Every generation has an apologetics book that they call their own. Will the meme generation trust a meme connoisseur to answer age-old questions on Christianity?
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you.
Today I review “Why Believe?: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity” by Neil Shenvi. 272 pages, published by Crossway in June 2022.
It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD14.99. I got this book free as part of Crossways Blog Review Programme. Crossway had no influence in any part of this review.
Neil Shenvi is better known as the scourge of the Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement. In his website, shenviapologetics.com, he has reviewed nearly a hundred books and two thirds of them are on race and gender. If you search “Neil Shenvi” on your podcast player, you get episodes like:
- Confronting Wokeness in the Church with Neil Shenvi
- Foundations of Critical Theory: An Interview with Neil Shenvi
- Racism, BLM, Supreme Court, and Neil Shenvi
- Social Justice, Critical Theory, and the Bible with Neil Shenvi
Today we are not reading Shenvi’s book on Critical Race Theory. That book is being written, and if you follow him on Twitter, you can get near real-time updates on his progress.
For his debut, Shenvi has instead chosen to write a book on apologetics. Do we need another one when we have C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, Josh and Sean McDowell’s “Evidence That Demands a Verdict”, Lee Strobel’s “The Case For Christ” and J. Warner Wallace’s “Cold-Case Christianity”.
These books are still around. They are still relevant today. In fact, Shenvi often quotes Lewis. If he is quoting Lewis, it begs the question, why not just read Lewis? Can Shenvi do better? Let’s see.
The table of contents lists ten chapters. They are:
- The Trilemma
- The Resurrection
- God and Revelation (Part 1): Nature
- God and Revelation (Part 2): The Moral Law
- Arguments against God
- The Gospel (Part 1): The Uniqueness of Christ
- The Gospel (Part 2): Christianity and Sin
- The Gospel (Part 3): Christianity and Salvation
The chapter headings could have come from any good introductory textbook on apologetics.
Browsing through the chapter sub-headings, most of the material seem familiar but there are some new-ish questions. “What Caused the Universe?” is familiar. “Why is Mathematics So Successful?” is new to me.
Chapter Six, “Arguments Against God” covers three topics. The Problem of Evil is familiar. Evolution is familiar. The Hiddenness of God… that’s new… to me.
If you are a young Christian, or better yet, not a Christian, and have not heard a reasoned argument in support of Christianity, then the content here will be immediately fresh and exciting for you.
But if you are familiar with this battle arena, called apologetics, is there anything for you? Apologetics, which I should have mentioned earlier, is the discipline to defend the faith.
Let me give you three reasons why I believe you should consider reading this book, whether you are a young Christian, or seasoned apologist, or militant atheist.
1. A Reasoned Approach
In this book, Shenvi plays conversational chess with us. He moves the white pawn. We counter with a knight. Then Shenvi moves his queen to capture our king. And asks us to try again.
For example, in chapter two, Shenvi quotes C.S. Lewis’ famous Trilemma. Jesus can either be a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. The Bible doesn’t allow the options to say that Jesus is a good moral teacher. You just can’t. C.S. Lewis, who is the OG, first made the case in his apologetics classic, “Mere Christianity” and the trilemma is a favourite for Christians everywhere. If apologetics is a chess game, the Trilemma is a favourite opening. But it’s not a checkmate.
Lewis assumed that most of his hearers believed the Bible to be generally reliable. While that belief may have been common in mid-twentieth-century England when Lewis was writing, it is certainly not widespread today. Most people view the Bible as an incoherent mixture of fairy tales, moral parables, and legends—a cross between Aesop’s Fables and The Lord of the Rings.
How does the unbeliever counter the Trilemma? Easy. The Trilemma is irrelevant. Shenvi eloquently explains why it’s irrelevant:
We don’t need to worry about the claims of Jesus any more than we worry about the claims of Batman or Aragorn. No one lies awake at night wondering whether to surrender his or her life to Darth Vader. Fictional figures might inspire us, but they do not demand our allegiance.
Now we come to the first reason for you to consider reading this book, and that is the “reasoned approach” we read in the subtitle to the book. If he wanted to, this book could be rewritten as a dialogue because there is a lot of back and forth in this book as we go deeper exploring the topics.
If you have read Plato’s Republic or any Socratic-type dialogue, you know following arguments can be tiring. Shenvi’s easy writing style, the logic statements, illustrations and tables makes the arguments easy to follow. The ease of our trail hides the effort he has made to make the complex, simple. The books and writers he quotes do not make easy reading, which goes to my second point.
2. Hear What the Experts Say
Earlier when I said Shenvi was playing chess with us, to be more accurate, Shenvi is showing us multiple chess games against other grandmasters.
If you, the unbeliever, lose an argument with Shenvi, you could say it’s because you don’t have the facts. You don’t know how best to make the case against Christianity even when you know you are right. You could argue that a better player would crush Shenvi. You are at a disadvantage because Shenvi’s is more prepared than you.
But that’s not true for scientists, philosophers or experts who have made a name arguing against the existence of God in general and Christianity in particular. They are supposed to have the facts. They are supposed to know how to make an overwhelming argument against Christianity. Shenvi takes them on.
For example, after explaining the Trilemma, the Liar-Lunatic-Lord argument, Shenvi introduces Bart Ehrman, ‘probably the nation’s most well-known New Testament scholar’. Referring to the gospels, Bart Erhman says:
Imagine playing “telephone” over the expanse of the Roman Empire, with thousands of participants, from different backgrounds, with different concerns, and in different contexts, some of whom have to translate the stories into different languages all over the course of decades. What would happen to the stories?
Shenvi quotes Paula Fredriksen, a religious studies professor at Boston University. Shenvi introduces us to the Jesus Seminar, a high-profile group of scholars who have concluded that, “eighty-two percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him.”
If you have family or friends who were scared that you will turn into a religious nut, they have probably told you to watch YouTube videos or read books or consider arguments that ultimately came from these experts.
“Listen to the experts. It’s not rational for people today to believe in Christianity.”
Whether it’s on the reliability of the Bible, or the science of creation, or the problem of pain and suffering, the unprepared Christian would be pummelled to the ground, if he or she is not prepared.
And Shenvi’s book prepares you. It gives you the facts, the step by step reasoning and eventually the confidence to say that the Christian faith is a rational faith, it is a defensible faith. In an Crossway podcast interview, Shenvi explained that many Christians do not know how to defend the faith and many non-Christians are surprised or stunned to hear a rational defence.
The problem of pain and suffering? Non-Christians have it worse. Listen to their answers. In contrast, the Christian answer to the problem of pain and suffering is better, its clearer. Our answer matches with reality and our practice.
Or consider another one. Science shows that the way creation is, it’s ‘too perfect’ for it to be random. Among the explanations, atheists give is the multiverse. Shenvi writes:
It seems very odd for an atheist to scoff at the implausibility of God and then to affirm the existence of an infinite, unobserved, and undetectable ensemble of parallel universes.
Let me give a quick recap on why you should consider reading this book.
Reason number one is his approach, the reasoned approach in the subtitle of the book. The back and forth draws us in. You don’t need a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry specialising in Quantum Mechanics. Shenvi has that PhD, but you don’t need it to understand him.
Reason number two is Shenvi brings the experts with the latest and best evidence for and against Christianity. And if what is here is not enough, you have the footnotes and the keywords for further research.
If this was a chess game, in every chapter, Shenvi is saying checkmate, you don’t see it yet, but I’ll show you that no matter what you do, I’ll checkmate you. Jesus wins. Christianity wins.
But the victory celebration here is muted by reason number three.
3. The Best Defence is…
Shenvi says proving that Christianity is rational is not enough, we must also show that it is true. He rightly points out that few people believe in Christianity because it was shown to be rational. Rationality is a low threshold.
Let me quote my favourite part of the book. It’s a long quote. Shenvi writes:
Consider an analogy: imagine I’m playing pickup basketball at a park when I suddenly collapse. A crowd gathers, but they don’t agree on what happened. Some people say I just tripped and should get up and “walk it off.” Others suggest I twisted an ankle and may need a brace to finish the game. One person runs to get ice, another to get an ACE bandage, a third to get a bottle of Advil from the pharmacy across the street. All of them offer to help me up to my feet. While I’m lying on the ground a woman rushes up to me with a look of extreme concern. She says: “I’m a doctor. I saw this man fall and I know exactly what happened. We need to get him to a hospital immediately.” She crouches down beside me and says urgently: “You can’t feel your legs and you can’t move. I’m going to call an ambulance; your life is in danger.” I immediately tell the crowd, “Do exactly what she says.”
The people around me are incredulous. They think she is wildly overreacting. They begin to question her credentials. They start to speculate loudly about her real, ulterior motives. Yet, in spite of their skepticism, I have reason to believe her. Why? Because I can’t feel my legs and I can’t move. Somehow she knew these two truths, even though no one else did. No matter how implausible her claims might seem to bystanders, I have crucial information they don’t have. I have firsthand, immediate, and undeniable awareness of my own condition. Based on that knowledge, my trust in her is justified.
Later, he writes:
This story explains how most people come to know that Christianity is true. People put their faith in Christ when they become personally aware of their own moral condition and their need for a Savior. The implicit reasoning behind their decision is easy to follow: Christianity is either true or false. If it is true, then its truth explains its unique ability to diagnose their spiritual condition. But if it is false, then it is an incredible coincidence that Christianity uniquely explains two deep, existential realities entirely by accident.
Doesn’t what Shenvi describe resonate with you? It does for me.
Chapter 7 shows that Christianity is unique. Chapter 8 is on one deep existential reality: sin. Chapter 9 is on the other: salvation.
I am going to indulge myself and give you another quote. But this time from a non-Christian. Stephen Prothero, the chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University is quoted here:
While it may seem to be an act of generosity to state that Confucians and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews can also be saved, this statement is actually an act of obfuscation. Only Christians seek salvation.
A sports analogy may be in order here. Which of the following— baseball, basketball, tennis, or golf — is best at scoring runs? The answer of course is baseball, because runs is a term foreign to basketball, tennis, and golf alike. Different sports have different goals. … To criticize a basketball team for failing to score runs is not to besmirch them. It is simply to misunderstand the game of basketball. … Just as hitting home runs is the monopoly of one sport, salvation is the monopoly of one religion. If you see sin as the human predicament and salvation as the solution, then it makes sense to come to Christ.
In this same chapter, Shenvi then breaks it down. He decisively shows that not all religions are the same because only Christianity see sin as the human predicament and salvation as the solution.
I appreciate Shenvi making explicit the connection between the gospel and apologetics. He is not the first one to discover or write or speak about it. If you read the New Testament, it’s there. The gospel and apologetics go hand in hand. Distinct but not separate.
When you study apologetics, you can very quickly get lost in the details and forget why you are even doing it.
For example, a physicist, Lawrence Krauss, claims that quantum mechanics shows that something can come out of nothing.
What do you say to that? Are you a physicist? Do you know quantum mechanics? Are you willing to do a deep dive in this arcane discipline? Shenvi can defend but that’s just one topic. An unbeliever can easily machine gun ten questions before you barely answered the first.
Knowing this, it’s important we focus on the central apologetic thrust: The gospel. I am not talking about the virgin birth, or the miracles of Christ, or the crucifixion, or resurrection or ascension. All these are important and related to apologetics, related to the gospel, but Shenvi reminds us we need to present the gospel itself: sin and salvation, in our apologetics because it is the best defence of the Christian faith.
In conclusion, this book is for everybody: Christians: young and old, non-Christians: docile or hostile.
Is Shenvi better than C.S. Lewis, the McDowells, Strobel or Wallace? Let me tell you that, hundreds of years will pass, Shenvi and all the rest would be forgotten, but C.S. Lewis, the Oxford English Professor, will still be fondly quoted.
As for the other apologists, they have their own angles. The McDowells have their evidences, Strobel the journalist has his journalistic methods and Wallace the detective has his detective methods.
Which made me wonder. What if Dr. Neil Shenvi decided to do apologetics by using his Ivy League training as a theoretical chemist specialising in quantum mechanics? I laughed at the thought. Readers would spin away uncertain, entangled and scattered.
At least that’s what I thought at first. But on second thought, maybe, just maybe, the benefits of the theoretical chemist’s training is not immediately observable.
Maybe God has prepared him for such an occasion as this. Maybe looking from God’s perspective: You were trained to explain quantum theory, I will use you to explain who I am. You were trained to review scientific peers and their work, I will use you to review scoffers and their work. You were trained to study and present the most fundamental of science, quantum mechanics, I will use you to study and present the most fundamental of apologetics, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
By saying this, I’m not saying that God only makes use of apologists who succeed in getting published. If you read 1 Peter 3:15, the verse carved in the heart of apologists everywhere, that verse is written to all Christians not just the few. It says: “give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Do you believe that God prepares us through our knowledge, skills and experience? If so, then Shenvi’s book and other resources could be means for our preparation. I am not saying Shenvi and his book is God’s gift to mankind, I’m just saying that we should be more prepared to give a reason for our faith. And his is a good resource.
Other Resources and Concluding Thoughts
Speaking of other resources, do we have other books? Newer ones?
Well, before this book, the most recent apologetics book I read and reviewed was Eric Metaxas’ 2021 book, “Is Atheism Dead?” His book has three parts: science, archaeology and atheism, tackled in more depth and unsuppressed glee. Shenvi’s, in comparison, covers a wider range of topics climaxing with the gospel in a more reserved tone.
Just to warn you, to the unbeliever, Metaxas’ tone is “Take that, you fool!”, whereas Shenvi’s tone is “Change my mind. Let’s have a conversation.” Which is why if you give a book as a present to an unbeliever, Shenvi is a much better gift.
As for other apologetic books I would recommend, I have been naming them all day. You will find C.S. Lewis, Josh and Sean McDowell, Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace in any bookshop that has a shelf labeled apologetics.
Does the rookie Shenvi unseat them? No, he doesn’t. I believe he joins them. As I said in the beginning every generation needs its heroes, I mean, apologists. And as hostility against Christianity increases year by year, we can only hope that apologists will raise to the challenge each and every time.
And that’s what Shenvi is doing in his debut book, facing down the challenge against Christianity.
If you only know Shenvi and don’t like him because of his activism or, more accurately, counter-activism in Critical Race Theory, then I ask that you read this book to get a better sense of the man. He is a Christian who loves the Lord. By reading this, you will know how his mind works and perhaps even be convinced by what he says here.
What he offers in this book is a reason to believe and if you accept it, the world will be a bit more sane, a lot less strange and everyone will grow to be more reasonable with one other.
This is a Reading and Readers’ review of “Why Believe?: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity” by Neil Shenvi. 272 pages, published by Crossway in June 2022.
It’s available in Amazon Kindle for USD14.99. I got this book free as part of Crossways Blog Review Programme. Crossway had no influence in any part of this review. Thank you for listening.
- “Why Believe?: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity” by Neil Shenvi. Amazon.
- “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Amazon.
- “Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh and Sean McDowell. Amazon.
- “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel. Amazon.
- “Cold Case Christianity” by J. Warner Wallace. Amazon.
- “Is Atheism Dead?” by Eric Metaxas. Amazon. My Review.
- “Alive: A Cold Case Approach to the Resurrection” by J. Warner Wallace. Amazon. My Review.