Friday, July 24, 2009

My review of Surprised By Faith by Dr. Don Bierle

As you may have read in previous entries, I've been reading a book called Surprised By Faith by Dr. Don Bierle on my mother's recommendation. Yesterday, I finished the book and now I'd like to say what I thought about it. I already kind of reviewed the first chapter or two here, so I'll just pick up where I left off.

I've already pointed out how the book loves to flaunt the words "doctor" and "scientist" but never specifically says what field he specializes in, which is weird. All it ever gives away is the very general term, "life sciences," which I guess would be things of a biological nature. So lets give the doctor the benefit of the doubt and say he's a biologist. Biology is one of the most important types of science, I think, and its one of the more revealing when speaking on the human condition, so I'd be very interested to hear what a biologist says about faith. Well, that's not what you're going to get in Surprised by Faith. Science has a method, as Dr. Bierle knows. Its called the "scientific method" conveniently enough. Its, without a doubt, the most conclusive way to know anything because its not biased in any way.

"The scientific method was clearly the method of choice in observing the natural world. But it requires the experiment be repeatable in a controlled environment so it can be observed. History is not repeatable and does not lend itself to the scientific method...How do you prove something that is a one time event?"

So this scientist isn't going to use science in this book. So why do I give a shit that he's a scientist? Instead what he is going to do is try and build a case for faith like you would build a case for something in a court of law. Lee Strobel does a way better job at this, by the way, and for the record I would never hire either of those men as lawyers or detectives. So the "scientist" is going to need to delve into areas of science like archeology and anthropology, areas that he doesn't specialize in.

He starts strong in Chapter 2 "Can I Believe the Bible? The Issue of Historical Reliability" by showing how the New Testament stacks up against other ancient works.
The areas of concern are "Number of manuscripts," "the time interval between the date of writing and the earliest known manuscript" and "the rate of distortion of manuscripts due to copying errors." All three are very important indicators when testing whether or not what you're reading now is what was really written then and in all three areas, the New Testament stands up. In fact, it stands up tremendously over the other works being compared to it, i.e. the Iliad, the writings of Caesar and Aristotle, etc. The difference being that no one is trying to convince people to worship Achilles.

So the NT is popular, and has always been popular, this is true though its not really news. That being said, in my mind, being popular doesn't make it true, necessarily, but I can see why this chapter is important as a building block in the case for faith.

But that's it. He, essentially, rests his proverbial case there. The NT was written, it was popular and we can verify that a handful of the cultural events mentioned therein can be verified when cross referenced with other secular writings of the times. Also, all the disciples, but one, died a martyr's death, which they wouldn't have done if they hadn't really believed that they had seen these things. To me, that's the most interesting evidence but at the same time, how many people drank the kool-aid or gave up their lives for any number of religious leaders? People are willing to die for a lot of reasons, that alone doesn't make their cause just and true.

The next 2 chapters are just telling me what Christians believe about Jesus. Having grown up and believed the way I did, I already knew this stuff. He didn't offer me any reasoning, evidence or theory that I hadn't already heard and heard a lot so I didn't get much out of those chapters.

I took issue with Chapter 5 though, "Where am I? Analyzing unbelief, belief and doubt." According to Dr. Bierle, there are only 3 types of unbelief and they are:

1. IGNORANCE - unknowing, blind
2. DOUBT - distrust, skepticism, unsure, wavering, indecision
3. DECISION - willful, hard-hearted, rejection, rebellion, arrogant

Really? Those are the only 3? Where does "unconvinced" fit in? What about people who have heard everything there is to hear about Jesus and say, "that's not conclusive enough to warrant a belief in things I know to be impossible." Is it arrogant to be Jewish and not Christian, or Hindu and not Christian? Are all atheists hard hearted? The last two chapters of the book are spent essentially telling me that its only my ego and pride that keep me from Christianity and assuming that the New Testament's popularity has been enough to convince me. It was, at best, a little insulting. So I wondered, if this guy really has a mind trained to think scientifically, why is he content with this type of thinking? Why would he draw such drastic conclusions from what evidence is available?

And then he told me.

"It was during sophomore biology lab that I met a girl who saw life differently...Her influence set me on a spiritual search that lasted several years."

His wife, of course. Oh, the things we do for love. I get it, though. When Leah and I got together, she knew how important my faith was to me and even though she'd been raised in a secular Jewish family she felt a pull to share my faith, even though I swore to her that it wasn't important to me that she do that. Whenever we did go to church, it was very obvious how weird it was to her and that she didn't, or more likely couldn't, accept a lot of what was taught. Its a feeling that I now understand. When you're on the outside looking in, its a very different scene. Whenever I hear people speak in depth about their faith now, it almost feels like they might as well be talking about Santa Claus. And I, honestly, don't mean that to sound insulting or belittling but only to illustrate how much my perception has changed.

The other day I saw one of those car magnets that was obviously a parody of the Christian fish car magnets that people have, only this one had wings on the side of the fish that made it look like a rocketship and inside the fish it said "SCIENCE." I chuckled at that but when I thought about it, I don't think its that good of an idea. It makes it look like that person, probably an atheist or some kind of "freethinker", worships science, which no one really does. Science isn't a religion and while I put a lot of trust in doctors and scientists, its not a place for blind faith. It produces its best results under the most intense scrutiny, and that's the way, I think, it should be for everything.

Here's some scientific data that troubled me so, when I had faith.
The earth is over 4 billion years old. The human race as we know it (Homo sapiens sapiens) appeared on Earth over 150,000 years ago. Salvationist religions appeared less that 10,000 years ago. Why is it that we existed for more than 140,000 years before we needed saving? Dr. Bierle points out that, as Peter said, "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." So either God is really bad at math, or something (else) is wrong here.

As for Surprised by Faith, I found that it is short on evidence and logic, big on guilt and very adequate with regurgitating F.F. Bruce and C.S. Lewis. People looking for support of beliefs that they've already decided to hold despite contradiction will find a lot to like about this book, but true skeptics won't find anything of real substance, I'm afraid. I did read it with the same amount of bias that anyone else would have, since I do already have certain thoughts in my head, but I must confess that when I was finished with it, I actually felt disappointed that he didn't have more to offer. Lee Strobel's Case for Faith came up short as well, but was still considerably stronger than this.


  1. "People looking for support of beliefs that they've already decided to hold despite contradiction will find a lot to like about this book, but true skeptics won't find anything of real substance, I'm afraid"

    I think this could be said about a lot of religious based texts...and FOX news :) Or to be fair, just about any show filled with heads talking about politics (except for Jon Stewart - he is brilliant)
    I think people tend to seek out, enjoy & feel affirmed by things they already believe and that just reinforce those beliefs - just like you said.
    The only book I read as a Christian that I think I would still enjoy is "What's So Amazing About Grace" by Philip Yancey. Though for me the only thing that book did was to demonstrate what a huge discrepancy I *felt* there was between who I was and who my religion was teaching me to be. It only served to make me think harder about why I didn't want to be a Christian.

  2. I find one thing really strange. Many Christians say "no" to some idea in science to later agree to it and yet still find (make up) a reason "God" did it. I.e. Why did they drop the Adam and Eve story and not the whole book?! I'm talking about only Christians because that's who I've witnessed this from so far.

    Also Jesus is always invited to our Christmas parties and he never shows up. Who does that!!?

  3. Taylor I want to comment on your evaluation/opinion regarding "Surprised By Faith". First I appreciate the fact that you read the book as many people will critique a book without even reading it completely. Taylor I have been on both sides of this fence. For 20 years I lived without God, Faith, The Bible and Jesus Christ in my life and for past 20 years I have had a close relationship with Jesus Christ and spent many hours reading the Bible and finding out what the Bible has to say. Here is some food for thought: Let's assume you are correct in your evaluation of God, Jesus Christ, the Bible and the sciences. Well, then you have proven you point accurately and passionately and there seem to be no repercussions. However lets say you are are incorrect in you evaluation of Christianity, the Bible, and Jesus Christ than the repercussions are devastating because the Bible teaches that the only way to Heaven is through Jesus Christ and the alternative of not accepting this truth is everlasting Hell. Life is all aout choices.

    Taylor my encouragement or better yet challenge to you is don't read any other religous book until you have thoroughly read the New Testament of the Bible 3 or 4 times and make your evaluation after that. I was given a simlar challenge 20 years ago and it had a huge impact(in a positive way) on me and my life and my family and friends. I am convinced that if you are willing to read the New Testament of the Bible from Matthew to Revelation with an open mind that will impact you in an amazing way. I promise you will have a different take on it. Taylor I hope the best for you as seek to find answers for some of these tough questions.

    Have A Great Evening
    Jeff Whiteford

  4. I read this book, also at the behest of my mother. "Dr." Bierle met her at a conference and promised to help re-convert me to Christianity, if only I would read his book first. So what do you know, mom shells out the money for the book, and I labor through the tired, old arguments for why we should believe stuff without good reason. Then I write him an email. He has yet to reply to me.

  5. Life is such a mystery. Accepting the supernatural is difficult.