Review of ‘The Myth of the Non-Christian’

Myth_of_the_Non-Christian_350_coverLuke Cawley, The Myth of the Non-Christian: Engaging Atheists, Nominal Christians, and the Spiritual But Not Religious (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

Have you ever purchased a baseball cap labeled, “One Size Fits All”? I have. Inevitably, it’s too big for my son’s head but too small for mine. One size doesn’t fit all.

One size doesn’t fit all in outreach to non-Christians either. Unfortunately, our evangelistic programs and apologetics arguments often act as if they do. Based on long experience in campus ministry, Luke Cawley recognizes the need for what he calls “contextual apologetics”: the “art of formulating appropriate and diverse ways of sharing Jesus, based on a thorough understanding of those with whom we are interacting.” (Cawley doesn’t draw a sharp line between evangelism and apologetics but considers them overlapping activities.)

This concern for contextual apologetics explains why Cawley opposes the use of the term non-Christian. “There’s no such thing as a non-Christian,” he writes in the book’s opening sentence. By this, he doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Rather, he’s poking a hole in the way Christians categorize “non-Christians” in one-size-fits-all terms. “‘Non-Christian’ is a category so broad it is obsolete,” he writes. Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, nominal Christians, and the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd are very different from one another, after all.

Moreover, he goes on, “It’s not even something people call themselves.” In other words, the vast majority of people outside the Christian faith identify themselves in terms of what they do believe, not in terms of what they don’t believe. To effectively engage them with God for the gospel, we need to take into account what they believe, how they act, what makes them tick. This requires that we be flexible in our outreach to them. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

That said, Cawley identifies three broad characteristics of effective contextual apologetics: plausibility, desirability, and tangibility. Plausibility addresses the question, “Is it true?” and relies on “words and arguments.” Desirability addresses the question, “Is it attractive?” and relies on a “focus on Jesus” (whom everyone seems to find an attractive figure). Plausibility addresses the question, “Is it real?” and relies on “form, setting, and relationship.”

Though these three characteristics can be distinguished, they usually work together. One kind of question may rise to the fore, but the other kinds of questions still lurk in the background. Knowing this, the wise evangelist knows how to speak to a person in the place where they actually are (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, etc.).

With these broad characteristics in mind, the bulk of The Myth of the Non-Christian examines three kinds of people common in the post-Christian West: spiritual but not religious, atheists, and nominal Christians. For each group, Cawley outlines “stories” that help readers understand the particular contexts of these three groups, “questions” that members of each group typically raise, and “practices” that seem to help move people in these contexts closer to Jesus.

And at the end of the day, Jesus is what contextual apologetics is all about. Cawley urges the importance of “arguing from Jesus” and “arguing toward Jesus.” The former “involves, in conversations and in talks, highlighting how Jesus and/or the Easter event might be relevant to the question in hand.” (Notice that “arguing” does not mean “shouting at” or “offering a syllogism.” Rather, Cawley means something like “engaging in face-to-face dialogue.”) Arguing toward Jesus means “highlighting how the discussion can only be resolved through a fresh investigation of him. Jesus is the endpoint of the argument.”

This doesn’t mean that contextual apologists can skip their homework, by the way. Throughout the book, Cawley emphasizes the importance of research into atheism, science, psychology, other religions, spirituality, history, and the like. To establish plausibility, we must be able to demonstrate that Christianity, properly understood, is intellectually credible. On the other hand, keeping Jesus as the argument’s endpoint reminds us that our conversations serve an overarching spiritual purpose—to move people closer to God, who has revealed himself through Christ.

I recommend The Myth of the Non-Christian to any Christian interested in evangelism and apologetics. As a vocational minister, however, I would especially recommend it to other vocational ministers and church leaders. It will help us understand the challenges in reaching post-Christian Westerners for Christ as well as best practices for doing so.

P.S. This review first appeared at

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A Pentecostal Way Forward Through the Challenges of Science*

Every day, it seems, scientists uncover new wonders — both large and small — in our world. These wonders redound to God’s glory, for He created them all. And among those wonders, surely the human mind ranks high. Aside from the angels, only humans are able to perceive God’s handiwork and praise Him for it.

Yet many humans do not. Instead, they “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18). Consequently, “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21). By they, of course, I mean we. Ingratitude for God’s gracious gifts mars every human heart.

Because creation is wonderful and the human heart wicked, I am ambivalent about science.

On the one hand, I benefit from advances in science. For example, I use Enbrel — a TNF inhibitor drug — to treat my ankylosing spondylitis. My iPhone, iPad, and laptop are indispensable tools in my work and my graduate studies. Their apps and programs make use of complex mathematical algorithms to produce, store, and communicate information. Energy efficient air conditioning and heating keeps me and my family cool in the summer and warm in the winter, at low cost. I could go on with more examples, but you get the point: Science has its benefits.

On the other hand, advances in science seem to portend retreats in faith. A 2009 Pew Forum poll of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that “scientists are roughly half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher power.” According to David Kinnaman, 25 percent of “18- to 29-year olds who have a Christian background” indicate that the belief, “Christianity is antiscience,” is “completely or most true of me.”

I don’t believe Christianity is antiscience. How can God’s Word and His world contradict one another? But many people — including many Pentecostals — believe Christianity is antiscience. How, then, should we as Christians live between the benefits of science and the challenges it seems to pose to our faith?

First, we must be filled with the Spirit. One of Pentecostalism’s greatest strengths is its empirical quality. For us, God is not a concept we ponder or a historical Actor whose past deeds are interesting to archive (though pondering Him is wonderful and recounting His past deeds is encouraging). Rather, God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is a living Person who invites us into fellowship with Him, changes our character at deep levels, and empowers us supernaturally to speak and to act on His behalf. Our experience is evidence — proof, even — of the realities our faith lays hold of. Perhaps that is why Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” If you find your faith questioned by science or anything else, the answer always begins with a prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit, I need You.”

A focus on Pentecostalism’s empirical quality does not mean that arguments are unimportant. We are people of the Spirit, yes, but we are also people of the Word. Jesus Christ is the Logos of God (John 1:1–3,14), His Word, Reason, and Logic. If science or anything else challenges our faith, we must mount a tough-minded apologetic. Paul’s ministry is exemplary in this regard: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Since God exists, any scientific or philosophical argument that denies He exists is a bad argument, and we should be able to demonstrate this through close reasoning. Paul did not merely evangelize the lost, he reasoned, explained, and proved Christ’s vicarious death and victorious resurrection to them (Acts 17:2,3).

Third, we must interpret both Scripture and nature humbly. Scripture and nature are God’s self-revelation (Romans 1:20; 2 Timothy 3:16). Theology is primarily our interpretation of God’s revelation in Scripture, while science is primarily our interpretation of God’s revelation in nature. God is infinite, we are “the grass [that] withers and the flowers [that] fall” (1 Peter 1:24). God is all knowing, “we know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). God is all good, our “heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). Given the distance between God’s perfection and our imperfection, we need to interpret both His Word and His world humbly, always ready to learn more about Him through them.

A new baptism in the Holy Spirit, confidence in the truth of Jesus Christ, and humility in the light of our limitations is a Pentecostal way forward through the challenges that science seems to pose to faith, even as we enjoy the many benefits it confers.

*This is my editorial in the fall 2012 issue of Enrichment.

Conceding a Point is Not a Slippery Slope

Leah Libresco provides some good advice about having “better arguments. (She is a recent atheist convert to Christianity, by the way.)

Sometimes, being honest means updating in the ‘wrong’ direction.  Although, in the long term, you should expect your beliefs to drift toward the correct answer, there’s no reason to expect that you approach that answer monotonically (always moving in the same direction).

We can have better arguments if both players understand this fact, so no one treats it as a humiliating defeat if you concede that a piece of evidence meshes better with your opponent’s position than your own.  That’s the expected sometimes, no matter who is right.  Concede the point and then explain why it’s not enough evidence to make you drift across a critical value where your beliefs and actions change.  There’s nothing wrong with saying, “That’s not the kind of proof I’d need.  It favors your side, but my prior expectation that you’re wrong (for these reasons…) is strong enough that it doesn’t change my expectations very much.”

Talking this way lowers the stakes of each new piece of evidence, so we can consider them reasonably instead of treating any revision of our estimates as a coup de grace.

Christianity the Worst Source of Evil?

John Stackhouse responds to a claim commonly heard from New Atheists, namely, that Christianity is a great source of evil:

Those who would claim the high ground of rational and historical argument ought to sit still for some. And that argument might show–I think it does–that Christianity is not inherently hateful or violent. Instead, it would show that faithful (rather than token or cynical) adherence to Christianity generally makes a measurable positive difference: in terms of the hospitals and schools and science you mention, as well as leading markers of social and psychological health such as lasting, happy marriages, high levels of volunteerism–and, one should note, an ethical structure that actually prizes lasting, happy marriages and high levels of volunteerism.

This is a start at an answer, at least. David Martin’s excellent book Does Christianity Cause War? is worth your reading on this question, as is the volume of essays edited by Kenneth Chase and Alan Jacobs, Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology.

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.” @JohnPiper Really?

Here’s how John Piper begins his response to a question about God’s commandment to slaughter the Canaanites:

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.

Peter Enns has some problems with that.

I do too, though I’m not sure I completely agree with Enns’s critique of Piper.

Your thoughts?

Childlike Faith: Are Kids Born with Belief?

Christianity Today has an interesting interview with Justin Barrett, author of Born Believers.

Why do you suggest children are “born believers”?

I’m using that term in a folk sense, the way we might say that Michael Jordan was a born basketball player, or Mozart was a born musician. I don’t mean that Mozart came out of the womb playing the clavichord, but that given very minimal cultural and environmental input, he was going to take to it like ducks to water. Virtually all humans are essentially born believers—they have a natural receptivity to religious belief.

I’m contributing a new line of research that affirms [Swiss developmental psychologist Jean] Piaget’s insight that children see design and purpose and meaning, but challenges his idea that they see human design or purpose. Piaget posited that young children believe that humans made the mountains or the sun. He thought they believed that God is just a human being involved in this creative process with other humans. But new research is showing that by the age of 4, children say that humans make some things, such as chairs and tables, but not mountains and trees. Even preschoolers know that humans are not the answer to the “who made the world?” question. Someone else is needed.

What scientific evidence do you see?

We are not starting with unformed blobs that can be shaped into anything we like. Research from developmental psychology suggests children learn some things more easily and are attracted to some ideas more than others. There are certain kinds of ideas that children can learn more easily and rapidly than others, and internalize more deeply, such as believing in gods.

Children have a natural disposition to see the natural world as having purpose. Research has shown that children have a strong inclination to see design in the world around them, but they are left wondering who did it. They also know design doesn’t arise through random chance or mechanistic processes. In fact, children (and adults) automatically look for a person behind purpose or design. By five months old, infants already make the distinction between things that are acted upon and those things that do the acting, that is, intentional agents (like people). And preschoolers’ default assumption is that these agents are super-knowing, are super-perceiving, and are not going to die. If a child is exposed to the idea of a god that is immortal, super-knowing, super-perceiving, the child doesn’t have to do a lot of work to learn that idea; it fits the child’s intuitions.

How do you respond to arguments that say that what you are describing is normal childish belief in magical creatures, such as Santa?

There are all kinds of childish beliefs, such as the idea that other people have minds, that there is a real world out there, that the laws of nature are stable, that my mother loves me. All these ideas are rooted in children’s early developing intuitions. If that is someone’s claim, I accept it; religious belief is in awfully good company.

There are interesting similarities to Santa Claus. He is an agent, with special powers to account for certain kinds of peculiar events in the world. But Santa falls terribly short in other domains. He matters only a few weeks of the year at best. He doesn’t fill the conceptual gap about why the natural world is the way it is. There are limitations as to what Santa knows and doesn’t know, what Santa perceives and doesn’t perceive. At the core, the reason children believe in Santa is that Santa is propped up through ruse and deception. If that’s all religions had going for them, they would die out pretty quickly.

Science as an Aid to Interpreting Scripture

Several years ago, I received a book through the mail that argued a startling thesis.

The book—two books in one, actually—is A Geocentricity Primer by Gerardus D. Bouw and The Geocentric Bible 3 by Gordon Bane. It argues that the Bible teaches geocentricity: “the earth is fixed motionless at the center of the universe.” By contrast, modern science teaches heliocentrism: Earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis. Since the Bible is God’s Word, the authors argue, geocentricity is true and heliocentrism false.

The authors believe that acceptance of geocentricity is theologically and spiritually momentous. “At issue,” writes Bouw, “is the inerrancy and preservation of Scripture, especially in the light of the pronouncements of science. At stake is the authority of the Bible in all realms, starting in the realm of science.”

I find it odd that anyone would stake the inerrancy and authority of Scripture on a particular scientific theory, especially a disproved scientific theory. Actually, I find it blasphemous, as it makes God out to be an incompetent astronomer. But I also find the authors’ error instructive. So let’s consider their argument.

Stated as a syllogism, the geocentrists’ argument looks something like this:

  1. Geocentricity is a biblical doctrine.
  2. Whatever the Bible teaches is true.
  3. Therefore, geocentricity is true.

This is a deductive argument. If its conclusion follows logically from its premises, then it is valid. If its premises are true, then it is also sound.

Clearly, the geocentrists’ argument is valid. The question, then, is whether the argument is also sound. Since Premise 2 is true, the question must be whether Premise 1 is true. In support of Premise 1, Bouw cites Psalm 93:1 (KJV), “the world also is established, that it cannot be moved”; 1 Chronicles 16:30 (KJV), “the world also shall be stable, that it not be moved”; and Psalm 96:10 (KJV), “the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved.” These are not the only Scriptures he cites, but they are representative.

Quoting Scripture is not enough to prove Premise 1, however. For example, I could quote Proverbs 14:30 (KJV) to prove that envy is the cause of osteoporosis: “envy [is] the rottenness to the bones.”[1] In fact, however, “Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone.” Envy has nothing to do with it.[2] The proverb writer is not speaking literally here, but figuratively. This is an important point. To prove Premise 1, geocentrists cannot simply quote biblical verses. They need to demonstrate that those verses should be interpreted literally, rather than, for example, figuratively, idiomatically, phenomenologically, or by some other non-literal means of interpretation.

Unfortunately, Scripture doesn’t usually hold up a sign saying, “You should interpret this passage literally (or non-literally).” Rather, it requires that we use our best judgment, employing a variety of hermeneutical tools:

  • Analogy of Scripture (“Scripture interprets Scripture”)
  • Textual criticism (to determine which reading is most likely original)
  • Literary genre (because history isn’t interpreted the same way as law or poetry)
  • Vocabulary and idiom, grammar and syntax
  • Comparative history and culture
  • Logic (because God doesn’t contradict Himself)

Given that many of these tools come from outside the Bible—the Bible doesn’t teach its own grammar, for example, nor does it provide a systematic treatise on logic—I don’t see why science itself can’t be used as a tool of interpretation. If we know, from medical science, that envy is not the cause of osteoporosis, why can’t we know, from astronomy, that Sun does not revolve around Earth? And if we know that, interpret the Bible accordingly?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that science corrects Scripture. Scripture is God’s Word, His personal revelation. Science is a human interpretation of God’s world. Because humans cannot correct God, science can never correct Scripture.

But good science—as opposed to “junk science” or “the latest scientific study”—can correct bad interpretations of Scripture, can’t it? Can’t it be an aid to interpretation of Scripture? I see no reason why not.

Your thoughts?

[1] The website of Whole Person Counseling quotes Scripture in precisely this way, showing that envy and a variety of other spiritual conditions are “factors which produce unhealthy bones” (

Interview with Dr. Craig Keener, Author of “Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts”

In this video, I interview Dr. Craig S. Keener regarding his new book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic). The book (and the interview) ranges widely across New Testament studies, philosophy, contemporary field sociology, and systematic theology.

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