Confronting Christianity

ccConfronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin is one of the most impressive defences of the Christian faith that I have read. It is robust, educated, well researched, gentle, and empathic. This is a book for people willing to take the time to consider challenges to Christian beliefs. Today’s culture tends to shut down reasoned discussion of theology, humanity, religion, and ideologies running counter to the winds of society. McLaughlin reopens the discussion and argues persuasively that Christian faith is a very reasonable worldview to hold.

McLaughlin doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. A scan of the chapter headings reveals her willingness to confront the big challenges:

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

This isn’t a book that sweeps the problems under the carpet. McLaughlin acknowledges the harm and problems created in the name of religion and, specifically, Christianity. The history of Christians is a history of failure and weakness, but it doesn’t destroy the credibility of the faith. McLaughlin shows a deep understanding of history, she faces the challenges of contemporary culture front on, and she displays a deep understanding of the biblical text. Her experience in the world of academia, her empathy for people struggling with their identities in a changing world, her willingness to listen carefully to the critiques of others, and her clarity of conviction in her argument are all on display in this book.

There are many surprises in the pages of this book. We discover things about the author, her research and experience, her family and friends that give us confidence that she is not one for trite or simplistic rhetoric. She understands and feels what she writes about. 

It is no surprise to me to discover that Confronting Christianity has been awarded the Christian book of the year in 2020. Having read it, I have already started giving copies away to others. I anticipate keeping one or two extras on my shelf for interested enquirers and religious sceptics alike. I will recommend it to new and old believers who are wanting to better understand their beliefs in today’s critical climate. I suggest purchasing at least two copies. One for yourself and the other for someone you care about.

12 thoughts on “Confronting Christianity”

  1. I have watched a lecture by Rebecca McLaughlin (in which she claimed authority for Jesus & Bible without giving evidence) so I am looking forward to reading the book and I like the idea of giving it to your skeptical friends….then I suggest listening to their point of view and having a dialogue. You could also wait a while as soon enough the Internet will have many skeptical reviews of the book (The blog When Belief Dies has one already).

    McLaughlin’s book is also available in audio version on Audible so you can listen on the go.

  2. Thanks Dave. It’s always good to get some wisdom and encouragement from the Bible or a book recommendation from you. David

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  3. David, whilst I welcome dialogue I have to disagree with your assessment of this book.

    McLaughlins’s (RM) argument is only as strong as its weakest point and the chapter on slavery shows a complete failure to “confront the big challenges”. Rather than having a “deep understanding” of the biblical text she cherry picks passages. Her methods and omissions are just one of the many reason’s sceptics like myself find the Christian worldview unappealing and in parts repugnant. Let me illustrate with examples:

    RM: “It was common for people to sell themselves into slavery as it represented a form of employment and was preferable to destitution”
    But RM cites only one mechanism for slavery, in addition captives of war where Israel’s slaves (Deut 20:10-11), the bible permits marriages to captured women without their consent (Deut 20:10-14)…that is sex slavery….and in one of the most sickening passages in all literature Israelite men are to “save for themselves” the virgin girls (Num 31:17-18)….these are clear descriptions of slave catching which RM contends the Bible doesn’t permit (Ex 21:16).
    Babies born of slave parents were the property of the master (Ex 21:4)…so the Bible commands child slavery…and Fathers could sell their daughters (scholars believe this refers to girls under 12) into servitude (Ex 21:7). Furthermore, the Bible condones the acquisition of foreign slaves who were bought (Lev 22:44-46) and became the owner’s property forever…. owning people is morally repugnant.

    As RM correctly notes the Hebrew slave could be set free after 6-years but she fails to point out this does not apply to foreigners who are permanent property…. that just reinforces the xenophobia of Yahweh.

    RM contents that God provides protections for slaves as “if the master’s did them permanent bodily harm they had to be release (Ex 21:26)”
    BUT masters were allow to potentially belt the hell out of slaves “but they are not be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property” (Ex 21:21)….that is assault causing actual bodily harm…..it is a level of ”brutality” just like what was inflicted on African American slaves and here it is specifically allowed by God.

    RM’s omissions and failures to confront the challenges of these passages speaks volumes about her agenda. If this constitutes an impressive defence of Christianity, it is a most unreasonable worldview…. frankly its abhorrent.

    I suggest readers wanting a more in-depth treatment of slavery access resources from Digital Hammurabi. I would welcome your assessment of where I have got things wrong.

    1. Hi Grant,
      I believe in order to establish a case that the Bible is pro-slavery, one would need to see it encouraged and intensified in the New Testament. For example, the Old Testament laws related to murder and adultery are shown by Jesus to extend to the heart attitudes of anger and lust in Matthew 5:21-30. The book of Philemon is a helpful case of the Apostle Paul calling Philemon to release his slave Onesimus. See also https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-wrong-say-bible-pro-slavery/

      1. David, my previous comment focused on the misleading presentation of OT slavery in McLaughlin’s book. If you genuinely want to dialogue with sceptics, then I would appreciate if you address the specific contentions and evidence presented.

        I am not trying to establish a case that the “Bible is pro-slavery”. Your “Bible” is the Protestant Canon of scripture and it looks to me that it is a man-made creation. Written by various authors and assembled by unknown parties using unspecified criteria it is given its authority by “the church”. The sceptic takes the view that the “Bible” is no more authoritative than the Papacy or the Book of the Mormon.

        Your “belief” that one “would need” to see slavery “encouraged and intensified” in the NT is baseless. Rather one would expect the NT to articulate an explicit directive from Jesus, Peter, or Paul that slavery is a sin. This is nowhere to be found in Paul rather we see the opposite when the Pauline epistles command slaves to “obey your masters” (Eph 6:5, see also Col 3:22) …. seen in the Jewish context that is ambiguous enough to be characterised as pro-slavery. The question of Philemon is complex and in the words of scholars it is a “futile enterprise” to try and determine early Christians attitudes to slavery from this book (see Hector Avalos or Jennifer Glancy).

        The writer of 1 Peter praises slaves for taking a beating rather than condemning the slave owner (1 Pet 2:18-21). The gospel writers show Jesus incorporating brutal slavery into his teaching as if part of the everyday (Luke 12:47-48, Mt 18:23-35) in Mathew 24:45-51 the slave owner will cut his “slave in pieces”(NIV)…..this passage is made more troubling when one realises that Jesus is the slaver!

        I found the blog by Gavin Ortlund (GM) to be wanting. He uses a fallacy of false equivalency to draw distinction between Chattel slavery and slavery in NT texts. Although NT slavery overall was not race based it was still brutal (see above), could include children and was immoral (see for example the Delphic manumission inscriptions). GM seeks to rationalise slavery with comments like “Biblical instruction that allows for [certain evil practices] in certain contexts isn’t necessarily biblical approval” but this is a false assertions as some of the most repugnant episodes are commanded by God himself (Deut 20:15, Num 31:25-35).

        GM’s view of Paul’s letter to Philemon sits in tension with (1) the bulk of the Old and New Testament texts on slavery (see my comments) and (2) non-faith based scholarly publications. I can tell you from personal experience that GM’s “Explosive Gospel Logic” undoubtedly provides him with much hope, meaning and purpose in his personal life …..but has little traction with a sceptic who has studied slavery in the Bible and is informed regarding the last 100 years of critical study into the historical unreliability of the biblical text as a source for the life of Jesus.

      2. Hi Grant,
        Let me respond to a few things. Firstly, the intention of my post was to draw attention to a book I believe being well worth consideration due to its irenic nature and depth of argument. I can see this has worked as you seem to have engaged with it. It was a book recommendation not a defence of the Bible or the Christian faith, but a suggestion of a good book for these purposes.

        I am willing to engage skeptics and often do so. However, my preferred means is to discuss in person, rather than debate over a public blog. This is largely because the comment threads on blogs invariably get highjacked by other agendas.

        I am willing to engage on the issue of slavery, and to acknowledge that I find the commands in Numbers and the like problematic to my sense of justice and humanity. My problems stem from the fact that I am convinced that all people are made in God’s image so it seems unreasonable to have slaves. I think that there is much I do not understand about what God is doing in the OT with his commands, often in association with war. I suspect there is also a prefiguring of Gods judgment going on with much of the OT commands. I also think this is why the NT doesn’t commend slavery. All it does is assume it as a societal phenomenon, and calls on Christians to act in a godly way, whether as slaves or masters.

        I think your dismissiveness of Philemon is unwarranted.

        The exhortation in 1 Peter 2 is premised on the attitude of Jesus in the lead up to his death – ie. a distinctively Christian attitude not to take vengeance in to our own hands.

        I think the deeper issue on view here is the nature of the Bible. I believe that it’s view of itself is that it is God-breathed. Jesus treats the whole of Hebrew scripture as authoritative and as pointing to him. He explains how the Holy Spirit will guide the apostles into all truth also in John 15-16. Critical scholarship, in the opinion of a vast contingent of serious evangelical scholarship, has done nothing significant to undermine the authority of the Bible or the conviction that the Gospels present us with reliable testimony to Jesus. I know you disagree. But we’ve been round this mill before.

        I don’t believe that reason will triumph to win you back to Jesus because, as we agree, it remains ultimately a matter of faith or trust. I think there are good reasons to support the trust, primarily the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I have a relationship with Jesus, based on trusting his death and resurrection. That is, I am persuaded that Jesus is alive today and that he intercedes to God on my behalf. Why? Because Scripture tells me. Circular? Yes, but that’s what I believe.

        You too have strong convictions. I think you believe this world is chance, without design. Personally, I think this takes more faith. We are then left with seeking a basis of ethics from somewhere, but I am not sure where.

        Dave

      3. I’ve just re-read this reply. I think I was very unclear in what I meant in comment about the NT.

        Overall, my thinking is that the NT doesn’t encourage people anywhere to take slaves. It does affirm people seeking their freedom if they can (1 Cor 7 and Phil). The chapter in RM’s book is specifically framed as the whether the Bible is ‘pro-slavery’ and I was agreeing with her that it is at least clear that the NT isn’t pro-slavery.

        The bigger issue in the NT is the slavery to sin, death, and the law. The BIG message of the NT is that Jesus’ mission is about rescuing people from this spiritual slavery.

  4. Great post. Over the last couple of years I’ve really gotten into some awesome books written by Christian Apologists. A couple of My favorites are “Tactics” by Greg Koukl and “On Guard” by William Lane Craig. And, of course, anything written by Ravi Zacharias. Anyway, thanks for posting. Keep it up. God bless.

  5. Dave, I appreciate the honesty of your replies and know these are penned out of concern. My comments have the same purpose.

    When Donald Trump ambiguously fails to condemn white supremacists…..Do you defend him to your family and friends?….. “But he is not pro-white supremacy so that’s OK ….Trump just retweets their material because it’s a societal phenomenon”……. I think not.

    A failure to condemn is tacit commendation…surely this situation gives you pause to reconsider your world view. I would encourage you to search your conscience on the matter.

    The believer must trust their interpretation of the Bible before they can trust God. This sets up the circularity on which you honestly admit your worldview is based. For the evangelical this relies on the historicity and proposed meaning of the events the Bible describes.

    This position relies on the reliability of the resurrection accounts. Paul never records (50 AD) that he or anyone saw a resurrected flesh and blood Jesus, indeed if we take the accounts in Acts on face value the appearance to Paul sounds like a vision and that is consistent with learning his gospel by revelation (Gal 1:12) . You need to read the Gospels back into Paul to get a physical resurrection.

    The Gospels constitute the evidence for the flesh and blood resurrection of Jesus. These accounts more or less are viewed as unreliable by historians because:
    • They are anonymous (the author doesn’t give their name)
    • Their dating is unsure
    • We don’t know where they were written
    • We don’t know who they were written to
    • There are no contemporary or near contemporary witnesses to any of these matters

    These are the criteria that are key in establishing reliable historical evidence. Just read any Undergraduate level text on historical method regarding the evaluation of sources. Evangelical scholars cite hearsay evidence, from potentially unreliable individuals’, operating decades after the writing of the gospels. From the perspective of a historian these poorly attested authorial claims along with circumstantial evidence (e.g. accurate geography) is unable to support reliability of the Gospels. Especially when there is plenty of contrary circumstantial evidence not least being that the gospels are written in Greek and contain many historical and internal inconsistencies (e.g. the genealogies and the census at Jesus birth). This is the main reason ancient historians aren’t becoming Christians and why in history departments only the broadest outline of Jesus’ life is considered historically reliable.

    Christianity could have grown rapidly based on the belief in a resurrection rather than being based on the supposed events in the Gospels and Acts. Just like belief in election fraud doesn’t have to be true to be embraced by millions of Americans.

    Stories of martyrdom of eye witnesses are based on unreliable accounts but undoubtedly many did suffer and die for a belief in the resurrection, even till the present.

    As someone who has examined the arguments seriously, I just can’t see there are “good reasons” for believing in the resurrection of Jesus.

    1. Hi Grant

      I don’t accept your analogy with Trump and white supremacists. I think a person’s words, silence, actions, and inaction should be measured with regard to their character and other factors.

      You don’t need to read the Gospels back into Paul to be persuaded that Paul speaks of a physical resurrection. You just need to accept his words in 1 Corinthians 15. In fact, Paul says if Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead he is a liar.

      How would you explain Paul’s transformation?

      You seem very confident of the unreliability of the Gospels and make sweeping statements about majority scholarship. I am encouraged that plenty of historians disagree with you. To name some Aussies I have spoken with: Paul Barnett, Edwin Judge, John Dickson, Bruce Winter,

      As someone who has studied the Bible seriously and had a relationship with God for many years, I am grateful that God sent Jesus to be my ransom and raised him to live. I am expecting Jesus to return and bring about a righteous judgement. In the mean time I invite people to read the Gospels, so that they might put their trust in Jesus. I know many don’t, but I am also encouraged that many do.

  6. Essentially it sounds like the starting point is, I want to believe this religion has value. Which practically everything does, if you examine it with an optimistic and forgiving eye. Communism, the white slave owning south, war…

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