The subtitle of McLaughlin’s first book is “12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion” and the book basically consists of an introduction plus twelve essays; providing answers to some of the most commonly (and fiercely held) objections to Christianity. These are: 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 Can you Take the Bible Literally? Hasn’t Science Disproven 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?
The first thing to note here is that McLaughlin is asking and responding to the right questions. Many Christians have detected a significant cultural shift over the last generation, in terms of the questions we are asked – and the objections people have to faith. Notice that here, the discussion is focussed less on abstract discussions about the theoretical possibility of the existence of God or miracles; and more on the issues of ethics and “does it work?” and “it is fair?” type questions. This, as becomes apparent during the course of reading the book, these questions are not the result of detached academic musings; but of countless real conversations with people who McLaughlin has engaged with at a profound level. Indeed she says, “disagreement is not a sign of disrespect. Indeed, I debate hardest with the people I respect the most, because I take their ideas seriously” (p50).
The second point is that each of these chapters provides really good answers to the questions she faces. Not all the reasoning she offers is new, or original – but these chapters frequently express timeless apologetics in innovative, and rather engaging ways. The argument about all the blind Indian holy men and the elephant appears in Keller, and before that in Newbigin – but that’s not a problem, it’s a reasonable point to make!
Ranging with remarkable ease between the great questions of meaning, science, value and ethics, McLaughlin rests her easy prose on an impressive range of readings, all of which are footnoted. One rather pleasing stylistic aspect of this is that along with presenting the arguments, McLaughlin tells the stories of people she has interviewed whose thought, and lives has been impacted by the force of them. So, for instance, while examining the precarious atheistic grounding for ethics, she speaks to Sarah Irving-Stonebraker, who she remembered as a fellow Cambridge PhD student – and an atheist. Irving-Stonebraker, had subsequently become a Christian, not least due to thinking through the problems of ethics for the atheist. Likewise, her chapter on science contains some of the remarkable statistics which chart the implausibility of viewing the fine-tuning of the universe as the outcome of pure chance. However, along with that tells stories of people like MIT Professor Jing Kong, whose research drove them towards faith. Mclaughlin’s own testimony is woven into many of the arguments too, not least rather disarmingly in the chapter on sexual ethics; which is especially helpful in that most fraught of debates.
Thirdly, despite the fact that this book engages with some very serious issues, it is remarkably accessible, clear and superbly written. The prose is lively, lucid and hugely engaging; and the footnotes would be an amazing reading course in themselves. While most of my favourite Christian apologetics books like Keller’s classic “Reason for God”, are designed to be read from beginning to end, as a sustained argument; this book is different in that most of the chapters work as stand-alone arguments. This makes the content, once again, highly accessible. It was one of the books I most enjoyed reading last year.
I first came across Rebecca McLauglin’s work when I was pointed to a remarkable blog-post she wrote entitled “It’s time to go on the offensive”, which she allowed us to republish here.
Confronting Christianity is available here: Crossway hardback, £14.99