Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin (Crossway, 2019). 223 pages, Cover price: £17.99, ISBN: 9781433564239
It is sometimes suggested that, in light of the evolving concerns of our culture, the apologetic task at the start of the 21st century has changed direction. Philosophical enquiry into cosmic origins or the coherence of the concept of God have been replaced by more practical concerns: the desire for social justice, inclusion and diversity. Whatever one makes of this view, there is no question that these concerns stand at the forefront of our cultural zeitgeist and Christianity is often portrayed as being part of the problem rather than the solution. With this in mind, Rebecca McLaughin’s book Confronting Christianity is both a timely and relevant contribution to the ongoing conversation surrounding faith and contemporary culture. McLaughlin identifies twelve of the most pressing objections raised against Christianity and attempts to engage them fairly, honestly and biblically.
The book is divided into twelve chapters, each introducing the next question. McLaughlin offers a broad range of issues, from whether Christianity denigrates women to the assertion that it condones slavery; whether science has disproved the Bible to how a loving God could send people to hell. These questions are sensitively handled and, from the outset, McLaughlin is clear that she comes at many of them from a place of deep, and at times very personal, wrestling. She confesses that she “feels their weight” and assures the reader “If I give smug, simplistic answers, I have failed.”[i]
To that end McLaughlin is keen to address many of the hardest examples pertaining to the objections facing Christianity. Referencing Jonathan Edwards, she does not shy away from the fact that well respected theologians have used the Bible to justify slavery. Chapter 11, entitled, How Could a Loving God Allow so much Suffering? begins by citing ten exceptionally harrowing instances of human suffering in a paragraph that is hard to read. Things become very personal in the chapter on whether Christianity is homophobic, as McLaughlin shares her own story as a woman who experiences same sex attraction. Confronting Christianity is highly readable and jam packed with helpful illustrations. One moment we are in the world of Harry Potter, the next dialoguing with homeless people, before finding ourselves in the presence of Nobel prize-winning scientists. This helps the reader to understand difficult concepts and roots the book in the real world.
All of this roots the book in the real world and makes it highly relatable. No cold, distant answers of academia here. That said, McLaughlin is clearly highly academic and she manages to balance the personal nature of the book with rigorous analysis, challenging some of the widespread assumptions of society while giving some thought provoking and, at times, unexpected answers. For example, in chapter 8, entitled Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women? McLaughlin details Jesus’ elevation of women in a male-dominated culture and challenges the view that Paul was a misogynist by considering his charge to husbands to “love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”.[ii] She adds that many gender role distinctions that are often assumed go beyond biblical mandate.
With each chapter bringing a different question to the table, there is not a progression as such, for there is no central argument upon which to build. This is not that kind of book. This does not mean, however, that there are no recurring themes or that there is nothing to bind these varied questions together. In fact, as one continues through the chapters, it becomes very clear that there is: everything that we experience - the good, the bad, the unanswered questions - must all, ultimately, bring us to a single goal. Jesus is the supreme good and the One who alone can bring comfort, joy and hope and who can fundamentally make sense out of our human experience.
This focus is perhaps seen most powerfully in the chapter on suffering. McLaughlin takes us into John’s Gospel, to the tragic story of two sisters, Mary and Martha, whose brother Lazarus had just died. She follows the narrative through and highlights many of the questions that the story throws at us before showing the reader how Jesus takes things in the most unexpected direction by making a startling claim to the weeping Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”[iii]
McLaughlin shows that the twist at the end of the tale is not that Jesus had failed, nor that He was about to teach some theological ideas on suffering. Rather, Jesus uses this situation to point us to the fact that He is life itself and He backs this up by raising Lazarus from the dead. We may not know every answer to suffering, but Jesus offers us more than mere answers. He offers us true hope. This, then, is the central message of the book: Christianity offers us Christ Himself as One who is far more precious than anything the world can put in His place. McLaughin helps the reader to consider each question from new angles, providing many helpful thoughts and answers and, undergirding everything, points us to Jesus.
I would highly recommend Confronting Christianity, whatever your motivation in reading it. If you are a Christian wanting to defend your faith more effectively, a sceptic wishing to hear a Christian response to your objections, or someone on a very personal journey seeking answers, this book is both helpful and insightful. Our secular culture asks some important questions, many of which are weighty, many of which are deeply challenging. Christians need to be ready, not only give answers but to point people to the source of hope. Confronting Christianity is a good first step in helping us do just that.