Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why I Try to Believe - by Nathan Brown, my book review plus personal reflection

Why I Try to Believe - nathan Brown book


Why I Try to Believe: An Experiment in Faith, Life and Stubborn Hope by Nathan Brown

Chapter 1: "why I try to believe" is framed as an inversion in relation to Ryan's Bell's journey "Year without God". Ryan actually did the foreword! Nathan's journey isn't a symmetrical opposite entirely.  ie he didn't start out as a non believer trying on theism for a year.

Chapter 2: "why I try to believe" explained as largely a catchy title and not to be regarded as a summary position.
"Trying" stated an expression of healthy honesty, suggests that "try" our belief in the sense of test ( i think ) - that seems very reasonable. However - the next page; "a father brining his son to jesus was confronted by jesus ..." . ie the author here bypasses his own test / try of faith by directly into accepting the bible text as a given. No questioning whether or not the bible text is actually true. Can we know it was true? if so, how? to what extent? do we have originals? Were copy errors made? etc ... none of that. Text quoted: "anything is possible if a person believes" (Mark 9.23) . this is logically incoherent. ie  anything is possible , including that this sentence is wrong. Empirically testable hypothesis - yet never has it been shown to be true.
Some good commentary on Hebrews11.3 ( all that I know is partial is itself a statement of faith etc ) .
Blaise Pascal mentioned ( this would have been a good time to mention the Pascal wager/ gambit error with a nice reflection back to it as a faith view). Faith view follows:  "even if we are not ready to acknowledge God as the creator..." -  no attempt to question the assertion.
Key chapter element mentioned is authenticity (Kudos here). mention of C.S.Lewis as a reluctant convert. This might have been a good chance to unpack the apologetic nature of Lewis's conversion, ie the Lord Liar Lunatic false trilema. ( for example a fourth "L" , legend is possible).
Wuthnow quoted " the quest to know God" ... this is circular, it assumes the conclusion. ie no questioning whatsoever as to whether there be a god or not. No "try to believe" just "believe" .

Chapter 3:  Mostly musing whimsically on "hope" , Quotes Boyett, presumably approvingly with "I hope death is not the end.That hope is why I believe in God" . Also circular,   ie I hope that X is true that's why I believe X is true. Even if there is more than "dust-to-dust" it does not follow that therefor a god and if so, that it will be that particular god. Possibly the best chapter thus far. Alas he alludes to Jim Wallis who, alas, has well known views that are sometimes problematic ( see "Consistent life ethic" ) ie Wallis is not LBGTI friendly at all, has a strong opposition to abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. (I agree re  death penalty only). Probably better to put some distance between the author and Wallis.

Chapter 4: Ch 4: Trip to "holy land". Predicted that uncertainty and questions would return and says they did. Quotes Lewis again ; "Why must holy places be dark places ?" Excellent question, maybe, I think, because the holy places put the gods ( real or imagined) ahead of actual people. The different, mutually exclusive yet ostensibly "one true gods" cant all be true and when "they" are evoked then conflict must follow of necessity. No reality check. God A says X, God B says Y, God C says Z .

Comments made about the confusion of beliefs in the holy place and then the author comes back to rest as it were , not on physical places but rather on "the sabbath". Basis given : that it reminds us where we came from, who we are and whose we are. Alas for the author - the data do not support a six day creation week with a sabbath as day seven. If the basis is mistaken, as modern science strongly suggests, the does he have a house of cards?

Fascinating allusion / quote re Tim Winton's Cloudstreet; re the power of stories, like they were ... your own memories etc. You don't always know what they meant, but you did know how they felt". Perhaps a little TOO much insight there, doesn't help nathan's belief case.

"This story is that of God's activity ..." assertion, again - effortlessly inserts belief. "Coeneaculum, it is also where Jesus appeared to those same disciples after his resurrection" again.. stated as a given, no "try to believe" just ... belief without trying.

Chapter 5: Clinging to belief . C S Lewis again ( the ruin of many a fine mind?) . Basically problem of pain as a restated theodicy, ie the problem of evil. A very unsatisfying chapter, lots of human feelings and appreciation of loss and grief but then finishes with the oft repeated yet at times nonsensical "it builds character" ploy. There are many times when suffering does not build character at all. The person may suffer and die period.
Uses Lewis's A Grief Observed to highlight pain, and connects(?) on purpose or accidentally by proximity in text to our headline assault etc. ie we also get to observe grief on a hitherto unimagined scale. Concatenates Lewis's (real person) with Job's ( probable mythical person) as suffering and how good it is that they maintained faith. The Job story is in not the same, ie the "God" causes suffering on purpose, allows Job's sons and daughters to get murdered, and yet the story has it as living happily ever after! ( except to for dead ones) an awful awful story. Even as myth this fails the basic morality test. The killing of innocents is murder, plain and simple .... except to those that have faith that - functionally - murder is good somehow in the story.
'Glimpses of beauty, joy ... suggest meaning ...They call for our response" this goes the other way also, doesn't it?

"God seems to value character more than our comfort" Philp Yancy. Worst line in the chapter. 

Chapter 6: Believing Jesus. This assumes that there was a jesus , and that we have what he said . One can believe this but is might not be true. Nathan writes "That he ( jesus) existed, lived, died and did most of the things... are among the best-evidenced historical facts of any of his time". Bart Erhman would disagree. We have zero contemporary references, none at all. The gospels themselves were written decades later. They have contradictory "accounts" and other problems. They are far from history.

"Todays date ...something and someone ...2,000 years ago". When , exactly was the first usage of that dating system? If one were in arabia today, the Hijri Calendar might make similar claims.

"fulfilled prophecy of Isaiah "? Many suggest that this is a Christian retrofit to jewish writings that were appropriated to a jesus story.

"resurrection" mentioned again, no trying to believe , rather, taken as a given that it actually happened. 

Chapter 7: Wanting to believe. He wants what he says he "tries to believe to be good for others, good for the world". Not sure what the point is there. Is it to fit in with the idea that his beliefs are good? Maybe its a test?

"Keeping score whether belief is good for the world... complicated" sure, and the point is?

Bono sings amazing grace ( written by a slave trader btw !) context - remembers a fallen friend, John Smith, a very personal moment for Nathan. The book is at its best when Nathan shows himself ...sans the gods.

Faith, activism and worthy causes - 2/3 isnt bad .

"Abraham the father of ..." - assumes that an Abraham actually existed, no trying to believe but here, again belief without trying.

Then, the worst part of the chapter ( after starting well, lofty , good human concerns) regresses into the world was created good ( despite the massive overwhelming data against this myth as true), ans also rolls out the freedom of choice canard. All the while that even in the world of the story, the "sins" passed onto the 3rd 4th whatever generations is specifically NOT what the future generations could choose by definition. Cyclones, earthquakes etc are not a result of human fruit stealing, of sex positions ( not that the author says this specifically ).   Acts of god are man's fault somehow. ( the author really needs some science books, some on evolution, geology etc).
Chapter 8: Believing after death . He writes "Faced with mysteries of death, humans ... fill the gaps" . Yes, exactly the problem! "The story .. urges in loud and strident tones that ( Jesus) actually did return to life " . Ahem, almost like - these things were written in order that ye might believe.

An apologetic for an ... apologetic. "strong arguments" (not evidence btw) from Strobel ? Seriously? . Low hanging fruit right there, read Robert Price's the case against the case for Christ to see Strobel dissected with precision.

Says it is the core ( alleged) fact that "We cannot overestimate ... what ( allegedly) happened that Sunday " . Not trying to believe, believing without trying.

"We were created to live eternally... nothing could be less natural than lives ... end" . Wishful thinking, the data suggest precisely the opposite. 

Chapter 9 : Needing to believe . This doesn't make the belief true. Needing to believe a false belief is could be ... awkward.

Other key theme of this chapter; "wrestling with hypocrisy". Here Nathan, worries about being hypocritical . I suggest the very opposite, ie acknowledging doubt , is not hypocrisy. If one really believes, albeit in imaginary gods ( as i see them) then, that also, not hypocritical. I think it is only hypocritical to sell made up gods if one knows , or thinks they know that they are just made up. Ironically, I think the non believer is more at risk of hypocrisy in this setting. I suspect that the author strays into the space between belief and non belief as his friend Ryan Bell talks about.

The author's His Paul quote he loosely seems to identify with - deeply disturbs me. ie " I know I am rotten through and through" ... no , no and expletive NO. Nathan comes across as a totally nice human being who really is interested in making the world better, this is the opposite of ... rotten.

"My secret is I need God-that I am sick and can no longer make it alone" . No, as best I can tell, your God is a placebo, you have made it on your own. Perhaps some Derren Brown shows are in order? ***

Chapter 10: Choosing to believe. "It is a bold statement of choosing to believe" . Yes, yes it is, but is it possible? Choose to believe that Zeus is real, or choose to believe that "insert your current god here" isn't real. Try really, really hard to believe in Jupiter, Santa or Cthulu, let me know how that goes.

"I have chosen again to try to believe" . This is an amazing sentence, I would love to see that unpacked. eg how many times has he "chosen" to believe ? Does he believe now? IF you are trying to believe then perhaps you don't believe? "As for me, I'm still trying to believe" ! Wow, guess what, so am I , a "hard core atheist" who was once a believer.

Last part : For reflection and conversation.
This is really very good, my only criticism here is a possible slant towards belief. eg "What have you found helpful in more traditional apologetics" one could add, what parts, unhelpful, good, bad, misleading, circular, dishonest, one sided , other etc

Summary: Premise (?) probably flawed. ie There is a God and one can and should try to believe in it.

Positives: genuine wish for human well being, wants to trigger conversation and thinking ( might backfire, too much thinking might make him an agnostic, then again, if one needs (?) tries (?) to believe, isn't that ...already agnostic?

Negatives : Clings to thoroughly debunked creationism as underpinning many views. Susceptible to the entire rug being pulled out in one go. ( As per Ryan Bell's "sometimes when things unravel ... they unravel all the way". Maybe he is closer to Ryan's views than he thinks he thinks he does.

5 stars for honesty.
6 stars (out of 5) for being human.
4 stars for doubting but framing it as "trying to believe".
5 stars for trying to provoke conversation.
2 stars for thinking the so called new testament is actually history.
0 zero stars for thinking Adam and Eve were real. (seriously dude? this is the 21st century, don't you even science?)
Full stars for gut wrenching honesty.
Zero stars for science illiteracy.
Balance . 3 stars

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