Book review 10: “The Landscape of Faith”

It’s probably about time for another Christian book review. Thomas Traherne’s “Poetry and Prose” I’ve already praised (and haven’t finished yet) but in the last few months, I have read the following other Christian books: “Those who wait: Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay” by Tanya Marlow; “A Voice in the Wind” by Francine Rivers; and “The Landscape of Faith” by Alister McGrath.

“Those Who Wait” was an Advent reread – I’ve already reviewed it here:

“A Voice in the Wind” is readable but sadly confirmed many of my prejudices about Christian fiction.

Alister McGrath is a Professor of Science and Religion, and a prolific author of Christian apologetics – also a biographer of CS Lewis. Like Lewis, he was an atheist before he became a Christian.

The subtitle of “The Landscape of Faith” is “An explorer’s guide to the Christian creeds.” Landscapes are to be explored, and the geographical metaphor is maintained throughout the book. (Possibly picked up from Lewis, whom he quotes a lot – doesn’t Lewis say somewhere that walking along a beach, ie having an experience of God, is more exciting than looking at a naval chart, but you need the chart to get to America?) The creeds help us to explore and settle on the island called Christianity. They can be used (he says) as maps, but also as lenses, lights and tapestries.

From this you can see that the book is chock-full of metaphor, and his other favourite is the Balcony and the Road, apparently coined by one John Alexander Mackay.  You can look on the world, or life, from above – perhaps God does – from a Balcony. But in the midst of suffering and life and actual faith you’re on the Road. Which is one reason why we need the Incarnation.

After discussing the use and purpose of the creeds (restricting himself to the Nicene and the Apostles’, she says, showing off), he divides the book into sections, discussing what the creeds say about first: God the Father/Creator; second: Jesus; and third: other stuff, ie the Holy Spirit, the church, the sacraments and eternal life. Somewhat oddly, the creeds themselves are only placed at the end, in an appendix.

As I read this book, I wondered who it was intended for. It defends the rationality of standard Christian belief (again like Lewis in “Mere Christianity”, he avoids anything too denominational, which means there’s not a lot about the sacraments, and nothing about the Second Coming). But it doesn’t argue for Christianity’s inevitability. It doesn’t follow McGrath’s own story, but it refers to it as a starting-off and ongoing reference point.

I think it’s intended for agnostics willing to be convinced, people in-between, and for Christians who want to be reassured that their faith isn’t just for idiots, as the more militant atheists of our day claim. (Another of McGrath’s books is “The Dawkins Delusion.”) So you’d think it would be an ideal book for me. Yet I’m really struggling to work out if I like it or not.

It’s well-written, thoughtful and clear. Because it’s also a very personal book (perhaps more than I expected on opening it) it looks at aspects of Christianity that he finds helpful and interesting, and isn’t, as I hinted above, quite as comprehensive as someone with different interests might like. Sometimes there are irritating leaps, assumptions or “straw men”, as when he criticises the Age of Reason for putting forward humanity as perfect or perfectible, and says this doesn’t accord with the often criminal human race we know. But surely no one nowadays has such a rosy view of humanity? Is there no space in between “we are wonderful, almost gods” and “we are utterly degenerate miserable sinners”?

The torrent of metaphor can also grate, especially when he says that the Trinity is a difficult concept, and then cheekily complains of other people’s “hopelessly simplistic and generally pointless analogies” in trying to explain it. (He thinks that the mystery of the Trinity is part of the point.)

But I found a lot of what he said helpful, especially in the first two thirds of the book. I think it will be helpful to refer back to. And although he quotes Lewis an awful lot, he quotes other people too, and repeatedly encourages us to read them, our “travelling companions”. I can’t help feeling that he is pointing me towards St Augustine, Blaise Pascal and Marilynne Robinson as travelling companions rather than, say, the people I know and attend church with – but then he’s a booky guy.

If you want an intelligent book explaining and justifying Christianity which doesn’t beat you about with Bible quotes or demand specific emotions or experiences, this is a good read.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS As I said, McGrath is prolific. Has anyone else read any of his?

  • Clint Redwood

    25th January 2019 at 8:28 pm Reply

    I’m intrigued! What are your prejudices about Christian fiction and how did the book correspond?

  • Penelope Wallace

    1st February 2019 at 1:02 pm Reply

    Maybe another post later…

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