A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Mark Coppenger
This engaging book works in a long tradition of conversion testimonies that issue in Christian reflections and applications—a line of writing including Augustine’s Confessions and Rosario Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. In Sharp’s case, her subsequent service has been apologetical, through a faculty appointment at Houston Baptist University and her Confident Christianity ministry.
The book is heavy on “I feel your pain,” directed toward those who are turned off by the church, particularly congregations of the evangelical persuasion. She’s chosen this pathway to rapport, but I think it’s fair to say she’s overdone it. And while Butterfield has directed her ire at the marginally-evangelical, “health/wealth” gospelizers, Sharp’s indictment encompasses the evangelical center of mass, and she is relentless in her expressions of disdain.
Of course, she pushes back against a range of atheist conceits—that the Resurrection is a fiction; that the Problem of Evil (whether God’s or his church’s evil) is overwhelming; that the “Christ myth” is just another iteration of an old bogus story; that atheists are more admirable than believers; that skeptics lack the grounding that the faithful enjoy for meaningful lives and moral judgments; and that atheists are blind to the hand of God in the deployment of beauty.
Along the way, she engages a range of bad actors, e.g., Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse, Peter Singer, Arthur Schopenhauer, Bill Maher, and Stephen Fry. And she enlists the help of Christian voices such as C.S. Lewis, Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Lee Strobel, John Mark Reynolds, Nancy Pearcy, and Ravi Zacharias. And, in a quite readable fashion, her arguments are woven into a personal life narrative, as insights (theirs or hers) come her way, as she finds herself on debate stages, and as she addresses slights and misunderstandings in church and home.
I enjoyed the rehearsal and extension of classic arguments and her marshaling of telling quotes, as in the chapter epigraphs of Roger Scruton, David Bentley Hart, G. K. Chesterton, and Dallas Willard. And I found fresh grist for my own apologetical mill in such items as her distinction between the “human” and the “humane” (of which Auschwitz is empathically the former, but not the latter); her “steak at McDonald’s” analogy to mock the “Christ myth” notion; and her description of the atheist “book of ski instructions” (“ . . . full of rationalizations about why humans don’t need ski instructions; they just need to try their best to be good at skiing”).
My reservations come in two forms: 1. theological/philosophical; 2. attitudinal. As for the first, I note the title, Why I Still Believe, and suggest the simple answer, “Because the God who regenerated you secures your heart for eternity.” But the book seems to suggest that faith is a touch-and-go affair. And then there are her arguments regarding morals, meaning, and beauty. No doubt she sides with many on these matters in saying that you can’t get real substance or appreciation for these values without a theistic foundation. I’m not so keen on this dismissive presuppositionalism. Instead, I prefer to say that the best rather than the only account is supernatural. (Of course, without God there is no creation, so, in that sense, anything we talk about is grounded in his existence and his work; but that’s not what’s in play here.)
To those who say there can be no real meaning or sense of right and wrong without God, I recall my favorite joke: “Do I believe in infant baptism? Believe in it? Man, I’ve seen it!” Similarly, I’ve seen people consistently and even inspiringly working from non-theistic bases in crafting and applying meaning and morals for their lives. Atheist Nat Hentoff stood against partial-birth abortion on secular humanistic grounds. And a good many doctors serving with Médicins Sans Frontières lack Christian testimonies, yet seem to find purpose in their lives. Ah, but as the argument goes, they have no genuine basis for their convictions and commitments. But, to me, that sounds too facile. It reminds me of the claim that blacks can’t be racist since racism only occurs among the dominant class, viz. whites—a handy, question-begging definition, but one that overreaches. It’s one thing to say skeptics have second-rate foundations and quite another to say they have no foundations.
And then there’s her treatment of beauty. I find myself standing against a flood of current literature which appropriates the old Greek “transcendentals,” arguing, as does Sharp, that “the Bible talks about God’s goodness, truth, and beauty as objective realities.” Well, certainly, the Bible speaks with a variety of related predicates about the beauty of creation, the Lord’s precepts, God’s dwelling place, etc., but the verses calling God himself beautiful are surpassing rare (as in Psalm 27:4 and Isaiah 33:17). Compare this less-than-a-handful with the truckloads of verses that speak of God as the bearer and exemplar of truth and goodness. Apples, apples, grape.
With similarly lean bases, others have proof-texted their way to transubstantiation, annihilationism, and antinomianism. And, of course, there are verses that honor ugliness, including Isaiah 53:2 (describing the “unattractive” crucified Jesus) and 1 Corinthians 2:1 (wherein Paul, who put Eutychus to sleep in Acts 20, admits that he is deficient in the rhetorical arts). Indeed, part of the beauty of the gospel is that God uses the non-beautiful (including the “off-scouring of the world”) to build his church. And besides, he created some pretty ugly things, including the blobfish (Psychrolutes Marcidus).
For what it’s worth, I think the atheist David Hume had a better grasp of aesthetic goodness when he spoke of objective beauty in terms of “intersubjectivity.” As I argued in an APA paperback around 1980, aesthetic goodness is a lot like “redness,” in that it’s grounded in the experience of most people viewing objects under the right light. You won’t see it if you’re color blind or if the object stands under sodium vapor lamps, but it’s still red. And it’s relative to people, indifferent to the animals who only see in gray tones. The same goes for beauty. An attractive crocodile (cf., Steve Irwin’s, “She’s a real beaut!”) is off-putting to us, but not to another croc. So it’s more a matter of loving design rather than some theistic Platonic form of beauty, in that God wires us to like certain looks and sounds and then makes sure they’re available to us in nature or in the artistry of humans. (It’s more of a natural law phenomenon than a G. E. Moore/W. D. Ross stand-alone object of intuition.)
Well, enough of this among-friends disputation. So let me close with a word about attitude: Mary Jo found the experience of beauty a major prompt for her turn to Christ, and then she was gobsmacked by the ugliness of the evangelical people of God, by their personal repellency and their indifference toward beauty in congregational activities. Repeatedly, she rehearses her “heartbrokenness and distrust,” born of “twenty-four years of exploitation, shallowness, and vilification complicating [her] confusion and sorrow.” In this context, she sees her work as one of “anti-deconversion” (again, where’s the “perseverance of the saints”), addressed to those who, like her, have been sorely wounded by the “horrendous jerks” who haunt the church.
In her case, the jerks included a pastor who objected to a worship-dance sequence in which the women were clad in full leotards, albeit with “two sets of full-length skirts” to “be considerate of the conservative culture of the church.” Yes, the pastor used a harsh word to object, saying the outfits looked “slutty,” but she missed the possibility that he could have made his point with the word ‘alluring’ (to red-blooded males), which is not a desideratum for worship leaders. Mary Jo saw it as “a beautiful offering in worship,” but, by her account, this disgusting minister could only view the body sexually. So she threw him under the bus and then backed over him verbally to make sure he was a goner as far as this book is concerned.
On top of this, she was mightily offended when people were unfairly questioning her in-church apologetics class (complaining that it was lean on Scripture) and when the church “did not recognize nor celebrate” her graduation with an apologetics degree from Biola. And so she would find herself from time to time “inconsolable,” and even today, aware that “darkness is [her] constant companion,” as she observes the great gulf between the beauty that attracted her to God and the lack thereof in the church. Yes, Mrs. Sharp is frequently self-effacing, acknowledging her tendency toward judgmentalism (of the “perfectionist” and “idealistic” sort). But the confession comes off a bit like, “I repent of despising the church justifiably.”
I’ve been at work on a commissioned book, with the assigned title, If Christianity Is So Good, Why Are Christians So Bad?, so her jeremiads are familiar (and sometimes plausible) to me. But I’m more inclined to echo Groucho Marx, who observed, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Indeed, I’d be more inclined to write a book entitled, How I’m Continually Astonished That the Church Would Even Touch Me With a Stick.
That being said, this book is blessed with riches of insight. And I do hope that, with the good groundwork she’s laid, she will find the church increasingly winsome, even as it’s informed by her counsel.
Mark Coppenger is retired Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Review Editor for Apologetics here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
WHY I STILL BELIEVE: A FORMER ATHEIST’S RECKONING WITH THE BAD REPUTATION CHRISTIANS GIVE A GOOD GOD, by Mary Jo Sharp