The Magic Man in the Sky: Effectively Defending the Christian Faith: Book Review (Author: Carl Gallups)

On the 25th I wrote a number of books I picked up for the Amazon Kindle that were on sale. One of them was Carl Gallups’ The Magic Man in the Sky: Effectively Defending the Christian Faith. I used to be big into apologetics, but haven’t done much reading in this area recently – this had a humorous title, so I thought it might be a good / different read on the topic. I finished the book last night (the 28th), not b/c it was such an amazing read but b/c I only had seven days to return the book to Amazon (their return policy) and I wanted to return it…

The book has received overwhelmingly positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, so I’m the odd one out here, but I can only give it a 2/4 star rating – and I’m hesitant to give it that. Not because the book doesn’t have a number of good points, analogies, etc. but b/c to me apologetics books are held to an exceedingly high standard – and while I might suggest someone read a “good enough” book in other areas, I really want them to read the best when it comes to apologetics – and I want to read the best.

“So, Mr. Cranky-Pants, why didn’t you like Mr. Gallups’ book? Did it have any redeeming qualities?”

The book has a number of redeeming qualities – while it is not the humorous approach to apologetics I had hoped for, it is a lay man’s approach to apologetics – that is it is written to be understood by individuals who aren’t “intellectuals” so to speak. This sort of approach is needed – try reading Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict to see a more “intellectual” approach.

Gallups offers a number of “plain English” definitions of concepts and terms which are used within apologetics, philosophy, science, and theology which are quite clear and helpful. At the same time, sometimes when he engages science (e.g. abiogenesis) his explanations sound good, but don’t provide enough explanation or background to allow someone to really, intelligently talk about the subject. At least, I didn’t feel after reading these sections that I was equipped to talk about the subject.

Front cover of The Magic Man in the Sky: Effectively Defending the Christian Faith by Carl Gallups.
Front cover of The Magic Man in the Sky: Effectively Defending the Christian Faith by Carl Gallups.

I also regretted that while Gallup offered the initial stance of the atheist/agnostic and then provided a Christian rebuttal, he always ended with a “conclusive” answer proving the Christian perspective. In my opinion, this is rarely, the case. I want to know – now that I have offered a rebuttal – what will the individual say now? How will they counter this claim? I don’t think they are suddenly going to say, “Ohh, you know what? You are right. I’ve been a scientist for twenty years and built my work upon this concept and now you – a lay man (what I am in the sciences) – have come and exposed an obvious flaw that I didn’t notice for twenty years…”

I did enjoy Gallups quotations at the beginning of each chapter and also found various cultural references he made interesting – as I am entirely unfamiliar with them. For example, at one juncture he suggests that some people “call this self-centered condition of the human a viper in a diaper.” Really? I’ve never heard anyone say that! Its kind of funny, but really?

At times Gallups makes controversial statements which are unnecessary to his argument and thereby weaken the integrity of his overall argument. For example, he writes, “The secular worldview declares that homosexuality, fornication, and adultery are natural and, therefore, acceptable parts of the human experience…All the while, the devastating effects of each of these perverse activities have been observed and cataloged since time immemorial.” Granted, most individuals will readily acknowledge the detrimental effects of adultery – but the topics of homosexuality and fornication are much more controversial when one is speaking outside of evangelical Christian circles. Gallups raises these topics, which means his readers may as well, and then provides no substantive evidence for his arguments – thus rabbit trailing off the main topic (apologetics) and leaving himself and his readers exposed.

Some of Gallups statements about the secular individual seem simplistic and untrue – for example, Gallups states, “If you subscribe to the secular worldview, your life will be lived with its exclusive purpose being to survive.” I don’t think this is true – certainly not on an individual level – perhaps on a species level – but even there, it seems to me that individuals have a much wider and nobler range of motives than simple survival, as evidenced by their self-sacrificial acts, and those acts certainly aren’t exclusively committed by Christians.

Gallups explanation of the heavens and how these are to be understood theologically and scientifically is worthwhile – though I wish that he had provided some footnotes to back up his explanations on this topic. This is also one of the first areas where another real problem sticks out – Gallups is writing for the common man, but chooses to use the KJV when including Scriptures. This makes the reading rough (suddenly there are “shalt” and “thou” and so on spattered through an otherwise contemporary text) and forces him to explain Scriptures whose meaning would be clear if he had used a more contemporaneous translation.[1]

Gallups uses illuminating and humorously simple illustrations to explain certain concepts – the “fish in the pond” explanation for the reality of unseen reality (e.g. supernatural) is quite good…and it isn’t his only useful illustration of this type. For example, at one point he describes how fish might feel about the idea that there is a “supernatural” reality outside of their pond (believing instead that the pond is the limits of reality): “Those who have tried to penetrate the barrier above us either have seen nothing but blurriness or have not returned to us at all. To suggest there is anything more powerful outside of our world that has any fishy presence or power to it at all is…well…ridiculous.”

There is one section that really, really bothers me. Gallups suggests that we can prove (absolutely, irrefutably) the truthfulness of Scripture by the nation of Israel. He says that God explained through Moses before the people ever entered the promised land that they would fall away from him, be dispersed throughout the world, and then return again – and he takes this as occurring in the Babylonian exile and the return fulfilled in 1948 with the establishment of the Jewish nation.

I don’t disagree with Gallups understanding of Moses’ statements, but I do think the emphasis he puts upon this “prophecy” is disconcerting. The prophecy itself is so generic that it doesn’t seem that hard for it to be fulfilled, and to suggest we can know that God exists based upon its fulfillment concerns me. It essentially says, you will go here, be kicked out of here for being bad, and then you’ll be back.

What really concerns me though is that he suggests that Israel was not a nation after the Babylonian exile until 1948 – which greatly strengthens his argument – if it were true. He writes, “Keep in mind that by this time in history, called the Roman period, Israel had not been a nation since the Babylonians conquered them almost five hundred years earlier.” I’m not so sure about that…There were these guys called the Maccabees who overthrew the declining Seleucids (Greek) and established the Hasmonean Dynasty.

Gallups may have an explanation for this – but the fact that he glosses over this problem in his text without so much as a mention makes me feel as if he is “smoothing over” history to make it fit his preconceived notions – which is not what an apologist should do. I don’t think this was Gallups intent (Scripture calls us to believe/hope the best) but the passage does read that way, at least to me, and I’d guess to many agnostics/atheists who are familiar with biblical history as well.

At another later juncture Gallups writes, “Without a supreme reason, we have no supreme purpose to life, and we have no real answers to the deepest problems of life. Life becomes relegated to the survival of the fittest and nothing more. Furthermore, if we have no supreme purpose or reason, then we do not have supreme morality. Without supreme morality, humans are no different from any other kind of animal.”

Earlier in his work, Gallups explains a straw man, and complains throughout the work that atheists/agnostics oftentimes setup straw men against Christian arguments (which is, unfortunately, true), yet I feel at this and several other junctures that he sets up straw men as well. I know (though I have not read) that Richard Dawkins (whom Gallups is familiar with as he quotes him at several junctures) has written on this subject (how moral values and purpose for life exist for the atheist) and it is disconcerting to me that Gallups does not offer up at least a footnote acknowledging these explanations for life offered by atheists/agnostics.

Gallups also argues that this life is a “boot camp” in preparation for the next life. I know this is a popular Christian view, but someone has to show me the Scriptural support for this perspective – I’m not aware of it. I know that it makes sense, but I am hesitant to offer up as more than hypothesis ideas which make sense but aren’t explicitly in Scripture – since God could have done it that way, but He might have done it some other way – perhaps even some other way we haven’t yet thought of.

Furthermore, I find the illustration itself disturbing – yes,  a drill sergeant works folks hard, they suffer pain, it is horrific sometimes – but they come out the other side…and those who don’t make it through are sent home – not shuffled off to eternal hell.

He comments in the same section, “Therefore, when you reach the point in your walk with the Lord where you can say in all honesty that you do not care if He ever blesses you again or answers another prayer–you will serve Him anyway–then you are well on your way to graduating boot camp.” This statement makes me feel sick. It does remind me of Romans 9, but I insist that Romans 9 must be read in conjunction with 10 and 11. God could demand our obedience simply due to his position and power – but I don’t think He does – instead He shows off His beauty and we are attracted to it and it is unfading and unchanging. For more on this subject see John Piper’s Desiring God.

Gallups offers a chapter up on the problem of evil which I found little comfort in…but then again, the problem of evil is the greatest intellectual/theological struggle I have ever faced – it haunts me since my childhood and I expect will haunt me till I die.

Then there is how Gallups sometimes puts Christians in an undeservedly positive light, for example, he writes, “On the other hand, in the preponderance of Christian schools and/or home school coursework, the students are taught the in-depth proposals of evolution theory along with the theories of Creation and Intelligent Design. Rather than being indoctrinated, the student who is taught both theories of origins and life is receiving an honest education.”

Yikes! I spent much of my education in private Christian schools and homeschooled…and no, the curriculum was not an even-handed presentation of the two perspectives…and yes, I used several of the most well-known, respected, and popular Christian curriculums.

Evolution is presented, but only in order to be refuted by Creationism. Evolution is never considered a viable option for the believing student within these curriculums. If a Christian curriculum really wants to convince me they are being even-handed, let an evolutionist write the part on evolution and a creationist on creation and then let each write a rebuttal to the other and let the students make up their own minds.

One statement he made that kind of blew me away (in a good way) regards the anthropic principle (the universe’s seeming fine tuning to man’s existence), “Consider this: What would happen if all the saltwater systems were removed from our earth? In time, we would die. What if all the freshwater sources were removed? The answer is the same. What if all the animals were removed or if all the insects were gone or if all the plant life disappeared? Again, we would eventually die. Now think about this: What if humans and only humans were removed from the planet Everything would continue. The ecology is perfect. The system would sustain itself without us.” I don’t find this particularly convincing evidence for the anthropic principle – but it is fascinating to me that so many variables (many beyond those he lists) could result in the death of life on the world – but the removal of earth’s ruling class (humans) would not result in any such detriment (in fact, we could say things would probably get exponentially better for the planet).

I should not that while I have taken Gallups to task at various points for failing to offer up legitimate counter-arguments from atheist/agnostic proponents, it does appear at many junctures that he attempts to do just that – quoting from an evolutionary author to prove his point but then adding, “To be fair…” and explaining how the individual would explain his material to support rather than contradict evolution and so on.

Finally, I’m going to skip to the end a bit, and just remove that the End Times section is especially frightening to me. He again centers his argument around the reconstituted nation of Israel and then also throws in a list of nations (including Iraq and Libya among others) that will be part of this end time scenario. This sort of specific prediction and claiming of the end times has always concerned me. Gallups acknowledges that Christians have believed in every generation that the end was coming during their lifetime – but Gallups still insists that this generation is different – that now conditions are right. I believe Jesus could come back any time – maybe today, but maybe ten thousand years from now. I think making predictions like this (even without a date) opens Christians up to unnecessary criticism.

To summarize/conclude – the book has a number of interesting facets, it attempts something which should be done (a common man’s approach to apologetics) but it fails in the fairness of its presentation at some junctures and rests upon unstable premises at other junctures. Finally, and I didn’t mention this before, the book is almost completely lacking in footnotes or bibliography. I understand this was written for the common man, and probably end-notes would make more sense so that the reader doesn’t feel overwhelmed – but the number of claims made without any substantive proof (even though I know from reading elsewhere, that Gallups is correct in at least some of these) scares the dickens (Charles Dickens? What are you doing in there?) out of me.

I returned the book to Amazon for a refund. I wanted to like it and at times I did – but overall, I just couldn’t sell it to myself. Sorry.

  1. [1]sorry, I’m not a KJV-only advocate. I am a KJV advocate in the sense that I think it is a worthwhile translation to read alongside other translations…and I have spent some significant time in both the KJV and NKJV.

Thinking Well: Christianity and Singularity (Part 1: Why it Matters)

Christ the Saviour (Pantokrator)
Image via Wikipedia

Introduction:

I still do not know how to answer the question, “Who am I?” When pressed, one method is to describe some of my salient characteristics or interests – and, there are certain ones I am not eager to share. In my life two of the salient characteristics/interests/values are my faith (in Christ) and my technological inclinations.

Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about the intersection of Christianity and the Technological Singularity. There is much that has been said and is being said about the Technological Singularity – but very little (that I am aware of) being said about how Christianity and the Technological Singularity can, should, or cannot coexist.

Let me close my introduction by simply acknowledging my feebleness in approaching this task. While my knowledge on this topic may be significantly more than many, it is also significantly less than all who work within this realm. I apologize for any misrepresentations or misunderstandings that I may make or propagate in this article and look forward to the opportunity to refine this article and (more importantly) my thinking through ongoing discussion and learning.

To the Christian (or Why the Technological Singularity Matters):

I am sure I have already lost a significant percentage of those who visited this posting. Technological Singularity? What is that? There Dave goes talking his geek-speak again. I see it every day when I try to explain technological concepts to others – their eyes immediately gloss over. If you have read this far, please bear with me for a few moments more as I explain why the technological singularity is applicable to the non-geek.

Simply put, the technology singularity (in theory or actual existence) may become the single largest challenge to Christianity in the near-term future.

The technological singularity will allow for the self-improvement of mankind to the point of perfection. Tom Foremski, a technology journalist writes perceptively on this topic in his article, “Is ‘The Singularity’ The Elite Geeks’ Version of ‘The Rapture’?”[1]

Christianity revolves around the central tenets that (a) man is irretrievably broken and (b) Christ is God’s way of fixing the irretrievably broken. Yet, the Technological Singularity offers an alternative. Salvation (fixing) is available not (only?) through God’s grace but also through technological progress. This removes the necessity of a other-natural[2] process for redemption.

Other religions – as we traditionally conceive them – will not be our greatest challenge. Rather, we now face a challenge which will provide a secular alternative to redemption which seems provable and actually occurring[3]

To the Technologist (Or Why This Isn’t an Anti-Tech Rant)

:

At this juncture I am sure many of my technological readers are also beginning to close this page and navigate to some other, less spiritually adventurous blog posting – I would ask you to bear with me as well.

While I view the technological singularity as one of the largest challenges to the Christian faith this does not mean that I am opposed to idea or the pursuit of a technological singularity (necessarily). Rather, I am attempting to discuss in what framework (if any) the singularity may be discussed without abandoning a theological context. I hope (in part) to demonstrate that Christians are not and need not be Luddites, but rather should be amongst the foremost advocates of technological advances – when placed within a correct framework.

Does Anyone Really Believe in the Singularity?

I am not a fan of abstract debates[4], and am oftentimes frustrated when discussions move towards the theoretical too heavily or consistently. I try to be a person who lives in the “real world” and deals with the issues and dilemmas of today. I want to be more concerned about the issues of my own wickedness and apathy than about topics which I cannot do anything more than hypothesize about.

When I talk about the Singularity, for many this will be their first introduction to the topic. It seems like the stuff of science fiction (and surely, much has been written in this vein on the topic), but I firmly believe that it has a much more practical and present application – and is and will genuinely impact our lives.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to demonstrate the importance of the Singularity is to note some of the individuals and organizations associated with the movement. This does not prove the theory correct, only that it has support and finances behind it – and is likely to garner a growing following in the near future.

The Singularity theory has a number of proponents, one of the most vocal and important is Ray Kurzweil, author of the massive work, The Singularity is Near. While best known for his ideas about the future (the singularity) he is not an ivory tower philosopher. Among his accomplishments were the invention (in high school!) of a “sophisticated pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles.”[5] He went on to invent a software application that matched high school students to colleges (while a sophmore at MIT), innovations in Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Text-to-Speech synthesization, musical synthesizers, and speech recognition. Seriously, Kurzweil has been involved with some of the most significant inventions of recent times – read the Wikipedia article for more information. Kurzweil co-founded The Singularity University which is located at NASA’s Ames Research Center. This University is backed by corporate funding from Google, ePlanet Ventures, Autodesk, Kauffman Foundation, Nokia, FIAP, 23andMe, Canon, LinkedIn, WordPress, X Prize Foundation, Cushing Academy, International Space University, among others!

If you want to find a list of some of the great intellects today in technological and scientific realms – take a look at the faculty and advisors page of the Singularity University: Neil Jacobstein (Stanford), Dan Barry (NASA), Jason Lohn (Carnegie Mellon), Dharmendra Modha (IBM), Peter Norvig (Google, NASA, Sun Microsystems), Sebastian Thrun (Stanford), Raj Reddy (Carnegie), Daniel Kraft (Stanford), Jim Karkanias (Microsoft), Ralph Merkle (Institute for Molecular Manufacturing), Peter Diamandis (X Prize Foundation), George Smoot (2006 Nobel Prize in Physics), Pete Worden (NASA), Bob Metcalfe (Co-Founder, 3Com), Vint Cerf (Google), Will Wright (Electronic Arts), Brad Templeton (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Workweek), Matt Mullenweg (WordPress), and Dave Tosh (Elgg). Some of these are academic types you won’t be familiar with (neither was I…), some will be more familiar to those in the tech industry (see bolded), and some may be familiar either by name or affiliation to most readers (italicized). I only listed a few – and didn’t spend any significant amount of time picking out the most important or respected…

End of Part I:

I had hoped to write my entire article on this topic, but I have only introduced the reason this discussion is important…I hope to write some continuing articles on the topic in the near future…

I’ll close by suggesting some reading for those who are interested. The Wikipedia article on Technological Singularity is a good place to start for a brief introduction. The ‘definitive’ text on the topic (which I am currently plowing through) is Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. Once one has a basic understanding of the technological singularity I’d recommend looking at some books that cover where this science fiction is becoming reality and the nature of feedback loops. These books are not about the singularity directly, rather they provide insight into the current and future state of technology and help provide concrete examples of how science fiction is becoming reality. Peter D. Kramer’s Against Depression is an excellent read on the biological and physiological nature of depression and mental illness (and worthwhile, even without its implications for singularity) and Fritjof Capra’s Web of Life is an excellent resource in understanding chaos theory, systems theory, feedback loops, and other concepts that play directly into the singularity philosophy.

  1. [1]Kudos to Foremski for choosing to place his punctuation (?) outside of his quotation marks. This is against traditional English grammar but evolving into acceptability due to technological requirements where punctuation can change the meaning of commands for input/output to a technological device.
  2. [2]I prefer the term other-natural to super-natural. I find super-natural to be too closely identified with the ethereal and unbound, despised by the intellectual. Yet, the spirituality to which I refer and I believe that Christianity teaches is not an unreality but rather a greater or other reality. It is as real, more real, than our reality – it simply is beyond our current comprehension or scientific measurement in many facets and aspects.
  3. [3]More on this later.
  4. [4]This will come as a surprise to many, as I participate in discussion on what many would consider abstract topics…
  5. [5]Wikipedia. Ray Kurzweil