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.

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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

Power

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.

Interests

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

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?

Conclusion

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.