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April 05, 2005

Book review: Total Truth, by Nancy Pearcey

I recently finished reading Nancy Pearcey's excellent book Total Truth, which I highly recommend. Here, I want to write a brief review of the book. Following my review, I'll give some excerpts of parts that I thought were especially insightful and discuss some issues the book raises. For example, I think some of her ideas have some implications she doesn't discuss, and so I want to get at some of those. This post will be the review, with a couple brief excerpts, and I'll have more of my own thoughts in some follow-up posts (here and here). (I should also mention that I'm going to be discussing this book with a group of other guys, so if there's anything else that comes out of that, I may post more comments on the book later).


I really think this is an excellent book that everyone who can spare the time should read. It is quite readable, but also quite comprehensive and, unless you're well-versed in the history of philosophy and Christian thought, you'll learn a whole lot. Although the subject matter is fairly deep, it's relatively "light" reading compared to the Puritan books I've been reading recently, and most people will have no difficulty reading and understanding it. Pearcey is an excellent writer.

The title "Total Truth" comes from the idea that the Bible, and the gospel, are the truth about all of life -- they're "Total Truth". However, Pearcey argues convincingly that much of society, and even the Christian world, thinks that religion and Christianity are exclusively personal issues, with no bearing on much of life. This results in something she calls a "two-story" view of truth: There are certain objective facts about reality which everyone must agree to (and these are often supposed to be determined by "science"), and then there's religion, which is a personal choice. Religion is an "upper story", added on to the "lower story" to which everyone must agree, so religion is "optional".

Pearcey traces the development of this two-story view of truth, and also works out its implications for the present. She also gives some ideas for how to fight it. As I said, the book is very comprehensive (yet the main body is still under 400 readable pages).

Now, what Pearcey is calling a two-story view of truth isn't something we're too unfamiliar with. If you've ever tried to share about Christianity, and what it says about how we ought to live, with someone who argues that religion ought to be kept entirely separate from public life, you've run into this view. You've also run into it if you've talked with someone who thinks that religion is useful, so it's not worth discussing whether or not it's true (or, perhaps, it's not something that's true or false -- just something useful). So that part wasn't new to me, but it's interesting to see how this view developed over time.

Pearcey also spends a lot of time discussing Darwinism and how it has helped facilitate this division. I won't say much about that here -- you'll have to read the book for more. She also discusses how Darwinism has pervaded many other areas of life (i.e. social studies, etc.), and argues that we need to be fighting it.

One part I found especially interesting -- and which I'll discuss more in a subsequent post -- is how evangelicalism has influenced this two-story view. Particularly, Pearcey argues that, during the second Great Awakening after the Revolutionary War, the evangelical emphasis on a personal conversion experience combined with the idea of revolution and led to a rejection of authority, including church authority. Many involved in this downplayed doctrine, or even spoke against the teaching of doctrine. Thus expository teaching and preaching gave way to topical sermons on "felt needs" and preachers became performers, with stories and anecdotes. Revivalists had sort of a personality cult. Some even engaged in deliberate manipulation of emotions in an attempt to produce a conversion experience. This emotional intensity -- which often came at the expense of doctrine -- helped make it seem like Christianity is just an irrational, emotional belief. This further intensified the two-story split.

I won't try to do anymore of an overview of the book here, but again, I recommend it. I don't necessarily agree with everything in it, though, but it's worth reading. Now, it's not that Pearcey said something I disagree with, exactly, but the book left me with a couple of impressions that I didn't quite agree with:

  • Pearcey talks about this two-story split as if it's essential to understand this split in order to live a prosperous Christian life. I don't think that's quite true. In my opinion, properly understanding "Jesus is Lord" and the idea of Sola Scriptura are all that's necessary. That is, if Jesus is Lord, he isn't just Lord over some areas of my life. He is Lord over the whole thing. And if Sola Scriptura is right, Scripture is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God, and it tells us all we need to know to live blamelessly before God in every area of our lives. In other words, Jesus' Lordship extends to every area of our lives, and Scripture has something to say about how we should conduct ourselves in every area of our lives. If we understand this, we won't see public life as somehow separate from religion. And if we understand that the Bible is true, we won't be confused and think religion is just a matter of personal opinion, independent from the facts. If Sola Scriptura is right, the Bible doesn't just speak to religion -- it speaks truth about every topic it addresses, and the truth it speaks is universal truth, not only true to those who believe it.
  • Pearcey seems to suggest a number of times that the way to drastically improve the situation is to begin by dealing with people's worldviews -- by showing people how their atheistic or agnostic beliefs can't possibly fit with the way they live. That is, their lives are contradicting their beliefs. The place to begin with evangelism, she suggests, is to show people that their beliefs aren't reasonable, and Christianity is. Now, I know this can be useful sometimes, especially with a particular sort of person (like Pearcey probably was before she became a Christian), but I don't think it's the universal solution. I'll say more about this in a subsequent post (here).

Aside from these two points, however, the book is quite excellent. Here's a couple brief excerpts on some points I especially appreciated:

(p. 168)

Where, then, is the evidence that natural selection has the power to create the vast diversity of living things on earth? Where do we see that creative power at work? Certainly not in the standard examples cited in the typical biology textbook.

And that is a clue that something else is at work -- that it is not really the evidence that persuades. The reason people can find such minor, reversible change persuasive is that they are already persuaded on other grounds -- on philosophical grounds -- that nature alone must be capable of creating all life forms. In other words, they are persuaded of philosophical naturalism: that nature is all that exists, or at least that natural forces are all that may be invoked in science. And once people have made that philosophical commitment, they can be persuaded by relatively minor evidence.

Pearcey traces out the influence of Darwinism on many other areas of thought, and makes this intersting comment about the legal system: (p. 237)

Whereas traditional Western legal philosophy had based law on an unchanging source (on natural law, derived ultimately from divine law), Holmes treated law as a product of evolving cultures and traditions, completely relative to particular times and cultures. In fact, the whole reason for doing historical research, he said, was not to defend traditional concepts of law against would-be reformers, but precisely the opposite: By tracing legal ideas over the course of history, we can see for ourselves that they are not based on any unchanging, universal moral order, but are always the product of a particular local culture and its unique history.

This reminded me of the recent juvenile death penalty case, where the Supreme Court overturned its earlier decision and ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for juveniles ages 16 and 17. Apparently, the opinions in this case strongly supported the idea that the meanings of words -- particularly, words in the Constitution -- change over time.

Pearcey also writes a lot on how the two-story split developed within the church, and how the evangelical emphasis on personal conversion helped further this. Here's just one example of an insightful point:

Eventually, of course, some procedures for membership had to be recreated, but the American mind had been altered. What need was there for things like catechism, liturgy, or sacraments if what counted for salvation was the crisis of conversion? The church was no longer an organic community into which one was received, and certainly not a spiritual authority to which one submitted. Rather, it was a collection of equal, autonomous individuals coming together by choice."

I'll hopefully be writing a bit more on this point in a subsequent post.

Again, I recommend Pearcey's book Total Truth highly. Read it, and you'll learn a lot. And in addition to learning, it also can help us correct our own thinking and identify where this split she addresses has crept into our own lives.

Posted by D. Mobley at April 5, 2005 09:10 AM

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