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Notable books

Notable Books | Four philosophical novels reviewed by Susan Olasky

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

The Loser Letters

Mary Eberstadt's homage to The Screwtape Letters purports to be a collection of letters to atheism's big names (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et al.) from a young female convert to their cause. In the first seven letters A.F. Christian explains what the atheists (Brights) are doing wrong and why they haven't been more successful in winning converts to their side. She says she's rooting for the Brights but if they don't pick up their game they won't be able to effectively refute the arguments of believers (Dulls). With intelligence, slashing wit, and cultural understanding, Eberstadt effectively skewers the new atheists and their arguments while providing a compelling natural-law defense of Christian faith.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

This grating retelling of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility lacks wit and the moral sensibility that are part of Austen's timeless appeal. The Weissmanns-elderly mother Betty and two middle-aged daughters-take refuge in a cottage in Connecticut after Betty's husband wants a divorce. The plot echoes Austen's story, but secondary characters and concepts-adultery and homosexuality-are unappealing. In one scene one of the daughters recalls fondly what her stepfather said of Christmas: "This holiday celebrates the birth of a man in whose name an entire religion has persecuted and murdered our people for thousands of years. . . . And knowing that, why should we let them have all the fun, right?"

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

A college professor becomes a sensation with the publication of a bestselling atheist book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, in which he refutes the philosophical proofs of God's existence. Life is good: He's in love with a brilliant game theorist; Harvard wants to hire him. The book takes place during his girlfriend's absence as he wrestles with his future and recalls the strange course of his personal and academic life. Newberger's novel combines biting academic satire and a gentle send-up of religion, especially Hassidic Judaism. She may believe she has given her protagonist the better philosophical arguments, but her characters and situations display mysteries that the secular protagonists have to contort themselves to explain.

The Executor

When Joseph Geist comes to Harvard from the Midwest, he leaves behind his working-class family, brutal dad, and Catholic faith. More than a decade later he's a perennial grad student who thinks he's above work. His girlfriend throws him out. He's unemployed, homeless, and armed only with his passion for the idea of "free will" and a broken bust of Nietzsche. Then he answers a mysterious classified ad placed by an elderly woman lonely for intellectual conversation. He's hired and his life changes-not in a good way. The novel rolls out slowly like an academic coming-of-age story, until it metastasizes into a nightmare out of Edgar Allan Poe. The shift left me cold.

Spotlight

If you read 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, you'll find at the end of the book an appendix that includes 36 theistic arguments for God's existence and Goldstein's refutation of them. Although she is a MacArthur prize "genius," her arguments seem to a believer as convincing as the explanations offered by the puppet in William Steig's brilliant book, Yellow and Pink, who tries to explain how he came into existence.

God demands that we see Him as He reveals Himself in the Scriptures. Discovering God in Stories from the Bible by Philip Ryken (P&R, reissued 2010) is a study of God's attributes as spelled out in the Westminster Catechism answer: "God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." With warmth and wisdom, Ryken uses Scripture to delve into each attribute, showing who God is and how that knowledge should change us.

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