Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

Chimamanda is yet to disappoint me — not that I am looking out for her to disappoint. So far, she is the best female African writer I have ever read.

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Yet even as I type that last sentence, I can’t help but feel Ifemelu looking at me and shaking her head disapprovingly. Did I have to put those qualifiers, “African”, “female”? Couldn’t I just say Chimamanda is a good writer, period?

Ifemelu, the main character, is a Nigerian girl who flies to the US immediately after her undergrad. It is in America that she realizes she is black, and that to be black in America means to be concerned about race – whether you’re a racist or not. She copes with life in America in different ways.

You will have to read the book to see how far she was willing to go because of financial desperation.

Being a person who cannot keep her opinions to herself, Ifemelu copes with life in America by venting on her blog – a race blog. The posts are quite insightful. She learns a lot about people and race and in the process, learns things about herself that she didn’t even know existed.

Then there’s Obinze, the love of Ifemelu’s life. Their relationship is what keeps the reader hooked to the book. One keeps turning the page to see if this will be another “happily ever after” tale of love or not.

There’s so much to say about the book.

But what stood out most was the author’s depth of insight. Chimamanda has an uncanny ability to see into people’s personalities and draw profound life lessons. Her characters are deep, not consciously deep, but they are deep subjects of analysis.

I love the way Chimamanda doesn’t fear the complexity of human beings. She faces it head on and presents it as it is in the book.

The author doesn’t present simplistic people, she makes characters complex and confused and double-minded and all sorts of unpredictable. In other words, her characters are human.

This is a great story, one that I will definitely re-read in the future. Grab a copy when you can, it will be worth your while.

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Is it reasonable to believe in God?

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Christianity is often criticized for putting faith and “allegiance to God” above reason. Our arguments are dismissed for being circular, and we are ridiculed for refusing to consider the possibility that we could be wrong about the existence of God.

I think many of these criticisms are valid, and more Christians should be willing to admit when we have been less than reasonable.

But more on this later.

Many professing Christians simply don’t like to examine whether or not their faith is reasonable. Many of us are simply neither ready nor willing to “give a reason for the hope that we have”. Some of us feel it is not necessary, or it is too much work, or it is giving the devil too much rope.

Some are simply afraid of what they will find on the other side of this logical exercise, so they are not in a hurry to find out.

Reasonable objections

Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist, once said in his popular book The God Delusion: “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents.”

Part of Dawkins’ point is that we are products of environmental conditioning and there is therefore no supernatural explanation for why some people choose to be Christians while others don’t. Every child is technically born an atheist and only later compelled to follow the religion of their parent.

Dawkins makes a valid point. Our environment plays a significant role in shaping our life choices. Even one of my favorite 20th century Christian apologists, Cornelius van Til, agrees with Dawkins to some extent. In an essay on why he believes in God, Van Til indulges an atheist friend who tells him that the only reason he believes in God is because everything in his past set him up for that inevitable choice: Born to believing parents, educated at a Christian school and confronted every day with Christian ethics.

Given these circumstances, it would seem Van Til had no choice but to become a Christian! In response, Van Til tells the friend, rather sarcastically:

How different your early schooling was! You went to a “neutral” school. As your parents had done at home, so your teachers now did at school. They taught you to be “open-minded.” God was not brought into connection with your study of nature or history. You were trained without bias all along the line.

Van Til does not deny that a large part of the reason he embraces the Christian worldview is because it is second nature to him. He admits that everything in his past “conspired” to lead him to choose God. But is that all there is to it?

The environment alone?

We can rightly say that many professing Christians today are not Muslims for the same reasons. They didn’t have a choice. However, while Van Til acknowledges the role the environment played in his becoming a Christian, he goes on to argue that this is not the only reason people end up believing in God.

If it was, the friend, raised by similar parents and attending similar schools, would have also been a Christian. Yet he is not. In other words, even though Dawkins logic may explain many religious people in the world, the problem with the logic is that it is not comprehensive. Dawkins restricts and limits the reasons why people choose a religion to environment and effectively closes the door for any other explanations. This is neither fair nor very scientific.

He would have been more reasonable if he said “the only reason I know of” rather than “the only reason there is”. He is putting too much confidence upon how much he, a mere human being, knows about all the reasons that may exist in the world.

Consider this implication: If the environment were all it took, then we would have no atheists walking among us. Everyone would be religious and following some god or another by virtue of being raised in a religious society. Dawkins would be a phony. But the fact that atheists exist points to something more than the simplistic “product of your surroundings” explanation for belief.

Evolution alone?

Of course, Richard Dawkins and his kith will quickly rush to evolutionary explanations for why some people don’t believe. They believe that those who do not believe are the anomalies, the mutants, the “fit” ones in this battle for survival and the ones to take humanity to the next stage of existence — a world without religion, if you ask Dawkins.

Dawkins’ general hypothesis for why people opt for religion is that “human beings have acquired religious beliefs because there is a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb to believe, without question, whatever familiar adults tell them. Dawkins speculates that this cognitive disposition, which tends to help inexperienced children to avoid harm, also tends to make them susceptible to acquiring their elders’ irrational and harmful religious beliefs.”

This explanation not only presupposes that evolution is true, but that evolution is the only explanation for all human phenomena. In other words, evolution is the supreme law or philosophy of the living universe and no other explanations exist for any behaviors on earth. This is quite a leap.

If I am not mistaken, I would say that, even if evolution as espoused by Darwin is actually true, the claim that it is the only explanation for belief in God is itself a giant leap of faith. In fact, the shift from seeing evolution as a description to seeing evolution as an explanation is a leap of faith.

Will the real believers please stand up?

I would argue that the environment, while a big factor in leading people to belief (or to claims of belief), is not the decisive factor when it comes to determining whether one’s belief in God is true. There is still the little matter of whether a faith claim is genuine or not, a question that can actually not be answered by science but is confined to the realm of theology.

There are many people walking this earth today, claiming to believe in God and are even ready to give their life for this belief. Yet, they have never seriously interrogated this belief. They are simply, to use Dawkin’s word, delusional.

These are the people Jesus alluded to when he said:

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:22-23)

It turns out that the argument that some people are only Christians because they grew up in a “Christian” environment is actually a case for why some people are fake Christians. It has little to do with why anyone is a true believer. To this extent, then, bringing up evolution and environmental factors in debates about the reasonability of faith is largely an exercise at missing the point.

A reasonable faith

However, if the opponents insist on this line of argument, I would say that the environment criticism does in fact contribute to the reasonability of such a belief. It is actually reasonable for people who have been brought up surrounded by the Christian worldview to end up professing Christianity. It would be unreasonable to choose otherwise.

But just because something sounds and looks reasonable doesn’t make it true. There are still questions to be answered concerning the existence of God and the evidence for that supposed existence.

I do hope, though, that it is increasingly becoming clear that we don’t always need irrevocable proof to make reasonable claims and choices. Reason is a servant to whatever evidence is available and our ability to weigh that evidence. You are only as reasonable as your intellectual ability allows you to be. This is why it is reasonable for a child to cry when hungry (because he or she cannot speak) and unreasonable for an adult to do the same in a house with a stocked kitchen.

To be continued…