What first attracted me to Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion was the title. I actually assumed it was a non-Christian book. Second was the author: I read a piece of hers on TGC that I liked. Third, to be honest, was that Crossway was willing to give me a free copy in exchange for an honest review, no strings attached.
So here I go: McLaughlin is easy to read, has done some good homework, has a compelling personal story, and writes with a British accent so clearly she is smart okay you can’t deny it. Like Tim Keller in his The Reason for God, McLaughlin is delivering the fruit of her years involved in frontline Christian apologetics. In Keller’s case, that was with young, upwardly mobile New York urbanites. In McLaughlin’s, it was through her work with the Veritas Forum. She has an evangelical upbringing and a Cambridge education, a PhD in literature. Her twelve chapters—one per objection to the faith—are generally solid, evidentialisticky but sophisticated but lay-friendly treatments that have certainly been honed by actual use in the real world. As a presuppositionalist (who doesn’t like to ride the label, and who believes in the value of evidence because Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15), I observe that my own tribe’s arguments don’t always get that kind of honing… I don’t seem often to run into people who can really understand what I’m saying when I go presupp on them; it’s all too philosophically demanding. I’m in the process of wondering if the viewpoint is mainly a help for me (which isn’t a bad thing). So I appreciate McLaughlin’s approach.
That approach makes for a lot of individual points of insight, and of telling argument.
Here are a few.
I found this helpful and eloquent:
Calling Christianity “Western” is like calling literacy “Western.” Western culture has undoubtedly been shaped by literacy, and Westerners have sought to impose literacy on others—often to the detriment of traditional living. But there are at least three reasons why no one in his or her right mind would claim that literacy is innately Western: first, literacy did not originate in the West; second, most literate people today are not Westerners; and third, it is frankly offensive to the majority world to suggest that they are literate only by appropriation. The same reasons make the claim that Christianity is a Western religion indefensible. What’s more, the Bible itself rejects that claim.… Most of the world’s Christians are neither white nor Western, and Christianity is getting less white Western by the day.
At the cross, the most powerful man who ever lived submitted to the most brutal death ever died, to save the powerless. Christianity does not glorify violence. It humiliates it.
She found a helpful and beautiful and simple way of saying something I’ve tried very hard to say many times myself in writing. I greatly admired this:
Much as I value science, I do not believe that scientific knowledge is the most important kind. The facts about ourselves and our world that are measurable by science may be the easiest to verify. What formula governs the speed at which an object falls to the ground? How high is the window ledge on which I’m standing? But were I to jump, no news report would confine itself to the exact distance from the ledge to the ground, or the precise effects of the impact on my body. The primary question people would ask would not be how but why.
This is totally unfair, because what can a writer do, and I’m not doing my job as a reviewer if I can’t put my finger on something—but there is a je ne sais quoi that Keller has that McLaughlin lacks. His work felt new; hers felt not-as-new but with flashes of new (indeed, some illustrations are quite recent). McLaughlin wrote this book in four months while pregnant and doing other things, and though on the one hand she did a remarkable job given those circumstances (circumstances I hope never to face in my writing), and though she had a deep well to draw from in her Veritas work, I do think a little more literary polishing would have helped. Maybe, however, I’m reflecting the point in my own life at which I read each book. When I read Keller, his arguments were fresh. As I read McLaughlin, I’m a decade further down the path of my own apologetic thinking and experience.
Where McLaughlin shines in a way Keller may not—and, hey, they’re on the same team, and I want both to win in their evangelism—is in her sex and her sexual story. I resist identity politics, and yet it seems to me that the author’s being a woman is a genuinely valuable thing, if only because it may win her excellent work a hearing. And her sexual story, involving unconsummated lifelong same-sex attraction and a happy marriage to a man, checks off another box in the intersectional game many educated people are playing now. McLaughlin doesn’t play that game, but still, perhaps her story will be God’s means of getting her some non-Christian readers. I pray it will.
A few times she stated biblical truth about gender or creation/evolution in what I would call an ever-so-slightly-waffly way. There is truth here, for example, but I’ll offer a critique after the quote:
Christians must resist defining manhood and womanhood according to unbiblical gender stereotypes. As we explored in the previous chapter, the Bible calls men and women to distinct roles in some contexts. But our gender stereotypes are not prescribed by Scripture. Like paleontologists sifting through the dirt, we must excavate what the Bible actually says, while dusting off the cultural dross.
She does have a point, but I prefer Alastair Roberts’ approach (see the first question and answer here), one in which culture is not dross but a God-created good—one, surely, that has been touched by the fall like the rest of creation, but one that we can never fully dust off anyway, because it is part of creation.
But each time I felt a little wary of where she was going, she followed up with bracing, well-written avowals of culturally offensive Christian truths. Like this:
Is it possible that what women have gained in freedom and professional opportunity many have lost in the sexual revolution that cloaked what many men wanted—commitment-free sex—under the mantle of liberating women? Two years ago, an agnostic friend who teaches at a world-class university told me that she routinely has female students ask her why they are having all the (sometimes barely consensual) sex expected of a modern woman but not experiencing the promised happiness.
This is another argument I’ve tried to use multiple times: the sexual revolution is the biggest con the patriarchy has ever played. What was touted as liberation for all has ended up benefitting the people who held the most power in the first place.
My most significant critique of McLaughlin is a presuppositionalist one: I would have liked to see more Bible, even and especially in a book that she hopes non-Christians might read. But it isn’t missing; there’s a beautiful section on the resurrection of Lazarus, for example. In my experience, people who disagree just don’t listen. By quoting more Bible, I’m making it so they just don’t listen to God rather than just don’t listen to me.
McLaughlin handles the standard apologetic questions about the exclusivity of Christianity and its moral track record; the historicity of the Bible; the relationship of science and faith; feminism and homosexuality; slavery; and hell and the problem of evil and suffering. And perhaps my favorite chapter was that last one, the one about suffering. McLaughlin showed a theologically careful understanding of the story of Scripture, and she gave this great illustration (albeit by throwing her child under the literary bus; but it was worth it, and her little one will grow):
My eight-year-old is an avid reader and an aspiring writer. Her vocabulary is broad, her imagination is wild, but her stories are dull. Why? Because she strives for happiness throughout. Without suffering, her characters cannot develop. Without fellowship in suffering, they cannot truly bond. The Bible begins and ends with happiness, but the meat of the story is raw. Christians are promised that one day, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev. 21:4). But we are not promised that God will not allow us to cry in the first place. What end could possibly be worth all this pain? Jesus says he is.
You do get to know Rebecca through her book, and I liked that. She isn’t a brain on a stick, reciting arguments seriatim. But she is surely smart, and I will look for more of her work in the future.