Book Reviews

Naming the Elephant

Worldview as a Concept

James W. Sire Downers Grove, IL 2004-05-18

Reviewed in conjunction with The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog (Sire).

Popular author and former editor of InterVarsity Press, James Sire has returned to sharpen his understanding of worldview, prodded in part by David Naugle’s recent work Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). Sire’s first edition of The Universe Next Door was published in 1976 and through updated editions has proved immensely popular as a primer regarding Western religious and philosophical perspectives of reality. This fourth edition addresses Naugle and others’ critiques of his work and updates his third edition (1997), particularly in his chapters on the New Age and postmodernism. A weakness of the current edition is that it still does not discuss Islam which, with 1.3 billion followers, is the second largest religion (worldview) on earth. Nor does it discuss shamanism, animism, or spiritism. Sire admits that these “must be done by those with a better understanding than I” (p. 10). Yet what the author does set forth in The Universe Next Door evidences superb content and a literarily engaging text—indeed, he does so well that previous editions have sold over a quarter of a million copies.

Published concurrently with this fourth edition of The Universe Next Door, Sire’s Naming the Elephant explains in more depth his shift in understanding of the concept of worldview. The title derives from an opening illustration in which, to a young son’s question, “What holds up the world?” the father responds, “A camel.” The answer makes sense to the child for a while, but sometime later he returns to ask, “Dad, what holds up the camel?” The father responds, “A kangaroo.” Soon comes another question, “What holds up the kangaroo?” “An elephant!” To the boy’s next predictable question about the elephant, the exasperated father exclaims that the elephant—which holds up the camel, which holds up the kangaroo, which holds up the world—is an “elephant all the way down” (pp. 16–17). The belyingly simple anecdote is mentioned various times in the course of the book as Sire explores the nature of the elephant: What holds up everything else?

While the author will argue that the God of the Bible is “the elephant all the way down,” his central task is to discuss the concept of worldview itself. What is its historical development? Are the final questions epistemological or ontological? Is a worldview primarily an intellectual construct, a life story (metanarrative), or a postmodern web of subjective and cultural influences? And how might worldview thinking yet contribute to Christian witness?

After reviewing the development of worldview definitions from Wilhelm Dilthey to Naugle, Sire argues for the primacy of an ontological framework of reality, over the modern move to epistemology since Descartes.  The book defends Sire’s “basic questions of life” set forth in earlier editions of The Universe Next Door, namely, the nature of external reality, personhood, death, knowing, morality, and the meaning of human history. However, whereas Sire’s previous definition of worldview was oriented to intellectual constructs, here he sharply redirects his definition: “A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of propositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being” (p. 122).

Sire is not abandoning intellectual constructs of worldviews. Instead he recognizes that worldviews are generated from a complexity of largely subjective factors parallel to the holistic biblical concept of the heart. Moreover, worldviews can be defined on various levels, such as existential, cultural, or academic. While multiple approaches to worldviews may be possible, the author nevertheless concludes that worldview thinking remains extremely important for Christians. It helps clarify their own basic assumptions and helps them understand people who live with non-Christian beliefs, so that the gospel may be communicated more effectively.

Some readers may quibble as to whether Sire’s basic questions of life adequately capture the essence of worldview. Likewise the proportionately lengthy discussion of Descartes might be shortened. Yet with Sire’s refinements of his concept of worldview, both The Universe Next Door and Naming the Elephant become preeminently helpful for believers to grasp the nature of worldviews. These works are highly recommended as textbooks for entry-level university and seminary classes and for all readers who seek to understand the major structures of life.

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J. Scott Horrell
The author of From the Ground Up: New Testament Foundations for the 21st-Century Church, Dr. J. Scott Horrell is professor of Theological Studies at DTS. He has been a theologian in various world cultures including years spent as a missionary in Brazil. Along with cofounding and editing a leading Latin American theological journal, he has written several books in Portuguese and English. He especially loves to introduce students to a global understanding of Christian faith, often taking teams of them with him as he travels.
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