Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Would You Like Some Theology With That Latte?"

Book Review: When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics by Paul Copan (Baker Books, 2008)

No, this book is not about God's favorite coffee and it does not even touch on such crucial theological issues as regular versus decaf. Rather, this book addresses questions that are likely to come up (and for Copan have come up) in conversations over coffee with friends and strangers. Apparently, when Copan goes out for coffee he ends up with a lot more than a latte--he thinks all Christians should be prepared for the same.
Copan has organized this helpful book around three categories of questions, questions to which he provides helpful and clear answers. The first category is "Slogans related to truth and reality". Here Copan addresses questions often raised by a relativist culture such as "Why not just look out for yourself?" and "Do what you want, just so long as you don't hurt anyone". The latter has become the prime ethical principle of our postmodern culture since it appeals to our sense of radical individualism and autonomy. But like many slogans which have noting to commend them but widespread acceptance, this one crumbles upon examination. The question for the person who proposes radical autonomy is that of why autonomous people should stop at hurting other people. This way of thinking has forgotten that freedom is a means of attaining human goodness and not an end in itself. The exercise of freedom can become inhuman and arbitrary.
The second category is "Slogans related to worldviews" and includes such issues as "Miracles are unscientific" and "Aren't people born gay?". The issue of miracles is finally a worldview question and not a scientific question. Science can tell us that miracles are not the result of the normal processes of nature but, of course, we already know this. Behind the Christian belief in miracles is the Christian worldview for which God is the Creator who is involved in his creation and for whom even the "laws of nature" are servants of his purposes. The laws of nature are descriptions of how nature ordinarily works so they do not tell us that the Creator who is their source is incapable of acting beyond them. Miracles are not so much "violations" of the law of nature but signs that there is something more to nature than material cause and effect. The slogan "people are born gay" is commonly accepted with many people assuming that it is the result of "science". As Copan makes clear, this is far from the case. The slogan is based on the simplistic notion that there is a "gay gene" which is analogous to the gene for hair color or height. This view assumes that the explanation of a behavior is also its justification. But this is in no way certain or self-evident. We may speak about tendencies and predispositions but such things do not control a person like a fate. The sad assumption behind this slogan is that biology is destiny and it is a bandwagon that other people (such as alcoholics, pedophiles and spouse abusers) will be happy to jump on to justify their behavior. The simple fact is that we can not say that genetic tendency leads to compulsion. This does not mean that homosexuality is simply a choice and it in no way suggests that those who have left off homosexual practice have done so without huge struggles and fierce resistance.
The final category is "Slogans related to Christianity" which includes the question "Aren't the Bible's holy wars just like Islamic jihad?". It is amazing that people who know virtually nothing about the history of the Church can speak as if "the Crusades" were the central event of Christian history. The Crusades have been largely taken out of their context, demonized and left to stand as a statement about the very essence of Christianity. And, it is alleged, the whole mess began with the divine command for Israel to conquer Palestine. Isn't the history of Christianity simply a history of jihad? No, not really. This way of thinking completely forgets that jihad or holy war was never a continuous policy for either Israel or the Church. Holy war does occur in the Old Testament but only on a very limited scale to secure Israel a space in a hostile neighborhood--it never became a systematic policy and it certainly never became a way of spreading Judaism. Similarly, the Crusades did not stem from a consistent Christian policy and their object was not to spread Christianity but retake land that had once been Christian and was conquered by Islam. This is not to excuse the Crusades but only to say that they occur almost as a Christian aberration and only in the context of consistent Islamic conquest of Christian territory ( including part of Europe). Jihad, on the other hand has been a consistent Islamic policy from the beginning. This is not to say that all Muslims favor violence or are violent. It is only to say that historically speaking Islam has seen force as a necessary way of spreading the faith. It is important to note that within the tradition of Christian just war thinking, a war to spread Christianity has never be considered just.
What I have offered is only a sampling of the issues addressed by Copan. Looking at the book as a whole, I think it is possible to say that in terms of apologetics the two major issues which confront us are widespread ignorance of actual Christianity (both within and outside of the Church) and differences among worldviews. All of this means that the task of Christians is going to get more difficult and not easier. Given that this is the case, it might be helpful to take Copan's with you the next time you go for coffee--if not to share with someone then to read for yourself.

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