The mixing of philosophy or theology with fictional literature is certainly not a novel idea. British thinker C. S. Lewis used this technique with flair. While he showed his deep thinking with Mere Christianity, Lewis also penned The Chronicles of Narnia, the children’s series that introduced many to the story of Christ’s redemption.
In a similar manner, Craig Hazen—the director of Biola University’s graduate program in apologetics—uses fiction to show how Christianity’s solutions to life’s questions make more sense than anything else offered by alternative religions.
Hazen’s story centers on Dr. Michael Jernigan, an older Christian professor who is continually pulling cigarettes out of his tweed coat pocket to feed his nicotine habit. He agrees to substitute-teach a friend’s public community college religions course for the final weeks so she can begin her maternity leave. Professor Willa Lightner’s postmodern bent on truth is revealed during her last class session when she says, “Religion is not about ‘truth’ or ‘best.’ Religions are not like football games or American Idol competitions, where someone wins a trophy or a record deal….All religions are mysteries. Sure, we can know about them—their rituals, their teachings, art, history—but we can never know if their core spiritual claims are universally true. At that point it’s all about personal belief. You either have faith, or you don’t” (p. 18).
The substitute’s teaching stint is interrupted when a terrorist cell’s plot to detonate a radioactive device in Los Angeles is exposed, causing panic in the community. “Why do they want to kill us?” one student asks. The professor, Michael (as he is referred to throughout the book), decides to develop the class’s critical thinking skills by utilizing principles called the “Five Crossings” that he learned from the Cardamom people in Cambodia during his days as an American soldier in the Vietnam War. Michael begins to build a relationship with his students and engages them without cramming Christianity down their throats.
When one student asks how these principles from a foreign culture could relate to Americans, Michael replies that they “are supposed to be universal principles, necessary steps for anyone to achieve a true balance in mind and spirit….If these principles hold, they’ll stand up to our questions, our life experiences, and our probing from our time and place” (63).
As a high school teacher and college professor myself, I must say that the dialogues Michael has with his students are quite realistic. Hazen obviously uses his many years of teaching experience to recreate scenarios that are not contrived. What’s refreshing is that Michael does not merely feed answers to the inquiring students. Instead, the students become junior detectives on their philosophical field trips while they explore both the roses as well as the thorns in ancient and modern thinking.
Consider “The First Crossing,” for instance, which reads, “Spiritual knowledge springs from within and from without. Where one is absent the other is void.” Imagine the head scratching that takes place when the students are asked for its meaning. Using the story of how Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins in Mark 2, Michael diverges from the previous professor when he says, “True spiritual balance is impossible if all of our religious views are derived from untestable, subjective, inner claims to knowledge. We must have some grounding in what can be known in an objective, public way” (7).
While Michael appears to be sympathetic to Eastern ways of thinking, he points out the flaws in pantheistic philosophy. The problem of evil becomes the topic of discussion during the Third Crossing. As Michael explains, some philosophies attempt to sweep this problem under the carpet because they are “too weak to handle this weighty issue. It doesn’t match the way the world really is” (110). Truth matters, Michael states in another lecture, because otherwise “we’ll end up not knowing whether we are feeding our babies strained peas or transmission fluid. The stakes truly are very high” (126).
Although a terrorist plot in Los Angeles that involves a radiation bomb is realistic for the twenty-first century, the story’s ending is far-fetched. In fact, the reader may wonder if Professor Michael Jernigan’s nickname is “Indiana” based on his heroic fight against the terrorists’ plot. All in all, though, it must be said that Hazen has delivered a literary piece that might actually be read and understood by those who would never touch a philosophy text on their own.
Eric Johnson teaches high school and college classes in El Cajon, California. He coauthored Mormonism 101 (Baker, 2000) with Bill McKeever.