In Gagging of God, D.A. Carson presents his argument in favor of Jesus Christ being the only valid pathway to reaching God and salvation. Beginning with an investigation into the concept of pluralism, a natural outgrowth of the postmodern world in which we live, Carson examines these concepts for their inherent fallacies and begins to map out a pathway back into the security and surety of the Christian faith. Through his in-depth examination of our modern day culture, Carson begins to trace both where Christianity has been lost as well as how it might be found again as a means of answering the many questions that have arisen as a result of this multi-dimensional morass. By remaining concentrated particularly on the problems that have arisen as a result of the pluralist positioning of today’s society, Carson is able to give a more in-depth analysis than some other writers who have attempted to delve into a great many current philosophical debates on the matter. More than simply criticizing today’s secular culture for its lack of faith in God and the Bible, Carson points out the various ways in which evangelism itself has served to confuse the faithful waters and urges a return to the text of the Bible and its original intentions as a means of interpretation and clarity. Although the book retains a great deal of information that must be considered carefully, it is not intended to cover the deeper elements and refutations of pluralism as they have been discussed in the Christian context. Instead, the book is an in-depth look at the general conceptions that have arisen as a result of pluralism both within and without the church and to assist in finding a pathway back into true faith and salvation. Through this overview of the various ways in which pluralism has affected the church in the postmodern age, Carson provides his readers with a greater sense of understanding and insight if they are willing to put in the time and effort to understand his writing.
The book begins with a definition and explanation of what Carson means when he uses the term ‘pluralism’. Although it would seem like a self-defining term in many cases, the truth is that pluralism itself has muddied the waters of understanding in several fields, not just Christianity. In presenting his opening arguments, Carson identifies three general categories of pluralism broken down as empirical pluralism, cherished pluralism and philosophical pluralism. Empirical pluralism refers to the central physical realities of American society in which there is a great deal of protected diversity within American society while cherished pluralism refers to the cultural sense of pride Americans take in this sort of diversity in believing themselves to be the only ‘free’ nation on earth that permits such individualism. It is, however, the third category of pluralism that Carson takes into serious question, the concept of philosophical pluralism. It is this form of pluralism that gave rise to the concept of deconstructionism, which holds that there are no right or wrong answers, only different ways of looking at things. “The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively inferior … In particular it is bound up with the new hermeneutic and with its stepchild, deconstruction. The outlook that it spawns is often labeled postmodernism” (19).
Pluralism, then, as it is explored within the remainder of the book, is basically the concept that all meaning is based upon the interpreter’s understanding. In other words, the author of a text has little to no control over the final understanding of the text as this will vary depending upon the individual who is reading it. In examining this piece of logic, which seems to make sense on the surface as it is true that individuals bring their own understandings to a given work, Carson points out that for it to be universally true, it must also be accepted that individuals may be capable of understanding a text based upon what the author intended. In other words, pluralism must also be relative, meaning it has different and sometimes even no weight in given situations and can thus be dismissed. The only other option is that the concepts of pluralism are objective, which contradict the very tenets upon which it is founded. By thus calling into question the certainty of pluralism, which is an idea that has seemed to have taken the world by storm, Carson is then able to illustrate the various ways in which this concept has served to break down the basic meanings Western society once held dear and sacred.
Following this introductory and explanatory chapter, the remainder of the book is divided into four parts, each of which strives to address different elements of the pluralist concepts as they relate to a Christian understanding. The first section is entitled Hermeneutics and thus addresses ideas related to how texts are studied and interpreted. In addressing the interpretive approach of deconstruction, in which everything is broken down into the individual consumer (reader, listener, etc) point of view rather than taking any intention on the part of the author into account, Carson illustrates that people do read and understand texts based upon the view taken by the author. This simple fact, coupled with the concept that pluralist writers do seem to also expect readers to understand the texts as they were intended by the authors, serves to prove the idea that there can be such a thing as objective truth or knowledge. This is in direct opposition to the deconstructionist point of view and thus calls into serious question the certainty of the pluralist view that there can be no objective truth. As Carson attempts to show through this discussion, taking the pluralist point of view at its word can only lead to inane, meaningless garble.
Having proven to satisfaction that pluralism cannot be the only answer to all things, as there are clear and present truths for all, Carson then moves on in the second section of the book to discuss the various arguments brought forward by pluralists and inclusivists regarding the Bible. Chapter titles in this section continue to bring attention to the words that have been passed down to us through the generations as being God’s word. They ask whether God has spoken and what he has said, with an entire chapter devoted to “God’s Final Word”. Within this discussion, Carson takes a deeper look at the arguments brought forward by Inclusivists as proof that souls might reach salvation without having the explicit knowledge of Christ as well as those brought out by the Pluralists of Christ as simply one among many symbols of cultural identity. While this brief wording may seem trite as a means of summarizing an entire philosophical perspective, the author of the book takes care to take a serious look into some of the more foundational concepts of these perspectives and illustrates the holes in logic they contain. To facilitate this discussion, Carson outlines what he terms the Biblical plot-line. Carson’s view is that God reveals himself when one manages to gain a comprehensive view of redemptive history.
Having illustrated how pluralism has muddied the waters of Christian faith and served to drive numerous souls from their spiritual home, Carson goes on to discuss the ramifications of this separation, and further application of pluralist ideas, in secular society. Somewhat limited by space, Carson gives a somewhat glossed opinion on how pluralist ideas have infected ‘real-world’ entities such as our government, law and judiciary as well as how they have influenced our educational systems and economics. Even on a secular basis, Carson demonstrates how pluralistic attitudes have negatively affected our religious freedoms, ethics and morals. Throughout these discussions, Carson continues to point out how a Christian perspective and response, based on information presented in the Bible itself as it was intended to be read, are the most effective means of dealing with these issues.
Finally, Carson ends his book with an investigation into how pluralism has actually served to affect the church itself. This approach to religion and evangelicalism has given rise to such ideas as inclusivism, annihilationism and a general avoidance of frightening topics such as the subject of hell. Rather than attempting to subvert these concepts subtly, Carson attacks them head-on, arguing that the best means of evangelizing our current culture is to first present an increasingly non-Judeo-Christian context with the Christian worldview, including the idea that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. Having proven that pluralism doesn’t work within a Christian or a secular context, Carson provides Christians with a more solid basis on which to base their own arguments as well as provides the path through which Christians should be approaching non-believers if they wish to make the world a better place.
As with many books dealing with the more complex concepts in theology, sociology and philosophy, Carson’s book tends to run long and require deep thought if one is to pull out the ideas he is attempting to convey. Another small failing of the book is its tendency to merely gloss over some topics while investigating others to sometimes thought-numbing tedious detail. However, Carson is careful to write in an approachable manner and attempts to provide the reader with a general understanding of the one of the more major threats to the Christian faith, and possibly the world, today.
Carson, D.A. (1996). Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.