Books in Brief: January 2022

Should We Stay or Should We Go: A Novel, by Lionel Shriver (HarperCollins; 288 pp., $26.99). Who but the clinically insane would complain about the extended life expectancies in the Western world? We now expect modern science will teleport us to an earthly utopia, and the more time we spend there, the better. The global economy shut down during COVID for the one reason every right-thinking cosmopolite accepts: nothing counts more than our life’s length—not its quality, purpose, or product. Nowadays, whoever dies with the most years wins.
This humorous dark novel boldly challenges this anti-Christian, modernistic, and materialist ethos. Cyril and Kay, two middle-aged, married English medical professionals, agree in 1980 that they will commit suicide together in 2020 rather than burden their uncaring children or Britain’s medical bureaucracy. Their “self-designated D-Day” barely registered when it loomed 40 years in the future. But as the story jumps to 2020, Kay’s sudden misgivings annoy her dismally pragmatic husband. Cyril’s argument—“We’re not living for longer. We’re dying for longer!”—forces readers to consider end-of-life horrors like arthritic joints, debilitating disease, and inhumane nursing homes. Meanwhile, Kay’s Panglossian outlook never completely wanes despite the fatalistic Cyril’s relentless reminders that “a state of advanced decay is unnatural.”
Shriver presents 12 separate plotlines depicting the couple’s final days. By turns hilarious and horrifying, each plot forces us to confront mortality’s harsh truths. One provocative chapter presents an interesting counterfactual: what if humans lived forever instead? In the book’s most awful scenario, Cyril suffers a stroke after watching Kay keep up her half of the bargain by offing herself.  Physically reduced to his worst nightmare, a “vessel of afflictions,” Cyril languishes in a hospital bed staring at a water stain shaped like Norway on the ceiling. He can only move his eyelids. Ever the socialist zealot determined to “prove the salvation of the NHS,” Cyril blinks a desperate suicide message to the hospital staff: “Pull the plug. My care is costing a fortune. I am a bed blocker.” A cold-blooded doctor dismisses his plea as “low self-esteem” typical of clinical depression, and his children, too, refuse to yank the plug. Hapless Cyril then suffers through 15 years of locked-in syndrome.
Should We Stay presents the difficult choices and alarmingly plausible possibilities those who fade into senescent decrepitude will one day face. Thankfully, Shriver’s humor, sarcasm, and wit never devolve into caricature or mawkishness.
(Mark G. Brennan)
Is Atheism Dead?, by Eric Metaxas (Salem Books; 432 pp., $27.99). The famed talk show host and Christian apologist Eric Metaxas wrote bestselling biographies of Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer before plunging into this extended refutation of atheism. 
Metaxas is particularly combative in going after the “Four Horsemen” of contemporary atheistic fame, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Metaxas zeroes in on the weaknesses in their arguments, which include sloppy rhetoric, historically false statements, attempts to treat all religious beliefs as more or less the same and equally harmful, and the pretense that a world from which biblical religion and morality disappeared would be nicer and more tolerant. As Metaxas reminds us, it is laughable that anyone would make the last statement, given the piles of dead bodies and tyrannical practices that avowedly atheistic Communist regimes produced in the 20th century.
The first third of the book shows exemplary thoroughness in going over evidence for intelligent design. Although the material presented here is not entirely original and can be found in science writers like Stephen Meyer and James Tour, Metaxas’s discussion of the “fine-tuned universe” was for me a journey into largely unexplored territory. The second part of the book, on biblical excavations since the 19th century and biblical accounts of ancient history, was for me less of a novelty, but also was prepared in remarkable detail and featured useful illustrations.
As an historian I question the presentation of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a model of Christian saintliness who belonged in the company of Mother Theresa. I might also resist the supposition that papal resistance to Galileo’s scientific discoveries had no basis in theological differences stemming from the new cosmological paradigm. Those points aside, Metaxas is obviously a deeply committed believer but also one who is willing to provide cogent arguments for his beliefs. Beside his other merits as a writer of nonfiction, he shows a biting wit and genuine literary flair.
For many years a correspondent has been nagging me to write a polemic refuting the historically questionable statements made by atheism’s Four Horsemen. I’m glad to see someone else has accomplished that mission much better than I could have done.
(Paul Gottfried)

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