“How can you take the Bible literally?”
“Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?”
“Doesn’t Christianity denigrate women?”
“Isn’t Christianity homophobic?”
“Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?”
“How could a loving God allow so much suffering?”

For followers of Jesus, questions like these can make us more than a little uneasy. They can provoke a fight-or-flight response in us: either dismiss the questions with proof texts and glib answers, or else duck them and change the subject.

Rebecca McLaughlin’s book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, offers a more compelling approach.

McLaughlin holds a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. In the tradition of C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller, she writes in an appealing style for thoughtful skeptics and for believers who seek to engage with them. She weaves world-class research, personal stories and faithful Bible exposition into a readable blend that tackles the toughest questions facing contemporary Christians. Her boundary-crossing book landed on the TED summer reading list and was named Book of the Year by Christianity Today.

In McLaughlin’s hands, these difficult questions aren’t so much obstacles to the faith as they are points of entry into honest conversations about the Gospel.

A dozen questions, carefully curated

McLaughlin didn’t choose the 12 questions for her book in a random fashion. They’re the ones she hears most often in her work as an apologist for the faith. In addition to those above, here are the other six:

“Aren’t we better off without religion?”
“Doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?”
“How can you say there’s only one true faith?”
“Doesn’t religion hinder morality?”
“Doesn’t religion cause violence?”
“How could a loving God send people to hell?”

Just as the questions aren’t random, neither is their order. McLaughlin arranges them in loose conceptual pairs and groups, moving along a path of increasing difficulty. She follows an arc from the value and impact of religion to Christianity’s exclusive truth claims, to issues concerning Scripture, science, sexuality and social justice, and ending with the thorniest questions of all, regarding the existence of suffering and hell.

Flipping the script on secular beliefs

As she engages these questions, McLaughlin consistently flips the script – with grace and powerful reasoning – on the secularist assumptions underlying them.

She begins with the common belief that religion is withering in the face of secularism and will soon disappear. Citing sociological research, she shows that religious belief is in fact growing on a global scale, while the numbers of atheists, agnostics and “nones” are trending downward. As she puts it, “The question for the next generation is not ‘How soon will religion die out?’ but ‘Christianity or Islam?’”

Christianity is often portrayed as a Western white man’s religion, but as McLaughlin points out, that belief – along with the overall secularizing principle – is most common among privileged white males in the West. The majority of Christians, on the other hand, are women and people of colour, both globally and in Western societies. In fact, McLaughlin notes, the church has always been majority female. From the start, it was a radically multicultural, multi-ethnic, women-affirming movement that shocked the ancient world.

Against the popular caricature of Christianity as an oppressive, anti-intellectual religion, McLaughlin demonstrates that Christians created the university, invented the scientific method, and spearheaded the promotion of social justice and universal human rights. Contrary to secular assumptions, she argues, these values are not self-evident but spring naturally from a Judeo-Christian world view. Secularists may embrace them as well, but their belief system, in which there is no ultimate meaning and no absolute right and wrong, cannot provide a foundation for them. If we can’t affirm that evil is evil, she remarks, then neither should we affirm that love is love.

Throughout her book, McLaughlin constructs a bold, persuasive case that Christianity is the most diverse, beneficial and intellectually sound belief system the world has ever seen.

A colourful tapestry of sources

McLaughlin supports her thesis with a broad range of scholarship from a variety of academic disciplines: science, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology. She cites Christian as well as non-Christian scholars who work in these fields. It’s a prudent move on her part. Since she’s writing with an informed skeptic audience in mind, they’re less likely to dismiss her research if she balances secular and religious sources.

This diversity extends to the personal stories she tells, drawn from the experiences of friends and acquaintances from every imaginable background: an English professor from a remote tribe in India who writes stories about her people’s marginalized women; a Yazidi activist from Iraq who survived brutal sexual abuse at the hands of ISIS; Christian students from a variety of countries, including China, Ghana and Romania, who’ve informed or challenged the author’s own faith; a former lesbian scholar from California, now happily married to a man and serving as a Christian theologian.

McLaughlin also doesn’t shy away from using an eclectic palette of cultural references to make her points. Everything is fair game, from Shakespeare and Bach, to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, to Black Panther and Doctor Who.

As she joked in an interview, she compares her work to that of a magpie, collecting bright, shiny bits from here and there, hopefully to build something useful and appealing.

Full-bodied biblical exposition

When we’re challenged with difficult questions about our faith, it’s tempting to fall back on proof texts, yanking Bible verses out of context, piecemeal, in hopes that we can settle the issue as painlessly as possible.

But McLaughlin doesn’t do that. Instead, she presents a robust, full-bodied biblical framework, locating each of the hard questions within Scripture’s overarching narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. This is the only viable, faithful way to address these issues, whether it’s the Bible’s sexual ethic, violent historical accounts, or apparent tolerance of slavery in the ancient world. As with any story, we can’t properly understand the episodes unless we look at the big picture, from beginning to end.

Beyond that, McLaughlin reminds us of a few basic principles in Bible interpretation. First, just because Scripture records a practice doesn’t mean Scripture approves of the practice. Second, like all effective writing, Scripture uses a variety of literary techniques, including metaphors, which are no less true than literal accounts. To illustrate, McLaughlin compares a broken heart with a heart attack. One is literal, the other metaphorical, but both convey truth. To confuse them would be catastrophic.

McLaughlin uses memorable metaphors of her own to underscore biblical truth. She writes, “God created sex and marriage as a telescope to give us a glimpse of his star-sized desire for intimacy with us.”

She describes the final union between Christ and his people as “a marriage of such beauty and intimacy that it makes the best human marriage seem like a heart emoji compared with a Shakespeare sonnet.”

And she elaborates, “Compared with that relationship, human marriage will seem like a toy car next to a Tesla, or a kiss on an envelope versus a lover’s embrace.”

Owning our sins and failures

McLaughlin entertains no illusions about professing believers often failing spectacularly to live up to the standards of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Throughout her book, she acknowledges how Christians past and present have twisted Scripture to justify a catalogue of unconscionable sins, including racism, misogyny, homophobia, slaveholding, imperialist aggression and cultural insensitivity. She leaves no doubt that in far too many cases, the objections of skeptics are not without justification.

Such honesty is not only refreshing but also essential in the present cultural moment of #MeToo and #ChurchToo. Dismissing or minimizing our sins not only undermines the testimony of Jesus and wounds those who’ve been sinned against. It also turns off the people who already have misgivings about Christianity.

If we wish to win others to the faith, McLaughlin models a better way forward: acknowledge our failures, repent of them, and point people to the scriptural principles that Jesus expects his church to follow.

Respect for those who disagree

The dedication of McLaughlin’s book reads, “For Natasha, and for all my other fiercely intelligent friends who disagree with me, but will do me the honour of reading this book.”

This is the flip side of owning our sins and failures: respecting those who disagree with us and taking their objections seriously. Like everyone else, followers of Jesus are susceptible to tribalism, to sorting people into two groups: us and them. We assume nonbelievers are simply ignorant of the facts, needing only a Scripture verse or two to show them how wrong they are about everything.

But McLaughlin refuses to patronize her non-Christian friends in this way. She affirms their intelligence, their freedom to believe as they choose, and the fact that they have reasoned, conscientious objections to Christianity. In short, she recognizes that they bear God’s image, no less than she does. Contrary to the prevailing cultural attitude that disagreement equals judgment, she considers debate and persuasion to be signs of mutual respect between people of differing beliefs.

Always pointing to Jesus and the Gospel

Engaging with these 12 difficult questions may seem like a Herculean task, but McLaughlin carries it off with fairness and honesty. She never shies away from the most uncomfortable truths. At the same time, her tone is winsome, compassionate – exuberant, even.

That’s because she’s captivated by the beauty of Jesus and the wonders of his Gospel. She recognizes that all questions about the Christian faith lead to him and find their answers in his grace and redeeming love. The summary of her book is worth quoting at length:

“In Jesus’s world, we find connective tissue between the truths of science and morality. We find a basis for saying that all human beings are created equal, and a deep call to love across diversity. We find a name for evil, and a means of forgiveness. We find a vision of love that is so much deeper than our current hearts can hold, and a true intimacy better than our weak bodies could ever experience. We find a diagnosis of human nature as shot through with sin and yet as redeemable by grace. We find a call to care for the poor, oppressed, and lonely, a call springing from the heart of God himself and grounded in the hope that one day every tear will be wiped away, every stomach will be filled, and every outcast will be embraced. But we do not find glib answers or an easy road. Instead, we find a call to come and die.”

She ends by inviting her readers into the hope of her favourite Scripture passage. “‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ said Jesus to Martha. And he says the same to you: ‘Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’”

Confronting Christianity is a masterful work of contemporary apologetics, persuasively argued and beautifully written. Rebecca McLaughlin offers skeptics compelling answers to their hardest questions about Christianity, and she provides believers a model for engaging those questions with intelligence and grace. Her book should prove to be an essential resource of its kind in the years to come.

Sources and further reading

Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Crossway, 2019.

© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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