Andrew Wilson. If God, Then What?: Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins, and Redemption. Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity, 2012. 160 pps.
A review by Gavin Ortlund:
Andrew Wilson’s If God, Then What?: Wondering Aloud About Truth, Origins, and Redemption is an accessible, winsome, honest, and often profound articulation of the Christian faith for a post-Christian audience. Wilson describes it as the content of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in the style of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, and this combination of depth and likability makes the book succeed. It will strengthen and equip believers, help inquirers, and challenge skeptics.
Donald Miller Style
The words “wondering aloud” in the subtitle capture something of the book’s disarming, conversational style. Unlike the style of other apologists, the U.K. pastor doesn’t pound his readers into submission with layers of argumentation designed to blow all doubts to smithereens. Rather, he invites readers to question their assumptions and consider the explanatory beauty of the Christian worldview. (In terms of the spectrum of views on apologetics, the book sides decidedly with the “presuppositional” camp, though Wilson doesn’t use that terminology; cf. 39-42.) Along the way, Wilson narrates, jokes, questions, confesses, muses, and marvels. There is casual authenticity to his presentation: he is just as likely to reference a movie he watched the previous evening as he is to reference a classic piece of literature; he might quote G. K. Chesterton to make a point, but he also might quote a somewhat random line from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy that helped him in his personal intellectual development.
Wilson’s courteous tone is well suited for readers who have their guard up against religious truth claims. The book’s first two chapters especially seem geared to clear away baggage hindering postmodern readers; chapter one argues we should subject our beliefs to evidence, contra fundamentalism, while chapter two argues that reasonable certainty in our beliefs is possible, contra skepticism. To some, these might seem like relatively modest conclusions, but Wilson is simply starting with the questions many people are asking, especially in his setting in the U.K. and increasingly throughout the West. Furthermore, beyond their content, these two chapters set the tone for the rest of the book. They establish trust and invite the reader to travel with Wilson on a journey through the ultimate questions of life.
Tim Keller Content
That said, the book’s soft tone shouldn’t be confused with soft orthodoxy or argumentation. Underneath its surface is depth and profundity of insight many lengthier and more academic works never reach. Without question, discerning readers will detect that Wilson has engaged thoroughly in the technical literature on various subjects he addresses, especially in science and history, yet his presentation states important aspects of certain debates in a way that remains clear to the uninitiated and non-scholar. It’s also clear Wilson is authentically sharing his personal journey through that literature. He’s not simply recounting stock Christian answers; he’s making his own arguments, some of which are unique and quite forceful. For example, his critique of Richard Dawkins on the origin of life (73-74) is outstanding, and his contention that David Hume’s objection to miracles is circular (81-84) is as clear and persuasive as any I’ve come across.
The result is that If God Then What? can be read—and understood—by an intelligent high school student while simultaneously delineating arguments that could advance certain discussions in academic circles. Donald Miller plus Tim Keller, indeed.
Comprehensive Yet Compact
Another strength of the book is the amount of diverse terrain it covers in a relatively short time. Following the initial two chapters, Wilson discusses the origin and fine-tuning of the universe (chapter 3), the origin of life on earth (chapter 4), the possibility of miracles (chapter 5), what is wrong with the world (chapter 6), redemption (chapter 7), Christ’s resurrection (chapter 8), and the implications of his case, especially concerning Christ (chapter 9). Throughout these chapters Wilson appeals to a wide variety of disciplines, including cosmology, physics, microbiology, philosophy, sociology, history, theology, literature, political theory, and various aspects of culture. His discussion ranges from the possibility of a multiverse (49, 61-62) and the complexity of DNA (70-72) to what London might look like in heaven (120-123) and the uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of resurrection (149-159). His quotations are as diverse as astronomer Fred Hoyle (52), the poem “Invictus” (111), a conversation with his old apartment mate Dave (79-80), John Lennon’s “Imagine” (113-114), writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (103-104), historians N. T. Wright and Geza Vermes (141-144), and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (66-69).
This breadth of vision is more than a matter of thoroughness or forcefulness of argument. By examining the Christian faith from both the painful and playful sides of life, using both academic and everyday illustrations, Wilson shows Christianity’s explanatory power for all aspects of human existence. For example, while many apologists are content to simply give an apology forsin, Wilson gives an apology from sin—he shows how the (nearly universal) sense that something is wrong with the world is best accounted for by the Christian notion of a fall (see especially 106-108). Similarly, Wilson doesn’t merely argue that the gospel alone can redeem the world; he demonstrates how the gospel fulfills the hopes implicit in other visions of the world’s redemption better than those visions themselves (chapter 7). The book thus demonstrates the comprehensiveness and coherence of the Christian faith’s view of the modern world. And it does so in a fast-moving 160 pages.
Apologetics as Pastoral
It is refreshing to see a pastor narrating his journey in wondering about phenomenalism (34ff.) or reading Antony Flew out of curiosity (56ff.) or marveling at the way DNA and RNA work together (70ff.) or reading thousand-page tomes on historical evidence for and against the resurrection (141ff.). Many pastors don’t seem to be interested in reading outside the field of theology or about anything not directly related to their ministry. But in a post-Christian setting, it may be increasingly necessary for pastors—as much as appropriate within their calling and schedule—to demonstrate how the gospel is situated in relation to various tenets of modern thought. Tim Keller, addressing issues of creation and evolution, has written:
If I as a pastor want to help both believers and inquirers to relate science and faith coherently, I must read the works of scientists, exegetes, philosophers, and theologians. . . . This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew.1
Wilson’s If God, Then What? follows in the footsteps of Keller’s The Reason for God in providing a helpful model of this kind of pastoral bridge-building. May more pastors follow their lead.
Gavin Ortlund is a PhD student in historical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and serves on staff at Sierra Madre Congregational Church in Sierra Madre, California, where he lives with his wife and son. Gavin blogs regularly at Soliloquium. You can follow him on Twitter.
1 Tim Keller, “Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople,” BioLogos Foundation. Accessed July 14, 2013.