I found Natasha Crain’s blog Christian Mom Thoughts a few years ago and have been consistently impressed with its content. Natasha’s writing is mainly concerned with integrating apologetics -the defense of the Christian faith through reason and evidence- with parenting -a topic that is important to me, as the father of four young children. This subject became even more relevant a two years ago, when my wife and I began homeschooling our kids. For that reason, when I heard that Natasha was writing a book, I offered to review it, hoping to get my hands on an advance copy. She graciously agreed and this post is the result.
The book Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side is organized in terms of forty important questions relating to the truth of Christianity, questions like “How could a good God allow evil and suffering?”, “How do we know Jesus existed?” “Does the Bible support slavery?” and “Why do Christians have varying view on how and when God created the world?” These questions fall fairly naturally into the book’s five sections: “Conversations about God”, “Conversations about Truth and Worldviews”, “Conversations about Jesus”, “Conversations about the Bible”, and “Conversations about Science.” As is the case for nearly all apologetics books that attempt to make a comprehensive defense of the Christian faith, the chapters are by no means exhaustive. Entire books and even entire fields of study exist to address some of these issues. But Natasha gives solid answers to the most pressing questions Christians are likely to encounter in today’s culture and directs parents to more detailed resources in the extensive footnotes and on her website.
The greatest strength of this book is its suitability for the niche it was intended to fill: helping Christian parents prepare their children for intellectual challenges to their faith. In the opening pages, Natasha describes her own wake-up call to the necessity of apologetics in parenting, which occurred when a blog post that she had written on the topic of evolution went viral and attracted hundreds of comments, many of them from very aggressive atheists. Some of her most persuasive writing, both on her blog and in this book, comes when she discusses actual examples of how challenging questions can cause many Christians to waver in or even to abandon their faith. Drawing on her own experiences, her children’s questions, survey data and quotes from internet commenters, she makes a powerful case that we should never ignore hard questions or give simplistic answers that show we’ve never given such objections serious thought.
This strength also presents an unavoidable problem. While the book does an excellent job of reaching its target audience – Christian parents who are new to apologetics – it is not the kind of book that will be helpful to non-Christians. The book assumes that the reader is an evangelical Christian looking for ways to defend his or her faith rather than a non-Christian wondering if Christianity is even true. For example, in the first section entitled ‘Conversations about God’, the evidence for God’s existence is presented in a 7-page whirlwind tour of the cosmological argument, the design argument, and the moral argument. But the remaining 34 pages of the section present answers to some of the thorniest objections to God’s existence: the problem of evil, the problem of hell, the problem of divine hiddenness, etc… I was left wondering whether Christian parents who had never really considered these problems would walk away from this section mildly dazed, let alone the occasional non-Christian reader.
That problem is less apparent in the next section “Conversations about Truth and Worldviews” because it draws attention to some of the problems inherent in modern ideas of relativism (the claim that morality is a social/personal construct) and religious pluralism (the idea that all religions are equally true). Here, Natasha lays an important foundation for understanding concepts like objective truth, revelation, and the role of religious experience. In a culture awash in relativism and emotionalism, these lessons are as important for our own spiritual lives as they are for conveying the Christian message to non-Christians.
The third section treats “Conversations about Jesus,” starting with basic questions like his existence, moving on to the historicity of his claims to deity, and culminating in the evidence for his Resurrection. Natasha’s discussion of the Resurrection was one of my favorite parts of the book and highlighted her familiarity with the objections your kids are likely to encounter, especially if they spend time a lot of time on the internet. She wisely turns the conversation towards worldview assumptions, recognizing that a rejection of the Resurrection often has more to do with implicit or explicit naturalism than with the paucity of the historical evidence.
“Conversations about the Bible” is likely to be one of the more uncomfortable sections for readers, second only to the section on evolution at the end of the book. Dealing with objections about the Bible’s views on slavery, rape, and human sacrifice requires Christians to confront the fact that they often have a shallow knowledge of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament. Sunday school curricula designed around well-known stories and expunged of any violent, shocking, or troubling passages do not equip children or parents to answer questions posed by skeptics. The tragedy is that glossing over these issues not only exposes us to difficult questions, it often leaves us with a shallow theology and a weak understanding of basic principles of hermeneutics, like an awareness of cultural context or using clear passages to illuminate unclear ones. This section provides good, short responses to these issues while pointing towards the necessity of deeper Bible study.
The final section of the book is entitled “Conversations about science,” although it might be more appropriately titled “conversations about evolution.” Answering 8 questions over the course of 40 pages, Natasha outlines the different views Christians have on evolution. The most important passage in this section and perhaps in the entire book is a description of Natasha’s initial encounter with the scientific evidence for evolution and the implications of avoiding or trivializing a discussion of this subject with your kids. She quotes at length a reviewer of Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True who relates their shock and despair when they realized that the description of evolution they had received as an evangelical Christian was a gross caricature of the actual theory. They write: “I learned that I had been lied to intentionally, or not, I do not know and that the quantity, diversity, and quality of evidence in support of evolution was simply crushing.”
Natasha, here and on her blog, makes the extremely important point that having a reasonably accurate understanding of evolution is not an issue of ‘intellectual respectability’ but of credibility with your children. She writes: “If what we teach them on an important subject turns out to be incomplete or inaccurate, it can cast a shadow of a doubt on everything we’ve taught them.” In the pages that follow, she gives readers a simplified but overview of the evidence for evolution and the responses of young-earth creationists, old-earth creationists, theistic evolutionists and proponents of intelligent design. She declines to offer her own view, but urges parents to study the subject for themselves so that they and their children are not totally blind-sided by what they hear in school or from their peers.
Keeping Your Kids On God’s Side is an important addition to an extremely important niche in the world of apologetics: the role of Christian parents in forming the spiritual lives of their children. As an apologetics junkie, it is hard for me to guess how this book would be received by someone with limited exposure to apologetics. I suspect that there would be some areas in which Natasha raises questions that the reader had never before encountered, others in which she very capably answers questions that had always bothered them, and others in which they find her answers incomplete. But maybe that’s the point. I don’t think Natasha wants her book to be the end of all our apologetics questions. Instead, I think it is meant to give us a place to start, as we begin to take apologetics and our role in discipling our children more seriously.