Guest Book Review: God’s Rivals
My thanks to the kind folk at IVP for a review copy of McDermott's book, God's Rivals. It is my pleasure to introduce Kathrin, the guest reviewer today. She is a German theology student and we met at the Tübingen English-German colloquium run by the Institute for Early Christianity.
God's Rivals by Gerald R. McDermott (Illinois, IVP: 2007)
A review by Kathrin Wanner, Student of Theology, Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen, Germany.
"Why are there other religions at all?" This is the basic question of McDermott's book God's Rivals, and it is present on every page. After a careful and exact analysis of different historical items connected to this question, the answer can be summarized in one sentence: "Because god is a big god, he can use pagan thinking to influence biblical authors in such a way that the final results in the biblical text is still exactly what he wants." His concern is to ask the biblical authors themselves about their view, using many original texts and quoting the bible regularly.
The first part of the book refers to the question of "particularity" or, in other words, "Why has the true god come to only some people at some times?" The author shows how people have dealt with this question in the past and how it is answered today.
His next concern is to show how the Old and New Testament deal with other religions. He argues that not only people in Israel and the church knew a lot about God. A whole chapter researches what kind of heavenly beings the Old Testament knows and how they are easily referenced to as "other gods." In a further step, the author introduces different people who give evidence of how the world thought and lived during the development of the New Testament.
McDermott starts with Paul and shows that he believed in the existence of spiritual powers. He moves on to Justin Martyr and therefore to a philosopher's view on the Christian religion. With Irenaeus the author explains "how god uses the religions" and that revelation happens in different stages, having its "final culmination in Christ"; his conclusion that "God used many different teaching methods over thousands of years to communicate the truth" seemed to me a highlight of the chapter.
The words of Clement of Alexandria show that people and differences in religion are caused by the fact that God "called all equally" but at the same time "his gifts were distributed unequally". He divides people in different groups depending on their strength of belief with different relationships to the Lord and different ways of being taught by him, concluding that a "Mixture of truth and error is there by divine design." Still there is only one "cause of all": God. Finally, the author introduces the reader to Origen who reminds people that other religions are dangerous and at the same time useful to support the way of life of people who do not believe yet. Finally, the author summarizes the basic points of each chapter once more and draws a conclusion to the question: "Why did God permit other Religions?" based on the research made before.
One of the first things to be discovered is the strong belief of the author, something that can be sensed on every page; he happens to be an orthodox Christian and the large number of examples from the bible used leads to the impression that the "holy book" kept him company all the time while writing God's Rivals.
Every chapter starts with a short summarizing view on the chapter's topic or main protagonist; afterward, step by step, he describes the most important things to know, starting with an interesting example or invented dialogue that easily catches the reader's attention and offers him exciting access to the topic. Summarising headlines emphasise the most important ideas. He then introduces the chapter's main person, by drawing a picture of the historical setting, the person's life and his spiritual background. After this preparation he shows the person's view on the main question of the book: "Why are there other religions?" integrated in the knowledge of his time. Finally, he summarizes the chapter's basic content and offers a preview on the next chapter.
The author keeps including possible questions a reader might have. He makes an effort to explain happenings in the past with examples from today to illustrate issues for the reader with well known pictures.
God's Rivals is easy to read and understand, even for non-native speakers (like myself), without rows of technical terms, but still offers a solid basis of basic knowledge.
I learnt a lot about the different historical characters who have dealt with this question and feel that my knowledge about this topic has really grown a lot.