How Should Christians Engage with the Built Environment? A Review

The year after I graduated from college, I lived in an apartment in the West End of Richmond, VA. There was a public library about a half mile away from my apartment. Occasionally I would walk to the library, but it was an unpleasant experience. In that half mile, I had to walk along two busy roads, neither of which had a sidewalk. Like many parts of cities that developed in the United States after World War II, the West End is primarily designed for automobiles, not pedestrians. “If you want to go to the library,” the city planner is telling you, “you’re supposed to use your car.” Even if the library is only a half mile away.

Following my time in the pedestrian-unfriendly West End, I lived in three places that were much more pleasant to walk in: Prague, Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; and Vancouver, Canada. In the six years that I lived in those places, I did not have a car. I didn’t need one. With the help of public transit, I was able to go everywhere I wanted to go on foot.

Being a Christian who recognized that my quality of life was affected by how different places I’ve lived were constructed, I was eager to read The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment by Eric O. Jacobsen. Jacobsen is a pastor who has done a lot of thinking about what human-made elements make a place pleasant or unpleasant to live in (you can read an interview with him about the book here). This is his second book on the subject, his first being Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. Not having read the earlier book, I’m not competent to say how they differ. I can only say that this one is longer than Sidewalks in the Kingdom, and while it does talk about New Urbanism, that is not the primary subject. It seems broader in scope.

Jacobsen sets out in this book to introduce the built environment to the Christian community, and to make the case that Christians ought to care about creating built environments that lead to human thriving. The book comes in three parts: The first part is Orientation, in which Jacobsen asks readers to think about who they are, and how they are situated in space and time. His primary audience is North American, and he gives a lot of history on how and why North America has been built in the way it has. The second part is Participation, in which Jacobsen asks readers to think about the different agents who enact community life in a particular place: families, political groups, and churches. The final part is Engagement, in which Jacobsen challenges his readers to ask hard questions about how their Christian faith ought to interact with the built environment, creating places that are sustainable and loved.

This is a book both for those who already know and care about the built environment, and for those who have not thought about it much, but are curious. I fall into the latter camp, and over and over again I found that Jacobsen gave me language to name things that I already felt. I knew that certain built environments made me comfortable or uncomfortable, and now I know more why that is. It could be a challenging read at times, since a lot of the vocabulary was new, but it was worth the effort. Jacobsen’s chapter on sustainability was challenging in a different way; some of what he writes about human thriving, environmental stewardship, and justice will challenge assumptions held by some of his fellow Christians. That, in my opinion, is a good thing.

For people in my generation, “The Space Between” is, first and foremost, a Dave Matthews Band song. But it is now also a welcome invitation for Christians to form convictions about how their faith should affect the built environment, and begin to act on those convictions. Not everyone will have the time or the ability to make large-scale changes in the places where they live—after all, the built environments we live in now have taken shape over generations, and sin is present with us even as we seek to build better places to live. But everyone can begin to make small changes that help to “seek the peace of the city” where God has placed them (Jer 29:7), as we ultimately look forward to the city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

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

Publisher: Baker Academic
Reading Length: 277 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Yours Is the Day, Lord, Yours Is the Night: A Review

I did not grow up in a church tradition that emphasized the praying of written prayers, but I have come to love them as an adult. I don’t use them as a replacement for my own spontaneous prayers, but as a way to “prime the pump,” giving me words to express what is in my heart.

I was glad, then, to hear about Yours Is the Day, Lord, Yours Is the Night: A Morning and Evening Prayer Book by David and Jeanie Gushee. Before encountering the book I had already heard of David, who is a Christian ethicist. The book includes short morning and evening prayers for every day of the year, with each pair of prayers being for a particular date. The subjects of the prayers are also aligned with the seasons of the liturgical year, such as Advent, Lent and Easter. The prayers for those holidays that move around on the calendar are lined up with the days they will be observed in 2013; for example, the prayers for Easter are on March 31. In later years, readers will have to adjust a bit if they want to pray an Easter-themed prayer on Easter day. There is a handy chart that gives the dates for the next five years.

The sources for the prayers are intentionally broad. They are from Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, men, women, and people from around the world. They range in time from the church fathers to the modern day; a few are from the Gushees themselves. Although they come from a variety of sources, they tend to be about the same length (50–150 words), thus making it easy for readers to create a rhythm of turning to these prayers for the same amount of time every day.

I encountered this book just after I finished editing my own book of prayers for use in worship. From that experience, I would note that while this book is intended for devotional use, some of the prayers are also well-suited for a worship setting. The one thing I wish this book had is a ribbon for keeping your place as you go throughout the year.

Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Reading Length: 383 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Note: Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a review copy of this book.

The Anger Workbook: A Review

When I was a kid, I had a bad temper. If things weren’t going the way I wanted them to, I would react by yelling and throwing things. Although I don’t yell and throw things much anymore, anger is still part of my life in more subtle ways when I see people acting unjustly or when I feel I have been personally wronged. I tend to be a rule follower, and it frequently bothers me when I see someone breaking (what I regard to be) “the rules” and not being held accountable.

In The Anger Workbook, Drs. Les Carter and Frank Minirth have written a helpful guide for people who struggle to manage their anger. It is, as the title indicates, a workbook, which means it invites an active participation from the reader. On nearly every page, the authors ask questions and provide space for readers to write their responses. It comes in four parts: The first part is about identifying anger. In it, Carter and Minirth define anger as an intent to preserve personal worth, essential needs, or basic convictions (10). They make the case that anger has many manifestations. In other words, it isn’t just people who yell and throw things who might have a problem with anger. They argue that there are five ways to handle anger: Suppression, Open Aggression, Passive Aggression, Assertiveness, or Dropping It (26). They encourage their readers to avoid the first three, and choose which of the last two is most appropriate in the circumstances. In the second part, they argue that anger thrives on unmet needs. People tend to respond in anger, for example, when they feel unloved or controlled. In the third part, they explore how other emotions cause anger. The other emotions they look at are pride, fear, loneliness, and feelings of inferiority. They wrap up the book in the fourth part with three chapters: one for parents on dealing with anger in their children, one arguing that anger tends to linger when we rationalize it, and one encouraging readers to be accountable to others in their process of anger management.

This is a helpful book for those who experience anger in any of its various manifestations, which is really all of us. Some people’s anger causes more problems than others, but I would go so far as to say that none of us is completely healthy in all the ways we express anger. We could all stand to grow in this area. One important thing to point out about this book is that Carter and Minirth write from a Christian perspective. Thus, this book will be most helpful to those readers who are Christians, or who are open to allowing the God Christians worship to help them express their anger appropriately and productively.

Note: Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a review copy of this book.

Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Reading Length: 248 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: A Review

With 2012 being a presidential election year, politics is constantly in the news. One perennial question is what role evangelical Christians will play. But who are evangelicals, and how did they come to occupy the role they do in American politics?

Kenneth J. Collins presents his readers with a historical survey that answers that question, focusing on evangelicals’ pursuit of political power since the late 19th century. Collins is a professor of historical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, an evangelical school from the Wesleyan tradition. The book comes in six chapters, which mostly follow chronological order. In the first chapter, Collins looks at the rise of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. He discusses factors that led to the decline of Protestant Christianity’s public voice starting in the late 19th century, including Darwinism and higher criticism of the Bible. In the second chapter, Collins narrates the growth of fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism from the ’30s through the ’50s. In the third, he describes the turbulent ’60s and the influence of the Religious Right from the ’70s to the ’90s. The fourth chapter brings a break from Collins’ chronological march, in which he looks at two of evangelicalism’s responses to Darwinism: theistic evolution and intelligent design. In the fifth chapter, he looks at the rise of the evangelical left, focusing particularly on the careers of Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren and Jimmy Carter. He also includes a discussion of the Manhattan Declaration, an attempt at nonpartisanship that was received tepidly by the evangelical left. In the first pages of chapter six, called “Beyond Ideology,” Collins brings an end to his historical survey with the rise of Barack Obama. He then argues that evangelicals’ desire for power has prompted them to restrict their public voice to an exclusively political idiom, leading to disastrous results. His positive proposal is for evangelicals not to abandon politics altogether, but to craft an evangelical political philosophy that is informed by Scripture and natural law, and is wary of being co-opted by the non-Christian ideologies of the right or the left.

This book is a well-done survey of evangelicalism’s involvement in American politics for the reader who wants to place current political debates in their historical context. I have read other accounts of American evangelical political involvement, and this one stands out for two reasons: first, Collins includes discussions of the Wesleyan/Holiness/Pentecostal stream of evangelicalism, which has sometimes been left out or given short shrift. Second, he depicts the rise of the evangelical left, which is not narrated in older historical accounts of American evangelicalism. Readers who are already familiar with the history of American evangelicalism will not find a lot that is new in the first 100 pages or so, but the latter part of the book makes it worth reading even if you have some familiarity with that history. I especially recommend it for those who have interest in, but little or no knowledge of, the history of evangelical political involvement in the United States.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.

Publisher: Intervarsity Press
Reading Length: 260 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Neighbors and Wise Men: A Review

Tony Kriz writes that he was raised in a two-team world. “My two-team world was one of the spiritual haves and have-nots. The ‘haves’ were Christians. The ‘have-nots’ were everybody else” (13). Kriz was working as a missionary in predominantly Muslim Albania when his notion of a two-team world was shattered. He encountered people who did not behave and believe the way he thought they would. Eventually, he came to a place where he felt his soul was dead. This book is the story of that experience, and also his experience of regaining faith, but a faith that was different from the one he grew up with. It takes the reader from Albania, to Kriz’s experience in seminary (and finding community in a pub), to Reed College, and finally to north Portland.

Neighbors and Wise Men is a lively and interesting read. The broad outline of Kriz’s story is one I have heard many times: a person grows up believing they have all the answers, realizes they don’t know as much as they thought, and emerges older, wiser, and with more humility. Kriz’s particular story also resonated with me, because in some ways my story is similar to his: I also spent time in Eastern Europe in my early twenties (I’ve even been to the Rudas baths in Budapest a few times, and I got a kick out of Kriz’s description of them), I went to seminary, and I now live in the Pacific Northwest.

I found Kriz to be an engaging storyteller, one I trusted to tell his story faithfully, without hiding the truth or glossing over difficulties. Fans of Donald Miller (who calls Kriz “Tony the Beat Poet” in his book Blue Like Jazz) will especially enjoy this book, but I recommend it to anyone who enjoys hearing a good story.

Note: Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a review copy of this book.

Unbroken: A Review

Louis Zamperini is an incredible man with an incredible story: one of the world’s best mile runners in the 1930s, he competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics while still a teenager. When World War II began, he went to the Pacific as a bombardier. In May 1943, his plane crashed. He floated on a life raft for 47 days until he was taken to Japan as a POW, where he lived in brutal conditions until the end of the war. Following the war, he became a Christian at Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade, and worked for many years as an inspirational speaker.

Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, has taken this narrative and told it beautifully. She has used archival research and hours of interviews to take her readers back in time to places like Torrance, CA, Hawaii, and Naoetsu, Japan. Even readers who know the broad outlines of the story will be pulled along by her skillful storytelling and attention to detail. The pace of the book never slackens, even when Zamperini is floating on the ocean or waiting out the war in a series of POW camps.

This is an important book, especially as the generation that fought World War II continues to fade from the scene. Their stories are so often inspiring, educational, and edifying. I wish all their living memories were captured in such a vibrantly written way as Zamperini’s has been.

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

The Lost World of Genesis One: A Review

The relationship between scientific accounts of origins and the account found in Genesis is a controversial issue, and has been at least since the Scopes Monkey Trial. Every now and then it spills into the news here in the United States, when people who are firmly entrenched on either side come in conflict with one another.

But what if there is really no conflict at all? That’s what Old Testament scholar John Walton argues in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. The main argument of the book is that the creation account in Genesis 1 is intended to communicate functional origins, not material origins. Since Genesis 1 is not concerned with material origins, we don’t need to be concerned about whether the universe was materially created in six days, however long those days might have been. Of course, the Bible as a whole does communicate that God materially created all that exists; it’s just that this isn’t the point of Genesis 1. Instead, according to Walton, Genesis 1 communicates that God brought order and function to a non-ordered and non-functioning cosmos, that the cosmos is God’s temple, and that God’s “rest” on the seventh day consists in his taking up residence in that temple and directing its functions.

Walton admits this can be a hard pill to swallow for most people, but he claims this is because of the cultural presuppositions we bring to the text: “Most interpreters have generally thought that Genesis 1 contains an account of material origins because that was the only sort of origins that our material culture was interested in. It wasn’t that scholars examined all the possible levels at which origins could be discussed; they presupposed the material aspect” (43).

In the latter part of the book, Walton explores the ramifications of his proposal (which he calls the “cosmic temple inauguration” view), including showing how it stacks up against other theories of origins, like Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism, and asserting that public science education should be neutral regarding purpose (151–160).

This book is short (172 pages, plus endnotes) and accessible to a non-specialist audience, but it is powerful. I would even go so far as to say it is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the origins debate. It doesn’t answer all the questions readers might have, but I think it goes farther than a lot of other theories toward explaining what is being communicated in Genesis 1.

Book Review: Imagine

There has been some controversy about this book. It came out in late July that Lehrer made up quotes from Bob Dylan and Raymond Teller in it (and had to leave his job at the New Yorker; see here and here), and the publisher stopped selling it. It’s a shame, because it really is an interesting subject, and an interesting book.

Lehrer divides the book into two parts: “Alone” and “Together.” In the first part, he looks at creativity from an individual perspective. The chapters contain an entertaining mix of stories and reports of scientific findings:

In chapter one, Lehrer combines Bob Dylan’s writing process when he came up with “Like a Rolling Stone” and the research of a scientist named Mark Beeman to look at what happens when we get a flash of insight after hitting a mental dead end. In chapter two, he looks at how 3M’s corporate policy of “flexible attention” (in which employees are allowed to spend 15 percent of their time exploring new ideas, as long as they share those ideas with each other) encouraged the invention of masking tape. The freedom to relax and daydream from time to time fosters creativity, at least in this case. In chapter three, Lehrer writes about why so many successful poets and writers have been addicted to amphetamines, which focus mental energy for long periods of time. He combines this with a look at the prefrontal cortex, the home of “working memory.” It turns out that it isn’t just a relaxed state of mind that leads to creativity; sometimes it is focus and persistence that allows people to create. In this case, however, creativity is incremental rather than sudden. In chapter four, Lehrer looks at the importance of “letting go” for creativity. He writes about what happens in the brain when we improvise, and tells us about how that makes Yo-Yo Ma, and a surfer named Clay Marzo, such special performers. Chapter five is about outsiders; people who are creative because they don’t know what they don’t know. They’re not familiar with the “rules” in a given field, and are less inhibited about breaking them. He tells stories about a computer programmer who creates unusual drinks as a bartender, and the Eli Lilly site InnoCentive, which asks people outside the company to help solve problems that stump the scientists who work there.

In the second part of the book, Lehrer moves from an individual understanding of creativity to a social understanding. Instead of asking what is going on in an individual brain, he asks what is going on between people when creativity is taking place. In chapter six, he explores the connection between social connectivity and creativity by telling stories about what makes successful Broadway musicals and how Pixar has fostered creativity in how it has laid out its offices (putting all the bathrooms in a central location to facilitate serendipitous meetings). He also concludes that brainstorming doesn’t work as well as coming up with ideas individually and later pooling them. In chapter seven, he looks at the power of cities to foster creativity by talking with musician David Byrne and Israeli tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, among others. It is not all cities that foster creativity, Lehrer finds: it is only those with more spaces that encourage residents to mingle. In chapter eight, Lehrer looks at why creative genius has tended to clump together at various times and places: Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Florence during the Renaissance, and Elizabethan London. The reason, according to economist Paul Romer, is that ideas are an inexhaustible resource, and those places and times that facilitate a culture of idea-sharing tend to produce more creativity. Lehrer closes the book by suggesting particular ways to foster creativity on a societal level.

Lehrer is a smart guy (he studied neuroscience at Columbia and was a Rhodes scholar) and an entertaining writer, and he has found the right mix of stories and exposition for a popular-level book. Of course, given the scandal over Lehrer’s journalistic sloppiness here and elsewhere (including recycling his own writing, plagiarizing, factual inaccuracies, and an all around “cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood”), one wonders how much accuracy Lehrer has sacrificed in the name of telling the story he wanted to tell. I wouldn’t trust Lehrer without independent verification, but the people, stories, and research he mentions are definitely worth looking into on your own (which is why I spent so much of this review describing them). Maybe the best thing to learn from this book is that intelligence and storytelling skill aren’t enough; they need to be used ethically, responsibly, and in service of the truth.

Book Review: A Failure of Nerve

Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and family therapist whose writings on leadership, including the book Generation to Generation (written for congregational leaders), were shaped by family systems theory. A Failure of Nerve was intended to be his magnum opus on leadership, but he died in 1996 before he could complete it.

In the book, Friedman argues that leadership in America is “stuck in the rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results” (3). This, Friedman argues, is because our society is chronically anxious, and oriented toward safety rather than adventure. Friedman’s call throughout the book is for well-differentiated leaders, who he defines as “someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing” (14). There are several changes Friedman would like to make in our society’s understanding of leadership:

· Friedman calls for decisiveness over data: He sees the accumulation of more and more data as debilitating, and urges that a decision needs to be made in situations where the same question asked to various experts stops bringing in new information.
· Friedman calls for presence over technique: A lot of advice on leadership focuses on “how to”: move forward with a project, deal with problem situations/people, etc. Friedman thinks the presence of a well-differentiated, non-anxious leader with integrity solves these kinds of problems better than a focus on technique.
· Friedman calls for responsibility over empathy: He thinks above all, leaders need to take responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather than focusing on empathy, he argues that increasing one’s pain threshold for others helps them mature. This doesn’t mean completely ignoring other people; Friedman urges leaders to remain separate while being connected (in other words, in contact with others but not controlled by their emotions).

I can at times be a bit of a contrarian myself, and so I enjoyed the contrarian nature of this book. There are some really good insights here that I’m still chewing on, like his idea that it isn’t the decision that matters so much as what you do after you make it (following through). Unfortunately, the book was completed after Friedman’s death, and at times it reads like it. There are five-star passages and two-star passages. There is more that I think could have been said: In particular, Friedman warns leaders about the danger of sabotage, but never really fleshes out what it looks like or why it happens. All in all, though, it is a worthwhile book on leadership that gives a lot of food for thought.

The Slavery of “Freedom”

We Americans love to talk about freedom.

We call ourselves “the land of the free”; our Declaration of Independence talks about liberty as an “inalienable right”; there are still few things that can get an American riled up like the threat of a loss of freedom.

But our freedom is in jeopardy, says Os Guinness in his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (there is a very good three part interview with Guinness by Timothy Dalrymple). Guinness doesn’t find the primary threat to our freedom in an external source, like another nation, or even “big government” or “big business” or special interests. No, the enemy is us. Freedom cannot be won for all time and then left alone; it needs to be sustained. And, Guinness writes, Americans are failing to sustain the freedom our nation’s founders worked so hard to win: “The problem is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor. Powerful free people die only by their own hand, and free people have no one to blame but themselves” (37). The vision of freedom we Americans are pursuing is “short-lived and suicidal” (29).

(Side note: The title A Free People’s Suicide might seem bombastic, but it comes from a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”)

The problem with our vision of freedom is that the freedom we love to talk about and claim for ourselves focuses exclusively on freedom from external constraints. There are two kinds of freedom: freedom from constraint (negative freedom) and freedom for cultivating virtue and becoming the people we ought to be (positive freedom). Modern Americans are only interested in negative freedom. We claim rights and entitlements for ourselves, but do not care about duty, virtue, character, or pursuing excellence. Negative freedom alone is unsustainable. Freedom from external restraint, without self-restraint, undermines itself.

What can be done? Guinness argues that we need to return to the founders’ vision of freedom, which he calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.” He demonstrates that the founders did not have a vision of freedom that stopped with freedom from constraint. Rather, their vision of freedom was part of an interdependent triangle: freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; faith requires freedom.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this triangle of freedom in our time is faith (Eric Metaxas wrote a good review of this book in the Christian Post focusing on this point). The point for Guinness, and I agree, is not necessarily that the founders were Christians (though some were). Rather, the point is that the founders (even the Deists) were unanimous in their approval of faith of any kind, because faith fosters virtue, and only a virtuous people can remain free.

Guinness’ book is intended not just for Christians or religious people, but for all Americans who care about freedom. For that reason, I understand his arguing for faith as part of the golden triangle of freedom on pragmatic grounds (he follows the founders in adopting this tactic). Nevertheless, I think his argument ought to have particular force for Christians. The Bible also understands freedom as not merely freedom from constraint.

Seven times in the book of Exodus, God (through Moses) says, “Let my people go so that they may serve me.” (Exod 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36), but he also said, “Take my yoke upon you” (Matt 11:29). One of the earliest Christians’ favorite self-designations was “slave of Christ” (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 7:22; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1; Jas 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1; Rev 1:1). Freedom, for the Christian, can never be merely about freedom from external constraints. It begins with freedom from constraint, but doesn’t stop there. Christian freedom is not just freedom from, but freedom for: freedom to serve God and others. From a Christian perspective, those who begin by thinking freedom is merely the absence of external constraints end by becoming slaves to their own appetites: greed, lust, and desire for power.

I applaud Guinness’ effort to prod Americans to do the hard work of sustaining freedom. I hope his argument gains a wide hearing. In particular, I hope his argument gains traction among Christians, who are just as prone to only care about negative freedom as anyone else, but who have the least reason for doing so.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.