W. Mark Lanier, Christianity on Trial: A lawyer examines the Christian Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVrsity Press, 2014.
W. Mark Lanier’s new book Christianity on Trial pursues a juridical apologetic in the spirit of Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. And if ever there was a lawyer qualified to make such a case it is surely Mark Lanier. The back cover of the book notes that he was named to U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top lawyers in America for nine years. What is more, according to the book’s press kit the New York Times calls him “One of the top civil trial lawyers in America”, and the National Law Journal lauds him as “One of the decade’s most influential lawyers.” After reading all that, I was excited to see what this lawyer had to say.
The Jural Theme
The title “Christianity on trial” isn’t just an invention of InterVarsity’s marketing department. The book is indeed an exercise in juridical apologetics, i.e. a presentation set in a court room. It seems to me that if this thematic presentation is going to work, it requires two things: an objective jury and opposing counsel. On both points Lanier’s presentation comes up short.
A biased jury?
Let’s begin with the jury. Within the theme of this book the reading audience is the jury. We are invited into the courtroom to listen to the evidence and render our opinion. However, jury selection is a rigorous process of vetting for objectivity and open-mindedness. Consequently, if an apologist is adopting a jural approach, it behooves him to stress to the reader to strive for objectivity and to set aside prior opinions about the truth of Christianity for the sake of the trial. If a reader engages the book with the prior conviction that Christianity is true, that is as illegitimate as the juror who is convinced pretrial that the accused is guilty.
So what does Lanier do to prepare his reader for jury duty? The only thing he says is that “jurors should be fair.” (14) Yes, they should. But Lanier clearly needs to say much more than this. Interestingly, he does say more near the end of the book when discussing the resurrection. At that point he notes two groups that would hold opinions sufficiently closed to exclude them from jury duty. This is how he describes the first group:
“First, there might be a group that says, ‘I believe! I don’t care what the evidence is. I have a prejudice and bias that Jesus was resurrected. I was born into it; it is genetic. It must be the truth, and I could never examine it genuinely.’ This person has a bias that would preclude jury service.” (206)
The second group includes individuals who have an overriding naturalistic prejudice that is opposed to the possibility of resurrection.
Certainly Lanier is correct that people who “don’t care what the evidence is” and who recognize they “have a prejudice and bias” ought to be excluded from any jury. But this is an absurdly low bar. What about those who simply say “I know that my redeemer liveth”? Shouldn’t they be excluded as readily as those who say “I know Jones is guilty”? Clearly so.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people literally need to become agnostics to read this book properly. That would be absurd. But for the juridical apologetic to be legitimate, it really does require far more preparation for the jury/audience than Lanier provides.
Even more serious is the lack of opposing counsel. Although the book makes much of the courtroom image, it is not in fact reflecting a court setting. At most, it consists of the opening statement, arguments, and closing statement of one counsellor. But doesn’t the total absence of opposing counsel provide a fatal objection to the juridical pretentions of this apologetic?
Lanier doesn’t think so. Here’s his response:
“We are missing one major component of a trial: opposing counsel. That does not mean we do not face the cynics’ challenges. The public is bombarded by those skeptical about Christian faith. Those opposing my view are not silent. We can readily find television shows that question or make light of the reasonableness of Christian faith. The Internet is replete with articles, Web legends and blogs opposing most every aspect of Christianity.” (19)
I have two replies to this defense.
Let’s begin with Lanier’s decision to label all those who object to Christianity as “cynics”. By choosing this word he clearly isn’t referring to the ancient Greek school of philosophy that advocated for a sort of ethical egoism. So he must instead be using the term in its general sense to signify any person who evinces “a bitterly or sneeringly cynical attitude” or “who believes the worst about people or the outcome of events”. (Source) In short, Lanier seems to be referring to all non-Christians who present objections to Christianity as bitter and cynical. Frankly, this kind of name-calling leads me to call into question Lanier’s ability to engage charitably with others.
The second point concerns Lanier’s claim that the anti-Christian attitudes one can find expressed intermittently in the media is sufficient to serve as opposing counsel. This strikes me as a very lame response. Every person has a different degree of exposure to various anti-Christian arguments. Some may have significant exposure, but others may have little to none. In my experience, the average Christian lay person has very little understanding of the intellectual reasons other people have for their views. For the juridical approach to succeed, Lanier requires a genuine, robust opposing counsel, even if it happens to be his own literary creation. It isn’t enough to gesture vaguely to the scattered sources that appear in various media.
To sum up, the failure of adequate jury preparation and the lack of opposing counsel undermine the integrity of the juridical apologetic.
A courtroom or a Daubert hearing?
Before moving on I have to complicate things a bit more.
In the Preface to the book Lanier introduces the term “Daubert hearing” which refers to a pre-trial hearing that is intended to determine whether an expert’s testimony will be permitted in the trial (10). Lanier then observes that his book is “basically a Daubert hearing on core elements of the Christian faith.” (12)
Thinking of the book as a Daubert hearing, i.e. a defense of a panel of experts, makes more sense of the book’s current form. In this case, the reader assumes the role of judge rather than jury, and the absence of opposing counsel is explicable in terms of the judge’s focus on examining Lanier’s chosen experts.
Ultimately, however, the book seems to be of two minds. While the preface sidles up to the metaphor of the Daubert hearing, the main text moves seamlessly into the courtroom replete with Lanier’s opening and closing statements, the calling of witnesses before the jury, and the assumption that there is a gerrymandered opposing counsel consisting of media sources hostile to Christianity.
This left me rather confused.
Calling a witness or quoting a sentence?
Next, I want to address the calling of witnesses. The press kit that I received with the book plays up this theme as it highlights “key witnesses called to the stand”, an eclectic list including folks ranging from Albert Einstein to Adolf Hitler. The emphasis on calling witnesses is also found in every chapter which begins with a “witness list” that introduces each “witness” and his or her credentials.
This left me with the impression that there would be a dramatic payoff in the book itself, perhaps with a bit of imagined dialogue between Lanier the lawyer and the witness. Alas, I was sorely disappointed. Instead, the most part the calling of witnesses consists of nothing more than quoting from a particular individual. For example, Albert Einstein is on the witness list for chapter 4, and yet when he finally appears in the chapter, that “appearance” is merely Lanier reproducing a familiar Einstein quote: “Albert Einstein is frequently quoted as saying ‘The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” (83) That’s it. That’s all that calling Einstein as a witness amounts to. Count me disappointed.
Something else that bothered me…
I’m just about to move onto the arguments themselves. But first I need to make one more point. At the beginning of chapter 9 (on free will) Lanier writes:
“I don’t do criminal defense work. It is important work, and the innocently accused need access to good, competent criminal attorneys, but it is something I have no desire to do.” (167)
I don’t want to engage in pedantic quibbling here, but I can’t help but wonder why Lanier only says the “innocently accused” need “good, competent criminal attorneys”. What about the guilty accused? Elmo Patrick Sonnier was guilty of kidnapping, rape, and murder. But he also needed a good, competent criminal attorney. His story is told in Sister Helen Prejean’s bestselling book Dead Man Walking. As Sister Helen recognized, God saw that the human race was guilty and in need of good, competent attorney, and he delivered by sending his Son as our advocate (1 John 2:1). The Christian Gospel calls us to act in like manner to the guilty of this world.
Now we can finally turn to the arguments. Lanier’s case consists of an opening statement (chapter 1), a defense of God’s existence (chapter 2), an exploration of the nature of God (chapters 3-5), truth and biblical revelation (chapters 6-7), morality (chapter 8), free will (chapter 9), the resurrection (chapter 10) and the afterlife (chapter 11).
Lanier is a brilliant fellow and he is very well read. His “witness list”, if lacking in dramatic payoff, is at least interesting, wide-ranging, and intriguingly eclectic. For example, this is the first time I can remember seeing Noam Chomsky used to good effect in an apologetics book.
For the most part, however, I did not find Lanier’s arguments to be persuasive. Let me explain why with a few examples.
Chapters 4-5: Who is God?
After spending chapter three arguing what God isn’t, Lanier concludes “I have used this chapter to help erase our whiteboards, so we can now fill the boards with the biblical teaching on God.” (7) Over the next two chapters he lays out that teaching with an eclectic argument that draws upon neuroscience, a meditation of Psalm 8, and an introduction to divine transcendence and immanence in dialogue with a physical description of the world drawn from the natural sciences. Lanier concludes,
“The biblical answer makes sense. Common sense demands that any God who is able to comprehend and command the unthinkably large numbers of elements that exist on a subatomic scale, in such a vast and virtually unlimited universe, surely is competent and capable of caring for humanity.” (99)
As with most of Lanier’s arguments, I found the case here rather idiosyncratic and difficult to follow with large gaps in the reasoning. Perhaps most egregiously, while he repeatedly refers to the “biblical” idea of God, Lanier completely ignores all the morally problematic depictions of God in the Bible. To take but one example, in Ezekiel 16 God is described as adopting Jerusalem like an abandoned child and then, when she reaches sexual maturity, as taking her as a romantic consort (Ez. 16:6-8). That’s awkward enough. But after Jerusalem then becomes promiscuous God becomes enraged and marshals a mob that can “stone” Jerusalem and “hack [her] to pieces with their swords” (v. 40). Only after Jerusalem is finally lying dead and dismembered in the dust does God’s wrath subside (v. 42)
This is an extremely disturbing description of God as acting like the worst kind of abusive husband. And any apologist who is going to appeal to the “biblical teaching on God” had better be prepared to address such deeply disturbing images. Certainly any minimally competent opposing counsel would have shone a spotlight on passages like this, so it stands against the credibility of Lanier’s case that he fails to do so.
All this is even more ironic given that Lanier appeals to God to explain the origin of morality in chapter eight. In fact, let’s take a look at that chapter.
Chapter 8: Right, Wrong and the Moral God
In chapter 8, “Right, Wrong and the Moral God,” Lanier makes the case that morality is best explained by God. His case begins with a discussion of Hitler’s final solution which he then attributes to the influence of social Darwinism and Friedrich Nietzsche. Lanier drives the argument home with a picture of Hitler visiting the Nietzsche Archive. He concludes:
“Hitler’s actions were consistent with those who interpreted Social Darwinism as a notion that the races were unequal and some were more biologically fit to evolve than others. It also fits Nietzsche’s idea that humanity was set to evolve to something greater and that evil was not absolute….” (152)
At this point a good opposing counsel would do two things. First, they’d reject the relevance of Lanier’s analysis, for even if Nietzsche and social Darwinism precipitated Nazism, that provides neither evidence for Christianity nor against atheism.
Second, opposing counsel would directly challenge Lanier’s grossly simplistic and ideologically driven historical reconstruction. To do so, one need only point out the many other factors behind the rise of Nazism. Consider, for example, the rage that Germans felt over the unjust terms of the Treaty of Versailles. And consider the long history of European anti-Semitism, particularly as it was expressed in the notorious “Protocols of Zion”. This hoax, which first appeared around 1903, claimed to reveal a Jewish plot to take over the world. After the rise of the Fuhrer it was studied throughout Germany as an alleged exposition of the threat of the Jews. The Protocols is considered by many historians to be a major factor behind the push to the Final Solution.
Even worse, Lanier ignores the long history of Christian-based anti-Semitism in Europe. Consider, for example, Martin Luther, hero of the Reformation and Father of Protestantism, who wrote a despicable anti-Semitic screed three years before he died. Titled “The Jews and their Lies” (1543), this formidable book outlines Luther’s proposals for dealing with Jews who have failed to convert to Christianity. His proposal includes the burning of synagogues and the forced resettlement of Jewish people out of Europe and it was used in Nazi propaganda.
Not surprisingly, Lanier also completely neglects to mention Hitler’s intimate connection to the German Lutheran Church of his day. Given that he included a photo of Hitler visiting the Nietzsche Archive in his book, I thought I’d balance things out in my review with a picture of Hitler shaking hands with German Bishop Ludwig Muller, head of the Nazified German Evangelical Church.
Of course, Lanier has every right to denounce Muller as a false Christian, but then an atheist likewise has every right to repudiate social Darwinism and Friedrich Nietzsche.
And by the way, Lanier’s uncompromising condemnation of the Nazi genocide of the Jews begs the question of whether he supports the Jewish genocide of the Canaanites. If he does, how does he decide which cases of genocide are morally permissible? If he doesn’t, what does he do with this biblical depiction of God?
This leads into Lanier surveying several proposals for the origin of morality. To his credit, he acknowledges the Platonist option. As he puts it,
“Another approach is that right and wrong are part of the universe’s truths. Much like two plus two equals four, certain things are just ‘wrong’. There is no real listing of these oral truths; they are uncovered just as mathematical truths are uncovered.” (155)
Interestingly, this concession undermines the whole social Darwinism and Nazi line of argument, for it makes clear that an atheist could be a Platonist about moral truths. So why does Lanier think this isn’t a viable response? He replies: “Among the difficulties with this view is its ability to justify any given truth against another without appealing to what one ‘just seems to know.'” (155)
There are good objections to moral Platonism. For example, ontologically, it fits poorly with most conventional definitions of naturalism. And epistemologically, one needs an account of how evolution furnishes us with the cognitive ability to grasp moral facts.
But Lanier hasn’t provided a good objection here since every moral theory must begin with certain things that one “just seems to know”. All moral reflection is predicated on moral facts that we just seem to know, facts like “It is wrong to torture people for fun” and “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If somebody asks “But why?” to moral facts as basic and obvious as these, you may have nothing more to say. But that isn’t an indictment of the moral facts themselves, for every system requires axiomatic starting points. So it is no objection to moral Platonism that it also has axiomatic starting points.
Chapter 9: Free Will, Moral Responsibility and the Infinite, Just God
In chapter 9 Lanier argues against Skinner’s behaviorism and in favor of human beings having a degree of free will. He also insists that this is the “biblical” position. I have two problems with this chapter. The first is that the issue of free will completely under-determines the truth of Christianity. Some Christians are libertarians, others are soft determinists and still others are hard determinists. Needless to say, the same is true of non-Christians: they run the gamut of positions on free will.
Moreover, it is far from obvious that the Bible takes an affirming position toward free will in the first place. For example, in Joshua 11:20 we read that God hardened the wills of the Canaanites so that he might destroy them: “it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” Here the author seems to show little interest in the question of free will. The same is true of the many references to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. What is more, many Christians have opposed the concept of free will: consider, for example, Martin Luther’s famous book Bondage of the Will. Finally, some theologians believe that divine foreknowledge eclipses free will.
Ironically then, marshalling these biblical and theological resources together, one could make the case that one ought to reject Christianity based on the existence of free will! Certainly that’s not my view. Instead, as I already observed, the real response is to recognize that Christianity underdetermines the issue of free will. And consequently, this chapter does little to advance Lanier’s case for Christianity.
This juror renders his verdict
As I said above, Mark Lanier is clearly a brilliant individual and Christianity on Trial provides flashes of that brilliance. I also noted above that I appreciated Lanier’s use of eclectic sources and his penchant for taking novel approaches to various issues. I also found his legal asides interesting, in particular in his chapter on the resurrection. Ultimately, however, there are too many non sequiturs and gaps in reasoning. And several of the book’s apparent strengths are chimerical since they are sustained by the exclusion of an opposing counsel’s voice. In conclusion, I doubt that Lanier’s case is of sufficient strength to persuade many jurors not already convinced by the truth of Christianity.
Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a complimentary review copy of this book.