Paul Chamberlain and Chris Price, eds. Everyday Apologetics: Answering common objections to the Christian faith. Lexham Press, 2020.
In his foreword to Everyday Apologetics, Sean McDowell flags three virtues: accessibility, practicality, and a gentle, kind tone (xi). That’s a fair assessment. While there are many introductory books in apologetics, Everyday Apologetics strikes a fine balance in these virtues. While the book has two editor/authors and an additional seven authors, it is unified by an admirable stylistic flow and that above-mentioned kindness which I very much appreciated: the authors all appear to be from the lower mainland of British Columbia (around Vancouver). As a result, the book lacks the off-putting politicized culture war discourse that is more commonly found among some American conservative apologists.
The book consists of ten chapters grouped into three sections presented in the following order: Defending the Faith Today, Answering Objections, Building a Positive Case. As an aside, I would have flipped parts 2 and 3 by building a positive case and ending with objections. From an editorial perspective, I also need to point out that for a book on ostensibly Christian apologetics, Everyday Apologetics only has a single chapter on specifically Christian doctrine (chapter 9 on resurrection). I would have included an additional chapter on uniquely Christian doctrines like Trinity and incarnation (and perhaps also the moral objection to hell).
A Brief Overview
There is a lot to like about Everyday Apologetics. The book opens with a refreshing treatment of doubt in which Jon Morrison aims to recognize the problem while avoiding the stigma that often goes with it: “‘Just have faith’ are words that no one wants to hear in the middle of doubt. Telling a doubter this is just like telling a man dying of thirst in the desert to ‘just drink water.'” (30)
The second chapter is by Paul Chamberlain of Trinity Western University. Full disclosure, Chamberlain was my apologetics professor back in 1994 and in “Responding to a New Kind of Skeptic” he offers some practical advice for interacting with post-Christian skeptics who have a history (and a rather sour one at that) with Christianity. Chamberlain offers seven helpful tips to keep conversations on track including remembering that the skeptic is not an enemy (even if they are hostile) and using humor where possible.
Chris Price’s chapter on suffering ably presents a theodicy of free will and greater goods. And Price wisely ends on the doctrine of incarnation and God’s redemptive suffering in Christ. He also is to be commended for daring to wrestle with a haunting image of horrendous evil: a cracked Cambodian tree trunk against which countless infants were bludgeoned during the infamous genocide. That said, I did have some quibbles with this essay: for example, in his argument on free will Price conflates determinism with hard determinism (110) and he makes only passing reference to the insights of skeptical theism (122): I think that point deserves to be developed and highlighted in any treatment of evil.
Jason Ballard’s chapter on Christian exclusivism and pluralism was fine but would have benefited from a focused rebuttal of the sophisticated pluralism of John Hick.
Andy Steiger’s chapter on the reasonableness of belief in God began well with a nod toward fallibilism and perspectivalism (albeit not under those labels). However, at that point, the chapter shifted to focus on two arguments for God’s existence (the Kalam and a design argument based on DNA). While the exposition was fine, this leaves the reader with the impression that Christian belief is rational insofar as there are arguments for it. The reader would have been better served with a presentation of rationality and knowledge claims that is independent of argument such as in William Alston’s Perceiving God or Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.
Michael Horner’s chapter on fine-tuning was a very capable and accessible presentation.
The book concluded with a second chapter from Andy Steiger on the meaning of life. Steiger did a good job here. I especially appreciated his example of how the meaning and significance of Egyptian hieroglyphics were identified after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone: “What if the same is true of life? Could human life be like a dead language containing a treasure of knowledge, significance, worth, and purpose, just waiting to be rediscovered?” (286)
I did have some problems with the remaining chapters and I’m now going to circle back and summarize two of them. But before I do, I’ll lodge a more minor complaint. Mark Clark’s chapter on the resurrection of Jesus was well done overall. However, on page 266 Clark writes “Based on the best historical evidence we have, here is what seemingly happened to the original disciples of Jesus”. He then goes on to summarize several claims that are highly disputed by historians (and which, ironically enough, are ably summarized in The Fate of the Apostles by the same Sean McDowell who wrote the foreword to this book). Rather than claiming that highly suspect accounts of martyrdom are “the best historical evidence”, Clark would’ve been far wiser to focus on the martyrdom of those for whom there is good evidence (e.g. Peter, Paul, James).
In chapter 3, Barton Priebe takes on one of the most difficult questions: “Why is the Old Testament God so Violent?” Priebe does a fine job summarizing the arguments of conservative evangelicals like Paul Copan. The problem is that the arguments of people like Copan are just not very good.
The problems start with definitions. Priebe writes:
“If this [the invasion of Canaan] is an act of divine justice, then it would be inaccurate to call it ‘genocide,’…. Genocide is fueled by racial hatred, but the Bible never asserts, or even hints, that the Canaanites were destroyed because of their ethnicity. God did not order the destruction of the Canaanites because of their race; he destroyed them because of their sin.” (86)
This is an oft-repeated talking point among Christian conservatives, but it is baldly false. The concept of genocide was developed by Raphael Lemkin following WW2 and it is codified in international law in the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” where we read the following in article 2:
“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (Source)
Please note that the legal definition does not require that the acts are “fueled by racial hatred.” Genocidal actions are simply those that are focused on the eradication of a genos, that is, a national, ethnic, racial, and/or religious identity. And the actions of the Israelites against the Canaanites as described on Deuteronomy and Joshua are very clear exemplars of the behavior: the specific goal is to eradicate Canaanite culture and identity.
Priebe makes the point (highlighted by William Lane Craig and others) that the dominant motif within Joshua is the forcible removal from the land rather than mass slaughter. What Priebe fails to recognize is that this is precisely what is called ethnic cleansing (Source). Trading one legal war crime for another should not stand as much of a consolation. What is more, apologists like Priebe never address the fate of civilians that are left behind. What happened, for example, to the aged, infirm, orphans, the handicapped, and others that simply could not flee in time? (And if the Canaanites were really so wicked, one can imagine they cared little for the most vulnerable in their population.) The answer, of course, is that they would have been slaughtered in keeping with Deuteronomy 20:16.
To summarize, the actions described in Joshua meet the definitions of both ethnic cleansing and genocide. Of course, the ascription of those terms is anachronistic, but that is beside the point: the Holocaust also unfolded before the formal recognition of the concept of genocide but that makes no difference as to the moral appraisal of the act. Mutatis mutandis for the actions perpetrated against the Canaanites.
So really what Priebe is left saying is that this genocide is different because God commanded it. I will grant that if a morally perfect being commanded genocide because the persons being slaughtered were a uniquely dangerous contagion then the genocide was warranted. But for any student of history, all such claims will be highly suspect given that they constitute a familiar rhetorical move. In short, genocidaires always invoke similar justifications whether it be the slaughter of Tutsis, Jews, or Canaanites: God wills it! They deserve it! (If you want to contextualize Priebe’s rhetorical moves, read David Livingstone Smith’s book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.)
Not surprisingly, Priebe avoids other biblical texts of genocide such as the slaughter of all Midianites except the virgin girls (Numbers 31) and the slaughter of the Amalekites including infants (1 Samuel 15:3) culminating in the priest, Samuel, dismembering the king (15:33). (Incidentally, many commentators believe the imagery of Agag’s demise at the hands of the priest indicates a sacrificial butchering. Others claim it is ‘only’ a herem killing, but of course, herem is itself a form of sacrificial offering.)
To summarize, Priebe’s essay provides an overview of the shocking and highly tendentious claims of conservative Christian apologists who adopt the same rhetorical moves (e.g. special pleading) that countless people have used to justify crimes against humanity for millennia. But if you would reject another religion in toto because they defended genocidal actions in their tradition, you need to recognize that others are justified in rejecting Christianity for the same reason. The good news is that there are other non-violent ways to approach these texts — Greg Boyd provides the most fulsome alternative — but alas, they are not given a voice in this book.
Faith and Science
The other chapter with which I had the biggest problem was Kirk Durston’s essay “Are Faith and Science in Conflict?” Durston starts by arguing for “God as the Foundation of Science.” From R. Hooykas’ Religion and the Rise of Modern Science to Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, many Christian scholars have ably defended the fundamental compatibility of theism and science. But Durston foregoes that analysis in favor of an undeveloped and unconvincing claim that the origin of nature must either be natural or supernatural: and since it cannot be natural it must be supernatural (i.e. God) (137-8). This was a missed opportunity.
Durston defines a miracle as “an event for which the laws of physics were not entirely sufficient.” (141) But that’s not a proper definition, at all. A miracle is, first and foremost, a sign of God’s action and that sign may occur wholly within the known causes of nature. Consider, for example, Colin Humphreys’ account of the miracles of Exodus: on Humphreys’ telling, every miracle in the Exodus can be explained in terms of natural processes but that does not change the fact that each one is still a miracle. (If that sounds implausible to you, you really need to read his book.)
Thus far, I have raised relatively small concerns. The most disturbing part of this essay is found in the section “Modern Science: The good, the shaky, and the bad” (144-55). Durston distinguishes here between experimental science, inference science (by which he seems to be alluding to the historical sciences) and what he calls “fantasy science”. In this section, he references a couple of articles published in Nature that call into question the reliability of cancer research (146). He quotes one of the articles as follows: “in the competitive crucible of modern science, various perverse incentives conspire to undermine the scientific method, leading to a literature littered with unreliable findings.” (147)
As you can guess, Durston’s main point is not to create skepticism about cancer research. It is, rather, to attack the Neo-Darwinian consensus in biology. No matter how strong that consensus may appear, we now have a handy undercutting defeater: after all, science is littered with “unreliable findings.” He then advises the reader to look for what he calls “lack-of-data words” such as “presumably” and “possibly” and “might have”, when reading science generally and evolutionary biology in particular: “We need to train ourselves to watch out for lack-of-data words when reading the latest science article.” (152) In that way, the layperson can dismiss what scientists say as unwarranted speculation or conjecture. And if you think that “advice” is not a recipe for setting loose an unchecked confirmation bias, you’re not paying attention.
Durston’s attack on evolution is especially bizarre given that he never says Genesis 1-3 commits us to a specific view of the age of the earth or the nature of human origins (155-6). Nor does he present any argument for the incompatibility of Genesis 1-3 with Neo-Darwinism. And yet, based apparently on the unstated assumption of incompatibility, his essay lays out a skeptical orientation which can justify not only young earth creationism but also anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, not to mention the current anti-maskers and hydroxychloroquine aficionados that have spread their disinformation in our current pandemic.
Taken as a whole, Everyday Apologetics is a fine introduction to Christianity. But given the problems with Durston’s essay (and, to a lesser extent, that of Priebe), it is not one I could recommend without a significant caveat. However, it is worthwhile to close on the virtues with which I opened. Despite its faults, McDowell was right: Everyday Apologetics is accessible, practical, and written with a gentleness of spirit that I wish was more common among conservative Christian apologists.
You can support the authors by ordering your own copy of Everyday Apologetics here.
Thanks to Lexham Press for a review copy of this book.