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EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

Living with a Wild God

A non-believer’s search for the truth about everything
Barbara Ehrenreich
Granta, 2014

I have developed a habit of reading Christian memoirs, especially those writings which reflect on a conversion of one kind or another. Lately I’ve enjoyed Thomas Oden’s A Change of Heart, Peter Hitchen’s The Rage Against God, Esther Baker’s I Once Was A Buddhist Nun and Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, among others. Now Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Living with a Wild God, is resolutely not a Christian; she refuses monotheism, rejects any idea of a perfect God with a good plan for our lives. Yet she was, as a teenaged atheist, driven to discover ‘what’s really going on here?’(p37), that is, what is life about? What is the meaning of it all? Living with a Wild God is about that quest of hers, which she dropped for most of her adult life of writing and social activism, but has returned to in her seventies. The book a very personal wrestle with her upbringing, her attempts to build a foundation for knowledge and, centrally, her desire to come to grips with an overwhelming mystical experience she had as a young woman.

Ehrenreich’s unfinished business with the events of her young life is dramatically described at the beginning of the book. While her personal papers were being sorted and sent off to a university library for preservation, she kept back  

‘a thick reddish folder or envelope of the old fashioned kind, tied by a string. It had survived for about forty-eight years through god knows how many moves from state to state and from one apartment to another. In all that time I never opened it and never mentioned or referred to it. But somehow I had always remembered to pack it in the bottom of a suitcase, no matter how chaotic the circumstances. Future graduate students could snicker over my love affairs and political idealism if they were so minded, but they could not have this.’ (pX)

In the folder was a series of loose leaf, intermittently produced, personal writings from her teenaged years that led up to ‘an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that I never in all the intervening years wrote or spoke about it’ (pXII). Ehrenreich knew that these papers required ‘a major job of exegesis, a strenuous reconstruction of all that I once thought was better left unsaid’. Hence Living with a Wild God, and if that doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know who you are.

The quest begins in Ehrenreich’s awareness of the brevity and apparent futility of life. Her family raised her to reject religion in favour of an anti-authoritarian atheism, and to embrace thinking as the road to the answers to questions that trouble you, and so Ehrenreich seeks to exercise her sharp young mind in pursuing her quest to make sense of life by thinking. There are a couple of problems she faces in this. One is finding a sure place to think out from. The rationalist Ehrenreich tries to begin with radical doubt, and quickly discovers that there’s ‘simply no way to get from “I” to “not I” once you’ve boxed yourself in to what I later learned is called Western dualism’ (p37). Ehrenreich seems genuinely to have struggled to be anything but a solipsist until her early twenties, and even after that she was not really convinced about the reality of other minds until she had children (p218).

Another difficulty she has in her quest is that she began to experience episodes of altered perception, moments where, ‘something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words’ (p47), where ‘all that was familiar would drain out of the world around me’ (p49). The teenaged Ehrenreich wrote that, ‘it is as if I am only consciousness, and not an individual at all, both a part of and apart from my environment. Strange. Everything looks strange as if I’d never seen it before.’ (p49). Ehrenreich can see how a materialist, neurological explanation might account for these episodes, but she is not ready simply to understand these things as mere temporary perceptual breakdowns. She wonders whether they are instead perceptual breakthroughs—glimpses of the substance of things lying under the named world.

But then these episodes of dissociation are completely surpassed by an experience she has at seventeen. Early one morning, walking in an unfamiliar town, returning from a skiing trip,

‘I found whatever I had been looking for since the articulation of my quest, or perhaps, given my mental passivity at the moment, whatever had been looking for me.’ (p115)

‘[T]he world flamed into life. … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once … the only condition was overflow.’ (p116)

After that she knew

‘that the clunky old reality machine would never work the same way again. I knew that the heavens had opened, and poured into me, and I into them.’ (p117)

That was the day ‘the truth arrived in all its blinding glory’, but Ehrenreich felt it was an experience she could neither speak nor recapture, although it divided her life decisively into ‘before’ and ‘after’. It was an experience she could not make sense of, and as she writes her memoir, she interprets the experience as affecting her as a trauma, a catastrophe, knocking her into a spin and leaving her feeling like a failure, unable to testify to the truth she had encountered. Then it was time to go to college pursue the ambition of becoming a scientist that she knew would win her father’s approval. Ehrenreich seeks a new start in ‘the data, the theories, the mathematical and physical rules that other, more knowledgeable people had come up with’ (p145)

Yet even in the lab she is haunted by the idea that there is an Other seeking her out. Her thesis involved seeking to measure the ways voltage varied with current in silicon electrodes, but the voltages would not settle on fixed values, they oscillated in ways no-one expected, or could explain. Unhappy, unappreciated and under pressure, she wonders whether she is encountering ‘something that was attempting to communicate with me through the voltage tracings, if only I could make out the message’.  

There’s much more in this narrative about Ehrenreich’s early life — her difficult relationships with her father and mother, for example, and the book is an engaging and frank attempt to reconstruct the inner life of the young Barbara. But what I wanted most of all to know is how she would finally try to integrate her ‘Encounter at Lone Pine’ with her view of reality. When she does do this, in the final chapters, she refuses to countenance any consideration of God, theistically understood. From what she writes, she seems to do this out of sheer determined prejudice, believing for various unarticulated reasons that God is some kind of easy non-answer, a refusal to think. It feels like there is also deep loyalty to her family way operating here. I must say this seems itself an easy and probably unfair shutting down of the possibility theism might be true. What she is prepared to try to integrate into her atheism is that there may really be an Other or Others: living (although perhaps not organically), intentional (although not necessarily benevolent or moral), perhaps emergent within the universe and present to us in various ways (through nature as well as in experiences like Ehrenreich’s). Ehrenreich’s last words in the book are ‘it may be seeking us out’ (p237).

What shall we say to this? This is the inner world of a particular card-carrying, vocal atheist. Who’d have known, if Ehrenreich did not have such candour, and the conviction that she owed it to her younger self to write this book? Ehrenreich is doing what we all seek to do to various degrees, that is, to make sense of the world as we experience it. Reading Ehrenreich’s own testimony to her experience, it hardly seems like a narrative confirmation of atheism, a world devoid of transcendent glory. Rather it seems like it’s a world where it’s hard to shake the idea that Someone is there, encountering us, and seeking our attention.

Ben Underwood, WA

Book Review: Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia
By Emma Kowal
Berghahn 2015

Emma Kowal describes herself as a ‘native ethnographer’, by which she means an anthropologist studying her own kind. Her own kind in this book are ‘White anti-racists’, a term she defines carefully. By ‘White’ she doesn't necessarily refer to skin colour, rather it applies to those who ‘willingly and unwillingly, knowingly and unknowingly, participate in the racialised societal structure that positions them as 'White' and accordingly grants them privileges associated with the dominant Australian culture.’ (11). Anti-racist is defined from an anthropological perspective as ‘a culture, discourse and identity’.

Kowal is studying a group of health workers like herself (she worked in the Northern Territory as a doctor and is now Associate Professor of Anthropology at Deakin University). These are 'White anti-racists' who are trying to do good in Indigenous communities, and who want to be distinguished from past attempts by colonial settlers such as missionaries and the Assimilationists. Her own experience of working in the field led her to see that there was deep questioning as to whether they were actually doing anything to 'close the gap'. Was it just another colonial enterprise? One of the workers she tells of critiques herself by saying, ‘nearly every health promotion message she advocates conflicts with the social practices of the Aboriginal people she works with.’ (7).

There is a gap between the promises of liberal multiculturalism and the experiences of Whites who seek to help the Indigenous minorities. That is where many of those most committed to do good are trapped. Why are they trapped? Partly because of the way they understand themselves.
The understanding of 'difference' between Indigenous and non–Indigenous is part of a set of beliefs held by ‘non– Indigenous, left-wing, middle-class professionals who work in Indigenous affairs’. Kowal's term is 'remediable difference' – ‘a difference that can be improved.’ These beliefs affirm the positive value of the culture of Indigenous people, recognize the problems that stem from dispossession, displacement, intergenerational trauma, and the responsibility of the Australian people and governments for the problems and the obligation to help. 'Self-determination' and 'community consultation' are crucial to this set of beliefs.

One of the tensions for White anti-racists is between equality and difference. ‘...the beliefs of White anti-racists are underpinned by the idea that Indigenous people are distinctively different from White people (difference), and … that White people have both the ability and an obligation to improve the lives of Indigenous people (equality).’ There are distinctions in 'difference'. Some difference is good (the traditional culture), some is bad (the things that need to be erased in order to 'close the gap').

Serious questions arise at this point. ‘..when we close the gap and make Indigenous people statistically equal to non-Indigenous people, could we be making them less Indigenous?’ Is this a form of assimilation? One of the ways out of this dilemma is to see the problems as essentially structural. We are not changing the people only the structures that cause their disadvantage.

But what if 'agency' was also a significant factor? Remediable difference assumes that Indigenous agency (choice) will mirror the values and choices of White anti-racists. But what if Indigenous people were 'radically different'? What if they had radically different priorities and values to White people? One of the difficulties is that Indigenous people don't always seem to want to follow the values and behaviours that White anti-racists think they should.

A paradigm shift away from self-determination is also under way. The Intervention challenged the principles of self-determination. Remedialism has replaced remediable difference. Cultural difference will no longer be relevant.

Another threat to White anti-racists understanding is the concept of the 'authentic Indigenous voice'.  Pearson and Langton have been instrumental in ‘ending the fantasy that Indigenous people at a community, regional or national level present a unified view.’ (163)

‘The dilemmas … described in this book illustrate the broader contradictions of liberal multiculturalism.’ (165) They reflect the crisis of universalism, particularly of a universal human nature.  Culture theory recognises multiple ways of being human. Differences between groups and their behaviours could now be regarded as mere difference. Not difference related to a universal norm or even the norms of another culture. No longer 'remediable difference'. Just 'culture' without any power relations implied.

Possible alternatives? Decouple Indigeneity from disadvantage and marginality. Loosen the definition to include all kinds of Indigenous people. Redefine it to free it from its opposition to whiteness and from its anchor to the past. Perhaps allow multiple identities or layered (Pearson) identity. For White anti-racists an alternative politics could explore non-stigmatised, non-settler identities. ‘A more reasonable goal may be a plurality of identity … which would reject the idea of mutually exclusive categories without abandoning categories altogether.’ (169).

Like Peter Sutton's The Politics of Suffering, Kowal's book confronts a disturbing reality. The Gap is not closing. And the attempts by White anti-racists don't seem to be helping. Her idea is that part of the problem is how White anti-racists define themselves, and part of this problem is how they define the Indigenous people they are trying to help. Her solution lies in the area of new definitions and understandings of identity. Her suggestions are tentative. The debate is still fluid. Christians have something to say about this.

Dale Appleby, WA

Book Review: Inventing the Universe: Why we can't stop talking about science, faith and God
Alister McGrath
Hodder and Stoughton, 2015

The “war” between science and religion has moved on, and this book is an attempt to move it further on, into a discussion that can be mutually respectful and enriching. McGrath traces his own transition from a fully assured teenage atheist to a convinced Christian. Part of this testimony involves a recurring and unflattering comparison between the Anti-theist group and his teenage over-simplified atheism. McGrath engages respectfully with a number of dialogue partners on various sides of the debate, including Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Mary Midgley and Roger Scruton. One of his aims is to correct outdated perceptions of the conflict between science and religion (it is a recently invented myth), although his chief opponent is the New Atheism which he claims is not traditional atheism, but actually Anti-theism.

The main idea is that science has limitations, as does religion. There are clear boundaries beyond which their claim to knowledge is false. The newscientism, really an ideology, wants to pretend that science can tell us about meaning (or the impossibility of meaning) and guide us in ethical and moral areas. McGrath ventures into psychology (do we have souls?), ethics, uncertainty in science, and the nature of knowledge, to clarify these issues. He also discusses briefly the problems of religion wanting to answer questions of science as in Creation Science, and has a very helpful discussion on Darwinism and evolution (both biological and social).

In all of this he proposes an old idea that religion, especially Christianity, and science are able to engage in a “narrative of enrichment” that allows both parties to contribute what they do best to a broad understanding of the universe we are part of. “This is not about inventing a make-believe universe, but about discerning the deeper levels of meaning and beauty that are already present within our universe yet which are too easily missed if we limit ourselves to one tradition of inquiry or to one map of reality.” (203)

The book seems repetitive at times, but the repetition mostly concerns McGrath's changes of mind over time. This, for me, was quite interesting so the repetition didn't become too tedious. The book ranges over a lot of different science, much of it up to date. Its main strength is to make clear that the Anti-theist agenda is based on an outmoded Enlightenment understanding of rationality, that the debates have moved on, that the later writings of Richard Dawkins and others are less and less reasonable and scientific, and that there is a lot to be gained by recognizing that science and Christianity have significant areas of understanding to contribute to each other.

Dale Appleby, WA

Book Review: The Gentle Answer
to the Muslim Accusation of Biblical Falsification
Gordon D Nickel
Bruton Gate, 2014 (2nd ed. 2015)

While the media reminds us daily of the challenge of resurgent Islam — not least to the secular West — as Christians we are reminded that Muslims represent the largest unreached people group - over one and a half billion people. Indonesia, our near neighbour, has over 200 million adherents of Islam.

Despite the awfulness of what has been done to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere, we need to remind ourselves that we have more in common with Muslims than with the secular humanism that is now the dominant worldview of our culture. With Muslims, we believe in one sovereign  Creator whose judgement we all face. Muslims too, honour Jesus as the greatest prophet before Muhammed. They believe he was born of a virgin, that he lived a sinless life, and that he will be a key figure in the final judgement.

There are, however, fundamental differences: most obviously in the understanding of the unity of God; in the understanding of the person and work of Jesus; in the diagnosis of the human plight, and, of course, Islam offers no saviour. These differences are rooted in a different understanding of revelation.

That is the issue addressed in Professor Gordon Nickel’s book. Both Christians and Muslims claim their respective holy books to be the Word of God. Muslims believe the text of the Qu’ran was inerrantly received and transmitted. The angel Gabriel dictated the words of the Qu’ran to Muhammed and what was recorded has been perfectly preserved to the present.

However, Muslims deny the reliability of the Bible, firstly because they say human authorship is not compatible with divine inspiration, and secondly because the text has been corrupted in transmission. Worse still, Muslim polemic regularly claims that the text of the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets and the Gospel has been deliberately changed, not least to obscure the identity of God’s final messenger, Muhammed.
This is where Dr. Gordon Nickel comes to our aid with his scholarly The Gentle Answer to the Muslim Accusation of Biblical Falsification. Dr Nickel’s book sets out to answer in particular, the fierce accusations found in an influential Arabic work, first published in 1864, namely the Izhar al Haqq (which translates as “Demonstration of Truth”) by Rahmat Allah Kairanwi.

The book, which draws heavily on 19th century liberal biblical scholarship, has continued to provide ammunition for Muslim polemicists, not least in the subcontinent, through its Urdu translation.

In answering the charge that Jews and Christians have falsified the Bible, Dr Nickel makes many helpful points. Firstly, he establishes that the Qu’ran itself makes no such claim. Rather it speaks of the earlier Scriptures with great respect. Secondly, this respect for both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels is echoed by the earliest Muslim commentators. Their criticism is of the Jews of Medina who failed to recognize the Messenger of Islam, despite the promise of his coming.

With regard to the charge of a corrupt transmission of the Biblical text, Dr. Nickel cites the remarkable discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) which shows that the Hebrew Scriptures have been transmitted faithfully since the second century BC.  Likewise with regard to the New Testament documents, the abundance of manuscript evidence exceeds anything that Muslims can show for the Qu’ran or for the subsequent biographies of Muhammed.

Moreover, Dr Nickel is able to cite many earlier exegetes of the Qu’ran who spoke frankly of the incompleteness of the Qu’ran and of the lack of unanimity concerning its interpretation.  With regard to the reliability of the Qu’ranic text in current use, the scrutiny applied to the Bible’s transmission is avoided.

In the final section of The Gentle Answer, Section 4 (Chs. 19-24), the author deals with the central truths found in the trustworthy Bible, truths which Muslims deny — about Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy: the suffering Servant King foreshadowed by the Prophet Isaiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,  the Messianic Son of God, and the promised Holy Spirit. These are the teachings which provide the raw data for the doctrine of the Trinity — one God in three persons.

Much debate between Muslims and Christians has been characterised by fierce hostility, not least from the Muslim side. The Gentle Answer invites Muslims into a mutually respectful conversation based on the contents of Qu’ran and the Bible. I commend to you this scholarly but accessible book as a very useful resource for sharing Christ with Muslims and for answering the objections which are commonly raised. Professor Nickel fulfils his stated aim expressed in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

“In your hearts reverence the Messiah as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in the Messiah may be put to shame.”

Bishop A.H. (Tony) Nichols, WA

Book Review: Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture
Mark Yarhouse
IVP Academic, 2015.

Gender dysphoria (GD) and transgender issues are currently a hot topic in the media and everyday discourse, thanks in no small part to the topic being thrust into the limelight by celebrity events. However, the current media focus on the topic doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the issue.  From a psychological perspective, Gender Dysphoria [302.85]—or Gender Identity Disorder (GID) as it was known—has been described in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM)—the psychological diagnostic handbook—since version III (1980) under different categories. My own interest in the topic originated with two friends announcing their identification as ‘trans’ and ‘gender identity dissonant’  around fourteen years ago. In particular, there has been a lack of helpful, well thought through analysis from a Christian perspective.

Understanding Gender Dysphoria by Mark Yarhouse, is a relatively slim book given his previous work on modern psychopathologies and books on therapy. As with his previous work he writes from a distinctly Christian perspective, although firmly embedded within the psychological discipline as a well-rounded practitioner. As such this book walks the fine line between disciplinary specificity and appealing to a broader audience. The introduction describes this tension well:

‘This book invites Christians to reflect on several issues related to these findings [sexual identity research], a broader research literature…and other anecdotal accounts. …I note that as we wade into this particular pool, we are going to quickly be in the deep end, as the topic is complex.’  (p11)
It is this tension that makes this book both appealing and somewhat unsatisfying. From my own background I will be reviewing it from both a psychological and a theological perspective, with all the conflict and overlap that this presents.

Yarhouse  starts from a point that is relatively accessible to his audience. However, this accessible starting point is not without its costs, as the first few pages present a steep learning curve. By the second page of the first content chapter Yarhouse is deep within identity theory, chromosomal difference, and introducing a spectrum of gender identification. Although this book may be written for a lay audience it expects a strong degree of education, reflection and analysis. Drawing from his psychological background Yarhouse helpfully differentiates between biological/chromosomal sex, gender identity, and gender role/acts. It is this degree of nuance that is useful in defining aspects of the discussion up front.

From the first chapter that seeks to appreciate the complexity surrounding gender dysphoria, the second chapter attempts to assemble a useful Christian perspective on the topic. The opening anecdote sets the tone for the chapter by highlighting a limited and closed-minded approach. Throughout this model building Yarhouse draws upon a biblical theology of humanity. From this he proposes three preliminary models for engaging with gender dysphoria: the integrity framework, the disability framework and the diversity framework. While these three frameworks represent usable approaches it is worth noting that none of them will please everyone. Conservative Christians will likely follow after the integrity framework, while abhorring the diversity framework. Similarly staunch supporters of Gender Dysphoria (in the DSM-5 sense) will likely support the diversity model while decrying the integrity framework. Nevertheless these three frameworks are a useful heuristic for approaching the issue. Yarhouse attempts to blend these three frameworks in presenting an integrated model that acknowledges ‘integrity of sex differences,’ drives for ‘compassionate management of gender dysphoria,’ and validates ‘meaning making, identity and community.’ From a theological perspective the anthropology feels quite shallow and I wish it wrestled further with the imago dei and Christian identity. Nevertheless this section is a good introduction to the topic, and will be useful even to those with no faith convictions whatsoever, due to the paucity of helpful literature on the topic. The majority of literature at a lay-level provides brief glosses at best, while more in-depth literature tends towards ‘clinicalisation’ and diagnostic issues.

From this chapter, the book moves on to an investigation of the Phenomenology and Prevalence (Ch4) and Prevention and Treatment (Ch5) of Gender Dysphoria. These chapters are presented from the perspective of the DSM-5 with some minor comparisons with the previous DSM-IV. Here Yarhouse’s clinical practice is set centre stage, with regular anecdotal excursuses supporting and highlighting facets of the clinical definitions. Personally from my background in socio-cognitive psychology, I would wish for more in these chapters on the DSM-5 update to the DSM-IV given the change from Gender Identity Disorder to Gender Dysphoria. This change in the DSM-5 acknowledges the increasing ‘medicalisation’ of the diagnostic criteria, but seemingly sidelines many of the identity issues in favour of focusing on the ‘distress’ involved in the diagnosis. (Koh, 2012) This aspect of identity and gender is the primary area that my inner socio-cognitive psych wants to see addressed and engaged with further from a Christian perspective, especially concerning issues of cognitive dissonance in this sphere.

The final section of the book envisages a Christian response from both individuals and the broader community (or institution). These chapters seek to cement the theory and specialist praxis within the sphere of Christian community. Ultimately these chapters are likely to be the most useful to the intended audience and have the most impact; my psychological and theological wishes aside. These chapters paint a picture of a church that seeks to love and engage with those who have gender identity concerns. Furthermore, the picture that Yarhouse paints is certainly not the whitewashing of the issue that is commonly presented, nor is it the seemingly random spatters of paint that resemble a church that has not wrestled with these issues. The practical application here will greatly benefit churches and individuals alike.

Ultimately this book provides an invaluable foray into the issues surrounding Gender Dysphoria/Gender Identity Disorder. It seeks to present a strong case for understanding gender dysphoria from a biblical, theological, pastoral and psychological standpoint. The argument presented will certainly not please everyone, with many conservatives seeing it as capitulating and many progressives seeing it as not radical enough. Personally there are times I wish that certain issues were investigated further, or extricated from the holistic model to be examined individually. However, despite these issues the book makes an important contribution to a sorely neglected issue within the church, and our society, today. All readers, even those who have no faith affiliation, are likely to find this book useful in addressing the basis of their exploration in understanding gender dysphoria.

Chris Porter, Vic.

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