Christianity for Modern Pagans

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Picking one book to review at the end of a year is always tough, particularly when I’ve read so many that deserve a mention. Particularly noteworthy are G.K. Beale’s epic NIGTC commentary on Revelation, Michael Horton’s Systematic Theology, The Christian Faith and Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity. But if I were to choose one book to review, recommend and then put straight back on the pile to re-read in 2013, it would be Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans.

Jeff Cook, author of Everything New, wrote of Kreeft’s book,

“It’s the very first book I would rebuy if my house ever burned down.”

That got my attention and provoked me to (a) purchase a copy swiftly and (b) check that my contents insurance covered books. In that order.

The book is a compilation of, and commentary on, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. Pascal was a contemporary of Descartes; a 17th century philosopher and mathematician who died in his early 30s. He was an extraordinary thinker and writer and probably one of the greatest apologists ever to have lived, as much for his method as his material. Pensées is a collection of thoughts on life, faith, truth, beauty, knowledge and God. It’s not entirely complete and feels a little ramshackled in places, but as Kreeft writes,

“to ask such a man to write an ordinary book is like asking lightning to sit for its portrait.”

Peter Kreeft has done a marvellous job of compiling the best of the content, arranging it systematically and applying it to our day and age. He argues that “[Pascal] is three centuries ahead of his time. He addresses his apologetic to modern pagans, sophisticated sceptics, comfortable members of the new secular intelligentsia. He is the first to realise the new dechristianised, desacramentalised world and to address it. He belongs to us.” You get this sense when you read it. Whole chunks of it make me see the modern (or postmodern) problem from completely fresh angles, which make me wonder (a) how on earth this book connected with 17th century France and (b) whether we really have moved on over the centuries as much as we like to think!

Pascal brilliantly analyses the root of unbelief and proposes an apologetic method that deals with the cries of both the heart and the mind. He scathingly tears apart the two pseudo-solutions that the world offers for the human condition: diversion and indifference, and he lays out an approach to exploring truth that takes into account both the intellect and the emotions – our longing for answers and our longing for beauty. He writes early on,

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

Part of the beauty and power of this book lies in the fact that Kreeft’s insights are often as sharp and powerful as Pascal’s. I kept trying to imagine what it would have been like if the two had ever conversed. Kreeft applies Pascal’s thoughts brilliantly to our modern condition and gives so much food for thought, not only about arguments for the Christian faith, but methodology for how to present them too. As such, this book is a goldmine for apologists and anyone who not only wants answers to share, but insights into how to construct a cohesive and compelling presentation of the gospel.

The style won’t be to everyone’s liking. By virtue of being a commentary on collected sayings it’s not the most straightforward read! It can feel a bit disjointed and you’ll find yourself needing to flick back and forth to remind yourself what Kreeft was actually commenting on. But it’s worth persisting.  I felt that some of the later chapters dragged a little. Part V: Six Clues Along the Way was, for me, the weakest section of the book. But stop there at your peril… it’s followed by some brilliant chapters on The Wager and experience of Christ.

So if you want a book that will help you to express your faith from a fresh angle, you could do far worse than this book by two master apologists.

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