Why believe? Books for the Clapham omnibus



Every now and then, I’m asked if I can recommend a good book that answers the basic question: why be a religious believer today?

Inevitably, it depends who’s asking. We all come with different levels of knowledge and interest. A book that one person finds accessible and engaging, another will regard as trite and superficial, and a third irrelevant and incomprehensible. For many, the Alpha course developed at Holy Trinity Brompton (widely available in paperwork as Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel) has been the easiest and simplest introduction to Christian faith. But if you want something more substantial or critical, what should you try?

Here are eight suggestions. All are written for the educated but non-specialist layperson we used to call the man (or woman) on the Clapham omnibus. They are from popular and prolific authors, and are easily available new or second-hand. They offer different perspectives on faith and religion, in a range of writing styles. I certainly don’t agree with all they have to say, and nor will you. But if you’re asking yourself why you should believe in God or Christianity today, something on this list should scratch where you are itching.

Pritchard and Yancey are probably the easiest to read; McLaren and Borg the most liberal; McGrath, Sacks and Armstrong the most demanding. Read them all, and you’ll be as clued up about the case for religious belief in the modern world as anyone else out there.

John Pritchard, Ten: Why Christianity makes sense

John Pritchard was principal of the theological college in Durham where I trained for ordination, and went on to become Bishop of Oxford. A natural preacher and communicator, Pritchard writes in a pithy and engaging manner. Ten: Why Christianity Makes Sense is packed full of practical wisdom, arranged in easy-to-read chapters which offer ten short comments on a range of themes: ten problems people have with faith; ten reasons to believe in God; ten things not to believe about God; ten beliefs about science and religion; and more. This is a book you can easily dip in and out of, or read in any order you want. The deceptively simple style belies the considerable learning that underpins these pages. If you enjoy this,  try his How to Explain Your Faith, which offers similarly straightforward observations on how and why Christianity makes sense.

Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming Faith

Brian McLaren was brought up in an American fundamentalist Christian household, trained as a pastor, but gradually found the simplistic answers from the church of his childhood inadequate. His numerous books exploring what he calls an ‘emerging’ or ‘progressive’ vision of Christianity for the 21st century have made him one of the most popular contemporary Christian writers particularly with younger people. A New Kind of Christianity, written in a relaxed and informal style, is an invitation to think again about God, Jesus, and the bible, in the light of ten critical questions that Christians and non-Christians alike find themselves asking today. It’s a book I used to commend as a university chaplain to students intrigued by faith but sceptical of the cultural baggage associated with traditional religion.

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God: What religion really means

Former nun Karen Armstrong left her convent in her mid-twenties disillusioned with the church, and rediscovered her vocation and faith as a writer and broadcaster on the history of religion. She has gained an international reputation for books and documentaries on Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism,  and won numerous awards for her commitment to religious dialogue and mutual understanding. Philosopher and journalist Alain de Botton recently described Armstrong as “one of the handful of wise and supremely intelligent commentators on religion”. In The Case for God, Armstrong offers a historical perspective on the importance and continued relevance of religion in the face of contemporary atheism. It’s a book which is “dense and brilliant, chastening and consoling”, according to the Sunday Times. Put your thinking caps on, and enjoy.

Tom Wright, Simply Christian

Tom Wright was an Oxford theologian before being appointed Bishop of Durham, and has always combined heavy-weight biblical scholarship (usually published under the name N.T. Wright) with popular Christian writing (under the name Tom Wright). Simply Christian is his best attempt to explain, in everyday language, why belief in God makes sense, how we should understand the bible, and what difference it makes. He’s a bit conservative on some issues for my taste, but there’s plenty in here we can all learn from. Look out too, for his highly acclaimed punchy and accessible commentaries on the gospels and New Testament letters (published as Mark for Everyone, Luke for Everyone, Paul for Everyone, etc.), which are perfect for those who want help to read through the bible in short manageable daily chunks.

Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of faith

Marcus Borg, like Tom Wright, is a serious New Testament scholar who also writes popular books on Christianity for the non-specialist,  but from a more liberal perspective. In The Heart of Christianity he explains why many people today struggle with traditional Christianity, and outlines in its place what he calls an ‘emerging paradigm’ for contemporary faith, showing how this can help us understand God, Jesus, the bible and Christianity in a new way that makes sense in the modern world. For those brought up as churchgoers but who struggle as adults to believe all they were taught as children, Borg explains in a convincing way why you don’t have to, and what you should believe instead. Of all the authors I recommend here, Borg is the one who most closely articulates my own views. An honest, intelligent, and sensible guide to modern faith.

Alister McGrath, Inventing the Universe: Why we can’t stop talking about science, faith and God

A convert from atheism, Alister McGrath trained as a scientist before turning to theology, and has an international profile as an academic theologian and specialist in the area of religion and science. He’s also developed a reputation as one of the most convincing Christian apologists around, and is hugely in demand as a speaker: the sort of character who will happily take on Richard Dawkins in public debate (and win). Inventing the Universe shows why, as McGrath combines elements of personal biography with a thorough and wide-ranging discussion of Darwin, evolution, scientific methodology, morality, truth, and the search for meaning. For those sceptical about religion because of their interest in science, McGrath provides a massively learned defence of the rationality and coherence of Christianity. “Elegant, wide-ranging, superbly balanced and intelligent” is how former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams described it. Intended for the general reader, but not for the faint-hearted.

Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World: What on earth are we missing?

Philip Yancey was for many years editor of the American periodical Christianity Today, and his training as a journalist is apparent in his extremely readable style. Rumors of Another World (also published as A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith) is not a carefully constructed argument for the existence of God, but a lively set of reflections on the pointers to the spiritual realm we encounter in everyday life, told through anecdotes, illustrations, comments, and asides on literature, music, art, and current affairs. Yancey comes from an American evangelical perspective, and I’m not always a fan of his style myself, but many of his books, such as Where is God When it Hurts? (on the problem of suffering) or What’s So Amazing about Grace? have been hugely helpful to Christians from across the spectrum.

Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: God, science, and the search for meaning   

Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks will be familiar to many for his columns in newspapers and as a regular contributor to Thought for the Day. He’s also the author of numerous highly regarded books on religion and contemporary society. Anything by Sacks is worth reading, but I’d suggest starting with The Great Partnership, which begins as an argument for the complementarity of religion and science, but develops into a full-throated defence of religious faith in the modern world. BBC journalist Andrew Marr described it as “the most persuasive argument for religious belief I have ever read”. Essential reading from one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.