Natasha Crain is the blogger behind Christian Mom Thoughts (the only “Mommy Blog” that I read regularly – I promise) and the creator of the Facebook group Apologetics for Parents. She is a sharp Christian layperson who holds an MBA in marketing and statistics from UCLA, and does an excellent job of making apologetics accessible and relevant to parents. I was, therefore, excited when she was commissioned by Harvest House Publishers to turn her insights into a book. As I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy to review, I present it here. The title of the book is Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith.
The book is divided into 5 sections totaling 40 chapters. If that number sounds daunting, fear not – they are generally not more than 5 pages long. I would not call these “bite-sized” chapters without noting that they are BIG bites (the kind you tell your kids not to take!), and are mostly meat. However, they can be easily read (if not digested) in one sitting each.
The major sections of the book are:
- Conversations About God (ch’s 1-8)
- Conversations About Truth and Worldviews (ch’s 9-16)
- Conversations About Jesus (ch’s 17-24)
- Conversations About The Bible (ch’s 25-32)
- Conversations About Science (ch’s 33-40)
Consolidating material seems to be one of Crain’s spiritual gifts. Section 1 (on God) includes standard arguments for God’s existence (e.g., Cosmological, Moral, Design), as well as discussions of the problem of evil, Hell, and God’s hiddenness – all in 36 pages! Section 2 (Truth and Worldviews) covers the nature of truth, knowledge of reality, denominationalism, and Christian intelligence (35 pages). Section 3 (Jesus) includes Jesus’s existence, claims to deity, and resurrection (39 pages). Section 4 (Bible) discusses things like the formation of the canon, Gnosticism, alleged contradictions, and difficult passages concerning moral evil (41 pages). Finally, section 5 (Science) is devoted to questions of mankind’s origin – primarily the age of the Earth and evolution (43 pages).
The book finishes with a section worth the price of the whole book: “10 Tips for Having Deeper Faith Conversations with Your Kids.” This is not just fluff added to reach a page count – these tips are important, practical, and (perhaps most importantly) doable. No Christian parent need fear that they cannot accomplish what Crain calls them to do. (Her heart is shown here as elsewhere: she has done it, and she is dedicating a significant part of her life to helping others do it as well.)
The purpose of Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side is to help parents discover and deal with the 40 faith conversations parents most urgently need to have with their kids. Crain’s “training plan” is summarized in her first chapter: to introduce the reader to today’s hot-button topics of faith, and offer concise, easy-to-understand answers that will prepare parents to have these discussions with their kids. A basic description of Crain’s ministry would be that she reads good books on apologetics and turns what she learns into accessible apologetics lessons for parents. (A glance through her bibliography shows that she does not limit herself to popularized secondary materials. In nearly every chapter there is a good ratio of popular authors like McDowell or Wallace to scholars like Lewis, Craig, Moreland, Habermas, Licona, Blomberg, Bruce, Bock, Geisler, Morris, Ross, as well as non-Christian thinkers such as Flew, Ehrman, Dawkins, and Dennett.)
Although the book is primarily devoted to straight apologetics, Crain gives readers numerous anecdotes (each one brief, relevant, and non-distracting) that tie in the life of a parent with apologetic truths. These are genuine, helpful, and often entertaining. Crain is not afraid to admit her failures while discussing what she learned from them, and I often found myself glad she experienced them first!
Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side is not a How-To book. It does not provide scripts for apologetic conversations with kids, nor does it teach the critical thinking skills it both exhibits and extols. Rather, it is a resource to help parents who don’t have time to build an apologetics library (much less, read it!) get the information they need quickly. To this end, Crain summarizes standard responses to common skeptical objections to the Christian faith, answering many of The Big Questions in less than 6 pages each (the problem of evil is attended to in 3 paragraphs!). It is left to the parents to adapt this information when discussing Christianity with their kids (after all, all kids are different, and who better to know how to reach them than their parents?).
The nature of the book keeps it from being comprehensive or breaking new apologetic ground of course (with the notable exception of Crain’s discussion of the claim that Christians have been shown to not be as intelligent as atheists – I’ve not seen this level of analysis anywhere!). These are strengths, however – not weaknesses. First, in Crain’s own words, “Unfortunately, it’s this popular-level impact we most need to be concerned about as parents. Our kids aren’t usually seeking out what the scholars say.” The attacks Christian children often encounter these days come from soundbite skeptics and internet memes. Christian parents often need quick answers more than they need comprehensive ones – and these, of course, keep the door open to deeper discussions as well. Second, the fact that hundreds of thousands of pages of high-level apologetic materials exist alongside the general ignorance of their content among believers bears testimony to the need for a book like this. “The right tool for the right job” applies here.
Even given the popular-level nature and brevity of the book, Crain peppers her writing with excellent tidbits of ponder-worthy apologetic wisdom such as these gems:
“Half our battle as Christian parents is just stopping to define words and concepts.”
“It’s not that we don’t think God should punish people, but that we don’t think He should punish people like us.”
“The time and consideration we give to our kids’ faith development is an investment, not a purchase.”
As one might expect, there are family-oriented touches throughout the book, including several cute stories parents will resonate with (many of Crain’s “blow it” moments) – yet even these are not presented in a cheesy manner. Many of these brought me to “Ah-ha!” moments that I appreciated being able to consider before they happen to me in real life. For example, it never occurred to me that the song “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” is actually telling of the first battle in the “Canaanite Genocide” (a favorite skeptical attack point)! Yikes! Thanks for taking point on that one, Natasha!
Another feature of Crain’s book is her fair-minded presentation of alternate views – and this is demonstrated on more than one level. First, the book does now skew heavily toward any side in inner-circle debates among Christians. She often provides responses that acknowledge the numerous positions accepted by a wide variety of Christians (e.g., two non-traditional views of Hell, two views on those who never hear the gospel, and even several views on evolution and creation). It is not difficult to tell that Crain is Evangelical Protestant – but the book itself is not overtly so, and most of the material can be appreciated by Christians from any tradition. For example, I was especially impressed with her handling of the question of the canon of Scripture. Rather than simply taking the problematic (but Evangelical-friendly) standard explanations, she admits to the importance of the tradition of the Church in its determination. Second, Crain is not afraid to read and quote skeptical sources when she investigates a given concern. Her spirit of inquiry is shown in her knowledge of “the other side.” Crain does not exhibit the tendency many apologists have to simply list easy answers to abstract atheistic arguments. Rather, she actually reads both sides and presents them fairly.
Evaluating a popular-level book can be difficult for those trained in the relevant topics. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of illegitimate expectations,and Crain has done a better job than many apologists have done or could do given the imposed limits on her writing. It is with trepidation, therefore, that I offer any criticism; but as I am fairly OCD about such things, I feel must list a few items of concern along with my overall recommendation (which I unhesitatingly give!). The problems I list below are disputed among Christians, and none are deal-killers for me. They are, however, worth pointing out as areas where additional study should lead the reader to consider different – rather than just deeper – responses to the challenges they are meant to answer.
Skeptics often point to the rampant disunity among Christians as evidence that they do not know the truth. Denominational problems are brushed aside in Crain’s book with appeal to agreement on “the essentials” – but these are listed as “clear biblical teaching.” The problem is that the Bible teaches many things clearly that are not considered “essential” and nowhere does the Bible list a teaching as an essential. She cites Norm Geisler’s article on the CRI website for additional reading – an article I have shown to be hopelessly flawed here. Lest this be seen as nitpicking, the issue over denominations is not a minor one from an apologetic standpoint. Jesus prayed for Christian unity and specified that it was through this that the truth of Christianity would be known (Jn. 17:20-23). Jesus’ prayer in John 17 actually implies the legitimacy of the skeptic’s objection – if Christian unity lets the world know that God sent Jesus, then their disunity calls that truth into question. The idea that Christianity can be boiled own to a few “essentials” (Crain lists 5) that all the divided sects agree upon begs the question and does not prove convincing to skeptics who rightly question how people who disagree on nearly every facet of the faith can be trusted to explain eternal truths! While Crain certainly cannot be expected to resolve this issue, more acknowledgement of its legitimately problematic status would have been appreciated.
Crain’s handling of accusations of Christian immorality levelled by skeptics – specifically regarding the Crusades and the Inquisition – grants too much to Christianity’s critics. The Crusades were defensive wars against an aggressive enemy that had long sought the annihilation of the Christian West. Like many wars, there were atrocities committed at the same time as the Crusades – but these were never commanded nor commended by the Church. Crain’s footnotes cite materials that expose the false assumptions behind common complaints regarding the Crusades, but her answer to the skeptic’s challenge in the book is simply that “the Bible nowhere commanded them.” The problem is that, as Jesus said, one can know a tree by its fruit (Mt. 7:16 cf. Lk. 6:44), and critics are right to question centuries of perceived evil even when it lacks biblical proof texts. As to the Inquisition, historians have shown that much of the evil it is charged with is based on false Protestant propaganda that, over the centuries, achieved urban legend status even among Christians. The state’s primary role in the punishments associated with the Inquisition are ignored, and the Church is even left with holding the blame for executions even though the Inquisition killed no one. Further, the relative non-cruelty of the Inquisition’s methods compared to the world’s at that time are similarly passed over. Crain also does not mention that the Inquisition had nothing to do with the witch hunts she discusses later, nor that it was actually the Church that first called for their cessation in Europe (to Crain’s credit, this is not a fact Protestants often mention, as they apparently did not get the memo for a few hundred years).
In the discussion of our knowledge of reality, Crain gives the popular but highly problematic definition of knowledge as “justified true belief” (JTB). The fact that belief is included in a definition of knowledge is itself a huge red flag for classical thinkers, and not even the ever-present Gettier problem seems to have persuaded modern philosophers to abandon it. JTB is better used as a description of legitimate opinion, not knowledge. Interestingly, this is actually how Crain makes use of it in her analysis of Christian claims (well done!), so the serious problems JTB raises will likely go unnoticed by the philosophical layperson.
Christian parents are divinely charged to prepare their kids to enter the world beyond Sunday School and Youth Group. I strongly recommend Natasha Crain’s Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side for parents who need brief but trustworthy answers to the skeptical objections their kids are likely to encounter in that world.
Crain writes with wit and smarts. She also displays that rarest of apologetic traits: true humility. She’s no pushover, but she lacks the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that so often comes with the Christian apologetics moniker. Crain demonstrates intellectual virtue in her method by reading top shelf materials in her quest to better inform her kids, and is not afraid to face the frightening challenges all faithful Christian parents will encounter. While seasoned apologists will find few surprises here, it is rare that so much solid information is found in one accessible resource (and even seasoned apologists will likely appreciate it as a refresher!).