Since lockdown I have listened to a lot of podcasts whilst out walking. One of my favourites has become Unbelievable which hosts debates on matters of faith and belief. The show attracts high profile authors and activists and often pits Christians against atheists.
These debates could easily become pointless and bitter, like listening to an argument on twitter. But they don’t largely because of the skills and approach of the presenter, Justin Brierley.
Brierley always remains even-handed, good humoured and generous to anyone who appears on the show. I was so impressed that I wrote to him a few months ago to ask to interview him because of how he manages to publicly combine grace and truth.
But at that time I had no idea that a member of my own family would soon be appearing on the show…
‘The most unpleasant character in all fiction?’
In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins wrote:
‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’
This sentence received a lot of criticism, not least that it was anti-Semitic. But it inspired an American preacher-turned-atheist, Dan Barker to write a book justifying each one – as well as adding some more criticisms of this own too.
In the 10th anniversary edition of The God Delusion, the afterword referred to the criticisms of the quote and Barker’s subsequent book:
‘Aside from deploring it, who has the temerity to go through it, point by point and dispute it? Dan Barker has written a rollicking case for the prosecution…The ball is in the critics court and I don’t expect to see a return of service.’
My older brother Martin read this and decided to take up the challenge. He chose not to duck any of the accusations laid down by Dawkins and Barker and write a book which responds to each one, chapter by chapter.
God is Good: Exploring the character of the Biblical God was published earlier this year.
Martin is a Church of England vicar and a former lawyer. Alongside all his pastoral work in his parish, he has dived deep into the Bible, the context in which it was written and reflected at length on the God it reveals. At the start of the book, he writes:
This book is an attempt to use reason to show that the God revealed in Scripture is good in a way that we can recognise, and whose every action and command is consistent with his essential nature, which is love.
As I have written before, I also struggle with many parts of the Bible. Yet, as Martin writes, no one can argue with what a uniquely influential document it has been:
The Bible has been the single most influential collection of literature in the history of the Western world, providing the philosophical underpinning for the advanced development of loving family life, community justice, human rights and respect for others, education and medical care for all, commerce and industry, banking and finance, welfare provision and political emancipation.
Just one example from my area of work (as I presented at an academic conference at Lincoln University last year) the Bible has been by far the most important text in influencing how we respond to people who are homeless.
The essential worth of every human being, the social justice in the Old Testament, Jesus’ teaching and example and the Letters to the early Church, have shaped our common life, and especially how we respond to the vulnerable, like no other document.
Speaking more personally, I know that reading the Bible (and increasingly listening to it) remains the single most important spiritual discipline in my walk with God. And this means wrestling with the parts I struggle with. We cannot just ignore the difficult bits and edit them out. Exploring the character of the God the Bible presents is a critical task for Christians.
Both my brothers and I grew up in a home where there was a lot of debates on theology, politics, sport and many other subjects. As Martin says in the Acknowledgements at the start of his book, we don’t always agree on everything!
But I am full of admiration for the dedicated, thoughtful and brave way that Martin has responded to this attack on the Bible and the God it reveals. I find his commitment challenging and inspiring.
After a copy of Martin’s book was sent to Justin Brierley, he was invited on to the Unbelievable show last week to debate some of these issues with the person he wrote in response to, Dan Barker.
You can either listen to the full discussion on the Unbelievable podcast or watch it on Youtube on the link at the top of this article.