Monday, March 19, 2012

Jesus is Not a Marshmallow (a book review by an orthodox rebel)

Book: Christian Contours: How a Biblical Worldview Shapes the Mind and Heart, edited by Douglas S. Huffman. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2011. 236 pgs. (including introduction, appendixes, bibliography, and indexes)

Introduction: Philosophy is a terrifying word. People's eyes glaze and spirits freeze whenever they hear it. It produces an image of sad-faced academic clowns blathering on about irrelevancies in their ivory towers. Meanwhile, ordinary people with everyday problems continue life uninterrupted in the real world. Such an image is a caricature, of course, but it speaks for many people, which is unfortunate because we are all philosophers. We all believe certain things about the world: sometimes subconsciously and other times intently, but never neutrally. We have beliefs that shape how we think and see things, beliefs that we fit together (or are fit together) into a more or less coherent system by which we live and think. In short, we are all philosophers because we all have beliefs. To believe is to philosophize.

A "system of belief" is often known as a "worldview", and in Christian Contours, editor Douglas S. Huffman (and his fellow contributors) hope to reacquaint all Christians with the fundamentals of the Christian worldview, i.e., with "the basic claims that the historic Christian faith has about all of life in every era" (17). The book is not exhaustive, nor does it claim to be. In fact, it plainly states that it is to be an introduction to the subject (17), a first step on the journey of understanding exactly where you are (or ought to be) coming from not just as a mere believer but as a specifically Christian believer.

Summary: The main body of Christian Contours is divided into ten sections: an intro, eight chapters, and a conclusion. The eight chapters are divided into two parts: the first four chapters deal with what the biblical worldview is, and the last four chapters deal with what is to be done with it in the real world. Though the table of contents doesn't imply any kind of further order to the chapters, it quickly becomes apparent (upon reading) that there is an underlying flow to them. Chapter one ("What is a Worldview?") begins with a necessary definition of terms as well as an understanding of a worldview's central and important role in our daily lives. Chapter two ("Is There Just One Biblical Worldview?") deals with the necessity and inherent humility of essentialism in a worldview, i.e., to hold to a common ground that is above all individual specificities and particulars creates humble unity amongst the adherents because they all hold something in common that they view as greater than themselves.

Chapter three ("What is the Relationship of Worldviews to Truth?") parks upon the central aspect of a worldview: its claim to truth. Perhaps the most philosophically heavy of the chapters (i.e., slow down and take careful notes), it unpacks the necessity of truth to a worldview as well as presenting the Christian notion of truth. Chapter four ("What is the Biblical Worldview?") rounds out the first part by establishing quickly and simply the biblical worldview and posits the Bible as the grounds for the Christian's system of thought. The second part picks up with discussions on tempering our beliefs with love and humility (chapters 5 & 6), an overview of the fundamentally anti-Christian worldview of pluralism (chapter 7), and finishes with some thoughts on how evangelism goes hand-in-hand with one's worldview (chapter 8).

In addition to all this, Christian Contours has two very nice appendixes. The first is a chart presenting a side-by-side comparison of seven major worldviews (Christian Theism, Naturalism, Postmodern Secular Humanism, Atheistic Existentialism, Pantheistic Monism, New Age Spiritualism, and Islamic Theism) in regard to five areas of thought and belief (theology, anthropology, ethics, soteriology, and epistemology). The second is a list of "Christian Professional Organizations" that provide resources for a continuing investigation into worldviews. Finally (and perhaps nicest of all), the book's bibliography provides detailed information on books that can be used for further study.

Review: Even for an "introductory work," there is too much information in this book to give it a truly proper review. What I will say is this: I like this book for three reasons:

(1) Its emphasis on "integration," i.e., that the Christian worldview is a unified system of thought rather than a fractured one. It is not the piecemeal operation of separate individuals across time. Rather, it is a common ground for all Christians at all times. There is no era or epoch where it is not relevant.

(2) Its emphasis on the collaboration of mind and heart. As human beings, we are made up of beliefs (cognitive assents) and values (affective assents) (52). Both are important, and both need to be shaped by the truth (i.e., by God and His word). To neglect one for the sake of the other is to live a stunted, half-awake life. We must have truthful beliefs that provide a truthful structure to our lives, and we must also have truthful values that create truthful action in our world. To be either a disconnected abstraction or an emotional vagabond is not an option for the Christian believer.

(3) Its surprising depth, which caught we completely off guard. I've read "introductory" works before, and they were forgettable because they were redundant: stating the obvious to the point of oblivion. This book, however, was not redundant. Even when it traversed well-trodden paths, it still felt refreshing and informative, and there were times when some of its subject matter become enticingly dense, daring you to dig deeper (chapter three is a particularly good example of this: its notion of truth as God's knowledge and expression of Himself was incredibly interesting).

In addition, the book makes it very clear that not only is the Christian worldview a coherent and relevant system of thought and belief, it also is a fundamentally alternative system to every other worldview out there. You cannot simply make it "a" part of your life. It is your life and is completely foreign to all other worldviews. That is why adherence to it is called a "conversion"; your thinking (and subsequent living) has radically changed from the ground up. As Dr. Huffman put it in the conclusion, Jesus is not the marshmallow in the hot chocolate of your life, "something sweet and soft bobbing around on the surface"; He is an entirely different beverage (144-45), and those who drink that cup drink it to the full.

Recommendation: I've reviewed a small handful of books for Kregel so far. Most of them have been good, but none have really interested me enough to take a second look, none except for one. Christian Contours is that book. It is an excellent introduction to worldview studies and could easily precede James Sire's The Universe Next Door (another excellent book) in a classroom or group setting. Buy it. Read it. You're welcome.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment