A Faith to Share (or Not)
  • Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review by John Tang Boyland

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you. —1 Peter 3:15

Defending and commending the faith in words is woven into Christian practice from the time of Peter and Paul in Acts to now. While not all of us will be the workers that Jesus prays may be sent to the harvest to proclaim the Gospel, all of us must be ready to answer the questions from those not (yet) in the kingdom. The practice of the “apology” is reactive and often defensive. Reasons for Belief and Asking: Inquirers in Conversation emphasize the defensive aspect. Geisler and Tunnicliffe use the model of a defense attorney arguing for a client, although they unexpectedly take upon themselves the prosecutorial requirement of proving a claim beyond reasonable doubt. They warn Christians that their faith will be challenged by “teachers, college professors, commentators and writers” and that they need a solid defense, which this book provides. The content includes many of the points from Josh McDowell’s evangelical classic Evidence that Demands a Verdict, to which the authors refer several times, though this book is much more tightly argued.

Reasons for Belief
Easy-to-Understand Answers to 10 Essential Questions
By Norman Geisler and Patty Tunnicliffe. Bethany House. Pp. 240. $13.99

Asking
Inquirers in Conversation
By Harry T. Cook.
Wipf and Stock. Pp. 138. $16

Gospel in Action
A New Evangelization Day by Day
Edited by Gary Brandl
and Thomas Ess, OFM.
New City Press. Pp. 102. $11.95

Living Evangelization
Three-minute Reflections on Faith
By Joan Mueller.
New City Press. Pp. 72. $7.95

Loving to Tell the Story
How to Enjoy Sharing with Others What Jesus Christ Means in Your Life
By Harry Griffith.
Bible Reading Fellowship.
Pp. 119. $8.95 (call for orders)

The Searchers
A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt
By Joseph Loconte.
Thomas Nelson. Pp. 240. $24.99

In the opposite corner we have retired priest Harry T. Cook’s book, which should perhaps have been subtitled “Reasons for Unbelief.” Asking mainly consists of a personal, rambling apologia for “secular humanism,” structured as a series of question and answer pairs (“After listening to you all these years, I have lost my faith in the resurrection of Christ. Where does that leave me with the church?” Answer: Follow what you believe the ethical teachings of Jesus to be).

One cannot expect an attorney to present the other side’s argument fairly, so readers of Reasons for Belief should be aware that the arguments for the atheistic/agnostic position are sketched by Geisler and Tunnicliffe in only the barest terms. Worse, in Asking, Cook dismisses evidence for theistic creation (the “Big Bang”) and for intercessory prayer (supported by a controlled study) by ridiculing the ideas rather than considering the evidence.

These books both accept an Enlightenment account of reason and thus are probably only effective for older generations in the West where this philosophy still holds sway. Geisler and Tunnicliffe use logic, physics, and metaphysics in ways that would embarrass postmodern practitioners. Cook frequently parades the names of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein to bolster arguments that otherwise depend on sheer assertion.

But should we consider questions from the “other” threatening? A third book has a refreshingly different approach. Rather than dreading interactions with outsiders, Gospel in Action encourages Christians to invite questions. It challenges believers to express the radical and self-giving love of God in their everyday lives in a way that would make onlookers curious to know the reason.

Gospel in Action consists of short devotional quotations interspersed with personal anecdotes. The stories, told in the first person, are of normal people in mostly normal situations showing agape love to fellow human beings: a customer, a father, a secretary, a boss, a school pupil. Readers from an evangelical background may be pleasantly surprised to see such a strong emphasis on evangelism in the Roman Catholic Church in the many quotations from popes, theologians, and especially the recently deceased laywoman Chiara Lubich.

At first blush, waiting for others to ask questions instead of going out “witnessing” might seem an easy way out, but the challenge to live life so remarkably that others are led to ask questions is probably harder. Indeed, this could be a heavy burden without the living water of the Spirit coming through Word and Sacrament. Gary Brandl and Thomas Ess quote Lubich: “If it is united to Jesus in the Eucharist, the Christian community can and must do what Jesus has done: give its life for the world.”

Gospel in Action inspires one to a mature Christian life of self-giving love. To reach such goals, the traditional wisdom of the Church has encouraged believers to participate in spiritual disciplines to gradually develop the imitation of Christ. To that end, Living Evangelization by Joan Mueller includes a spiritual exercise with each of its daily readings. One day, one is asked to remember the patience of eternity when encountering difficulties; the next day, we are called to put aside cursing and to commit our cause to God. In such small tidbits, putting these ideas into practice can cause real personal change.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that this slim volume never gives any assistance on how to actually speak the evangel, the Good News of Jesus in one’s everyday life, even in the quarter of the book dedicated to “Evangelizing Mission.” Despite this striking omission, the book can be a useful way to discipline one’s life before the world, to the glory of God. And then, perhaps, people may be attracted to the light of Jesus that shines through our life and actions.

And what happens when the desired questions come? Here Harry Griffith’s Loving to Tell the Story has practical advice. If one looks past the off-putting production (quarter-inch margins are far too small) and structure (the 39 subjects for witnessing), this book can be valuable. After making the distinction between evangelization (proclaiming the word) and “witnessing” (telling our story) also seen in several of the other books, Griffith gives many tips: “Admit you don’t have all the answers…. Christ is the Answer and has the answers, but we don’t have all the answers about the Answer!” Even the “39 subjects for witnessing” are simply examples of questions someone may ask the Christian who demonstrated the love of God in practice. The book emphasizes making personal connections and listening well. We are not charged with changing people’s minds and hearts; conversion is a work of the Spirit.

In Asking, Cook speaks of an enduring “thirst for relationship with God” that he feels needs to be redirected, and ends on a wistful note as he finds he must reject the “lovely but impossible idea” that God holds the world in his hands and will make everything right in the end. What shall we believers say to those who find the Faith impossible? Joseph Loconte takes a gentle approach in The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.

Loconte weaves meditations on the mystery of the hidden God into the framework of the Emmaus Road story. Two friends deep in sorrow and confusion after the execution of their hoped-for Messiah encounter a stranger on the road who joins their conversation and teaches them from Scripture. When he later blesses the bread at supper, they recognize him as Jesus, but then he vanishes. Why is God so hard to recognize, and why does he hide from us once we sense his presence? These and similar questions are raised with reference to contemporary events and movies, classical philosophers, and theologians.

The book’s great strength is that it does not shy away from the hard situations of hypocrisy in the Church, evil done in the name of God, and horrible accidents happening to decent people. Instead Loconte takes all these in stride and draws out the themes of redemption found in all kinds of unlikely sources, from Gilgamesh to the Museum of Modern Art. This book serves as an excellent example of how to give a respectful and yet compelling witness to the inquirer.

For some reason, God has decided to spread the Good News through the actions of limited and imperfect followers. St. Peter warns us to be ready when the questions come (1 Pet. 3:15). Thus we must develop Christian character, but also consider in advance how we might answer questions from curious outsiders. Then we rely on the Holy Spirit for strength in the moment, as Jesus promised: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

John Tang Boyland is professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, currently on leave at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.


Related Posts