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What Makes Us Human? by Mark Meynell; and others

24 March 2017

David Wilbourne looks at what it all means

What Makes Us Human? And other questions about God, Jesus and human identity
Mark Meynell
The Good Book Company £3.99
Church Times Bookshop £3.60


Could this be God? Bumping into God in the everyday
Brian Harris
BRF £8.99 (978-0-85746-500-9)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


Do We Need God to be Good? An anthropologist considers the evidence
C. R. Hallpike
Christian Alternative £13.99
Church Times Bookshop £12.60



THESE are three very different books on the meaning of life.

In What Makes Us Human?, Mark Meynell sees the Bible as the Maker’s instruction manual, the ultim­ate key to an existence in which we need God as a diver needs an oxygen tank. Meynell breezily reassures us that Genesis is entirely consistent with accurate scientific findings; that the Fall is as in­­tegral to our nature as our chromo­­somes; that when God does anything, he does it brilliantly; that there were no design flaws in human beings; that sin causes the weirdest of cancers; that others have endured worse fates than Jesus, since the crucifixion majors on separation from God rather than physical pain.

Scary statements about the single, childless, unborn, and disabled are (almost) redeemed by wonder­­ful quotations, such as John Ruskin’s “When a man is wrapped up in him­­self, he makes a pretty small package.” The book closes with a de­­scrip­tion of Queen Victoria silently weeping with an estate worker’s wife who had had a mis­­carriage, the quintessence of in­­carna­tion chiefly missed in the pre­ceding 94 pages.

Those who miss Lionel Blue’s take on life can be reassured that he has been reincarnated as Brian Harris, principal of a Baptist semin­ary in Perth, Aus­tralia. In Could this be God?, Harris presents 88 brief per­sonal reflec­tions on Life, Grow­ing Faith, the Bible and Prayer, the Church, Our World, and the Sea­sons. He has a sharp and ob­­servant eye, is insightful, healthily self-deprecating, and ef­­fortlessly moves between the sacred and the secular.

The book teems with bons mots: “Goliath is the sort of per­son you’d hate to sit behind at the movies,” “God writes straight with crooked lines,” “The lost sheep and the prod­igal son were de-churched people,” and “Interruptions are my work.”

He is scathing about a purring church and those in love with the wrong world, and bids us all “to hit a six for Jesus!” Harris repeatedly bats sixers that fly way over the cricket stadium. I even forgave him for ascribing Newman’s prayer “Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life . . .”, a favourite of mine, to the Scottish Prayer Book.

Do We Need God to be Good? is meaty stuff, worthy of all the accolades visited upon it. Chris Hallpike, a leading anthropologist, sets out an intellectually robust defence of Christianity and an equally intellectually robust and scathing critique of atheist thought-systems and utopias.

”Evolutionary psychologists” boldly claim all our human traits originate with an emerging naked ape battling with problems of life in the prehistoric East African savan­nah. Yet Hallpike derides them for making bricks out of straw, since they virtually know nothing about what this primeval life in­volved.

In seeing Universal Darwinism as tantamount to a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind, Hallpike concludes that humanism is fatally flawed, merely encouraging its adherents to be “good guests at the dinner of life . . . through glorification of the fat re­­lentless ego”. Universal Darwinism, bank­rupted by a gladiatorial theory of existence, can never inculcate a rev­ere­nce for human life or the cre­ated order, because mind, free will, con­sciousness, personal identity, and universal purpose are deemed illusions in a basically materialistic universe. In such a system, martyr­dom and human dignity are absurd, because a theory of evolution devoid of any creator, driven by natural selection and the survival of the fittest, is bound to be on a direct collision course not so much with Genesis as with the Passion, where the ultimate broken victim is hailed as Lord of lords and King of kings.

Although Hallpike formerly was an atheist, and many of his best friends still are, he fears that there is nothing in atheism which prohibits evil actions, and that any universal theory of human rights championed by humanists simply piggy-backs on Christian virtues.

Hallpike allies himself with the psalmist, concluding that human­kind really has been created a little lower than the angels. In a purpose­less universe, biological adaptation should have been prompted by ex­­isting rather than future conditions — and yet the sheer wonder of cre­ation is that the hu­­man mind, in­­stead of evolving one step to be able to count sheep, was mysteriously hardwired to probe and even gener­ate the enigma of calculus.


The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is the Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.

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