(Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy of this book!)
Moreland, J. P. and Tim Muehlhoff. The God Conversation: Using Stories and Illustrations to Explain Your Faith. Downersgrove, IL: Intervarsity, 2017. 179pp. $16.00.
Chapter One – The purpose of The God Conversation is to provide illustrations for apologetic discussions pertaining to defeaters about pain and suffering, Christianity as the one way to God, the trustworthiness of accounts of Jesus rising, judging, evolution, and love (13-14). Illustrations are powerful because they clarify our presentations to non-Christian friends, help us remember the point being made, allow for repetition, and hold our interest (17-21).
Chapter Two – The problem of evil readily lends itself to illustrations because it can raise such strong emotions. For example, C. S. Lewis describes his devastation after losing his wife to cancer followed by his yelling at God, which a non-Christian raising the problem of pain and suffering might relate to (24). In order to understand evil, God’s perspective of the necessity of free will can be brought to bear upon the conversation through an illustration of a doll that is programmed to say all the right things in a relationship, an undesirable state of affairs (25-27). Were God to stop all evil immediately, it would be something like a scene from a Star Wars movie, with the Force being used to make people do something they do not want to do, removing the very thing that prompts us to ask deep questions about our existence and world (28-29). Evil functions as God’s megaphone, calling us to recognize something is not right, and to turn our attention to a deeper way of fixing it than just trying to feel good (29-31). God not only empathizes with our suffering, but like the Roman Catholic priest Father Damien who became a leper while ministering to lepers, became one of us in the incarnation and experienced suffering the way we do (31-33). William Lane Craig tells the story of three men complaining on judgment day, only to be silenced by the suffering of the Judge, who appears before them with the wounds of the cross (33).
Chapter Three – Natural evils can be explained through the way our actions affect our environment as exemplified in Erin Brockovich, a movie about a town with a poisoned water supply (35-36). Many evils are worsened through our inaction, such as with supposed racial superiority keeping us from providing aid to those in need (36-37). Individual evils can be redeemed when they call attention to some grand plight, such as the events leading to MADD and America’s Most Wanted (40-42). Even when we do not understand everything, we trust God, believing the best about him because he loves us, and we know too that death is not final (42-45).
Chapter Four – A popular illustration that applies to the view that all religions lead to God is one where many paths all lead to the top of a mountain (46-48). The trouble is this claim goes against the key religious teachers of the various religions and does not deal with obvious contradictions between different religions (48-51). Really, religions are more like a maze with paths leading in different directions (51-52). Mahatma Gandhi and Buddha are examples of how compassion and insightful questioning brought about through suffering are both values cherished across different religions (52-55). Of course, there are concerns with other religions as well (56-60). Americans in particular respond to religions by applying individualism and relativism to mix different parts of religion as though they are at a buffet (60-62).
Chapter Five – Jesus is qualified to lead us to God because he claims to be divine and has the power to forgive sin, perform miracles, and guarantee salvation (64-70). Christ’s claims force a decision as to whether he is who he claimed to be that leads to some objections about the supposed evils of evangelism and those without opportunity of responding to Christ (70-76).
Chapter Six – Illustrations help with understanding how the disciples went against all the best ways to lie, since their claims about the resurrection would not benefit them, mentioned specific details, were supported by women who were not trusted in that society rather than men, faced the strongest critics, and did not result in them trying to save themselves when their claims were not believed (78-86).
Chapter Seven – Illustrations are also helpful to see why the disciples’ resurrection claims are not legends, since the biblical accounts do not resemble legends, they include embarrassing facts, and there was so little time between the accounts and the events they describe (87-93). Illustrations may even be used to help establish the dating and history of the Bible (93-99).
Chapter Eight – The show The Walking Dead focuses on moral dilemmas that raise the question of who gets to determine what is right and wrong (100). Machiavelli and Jesus would do very different things, morally speaking, but apart from the existence of God it is difficult to know why Jesus is ethically superior to Machiavelli (102-103). The nature of moral absolutes can be explained through asking whether murder is wrong if it takes place between two people on a desert island, or through thinking about whether the Holocaust was still wrong even if Hitler won World War II and brainwashed everyone into thinking it was not (103-105). Helping someone to create their own list of moral absolutes can help with understanding the importance of moral absolutes (105-108). Some possible moral standards are believing powerful people, culture, individuals, or God decide(s) what is right, and these possible standards can be applied to the test case of the Holocaust and Nuremburg trials (109-111).
Chapter Nine – Another way of arguing for moral absolutes and the existence of God through illustrations is by providing examples of moral intuition, universal moral intuition, and the rejection of moral absolutes (116-124).
Chapter Ten – The design argument is easy to illustrate using, for example, the intentionality behind Mount Rushmore as a parallel to the intentionality behind the human body, or by comparing the human eye to a telescope (127-129). Likewise, objections to design from evolution are answerable by following Abraham Lincoln in conceding all but the most important points of the debate and pointing out the logical compatibility between evolution and design (129-131). Darwinist criteria can also be used to judge evolution as seen in the famous mousetrap principle and self-assembling boeing 747 illustration (131-135).
Chapter Eleven – Imagining scenarios where people visit Mars, or Martians visit Earth, aid in explaining the design found in the possibility of life on Earth (136-138). Rocket ships, huge numbers, and watches are all used in illustrations that show the unlikelihood of chance design versus the existence of a Designer, God (138-144).
Chapter Twelve – Our sense that something is not as it should be, coupled with our desire acts as a GPS or a homing signal like those found in animals and humans (145-147). Desire to cheat death, experience peace, have a happy ending, and find love all seem an invitation from God (147-151).
Chapter Thirteen – Dissatisfaction with the objects of our desire could stem from asking why we are not satisfied, or might come from expecting too much from the objects of our desire, or from longing for the relationship with God that we lost (154-159). Dissatisfaction can be dealt with through embracing our disillusionment, blaming the objects of our desire, or becoming a Christian and looking for the source of our satisfaction rather than its echoes (160-164).
The importance of Moreland and Muehlhoff’s observations on the usefulness of illustrations at the beginning of the book, as well as their emphasis on listening to others at the end of the book, cannot be overstated. Readers will find helpful illustrations and examples scattered throughout classical apologetic arguments for use in apologetic encounters. Of course, the book is limited in its ability to foresee the details of every possible apologetic encounter, and so readers should become familiar with the material inside rather than learning it to be repeated in a formulaic fashion.
More Reformed believers will undoubtedly take issue with some concepts in the book, as is to be expected from a classic apologetic relying heavily upon a more libertarian understanding of free will as the ultimate solution to the problem of evil. Other controversial theological tidbits appear here and there, such as a discussion on an age of accountability, and the potential concession to evolution. However, Moreland and Muehlhoff do a good job of bolstering even their most doctrinally controversial arguments with statements from those adhering to seemingly opposing systems of thought.
Those familiar with classical apologetics will have seen virtually every argument offered in this book as well as many of the corresponding illustrations. Some of the illustrations are little more than the statement of the arguments in question. Nevertheless, the overview of apologetics, review of the most fundamental arguments and their illustrations, the more original and contemporary material, and the type of thinking that went into making a book like this are all valuable assets to apologists of every stripe, and for that reason I recommend this book for developing more organic, memorable, persuasive, and ultimately powerful apologetic presentations.
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