Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cross Examined: A Speakeasy Review

How do you know what you know?

What would it take to change your mind?

What if what you believe turns out to be wrong?

Those questions surfaced with last week’s Synchroblog topic, exploring some "what ifs" about Christianity and scripture.

It emerged again in a novel I signed on to review for an on-line book review community called Speakeasy.

The book, Cross Examined, by Bob Seidensticker, is descrbed as “an unconventional spiritual journey,” one which “challenges the popular intellectual arguments for Christianity and invites the reader to shore them up . . . or discard them.”

The phrase “popular intellectual arguments for Christianity” suggests an intriguing oxymoron, which may be why I signed on to receive and review the book. I’ve read, taught, discussed arguments for Christianity, but never found them "popular". Individuals complacent in their faith are generally bored, annoyed, or offended by forays into apologetics, while those shaken by doubt are rarely comforted or persuaded by intellectual argument.

From what I’ve seen, doubt is rarely the result of deep intellectual inquiry. More often, it’s the byproduct of tragedy, loss, abandonment, betrayal.

The characters of Cross Examined are no different in that respect. The story begins in 1906 with a prophecy of the coming San Francisco earthquake, and follows two young adults through the aftermath of that tragedy.

The plot is structured around two formal debates, the first between Reverend Samuel Hargrove, formidable pastor of The First Church of God in L.A., and bookish, forgettable, Professor Putnam. The second debate, late in the book, is between Reverend Hargrove and his protégé, Paul Winston, the central character of the book.

Between those debates, the novel follows Paul Winston’s encounter and growing friendship with a reclusive atheist, Jim. Jim’s chessboard serves as a central image in the novel: an ongoing contest between Jim and an unseen, unidentified adversary, with directives arriving from afar, and chess pieces moving slowly across a span of seasons.

There’s also a fiancé, Athena, thought dead in the earthquake and subsequent fires, nursed back from a badly broken leg in a distant Buddhist monastery.

The narrative offers conventions of plot: a half-hearted love story, uncertain identity, mounting tension between rival mentors, a young man facing traumatic past and uncertain future.

Yet the plot, and the characters themselves, are little more than a framework for the interplay of ideas. Between the opening and closing debate, Jim shuttles between pastor and recluse, rebutting arguments from one, gathering ammunition from the other, an almost featureless pawn in the battle of belief.

The story suffers, but the ideas suffer as well. Arguments, both for and against belief, are flattened, misrepresented, treated as little more than markers in a competitive game that resembles poker more than chess: “I’ll meet your ontological arguments and raise you one Pascal’s wager.”

Comparative religion, arguments of design, anthropological understanding of oral tradition, all appear in a distorted, simplified format. As Reverend Hargrove becomes more and more visibly a bombastic bully, his arguments are more easily dismissed. As Jim takes on the role of benefactor and confidant, Paul aligns himself with the new arguments Jim offers, as simplified as those he abandons.

Jim, portrayed as the constant voice of reason, at one point suggests, “Rationalization starts with God’s existence: given Christianity, how can I square it with the facts? Reason starts with the facts and follows them where they lead.”

To comment well on those two sentences alone would take chapters, maybe volumes. What is reason? Where does it come from? What is its basis? Why should we trust it?

And who decides the “facts”? Don’t we all start from our own points of understanding, and rationalize “facts” to fit the framework of our assumptions?

Don’t we all, atheists and believers alike, see and interpret “facts” from our own small windows on the world around us?

Yes, there are arguments for and against the existence of God, the truth of scripture, the possibility of miracles. There are different ideas about how to weigh the validity of historic texts, about how to date ancient documents, about how to interpret manuscripts from cultures distant from our own.

Cross Examined introduces some of those complexities, but in a way that seems heavily weighted toward the author's own assumptions.  The novel does little to acknowledge the rich history of philosophical inquiry surrounding the questions raised, and, set as it is in 1906, it ignores the past century of careful research on matters like reliability of manuscripts, strength of oral tradition, archaeological evidence for scriptural accounts.

Jim tells Paul “faith is immune to facts. . . And that’s the biggest clue that Christianity is false: it’s built on faith. Believing something because it’s reasonable and rational requires no faith at all.” In the intellectual chess game Seidensticker has constructed, facts and logic are the highest values, sweeping all opposition from their path.  

At the same time, there’s an odd undercurrent to the novel’s slight narrative.

Jim, reclusive atheist, lives in such a place of distrust he is unable to leave his home, and has, by his own testimony, been trapped in one place since he left the church two decades before. As he invites Paul deeper into his logical agnosticism, he also invites Paul into a place of isolation and paralysis.

In the end, Paul seems required to choose between reasoned loneliness or an irrational acceptance of a  more productive and emotionally healthy community. 

Despite the hundreds of pages of formal and informal debate between the main characters of the novel, two side characters seem to offer the final word.

One, Virgil, friend from Paul’s old life on the seamier side of town, urges Paul to continue on with the church: “seems to me that using logic to take care of your spiritual needs is like slicing bread with a hammer.”

Compassionate widow Mrs. O’Brien offers similar advice: “the church is much more than arguments and debate – it’s community and heaven and forgiveness. All these years of Samuel’s debates have changed my mind not a jot either way. Even if I were to accept all those fancy arguments against religion, my faith would remain. That’s why it’s called ‘faith’.”

The unsatisfying, unexpected conclusion does little to explain any of the characters’ motivations, just as the flurry of arguments back and forth does little to build a deeper understanding of the interaction between faith and reason.

As I set the book down, I find myself thankful for writers and thinkers whose books have illuminated key questions in deep and satisfying ways.

And I find my distaste for apologetics as intellectual contest has deepened.

I’m reminded that humility is an important basis for real wisdom and understanding.

And I’m convinced, yet again, that when intellectual discourse is approached as a game of chess, everybody loses.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.