Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Review: Naked God

Is there a God? And if there is, then what difference will that make to my life?

That's the question Martin Ayers examines and answers in this slightly strangely titled book 'Naked God'. It's been out for about four years now, and I heard rave reviews whenever it launched, but it was only recently that I got an opportunity to read it. I'd have to go along with the rave reviews - this is an excellent book to put in the hands of anyone wondering about whether God exists. It probably wouldn't be the initial contact with Christian things, but as an ongoing thought-provoker and guide for discussion and investigation, it is excellent!

Ayers begins the book with a quick survey of the way the world has changed and is changing, in all sorts of ways - technology, sex and many more. He asks the question: 'So how do you react to the change that is all around us?' He goes on to look at how religion seems to be changing, leading him to observe: 'When it comes to the God Question, people keep changing their minds.'

The title of the book is inspired by the television chef Jamie Oliver. You see, the Naked Chef wasn't nude, he was 'stripping the food to its bare essentials.' The aim of the book is to do the same thing with God - to expose the truth about God. This leads to the basic premise of the first part of the book: 'The first task of this book is to show why the God Question really matters... If things are fine without God, then why bother looking for him?'

The chapters in the first section then look at the Naked Truth about why we're here; freedom and knowledge; right and wrong; and they consist of the best analysis of the ultimate end of our secular, pluralist society I've read in a long time. Along the way there are some perceptive comments, including his assertion that 'Atheism is a position of faith or belief just like any religion.'

Chapter two focuses on the belief that the universe is a closed system, only consisting of matter, only fueled by blind, purposeless evolution. But even as many ask the question why are we here? 'naturalism tells us that we shouldn't even ask the question.' You see, if naturalism is right, then it doesn't make sense to live as if there is any purpose or meaning. But, as he concludes, 'the Naked Truth is that if God does not exist, there is no real meaning or purpose for our lives.'

Chapter three builds on this foundation as it explores the ideas of freedom and knowledge. From across the world, he presents examples of people fighting for freedom, and espousing human rights. But, 'naturalism tells us that we people are not really separate, independently existing 'things' after all.' Further, we're really just a product of our genes and environment, and shouldn't be praised for right choices or blamed for wrong actions. He goes even further as he discusses knowledge. The logical conclusion of naturalism is that by thinking about it, we can't trust what we're thinking - because if our brains evolved for survival, then there is no guarantee it tells us what is true. Again, 'what we're doing here is seeing where naturalism actually takes us. It's not pleasant, because it takes us inexorably to conclusions we don't like. But it's only fair to think of the world consistently like this.'

Chapter four looks at morality, and where our sense of right and wrong comes from. He doesn't doubt that there can be moral naturalists. 'But the problem isn't that naturalists have moral values. It's the naturalists have no basis for these moral values.' Therefore, 'without God, there are no universal human rights.' Again, naturalism fails.

Chapter five brings the conclusion of his exploration of naturalism, with a devastating verdict. Naturalism will lead to despair (nihilism) or denial (unwilling to accept that we have no purpose or meaning or morality). He then asks, 'what if there is a God?' 'There is another option. We can investigate whether or not God actually exists.' In all the areas already examined, God would make a real difference, and provide the basis for each of them.

In preparation for the second section, chapter 6 introduces Jesus. 'I primarily want to consider who Jesus was, and whether that changes our mind about God.' Recognising the problem some have with him because of popular misconceptions, Ayers proposes to go back to the evidence, as found in the New Testament Gospels.

Before presenting the positive evidence, he first clears the ground by dealing with two common objections: 1. Isn't Jesus just one of many valid options? But relativism 'doesn't evaluate the reasons for believing something.' He points out that there is a big difference between the opinions and preferences of football supporters and the objective fact of who won the FA Cup last year. 'If God is real, the whole world could deny that fact, and yet it would still be true.' The second objection is: Isn't Jesus just a made up legend? Here he shows how the Gospels are reliable eye witness testimony.

In the rest of the section, he looks at the life of Jesus in a warm, conversational, friendly and engaging way. The topics he covers include 'Isn't Jesus just a good moral teacher?' - the identity of Jesus; Who is Jesus? - his character; Didn't Jesus just die tragically young? - the crucifixion and resurrection. There's also a helpful chapter on the aftermath of Jesus' life, and the objections that could still creep up, such as the socially regressive teaching on sex that the church holds to; the disgraceful record of Jesus' followers, such as the crusades; and the fear of losing freedom by surrendering to Jesus. Each response comes with grace and a challenge to try it out by focusing on Jesus and taking it from there.

Part three concludes the book by pressing home the conclusions by looking to the future. The author deals with judgement, assurance, becoming a Christian, and the alternatives of heaven and hell. There's a clear progression through the book as the false alternatives are closed down, leaving the logical certainty of Christianity based on Christ.

Naked God is a really good book, and one I enjoyed reading. It can sometimes appear slightly wordy, and could maybe benefit from a little editing to become shorter and snappier. There are plenty of cultural references, so the author must like the movies, with illustrations from Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo and Brassed Off (among others). The pitch is probably aimed towards university students and young professional graduates, but most people seeking to engage with our secular culture will find something to stimulate thought and discussion. It would be a great book to read on Christmas Day, when everyone else is sleeping off the turkey dinner. Naked God is available from all good Christian bookshops and for the Kindle.

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