Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Not Yet a “Best Seller,” But On the Way

“And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end.”
Ecclesiastes 12:12

My book, In Defense of the Gospels, came out during the first week of January 2018, and was immediately available on Amazon. The book is a defense of the reliability of the Gospels as records of of the life and teachings of Jesus. As most authors do, I ordered a bunch of copies to make them available at my speaking engagements. Books bought in this fashion are generally not counted in Amazon’s running tally of book sales. Books ordered through Amazon’s website are carefully tracked, and anyone can find out how a particular book is doing because all books sold through its website are ranked on Amazon’s “Best Sellers Rank” that includes about five million book titles. Of course everyone wants to break into the top 100, but many books never go lower than the top four million.

A few years ago I wrote my only book of fiction, Text Messages From God. After the book had been out several months, in November of 2012, I was invited to be the guest host for Jan Michelson, the popular morning host on WHO Radio in Des Moines, Iowa, the largest talk station in Iowa (where Ronald Reagan used to broadcast before his television days and his political career).

Let me digress--In lining up guests, talk show hosts reach as high as possible, meaning they try for the most well known guests who will come on the show. The idea behind this is that people tend to listen longer when a guest is a famous person. Like it or not, America has created a cult of personality. What I found, though, is that some of the most famous people do not necessarily make good guests for the kind of show I like to host, namely one that is informative and on the cutting edge of what people want to know about.

For the show on WHO that I was guest hosting, I was able to secure an interview with Governor Mike Huckabee. Mike had recently written a book, Dear Chandler, Dear Scarlett, that included letters to his grandkids about faith and family. I looked up his book on Amazon’s Best Seller’s Rank and found that it had cracked the top 500 in sales. Then I went ahead and checked on my book Text Messages From God and found that I had cracked the top 4 million, coming in at something like 3,897,442. When I interviewed Governor Huckabee, I mentioned to him that his book was doing better than mine, but I only lagged behind his book by about 3,897,000 on Amazon’s Best Seller Rank. We laughed about that, and had a fun exchange.

As I write now in 2018, my book, In Defense of the Gospels, came out on Amazon just a few days ago. The only publicity as of this moment has been mentions on the Intelligent Faith website and the Ratio Christi website, and blurbs on Facebook and Twitter. I thought I’d check to see how the book is faring on Amazon’s Best Seller Rank, and saw that I had already cracked the top million, coming in at 923,472! For fun I checked on Mike Huckabee’s book that I’d interviewed him about in 2012. According to Amazon his book is 972,143 on the current Best Seller Rank. Wow, that means my book is nearly 50,000 ahead of Huckabee!

Of course I expect to promote my book through available channels, including radio interviews and print media. Once I begin promoting the book outside of the two websites where it has been mentioned, the book’s place on Amazon’s Best Seller Rank should continue to improve as the promotions generate sales on Amazon. I will have fun checking the sales figures from time to time, but more importantly, the more books that are sold, the more people are finding out that the Gospels are reliable records of the life and teachings of Jesus. That fact makes me much happier than outselling Mike Huckabee.

If you'd like to order a copy of In Defense of the Gospels, order here. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

In Defense of the Gospels

  • Did Jesus really say the words attributed to Him in the Gospels?
  • Did He actually do the things the Gospels say He did?
  • Is there a way to defend the reliability of the accounts in the Gospels?
  • What do you tell college students who say the Gospel writers are unknown?
  • How would you answer a skeptic who thinks the Gospels are not reliable? 

In 2016 I contemplated writing a book on the reliability of the Bible. It seems that many people have misconceptions about the Bible, including who the writers were, what it says, and whether today’s Bible accurately reflects what was originally written.
The more I thought about the idea of writing about the reliability of the Bible, the more daunting the task seemed. Then I decided to pare the book down to just the reliability of the New Testament. Even the narrower focus seemed unwieldy, if not unnecessary, since few people quibble about the authenticity of most of Paul’s letters. What struck me as most important was whether the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—contain the actual words and deeds of Jesus. Thus, I set out to write about the case for the Gospels’ reliability.
I consulted many sources to get idea on how to approach the subject. Some were written as textbooks that addressed the issue of the Gospels’ reliability in a scholarly manner, while others made claims and assertions about reliability without adducing clear evidence to support the claims. As I thought about how many Christian apologists have used legal themes for their book titles (e.g., “Evidence That Demands A Verdict,” “The Case for Christ,” etc.), linking their approach to what lawyers do in court, it dawned on me—since I’m a trial lawyer, why not write a book about the reliability of the Gospels that is arranged like how a lawyer would argue a case in court?
The idea of taking a trial lawyer’s approach seemed to have merit, so I next had to determine what issues within the broader topic of Gospel reliability needed to be addressed to make the case. This is where my interest in the subject of the reliability of the Bible came in handy, because I’ve tracked the arguments skeptics tend to make when they argue against the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I knew from my research that many non-Christian polemicists question the authorship of the Gospels, doubt whether they were written when eyewitnesses were still alive, and contend that the original wording has been changed over the centuries of copying and recopying the text. From this background came my decision to address the six main questions people raise about the Gospels’ reliability:
  1. When were the Gospels written? (were they written close enough in time to the events that the details could be accurately remembered and recorded?)
  2. Who wrote the Gospels? (are they “anonymous” as some skeptics claim, or is there solid evidence as to who is substantially behind each book?)
  3. Were the Gospel writers biased? (since the Gospel writers were likely followers of Jesus, is there a way of knowing whether the accounts are sanitized or embellished as opposed to being honest and straightforward?)
  4. Are there “lost gospels?” (were some early records of Jesus kept out of the Bible, meaning that our knowledge of Jesus from the four traditional Gospels might be incomplete?)
  5. Has the wording of the Gospels been changed over the years? (have some accounts been altered or deleted and others added to what was originally written?)
  6. What is the verdict from history and archeology regarding the reliability of Gospel accounts? (are the people, places, titles and customs mentioned in the Gospels confirmed by history as being accurate?) 

The book addresses these “big six” questions, starting each chapter with a list of facts that support the conclusion that the Gospels are reliable. One publisher who looked at my original (unedited) manuscript of the book was quite impressed with the way I listed the arguments and facts at the beginning of each chapter in support of Gospel reliability, followed by a detailed presentation of the evidence. This approach is very close to how lawyers present a case in court, including the “opening statement” (a list of arguments and facts that will be presented) the actual presentation of evidence (testimony from witnesses, experts, documents and artifacts) and a “closing argument” (a summation at the end of a trial that weaves the facts into an argument in favor of the issue before the court). In my case, the main issue was “are the Gospels are reliable?”
When I was well under way addressing the issues it became evident that my focus was defending the reliability of the Gospels as accurate historical records of the life and teachings of Jesus. Thus, a simple title for book emerged: In Defense of the Gospels.
After several months of writing I had a rough manuscript. I was blessed to have Christian apologist James Agresti review the manuscript and provide helpful suggestions. Then, after professional editing, formatting, and finding what I think is a real cool cover (paintings of the four traditional Gospel writers) the book was ready for print. It became available on Amazon on January 5, 2018.

My hope is that In Defense of the Gospels—the Case for Reliability will be a tool that Christians can use to understand the compelling reasons for trusting the Gospels as reliable history of Jesus’ life and teachings. I also hope that non-Christians and skeptics will carefully consider the arguments and evidence set forth in the book and recognize that Christianity is an “intelligent faith” as opposed to a “blind faith,” seeing that our faith in Jesus is founded on facts and reason.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Reading the Bible Apologetically: A New Paradigm

Unless one has been in a coma for 30 years or cloistered away from human contact for decades, you know that secularism has had a major impact on Western Civilization. From the rise of the new atheism, to popular skepticism, to same-sex marriage, to post-modern nihilism, secularism has become the dominant default setting for many, if not most, Americans. As a result, Christianity and biblical morality have become counter-culture. The same Christian Faith that once dominated Western Civilization and brought incalculable progress to humanity is now seen as an impediment to “progress,” being viewed as a narrow-minded relic of bygone superstitions.
What has the Church done in response? Progressive churches surrendered, employing the dictum “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Progressive Christians have become like a chameleon that attaches to the culture and changes color as the culture changes. Progressives have tried so hard to identify with the non-Christian and the secularist that they are now indistinguishable. The legacy of this approach can be seen in the dwindling congregations of mainline denominations who rally around the amorphous cry for “social justice” but somehow forgot about evangelism. It is a worthy endeavor to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name, but progressives have left out the part about “in Jesus’ name,” where social justice is also an evangelistic opportunity. Once cannot divorce Christianity from a life-transforming message of salvation offered by the grace of God through the finished work of Christ on the cross. Any effort to do so denies the essence of why Jesus came to earth, and substitutes a palliative, “feel good” religion for true conversion.
Conservative Christians, in stark contrast, often act like the proverbial ostrich that sticks its head in the sand. A heightened awareness of the impact of secularism on society has lead many evangelicals to circle the wagons and develop a “victim” mentality. When it dawns on the believer that society no longer holds Christians in the high regard it once did, there are two primary courses of action: (1) Get back to the biblical command to evangelize, making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), or (2) retreat from society, creating Christian ghettos where Christians feel safe from those dangerous non-Christians. A vast number of conservatives have chosen the latter, creating their own dictum of “if you can’t beat ‘em, separate from ‘em.” The effect is similar to the parents who keep their only child locked up in the attack for his own good, to protect him from the evils that lurk out in the world. When the poor lad is finally discovered, he is an underdeveloped, raving lunatic whose potential was destroyed because of the fear of the parents. In the same manner, the new monasticism that Christian isolation has created is neither healthy for the insulated believers, nor does it help those outside the walls who need the Gospel message.
The first step of fixing a problem is the awareness that there is a problem. The insular tendencies of average church people can be changed to comport with the biblical commands to “Go into all the world” (Matthew 28:19). A radical change in thinking and action would be ideal, but realistically, even small changes can get the church back on track. Years ago when I was a partner in a boat we kept in Newport Harbor in California, I enjoyed the occasional opportunity to motor to Catalina Island 26 miles off the coast. It was a one-hour and 40-minute trip at about 16 knots, and all I had to do was set the compass to 210 degrees once we left the mouth of Newport Harbor to reach Avalon Harbor on Catalina. What if I would have decided to use a trajectory of 209 degrees? I would have missed Catalina entirely. Even a one-degree change in course will result in a new destination. This is lesson for turning the church around—even a slight change can have a significant impact.
So, how may Christendom collectively return to a biblical model of engaging the secular society rather than isolating from it? How about starting with the way we read the Bible (for those Christians who don’t read the Bible, that is your starting point—start reading Scripture to learn what God desires of us). Many Christians read the Bible devotionally, seeking a closer relationship with the Lord. This is a great practice, but if one’s life is absorbed with the “inner life,” how does that help those around us who need to hear the Good News about Jesus? It doesn’t. Thus, here is a radical idea, in addition to reading the Bible devotionally, how about reading it “apologetically?” Let me explain.
First, although many believers are aware of what “Christian Apologetics” is, there are still many whose eyes glaze over at the mention of the term. I’ve begun using a substitute term—“intelligent faith”—in order to help people understand what we are talking about. “Intelligent faith” is descriptive of what apologetics is, namely a belief that is rooted in facts and reason. Apologetics comes from a legal term, apologia, that was used in the ancient courts in Athens to describe a lawyer’s defense of his position using evidence and logic. Peter uses the word apologia, when he says that Christians should “be ready at any time to make a defense of the hope that we have in Jesus.”  How is the Gospel of Jesus defended? By presenting reasons why it is true, e.g., we have a reliable record of what Jesus said and did, eyewitness and primary source accounts, etc.  
Back to reading the Bible apologetically. When I come to a passage such as Matthew 9:2-9, the account of the healing of a paralyzed man (also recorded in Luke chapter 5 and Mark chapter 2), there are many “takeaways” from the story—Jesus can heal, Jesus has the authority to forgive sin, others’ faith can have an impact on us. But when we analyze the text, we find skeptics who did not think Jesus could forgive sins. How can a skeptic be convinced of Jesus’ spiritual authority? Jesus told the paralyzed man “Your sins are forgiven.” But anyone can make that claim. Jesus could have tried to bolster his claim to forgive sins by saying, “I swear I can forgive sins.” But such a self-serving declaration has little, if any, evidential value. If someone is known to be an honest person, a claim without any supporting evidence might still be believed by some, but skeptics want more—usually empirical (“testable, verifiable”) evidence.
With the crowd watching Jesus provided the evidence needed, first asking the skeptics, “which is easier to say—‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Rise up and walk?’” It is easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because no one can prove or disprove whether sins were forgiven, since “forgiveness” is something that happens in the unseen, spiritual realm. Thus, Jesus adds, “So that you may know the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins,” he tells the paralyzed man, “Rise up and walk.” With all eyes on him, the man got up and walked. Jesus performed a visual, verifiable miracle to back up His claim that He can forgive sins. For the skeptics observing this, it was now reasonable to conclude that Jesus could, indeed, forgive sins, because He provided them with miraculous evidence of His healing ability. In fact, it would be unreasonable for them to continue to doubt Jesus’ ability to forgive sins after seeing the miracle.
Thus, the apologetic takeaway from the account of Jesus healing the paralytic is that Jesus used evidence to support His spiritual claims. This fact becomes more significant when Jesus says He is going to die on a cross for the sins of humanity. It was not uncommon for the Romans in the 1st century to crucify people who were seen as a danger to Rome. Why is Jesus’ crucifixion any different? Primarily because of who He was (claiming to be God incarnate) and the spiritual claim He attached to His crucifixion (that He was going to bear the sins of the world). In case someone was skeptical about whether Jesus was truly going to die for the sins of the world, Jesus offered evidence as to why anyone should believe that He would bear our sins. The evidence? He claimed He was going to rise from the dead on the third day as proof that His claims and promises were true. Thus, when Jesus rose, as testified by the eyewitnesses, it was reasonable to conclude that His message and claims were true.
If we re-orient our approach to reading the New Testament and start looking for all the evidence and reasons for believing Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, then we will start amassing talking points that can be shared with skeptics. There are examples on virtually every page of the New Testament. For example, in the Book of Acts, chapter 17, Paul visits Athens, and is confronted by philosophers. Paul gives them evidence and reasons why they need to drop their superstitions and see that Jesus demonstrated his divinity by rising from the dead. The result was stunning—even among the skeptical philosophers, “some joined him and believed,” others “sneered,” while others wanted to hear more. Paul’s willingness to present the Gospel set him up for rejection by some, yet some believed. The fact that some will reject the claims of Christianity should not come as a surprise, since Jesus alluded to the way to life being “narrow” (Matthew 7:14). Some are not ready, and perhaps among the Athenian philosophers who wanted to hear more there were additional converts. But some “believed,” and history tells us that one of the converts, Dionysius, later became a Bishop of Athens. The Mars Hill (Acts 17) event is an example of a passage that can be read apologetically, and ideas gleaned from the passage that provide a way to present the Gospel, i.e., “evangelism,” to those we come in contact with.

I challenge you to try to read the New Testament apologetically, looking for the evidence and reasons given by Jesus and the biblical writers for believing that Jesus is the Way to God. I trust that the truth of the Gospel will jump from the pages and encourage you to step out and share the evidence when opportunities arise. And part of evangelism is being sensitive to when there is an opening to mention the evidence for why Christianity is true. The more believers who take this approach, the better the church will do in fulfilling its role in reaching the world as opposed to hiding from the world. Jesus gave us the authority and evidence we need to turn hearts and minds to Him. He also gave us the charge to engage the world with the Good News. Are you ready to change your approach to reading the New Testament by one degree so that you become more effective in reaching skeptics and the unsaved? If so, we may see a new surge of evangelism, conversion, and a restoration of the reputation of Christianity.