I recall once listening to a podcast conversation discussing reasons why cross-denominational Christian unity seems so much stronger in the UK rather than in the US. One of the primary reasons discussed was the fact that in the UK it is more difficult to avoid those Christians whom they disagree with. In the US, there are just so many Christians (by comparison) that even high profile Christians may never even hear of one another, there are just that many circles. The UK does not have that luxury. In some sense, their Christians can’t avoid each other, because their just aren’t enough to go around. While all Christians ought to desire (in some ways) the “problem” of too many Christians in a nation, there is something compelling about the intimacy of brothers and sisters in Christ being bound to one another merely by their proximity and scarcity. If they do not bind to each other, despite their differences, they shall be alone, for the world surrounds them on every side.
I say all of this to introduce how I became familiar with Paul Gould. I’ve been deeply engaged with apologetics for over half a decade. I’ve read more in that area than your average Joe, have taken classes on apologetics, received a couple certificates, and even taken my own stab at writing an allegorical apologetic, all while never coming to know Gould (which is not to slight his influence or reach, but to emphasis the sheer scale of the waters of even this niche community). All this to say that I did not really become familiar with Gould until, well, until I met him, when after a series of events on both sides we started attending the same local church. Gould left an impression immediately, before I came to realize exactly who he was (in hindsight I had come across some of his material).
The primary first (and lasting) impression Gould has left me with is the way in which he, and his family, radiate the fruit of the Spirit. For someone who actually has an established name in the world of apologetics, you’d be hard pressed to find a man who walks with such humility and kindness. For a man with both solid accomplishment and great intellect he simply does not boast in such things. I begin my review of his latest book this way, because of the current state of the American church. Often we (Christian lay people) are our own worst enemies for the way in which we craft our leaders as celebrities and erect their self-promoting platforms ourselves. And often, what sits on the altar we’ve erected is an enemy. They walk about the flock in sheep’s clothing and bring about the all too painful realities of #Churchtoo and other such abuses and tragedies involving gross moral failure. Oddly enough, our culture both cries out against the character flaws of our leaders and influencers in one hand while tolerating unbecoming behavior time and time again in the other…depending on whose behavior it is, and how much “kingdom work” is being done through them. One need not even look outside the specific American apologetic community to see sad examples of this.
Therefore, while not foolproof, there is something deeply meaningful about getting to see an influencer in an informal way. To strike up a conversation at a church picnic leaving without half a clue about his most well known book or his current status. To see the way in which he speaks to his wife and children on a regular basis. To see how he interacts with a local church body from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. Does one see the assertion of power and status? Or, does one see the proclamation of love and hands of service? Do we see one with stars in his eyes? Or do we see what is perhaps the best indicator of the character of a man in relation to their fame, a willingness (and ability) to just be normal?1
Character will always be directly related to an effective Christian witness. Even in the most well known apologetics verse in Scripture, the imperative for defense is directly bound to a spirit of gentleness and respect. Therefore, before we ever open the pages, it is wise to examen the man. Of course, with the writers one reads, this is rarely possible. It’s not everyday an apologetics book starts by referencing your very specific home town of Jupiter Farms! Of course, association can create great bias, yet those who know me will perhaps be familiar with my willingness to give honest opinions (perhaps too often or too bluntly put!). But, with that admission in mind we’ll move forward from character to content.
A Good and True Story is what I like to call a Christian worldview apologetic. Essentially, these books seek to demonstrate that Christianity offers the best explanation for understanding our world and our place in it. Tim Keller’s The Reason for God is perhaps the most well-known modern style of this book, with Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity being one of the most popular recent works. Typically, the main foil of the Christian view is the Secular one (rather than an alternative traditional religion) with its emphasis on pluralism and naturalism.
As an avid reader of this type of work, my primary question while engaging Gould’s book was: can he offer anything new? Not only have some big names put out popular works in this market, even niche sections have been explored from the very scientific in Ian Hutchinson’s Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles to the beauty oriented version in Gavin Ortlund’s Why God Makes Sense in a World that Doesn’t. How much is there left to say or where else is there to say it?
The short answer is, yes there are both new things to say and fresh ears to hear. Without a doubt, Gould offers new words and insights to add to the conversation. Even more, he opens up new paths for future conversations and writers to explore. Additionally, Gould, having spent years with the college ministry Cru, has written a work which is well structured to be a compelling voice to that young adult market in a way in which other books of this type are not. Of course, this will vary, certain people will have specific needs that may be best met by matching them with the particularities of any of the books already mentioned or even those not. Yet, when we think generally about the questions, and particularly the framing, that young adults in our culture put on their lives, Gould’s work is going to connect with many.
As the title clearly indicates, this book has a major emphasis on story. Gould accurately states from the onset, “Each of us lives on stories and lives a storied life.”2 Few would disagree with this assertion, but I would argue that Gould’s target audience is even more inclined to describe their lives in these terms. Even as we consider the many deconstruction stories out there, how often do we hear that type of framing of both the deconstruction process and the “journey” ahead. Gould’s approach is helpful, because it recognizes the culture context of his audience, subverts the objections that they have, and shows them that their desires can only find true fulfillment in Christ.3
One of Gould’s primary challenges to his reader is to have an “openness to reality”4 as its various (eleven) aspects are inspected. All too often these conversations are approached with the faulty assumption that atheism is the objective starting place. Gould pushes against the posture, stating that the objective starting place is openness, no matter where that may lead.
From here, Gould takes the reader on a journey through a vast web of interconnected aspects of reality. From the deep mysteries of the universe and life itself, to the human experiences of meaning, morality, and much more. Gould provides plenty of hard data and facts, but also good humor and a gentle spirit as he guides his reader through this complex world we find ourselves in. As he does, Gould argues that their is a good, true, and beautiful story found within the Christian worldview and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. This story is not just true, but good. It is not only good, but beautiful.
The trifold emphasis on truth, goodness, and beauty is found throughout the book and that, combined with narrative style, provides something unique within this market space. Of course, these aspects can be found scattered about other similar works, but nowhere do they combine and blend so profusely from beginning to end. And that narrative or storied element adds a great measure of accessibility to even the more technical portions of the book.
That said, I found two specific chapters particularly refreshing due to their rarity within this type of work. In Chapter 3 and 4, Gould explores Species and Humans. Once more admitting my own bias, the chapter Species was my favorite. The vast majority of books I’ve come across in this space take a rather Darwinian-ish take on the development of species throughout the history of life. Gould favors a take that is more in line with Intelligent Design (as I do myself) and he argues this well, being careful to avoid overreach while highlighting some of the major difficulties that a strictly naturalistic process of evolution presents us with. Further, he is quick to admit he is pushing against much of the overall consensus and allows the reader many paths forward as a Christian regardless of their particular scientific understanding of life’s development. He creates plenty of breathing room while not shying away from arguing what he finds most convincing.
The chapter Humans, complements this well. Most importantly, Gould offers the reader an acknowledgement of the data. Rarely does a reader of this type of apologetic get such a detailed account of the secular understanding of humanity’s origins. Often, the mere ability to articulate the views of an opponent allay much of the doubt which may exist within the hearts of the side being defended. Gould deals with this messy terrain carefully and helps point toward some paths forward, again providing the reader space for their own convictions. Speaking personally, during my own season of doubt, this chapter would have been the most important to me, as I so often felt as if most writers were simply avoiding looking at the same details about humanity that seem to be so ubiquitous outside certain Christian circles.
As should be clear from the above, A Good and True Story is a worthy addition to this apologetic space. However, few book reviews would be complete without at least a word or two about possible areas for critique. Only one particular area stood out to me in this regard, though I believe that readers less familiar with some of the arguments presented in the book simply will not think twice about it.
From time to time, a certain argument may seem to move rather quickly. Gould will present a case, and then build off that link in the argument as if the last point was fully established. This is understandable due to the overall framework of his book, it’s a story after all and he wants the reader to finish the journey at a certain destination (as all Christians should!). But, if there is any drawback to the story approach of his writing style, it is here, though it is only slight. A reader (again one more familiar with the intellectual turf) will at times wonder, “Yeah, but what about?” as the argument still moves forward. Personally, I found this most present during some of the discussion on morality, where I feel as if the raw, cold, hard, darkness of moralistic nihilism could have been given a bit more of a head nod toward its certain level of persuasiveness despite how sharply it sits in tension with our most deeply seated intuitions about the nature of morality.
To be fair, Gould readily admits he is really only able to give “a quick tour of the conceptual landscape”5 due to the nature of the book itself. One is not at all left with the impression that Gould himself overlooks these twists and turns that the arguments could take, but he only has so much paper to work with to still keep this book geared toward its target audience. Additionally, in many places he points the reader to resources for specific areas of concern that they may have.
As I mentioned, the biggest fear for this book as I began to read it was the question of if there was room for it. For me, Rebecca McLaughlin holds the monopoly on the best Christian worldview apologetic for intelligent pre-teens and teenagers with her 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity (see my review of that here). She is also my go to for the educated adult looking for a statistic driven, fast past logic and argument style work with Confronting Christianity. Tim Keller is more of my default for the older Boomer who is also educated. But there is an obvious gap here, or at least there was. Gould has nailed the type of work that ought to resonate with his primary target audience. This book is indeed “ideal for college-age and twenty-something readers.” Particularly, those who are looking for a story to fall into. Those craving a journey that will capture both their imaginations and their intellects. Those whose hearts know there must be a good and true story out there, they sense its beauty and long for it, even if they do not know the way. Gould is there to tell them their hearts do not desire in vain. He is there to help guide them as they journey forward into the wondrous story of Christ, which is a good and true story.
- For those who may be scratching their heads about what I mean by someone’s character and their sense of the normal, perhaps this C.S. Lewis quote for That Hideous Strength will provide the necessary context: “As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and crooked some kind of vision of the seed and the straight. Something else—something he vaguely called the “Normal”—apparently existed. He had never thought about it before. But there it was—solid, massive, with a shape of its own, almost like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with. It was all mixed up with Jane and fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing at Cure Hardy and the thought that , somewhere outside, daylight was going on at the moment… he was having his first deeply moral experience. He was choosing a side: the Normal.” C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York, NY: Scribner, 2003), 296-97
- Paul Gould, A Good and True Story: Eleven Clues to Understanding Our Universe and Your Place in it (Grand Rapids, Michigan: BrazosPress, 2022), 3
- For more on this evangelistic approach see a blog post of mine on Subversive Fulfillment Evangelism
- Gould, A Good and True Story, 11
- Ibid. 154