If God, Then What?
Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins and Redemption
In jaunty, full caps font the testimonials on the back cover of If God, Then What? declare it to be ‘a real page-turner’ and ‘powerful, compelling stuff’. You can’t blame the publishers for wanting to talk it up, but I couldn’t help but feel this would be a classic case of overpromising and underdelivering. How on earth would a book on apologetics manage to be ‘dazzingly good’ when dealing with stale, academic topics like epistemology and cosmology? Thankfully, it’s everything the cover boasts and more. The prologue begins: ‘I’ve only been in trouble with the law three times, and each time it has been in America.’ (p. 10). Wilson has a way of story-telling that draws you in and propels you forward. The book feels conversational, but not annoyingly so, since he’s not so much trying to chat to the reader as he is wondering aloud to himself. It’s a refreshing and disarming technique.
For example, in dealing with epistemology (the study of the nature and scope of human knowledge), Wilson doesn’t mention the term, instead he tells an hilarious anecdote about a home intruder that introduces his reflection:
‘A little while back, I was thinking this stuff through, and so I did a thought-experiment to see how it worked in practice, and wrote it all down. The thought-experiment was this: how do I know that I ate cornflakes for breakfast this morning.’
By addressing fundamentalism and epistemology in the first two chapters, If God, Then What? positions the reader simply to be open-minded about what follows as the book tackles topics including the existence of God, the human mind, the ‘problem’ of miracles and the reality of evil and death. Of course, Wilson doesn’t make the journey that joyless; the chapters have titles like ‘Galactic roulette’ and ‘A hornet in the icing’. It’s fun, pleasurable reading that deals with huge topics in a quaint, identifiably British manner. I loved it. Wilson’s writing is easy and accessible but avoids being reductionistic, and he often digresses to discuss objections or present alternative explanations in their best possible light. His arguments therefore feel robust, and reasonable, and not easily dismissed.
Despite all the advantages of Wilson’s method and style, it’s worth considering what the book doesn’t do. While God in his kindness may achieve this, it doesn’t aim to convert anyone. Its more modest goal seems to be to open readers up to the possibility of God and that he might have done something incredible and redeeming for our world. As such, it doesn’t ever appeal to the authority of the Bible or even mention it. In this sense it fails to give readers an encounter with Jesus through God’s word. It’s also true that Wilson’s chatty, thinking-aloud device works better for the philosophical topics in chapter 1-5 than when he turns to the theological topics of sin and redemption. Somehow the truths of the gospel are too specific to just reasonably wonder your way to. Who would imagine the cross and resurrection, for example?
Nevertheless, I think this book fulfils a crucial function in the overall task of sharing the gospel. I found myself thinking of several friends who would not easily agree to read the Bible with me, but who might be willing to read If God, Then What? And if they did, I think they’d be disarmed and confronted, and perhaps moved to consider the possibility of redemption. As an ice-breaker for the sceptical, it’s the best I could imagine. I think it achieves this because it has a real sense of discovery, as if Wilson expects the reader to be changed as they think these topics through. You get a sense of what the book feels like in Wilson’s own summary of the experience in the final chapter:
‘Writing this book has been something of a journey for me, literally as well as metaphorically… I peered into glass cases in Dublin, read academic tomes on first-century history in Oxford and Cambridge, reflected on what was wrong with the world in Zimbabwe, and daydreamed about what a redeemed earth might look like in Samoa, Tuscany and New Zealand’ (pp. 152-3)
You really do end up feeling as though you’ve travelled the world with your friend Andrew and stayed up late having conversations with him about life, the universe and everything. Ultimately, I’d love to introduce my friends to Jesus, but I can see how it could help if they chatted with Andrew first.
Jeff Hunt, WA