Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey (Review)
Crazy Christian or Annoying Atheist: Our Only Two Options?
Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position through the systematic use of information. Within Christianity there has often been great excitement and enthusiasm for the world of apologetics because, on some level, it feels really good to be able to "prove" what you believe.
Cross Examined is written by professed atheist Bob Seidensticker (who blogs over at Patheos.com), and it serves in some degree to be an apologetic against Christianity. I suppose one could call it an atheist-apologetic, but I'm not sure it's as much that as it is "here's why I think Christianity (and God) is bogus."
Using the fictional narrative tool to get his points across, Bob tells the story of a young man named Paul who becomes torn between two mentors: an eccentric, overbearing, uber-religious preacher named Samuel, and a jaded, home-bound recluse, skeptic atheist named Jim. Paul seems to want to stay connected to Samuel and to the church and to the faith that saved him from the destructive and criminal path he was on. But when he strikes up an unconventional friendship with Jim he discovers that the "faith" that was given to him (by Samuel) seems markedly weak and thin when held up to criticism and "facts."
So Cross Examined explores this unconventional spiritual journey in a relaxed and easy to read way. I was appreciative of the narrative approach, even if it got in the way at times. Overall the book was an enjoyable read, and here are a few thoughts I have about it:
What I Liked
There is a strain of Christianity (of which I grew up in, and was well versed) that remains painfully simple. But its simplicity is, perhaps, its own downfall. The Bible is viewed as a plain and easy to read and easy to understand textbook, full of answers to all life's questions. Verses can be read, understood, and applied at face value, as though it were written exactly to me, for me, in 2013. Critical thought is generally frowned upon, because it has the potential to cast doubt, and doubt is to be avoided at all costs! Apologetics is a straight-foward exercise of making sure you have all the right answers. There are packaged arguments designed to prove the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, and so on. In fact my entire life was changed because of one conference I went to in High School where the sole purpose was to teach High School students apologetics, and help us learn to "witness" (argue) to our peers about Jesus, the Bible and God.
This strain of Christianity is characterized by (if not caricatured by) Pastor Samuel.
Early in the book, Samuel hosts a debate with an atheist wherein he proceeds to completely destroy his foe. The atheist is made to look a fool because he could not answer Samuel's amazing insight and "proofs" of God's existence. Many readers familiar with traditional apologetics would probably find this debate pretty typical of what they were told to expect should they ever engage with an atheist. The more seasoned reader would be laughing at the absurdity of it all, but that was Bob's point: to expose this strain of Christianity for being pompous in its simplicity and over confident in its truthiness.
And this was one of the best parts about Cross Examined for me. Someone who has not thought critically about their faith, about the Bible, about God and Jesus, would read this book and likely be in for a rude awakening. Because there do exist really good reasons to NOT believe in God, to not believe the reliability of the Bible, to not believe in Jesus, etc.
Paul's conversations with Jim do a pretty decent job of undermining much of Christian Apologetics. And the issues he raises, the questions he asks, the points he makes, are all things that the Christian needs to hear. Needs to acknowledge. Needs to be aware of.
However, similar to the way that the atheist who first debated Samuel came across as a stupid atheist who couldn't answer anything intelligently (thus falsely bolstering Samuel's "apologetics,") I felt that Paul's conversations with the "smart atheist" Jim were equally fashioned. Which leads me to...
What I Didn't Like
I thought Jim (the character who, I imagine, represents the author's own POV) got off the hook too easily. His arguments in favor of atheism were met with Paul's naiveté, or just plain ignorance. Yes, there were some good points. And yes, the critical atheist can poke some major holes in Christian apologetics, but it came across as though Jim's perspective, then, was the ONLY obvious choice when faced with the "facts."
And then the book ends with Paul, basically, coming to the conclusion that in order for him to continue to be Christian he would have to essentially check his brain at the door and proceed with his heart only. Meaning, sure, be a Christian, but you do so IN SPITE of all the overwhelming evidence against you. And you do so, now, as a choice against reason. You're choosing to believe, to have faith, when deep down you really know it's a sham.
I've got a problem with that.
I've got a problem with the dualism communicated in Cross Examined. It felt like, according to the author, to be a Christian either means A) you're an overconfident, arrogant, ignorant chump like Samuel who clings to old arguments and refuses to think critically about your faith, or B) you abandon reason and logic and "the facts" and choose to believe anyways.
Actually (and not surprisingly, if you know me), I think there is another way forward.
I think you can actually come face to face with some of the harshest criticism of God, Jesus, the Bible and Christianity, and discover NOT that they are altogether worthless, but that the certain way you've always thought about them might be flawed.
The God/Jesus/Bible that Jim doesn't believe in? Neither do I. Nor, for that matter, do I believe in the God/Jesus/Bible of Samuel.
But the author sets it up as either/or.
I think, if you read this book, you could listen to Jim's arguments and say, "hmmm... you're right... there are really good reasons to NOT believe in the Bible in THAT way..." But this is not the same thing as saying that there isn't another, more compelling and more reasonable and logical way, to believe in the Bible.
So ultimately I think Bob Seidensticker did nothing more than swing the pendulum to the other side in his apologetic of atheism.
Who Should Read This Book
If you are a Christian who thinks you've got really good answers to defend (or even PROVE) your faith in God, Jesus and the Bible, then you should read this book.
Because chances are, you might not have the "proof" you think you have.
If you are curious about what atheists think about Christianity, then this is a fun and whimsical glimpse.
If you love being challenged in your faith... pushed, prodded and poked... forced to really ask yourself, "do I REALLY believe this?" then I would recommend Cross Examined.
I give it 3.5 stars out of 5.