Saturday, February 09, 2013

Book Review: 10 Answers for Skeptics by Alex McFarland

Any pastor, or pastor-in-training, who wants to know what drives contemporary scepticism, or merely what is happening in the student world, should read and re-read Alex McFarland’s 10 Answers for Sceptics. McFarland is a wise man who knows that most intellectual objections to the Christian faith are driven by the heart, and not the head. So, rather than spell out quick responses to the problem of evil or the New Atheism, he identifies the motives for scepticism, so that the evangelist and apologist can take an axe to the root of the tree.

I immediately recognised several of the ten types of sceptic that McFarland describes, and it is plain that he has gained his expertise through friendship and communication. Anyone who has spent time with New Atheists, ex-apologists, or internet infidels will know the “Educated Sceptic”. He is a graduate, proud of his new, liberating knowledge, and keen to demonstrate his freedom from the yoke of the evangelical sub-culture. Unfortunately, he stopped learning about Christianity in Sunday School, and does not understand the depth of the faith that he is criticising!

McFarland also gives good advice for dealing with “Sensual Sceptics”, hedonists who see God as a threat to their lifestyles. He makes the important (and often overlooked) point that not every hedonist has a wild appetite. “There is a more subtle form, too: the person who enjoys his life just as it is and doesn’t want to give it up.” Shopaholics, workaholics, the career driven man or woman – all are sensual sceptics, and suffer from a more common form of hedonism than the riotous living of  Larry Flynt or Mickey Cohen.

The sensual sceptic justifies their hedonism by arguing that each person should be free to decide on her own ethical values. McFarland responds that this is a life of slavery. Without God, we are left only with appetites that can become our masters and destroy us. There is more to our life than our flesh; by living in harmony with God’s desires we free ourselves to enjoy his creation to the fullest. McFarland also gives good advice for dealing with Proud Sceptics, Wounded Sceptics, Tolerant Sceptics and others.

However, Mcfarland goes astray in his advice for dealing with “Orphaned Sceptics.” These are sceptics who have been hurt by their father, or a father figure. They can be found reading The Shack or re-imagining God at feminist theology conferences. To be sure, these are puerile and self-centred attempts to rewrite Scripture, and they need to be exposed as such. However, the answer to this brand of scepticism is not to call the creator and sustainer of the world “daddy”! Frankly, I am astonished that McFarland would claim that “abba” meant “daddy” in Aramaic.

In fact, “Abba” was not a childish word (grown men would use it to address rabbis), and we run the danger of trivialising our relationship with God by thinking of him in this way. I agree that the Fatherhood of God points to the depth of God’s love for, and knowledge of, each individual that he has called by name. But I doubt that “daddy” quite captures this love beyond all knowledge and measure. It is more likely to sound infantile to a sceptical ear.

NT Wright points out that the Lord’s Prayer begins “our Father”. In the Old Testament, Israel was the son of God. So, whoever can pray the Lord’s Prayer has joined a new Israel, a chosen people, a community in exile, living in hope. Surely, this message would have some appeal to sceptics? It might have some appeal to a “Frightened Sceptic”, who “may be afraid of how God’s interference will change his life”. McFarland advises that we minimise their fear, and “assure them that God is a good God.”

But it is the goodness of God that is so terrifying! Yes, God can equip us for every task that he calls us to; but that leaves us without excuse! And if someone’s love of surfing, or football, or snooker is keeping them out of the kingdom, the last thing they need us reassurance that God takes a relaxed attitude to leisure activities! Such a person has not grasped the enormity of the choice that lies before them. Jesus warns us it is better to lose life and limb than the kingdom. JC Ryle gives better advice in “Holiness”. Preach the cost of becoming a Christian, but also preach the reward. Hide neither cost nor benefits, and bid the sceptic be wise.

Yet I found much more insight and wisdom in “10 Answers for Sceptics” than anything I could disagree with. He has helpful guidance for evangelists dealing with “Seeking Sceptics”. McFarland is aware that some sceptics seem open and interested in Christianity; however, they really just love academic research and debate. We shouldn’t “waste precious time and resources feeding people who are going to play with the food or just pick at it when there are people who are truly seriously hungry and appreciate the food you are giving them.” There comes a time when we must be good stewards, and move on to those who are really willing to listen.

But it was the overall theme of this book that moved me most. This is “the importance of becoming friends with non-Christians, even with no expectation of return. Because the whole of the gospel – and the tool that God uses whenever a human heart is penetrated – is love. Pure, unconditional, reciprocal love.” So we are discouraged from treating sceptics as “projects” to be won over to our way of thinking, or as opponents to be defeated in a battle of wits. In McFarland’s experience, we should simply love our neighbour as ourselves.

That is both sound advice and a profound thought. Jesus' command to love our neighbour is as much about mission as it is about ethics. All of McFarland’s advice is framed within this insight, and that alone is reason enough to recommend this practical, insightful and wise book.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Graham Veale is Head of Religious Education at City of Armagh High School. With David Glass, he runs the apologetics group Saints and Sceptics. Their articles can be read at


James Harrison said...

"We shouldn’t “waste precious time and resources feeding people who are going to play with the food or just pick at it when there are people who are truly seriously hungry and appreciate the food you are giving them.” There comes a time when we must be good stewards, and move on to those who are really willing to listen."

That was something i needed to hear. I was thinking about my experiences wasting hours "debating" with skeptics eager to bash whatever you say w/o even considering both sides.

Good review!

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