You’re reading this book review because of John Piper, believe it or not. If John Piper hadn’t have invited Doug Wilson to the 2009 Desiring God National Conference, I might not have ended up subscribed to his blog (cleverly titled Blog and Mablog). Having not done that, I probably wouldn’t have seen his blurb about A Shot of Faith To The Head and realized that the author, Mitch Stokes, teaches alongside Doug Wilson at New St. Andrews in Idaho. But, since I made all these connections, I knew it was a book I needed to read, and now, here we are.
Though “Plantinga For Dummies” would not have been a good title, it would capture a bit of what this book is about. Stokes did his doctoral work in philosophy at Notre Dame (much like my own philosophy prof at Dallas) and it definitely shows. However, that is more something I would notice than the book’s target audience will. As Stokes tells us,
The purpose of this book is to take a few of the most important intellectual weapons, tactics, and strategies from recent Christian philosophy and put them in your hands (Kindle Loc. 298-99).
Notice that the goal here isn’t to convince atheists to believe in God; it’s to train you to handily defend yourself. Yet sometimes the best defense is a good offense (Kindle Loc. 302-4).
The book you hold in your hands covers what I think are the most important topics in the debate between Christianity and atheism. The answers it provides aren’t simply intellectual niceties, areas of interest to only philosophers or academics. Rather they’re strategic answers to questions and objections we’ve all encountered (Kindle Loc. 309-11).
Having established this, Stokes’ book is split into 3 parts:
- Defending belief in God in light of philosophy and logic
- Defending belief in God in light of science
- Defending belief in God in light of evil and suffering
In each part, Stokes carries the reader on a journey of discovery that leads to the realization that each of these fields of inquiry are actually better suited for theism than atheism. At the end of each chapter are short summary statements titled “For Your Arsenal” that give a clear snapshot of the ground covered. Through it all, Stokes interacts not just with the ideas in abstract, but with the actual writings of atheists like Victor Stenger, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. He knows his way around the literature, and it shows.
While I anticipated to some degree where Stokes would go with both the science and evil chapters, I was pleasantly surprised at some new arguments he presents from the realm of mathematics and physics. These make a unique contribution to defending the faith that even I, as someone who studied this kind of thing in depth in seminary, hadn’t quite run across yet. I will probably be re-reading some of those particular chapters to make sure the ideas have gotten embedded well in my own arsenal!
One bone I might pick with the method in this book is Stokes’ critique of circularity. In essence, Stokes is explaining the concept of “properly basic beliefs” as a way around circularity (or more properly, to avoid it). These beliefs are those that
haven’t been reasoned to at all, beliefs that are not supported by other beliefs by way or arguments. All reasoning needs a place to stand, a foundation. These foundational beliefs (for example, ordinary sense beliefs) are called properly basic beliefs because they’re the basis of all our other beliefs (Kindle Loc. 579-81).
Stokes then makes the point that when our sensus divintatis (see Romans 1) is working properly, we can treat these basic beliefs as reliable. A corollary to that is that a properly working sensus divintatis (i.e. one that has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit) leads to the properly basic belief in God.
Because I come from the more Van Tillian/Framean school of apologetics, I am more comfortable with circularity and see it as unavoidable for everyone. I can see where Stokes is coming from by opting for properly basic beliefs as the stopping point (or foundation) to avoid the circle, but I just don’t think it does. If these properly basic beliefs are self-authenticating, then we’ve grounded our ability to reason internally and we’ve avoided the circle only by making ourselves the foundation for rationality (despite claiming that God giving us the sensus divinitatis is what keeps our belief forming mechanism working properly). I would rather admit we all have circular belief systems, and then transcendentally compare circles. But, in the end, I’m a little more open to this Plantigan approach after reading Stokes and may need to revisit the issue in the coming months.
Later, to point out a conceptual bone to so speak, Stokes makes this puzzling statement in regard to the Holy Spirit’s connection with our belief forming abilities:
Notice that, whereas we would have a sensus divnitatis even had we not fallen into sin (albeit one that worked properly), regeneration is needed only because we fell. To put it crassly, whereas the sensus divinitatis comes standard, the Holy Spirit’s work is an aftermarket option (Kindle Loc. 1233-36).
Giving the benefit of the doubt, I can see the point Stokes is making. However, given the target audience who more likely than not doesn’t have a rich Trinitarian theology in mind, this can make it seem like there is a scenarios where the Holy Spirit would have nothing to do. Or worse, that in the Garden prior to the Fall, the Holy Spirit had nothing to do. Certainly there was no regenerative work, but there was work internal and external to man prior to the fall into sin.
Also in this regard to puzzling statements, late in the book in one of the chapters on the problem of evil, Stokes says,
When God’s Son was crucified some two thousand years ago by the Roman government, the eternal relationship between the Father and Son was severed. This is why the cross is so horrific. To be sure, the physical suffering was genuine suffering, but that suffering was negligible compared to the pain of losing this infinitely close relationship (Kindle Loc. 3508-9).
As I remarked in my review of Forsaken, you can’t say things like this. In effect, Stokes affirmed the death of God by saying the Father-Son relationship was severed. However, I think this goes to show more that people with doctorates in philosophy can still make logical missteps here and there, than that Stokes actually believes this is what happens. For the larger point that he is making (God took drastic action to deal with sin and evil), it is not necessary to move beyond the text of Scripture and posit a ruptured Trinitarian relationship.
In the scope of the book, these are really minor criticisms. On the whole, I really enjoyed this book and would heartily recommend it for its larger goal. It is a very enjoyable read, and Stokes is a great writer. He takes at times complicated philosophical and scientific arguments and makes them easily understandable. As he says in the book’s acknowledgements:
The book’s intent is…to address the recent avalanche of writings by belligerent atheists – atheists with ridiculously unwarranted confidence in the strength of their arguments. Additionally, the book still intends to boost the confidence of believers, particularly those who have been misled to believe that these militant atheists are at least writing in good faith, that they really have reason to sound so darn confident (Kindle Loc. 3896-99).
Judged against that standard, this book is resounding success. Aside from the couple of missteps I pointed out (and the first of those may just be own methodological quibble) this book is an excellence defense of the faith. I liked it so much in fact that I decided to adopt it for my own apologetics class this coming year. It seems ideal for late high school, early college students, and I’d like to see just how effective it is in that regard.
- Author: Mitch Stokes
- Title: A Shot of Faith To The Head: Be A Confident Believer In the Age of Cranky Atheists
- Publisher: Thomas Nelson (April 17, 2012)
- Paperback: 272pgs
- Reading Level: General Reader
- Audience Appeal: Prophets interested in defending the faith against new atheist advances