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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson
The Skeptical Believer
In this space in the July/August 2012 issue, I wrote about Leah Price's How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, which turned out to be one of my favorites of the year. At the end of that column, I quoted a sentence from Price's conclusion: "My argument could be taken as one very long footnote to Natalie Davis's long-ago reminder that the book constitutes 'not merely a source for ideas … but a carrier of relationships.'" I agreed entirely, I said: Books are not merely sources of ideas. (I'm not sure who thinks they are.) They are also carriers of relationships, yes. And in fact it's often hard to say where the ideas stop and the relationships begin.
Take this particular book, for example: The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist, by Daniel Taylor. I've known Dan since the fall of 1968, when—newly married—I started my junior year as an undergraduate, having transferred to Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Hence reading this book is a continuation of a conversation that began more than 40 years ago, a conversation that includes a string of books by Dan over the decades, starting with The Myth of Certainty. Given that connection, you may be inclined to skepticism when I recommend his new book to you. Isn't there a good chance that my reading has been skewed by friendship?
It's possible, of course. You could read the book and decide for yourself. The Skeptical Believer consists of more than 80 small chapters. Although the chapters are arranged in eight sections, and although there's an overarching structure to the book as a whole, each little chapter stands by itself. Some readers may start at the beginning and read all the way through to the end; others will dip in here and there, attracted by the topic of this or that chapter. It's an ideal bedside book, a genre dear to my heart. (Each chapter begins with a quotation or two or three.)
What holds it all together is a commitment to story, made explicit early on:
So when I claim ...