Hearts & Minds BookNotes

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Location: Dallastown, PA

My lovely wife Beth and I own and operate--proprietors makes us sound more classy than we really are--a cluttered, diverse and independent bookstore in Central Pennsylvania. After well over 20 years, we are still not sure what to say when people ask if our shop is a "Christian bookstore." I do a monthly book review column over at our website; we hope that these new blogged bits will afford friends and customers the chance to see other books I happen to be reading, wishing to read, pretending that I read or at least believe that others should, if not read, know about. We have three children, attend a Presbyterian church in York, PA and have no hobbies.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Language of God

I promised readers a while back that I would post an announcement when we received the new paperback edition of Francis S. Collins' The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. We are very happy to say that we've gotten it. It has a new study guide, too, making it ideal for a book club or adult study. We are very fond of it. (Click on that link above and read an interview with Dr. C done by Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly.)

Collins, you should know, is the prestigious director of the Human Genome Project at the NIH, and is one of the world's leading scientists. As it says on the back cover, "he works at the cutting edge of the study of DNA, the code of life. Yet, he is also a man of unshakable faith in God and Scripture."

Yes, Dr. Collins--who has given important lectures at Harvard and was an MIT commencement speaker a few years back!---is an evangelical, nurtured in the ways of orthodox faith by friends at the C.S. Lewis Institute and theologians like N.T. Wright and his pal the estimable Dr. Alister McGrath. That he speaks as easily about C.S. Lewis as he does gene sequences shows his thoughtfulness and deeply integrated perspective. The Times review noted that the book "lets non-church-goers consider spiritual questions without feeling awkward." And that is quite a feat, I think, making it an excellent book to give away or to use in a seeker book discussion.

That the book was a New York Times bestseller and has blurbs from the likes of Desmond Tutu and Kenneth Miller and Paul Davies makes it that much more interesting. I think many of our BookNotes friends will be glad this inexpensive paperback is now available (See the blog special, below).

The book should appeal to a variety of readers. It is a science book, after all, and would obviously fit well into that catagory. If you read popular science or are trying to figure out the debates about evolution, this is a great introduction; well-written, making complex matters very understandable. (I announced the new Michael Behe book, The Edge of Evolution, a month ago. He is a brillant and important researcher but his more technical work is beyond me.) Collins writes as a world-class researcher, too, but this is a popular level book, some of it a memoir of his own journey as person of faith and cutting edge scientist.

Collins is not only a scholar with a PhD in chemistry (done when he was, as he explains, a rigorous atheist), but he has a medical degree as well. It makes sense that a friend and mentor is Dr. Armand Nicholi of Harvard Medical School (author of the great book which compares the worldviews of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, The Question of God.) It was when Collins was in medical school, actually, when he found Christian faith compelling and became a disciple of Christ.

Much of the book explores his take on the reasonableness of faith, and his good work in genetics and in the herculian effort to map the human genome.

(Collins and his team have done very significant work in many areas, of course, but I was especially moved to hear of his discovery of the key genetic problem that causes cystic fibrosis. I was almost moved to tears as he writes of writing a song for patients, families and activists in the CF support community. Obviously, he's a hero in their eyes! See his bio here to see other diseases his research has helped "crack.")

The book makes a good case for faith being reasonable, and he expresses what I take to be solid and orthodox views yet he is open, gentle, and makes it clear that he does not think that Biblically grounded faith leads to either the politics of the Christian right or the inaccuracies of the creationist movement. (Like many of our wisest church father before him, he does not think that the first three chapters of Genesis need to be taken literally.) In a few chapters he dispatches not only agnostic and atheistic assumptions, but explains his disapproval of both young earth creationism and intelligent design.

Ahhh, space here does not permit my small quibbles about his critique of ID.* Let's just say I don't think he presents the full case, although he makes accusations that I would imagine he could easily back up, even if he doesn't fully do so in the text. Interestingly, secularists have noticed that his apologetic includes the argument from design in cosmology (and, cf,in the Big Bang.) He rejects such thinking, though, in biology, where ID has had the most influence. I would love to see some friendly discusion--and knowing Francis just a bit, I know it would be most cordial--between he and, say, Philip Johnson or Mike Behe.

The Language of God ends with a somewhat detailed discussion of moral medicine, the ethics of genetic engineering (stem cell research, for instance) and a call to thoughtful, balanced and reasonable approaches to bio-medicine guided by principles of stewardship, justice, care and integrity. This is the kind of man he is, the kind of science he daily practices, and he is an ideal voice for inviting skeptics into the conversation between Christian faith and modern science. As First Things said in a review of the initial hardcover, "His book may do more to promote better understanding between the worlds of faith and science than any other so far written."

*Here is a review that was published in The American Spectator. Fascinating.

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