Hardly a week goes by without a self-appointed defender of the Faith whinging about critics who call Christianity to account based on the public profile Christians both tolerate and create out in the public arena.
These geniuses' stock response to skeptics like Richard Dawkins is to loudly complain that
their critique is both shallow and unfair. Skeptics clearly haven't done
the hard yards by researching the leading thinkers. The
wicked critics, they charge, have taken aim at a straw man, a laughable
caricature of Christian truth.
To clarify from the outset, this is neither a pro-atheistic rant, nor
any kind of endorsement of the so-called New Atheists. Rather it's a
protest at the duplicity of those who regard writers like Dawkins and
others as beneath them, and who have built a flattering image - an idol
if you will - of what they think legitimate Christianity is like.
Christianity in the abstract is notoriously hard to pin down.
Christians can usually, however, be easily spotted. They attend
churches, buy (and occasionally read) bibles, get themselves or their
kids baptised, find prayer helpful and hold an awful lot of propositions
to be true regardless of the lack or otherwise of evidence. Evidence
is apparently irrelevant when truth is imparted by something called
revelation. While there are many exceptions, Christians of whatever
flavour tend to be earnest, sincere folk who hold solid traditional
values. Even those who consider ourselves to be outside their fold
still have friends, colleagues and relatives who inhabit that space and
are, by and large, better persons for it.
Christians are the inheritors of a religion that began among fisher
folk, craftspeople, slaves and illiterates. Jesus was not a
university-educated intellectual. Nor was Peter, James or John. While
Paul wrote cryptically, he too would be hard to pigeon-hole as an
academic by today's standards. No one ever accused him of dispassionate
objectivity! Boastful and opinionated, yes; convoluted in his thinking
and hugely egotistical (especially when he was claiming not to be), and
a gifted, driven communicator; yes. But he was neither an Einstein or
even (thank God!) a Karl Barth.
And the people who attend Christian worship services are overwhelmingly
ordinary, everyday folk. The alleged excellencies of the theological
elite tend to leave them cold. They're there because, regardless of the theology, they're making a
statement about values, community, personal and family identity, cultural
inheritance... Take your pick.
Nor is it rocket science to "take the temperature" of contemporary
Christianity. Tune in to the Sunday morning TV evangelists, browse the
shelves at your local Christian bookstore, have a conversation with your
'born again' brother-in-law. Chances are pretty remote that you'll run
over a reference to Bultmann or Tillich.
So why would a skeptic bother to swot up on the works of such rarified
and justifiably obscure writers as Gunton, Torrance and company, when Christians themselves
either can't be bothered, or, if they're not easily intimidated, find their work debatable and dubious?
Reformed apologists are particularly obnoxious when it comes to
trotting out their preferred authorities, invariably fellow-travellers
in the Reformed tradition (J.I. Packer anyone?) that have near zero credibility outside that
particular communion. These braying apologists would, I'm sure, love to
provide the critics with a compulsory reading list - one that no one outside the ivory
towers of their seminaries cares a whit for. They would have a hard time giving away
those books at the local Christian bookshop. There it's all Joyce Meyer, Joseph Prince
and Joel Osteen.
No wonder then that the skeptics focus their aim at the forms of Christianity that
they see out in the real world rather dive down intellectual rat holes.
Not that coming to grips with some of these thinkers isn't potentially rewarding. But let's be honest, when it comes to a choice
between Eberhard Jüngel and Franklin Graham, crotchety old Franklin will
win hands down every time (and frankly, if you've ever tried to
read Jüngel, you'll understand why.)
And while that happens, you can hardly blame Christianity's critics for directing their firepower in the direction where all the fuss is.