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.

Advertisements

All Together Different (Review)

Jesus desired that those in his church “may be one,” but it is all too evident that this is often not the case. And it isn’t just denominational differences; it’s hard for individuals to get along in a single church. How do church leaders begin to address the problem of disunity?

J. Brian Tucker and John Koessler, who are both associated with Moody Bible Institute (Koessler teaches at MBI in Chicago, and Tucker at a Michigan seminary campus), have attempted to answer this question in All Together Different: Upholding the Church’s Unity While Honoring Our Individual Identities. They believe that the answer to disunity is not to force cultural uniformity but to glean lessons about how to get along from the Bible and research on social identity theory. (By the way, Tucker and Koessler don’t really talk about divisiveness in the United States. While some of what they say could possibly apply to the country at large, they are focused on the church.)

9780802418081That phrase above, “research on social identity theory,” is a clue that this is not a light Christian living title. The book may have a bunch of Slinkies on the cover, but it’s not for kids—or even for adults who are interested in something fluffy. Take this sentence from the introduction: “What is needed is the recognition that existing social identities must be a part of the way the church’s theological constructs are communicated. In other words, by paying attention to issues of identity, we are able to discern which theological constructions are best suited for clarifying those issues of identity that need to be transformed in the life of the church” (13). If sentences like that are not your cup of tea, then maybe this isn’t the book for you.

But for those who actually get excited at the prospect of putting on their thinking caps, this is an enjoyable read. First Tucker and Koessler look at the slippery concept of identity, and then how Christians’ identity ought to be formed primarily by the Bible—and specifically the concept of being “in Christ.” Individuals have different senses of identity, like Russian matryoshka dolls, but there is always one “master identity.” Christians must have their being “in Christ”—united to him and to each other—as their master identity. Without that, nothing will help a church get along.

In the latter part of the book, they look at three common stress points in church: race, sex, and generational differences. I thought these three chapters, while somewhat helpful, were the weakest part of the book. It may just be the nature of the case that in a chapter each they weren’t able to treat these issues with the depth and nuance they deserved.

All in all, though, this is a helpful book for pastors and other church leaders who are looking for ways to see diversity as a gift rather than a threat in their churches. The final chapter gives nine principles for moving forward, and church leaders could do a lot worse (and have done a lot worse) than prayerfully studying and teaching principles like “Allow faith to transform your identity,” “Only God can tell you who you really are,” and “Don’t be afraid to live like an outsider” when it comes to the wider culture.

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

Ready Player One (Review)

I have a confession to make. Even though I review a lot of books on this blog, I don’t make the time to review EVERY book I read. Especially fiction or audiobooks, which I often don’t spend enough time with to develop reviewy thoughts. But a year ago I was looking for something fun to listen to as I walk to work, and checked out the audiobook of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (RPO), narrated by Wil Wheaton, from the library. In the last month, with the movie adaptation coming out, I also read the book in paperback. Now that I’ve gone through it twice, I’ve thought about it enough to warrant a review.

Ready Player OneThe premise of RPO is, to put it as simply as possible, “What if Willy Wonka were a video game designer?” It is a quest story set in a future in which the real world is pretty bleak, so everyone spends all their time in a virtual reality program called the OASIS. It has been five years since the death of James Halliday, the primary designer of the OASIS, who upon his death sent out a virtual announcement that he had hidden an Easter Egg somewhere in the OASIS. Those who sought the egg would along the way have to find three keys and unlock three gates, and the one who found it would get Halliday’s fortune.

The protagonist is Wade Watts, a high school student living in Oklahoma City, whose online persona is called Parzival—a variation on Percival, the Arthurian knight who quested for the Holy Grail. Even though it’s 2045, Wade’s desire to find the egg has led him to adopt Halliday’s own obsession with pop culture from the ’80s, the decade in which Halliday grew up. This allows Cline to dive deep into his own ’80s pop culture obsessions. If Wade spends hours and hours watching movies like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, and Revenge of the Nerds, it’s not gratuitous; it’s for the egg!

I was pretty young in the ’80s, but I do have an older brother, so a good amount of the ’80s pop culture references were not lost on me. But there is also some next-level nerdery: there are not just references to mainstream pop culture like Star Wars, but more obscure things like Dungeons & Dragons modules and glitches in particular ’80s arcade games. In the context of the story, these work to show Wade’s worthiness to find the egg. He doesn’t just get mainstream references; he gets the most obscure references. 

The best thing about this book is the plot, which has Wade competing against other individual hunters—his best friend Aech, his love interest Art3mis, and two Japanese avatars named Daito and Shoto—to solve clues that will help them find the egg. In both the OASIS and in real life he is also going up against the real bad guys—an evil monolithic corporation, Innovative Online Industries—who want the egg because it will allow them to seize control of the OASIS.

Your Mind Is What Matters

In spite of the engaging plot, there were a couple of things that left me unsatisfied about RPO. Most of the book pushed a kind of gnosticism, in which the real world is devalued and the only thing that matters is the mind. It is true that in the end, Wade finds out that the virtual world is not everything. He learns from Halliday’s mistakes that “as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness” (364). He has his real-world friends, and the last line of the book is about how for the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel like logging in to the OASIS.

Yet this is also a mixed message, since near the end there is also a statement that Wade and his best friend, Aech, had “known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level” (321). The end of the book pays lip service to the idea that engaging in the real world is better than engaging in the digital world, but this rings somewhat hollow after the glorification of the mind and degradation of physical reality in the entire rest of the book.

Tyrannical Nostalgia

Cline found his own Holy Grail in writing this book: a way to dive deep into his ’80s pop culture nostalgia without it being entirely gratuitous (although certain passages, like the description of Parzival’s modified DeLorean—which plays absolutely no part in the plot other than to show readers, again, how obsessed with the ’80s Wade is—do indeed tip the scales into gratuitous territory).

In the book, Halliday’s creation of the contest is driven by nostalgia. He even re-created inside the OASIS the town where he grew up, “drawing on his memories to recreate his hometown exactly as it was during his childhood” (102). Halliday goes a step further, wanting everyone else to be nostalgic for the same things he is nostalgic for.  The character Ogden Morrow, who co-founded Halliday’s gaming company, said this about him: “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest [and for Cline, this book] is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that” (122).

That sounds pretty creepy to me, especially since nostalgia itself is a kind of false remembering. Halliday couldn’t recreate his hometown “exactly as it was during his childhood,” because the real thing and his memories of it are different. Things are never as great as you remember them later. Throughout RPO, I was reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis, from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Halliday has not only given in to the worship of his own past; he has tried to force everyone else to bow down to it as well. Trying to strong-arm other people into sharing your obsessions is a kind of megalomania, and is doomed to end in frustration.

The Poison of Pride

And speaking of megalomania, humility seems to not be a virtue in the RPO universe. Wade takes pride in his ability at games and in his ability to get an obscure reference. While their goals are different, I got the sense that Wade was every bit as arrogant and self-absorbed as the faceless corporation he was fighting against.

I get it that there is, in the world of geekdom, a resistance to shame. Other people (the jocks! The popular kids!) try to make you ashamed of being obsessed with science fiction and video games, and you respond by rejecting this shaming and becoming proud of them—by wearing the term “geek” with pride. But pride has its own pitfalls. The proper response to shame is not pride, but humility. Humility is the antidote to both shame and arrogance. By the end of RPO, Wade is virtually all-powerful. But we haven’t seen anything in him that makes us believe that he will handle power well.

As I mentioned above, I did really enjoy the plot of this book. The quest for the egg was fun and engaging, and Cline was good at keeping the pages turning. Yet ultimately I was dissatisfied with the values of the world he created, even inside the OASIS. It seems like every other utopia—attractive-looking but flawed.

Note: I received this book for review from Random House’s Blogging for Books program (RIP). I wasn’t asked to give a positive review.

The Pietist Option (Review)

There are an abundance of options that Christians have to help them cope with the Western world at this particular cultural moment. The “option” language all started with Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which he wrote about in his columns at the American Conservative for years before he published a book by that name. Since then others have come up with (among others) the Augustinian Option, the Kuyper Option, and the Walker Percy Option.

Now, not all of these options are necessarily at odds with one another or even anything new. In fact, I’m convinced that a lot of this “option” conversation is just people taking advantage of Dreher’s new nomenclature to argue for the same theological commitments they’ve been boosting for years.

5194At any rate, last fall, historian Chris Gehrz and pastor Mark Pattie gave us another option—The Pietist Option (IVP Academic, 2017), which calls modern-day Christians to learn from the renewal movement, later called “Pietism,” that Philipp Jakob Spener kicked off with his 1675 book Pia Desideria (“pious desires”).

The book comes in two parts. Part one consists of two chapters that introduce the state of contemporary American Christianity and make the case for adopting a hopeful attitude in spite of difficult circumstances. Part two is much longer, and consists of six specific proposals for renewal of Protestant churches drawn from Pia Desideria:

  1. A more extensive engagement with the Bible
  2. A renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers
  3. An understanding of Christianity as a way of life, not merely an assent to certain doctrines
  4. A commitment to an irenic spirit in the face of theological disagreements
  5. A commitment to spiritual formation for the whole person for the whole of life
  6. A proclamation of the good news rooted in the proclaimer’s own experience of God

In many ways these are standard evangelical beliefs. In fact, Gehrz and Pattie are up front about the fact that “Pietism has disappeared not because it failed, but because it succeeded” (4). It was a renewal movement that did its work of renewing, and The Pietist Option is Gehrz and Pattie’s argument that we need another, similar renewal movement in our time.

I was not an impartial reader when I came to The Pietist Option; I was predisposed to like itIn my young adulthood as a Christian, I was more influenced by the Reformed stream of Christianity: My family has roots in the Christian Reformed Church, and I attended both CRC and Presbyterian churches (but also, for most of my childhood, a Southern Baptist one). I would not even now explicitly repudiate that stream of Christian belief, but during my time in seminary I was drawn more and more to the ethos of Pietism. As Gehrz and Pattie write, Pietism is more about instincts than particular beliefs. I found that I shared those instincts: I wanted an engagement with the Bible that shaped my identity, not just my beliefs (though beliefs were incredibly important, I found they were not the whole story); I wanted to have an irenic spirit whenever possible; I was committed to the whole mission of God, but in terms of proclamation and service. Eventually, I came to the point that I joined the Evangelical Covenant Church, where I continue to make my home.

Yet not everyone likes the Pietist Option. Notably, there was a review from the (Reformed-leaning) Gospel Coalition that said: “The same Continental Pietists who gave us Pia Desideria and Wesley’s ‘strangely warmed’ heart also gave us Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher.”

But did they? Isn’t it just part of living in a fallen world that good things may be corrupted? As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Wouldn’t it be better to say that when you detach Pietism from a conscious dependence on the Spirit you end up with Schleiermacher, just as when you detach Calvinism from Calvin’s own focus on the Spirit you end up with Protestant Scholasticism and, later on, Max Weber or even modern-day New England? Simply because something may be corrupted doesn’t mean it is in itself bad. As for myself, I am not convinced that the theology of Schleiermacher is inherent in Pietism.

In this time when “evangelical” has become a term loaded with negative political baggage, I wonder whether the term “Pietist” will make a comeback. I’m hopeful about it, but am not entirely sure it will; in some people’s minds it still has negative connotations of individualism, quietism, or (as in the TGC review) theological liberalism. I don’t know what a resurgence in Pietism might lead to down the road, but I think in the short term those who are looking for renewal and revival in American Christianity could do a lot worse than recovering a Pietist spirit that seeks to foster a living faith and love toward God and neighbor.

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

 

How to Interact with People Who Disagree with You (Review)

Like many (maybe most) people who use social media, I have a like/hate relationship with it (“love” would be too strong, but “hate” isn’t). On the one hand, I find it useful for connecting in small ways to people I already know, and getting to know a few people I didn’t know before (although I never accept friend requests from people I don’t know on Facebook, and rarely interact with people I haven’t met in person on Twitter).

On the other hand, a whole lot of the time social media looks like everyone on it has collectively decided that the foolishness described in Proverbs 18:12 (“Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions”) is actually wisdom after all. It seems that these days, in real life as well but especially on social media, there are only two options when you’re faced with a substantial area of disagreement with someone else:

  1. ignore it (this is for when you want to maintain cordial terms with someone you interact with in real life); or
  2. vanquish the enemy.

9780451499608In his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs presents a third, seemingly forgotten way: thinking. Not burying your head in the sand, as in #1 above, and not assuming you know the solution from the beginning and using any means necessary to destroy those who stand in your way, as in #2 (what Jacobs calls “Refutation Mode”), but thinking. Using your noggin. Exerting the little grey cells, as Hercule Poirot used to say.

This is a short book, at just 157 pages. In spite of its somewhat grandiose title (but more in keeping with its more modest subtitle), this is not a book about how to think in general but more specifically about how to get past social and psychological barriers that prevent you from thinking in the first place. Because the problem is not merely that we aren’t trained to think very well, but that even if we have been trained, we don’t tend to do it. It’s hard. It doesn’t give us the rush of blood to the eyeballs that vanquishing the enemy gets us. But then, vanquishing the enemy doesn’t usually work either, since enemies almost always don’t stay vanquished for long.

Alan Jacobs tells us the circumstances in which we are most tempted not to think, so we will be on guard in just those situations. For example, when we are tempted to circle the wagons around our own group: “The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup” (23). And when we tend to repeat keywords, metaphors, and myths whose primary purpose is to communicate that we are part of a particular group: “In search of social belonging, and the blessed shortcuts that we can take when we’re in the presence of like-minded people, we come to rely on keywords, and then metaphors, and then myths—and at every stage habits become more deeply ingrained in us, habits that inhibit our ability to think” (105).

When it comes to advice on how to think, though, Jacobs doesn’t exactly give us a to-do list. There is a “Thinking Person’s Checklist” on page 155, but it is less a checklist and more a list of things to remind yourself of from time to time, like “4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness,” and “Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing,” and my favorite, “12. Be brave.”

This is a fun little book; Jacobs clearly derives a good deal of joy from writing, and it’s contagious. Sadly, though, I think the people who are most likely to need this book are the least likely to read it. They are still trying to vanquish the enemy, and they haven’t yet seen the shortcomings of this approach.

People who already show a degree of epistemic humility, who acknowledge that they don’t have the answers and like to seek out the best counterarguments, are most likely to read it but are the least likely to need it. You have to want to be that kind of person in the first place to derive benefit from this book. Somewhere in life, you need to be humbled. You need to come to the realization that the world is more complex than you can understand, that you can’t get everything you want by looking for the right levers to pull. It’s a good realization to have. I wish it for everyone, and myself on a daily basis most of all.

So here’s my recommendation: if you’re just starting to see the futility of “vanquish the enemy” mode, please please pick up this book.

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

How Do We Think about Privilege? (Review)

When The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege was published earlier this year, I wanted to read it and I didn’t want to read it. I requested it from the publisher for review, because I knew it would be good, and then it sat there for most of the summer. Because as good as I knew it was going to be, I knew it would also be challenging. Even if you are committed to racial equality, it’s still hard to confront how you have benefited in life merely because of the color of your skin.

Ken Wytsma knows this, and that is why he wrote this book. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College, and founder of the Justice Conference—and he’s white. When Helen Lee at IVP asked him to write a book on racism, he balked at first. What could he say that couldn’t be said better by a person of color? But the more he thought about it, and saw racial bias in person, the more he thought that some white people were simply able to hear this message better (at least initially) coming from someone like them.

4482The book comes in three parts. In Part I, Wytsma briefly tells the story of race in America, from the age of exploration to modern segregation. In contrast to those who might argue that we have now largely moved on from our racist past, Wytsma maintains that “one of the central arguments of this book, as we uncover the roots of injustice and privilege, is that the effects of state-sponsored racism in America are very much present today” (75). But even now among the dominant evangelical culture, civil rights for minorities are not a priority: “A thin personal gospel, along with an oversimplified understanding of deeply entrenched racial systems (what I’ve called ‘the myth of equality’ in this book), has often allowed race to be made secondary to other foreign, domestic, and spiritual concerns” (65).

In Part II, Wytsma looks more closely at this “thin personal gospel.” He says that many of us have what he calls an “aristocratic itch,” where we place our own comfort above working for justice: “It is common for me to talk to people want to pursue justice but only after they have taken care of themselves first” (90). He also argues that the gospel of Jesus, properly understood, is not just about personal salvation. It is a gospel of reconciliation, which inevitably involves justice issues, but white American Christians have been blinded to this fact by our adoption of the dominant (and un-Christian) cultural narrative of consumeristic individualism. Instead of living according to this narrative, Wytsma calls the church to prophetic engagement in justice issues.

In Part III, Wytsma challenges white Christians to become more aware of implicit racial biases. Again, this goes against a commonly held narrative, and so is hard for many white Christians to hear. Wytsma writes, “I often encounter people who tell me that we may not have equality of outcome in America, but there is definitely equality of opportunity. I used to believe this, but it’s not true. Implicit racism in the United States today leads to the same results as the explicit racism of the Jim Crow era” (144, emphasis added). And again, “For Christians who are working for a society of the equality amid diversity that is God’s dream for the world, implicit bias is the battleground where we need to fight the hardest” (145). White Christians need to not stop at including different voices; we need to share power and opportunity, answering the biblical call to community. In sum,

We have to challenge the impulse and aspiration toward aristocracy—power and privilege permitting a life of leisure. We have to honor our brothers and sisters and learn to make the common good part of our aspirations. This goes against the grain of American individualism. It cuts against our deep inclinations of self-realization and advancement. Ultimately, it cuts against empire and the way we are shaped as consumers. The kingdom is a wholly different reality. None of us will get it perfectly right, but we must be committed to that narrow road where we are found in our love of enemy, love of neighbor, and life in the communion of saints. (191)

This is the first book of Wytsma’s that I’ve read, and I was impressed. He does a masterful job of anticipating objections and arguing for a biblical view of racial justice. I was most grateful for his blending of humility and boldness throughout. He knows that the privileged do not always respond well to being told that they are privileged, and he does so skillfully by calling them to a higher standard rather than simply lambasting them. He also knows that his is not the last word on the subject, and ends the book with several pages of recommended resources. I recommend this book for people, especially white Christians, who want to live out the gospel but are intimidated by discussions of race in America and don’t know where to start.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

FURTHER READING:

My friend James wrote a great review of The Myth of Equality a few months ago.

Ken Wytsma was interviewed on the podcast Seminary Dropout a few weeks ago.

Seeing Singles as People (Review)

When I first heard about One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church by Gina Dalfonzo, I thought it would be a book with a “how-to” bent. I know that in many churches, the response to the sexual revolution over the last several decades has been to focus on the nuclear family to the neglect of people in other stages of life (forgetting that the church itself is spoken about using “family” language in the New Testament). I thought it might be nice to get a few tips on avoiding the temptation for churches to neglect people who are not married.

9780801072932But it is not a how-to book, and for that reason I had the hardest time getting into it. It comes in three sections: The first, called “Stigmas, Stereotypes, and Shame,” states the problem: single people are too often seen in American churches as problems, pariahs, or projects. In the second, called “How We Got Here,” Dalfonzo gives a history lesson that begins in the ’90s with the courtship craze started (or at least fueled) by Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In the third, called “Where Do We Go from Here?” Dalfonzo paints a picture of what churches could look like if they did really welcome single people for who they are, rather than as potential married people.

As I mentioned, I had trouble getting into it, probably because in the first section does a bit of preaching to the choir. People who pick up a book like this are likely to be sympathetic readers, so stating the problem of how singles are often treated in the church over three chapters and 70 pages seemed excessive.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I kept going. I enjoyed her take on the courtship craze in part 2, and I note that even Joshua Harris has been reevaluating the ideas in his famous book (he has been working on a documentary film called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which he talks about here).

Also, one nugget in particular from the third section of the book has stuck with me. Dalfonzo wrote, “I really believe that a large part of the reason married churchgoers are often thrown for a loop by the singles is that, deep down, we are completely wedded to the idea that we should be able to control our own lives” (170). How can it be, the thinking goes, that you could really want something and not be able to get it? You must not be trying that hard. In this scenario, dependence on God as the source of life and giver of gifts goes out the window.

I think Dalfonzo is onto something there regarding how the American ideal of individual autonomy has played out in the area of how married Christians can treat single ones. This idea that we are atomistic individuals who ought to be able to control our own lives is a pernicious lie (not a uniquely American one, but one that is particularly influential here), and to counter it we need to believe the truth: that we are dependent on God for all things; and that the church he has started (including the singles in it!) is our true family.

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

Character Is King (Review)

Education in general, and education in leadership in particular, has increasingly become focused on the acquisition of skills. Since we as a society cannot agree on what is good or true or beautiful, when we want to teach something the only definition of success we can agree on is that we should become, as the title of a recent book by Charles Duhigg tells us, Smarter Faster Better (or in the words of Daft Punk, “Harder Better Faster Stronger“). Education is little more than an indoctrination into what the French philosopher Jacques Ellul called “technique.”

people-of-a-certain-character-cover_thumbnailThis sort of thinking is also present in churches, although biblical qualifications for leadership have a bit to do with skills (“able to teach,” 1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24) but much more to do with character (“above reproach,” “self-controlled,” “not quarrelsome,” “not a lover of money,” 1 Tim 3:2–3). My friend Jeremy Rios, who until recently pastored at Burnaby Alliance Church and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of St. Andrews, wrote People of a Certain Character: Mentored Leadership for Servants in the Kingdom as a leadership training manual with the goal of helping to restore the church to a more character-focused vision of leadership.

At just 106 pages, it is a brief book that almost might be called a booklet. Rios has consciously kept the book short so that it can be profitably read in groups of Christian leaders. The real purpose is not to read it alone for the purpose of review (as I have just done) but to work through it slowly, reflectively, alongside others with whom you are ministering. In each of twelve chapters, Rios asks a question that aims to get at the heart of a Christian leader’s character:

  • Do you know that you are loved by God?
  • Do you have a conviction of holiness?
  • Are you filled, and being filled, with the Holy Spirit?
  • Are you aware that God is in charge of your ministry?
  • Do you have a right relationship with Mammon?
  • Are you willing to submit?
  • Do you know how to connect with the Lord devotionally?
  • Do you know how to listen for the Lord’s interruptions?
  • Do you know how to share the gospel?
  • Do you know how to minister in the power of the Lord?
  • Do you know how to care for others?
  • Do you know how to restore yourself?

Each chapter begins with a passage of Scripture, continues with a meditation on that Scripture, then concludes with discussion questions and a suggested spiritual practice to help readers grow in that area. For example, the spiritual practice connected with “Are you willing to submit?” is fasting. The book ends with a concluding word on the importance of mentoring for growth in Christian character, using the apostle Paul and his mentoring of Timothy as a primary example.

As I read the book, I thought there were many other questions that could have been asked to help people gauge where they are in terms of their character, but these are a good baseline. The intent, as I see it, is not to be exhaustive, but to prompt honest reflection and growth. It is similar to books on spiritual disciplines: when you read Richard Foster, or Dallas Willard, or someone else, you find that their lists of spiritual disciplines overlap but are not entirely the same. The point is not to establish a complete list of disciplines for people to practice, but to suggest ways in which we might use our bodies and habits to invest in our relationship with God.

I think this book will be a valuable resource for leadership development in the church. As I mentioned above, resources on leadership often focus on the “how” to the detriment of the “who”—what kind of character should you have as a leader? While I do think resources that teach leadership skills have their place, there is a greater need in our current environment for books like People of a Certain Character.

Note: While the author is a friend, a copy of this book was provided to me with no expectation as to the nature of the review. Check out Jeremy’s explanation of why he wrote the book here.

Justice, Mercy, and Brokenness (Review)

Toward the beginning of his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes, “I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (18). In the course of the book, he relates how he came to believe this, and how he came to found the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit that, according to its website, “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

Just-MercyThe main story Stevenson tells in the book is that of Walter McMillian, whom Stevenson began representing in the 1980s. McMillian, who is black, was on death row after being convicted of killing a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama—the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the real-life model for its fictional town of Maycomb—but he didn’t do it. As Stevenson digs into the case, he finds evidence that, since it was a high-profile crime and the public was anxious for a conviction, the local authorities were more than willing to pin it on McMillian, despite the fact that witnesses saw McMillian elsewhere while the crime was being committed. During jury selection, the prosecution excluded African Americans. During the trial, the prosecution relied on two key witnesses who lied. And when the jury recommended life in prison, the presiding judge stepped in and escalated it to the death penalty. (State court judges in Alabama are elected by popular vote, and nobody who is looking to win an election wants to be seen as “soft on crime.”)

Stevenson intersperses McMillian’s story with the stories of other people he has represented, including the mentally ill and those who were serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. As he tells story after story, the evidence piles up that it is too easy in our justice system to wrongfully convict or excessively punish people who lack the resources to defend themselves. Racism is often a factor in unjust convictions and harsh sentences, as it was in the case of McMillian, but Stevenson is careful not to lay all of the problems of our justice system at the feet of systemic racism. All of the people whose stories he tells are poor, but they are of different races. It seems the bigger culprit, of which even racism is a symptom, is our tendency to treat people who are different from us—culturally, racially, socioeconomically—as an Other to be feared and controlled. In this situation, it is the poor, minorities, and mentally ill especially who don’t have the means to resist the ways in which we try to control them or keep them at a distance, both physically and psychologically.

Stevenson doesn’t write about where his vision of justice comes from—why he sees certain things as just and others as unjust. And aside from occasional mentions of church attendance and prayer, he doesn’t talk about his religious commitments. He doesn’t explicitly root his vision of justice and mercy in a particular view of the world, and that’s probably for the best if he wants to convince people from any religion and no religion that justice reform is needed. But I believe his vision is deeply Christian, and the church can learn much from it. I especially saw this in his chapter, “Broken,” in which he sees all people as united in their brokenness:

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill [one of his clients who was about to be executed] and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us. … Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (289)

We are all prone to sort the world into Us vs. Them, and then think the solution to our problems is for Us to get rid of Them. Even many readers of Just Mercy may fall into thinking the solution to the problems in our justice system is for Us (the enlightened readers of this book) to seize power and punish them (the racists, those who profit from mass incarceration, etc.).

But according to Stevenson, the solution to fear and hatred of the Other is seeing what unites us. And what unites us is not our race, or status, or our intellectual ability, or our nationality. According to Stevenson (and even though he doesn’t explicitly root it there, this is firmly within the mainstream of the historic Christian understanding of humanity), what unites us is that we are all broken in some way. We are all in need of justice and mercy.

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

All Religion Isn’t Bad, but There Is Such a Thing as Bad Religion (Review)

You don’t often hear people called heretics anymore. In 1905, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics, in which he critiqued the teachings of several of his contemporaries, including H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Even then, though, writing a book calling out heresies was kind of cheeky. In the age of the modern nation-state, when dissenters from orthodoxy no longer get punished (and by the way, I think that’s a good thing), it hardly seems worth one’s while to call someone out as a heretic.

Nevertheless, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat does just that in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012). Douthat himself is a Catholic who has sympathies with conservative Protestantism. In this book,  he takes as a starting point that the famous secularization thesis popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth  century is wrong; societies do not inevitably become less religious as they become more modern. Rather, Douthat writes that “every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them” (3). All societies have some beliefs about what the world is like and what people ought to do. Whether that belief involves the supernatural or not, or has weekly services or not, it functions as a religion.

If religion is inescapable because beliefs about ultimate reality are inescapable, then religion itself is not the problem and trying to get rid of all religion is not the solution. If you try your best to get rid of some forms of religion, other forms will pop up in their place. On the other hand, if you’re a religious person, then secularization is not the main problem. “The secular mistake has been to assume that every theology tends inevitably toward the same follies and fanaticisms, and to imagine that a truly postreligious culture is even possible, let alone desirable. The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul” (4).

The problem, according to Douthat, is bad religion: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (4).

The book comes in two parts. In the first, “Christianity in Crisis,” Douthat traces the devolution of Christianity over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century. While heresies have always been present, he argues, what makes our current climate different is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response to them.

He begins the second, “The Age of Heresy,” by pointing out heresy’s inclination toward resolving ambiguity. Whereas Christian orthodoxy has always embraced paradox and sought to hold seemingly contradictory things in tension (Is Jesus God or human? Yes.), heresies have always sought a ruthless narrowing (Does Jesus seem in some ways unlike the God of the Old Testament? Get rid of the Old Testament). “The goal of the great heresies … has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus” (153). This, Douthat argues, has led to the “lost gospel” trend in scholarship about Christian origins. In it, scholars like to present a one-dimensional vision of Jesus—as only human, or as only a wise teacher, or as only a Gnostic sage. Usually, these one-dimensional portraits of Jesus look an awful lot like the scholar (or popularizer, in the case of the novelist Dan Brown) who is arguing that this is what Jesus was really like. Upon closer examination, these claims about the early history of Christianity prove to be inconclusive or outright false, but their popularity tells a lot about what many Americans want to believe.

The next three chapters Douthat spends looking at other heresies that have emerged from the tendency to make Jesus in our own image and to forcibly resolve paradoxes that have existed in Christianity from the beginning: the prosperity gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, the therapeutic “god within” theology of Oprah, Deepak Chopra, and others, and God-and-country-but-mostly-country Christian nationalism.

He then closes the book with a vision of what a renewed Christianity might look like. First, it will be political without being partisan, avoiding the temptation to fit Christianity into the mold of ideologies on the right or the left but at the same time not becoming quietist or indifferent. Second, it will be ecumenical but also confessional, reaching out to like-minded others without watering down one’s own theological commitments. To do this we need strong institutions. Christians who are part of churches with clearly defined theological commitments will be less susceptible to watering down their faith by uniting it with (for example) a political platform. Third, it will be moralistic but also holistic—not downplaying the ethical demands of Christianity while at the same time not becoming unduly focused on hot-button moral issues (sexual immorality) to the neglect of other, just as important, moral issues (gluttony, greed, pride). Fourth, it will be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. It will cultivate both saints and artists. Here he quotes Joseph Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb” (291).

This is a great book, and I recommend it to any Christian believer who wonders how we got to a place where so many Americans want to believe that there were suppressed gospels, that God wants to make them wealthy, that the only God that matters is inside each of us, or that God may be subservient to a political ideology, whether on the right or the left. I found the first part of the book to be a tough slog, focused as it was on recounting a history that I was mostly familiar with. And while I was not sure about parts of Douthat’s interpretation of that history, I agree with his central insights—that secularism is more of a bogeyman than a real threat to Christianity, that heresy tends to resolve the paradoxes of orthodoxy in a self-serving way, and that heresy is rampant today in part because of the weakness of orthodox Christianity’s response.