Book Review: The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind by Alister McGrath

“You had me at ‘Hello’” said Renee Zellweger to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. A reader yearns for that response to a book’s introduction.It was my first thought about McGrath’s essays when I read, “I have always believed that theology is at its best when it generates reflective practices in the life and service of The Church” (8). The opening pages are full of rich nuggets, the benefits of theology extolled. Theology has a “positive role” giving “coherence to the Christian vision of reality” explaining “a distinctive way of looking at things” illuminating “our perceptions, decisions, and actions” making “sense of itself and the world” presenting “something essential to Christian ministry and preaching” enabling “attractiveness of faith” inhabiting “the Christian interpretive community” energizing “The Church to witness in the public square.” Every page in my copy of The Passionate Intellect is marked, highlighted, with additional notes lining the margins.

“Seeing” is McGrath’s key to understanding how The Church must engage culture theologically. Calling upon the words of Iris Murdoch (45, 81-82) McGrath encourages her definition of sight—and the use of poetry— to include imagination, seeing beyond the empirical to deeper truths. The vitality of The Christian Faith (its core, the person and work of Jesus) depends on theology in action, passion through collaboration, honor to tradition, and the necessity of biblical theology. When we study The Bible as a whole rather than with human systematic constructs, we find ourselves living with the difficult and preserving the mystery punctuated by Paul at the end of Romans 11. By looking at Scripture with new eyes, we honor The Story of our Lord, acknowledge the limitation of our reason, remembering our finite, fallen estate. Christian tradition emphasizes a shared memory. If we do not have connection to the past, we have no community. Community creates accountability.

Remembering others who have gone before us is to accept their help in the study of theology with tools, centuries old. McGrath calls this “a theology of retrieval” (38). We find stability in the past. And what a pleasure to read a theologian who directly roots his pursuits “in worship, prayer, and adoration” (40)! If The Christian content becomes detached from Christian communication we are liable to become lifeless in our response to God and lax in our service to God’s world. One cannot “do” theology without ministry. Theology is the window through which we see the world. While many exalt the preeminence of reason as we study Revelation, McGrath reminds us “we must also value the power of the human imagination as the gatekeeper of the human soul” (46). Poetry, then, provides a lens through which The Christian can see the world, whereby the world can see Jesus.

The window to our world, however, is often soiled with suffering. McGrath reflects on harshness and darkness through Luther and Lewis repeating his theme “Christianity made sense in itself, and it made sense of everything else” (57-58). Magnifying earlier concessions of limitation, we “must settle for the best fit, not the perfect fit.” Acknowledging Simon Weil’s apologetic aphorism, Christians should not seek for a remedy for suffering but a use for it (62-63). Wedding reason with emotion allows a fuller Christian view of life’s hard reality. We find great comfort in Lewis’ acknowledgment that sometimes Heaven does not answer the door, even as we pound away. Theology which does not maintain the maddening mystery of suffering is no theology at all. Where McGrath had been helpful in other pages by relaying his personal experiences; unfortunately, we find none here. Existential connections fill theology with life.

It is McGrath’s personal testimony about his love of natural science which does infuse the latter chapters of part one. McGrath first establishes the relevance of Christian theology which animates his engagement with the new atheists in part two. The author asks us to see clearly before we offer the spectacles of Faith to another. Intertwined with his concerns for suffering, McGrath wants us to view everything in creation honestly, even if it means we are left in discomfort. More poetry is deployed to bring our theological lens into sharp focus. But it is connection to mathematics which might cause the reader to wonder. Instead of scratching our heads we ought to acknowledge that God spoke His world into being with numbers. Math is a preeminent apologetic. We need a total engagement of the total person with the total creation. The recent spate of books whose subjects precede the word “intelligence” (i.e., “emotional intelligence,” “spiritual intelligence,” etc.) must all be entwined together, gathering what McGrath calls Christian “consonance.”

Reframing theological-apologetics within a wholistic view of humans and creation necessitates that our rhetoric must now wrap itself in the art and persuasion of aesthetics. Theology is born of mission, dialoguing with those outside The Faith, inviting them to The Faith. The Message of The Gospel must consider each audience it tells. A symphony orchestra needs multiple instruments to create its performance; so Christian theology harmonizes all its musicians to create the melody of The Message.

Christianity’s Message depends upon history. So, as McGrath engages “new atheism” he does so saying that understanding history helps us understand science. We must study history to understand the reception ideas proffered in their day. For instance, scientists were less receptive to Darwin’s theory than was The Church; a crucial moment of clarity for contentious debates today. To utilize science’s own critique surrounding The Origin of Species is to lay claim to historical arguments which would substantiate The Church’s claims. As elsewhere, the reader is struck again with McGrath’s honest honor of serious thought. He sees Darwinian theory not as a bogeyman but as a theory which must be engaged on its face, with its own merits. If we do not practice honesty in scholarship, we run the risk of marginalizing the very ideas which may have most influence on our generation. To be generous, gracious, yet tenacious, is a truer Christian response. May people see our unshakeable Faith while we plainly acknowledge our dependence upon limitation. Ours is a human concern. We defend not our parochial position but our universal situation. In so doing, Christian theology becomes The Message of our earthly Mission.

The lack of historical critique is the essence of “new atheism’s” point of view. “Attack the fringe, forget the center.” Anyone who desires to disparage a movement (e.g. “intelligent design”) needs to make headlines, not examine the lines of history. The task of defending The Faith should not rest on a cursory quote nor pounding the pulpit on one point. McGrath points out painfully obvious contradictions within atheistic attacks. These are simple, to the point, repudiations of a purely humanist perspective as well as questioning why Christian service in the world is overlooked. McGrath calls out the hypocrisy of new atheists who refer to religion as “bloody.” He lacerates, as I have never seen, the problem with atheism soaked in Christian blood. Ignorance is bliss until bliss realizes reality. The evidence of Christian acts of goodness within culture is not to be missed, just as the gulags and death camps of atheist dictators should not be ignored. Dependence on the doctrine of human perfectibility will always lead to the killing fields. Thus, without a view toward human corruption, McGrath says “The Enlightenment” leaves out the light. It would seem “the dark ages” is misapplied to The Church. Perhaps it is time for a new term: “The Endarkenment.”

Eyes Wide Shut, another addition to the Cruise filmography, might rightly identify some who refuse to see all the evidence. Unfortunately, this identifies too many in Christ’s Church as well. Often we are blind to how theology must change us and infiltrate the culture. McGrath’s arguments are powerful, focusing on clear prose which point out the clarity of a person’s thought. His research, clearly articulated in copious footnotes, is easily accessed. One wishes for a conclusion: 6-8 pages which summarize what the editor decided upon as The Passionate Intellect. A person would be benefitted to know a Christian summary of what key attributes identify a believing perspective of proper human thought directed by The Transcendent Personal Creator. But clearly, this book should be ingested by all Christian leaders. Pastors must reengage their congregations with Christian theology. Theology professors must enliven their courses with art, poetry, music, and imagination. Apologists must marry history with story with rhetoric producing persuasion. But most of all, every believer must fall in love again, saying, “He had me at ‘Hello.’”

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Dr. Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN. For over twenty five years Mark has served the Christian education community as a high school teacher, college professor, and international speaker. Apologetics 315 interviewed him here. Mark blogs at

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Brian Auten is the founder emeritus of Apologetics315. He is also director of Reasonable Faith Belfast. Brian holds a Masters degree in Christian Apologetics and has interviewed over 150 Christian apologists. His background is in missions, media direction, graphic design, and administration. Brian started Apologetics315 in 2007 to be an apologetics hub to equip Christians to defend the faith.

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