In his new book Faith is Like Skydiving, Rick Mattson invokes more than thirty years of experience as a staff worker for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to provide an engaging and accessible introduction to apologetics. There are many books on the market that provide an introduction to apologetic arguments (e.g. William Lane Craig, On Guard) and others that focus on apologetic method (e.g. Greg Koukl, Tactics). Mattson’s book seeks to accomplish both tasks by providing the apologetic novice with “a series of concrete, concise analogies” (12) that can be readily deployed in conversation.
A quick overview
The book is divided into four parts. The first section, “Making your case” (chapters 1-4), provides a defense of the concept of faith, introduces cumulative case argumentation, and spends two chapters outlining the case for design in the world.
In the second section, “Responding to Tough Questions” (chapters 5-11), Mattson lays out the historical evidence for Jesus, provides a general defense for the reliability of the Bible (or at least the New Testament), gives a response both to the problem of evil and the specific problem of Christians who fail to act like Christ, and invokes analogy-based responses to religious pluralism, inclusivism and objections to hell.
Part 3, “Science and Faith” (chapters 12-13) is much shorter and provides a brief rebuttal to scientism as well as a critique of the Humean rejection of miracles.
The final section, “How to’s” (chapters 14-17), provides some advice on dialoguing with skeptics with special advice for speaking to “modern skeptics”, “modern atheists” and “postmodern seekers and skeptics”.
The good stuff
Three things stand out in Mattson’s book. The first thing is his amiable, self-deprecating style. In the introduction he describes a time when he fumbled through an adversarial conversation:
“My face was getting hot, my hands shaky. I’m the philosophical type, so when I finally got to speak with twenty pairs of eyes staring at me, I threw out something about Christianity being ‘ontologically true.’
“Yep, that was my best material. You can guess the rest. I didn’t go down in flames, more like a whimper as a barrage of voices interrupted, then buried me.” (11)
With a story like this, Mattson identifies with the reader who has very possibly found him/herself in a similar situation. Rather than present himself as the know-it-all guru, he makes himself vulnerable and approachable.
Second, while Mattson is clearly an evangelical conservative, he appears less dogmatic than many of his conservative peers. And I take that to be a good thing. Consider, for example, his treatment of inclusivism.
“So from the exclusivist standpoint, does faith in God based on general revelation–without special knowledge of Jesus–save? I don’t know. But I do know these two things: God is loving and just and his will is that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Second, God seems to care about how people respond to the light they’ve received, in whatever amount.” (130)
Finally, there are those analogies that are a central selling point for the book. Mattson provides many analogies in the book, and I find most of them to be memorable and helpful. Consider, for example, his novelist analogy (149). This analogy is invoked against those who attempt to preclude God’s action in the world as a violation of natural law. In response, Mattson refers to the autonomy of the novelist to set up the rules obtaining in her literary world. His example is J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame:
“Rowling, the novelist, being the creator of said laws, can tweak and intervene and tinker with or even rewrite the laws if she wishes. The laws are only unbreakable in a closed system (that is, a system that’s not open to being changed from the outside). But if the system is open, as in a novel, what’s to prevent the creator of the universe, the author, from stepping in at any time and messing with the system?” (149)
This is a good analogy which directly rebuts those who insist that God cannot intervene in the very universe he created. I appreciate this illustration for another reason as well. By choosing Harry Potter (rather than, say “The Lord of the Rings”) Mattson takes a subtle stand on the culture wars over-against those fundamentalists who have charged J.K. Rowling with being a witch, and who have seen Harry Potter as a portal to the dark side. And that’s a good thing, because the less we make Christianity appear to be a cultural ghetto, the better.
The not so good stuff
Mattson’s book also has its flaws. Ironically, they begin with the analogies which (to invoke a railroad metaphor) occasionally go off the rails. Consider, for example, Mattson’s invocation of the metaphors of dating and marriage to describe increasing levels of Christian commitment. He describes how he asked a young woman named Sarah: “are you still merely dating Jesus, or have you taken that final step of getting married to him, spiritually speaking?” (25) After reflecting on it Sarah replied that she was merely “dating” Jesus. However, a week later she proudly recounted to Mattson how she’d decided to marry Jesus in an elaborate ceremony of her imagination:
“It began at the back of the church as I looked forward over the pews. Jesus was standing up front, waiting for me. So I made my way down the aisle and went to him. His hand was outstretched and I took it. We stated our vows together. I said, ‘I do,’ and now, well, I guess I’m married.” (25)
Mattson recounted how he was emotionally overwhelmed upon hearing this wonderful news. And he goes on to commend the metaphor for the reader as well: “The image of marriage for conversion to Christ works at several levels, and I’d recommend the image to you.” (26)
Before I critique that image, let me note that Mattson’s endorsement of it is ironic given that he begins his book with a rather uncompromising evidentialism. As he says, “If there were no valid reasons [for faith], or if the evidence turned against Christianity, I’d be gone. Outta here.” (19) This brusque statement begs the question: does Mattson think this is an appropriate way to approach commitment in marriage? Imagine, for example, that evidence arises that your beloved spouse of many years committed a crime. However, she (or he) emphatically pleads innocence. Do you think a good spouse would reply “I’m gone. Outta here!” Gee, I sure hope not. One would think that a covenantal commitment might breed a bit more loyalty than that. Granted, you may eventually conclude your spouse is guilty based on overwhelming evidence. But that is very different from a spring-loaded “Outta here!” response.
As for the marriage analogy itself, the first glaring problem is that it only works for half the population. I am guessing that most guys are not keen to imagine Jesus waiting for them at the altar. (Jesus in a tuxedo waiting for me at the altar? Are you kidding me? That gives me the heebie-jeebies.) What about the ladies? Can it work for them? The problem here is that the picture is grossly individualistic. The biblical matrimonial image envisions the church corporate as the bride of Christ, a powerful metaphor of God’s intimate unity with his people. Mattson’s image removes the sense of ecclesial membership altogether as it reduces Christian commitment to the single individual marrying Jesus (cue that nauseating song “Arms of Love”). To sum up, I disagree strongly with Mattson that Christian commitment ought to be construed in these romanticized, individualistic terms.
Next, consider Mattson’s decision to describe hell as an empty pub in chapter 11. Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ view of hell as merely self-imposed exile, Mattson takes on the popular idea that hell will be a big party (as Bon Scott famously sang in the AC/DC classic “Highway to Hell”). If hell is a pub, Mattson opines, it is one that you arrive at only to find it empty. An empty pub?! Scary stuff.
Unfortunately, this empty pub image is profoundly misleading at best, and deeply disingenuous at worst. Given that Mattson nowhere gives a favorable word for annihilationism and he disavows universalism, I am left to conclude that he endorses the church’s mainstream position that hell is unending punishment. Having gone this far, it strikes me as something approaching willful self-delusion to choose at this point to describe hell as an empty pub. The central New Testament image for hell isn’t an empty watering hole, it is fire (a lake of fire; a furnace). If one denies that this fire points to an image of purification (universalism) or destruction (annihilationism), one is left with a single possibility: the image is invoked to convey unimaginable, eternal, never-ending physical and psychological torment. In that case, a far more accurate metaphor is something like a medieval torture chamber in which criminals are subjected to imaginable punitive torments.
What really frustrates me about the image of hell as an empty pub is that it allows those who advocate for the traditional view of hell to delude themselves into thinking that eternal conscious torment is less heinous than it really is. And this in turn keeps people from the hard but crucial work of a theological rethink on doctrines of the afterlife.
My second complaint is that sometimes Mattson’s presentation is hampered by unfortunate conservative theological commitments. Consider, for example, the beginning of chapter 12, “Elephant traps and other images for science and faith”. In this chapter Mattson provides a decent critique of scientism and naturalism. His point is that it is absurd to set mousetraps expecting to catch elephants. Likewise, it is absurd to suggest that science is the proper tool to study God (147). Unfortunately, the chapter begins with Mattson describing a fellow who raises objections to Christianity based on evolution:
“The creation accounts in the Bible are fairy tales. I defy you to show me a shred of scientific evidence that they’re true! Evolution has been proved over and over. Why should I believe the Bible, which is taken on pure faith, when science can give me some real facts?” (145)
The frustrating thing is that rather than challenge the assumption of conflict, Mattson leads the reader to think that his analysis provides some sort of rebuttal to the overwhelming evidence for evolution. But it doesn’t. He would have done his readers a real service had he instead pointed out that more than 99% of biologists accept evolution for good reason, and moreover that there is no conflict between Genesis and evolution. Instead, he leaves the reader with the false and deeply harmful belief that there is some kind of conflict between theology and the reigning paradigm of the biological sciences.
Second, in the chapter on miracles Mattson notes that David Hume’s position would require him to deny biblical miracles, even if he had been there to observe them. Fair enough. Too bad Mattson didn’t then give an uncontroversial example, like Hume standing at Jesus’ tomb witnessing the resurrection. Instead, he invokes the sun standing still on Joshua 10: “let’s put David Hume into the scene of Joshua 10. Hume observes the sun standing still for a day. He thinks to himself, ‘This can’t be happening.'” (163)
The problem is that this example is very controversial. For one thing, the notion of a deity making the sun stand still is a common literary motif in the ancient world. For example, Zeus is invoked to extend the day in the Iliad (book 2). Many Christian scholars today conclude that this putative event is in fact a literary motif invoked by the author to make a theological point. Please note that these scholars don’t reject the historicity of this event based on a commitment to naturalism. Instead, they do so based on hermeneutical assumptions. (Some folks may be thinking: but aren’t there motifs of dying and rising gods in the ancient world? Sure, and if the story of Jesus were separated from the putative events to the same degree as the Deuteronomic history, one might be inclined to extend the reasoning. But that’s precisely where the comparison breaks down. For an example of the appeal to literary motif in Joshua 10 see Douglas Earl, The Joshua Delusion? ((Cascade, 2010), 52-53.)) By invoking this dubious example, Mattson reinforces the kind of flat-footed literalistic reading of ancient texts that remains all too common among conservative evangelicals.
Book reviews should be made with a particular audience in mind. In this case, I’m envisioning an audience of conservative evangelicals who are novices to the field of apologetics. For that reader, Faith is Like Skydiving is a very helpful book that provides an accessible, engaging and practical introduction to the field. Readers with some background in apologetics will likely find Mattson’s arguments to be overly simplistic, but they may still benefit from some of the analogies and metaphors. Finally, Mattson’s book would make a fine textbook in an undergraduate class in apologetics or evangelism.