What do you get when put a conservative university professor who happens to be a Christian in the same room with a punk rocker who happens to be an atheist? Trouble, you would expect.
Well the two may not have shared the same room, but thy have shared in a lot of correspondence, debating and discussing their worldviews. And trouble was not the outcome, but a spirited, intelligent and no-holds-barred exchange of ideas and beliefs.
Preston Jones, a history professor and committed Christian, had long enjoyed the music of Bad Religion, especially its lyrics. He eventually wrote to the band's front man and song writer, Greg Graffin. A lively correspondence ensued, and that exchange is the subject of this book.
The letters written by these two are frank, forthright and forceful. Their discussions are lively and vigorous, sometimes heated but always irenic. The respectful debate encountered here covers a wide range of topics, music included.
Graffin is not your run of the mill punk rocker. He has written a PhD in evolutionary biology, and his lyrics drip with deep reflections and careful thoughts. They express, of course, the mind of a sceptic. Graffin does not believe in God, and he is willing to face a world without God head on, with all that entails.
Yet despite his commitment to philosophical naturalism and his unbridled faith in science, he has questions, he is searching, and he is aware of his own limits. His songs are filled with thoughts about religion, life, meaning and purpose.
Jones, on the other hand, is a believer who offers many insights and explanations from his own Christian faith, but can appeal to other sources as well. Thus they discuss not just biblical matters, but literature, music, science, art and many other topics. The two square off on numerous hot potato issues, such as the problem of suffering, the meaning of personhood, the theory of evolution, and the search for significance. No topic is too sacred to cover, and no avenue is too off limits to explore.
This informed, entertaining and valuable collection of letters shows that people from two quite differing worldviews can still treat each other with respect as they passionately share their own beliefs and challenge those of the other person.
Because this book is published by a Christian publisher, and the editor is a Chrisian, it of course takes on an apologetic approach. But it is not preachy nor moralistic. It simply lays out the honest thoughts of two deep and committed thinkers. Jones includes study questions, quotations and other bits of information throughout the book to help the reader go further with these discussions.
By the end of the book Graffin has not yet "seen the light" but he shows an interest in, an appreciation of, the Christian worldview, and the case Jones seeks to make for it.
And Jones sees in Graffin an intelligent and thoughtful proponent of atheism. The fact that Graffin is willing to dig deep in his reflections and probe thoroughly the big questions of life makes him superior to many believers with their easy believe-ism and shallow, uninformed faith. Indeed, Jones says he is more "at ease with thoughtful atheists than with Christians" who refuse to acknowledge the many challenges and mysteries of life.
At least Graffin is asking the right questions - and the hard, probing questions. Too many believers settle for a simplistic faith that does not grapple with the serious issues of life, be it suffering, doubt or mystery.
Thus Jones is more than happy to enter the intellectual arena with Graffin, and exchange blows. Iron sharpen iron, and believers need the challenge of non-believers to keep them on their theological toes and to keep themselves spiritually fresh and focused.
Many people - believers and nonbelievers alike - are simply not thinking about, and agonising over, the difficult questions of life. But many are. And it is to this later group that a book like this has so much to offer.
Non-believers will find here a case for Christianity that is free of clichés and biblical proof-texting, and one that is based one serious reflection, personal struggle, and solid answers. And believers will find here the thoughts, questions and feelings that many nonbelievers are grappling with. This will challenge them to take their faith more seriously, and remind them that honest questions deserve honest answers.
It is hoped that by reading this book many more such dialogues will begin. We have a lot to learn from each other, and really hearing what people are saying - on both sides of the debate - is an important means by which believers can share their faith and seekers can get some welcome feedback. Let the debate continue.