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.

The Case for Psychological Medications & Treatment.

Today I’m not going to talk about a product or service in a specific sense, but rather a more underlying philosophical approach to the mind. My hope in this post, in conjunction with the series of posts on books relevant to the major mental disorders, is to raise awareness of mental illness and remove some of the stigma of receiving treatment (medically or otherwise).

On Medication & Side Effects:

I do not want to discount the real concern that there are potential side effects from consuming medications that interact with our minds. Unlike many of our other organs which we understand to a great degree, the brain still resides as a major mystery and our treatments for aberrations in this mysterious and fascinating organ are far more primitive than any of us would desire. On the other hand, I’d like to share a few observations in my personal battle in deciding to consume medications:

  • The damage from mental aberrations is certain, the damage from medications is small (or unknown). Peter D. Kramer in his book Against Depression writes, “In the aged brain, strokes cause more injury than they do in the young brain, and so do infections, blood clots, inflammation, low blood sugar, seizures–you name it. Prior exposure to stress (and to stress hormones) is the critical factor in this age-related vulnerability. More stress in the past makes an animal more brittle in old age. Both neurons and their protectors, glial cells, are at risk.” “Much of the damage done by stress hormones is to the stress-response system itself. The brain is a complex communications network, one cell reaching out to another. In the face of stress hormones, neurons lose connective wiring. In particular, cells in the hippocampus shed receptors for incoming messages about stress. The hippocampal cells also lose dendrites, the branches that connect a neuron to neighboring cells and transmit outgoing messages. Like overwhelmed people who withdraw from social contact, overwhelmed neurons in the hippocampus become isolated.” (pg. 117) Point being, while there may be unknown long-term side-effects to taking a medication there is no doubt about the health effects of untreated aberrations on the human mind.
  • We have a certain fear of losing ourselves through medication. We ask ourselves, “are we just druggies, in need of a fix to make ourselves feel good?” We ponder whether there is not some good side to our illness.[1] We fear that society would lose a certain portion of itself without those who mentally struggle. We ask what would have history been like if individuals like Martin Luther, Picasso, van Gogh, Kierkegaard, George Fox, and so many others of our great minds had not suffered?[2] Some of us have been suffering for so long that we don’t know what it is like to be free. Even after a short while in the grip of a mental illness it feels natural, as if this is the way things should be. Yet I have experienced (and proudly bear witness to) becoming more myself (and it is the self I strove for but could not be) when accepting and receiving treatment.

What About Them Psychologists/Counselors?

There is a fear of psychologists/counselors that permeates many and especially among those who would consider themselves Evangelical Christians (of which I consider myself a constituent). The fears are not entirely unfounded. There have been individuals who have seen a counselor/psychologist who provided bad advice and have changed their lives for the worse because of this advice[5]. But I would suggest that we need not fear the psychologist (or counselor) but instead the uncritical thinking and lack of contextual support that allows illegitimate beliefs to grow. In my opinion, a counselor is an individual to dialogue with about our lives and whom we allow to speak honestly and openly with us about the issues they see in our lives.[6] When we give someone permission to explore our life and philosophy this does not mean we give them permission to determine our beliefs. We can and should critically evaluate each suggestion for its truthfulness. Additionally, I would suggest that counseling becomes much safer when one uses it as a primary means of exposing the difficulties in ones life but then also utilizes a secondary support system to give you context to the recommendations and issues raised. While many people are not prepared to provide the depth of inquiry and feedback that a counselor can, many of them are willing to discuss with you individual subjects which the psychologist raises. Thus the danger of psychology is not that there may be false beliefs but that we uncritically and without contextual relational support accept such beliefs. No individual has perfect knowledge, every encounter is a mixture of truth and error, this is true even for professionals. We must be willing to battle for truth on our turf, not simply accept the pronouncements of others. That said, having someone challenge our belief system can help us revise and strengthen our belief systems in ways that allow us to live better lives.[7]

Are We Willing to See Ourselves?

When it really comes down to it, my argument is not so much particularly for psychological medications and treatment – but for the willingness to explore ourselves, and not solely internally. You can sit down and talk with a psychiatrist and a psychologist without taking medication and without accepting their advice. But perhaps it is worthwhile to ask the question? To open ourselves to the possibility? To ask someone else, “Do you hurt this way every day? Do you feel this anxious? Do you have this much trouble sleeping?” So often we assume our suffering is normative, when it is anything but.

Please feel free to give me some feedback on this post. I know this post has been much more ideological than many others I have posted but I want to engage you in discussion about this. I am at much risk of mixing truth with error as any other fallible human being. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why God said after creating everything else “good” that “it is not good for man to be alone.”[8]

  1. [1] I don’t want to tackle this question in too much depth, but let me briefly summarize my position. There are lessons that can be learned while undergoing a challenge of any form – physiological, mental, familiar, economic – but these lessons are pain that is utilized by God for good, they are not in themselves good. In the Scriptures we do not find Jesus (the incarnation of God) saying to those who asked for healing, “I’m sorry. Its better for you be ill. I won’t heal you.” No, we find him bringing hope and healing. There is more than enough pain in this world, more than enough challenges, lets not purposely embrace unnecessary challenges – lets heal where we can and depend on the grace of God throughout.
  2. [3]
  3. [4]
  4. [2]Peter Kramer tackles this topic extensively in Against Depression, a book that while to all appearances on the disorder of depression has more to do with fighting the cultural value we have given depression (and can be extended logically to other disorders).[3] This is the question, but we are simply asking it the same way. One does not lose depth without disorder. When one removes the disorder one finds greater ability to tap and manage depth. The disorder disables the individuals, removing capacity to innovate, it does not add to it.
  5. Yet, there is still a concern about the medication. There is no doubt that medication can affect us in ways we do not expect – in fact covering over portions of what we consider our personality. Sometimes the side effects are the exact opposite (though only in a very small minority) of what is expected – instead of relieving depression or anxiety it increases it. This is why I suggest the involvement of a community in the process is essential. At the most basic one’s psychiatrist, but preferably including friends and family. These individuals can objectively help you understand the effects of the medication on your daily behavior and assist in determining whether the medication is allowing the real you to shine out or masking it (the latter is marginal, but possible).
  6. We assume that medical illness is a choice we face in isolation, but it is not. While we assume that refusing treatment is solely our suffering we cannot underestimate the impact of our suffering on others. The lack of energy we feel translates into a lack of energy for friends and family. The sudden bouts of rage we battle flies out at the most uncomfortable times – at work, with our wives or children. Our illness is real and affects those around us. If our worldview is twisted, we impart this twisted worldview to those we interact with to some extent. We must recognize the extent of others suffering.
  7. We oftentimes assume that our suffering isn’t that bad. We are resilient people in many senses. Many of us operate on a decently functional level without medication. Especially as adults we learns methods of coping with our foibles. But there is a great difference between functionally nominally well and functioning to one’s true human potential.[4]When I speak to “true human potential” I do not mean the actual perfection of mankind. I do not want to embark on a theology lesson, but it is my firm belief that we are beyond hope in (via natural means) redeeming our broken selves (and thus in need of a more than natural (supernatural) escape). When I speak of “true human potential” I mean a level of functioning which we as broken humans can embrace. It is not the full escape, but it is better than. The individual with clotted heart may need stints, this will make life better – allowing him to act to his “full potential” as opposed to without stints. At the same time the individual still is not “whole” in the sense of having a perfect heart.
  8. [5]Probably one of the most ready examples to Christians is recommendations to divorce a spouse.
  9. [6]5. With Larry Crabb (Soul Talk: The Language God Longs for Us to Speak), it would be my hope that eventually this sort of “soul care” could be performed by one another. Unfortunately, at this juncture, too often this help is not available and those around us (including ourselves) are not able/willing to enter into the required depth of dialogue.
  10. [7] When I speak of better lives I mean in many ways – less painful, less stressful, etc. But to me the ultimate depiction of a better life is the ability to love and know God and one another despite circumstances. Everything else is frosting on the cake.
  11. [8] In an ultimate theological sense, even the community of mankind is not enough. We can do better by working together, but we still find ourselves to fall short. Extra-natural inspiration and revelation is needed (I could just say “supernatural” but this word is beaten to death like a horse and connotes all sorts of wishy-washy sentimentalism that so many reject without considering the underlying import of the word. By changing words I am not changing the meaning but simply attempting to force us to process those things with which we have become so comfortable (or uncomfortable).)