The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Review)

Once a year, my employer encourages everyone who works there to read business books and write reviews of them in exchange for cash (up to $200). I’ve been there for nine years now, and read many books in that time, but had never read one particular classic of the self-help genre. In part because The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has been so influential, it almost seemed as if I had read it before. Concepts like the character ethic vs. the personality ethic, production vs. production capacity, and efficiency vs. effectiveness have all made their way into other books and articles, to say nothing of the seven habits themselves: 1) be proactive, 2) begin with the end in mind, 3) put first things first, 4) think win/win, 5) seek first to understand, then to be understood, 6) synergize, and 7) sharpen the saw.

This book is about as good as you can get within the confines of the self-help genre, which focuses on the means of “self improvement” or “effectiveness” and remains largely agnostic about ends other than a vague definition of “happiness” (Covey alludes to his personal faith from time to time but insists that his habits apply to anyone). You’ll get the most out of this book, or any book in this genre, if you already have a “why” to live for and are looking for a better “how.”

Earlier this year, I read Drew Dyck’s book Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science. It made me wish there were more books that transcend this limitation of the self-help genre: books that include some of the best wisdom and advice you get in mainstream self-help book but refuse to remain vague and/or agnostic about ultimate purposes and sources of meaning in life. Dyck read all the research on habit-forming, willpower, and self-control, but was clear throughout why we should pursue self control—to enable us to do what is right according to a Christian view of the world.

Now, I can see why a mainstream publisher would want to keep ultimate ends vague in order to reach the largest possible audience. But as an editor at Lexham Press, I think we have the potential to publish books that are a bit more specific regarding both the “why ” and the “how” of living a good life.

Second Edition of Political Visions and Illusions

Long-time readers of this blog (hi, Dad!) may be familiar with David T. Koyzis’s book Political Visions and Illusions, which was originally published in 2003 and I reviewed here in 2012. When I first read it, it was a game-changer for me. I had read some political philosophy here and there, but lacked a coherent framework that would help me to make sense of the essential differences between ideologies and evaluate them from a Christian perspective.

I found that in Koyzis’s work, and especially in his connection of ideologies with the Christian understanding of idolatry. Specifically, he argues that political ideologies (he treats five in the book: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy, and socialism) tend toward idolatry insofar as they attempt to locate ultimate sources of good and evil within creation. Elevating some part of creation to an ultimacy reserved for God alone amounts to worship, and hence can be accurately described as idolatrous (for more on this, see Bruce Ashford’s review).

Considering my appreciation for the book, I was happy to learn a few months ago that the publisher, InterVarsity Press, would be coming out with a second edition. I’ve just begun to dip into it, and am looking forward to giving it a slow read over this summer. So far I’ve read the preface, and was again refreshed by Koyzis’s take on the blind spots of typical political discourse.

Many of the battles in the political realm are shaped not simply by a refusal of one side or another to “face facts” or to “be reasonable,” as one typically hears, but by differing views of reality rooted in alternative paradigms. In fact, however, … many of these different views of politics, under whatever ideological label they may fall, find their origins in a single religious worldview that sees the cosmos as an essentially closed system without reference to a creator/redeemer. In short, for all the apparent conflict among the several ideologies, all are subspecies of the larger category of idolatry.

from the preface to the second edition

This new edition includes an updated treatment of Koyzis’s five ideologies with a new emphasis on the story each one tells, as well as a “Concluding Ecclesiological Postscript” directed toward those who are responsible for preaching and teaching in the church. I’m excited to get into it, and hopefully I’ll be able to carve out some time to write a few more reflections on the book as I proceed.

Your Future Self Will Thank You (Review)

If you’re like me, you’ve had the experience of deciding to do something and then actually doing the opposite. You want to go to the gym, but sit on the couch instead. You think it would be best to get a salad, but go for the burger and fries. You think you should be saving money, but find yourself at the store or browsing Amazon.

You know this stinks, so maybe you browse the self-help section and buy a book to try and make sense of why you do what you do and give you ideas to improve your self-control. But if you’re a Christian, you run into a problem with many of those books. Sure, they have a lot of good practical advice, but there is often something missing: a worthwhile goal beyond vague notions of “self-improvement” or “getting what you want out of life.” There’s no sense of the need to develop virtue or help others. Yeah, that’s great if it’s something you’re into, but the typical self-help author studiously avoids talking about any overall purpose other than self-actualization—whatever that means.

That’s why I was excited to read Drew Dyck’s book Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science. Dyck is an editor at Moody Publishers and previously wrote Generation Ex-Christian and Yawning at Tigers. Also, he apparently has trouble controlling himself.

After a brief introduction, Dyck kicks off chapter 1 a sneakily hard question: “Why self-control?” For an answer, he turns to a source that is not often found in mainstream self-help books written by psychologists and lifestyle gurus: the Bible. He writes, “The Bible portrays self-control not as restrictive but rather as the path to freedom. It enables us to do what’s right—and ultimately what’s best for us” (20). Self-control is important because the lack of it enslaves us to our sinful desires. Also, according to the Bible, self-control is not merely the ability to delay gratification. It is a character trait that emerges as we surrender to the will of God in our life, and it leads to greater freedom.

Dyck goes on to explore the importance of having the right purpose for self-control. Again, this is not angle you often see taken in self-help literature. You can end up frustrated and unfulfilled, Dyck says, by only directing your self-control to the end of your own success and happiness. Self-control should have the purpose of suspending our own interests so that we are truly able to love others: “Ultimately, self-control isn’t about you. It’s about surrendering to God’s purposes for you. And it’s not about getting success or money or power. In the end, it’s about love” (42).

Continuing the theme of “things you will never, EVER find in a typical self-help book,” Dyck explores the relationship between sin and self-control in chapter 3. We are both created in God’s image and have fallen into sin, which means that many of our own impulses and desires (what the Bible calls “the flesh”) cannot be trusted. Not only that, but we have an external enemy (what the Bible calls Satan and demons) that seeks to lead us away from the lives of self-control and service God wants for us.

In chapters 4–6, having established the core reasons for self-control and realities behind why it is so hard, Dyck provides specific strategies for controlling ourselves. He begins with the concept of willpower, which he describes as a finite resource. When your willpower is weak, you are more vulnerable to temptation. This means, unless you are one of those freaks who are just naturally gifted with a lot of willpower, if you’re just relying on willpower to do the right thing you’re probably not going to do it. Instead, you need to cultivate healthy habits. The good news is that willpower is like a muscle; with good habits in place, it can grow. To form a new habit, it’s helpful to break a bad habit by associating old cues and rewards with a new, better routine. Because of the issue of weak willpower, it is also helpful to only try to start one new habit at a time.

Dyck also addresses common misconceptions Christians have about self-control, like “Doesn’t grace mean I don’t need to cultivate self-control?” and “Isn’t striving legalism?” (You’ll have to read the book to see Dyck’s responses, but suffice it to say that he isn’t buying it.) Then he closes the book by looking at strategies for self-control in our digital age, and asking what we can learn about self-control from addicts.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books on how to get work done, how to manage time, and how to get better at what I do. I’ve gotten a lot of value out of those books, but as I alluded to at the beginning of this review, books in this genre are often missing something. They tend to not provide good reasons for why you ought to improve yourself. I understand why; they’re trying to appeal to the biggest possible audience, and the way you do that is to bracket out questions of right and wrong and ultimate purposes other than becoming a better you. Ultimately, you have to bring your own sense of purpose to these kinds of books for them to be useful. I wish there were more books like Dyck’s that are conversant with the latest psychology and neuroscience and productivity techniques but have taken the time to think about what their purpose might be, and are able to avoid the trap of legalism that books in this space are prone to.

Note: Thanks to Moody Publishers for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Politics of Ministry (Review)

The word “politics” often has a negative connotation. It conjures up images of manipulation, brazen self-interest, hunger for power, and outright contempt for any who might disagree or get in the way. Even if you think it’s necessary in certain circumstances, if your soul has not been damaged beyond repair you can’t help but regard it as kind of icky. And the thought of politics in ministry—well, then you can add an element of hypocrisy to the whole sordid picture.

It may therefore seem strange to title a book The Politics of Ministry. But the authors of this book—Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie— want people to see politics as not necessarily a negative thing. Instead, they define politics broadly as “the art of getting things done with others” (5). Working with people inevitably involves navigating interests, and navigating interests is what politics is all about. In ministry, whether it’s a church or a nonprofit, leaders do themselves and their organizations a disservice if they choose to remain ignorant about how people function in groups, because we are always navigating different interests and always negotiating using differing degrees of power. The good news is that “the political process can be respectful, unifying, and fruitful, just as much as it can be competitive, selfish, and destructive” (18).

The authors describe the political process as consisting of four activities:

  1. Perceiving power dynamics between people and groups
  2. Understanding and navigating various interests
  3. Engaging in negotiation between stakeholders
  4. Considering the ethical implications of decisions and actions


Like politics, power is everywhere—even cheesy cartoons from the ’80s. But also like politics, power is not necessarily bad. It is merely “the capacity to act and to influence others” (19). Therefore, everyone has some level of power, which can be used for helpful or harmful purposes. In situations where there is unequal power in ministry, the authors say, “it is important to consider carefully whether these asymmetries are legitimate or illegitimate, just or unjust, healthy or abusive” (51).

There are broadly two types of power: formal, which people possess by virtue of the positions they hold; and relational, which comes from interpersonal associations a person has. While formal power plays an important role in determining what things get done and what things are left undone, the authors argue that relational power is always more significant in the long run. Over time, it develops into relationship capital, which is “the strength of trust and respect that a relationship has built over time” (23). You can be chair of the board at your church, but if you lack relationship capital, you will be unable to have significant influence. People just won’t listen to you.


Navigating interests is the second element in the political process. The authors write, “To gain understanding of interests, we need to grow in our capacity to perceive them, to name them, to empathize with them, and to manage them, both for ourselves and for others” (56).

People’s interests come from a variety of sources and are often hidden. They can be rooted in people’s personal uniqueness, like their family of origin or their personality profile. They could be rooted in the culture of the organization, like whether it tends to be more collaborative or controlling, or results focused versus relationship focused. In a church, this extends to how people spend their time, and what ministry plans and programs are or are not happening. And finally, people’s interests can be rooted in the culture of the broader society, like which generation they are in, where they live, how their culture tends to communicate, and whether the power distance in that culture tends to be low or high (in the United States, where equality is a value, it tends to be low).


Negotiations are always happening in any organization. The authors define negotiation as “the process of promoting one’s interests in relational contexts through the use of power” (111). Whenever you have to get together with someone else who has common or conflicting interests to reach an agreement on future action, you’re negotiating. Negotiation involves four distinct actions:

  1. People bring their own specific, complex, and often hidden interests.
  2. People promote their interests between each other.
  3. People consciously or unconsciously choose how to use the power available to them.
  4. People’s actions during and after the negotiation process will either strengthen or diminish the ongoing interests and power of those involved (115).

All negotiation strategies can be placed into one of four quadrants. In cell 1, you have shared interests and equal power, so you collaborate. In cell 2, you have shared interests and unequal power, so you network. In cell 3, you have conflicting interests and equal power, so you bargain. And in cell 4, you have conflicting interests and unequal power, so you can do a number of things depending on whether you have more or less power in the negotiation. Situations like this are complex enough that they warrant their own chapter in the book.

Ethical Implications

The fourth and final aspect of the political process is considering the ethical implications of actions taken throughout the process. Reflection throughout the political process is key; this enables you to step back and act deliberately out of what you value instead of reacting instinctively out of interests. To reflect on ethical implications, Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie urge their readers to ask four questions, particularly in complicated situations where there are conflicting interests and unequal power:

  1. Who are the stakeholders in this situation? Who has something to gain or lose?
  2. What are the probable interests of each stakeholder? What do I fear, and what might others be afraid of in this situation?
  3. How will those interests be represented during the negotiation process? How will the right people be brought into the room where the decisions are made?
  4. To what degree are we serving the welfare of God’s church and the redemption of his world over our selfish interests?


As you can probably guess from the fact that I’ve spent almost this entire review summarizing the book, I think it is incredibly valuable. I am currently the chair of my church’s leadership team while we are in the midst of a pastoral transition, and this book came along at just the right time for me. After the departure of a long-tenured lead pastor, there are many things that are open for negotiation (or that some want to be open for negotiation) that seemed closed previously, and there is greater uncertainty about who holds the power to act in various situations. The four-activity process of politics outlined in The Politics of Ministry has been helpful to me as I seek to identify different interests and power dynamics and try to navigate them with integrity. In fact, I’m probably going to read it again soon and share some of what I’ve learned with the rest of our leadership team.

Oh, and one more thing. In spite of the somewhat dry tone of my summary, Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie do a good job of livening things up by including case studies that they return to throughout the book. I highly recommend it to anyone in ministry leadership, especially young pastors who may have gotten great theological training in seminary but may be unprepared for the political realities of leading in a complex organization. Reading this book may not solve all of the problems ministry leaders face, but it should pull back the curtain to help them know more about how organizations function—and help them know that politics is not necessarily a bad thing.

What I Learned from Eugene Peterson

Like many people, I was saddened to hear last month of the passing of Eugene Peterson. I first became aware of him in college, when his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society was recommended to me by our InterVarsity staff worker. Later, when I began my studies at Regent College, it was six years after he had left his post there as professor of spiritual theology, but his spirit still suffused the place.

When I was there taking courses toward a Master of Divinity degree, I would freak out from time to time. It would happen when I would go to a class or series of classes where I was told about all the things pastors had to know and do and be, and I was not sure that I could not do it. I don’t have anything against my professors; they wanted to instill in us that being a pastor is a high calling.

But in those times of feeling discouraged and inadequate, I learned to return to Peterson’s writings for a dose of sanity when it came to the calling of pastor, especially his book The Contemplative Pastor. The end of chapter 12, “Lashed to the Mast” (also printed here as an article), still sticks with me all these years later:

Century after century, Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “You are our shepherd. Lead us to Christlikeness.”

Yes, their actions will often speak different expectations, but in the deeper regions of the soul, the unspoken desire is for more than someone doing a religious job. If the unspoken were uttered, it would sound like this:

“We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator, in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history, but a participant. …

“There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination, we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and sacrament so you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.”

When I had graduated from Regent and was looking at pastoral job postings in my denomination, I continued to freak out occasionally. Many of the postings I saw were looking for a kind of Superman, not the kind of pastor I wanted to be or thought I could be. (It was also the middle of the financial crisis, and there just weren’t that many available positions at the time.) Again I returned to Peterson to help me feel that I was not crazy to believe that pastors’ main job is to keep people attentive to the work of God in the world.

I ended up not becoming a pastor. I did an internship at my church while I was looking, then took a job at Logos Bible Software (now Faithlife). When they began their publishing imprint, Lexham Press, I moved to that department and became an editor. I enjoy the work I do, and have not seriously considered becoming a pastor for a long time, but Peterson’s vision of what a pastor, and a church, should be still shapes me. The two most recent books of his I read were his memoir, The Pastor, and his collection of sermons called As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Now, my church’s pastor is about to retire, and I happen to be church chair and on the search committee. Our work as a committee is just getting started, and I don’t know yet what kind of pastor will be best for our church. But I do know that I don’t want to create a job posting that is looking for Superman: someone who will use the latest techniques to efficiently to do a religious job, who will entertain us and relieve us of the responsibility of being Christlike ourselves, who will project an air of omnicompetence, who will be lured by the siren song of Christian celebrity culture and see our church as little more than a platform from which to launch their own larger ministry. I want someone who will love us, who will help us to be as healthy as we can be, who will help us to be attentive to the ways that God is moving in our congregation and our community, who understands in their deepest self that Jesus is the head of the church and not them, and who will be lashed to the mast of Word and sacrament.

That’s what Eugene Peterson taught me—or rather, what he reminded me was still true when I was afraid it might not be.

Naked and Unashamed (Review)

I’ve read a handful of Christian marriage books in the time that my wife and I have been married, and I find that generally marriage books tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between practical and theoretical. The practical books give you a lot of specific advice on how to get along with another person, but can fall into the trap of generalizing too much based on the authors’ experience. (For example, one book my wife read a long time ago seemed to offer a lot of advice that was specific to being a middle-class person in the southern United States.) The theoretical books tell you a lot about what marriage is for, but can be so short on offering specific help that they can turn into a slog.

41ik4mkssil-_sx322_bo1204203200_The best Christian marriage books are ones that combine the two. They paint a picture of what marriage ought to be while refraining from holding up every part of the authors’ experience of marriage as prescriptive for all other couples. It’s a fine line, for sure, but I think Jerry and Claudia Root and Jeremy Rios have done that in Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian MarriageThis book came out of the Roots’ experience of doing premarital counseling for over a thousand couples over the years, including Jeremy and his wife, Liesel. When Jeremy became a pastor, he began using the Roots’ material in his own premarital counseling sessions, and eventually they decided to shape that material into a book.

The central theme of this book is the hard work needed to maintain vulnerability in marriage. This vulnerability is displayed in four major areas: relational intimacy, communication, expectations (specifically in the areas of family and culture, parenthood, and finances), and sex. Maintaining vulnerability is incredibly difficult for two sinful people to keep up over the years, but it is what keeps marriages healthy. As the authors write, “The work required from you in marriage will exceed what you believe are your personal capacities, and therefore couples make a mutual promise before God that they will stick to one another no matter what. It is this promise, more than anything else, that makes marriages what they are” (5).

Who is this book for? Primarily couples who are preparing for marriage, though I think many chapters could be helpful to either engaged couples or ones who have been married for a while. Each chapter ends with an assignment that asks you to discuss the subject of that chapter with your partner, which will particularly be helpful to engaged couples who may not have talked about these issues before.

This book will also appeal most to conservative evangelicals. I hesitate to say that, since I think it presents far more than an idiosyncratic view of marriage embraced by a relatively small subculture. I am myself a conservative evangelical (with the caveat that when I say “conservative” I’m speaking theologically, not necessarily politically), so I believe that what the book presents is largely the historic Christian view of marriage, including elements that have become less popular in our Western cultural moment, like saying that sex is meant for marriage, and marriage necessarily involves gender complementarity.

But what does gender entail, apart from biology? Things get tricky when you start talking about masculinity and femininity and the roles men and women should generally take in a marriage. For example, the authors write of women that, since they are “wired to nurture,” they “often have a high need for security” (30). On the other hand, “for men, the deepest need may be partnership” (31). Then they issue the caveat that, “naturally, dividing gender in this way doesn’t mean that men don’t desire to be cherished, nor that women do not wish for partnership, but in general our biology leads us into a propensity toward these responses” (31). Later, in their chapter on unpacking gender, they “propose two ways to perceive the differences in gender—one suggests that men and women are assertive vs. nurturing, the other that we are linear vs. networked” (67).

I don’t envy anyone who sets out to write a book on marriage, since making generalizations about gender is unavoidable when attempting to reach a broad audience. On the one hand, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason; they’re often true. But there are always exceptions; what should be done about them? The best you can do, I think, is what the authors do—say what you think, and admit that others might disagree: “Are you unconvinced by our hypotheses, and convinced that there are further complexities to be investigated in this area? Have a conversation where you try to decide between the two of you the exact defining characteristics of masculinity and femininity. If you can figure it out, then write the book—you’ll make millions!” (69).

Like me, you may come across occasional statements in this book—especially regarding how men and women tend to behave in marriage—where you think, “But what about this exception, or that situation?” That’s fine. But personally, I would rather the authors share their experiences and say what they think (including their interpretation of the famous passage on marriage in Ephesians 5:21–33), even if I might wonder about some of it, than throw their hands in the air and say “Everybody’s different! Do what’s right in your own eyes!” That would have been far less helpful.

The point of this book is that maintaining vulnerability and openness in marriage is hard work, but it is incredibly rewarding work. This carries added weight coming from both a couple (the Roots) who have been married for over forty years and a man (Rios) who is in the busy middle stage of raising four young children with his wife. With plenty of thoughtful reflection on what marriage is, along with many practical tips and stories from the authors’ own marriages, this is one marriage book that avoids the pitfalls of being too far off the ground or too focused on the authors’ own experience. I would recommend it for any married couple who wants to be reminded of the incredible blessing marriage can be, as well as for any engaged couple who wants to see clearly what it takes to stay married.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press for the purpose of review. I also attended Regent College with Jeremy Rios and count him as a friend.



Christ and the Powers (Colossians 2:6–15)

About a month ago I preached a sermon on the concept of the principalities and powers, taking Colossians 2:6–15 as my text. When I’m given the opportunity to preach on whatever I want, I usually explore questions I have. The main question that led me to look at the principalities and powers is, “Why do groups and systems behave the way they do, and why is it so hard to change?”

I think of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which at the time was one of the most Christian countries in Africa. I think of Enron, whose CEO, Ken Lay, was a leader in his church, and yet he and others forged a culture of systematic deception. I also think of Congress, where only 9 percent of people approve of the job they are doing. And yet when we vote in new people, nothing seems to change. The culture persists, even despite efforts to move in a different direction.

The usual Christian answer to this question is sin. We humans have rebelled against our Creator and gone our own way, and we suffer the consequences of living out of step from the way we were meant to. But there’s more to it than that. I’m tempted to sin in certain ways as an individual, but groups and societies can be tempted to sin in persistent ways. Racism looks different in the US than it does elsewhere. Gun violence looks different in the US than it does elsewhere. The New Testament sheds light on this question with what the apostle Paul calls the “principalities and powers.”

In Colossians, for example, Paul is fighting against a system of thought that included elements of Judaism but also magic and interest in a variety of spiritual forces. It may not seem like this could apply to the secular West, but even here you still hear people talk about the universe telling them things or guiding them. Even for those who are spiritual but not religious, there seems to be a sense that there are larger forces at work in our lives.

What are the powers?

There is a continuum of thought among Christians as to what the powers are. On the one end, you have personal demons spitting sulphur. If you grew up in church in the ’90s like I did and read any Frank Peretti novels, that is the idea. On the other end, you have impersonal social and cultural forces, structures, and institutions. You tend to find this in more theologically liberal writers like Walter Wink.

There is some truth in both. The first gets right that the powers are supernatural and greater than human, but can only focus on how they work on individuals. The second gets right that the Bible seems to talk about them differently than angels and demons, and they affect more than individuals. But this end of the spectrum tends to minimize or forget that these really are supernatural forces, not merely a term for the way human institutions behave.

Here’s what we can learn from a few texts about the principalities and powers:

They were created good.  They did not always behave the way they do now. Just as there was a fall in the human realm, there was also a kind of fall in the spiritual realm. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers (archē) or authorities (exousia); all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).

They function in human political and religious spheres. Elsewhere, Paul writes that the powers were at work in Christ’s crucifixion. It wasn’t just Pilate, Herod, and the crowd. There were spiritual forces working behind them that wanted Christ put to death: “We declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers (archōn) of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).

They have been disarmed but not destroyed. In his death and resurrection Christ has plundered the powers, disarming them and leading them in a victory parade: “Having disarmed the powers (archē) and authorities (exousia), he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15).

They are subject to Christ. Because of the system of thought Paul is fighting against in Colossians, he repeatedly stresses Christ’s supremacy over all other spiritual powers. “In Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power (archē) and authority (exousia)” (Col 2:10).

Our struggle is against them. Colossians and Ephesians both mention the powers several times. The two cities were relatively close together, and it seems like many of the cultural forces that were at work in one were also at work in the other. Toward the end of Ephesians Paul says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers (archē), against the authorities (exousia), against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). This is important. If we forget this, we are likely to continue to get really angry at our fellow image-bearing humans and even unintentionally contribute to evil ourselves.

The church’s job is to make manifest to them God’s wisdom. Ephesians again: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers (archē) and authorities (exousia) in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:10–11). This is the wisdom of the cross and resurrection.

David Garland, in his commentary on Colossians, sums it up well: “The stoicheia, powers, and authorities come in all sorts of guises, and in different cultures they receive different names and definitions. But they share a common characteristic in that humans take them to be unrelenting forces that suppress us and squelch our happiness. More important, humans open themselves up to their power through sin and ignorance. But to those who are in Christ, these forces, powers, and authorities are completely impotent.”

Upon hearing about these powers, some people may become obsessed with classifying and resisting them, but that’s never the point when the New Testament talks about the powers. The point is if we rebel against God and take matters into our own hands, we don’t become free individuals. We submit ourselves to the powers. We don’t have to know exactly what they are. But we should be able to recognize them at work.

How do we recognize the powers at work?

In my reading on this subject in preparation for the sermon, I found many authors gave examples of things that can function as powers: Government is necessary, but it may become tyrannical. Universities can become places of indoctrination rather than education. Companies can begin to serve the greed of a few instead of serving their customers or helping their employees flourish. Money is useful for facilitating exchange, but it can exert control. Communication can function as propaganda and obscure the truth. Tradition may devolve into traditionalism.

It seems almost anything can function as a power. But as I read through these examples, a few traits emerged over and over.

  1. The powers tend to cheapen human life. Technology is not bad, but when it divides us and takes priority over people it functions as a power. Family, kinship, tribe are not bad, but they may turn into racism and xenophobia in which we see other people as subhuman. I even saw numbering called a power. One example of this comes from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s excellent Vietnam War documentary, in which you hear several veterans talk about “the body count.” Counting dead bodies was the only measure they had for determining how successful they were. Over time this tempted them to exaggerate, and it blinded them to the larger reality of war. Numbering can become a power when the only thing that matters is what can be measured and quantified.
  2. The powers ignore sin and give us false ways of fixing things. In politics we tend to think a regime change will fix things, that seizing the levers of power will fix things, but throughout history the oppressed tend to turn into oppressors. In Colossae Paul’s opponents gave a list of things you had to do to get right with God, but they misunderstood who Christ was and what he had done. Without understanding sin, we adopt false goalposts, false hopes, while all the time we are still enslaved by the powers.
  3. The powers cause frustration, fear, and despair. When we want to do the right thing but don’t think we can, the powers are at work. When we’re afraid that what we do doesn’t matter, the powers are at work. The powers want us to feel despair and helplessness, like going along with evil is our only choice. Pay attention to those feelings, because they may be an indication that the powers are active.

How do we struggle against the powers?

In Ephesians 6, Paul’s famous passage about putting on the armor of God is all about resisting the powers. But my sermon was based in Colossians, so I came up with a few other things.

Remember the supremacy of Christ. Powers tell us we can move on past the cross, or need to have Christ plus something else to be accepted by God. So Paul told the Colossians by being united to Christ, they’re no longer subject to the powers. By submitting to the powers, Christ exposed them and disarmed them. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, “God still upholds the structures; without them the world would collapse and human life would be unthinkable. But the structures lose their pretended absoluteness. Nothing now is absolute except God as he is known in Jesus Christ; everything else is relativized.” We don’t need to fear powers. The worst has already happened, and Christ won.

Remember that Christ works through weakness: the cross’s and our own. Marva Dawn writes in Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, her book on the powers, “Our churches act as fallen powers when they forget the cross at their center.” The powers tell us the cross’s weakness is shameful, that it’s better to be strong. When we believe that, we’re more liable to be deceived by charismatic personalities, money, and the need to keep secrets to protect our institution. But it is by weakness that Christ disarmed the powers and put them on display for what they really are, and his church disarms the powers in the same way. Newbigin writes that the Christians conquered the powers behind the Roman Empire not by seizing power but by kneeling in the Colosseum and praying for the emperor in Jesus’ name.

Remember to pray. Speaking of prayer, it’s crucial when discerning and fighting the powers. In Colossians 4:2 Paul says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” It’s easy, even for Christians, to vacillate between two poles: we think we can handle life through our own ingenuity, or we think we’re at the mercy of impersonal forces. Sometimes we feel both these things in the same day. Both times we need prayer.

Life is complex—too complex for us to understand everything on our own. There are unseen forces that are hostile to us. We can’t discern and defeat these fallen powers on our own, but in prayer we have access to one who has.

Strange Days (Review)

In my previous post, I reviewed Australian pastor and cultural critic Mark Sayers’s book Disappearing Church. Just after finishing Disappearing Church, I read his next book, which came out in 2017: Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval

As I read the book, I kept thinking of conspiracy theories. Not that Sayers is a conspiracy theorist at all, but like conspiracy theorists he is interested in answering the question: “What in the world is going on?” If you’re drawn to conspiracy theories, you want to believe that there is a pattern behind everything that is going on in the world, and that pattern is sinister. What is really controlling things is the government/the conservatives/the progressives/the deep state/the evangelicals/the Illuminati, or whatever. In fact, Wikipedia has a handy list of conspiracy theories.

9780802415738Sayers essentially argues in Strange Days that there is a conspiracy going on: the kingdom of God is breaking into this world, fighting its elemental forces, and those who live life “in the Spirit” can join in this battle on the good side. “The social structures and movements bouncing this way and that in our world have spiritual forces behind them and, thus, require spiritual solutions” (98).

The book comes in three parts. In part 1 (chapters 1–2), he posits that there are forces of chaos in the world and looks at where this chaos comes from. In part 2 (chapters 3–8), he looks at the historical pattern of chaos, asking how we can find the spiritual dimensions behind war, terrorism, “non-places,” the breakdown of the family, and other issues. In part 3 (chapters 9–13), he explores how life in the Spirit offers an alternative to chaos, promising the ability to live in light of Christ’s victory over the flesh and the elemental forces of the world. His goal, as he says in the introduction, is “to grasp our cultural moment, to help you understand its landscape. There is a pattern to the chaos, and what is more, there is a door out, into the holy expanse that is life in the Spirit” (18).

Sayers writes a lot about how humans want to create spaces of order that keep the chaos at bay, and are compelled to police the borders between order and chaos: “Because humans are spiritually homeless, we dream of holy spaces, utopias, motherlands, golden ages, and soulmates. We yearn for reconnection to the divine, re-admittance to the sacred and pure space” (25). Again, “behind all social architecture, be it ancient or modern, Western or non-Western, are ‘practices concerning holiness, purity, and sacrifice.’ These are the rules, rituals, relationships, and social structures that organize life” (42). We create these rules in accordance with the elemental forces of the world, which the New Testament calls “the powers”: “The powers are the unseen superstructures behind human life, and, just like places, nations, institutions, they protect us from the chaos in the world that threatens to break through” (106).

However, the problem with policing the borders with chaos is that chaos and “the flesh” live inside us: “The structures, communities, and institutions we create in order to protect ourselves from the chaotic ravages of the flesh do not free us from the effects of the flesh. For the flesh is within us” (31). In all this he acknowledges his debt to Peter Leithart’s book Delivered from the Elements of the World.

Modern Westerners, even many Christians, might dismiss this kind of talk as very woo-woo. We’ve moved past all that, haven’t we? On the contrary, we might sometimes convince ourselves we have, but this only seems plausible inside the safety of the “non-places” we have created—the places, like an airport or a shopping mall, that allow individuals to pretend they are rational, autonomous, cut off from their community and even their own history: “Non-places are the temples of the West’s religion, which masquerades as a non-religion. Preaching an oversimplification of life. Appearing to be content free while discipling us in a secular fundamentalism. The gospel that the world is your playground. Evangelizing us into a faith that fails” (69–70). Interestingly, terrorists usually attack non-places.

So faced with a situation where we can’t manage the chaos outside and inside in our own strength, where we try to hunker down inside non-places but the chaos and meaninglessness break in anyway, where the powers make us feel helpless, what do we do? “This is the good news of the gospel. Humans no longer have to be bound to these myths and powers. Those trying to scratch out Eden in the dust don’t have to anymore. There is a way out of the fray. And for those who already have come to believe the gospel, and who feel displaced and dizzy in all the chaos, this truth remains a comfort. All the powers swarming around us, most of them beyond our understanding, have been disarmed. Yes, they are still active, but only in the same way a chicken is after its head is cut off” (108).

The good news is that Christ has “disarmed the powers” (Col 2:15). Those who follow him are called to live in light of this disarmament: “As the gospel was preached, as history unfolded, Christ’s victory over the powers would spread. The elemental forces had been fundamentally altered, and a new kingdom had broken in, and thus the powers gradually lost their hold over people. However, as Christianity spread, so did heresy” (116). The powers have been defeated, but there is now the threat that the church should become ineffectual by embracing ideas that are not in accord with the gospel.

These heresies, Sayers says, currently tend to take three main shapes, which could be classified as the heresies of the non-place, the right, and the left:

Some churches will reshape themselves as kinds of Christian non-places, detached from history, relationships, and given identity. … Other churches, attuned to the dislocation and meaninglessness created by the non-place of globalization, will fiercely create nationalist, social, and racial boundaries, presenting meanings that emerge not from Christ and the kingdom, but place, nation, myth, and the flesh. … A third group of churches, recoiling both from the implicit prosperity gospel of the churches that create Christian non-places, and disturbed by the falling back into cultural Christianity and the blurring of nationalism and the way of Jesus, will link arms with the New Left. (117–19)

To resist these temptations to heresy, the church must remember that she is in exile—but not the same kind of cultural exile that the Jews endured when they were taken away to Babylon in 586 BC. “This is a post-elemental forces faith. Thus exile cannot be the same. … As heavenly citizens we exist in a kind of exile, but in a different epoch, thus deserving of a different missional posture. Yes, we are called to flourish, but we are called also into a spiritual war against the powers and principalities, now humiliated on the cross by Christ. There is a key nuance here: flourishing needs a fight against the flesh” (157–58)

So the solution to finding meaning and purpose and finding order in the chaos all around us and within us is to live life in step with the Holy Spirit. “Christians live life in the Spirit before a watching world. We are not called to retreat from the world, nor to embrace it, but to live on earth as it is in heaven. … Our exile is life in the Spirit, but that spiritual life is exceedingly practical” (165). We still struggle against the flesh, so we need to test our own motivations and desires through prayer and discernment in community.

Since most of this review has just been me recapping the argument of the book, you probably know by now that I enjoyed it and recommend it. It is short, as all Sayers’s books tend to be, but it packs a big conceptual punch. He is doing nothing less than seeking to expand modern Western Christians’ view of the world for the sake of mission. To engage in mission in the West, you have to be aware of the powers whose existence our culture has resolutely denied, and to be aware of how Christ has disarmed them. Because the truth is that

our age is not as modern, unique, and progressive as it believes. Like all ages, it is shaped by the elemental forces. Even in its secularism it is thus ultimately religious. Thus with our heavenly viewpoint we can become interpreters of the age, godly guides, merchants of holy hope. Our age is an age of clashing stories. Do not underestimate the power of the story you carry within your heart, the gospel that drips with goodness. For when a community of people, called by Christ, living as the church, come together, something truly wonderful happens. (170)

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Disappearing Church (Review)

I had heard the name “Mark Sayers” here and there over the past few years, but I never really paid attention until Sayers, a pastor in Melbourne, Australia, got together with Portland pastor John Mark Comer and started recording a podcast, “This Cultural Moment.” In brief episodes, Sayers and Comer explain culture through the lens of intellectual history and try to apply the discussion to the average Christian in the West.

I’ve been enjoying these podcasts very much and wanted to see where else Sayers had expressed his ideas about culture, so this spring I read two of the books he has published in the last few years with Moody Publishers: Disappearing Church and Strange Days.

9780802413352Both are short (under 200 pages) but wide-ranging, showing a variety of influences, from Philip Rieff to Jonathan Sacks to Peter Leithart. In Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, Sayers argues that the church’s strategy of trying to make itself relevant to the surrounding culture leads to a dead end in which the church loses its distinctiveness:

What if our attempts at relevance, at mimicking and outdoing the beautiful world, actually limit our ministry potential? What if our increasing strangeness to Western culture is actually to our advantage? What if the fact that you can no longer be warmly embraced in the contemporary cultural fold if you are an orthodox Christian is actually the best thing that has happened to us? (140)

What the church needs instead is what he calls gospel resilience: “We cannot solely rely on the contemporary, Western church’s favored strategy of cultural relevance, in which Christianity and the church is made ‘relevant’ to secular Western culture. Instead we need to rediscover gospel resilience. To walk the countercultural narrow path in which we die to self and re-throne God in our lives as the supreme authority” (12).

While he critiques the strategy of relevance, neither does he want the church to embrace irrelevance. Rather than calling for complete seclusion from the world, he wants the church to commit to becoming a creative minority, a term that originated with historian Arnold Toynbee and was resurrected by Jonathan Sacks: “Creative minorities find themselves withdrawn and distant from what they know and find comfort in. This distance enables them to see the myths and blind spots of their own culture, to reject these myths, and find a greater dependency in God. This dependency on a source of power and truth outside of the dominant culture leads creative minorities to refresh and reinvigorate ailing cultures” (50). There is a movement in creative minorities of both withdrawal and return, where withdrawal is undertaken for the purpose of greater effectiveness upon the return.

Sayers’s main reason for choosing gospel resilience over relevance is that post-Christian culture is not the same as pre-Christian culture. “Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit” (15). If your main strategy of preaching the gospel to post-Christian culture is relevance, Sayers says, you are likely to be unwittingly colonized by the culture. Post-Christian culture is happy to retain various emphases of Christianity, like justice and dignity, but sees itself as having transcended the hard parts of Christianity—the parts about being a disciple. Post-Christianity is seductive because it tells you that you can have it all without sacrificing anything.

In the latter half of the book, Sayers shares specific practices for recovering gospel resilience like rejecting the implicit prosperity gospel and reinvesting ourselves in institutions (the church, specifically). Here I thought there was a lot of ground covered in a relatively small space, and I have to admit that in a few places I wasn’t quite sure what he was proposing. I will probably have to read through it again to really understand and figure out how to apply chapters 6–10.

But in general I’m sympathetic to Sayers’s analysis, especially of the difference between a post-Christian culture and a pre-Christian culture. While he is creative in the connections he makes, he is not calling for the church to change or abandon the historic faith. He still believes the gospel has the power to speak to the greatest needs of individuals and culture: “What if the answer is what it has always been? The path of walking in Jesus’ footsteps, of following the traditions and teaching of the apostles. What if the answer to our culture’s challenges is still the gospel?” (48) We just need to recognize that the times have changed, and prayerfully discern how the gospel can best be preached in these times.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I just read two books by Sayers. When I finished Disappearing Church, I wondered what else he could possibly say about this cultural moment. I’ll get into that in my next post.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Becoming Dallas Willard (Review)

The first Dallas Willard book I read was The Divine Conspiracy, which is a great title for a book. Saying there is a “divine conspiracy” afoot makes potential readers curious, like there is something about Christianity that this book will tell you even if you grew up in church. I was curious enough to pluck it off the shelf in a small English-language church library in Prague when I was teaching there just after college, and read it mostly on train rides to and from teaching appointments.

For many books with titles like that, their promise of newness ends up disappointing. The “new” thing being promised is just a modern rehashing of what some heretic taught in the second century. But in the case of The Divine Conspiracy, what Willard was offering was a return to the “with-God” life that Christians have enjoyed throughout the centuries. The conspiracy was that you could interact with God directly in the here and now, that you could live life in the kingdom of God now and not have to wait for some future time. In short, the divine conspiracy is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

4610Willard (who died in 2013) wasn’t a professional theologian, and he wasn’t a pastor. He was a philosophy professor who spent his entire career teaching at USC. Yet he is probably most widely known for his writings on Christian spirituality—The Divine Conspiracy is probably the most popular, but there’s also The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart, The Great Omission, and Knowing Christ Today.

Gary Moon tells the story of how this obscure philosophy professor came to be so well-known as a spiritual writer in his biography Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower. The book follows Willard from his poor childhood in rural Missouri, to meeting his wife Jane in college at Tennessee Temple, to graduate studies at Baylor and the University of Wisconsin, to teaching philosophy at USC, to his rise to prominence as a teacher of Christian spirituality. According to Dallas, this fame happened organically, without his asking for it: “I’m afraid to say this, because I’m afraid to burden someone else. But I never ask for a promotion. I never ask for money. Of the Christian books I’ve published, all have been solicited from me by the publishers” (138).

The most difficult part of writing a biography of a man like Willard has to be holding together his philosophical and spiritual interests in an engaging narrative. Most of the people who pick up this book are going to be interested in Willard because of his Christian writings, but it isn’t enough to focus on that. Moon knew that he had to show how Willard’s vocation as a philosopher informed his spiritual writings—and to do that, he had the tall order of explaining a lot of philosophy to people who may have never read a book on philosophy.

Moon does a fine job at this, especially delving into Willard’s interest in Edmund Husserl, the founder of a school of thought called phenomenology (interestingly, the former Pope John Paul II was also a Husserl scholar). Willard was interested in phenomenology because he was looking for a way to understand epistemology—how we know things about the world around us. Dallas wanted to find a philosophical basis for realism—the idea that things exist in reality apart from our perception of them. According to Willard,

Husserl offered an explanation of consciousness in all its forms that elucidates why realism is possible. He helped me to understand that in religion you also have knowledge and you are dealing with reality. What Jesus taught was a source of knowledge, real knowledge, and not merely an invitation to a leap of faith. … [We] live in a world that is real, and this applies to morality as well as to physics. … I would never have chosen to work at philosophy as a profession but for the single—though multi-faceted—issue of realism. I have always felt that realism had to be true, because there is just no way that the objects of our world—whether particulars or universals (a tree or galaxy, a color or shape)—could, being what they are, be produced or sustained in existence by acts of thought or perception. (96)

This, Moon shows, is how Willard’s work as a philosopher and spiritual teacher are held together. He believed that the world exists apart from our perception of it—and not only the physical stuff of the world. Real knowledge of the world includes moral and spiritual knowledge.

Moon sums all this up by giving us four main areas of focus across Willard’s career as a philosopher and spiritual teacher (Willard himself told these to his former student J. P. Moreland eight months before his death):

  1. A robust metaphysical realism. “There is one mind-independent world ‘out there,’ and it and the entities within it are what they are independent of our thinking about them” (193).
  2. Epistemic realism. “The intentionality of the mind places it in direct contact with its various objects of attention. Nothing stands between the knowing subject and items of knowledge in cases of direct awareness” (193).
  3. Models of the human person and Christian spiritual formation. “He was committed to the idea that our view of the nature and practice of formative beliefs and exercises should flow as naturally as possible from our view of the human person” (193).
  4. Spiritually formative Christian practices produce results that are objectively testable. “He was deeply concerned to establish Christian spiritual formation and its practices as items of genuine knowledge. In short, spiritual formation could—and should—be measurable and have a place in the university alongside other domains of public knowledge” (193–94).

Willard’s thought was so deep and rich that I hope someday someone (maybe one of his former students?) will write an intellectual biography that puts his thinking into its broader context in both theology and philosophy. Moon’s biography gets into this a bit, but its main purpose is to serve more as a general introduction to Willard’s heart and mind. In spite of Moon’s dig at editors on page 177 (Not cool, man. Not cool.), I’d recommend it to everyone who is curious about Willard, especially people who are just starting to become aware of him and are looking for some background. While I hope that heftier biography is still coming someday, I’m glad Moon had the courage to be the first.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for a review copy of this book.