclaimed his faith anew. There could be many people who, fearing the worst, read The End of Christianity and reclaim their faith anew.
But what if that young Christian reads the book because of your blurb and their faith is destroyed?
Well okay, now this is getting personal. But of course a person is not responsible for every eventuality. A pastor preaches a sermon on Sunday. That sermon could cause certain congregants to have a deepened faith, but it could lead other congregants to lose their faith. How does one divvy up responsibility?
I will say this. I cannot offer a comprehensive review of and rebuttal to The End of Christianity on the back cover. The publisher just wouldn’t go for it. But I can offer a couple sentences which communicate the following to the reader: “This book devastates some forms of Christianity but it doesn’t hurt Christianity properly understood.” And so the young Christian who reads the book and finds their faith getting shaken can hopefully find solace in the fact that there are many people who are educated Christians and do not find the book threatening at all. Consequently, we have the ironic conclusion that positively blurbing a book on atheism can actually be of aid to Christians who will read it.