Book Review: Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne

Faith Vs. Fact, a provocative title to catch the attention of the reader. Like clickbait, I found that this book was all style and no substance. Now, to avoid the impression that this college freshman is critiquing someone well-studied in their field as if he knows better, I’m not purporting to know more than Dr. Coyne as he is a Harvard graduate and a great biologist, his book Why Evolution is True is great! However, this book doesn’t live up to the hype that Richard Dawkins and online atheists seem to indicate.

While reading the introduction, you get the false dichotomy that it is Science vs Religion, and while Dr. Coyne mentions other religions, he intentionally focuses on Christianity to narrow the focus of his thesis but also because in America, Young-Earth Creationism is prevalent, making Christianity an easy target to a learned biologist.

He mentions in the introduction that any vague idea of God that he may have had was taken away by listening to the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album. I decided to play the album as I’m writing this review of his book. The problem with this quick anecdote is that it’s subjective and I could make the same argument that listening to “God only knows” by the Beach Boys convinced me out of any vague idea that I had about God not existing.  This is equivalent to someone who changes their entire soteriology in a day.

On Page 1, Dr. Coyne reveals his power level by stating “Science is the only field that has the ability to disprove the truth claims of religion” This is patently false. You’d think since Jesus mythicism is so popular, you’d consider history.  Unless you’re using a very broad definition of science, you’ve revealed that you ironically have an excessive faith in science’s capabilities, which would make sense in light of your later statements that reek of the scientism of a past generation.

On page 54 Dr. Coyne reveals a shockingly simple view of hermeneutics. He argues that when scientists disprove a religious claim taken as literal, the religious will run away from the literal meaning and go to allegory. This is painting with a brush way too broad, for there are at least three types of thinkers when it comes to this. There are those who believe something is literal and won’t back down on the issue, there is some that can be convinced out of literalism and do go for the metaphor or allegory and there are those who already adopted the metaphor or allegorical approach on their own evaluation of the ancient near-eastern studies and study of the original languages.  Painting all religious people merely as maintaining an unfalsifiable hypothesis is only partly true and only tells half the story, this story needs an ending that Dr. Coyne hasn’t given us yet.

On Page 160, he addresses the Fine-Tuning argument but instead of interacting with a sophisticated form of it, he goes for the apologetic hack version he probably saw on the internet. The “If the numbers were changed just a little bit” type isn’t exactly accurate. I covered this here.

On page 177-178 he addresses Plantinga’s argument that certain truths are properly basic beliefs and that God existing is one of them, Dr. Coyne goes on a strange rant about how sensus divinitatis could prove any god, not just the Christian God, as if that answered Plantinga. (Hint: It doesn’t.) He goes on to point out the inaccuracy of human perceptions of the world and self-deception to nullify Platinga’s epistemology not even interacting with Plantinga’s objections to that idea.

On Page 186, Dr. Coyne confirms his scientism when he states that other methods can be used to arrive at truth, such as philosophy and mathematics but they can only do so when they’re “science broadly construed”. He then conflates logical positivism with the scientific method.

Throughout the book, Dr. Coyne attacks the weakest targets (i.e. Neo-Ussherians, Climate Change Deniers, Anti-Vaxers) while barely covering scholarly material such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. This is the equivalent of me citing an undergrad biology student and equating his answers and beliefs with those who have a doctorate in biology like Dr. Coyne.

“Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God” Book Review

Sinners in The Hands of a Loving God the provocative re-writing of the title of Jonathan Edwards famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a book written by Brian Zahnd. I saw this particular book at my local library, the title caught my attention and after the initial eye roll, I checked it out.

The first thing I noticed was that Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey reviewed the book favorably. Sarah Bessey being the author of the book “Jesus Feminist” and Rachel Held Evans being someone I responded to already when she said that Calvinism made her cry. So, it was no surprise that her review and praise would be featured in a seemingly anti-calvinist book.


The next thing you will find is that the foreword was written by Wm. Paul Young, who wrote the Shack and Lies we Believe about God, in which the latter he admits to being a universalist. (pg. 118) These associations mentioned below do not make Zahnd automatically wrong, but I think I could reasonably assume how the book was going to go based on who likes his work. (1 Corinthians 15:33)


Young goes on to figure out the great question of why Edwards could paint such beautiful pictures of God such as in his work “Charity and its fruits” but portray a vindictive God in his sermon. Young went on to blame this sermon on Edwards personal issues, such as being ostracized by his own congregation (due to his insistence on fencing the Lord’s table) and his advocacy for the indigenous tribal people, specifically the native americans.


It’s a foreword, so I don’t expect Young to interact on a deeper level than what he did say, however, it seems a bit disingenuous to not acknowledge that there are plenty of Christians who argue that God can be just and wrathful and loving at the same time, God isn’t limited to one attribute.


In the first paragraph, Zahnd recounts the time about his little arts and crafts project, where he used photocopies of Edwards sermon and made his own little booklet complete with highlights and all. That actually sounds pretty cool to me, I may copy his idea and do that myself someday. However, he ends the paragraph by referring to those as his “ANGRY GOD days” in comparison to his “Loving Father” days apparently. I suspected that I would encounter this false dichotomy often throughout this book.


On page 3 he made a statement that made me want to facepalm:


“If Edwards could scare people into repentance , maybe I could too. Evangelism by Terrorism. Conversion by coercion.”


This is not only a pitiful exaggeration but it misunderstands the sermon entirely. Edwards was not in the pulpit with a scary mask on trying to scare the unbelief out of people, he was merely telling people of the reality of what scripture teaches. His imagery was vivid and poetic, that is probably why it resonated in the mind more than your average matter-of-fact sermon. To compare poetic language that is simply restating truths of the Bible to “terrorism” is absurd, there is no comparison.  As far as coercion, the sermon is just words, Mr. Zahnd, no one was forcing anyone to do anything. They willingly attended the service, they willingly heard the words and they willingly reacted the way they did.

Zahnd then insults the literary nature of Edwards writing by finding it strange that Edwards sermon is taught in schools as a good example of descriptive writing. Here’s the thing, even if you don’t agree with the method of preaching or the doctrine Edwards is defending, it would be far from reasonable to deny that his writing was anything short of descriptive.

 Zahnd then quotes Edwards famous spider portion of the sermon, but doesn’t understand the disconnect when he makes snide remarks such as it making God into some “sadistic juvenile”. If Zahnd would have read Edwards observations on Spiders, he would realize that Edwards found their intricate webs as evidence of their design by God and that he thought they were a beautiful creation. This isn’t some “you’re like a bug, gross!” childhood insult, it actually has a double meaning. Today, we commonly have people who like and people who dislike. Spiders are commonly disliked but some people like them. What makes spiders worthy of dislike? Well, they scare people. So, as an analogy, your appeal that Edwards scared people into the kingdom would be equivalent to you calling him a spider. Edwards is using this same type of analogy when he compares us to spiders. Not that we scare God obviously, but that our sin is as repugnant to God as someone who hates spiders.

On Page 4, Zahnd questions whether God abhors sinners (Hey, Zahnd read Psalm 11, Proverbs 15, Romans 3, Romans 9, or Revelation 2 sometime) and scoffs at the idea of an eternal hell calling it “God’s torture chamber” and “the eternal auschwitz”. Besides being a disgusting comparison, the major difference is that we are all guilty before God (Romans 3:23) and the Jewish people were innocent against the depraved behavior of the Nazis in the concentration camps. You should probably apologize to people affected by the holocaust for comparing some mere words about Hell you disagree with to such a horrific event.


On Page 5, Zahnd refers to Edwards sermon as a “Horror-genre sermon” which I find funny but also kind of agree with because the reality of Hell is horrific but also because horror is my favorite genre, so it makes sense why I like it. (besides the fact that it is merely teaching biblical truth.)


Zahnd shows a misunderstanding when it views sermons like the one Edwards famously preached as a way to “scare someone into the altar call” perhaps not realizing that Charles Finney popularized the altar call and that Edwards would have been against such emotional manipulation. (Even though I’m sure you will accuse him of it for writing the sermon.)


Zahnd consistently repeats the false dichotomy that a God who desires to show his just wrath can’t also be a loving God. This limiting concept is due to Zahnd’s apparently applying over-anthropomorphism to the emotions of God as if they were filled with the faults that humans have. It reeks of Greek mythology level of reasoning, where a God can only have one feature, “The goddess of wisdom” or “the god of war.” In page 18, he reviews some biblical passages that are very clear that God is wrathful or displaying wrath and chocks them up to metaphor. How convenient that something that would contradict your entire premise for the book is a metaphor.

On page 34-35, Zahnd gives a nod to his master, Marcion, in disparaging the old testament and seeking to run away from any idea that God had commanded the slaying of the Canaanites and used the example of Jesus not reading the vengeful part of Isaiah’s text, the implication he gives is that Jesus was different and that God’s intention wasn’t vengeance.


Vengeance is mine saith the Lord

Vengeance is wrong, saith the Zahnd

 Zahnd tries to deny that he is anything like Marcion on page 60, but he ends his defense of himself by admitting that “I don’t regard the old testament as the perfect revelation of God” though earlier he says he believes its the word of God, I wonder how its the word of God and also not a perfect revelation from God? Inquiring minds would like to know. Chapter 4 in his work can be summed up as “hey this thing happened in the Old Testament” “But man, God is love!”

Page 101 Zahnd attempts to critique Calvin’s view of the cross, but he ends up Roger Olsoning it and just calling God a moral monster for pouring out his wrath on Jesus in our place. (Because that totally didn’t happen, right?) He says “Punishing the innocent in order to forgive the guilty is monstrous logic” Well, Jesus is innocent, we are guilty, what exactly happened on the cross, Zahnd? What was in that cup that Jesus prayed that he wouldn’t have to drink?
On Page 145, Zahnd denies that those who reject Christ will go to hell, because his feelings or whatever.

In the final paragraph, on page 207, Zahnd attempts to use Edwards words against him. That every tree that does not bear fruit will be axed down. He tries to reverse it and say that the tree of Edwards preaching, a.k.a. The “poisonous tree of angry-God theology” is now gone from his life in favor of being in the hands of a loving God. He started with the false dichotomy and ended with it, I congratulate him on his consistency to this fallacious premise.


In reality, God is love, God desires to show his wrath and God is not a moral monster. I will not pretend that there are easy answers to these questions, but what Zahnd presents is emotion over fact, false dichotomies and snide jabs at people who actually believe things in the Old testament aren’t just all metaphors when it contradicts “muh love” theology.


Constructive criticism is supposed to say something nice  too. So, Zahnd, the cover was nice.

The Shack is Wack: Book Review

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young has caused its fair share of controversy since its release. I never cared enough to follow the outrage train down pointless lane, so I just took what everyone was saying with a grain of salt. While looking at a thrift store, a copy of the shack caught my eye. For just two dollars, I could find out what all the hoopla was about.

 

The first thing I notice besides the interesting shack cover is that it’s a New York times’ bestseller. It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t really mean much nowadays, much like popular music, popular books tend to be lacking. According to various sources[i] [ii] 1 in every 4 Americans didn’t read any books in 2014. The amount of American readers has decreased since 2011.

In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen and follow sacred scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. (p. 65)

Young seems to have a very anti-seminary outlook, as if the pursuit of higher learning when it comes to God is a bad thing. A mystical experience of Gnosticism more prized than the scripture itself. The problem with that is that these direct talks with God are falsifiable. We aren’t talking about epistemology or properly basic beliefs. Any theist that would claim to hear from God would assume the information was correct, right? Surely, even if you view the Bible as limiting, you would at least take it seriously when it says;

“when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:22 ESV)

The Bible’s test seems to be in this area an empirical verification that the so-called prophet is from God. If you hear the voice of God when we do not, wouldn’t it be nice of you to share what God is saying? If what you’re saying is true and consistently comes to pass, more weight would be put into your claims.

However, it is painfully clear that Mr. Young has a version of God that I don’t find familiar. Mr. Young picked the right profession to succeed in, because much like the Shack story itself, his theology is a fiction.

Those who love me come from every system that exists. They are Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved. (p. 182)

In his story, he shows support for pluralism. Now, fiction is one thing, far be it from me, a wannabe horror writer (And no, my blog is not the horror part) to confuse fiction with the actual intention of the author. That would be silly. I wouldn’t accuse Stephen King of murder just because people get murdered in his novels. However, Young also released another work, which was much clearer in his intentions. It’s called “lies we believe about God” a great title for his recantation of the Shack story, unfournately that isn’t what it was about. In it, he spouts the same time of beliefs as his fictional impersonations of God in the Shack.

The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into his life, into his relationship with God the Father, and into his anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won’t make it any less or more true. (p.117–18)

Now, I’m a Calvinist so the phrase “possibility of salvation” itself is an incoherent concept to me. However, regardless of my disagreements with fellow believers, I think we can agree that the idea that Jesus has included you in life, relationship and anointing regardless of your action is universalism.

So, in the Bible, the Father hasn’t been seen. Jesus himself says this. (John 6:46) However, according to Young

God the Father appeared to him as an African-American woman (p. 82) named Papa (p. 86). Also, the Holy Spirit was an Asian woman (p. 85) who was named Sarayu (p. 87, 110). Now, the want to make the Holy Spirit a woman is common, I recently read a book arguing just that. (Biblical Affirmations of Woman by Leonard Swidler)

But this was the first time I saw someone trying to argue that God the Father was a woman. This reeks as some type of edgy postmodernist trying to redefine gender roles though I doubt that was the intention. Writing fiction about the God you believe in is a dangerous thing, you will always run into problems. Allegories can work great, but a straight up “This is who God is” is obviously going to cause a storm in the religious community.

To top it off, it confesses a misunderstanding of the roles of three persons in the Trinity. He indicates that the Father had scars on his wrists–like the crucifixion wounds of Christ (p. 95). Not understanding that the Father sent the Son to be crucified and was not crucified himself is something even unbelievers understand. The Father did not die on the cross.  These were just a few of the errors in this book. So while fiction is fiction, there are people who have honestly defended this book as an accurate picture of Christianity.

A final note is the famous translator of the Message Bible, Eugene Peterson is featured on the front cover. He had the audacity to compare it to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s progress, as if the shack could compare in anyway. Bunyan’s work was well-written, made sense, was allegorical and lastly was orthodox. This would be like saying Pelagius was the next Augustine.

The Shack is wack.

[i] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/23/who-doesnt-read-books-in-america/

[ii] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/one-four-americans-didnt-read-book-last-year-180960340/

Darth Vader Did Not Die For This: A Review of Darksiders by Justin Perks

Think of a really good science fiction novel. What popped into your mind? Ringworld by Larry Niven, Wool by Hugh Howey or maybe one of the classics like 1984 by George Orwell? Well, you’re in for a treat. Because I’m going to present you with a science fiction novel that is on the artistic level of the Room starring Tommy Wiseau. What I mean is, it’s a good meme and so bad that it has some redeeming qualities, like making me laugh a lot.

Mr. Perks has a knack for creativity, like naming his inn the “slippery inn”and the money “lickle.” Now, I would say spoiler alert, but I don’t expect you will want to read this book after you read my review. This isn’t a personal jab at the author, I don’t hate him, I hate his sin(his book).

This is the first installment in a supposed series of works, he is going to continue writing. Now, as you may know, I’m a Postmillenialist, but this has made me reconsider my position on eschatological matters. I will need a new theodicy for why God allows evil in the world upon reading this book.

Now, when new authors write their first book, obviously they will need to grow and most become better authors overtime, Stephen King in his book, On writing: mentions how trash his first works were. However, Mr. Perks is no king, unless there is a kingdom of bad writing, which we will call Ultimatter.

Mr. Perks has an interesting take on character development, you see what you do is change the personality of the character every few chapters, until they’re unrecognizable from each other. The plot is slower than molasses in the hyperbolic time chamber from Dragon Ball Z. There is nothing interesting going on between plot points, it’s just repetition, so much so that any physical trainer would be impressed with.

The cover is nice, but probably the only thing nice about this book. I read the whole book with a red pen in hand and calculated over 400 grammatical errors through the first 10 chapters. I’m not Grammar Girl, my grammar is by no means perfect. However, if you’re going to publish a book, you either need an editor or be really good at catching your mistakes. The very first word of the book the author uses the possessive form of its when the sentence clearly calls for a contraction. I gave up correcting it after a while and tried to read it, but I did not enjoy it. The plot is drawn-out, it takes half the book for anything substantive to happen. The first few chapters only cover someone shooting an animal and then taking it to the butcher, seriously, I wish I were joking.

Darksiders instantly brings to mind the dark side of the force from Star Wars or the game Darksiders by Vigil Games, so the author already is going to be compared to two artistic expressions better than his.

There is a lot of filler, as if the author is a student writing a book report that has to be over a certain character limit. There is an attempt at “fake deep” on the religious commentary in the book. Parroting old dichotomies and making up a religion that is basically a broadly pantheistic religion with christian elements. I can see elements of scientism in some of the characters, which could be a commentary on 21st century society, but perhaps I’m just #fakedeeping his writing and reading into his words there. The plot is essentially, two groups oppose each other and they decide to work together to take out a mutual enemy. This plot takes the author over 250 pages to accomplish. “But, the inner conflict of opposing sides coming together is delicate and can take awhile!” you might be thinking. Even if this is the case, it wasn’t done well. There is no explanation on why the darksiders help the sunbathers, it is hinted at why they hate each other in the first place, but it is not fleshed out to a coherent level. It ends with barely even any conflict resolution and a literal cliffhanger(*spoiler alert* the main bad guy falls off a cliff but he’s probably not dead), with the author strongly indicating that there will be a part two. I sincerely hope not.

If you’re a masochist and love torturing yourself or if you just have a dark(sider?) sense of humor, you can purchase the book here. Maybe if anything to redeem the life of the poor tree who died for this.