This is a worthwhile investment of your time, but you will need to put on your thinking cap. If you want to shorten the time spent, fast forward to the discussion among the three scholars.
Collin Hansen is the author and editor of several books, the most noteworthy being Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Hansen is editorial director for The Gospel Coalition.
Hansen’s latest book is Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.
Moore: For those who are not familiar, tell us why an entire book is devoted to the work of Charles Taylor?
Hansen: Charles Taylor’s 2007 book A Secular Age might be the most ambitious work published in the last 10 years. He aims to account for nothing less than the decline of religion and rise of secularism in the industrialized West. The way he pulls together philosophy, history, sociology, and theology in order to tell the story makes him a fruitful conversation partner, even when we disagree about the conclusions. Nobody has been more helpful to me personally as I look behind and beyond the headlines to understand larger trends and factors that make evangelism and discipleship so exciting but also difficult today.
Moore: The philosopher, James K.A. Smith, has also written a book on Taylor. How is yours different than Smith’s?
Hansen: I’m thankful for Smith, who has helped me and many other of this book’s contributors understand the significance of Taylor’s project. Smith does a lot to translate Taylor, who’s not the easiest writer to understand. It can feel like you’re joining a conversation already in progress, and you don’t know if you’re welcome. Several of the contributors to our book, most notably Michael Horton, engage Taylor in more critical ways, especially as it relates to the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. And throughout the book we give more attention to applying Taylor’s work to a wide array of ministry scenarios, from preaching to discipling millennials to forming worship liturgies and more.
Moore: In your introduction you wrote, “We don’t yet know, then, whether the children of the “young, restless, Reformed” will imbibe more of the restless or the Reformed. (Emphasis yours) Would you unpack that a bit for us?
Hansen: I talked with a friend in ministry who instinctively understood one of my motivations for this book. He described his undergraduate years in a Reformed college. Everyone there had grown up Baptist but as a teenager shifted more Reformed in contrast to their parents and home churches. But then they got to this school, and they no longer stood out. Everyone else had the same story! So they searched for new ways to express their individualism: they dropped John Piper for N. T. Wright or converted to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Taylor would recognize elements of the secular “subtraction story” in this narrative. In an age of “expressive individualism,” just about anything can be co-opted for stylistic projection, even if for a time it looks like settled conviction. If the Reformed don’t dig into and catechize the riches of this biblical theology, then they’ll set up their children for another reaction in some unknown new direction.
Moore: Several of the contributors have important points of criticism with Taylor’s work. In that regard, I am thinking of Carl Trueman’s observation that the automobile may have more impact than Taylor appreciates: “Perhaps it is not so much Luther who created religious choice at a practical level but Henry Ford.” Carl says he is exaggerating there, but his general point remains. What do you think about Carl’s comment about the car?
Hansen: That’s one of the standout observations from the book. And as an appreciative reader of Wendell Berry, I couldn’t help but agree with Trueman. How can you practice church discipline if anyone can just leave your church and join another one down the road? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology. What’s so special about your pastor’s preaching when you can watch someone better on television or listen to someone who tickles your earbuds via podcast? Why worry about sexual ethics if the pill and abortion separate intercourse from childbirth? Taylor has an unparalleled grasp on the philosophical factors, but he undersells the technological dimension to cultural change.
Moore: Let me ask this next question by invoking Yuval Levin’s masterful book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right. Levin makes the point that radicals like Paine are not going to be moved to reconsider why tradition is worth keeping unless they see its beauty. I would give us “Evangelicals” high marks on defending the Bible’s truthfulness, but very low marks on showcasing its beauty. Do you think Taylor has much to offer in this regard?
Hansen: Taylor doesn’t so much show us how to do it, but he at least reminds us of the opportunity before us, to showcase the beauty of Jesus Christ and his gospel. Let’s keep preaching and writing books like this one. But let’s also take up the challenge issued by Alan Noble in his chapter on the “disruptive witness of art,” and let’s appreciate what Mike Cosper captures about the longing for transcendence despite the “immanent frame.” We do not live in a secular age in the sense that our neighbors reject anything extra-sensory. We’re secular in the sense that we look to the self, not to outside authorities, for meaning. When we can stir the self to appreciate the beauty of the gospel, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sinners drawn from every tribe and tongue for everlasting praise, we see that our secular age still longs for hope and eternity.
Moore: What are a few things you would like your readers to gain from your book?
Hansen: First, I want them to see that secularism isn’t just a problem outside the church but our primary challenge for discipleship inside every Christian home. If we don’t catechize ourselves and our children in the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in God’s Word, the culture will catechize us in ways that undermine our faith. Second, I want them to know they can learn from Taylor without agreeing with him on everything. Certainly I would disagree strongly with his relatively positive assessment of Roman Catholicism before the Protestant Reformation. And third, I want them to see there is hope in our secular age. Even if we could turn back the clock, we wouldn’t want to. There are challenges to faith at the dawn of the information age, no doubt. But God is at work, if we will only look for him.
I met Greg Ganssle thirty-seven years ago. I was a senior in college and Greg was a young Campus Crusade for Christ (now CRU) staff member. We were on the North Myrtle Beach summer project. Greg was the kind and patient (!) discipler for eight of us guys.
Greg has a long-standing interest in philosophy so he eventually got his PhD from Syracuse. He teaches at Talbot School of Theology. Greg writes both scholarly and popular books. His latest, Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations frames this interview.
Moore: Is your goal in this book to demonstrate that the Christian claims are true, or have you staked out different territory?
Ganssle: David, I am not trying to show that Christianity is true. I think most people think something like the following: “I am pretty sure Christianity is false, and I am glad.” I am trying to get at the second part of the claim. I want people to see that, if they think about what they care most about, they will see that they want the Christian story to be true.
Moore: It is all too rare to find Christians who do a good job of shrewdly sneaking up on you with their creative and clever arguments. For me, the writings of Augustine, Pascal, Newbigin, Chesterton, and Lewis are examples worth following. Tim Keller is a good modern-day example, but he is always invoked in this regard, which makes me believe the landscape of the “creative and clever” is far from glutted. Why is there a dearth of this kind of approach to Christian persuasion?
Ganssle: This is a good question. I think many times we speak and write as if the most important thing is convincing someone of the truth of our position. Thus, we tend to focus on arguments and evidence. What we often fail to see is that people are often not persuaded by our presentations. We don’t pay enough attention to identifying the things that constitute a person’s real objections to the gospel.
Moore: I’m sure you know some happy non-Christians. They have meaningful work, good relationships, and are content. My next-door neighbor is like this. How does your book help us address folks like those?
Ganssle: I make the distinction between local meaning and global meaning. On an atheistic view of reality, there is no global meaning. The universe does not care if you are fulfilled. The fact that there is no global meaning, however, does not mean that the atheist cannot find local meaning. Many of our family or friends find real meaning in the people they love, the work they do, and the things they care about.
Moore: Let’s assume the trinity is the correct view of God. Do Christians have an advantage over Jews and Muslims in articulating the beauty and coherence of what they believe?
Ganssle: I do discuss this in the book. One advantage is that on the distinctly Christian picture of God, relationships are part of God’s very nature. God is his own community, so to speak. The fact that our relationships are so fundamental to our lives, then, makes sense. It reflects one aspect of the deepest reality.
Moore: You have some wonderful things to say about goodness and beauty. Why does it seem that many are not so interested in such things. And to be frank, beauty is not high on the list of many so-called Evangelical Christians in America. Why the lack of interest?
Ganssle: There is a long historical answer to this question. With the rise of the Enlightenment, the discussion about God has centered on truth. Believers have entered this conversation and aimed to articulate a compelling case for the truth of Christianity. In the middle ages, truth was linked to goodness and beauty as the “transcendentals.” These were grounded in the very nature of God. I think believers today are recovering a thicker vision of both goodness and beauty, and this trend will solidify our witness to unbelievers as well as our own delight in God and the world he has made.
Moore: What are a few things you would like your readers to take away from your book?
Ganssle: For those who are not yet believers, I would hope they would be prompted to think deeply on their deepest desires and how the Christian story provides a solid base for these. For those who are believers, I hope they gain a deeper appreciation of their own faith. In addition, I hope they become more adept at holding forth the gospel as a vision of life that is intrinsically attractive.
A few years back I was pondering the practical implications of something in the gospels, so I wrote New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight. Here’s my question to Scot:
Is there a possible clue from Matt 12:39ff that our “apologetic argument” ought to focus more on the history of Jesus resurrection rather than more speculative or philosophical lines of evidence? Not exclusively for there are others passages which showcase other evidence but as an emphasis of sorts?
Scot’s answer was: 100%!!!!
My review of Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God:
I wrote in a previous interview with Tim Keller, “He has a healthy aversion to sanctimony and platitudes. He has a low tolerance for simplistic answers. Years of pastoral ministry in the hurly-burly of New York have given him a deep desire to articulate the Christian faith with integrity. Keller’s ability to frame old issues in fresh ways is a hallmark of both his teaching and writing. “
I’ve read six other books by Keller, but Making Sense of God (https://www.amazon.com/Making-Sense-God-Invitation-Skeptical/dp/0525954155) may now be my favorite.
All the hallmarks of Keller’s writing appear. There is an integrative approach where wonderful quotes (no, I won’t use the overused “money” quotes!) from various disciplines are used throughout the book. Keller clearly keeps up in his reading, especially when it comes to philosophy, sociology, and cultural analysis. How many pastors do you know who have read Charles Taylor’s big book, A Secular Age not once, but three times? As Keller commonly says, he reads so widely because he is “desperate.” Many of us are beneficiaries due to Keller’s desperation.
Another common feature of Keller’s approach, especially as it relates to skeptics, is what I like to call “incremental apologetics.” This is where the skeptic is moved ever slowly. No big jumps from A to Z. The skeptic is paid the respect he deserves. The skeptic is truly listened to, and maybe most importantly, is confident that Keller is portraying his positions accurately. Given these realities it is not surprising that Keller would realize a “prequel” to The Reason for God was needed.
Related to the former is what I like to call “let’s talk on the bridge.” Keller models this well in both The Reason for God and in Making Sense of God. All sides are invited into a conversation (no bomb throwing allowed) where each participant is reminded that they utilize both faith and reason. This can be a tough sell for Christians and non-Christians alike, but it is crucial if real dialogue is to occur.
Making Sense of God is strong at showcasing the problems of a materialistic worldview. The problems that ensue from the reductionism of believing that the physical world is the totality of existence are a particular strength of Making Sense of God. And Keller does not just use Christians to answer materialists like Stephen Pinker. Rather, he highlights other skeptics like Julian Barnes whose reflections on the beauty of Mozart’s Requiem made him wonder whether physical reality is the sum total of human existence.
I close with one slight disappointment and a comment about source notes.
First, the slight disappointment. Keller writes, “All of us have things we believe—including things we would sacrifice and even die for–that cannot be proven. But since these beliefs cannot be proved, does this mean we ought not to hold them, or that we can’t know them to be true? We should, therefore, stop demanding that belief in God meet a standard of universally acknowledged proof when we don’t apply that to the other commitments on which we base our lives.” Granted there is an important truth there, but believing or not believing in God is far more costly than other matters, so it is understandable why we might “demand” more evidence. There may be sufficient evidence for Christianity, but it is understandable why many of us would like more. I found this a bit too quick of a dismissal of an honest objection, something that is uncharacteristic of Keller.
It may seem rather strange to finish this review with a comment about endnotes, but I must. I regularly scan the footnotes (these days they are almost always endnotes) to see whether the author has interacted with the best literature. Not only do Keller’s endnotes demonstrate his careful reading, but there really is a book within a book. My only concern here is that too many readers will forego reading the endnotes thinking they are unimportant, or simply too academic. For those willing to slow down and read the endnotes, they will find a treasure trove of bibliographic suggestions, further interaction, and fuller quotes.
My review on Tim Keller’s latest book will be coming in the next week or so. I’ve read six other books by Keller, but this may be my favorite.
I wrote in a previous interview with Keller, “He has a healthy aversion to sanctimony and platitudes. He has a low tolerance for simplistic answers. Years of pastoral ministry in the hurly-burly of New York have given him a deep desire to articulate the Christian faith with integrity. Keller’s ability to frame old issues in fresh ways is a hallmark of both his teaching and writing.”
I believe this makes twelve books I’ve read by Os Guinness. I first read his Dust of Death,
followed by In Two Minds, then The Gravedigger File, and so on. None have been duds. Os has a wonderful style: accessible, but not simplistic, prophetic, yet loving. His latest is no exception. It may be my favorite so we can only hope Os has many more years of fruitful labors with his pen.
My copy of Fool’s Talk is full of marginal notes. The style is lucid, but there are places where you should pause to consider what the author is saying. I reread a number of sections because all the implications were impossible to pick up the first time.
Many are calling Fool’s Talk the greatest work by the author. I certainly resonate with that assessment as this particular work seems to gather many elements which have been percolating for a long time in the author’s mind.
One quick comment needs to be made about the beautiful book design. Kudos to InterVarsity Press for their great care and professionalism in both content and presentation. In every way, Fool’s Talk is truly a work of art!
It is common to see Christians use the 1+1+1=1 equation to describe the trinity. Their intention is good, but I think utilizing this equation as an illustration of the trinity is misguided.
When we look at the equation we conclude that the trinity is irrational. All our lives we have known 1+1+1=3 not 1. But now we are instructed that there is a heavenly math of sorts where it equals 1.
I was sharing the gospel with a Muslim years ago at the University of Texas in Dallas. He said he could never become a Christian because the trinity was irrational. I shared with him that irrational is not the right word. Mysterious to be sure, but not irrational.
Irrational would mean we are saying God exists simultaneously as one Person and three Persons. Another irrational option would be to say God exists simultaneously as one Being and three Beings. But of course, Christians don’t believe either one of these things.
We do believe that God is one in His Being or Essence, yet three in Person. Each Person is fully God not 33.333% God. That is why you can’t conceptualize the trinity. It is indeed beyond our understanding, but that does not make it irrational.
I asked my Muslim friend if he could conceptualize everything about Allah. He conceded that he could not. He could not get his head wrapped around such things as God being uncaused or self-existent. I asked if he thought uncaused or self-existent would be irrational. “Not if He is God,” he replied. Of course, it would be irrational to say God is both self-existent and dependent on someone/thing else for His existence.
So let’s drop the 1+1+1=1 for the trinity. We don’t want to give the impression that belief in the Christian God is irrational. Mysterious and beyond our comprehension to be sure, but not irrational.
Here are five of my favorite books which help me with “Doubting Thomas” syndrome:
The Skeptical Believer by Dan Taylor
Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin
Longing to Know by Esther Meek
How (Not) to be Secular by James KA Smith
Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age by Roger Lundin