[I have written two blog entries on this book, the other at my Arguing with Friends blog. I look at this book from two perspectives in these two reviews.]
Donald J. Johnson’s book “How to talk to a Skeptic” is an important contribution to the growing literature that aims to help Christians better understand how to dialogue with their unbelieving friends, colleagues, family and neighbours. While Johnson’s book focuses primarily on the category of “Skeptics” (a category that gets a lot of attention these days) many of the principles contained in it will apply to conversations you may have with folks of any non-Christian (and ex-Christian) persuasion. But first, a high-level look at the book.
The book is divided into three sections. The first struck a chord with me because I wrote an entire book on that subject (hence my other blog), and it gives an overview of what a successful conversation ought to look like. The second section explores how to present the Christian Gospel in such a way as to make it intelligible to your skeptical audience and the last section explores some of the reasons we have for believing that the general paradigm outlined in the second section may, in fact, be true.
The book is clearly written to draw Christians into the world of sharing and defending their faith which means its primary audience is Christians who probably haven’t heard a lot of this “Apologetics” stuff before. If ever. That’s a very large target audience, unfortunately, and there is a growing body of literature aimed at helping them grow in this recently overlooked area of Theology.
What are some of the strengths of the book? Considering the target audience I think Johnson does a fabulous job of giving enough of an overview of the subjects one is likely to end up dealing with, without turning each of the subjects into its own treatise. There are enough tomes out there that the interested Christian can turn to if they need help filling in the gaps and that’s not Johnson’s goal. There is an associated downside, though. On several of the subjects Johnson presents one Christian perspective without presenting alternatives (or even alluding to them) which could leave the reader with the false impression that what has been described is the “final answer.” I doubt even Johnson would say that his perspective is necessarily the final answer, but the way some sections are written it may give that impression. It’s a minor complaint, really, but I did find myself thinking, at several points, “that’s not quite how I see things.”
Another strength of “Skeptics” is the fact that there are plenty of references to excellent Christian thinkers. Lewis, Feser, Groothuis, and others pepper the pages with relevant insights. It was nice to see him drawing from a much deeper well than just his own opinion, as valuable as his opinion obviously is from his many years of experience in ministry.
I was impressed by the fact that he placed such an emphasis on the presentation of the Gospel, in fact placing that before worldview issues. I find myself regularly switching those two, and I believe there are good reasons for laying the groundwork of plausibility before putting the actual message out there. In other words, I would have disagreed with his perspective before reading the book, but his presentation has given me serious cause for reflection. So I was impressed with it, not necessarily because I agree with it (I may upon further reflection) but because he made a good case for why it has to be that way and I will continue to turn that point over in my own mind.
As I was reading through the book, and realized that he saw this outline as a (very loose) guide to what the conversation ought to look like in an ideal world, I found myself thinking, “nobody is going to sit through all this in our generation of short attention spans!” There are so many inter-related subjects, and it would take so much time to explore each of them sufficiently, that it’s hard to imagine his “easy to follow guide” actually working in an evangelistic setting. However, as I pondered his perspective I realized this may be a strength of his book, not a weakness. Too often we equate evangelism with a short presentation involving a tract and an alter call, whereas the vision he has in mind is much more long-term. It sounds as though his vision of evangelism would involve many evenings of discussions over coffee; weeks, months, even years. Such a mindset could be beneficial for the church for two reasons. First, if we all approach evangelism this way it might be a good start to helping us shed the image some people have of Christianity as having a bunch of “pat answers.” Secondly, if every new believer had explored the subject somewhat thoroughly, and had a solid foundation laid for the faith before they embraced it, perhaps it might lead to a general deepening of the Faith community; it may help us regain the intellectual roots we once had. It is said that “nobody is argued into the kingdom,” and even if that were true (it is not) it can rightly be said that an entire generation of ex-Christians has been argued out of the kingdom based on nothing but half-baked philosophy that seems to flourish on the internet these days. Beginning our Faith journey with a somewhat deeper understanding of what we’re getting into may just help alleviate that problem. Johnson’s long-term perspective is well worth considering in that regard.
All-in-all I don’t have any very substantial concerns with “How to talk to a Skeptic,” and I have many positive reflections. I would recommend it. By way of disclaimer, I was given a free copy of the book to review, though I would have endorsed it anyway. If you are new to Apologetics, get it. If you are more of a veteran, get it, read it and hand it along to somebody just starting out. It’s a wise investment of time and money.