When I saw the title of this book, I was already hooked–although I didn’t consciously make the connection to the Lewis Grizzard book with a similar title, the joke had me hooked before I read even the subtitle. The book turned out to be even better than the title.
The form of the book grew out of a conversation the editors were having in which they agreed that one of the more offensive things about the Nü Atheism (not their spelling, of course) is that it assumes that questions about God and the gods, inquiries that have inspired centuries of poetry and philosophy and sculpture and other human endeavors, could be dispensed with in the course of a wave of the hand and a three-page syllogism. Never mind that many of the best-known books in the movement exhibit a profound philosophical illiteracy. (As Stan Hauerwas, in one of the book’s interviews puts it, “…one of the problems of being a Christian today is that the secular has just become so stupid” (111).) What rubbed these editors the wrong way is the assumption that all of the depth of human experience basically counted for nothing. The flatness of the endeavor inspired these editors to put together a collection that exhibits not only a grasp of logic (though it does exhibit that) or a critical acumen (again, check there) but a richness of genre and of approach that shows not only the rigor but the beauty of what lies beyond the myopic scope of the Nü Atheism, and the book that resulted is a compilation of theological essays, conversational interviews, narratives, and poetry whose attention to the flexibility of human existence stands as a reminder of one very important thing that Dawkins and Company neglects.
Also present here is a range of responses not afraid to disagree with one another. Notably, towards the beginning of the book, Jon Stanley offers a very Brian-McLaren-flavored liberal Protestant response essay, one mostly sympathetic with Derridean atheism as a help for Christians navigating our own historical and conceptual flotsam, and directly afterwards, Ben Suriano responds directly to Stanley with a counter-essay advancing a John-Milbank-influenced critique of Derridean atheism as an extension of modernist-atheist ontologies of violence. Later on, in the collection’s title essay, Peter Candler offers an array of arguments that situate the appeal of the Nü Atheism more in cultural milieu than in force of argument, and a few artifacts down the table of contents, Randal Rauser (not as a direct response to Candler) argues that the Emergents’ eschewing of logical argument, while understandable as a frustration, nonetheless neglects a significant duty that Christians have to skeptics if we’re to be intellectually hospitable. In this reviewer’s mind, Rauser’s essay on plausibility and rationality is the best straight essay in the collection.
The interviews were perhaps my favorite bits. In one especially delightful piece theologian Stanley Hauerwas interviews friend and former neighbor (and religious chameleon) Stanley Fish about the Nü Atheism, and part of that exchange is the characteristically offensive Hauerwas line that I quoted above. In addition to being two of the wittiest human beings that I’m aware of, the duo also explore the nature of theological and philosophical language, the unstated but painfully obvious philosophical assumptions of the Nü Atheists, and the contributions that John Milton and George Herbert make to the ways that English-speakers talk about God. (What’s not to love?) In other interviews Charles Taylor talks about the strange tensions he’s experienced in a field that asserts its preference for self-disclosure in its theorists but holds in suspicion those who would self-disclose as Christians, and John Milbank traces modern atheism back to medieval nominalism and holds forth a vision for a Christian globalism that stands in the face of atheistic Capitalist globalism.
I’ve never been a big fan of the personal narrative as theology, but this volume’s stories about interactions with atheists and life in intentional community as a counter to practical atheism did hold my interest, and while I’m partial to Milton and Herbert over postmodern poets, the selections in this book were thought-provoking, even if they’re not Milton. (But who is?) And as is often the case, it’s the personal essays, the bits that didn’t strike me as the most worthwhile, that keep returning to me as I think on the book.
Overall I delight in noting the success of this experimental project, and I recommend the book strongly to anyone with a philosophical bent who would like to read some intelligent, witty, and sometimes beautiful responses to what Becky Crook, in her personal essay “Mystery and Mayhem,” refers to the culture of “awe-bashing” (158).