Dark Night of the Soul


St. John of the Cross

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
— ah, the sheer grace! —
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
— ah, the sheer grace! —
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
— him I knew so well —
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him there
in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
–St John of the Cross

I am in a choral group that is singing a version of this poem by the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross. [You can watch and listen to the piece on this exquisite YouTube recording]. It has made me wonder what this poem is all about.

It is actually part of a treatise The Dark Night of the Soul. The treatise expounds the poem, which is sometimes called “The Stanzas of the Soul” and describes a”ladder-like” ascent from the darkness of purifying the senses and the spirit to be united in love with Christ.

This is a poem that intrigues me. The experience is different from what we usually think of as a dark night, which often is a time of despair or a sense of God’s absence. This is more the darkness of turning from exterior sense experience to the stillness of a heart contemplating the One she or he loves, and in that contemplation finding oneself with one’s Lover, enjoying the Beloved’s presence.

Some circles are leery of the mystics. Yet real love is rooted both in truth and intimacy and it is this latter the poem brings out. How many of us know God with the kind of intimacy we reserve for the language of lovers? How many have stilled the “noise” of our lives to have these kinds of loving encounters?

These are some of the things I’ll be thinking about as I sing this poem this weekend.


Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

man who loved books too muchThe Man Who Loved Books Too MuchAllison Hoover Bartlett. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

Summary: The story of book-thief John Gilkey, “biblio-dick” Ken Sanders whose work resulted in Gilkey’s arrest, and the world of book lovers and rare books.

No, this is not my autobiography! But this book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of rare and antiquarian books and the people who love them. It is also a glimpse into a world of crime, exceeding that of art theft. Most of all, this is the story of two men, Ken Sanders, who, as security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of American (ABAA), notices a strange pattern of book thefts, and through dogged detective work, and the help of a real police detective, succeeds in identifying and bringing to justice a most unusual book thief, John Charles Gilkey. The other intriguing part of this story is the author herself, whose research of this fascinating story brings her in contact with these two unusual men, and the passionate world of rare book lovers.

Ken Sanders is a bookseller in Salt Lake City who ends up as the ABAA security chair. Inheriting a “pink sheet” system of book theft notifications that were only slowly disseminated to other booksellers, he sets up an online system to speed notifications and track thefts. He begins to notice a strange pattern of thefts, mostly on the West Coast of books paid for with stolen credit card information, often picked up by a “friend”, and which no one attempts to re-sell. Through his eyes, and the booksellers he works with, we see what a sense of violation this is, and how threatening this is to their financial bottom lines, as well as their reputations. This fires his persistence, which pays off eventually in the arrest of John Gilkey.

Gilkey is a well-mannered young man with a passion to acquire rare books, and with this, the sense of accomplishment and affluence that a room lined with these books brings. The only problem, and what distinguishes him from other rare-book collectors, is that he cannot afford these books. And so he steals them. He discovers that a retail job with Saks, for which he is well suited as mannerly, soft-spoken, and able to present himself as attentive to the customer, is the perfect place to acquire large numbers of credit card numbers. Bartlett narrates his methods. He often works with his father, researches carefully, only uses a number once, calls from hotel payphones, arranges for a “friend” to pick up the book (sometimes himself under an assumed name, sometimes his father or someone else).

What is most fascinating is how he justifies his thefts. Bartlett writes:

“When he walks into a rare book store and ogles the riches lined up on the shelf, he sees them almost as the personal collection of the store owner. What a wealthy person this is! It is not fair that he charges so much for a single book, Gilkey thinks. Books selling for $10,000 or $40,000 or a half a million–they are all out of his reach. How am I to afford it? he asks with righteous indignation. So he takes what he sees as duly his. That dealers pay a lot for their books, and, with the exception of relatively few lucky or especially savvy ones, barely make ends meet does not occur to him. Even after I brought this to his attention, he chose not to acknowledge his guilt. As he sees it, if he owns fewer rare books than the next collector or dealer, the world is not fair, and, as he put it, he means to ‘even the score'” (pp. 101-102).

At one point Bartlett confronts the ethical conundrum of going with Gilkey to a bookseller who he had previously stolen from as he narrates his methods. Later, she learns of the deep anger of booksellers toward the idea of giving Gilkey this kind of press, which only seems to glorify a thief. And she questions whether her knowledge of his crimes in some ways implicates her as an accessory.

The reader can judge whether she has done this or not and whether she was an accessory after the fact. Bartlett actually sought legal counsel, and her portrayal of Gilkey is of a man who is at once “polite, curious, ambitious” and also”greedy, selfish, criminal.” We see someone who plainly is so warped by a love of books that he has willingly exchanged prison for the chance to pursue his ambitions. Meanwhile, Bartlett also introduces us to booksellers and book-lovers like Thomas Jefferson who in their “gentle madness” end up preserving our history in the great works they sell and collect.


Review: Positively Powerless

Positively PowerlessPositively Powerless, L.L. Martin. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2015.

Summary: Traces the “positive thinking” movement to its unorthodox beginnings, considers the impact of this movement in Christian circles, and the biblical alternative that frees us from the pretense of pretending to be better than we are and locates our hope not in “great thoughts” of self but the greatness of God.

“Sending positive thoughts your way.”

If you’ve ever used that phrase, or heard it used, you’ve encountered the “New Thought” movement that has had a pervasive influence on both the church and wider American culture in the last century. That is the contention of L. L. Martin, whose thoughtful writing about faith and culture I encountered several years ago on her blog, Enough Light.

Martin traces this movement back to nineteenth century influences from Emmanuel Swedenborg, Franz Anton Mesmer (who gave us the word “mesmerized”), Phineas Quimby, Mary Baker Eddy, and Walter Felt Evans. All of these focused on the power of thought to shape reality. From these early exponents, the ideas of “positive thinking” found their way into Christian circles through Norman Vincent Peale, and a generation later, Robert Schuller. Since then, these influences have given birth to a host of preachers telling us how positive thinking can lead to “your best life now” as well as secular writers like Rhonda Byrne and Eckhart Tolle, whose writings have also found their way into the homes of many believing people.

The only problem with all of this is that it is not really Christian, and far from empowering, can set us up for despair. The big problem is that this roots hope in our potential to think ourselves into a better life. This can lead to disillusionment because it is based on illusions of our own greatness that doesn’t see that we are both finite and fallen. Our problem is a pride that thinks we can be as gods, while the real God has humbled himself to enter our fallen condition to lift us up. Redemption begins as we recognize that we are “noble ruins”–God’s image bearers whose rebellion (Martin doesn’t hesitate to call this “sin”) leads to all sorts of discord with God, others, ourselves, and our world.

Facing this, and God’s entry through Christ to redeem these “noble ruins” is the beginning of the good news. Instead of positive thought pablum, the Christian message offers a life of rich paradoxes. We live in an “already” of new life, and the “not yet” that our “best life” is yet to come when Christ comes back. We live in the tension of enjoying right standing with God, even while we still sin, that allows us to be “real” about our progress and struggles. We live in the paradox of holiness, more conscious than ever of our sin, and more and more deeply drawn into the beauty of God’s holiness. We discover that serving and dying is the way to life, that it is not a matter of thinking more, or better of ourselves, but rather more of Christ.

The final chapter speaks of the importance of communities who are living these gospel realities, where people are able to be real about sins and struggles rather than having to put on a “positive” face. Yet the focus is not on community or vulnerability but on Christ, who enables us to love honestly and deeply.

Martin puts her finger on what might be called the “American gospel” of positive thinking and self-reliance. My only question is whether she has ignored the influence of the transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in “Self-Reliance”, which I think epitomizes this American gospel, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” or “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Aside from this, I think Martin speaks compellingly of the “virus” of positive thought that has infected the American church (my analogy). Her purpose is not to name names or criticize ministries (from which she refrains) but to restore biblical discernment of a movement that neither adequately diagnoses our condition nor directs us to the greatness of Christ and God from whom our true nobility as humans comes. This book is a great example of constructive theological discernment in an age of either unthinking sentiment or outrage. It includes questions for individuals and groups to use for reflection.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–Buses


By AEMoreirao42281 (Own Work) via Wikimedia Commons

Remember when buses looked something like this? My first memory of riding a city bus in Youngstown was when I was staying with grandparents on the South Side and my grandmother took me downtown shopping. Later on, in my sophomore year in high school I started working at McKelvey’s. They were open late on Mondays and Thursdays and so I caught a bus on Mahoning Avenue near my house to go to work. Fares then may have been only a quarter, but I was only making $1.25 an hour back then. It was only about a ten minute bus ride to cover the two miles between home and work. My father also worked at McKelvey’s and would give me a ride home at night (we were a one car family–I didn’t own a car until after college which actually saved a lot of money).

Mostly I remembered that the buses seemed old, with lots of rattles, and at that time of day weren’t very full. I don’t remember any “regulars” nor much about the bus drivers. My wife had a different story. She took the bus to college and back home and there were a number of regular passengers and they all seemed to get to know each other. Maybe the people riding the bus from the South Side were friendlier!

After college, we both moved out of town and got married. The bus system, now called the Western Reserve Transit Authority (which still operates under that name), was the main form of transportation for my mother-in-law who did not drive. Trips to the grocery store and downtown were adventures, and we were grateful for bus drivers who looked out for her and helped her as she got older.

Mass transit has a long history in Youngstown according to this blog post from the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. In 1875, the Youngstown Street Railroad Company provided horse-drawn service from the Brier Hill area to downtown. Eventually horses were replaced with cars powered by overhead electric wires. Eventually the Youngstown Park and Falls Street Railway connected downtown to the Lanterman Falls area giving birth to Terminal (later Idora) Park.

WRTABeginning in the 1920’s, streetcars gave way to buses and the Youngstown Municipal Railway Company became the Youngstown Transit Company. As automobiles became more popular and the freeways were built ridership dropped the bus system turned operations over to the Mahoning Valley Regional Mass Transit Authority, which in 1971 became the Western Reserve Transit Authority.

I’m glad there has continued to be bus service in the Mahoning Valley. For cash-strapped college students and the elderly who either did not like to drive or could not, as well as others for whom a car was a burdensome expense, the bus, though not always as convenient, provided a way to get around when it was too far to walk. And for those who regularly commuted, it could be a social occasion as well.

Did you ever ride the buses in Youngstown? What were your memories of taking the bus?

Review: Paul and His Recent Interpreters

Paul and His Recent InterpretersPaul and His Recent Interpreters, N. T. Wright. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

Summary: N.T. Wright surveys the scholarship in Pauline studies over the past fifty years engaging scholars developing the “new perspective”, “apocalyptic”, and “social history” approaches to Paul.

It is hard to believe but N.T. Wright has not been able to say all there is to say about Pauline scholarship in his two volume (1700 pages) Paul and The Faithfulness of GodPaul and His Recent Interpreters is a companion to that work in which Wright develops his own understanding of Paul’s life and thought. Here he engages other scholars who have been working in this field, particularly in the last fifty years, carefully summarizing their work and offering a critique in light of his own scholarship.

After a preface which outlines the program of the book, Wright begins with a review of the antecedents of the current scholarship, particularly the work of F. C. Baur and the history of religions school and the discussion of Christian origins as distinct from Judaism as Christianity moved into the Hellenistic context. The other major figure he considers here is Albert Schweitzer who first challenges the “forensic” understanding of justification as central to Paul’s thought with the proposal that “being in Christ” is central.

Most of the book considers three schools of thought in Pauline studies. The first is the “new perspective”. Here Wright deals with the work of E. P. Sanders and J. D. G. Dunn, who worked to understand the Jewish origins of Paul’s thought, working with the rich emerging material on first century AD Judaism. In many ways, Wright’s own work is closely associated with this school, although he particularly differentiates himself from Sanders in arguing that the central idea of Paul’s thought is not “participation in Christ” but rather the “covenant faithfulness of Christ” which has been extended to the Gentiles. More briefly, Wright engages his “old perspective” (Lutheran and Calvinist) critics.

The second school he discusses is the apocalyptic school arising from the work of Kasemann, whose proponents include J. C. Beker, M. C. DeBoer, and J Louis Martyn. Wright, while indeed acknowledging the place of apocalyptic, the inbreaking of a new age in Christ, he strongly differs with these thinkers, and particularly Martyn, who make this a centerpiece of Paul’s thought, and especially with Martyn’s treatment of Galatians, where he strongly questions Martyn’s exegesis.

The third school is that of social history, whose leading figure is Wayne Meeks, author of The First Urban ChristiansHere Wright is genuinely appreciative of the insights into the kind of communities Paul formed in the Mediterranean cities where he planted churches. What he wishes for is more exegetical work linking this historical work with the Pauline corpus. He concludes this section by briefly considering the more recent political readings of Paul.

One senses that in his critique, Wright is trying to do two things. One is to plead for the integration of these three schools, which he has tried to do in his own work. The other is to plead the case for careful exegesis in conjunction with the historical and theological work of these perspectives. He notes that of the figures he studies, only Martyn has actually written a commentary on a Pauline work, Galatians.

I found myself at a disadvantage on two scores in reading this work. While familiar with some of Wright’s basic ideas about Paul, and the New Perspective, I haven’t read Paul and the Faithfulness of God (yet). I also have not read any of the scholars with whom he interacts except for Wayne Meeks, so I have to take Wright at his word. That said, his review of the field serves as a helpful introduction to the last fifty years of scholarship and points the way for the New Testament and Pauline scholar who wants to pursue these matters more deeply. And Wright sets a high standard for scholarship that is both critical and generous in the pursuit of truth. It is a delight to observe virtuosity in any discipline. This was clearly in evidence in Wright’s engagement with these scholars.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Review: Destiny and Power

Destiny and PowerDestiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2015.

Summary: Meacham traces the life of our 41st president from his family’s roots and values that shaped a man both deeply committed to service and country, and also highly competitive and ambitious. The biography traces both his skillful leadership in handling the transition from the Cold War era, and the inability of this deeply private man to communicate his deep care for and desire to serve his country that cost him a second term.

Reading this biography suggested to me that George H. W. Bush is perhaps under-rated both as a president and a person. For many, he is regarded as an asterisk between the Reagan and Clinton years. And yet, as President, he skillfully navigated the nation in international relations at the end of the Cold War era that avoided provoking hard-line reactionaries in the former Soviet Union, facilitating the reunification of Germany, the freedom of Soviet satellites from Communist domination, and the establishment of warm relations between the U.S. and Russia. He built an international coalition to decisively defeat Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and bring relief to the atrocities against Kuwaitis, containing Hussein without becoming embroiled in another “Vietnam”.

While growing up in a privileged New England family, he was a genuine war hero, surviving being shot down after a bombing run at Chichi-Jima. Before going off to war, he married Barbara, beginning a lifelong partnership between two very strong individuals. They experienced tragedy that deepened their compassion early in marriage, losing their daughter Robin to leukemia. They built their own fortune in the Texas oil industry of the 1950s. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives, then lost a Senate race in 1964 in the midst of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Subsequently, he served in Republican party leadership, as U.N. ambassador, our ambassador to China and as C.I.A. director.

There was the complicated relationship with Ronald Reagan. Losing to Reagan after a promising beginning in Iowa, criticizing Reagan’s age and “voo-doo economics” he is selected as running mate, despite Nancy Reagan’s opposition. He turns out to be the ideal Vice-President who becomes a trusted friend by never stealing the limelight, and is asked by Nancy to give Reagan’s eulogy, which he did paying tribute not only to Reagan but to Nancy.

The drive for success, for power accounted for the weaknesses and flaws in his story–compromised positions on civil rights in the early years, the Willie Horton ads in the Presidential campaign, the famous “read my lips” promise that he broke when it became clear that only additional tax revenues could address the nation’s fiscal problems in the early 1990’s. Meacham explores the drive in his character that led to these compromises. At the same time, we see a president willing to do what he saw in the best interests of his country even though it contributed to his loss of the presidency, ironically laying the groundwork for budget surpluses in the Clinton years. We also see a very private man torn by the political necessities of glad-handing, wearying of the process in the 1992 election, outshone by the young Democrat from Arkansas.

As impressive as anything else is the life he lived after his one term presidency. He kept a low profile and eventually became good friends even with Bill Clinton, as the two former presidents worked on tsunami relief. Meacham writes about his relationship with his presidential son and there is no evidence of the father second-guessing the son, even on Iraq. He dismissed comparisons on this score with the response that these were different circumstances, different wars. Rather the relationship was one of pride and support, allowing the son to be his own person and only offering counsel when asked. Generally, he was generous with his words even of political foes. The few exceptions: Donald Rumsfeld (always a rival) and Dick Cheney, whose vice-presidency Bush 41 criticized after the fact.

Years earlier, I read Kevin Phillips American Dynasty, which is a much more sinister view of the Bushes as an inter-generational political dynasty. His account and Meacham’s are very different. Perhaps it was the fact that Phillips book was written during the height of criticism of Bush 43’s Iraq policies just before the 2004 elections. This seems a much more measured appraisal and a pleasure to read. It presented a man of both great ambition and generally high principle as well as one far more decent than he was given credit in his 1992 defeat. While acting in his own best political interests at times, what was more striking were the times he acted in service to the country, even at the expense of his own interests, whether as CIA director, vice president, or in the 1990 budget deal raising taxes. I was struck with how fortunate we were to have one with his foreign policy skill at the denouement of the Cold War. While his presidency is still in the recent past and will be subject to continuing discussion, Barack Obama’s assessment on awarding the Medal of Freedom to George H. W. Bush in 2010 may be the most fitting:

“As good a measure of a president as I know is somebody who ultimately put the country first and it strikes me that throughout his life he did that, both before he was president and while he was president, and ever since.”



The Month in Reviews: January 2016

Welcome to the first “Month in Reviews” of 2016–can you believe a month has passed already? This month’s reviews included a book on beginnings in Genesis, and a book on the end, looking at “end times” passages throughout the New Testament. I read a couple of new books on the university world. There was classic sci fi and some good science writing on Mount St. Helens. I read a biography of King Arthur, a biographical novel of labor organizer Joe Hill, and a theological memoir by Thomas Oden. The month’s reads also included a book on “battered leaders” and strategies for communication when we differ. Here are the review summaries with links to the full reviews in the titles. The full reviews include publisher links.

Undisciplining KnowledgeUndisciplining Knowledge, Harvey J. Graff. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. This is a historical study of interdisciplinary efforts in universities, looking at successive efforts in the twentieth century and considering the location of such “interdisciplines”, the relationships between disciplines, and the organization of interdisciplinary efforts.

King ArthurKing ArthurChristopher Hibbert. New Word City, 2014. King Arthur and the myth of Camelot have fascinated generations and continues to capture the imagination of Britons as their once and future king. Hibbert’s book both narrates the fiction and delineates what may be known of the historical Arthur.

Lost WorldThe Lost World of Adam and Eve, John H. Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.  Building on his earlier The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton contends that Adam and Eve are both archetypes of humanity and also historical figures, though not necessarily our biological progenitors, that their disobedience brought disorder into the sacred space of the creation affecting all people, and that Christ’s work has to do with restoring that order.

EruptionEruption, Steve Olson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2016 (forthcoming March 2016). This narrative weaves together the science, history, and economic interests surrounding the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, and its subsequent history.

The Last DaysThe Last Days According to Jesus, R. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2015 (originally published in 1998).  R.C. Sproul takes on the time-frame issues of the New Testament that seem to reflect an expectation of an imminent return of Christ and gives serious consideration to the preterist position that all or most of the predictions concerning the Last Days were fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Battered LeadersHandbook for Battered Leaders, Janis Bragan Balda and Wesley D. Balda. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Using 2 Corinthians as a case study of battered leadership, the authors explore the factors that contribute to organizational conflict, and how battered leaders may respond to toxic organizational cultures.

Joe HillJoe Hill, Wallace Stegner. New York: Penguin Books, 1990 (Originally published under the title The Preacher and the Slave, 1950). Wallace Stegner describes this as a “biographical novel” and in it, he fills out the enigmatic life and death of labor organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill, who was executed for murder before a Utah firing squad in November 1915.

Reengineering the UniversityReengineering the University, William F. Massy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016 (expected publication date February 11, 2016). Massy develops a data-driven model that allows universities to engage in planning that optimizes both mission and money considerations in institutional planning and budgeting in the changing marketing landscape of twenty-first century higher education.

Change of HeartA Change of Heart, Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Thomas Oden narrates his personal and theological journey through social leftist thought, neo-orthodox and process theology, and trends of ecumenism, feminism, and small group psychotherapy until a personal conversation led to repentance and an embrace of classical, patristic Christianity (paleo-orthodoxy) and landmark works in patristic scholarship and the North African origins of Christianity.

Tower of GlassTower of Glass, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2014 (initially print publication, 1970). Mega-wealthy Simeon Krug, creator of the process that produces androids, learns of signals from a distant star and uses his androids to build a tower of glass to communicate. Obsessed with distant life, he is woefully ignorant of the hopes and faith the life he has created place in him.

I Beg to DifferI Beg to Differ, Tim Muehlhoff. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Building on an understanding of the dynamics of communication, this book develops a strategy for navigating difficult conversations through asking four key questions of those with whom we differ.

Best book of the month: I would give the nod to Thomas Oden’s A Change of Heart. I wrote in my blog:

“I found this to be a powerful narrative of Oden’s life but also the follies of many of the successive theologies of the twentieth century, theologies that distanced Oden from the centrality of the crucified and risen Lord for an empty and unsatisfying activism. His turning makes me examine how deeply I am listening to Christians across the centuries, and not just the “latest thing.” I found myself warned of the danger of being the “know-it-all pundit”. And it left me with a profound sense of thankfulness for Oden’s Jewish friend who risked affection to tell the truth. What a gift this resulted in not only for Oden but for the church.”

Best quote of the month: In this case, the description from the air of the first moments of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Eruption riveted my attention:

“Look,” he said, “the crater.” Judson tipped the Cessna’s right wing so they could get a better view. Some of the snow on the south facing side of the crater had started to move. Then, as they looked out the plane’s windows, an incredible thing happened. A gigantic, east-west crack appeared across the top of the mountain, splitting the volcano in two. The ground on the northern half of the crack began to ripple and churn, like a pan of milk just beginning to boil. Suddenly, without a sound, the northern portion of the mountain began to slide downward…

Reviewing Soon: Tomorrow, I will be reviewing Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power on the life of George H. W. Bush. I am near to finishing N. T. Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters, which gives an extensive account of recent Pauline scholarship and the engagement between Wright and other contemporary scholars concerning Wright’s “new perspective” take on Paul. I just started The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (not an autobiography, but an account of a notorious book thief who stole not to make money but because of his “out of bounds” love for books. I’m also finishing up Eugene Merrill’s fine commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles and just started reading a presidential biography of Herbert Hoover that will be published in May!

Happy reading!


Review: Falling Upward

Falling UpwardFalling Upward, Richard Rohr. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Summary: Richard Rohr focuses on what he sees are the key developmental tasks for each “half” of life, using the image of the container for the first half, and contents for the second.

I’ll be honest. This is not a book I can wholeheartedly recommend. While I found a number of useful insights, I thought the “spirituality” on which Rohr grounded these more reflective of a “blend” of Eastern and Western spirituality rather than the Catholic Christianity with which Father Rohr is most closely identified. For some, that may not be a problem, or even is a plus! If you are looking for a spirituality that roots an understanding of development in classic Christianity, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant/Evangelical, that is not this book.

First for the insights I most appreciated, which I think come out of long pastoral work with people seeking to grow in their faith throughout life. There are two key insights that are important:

First, there is the insight that life can be divided into two halves with the key task of the first being fashioning the “container” of one’s life and that the second half is devoted to the “contents” of that container. The first half is the structures of rules, disciplines, community. This occurs in a healthy way when these things are present in an atmosphere of unconditional love. Where love is lacking or the structures are lacking, the container is inadequate for the second half task. The second half, then focuses on the contents of life, the becoming of a unique person who knows how to draw from all these structures and yet go beyond them.

Second, there is the title idea of “falling upward”. At some point, there is a necessary “fall”–failure, suffering, tragedy. In some sense the first half “container” may have prepared you to face these, and yet is inadequate of itself to do so. It is time, in Rohr’s words to “discharge your loyal soldier.” It is often in the facing of our fallenness and finiteness and imperfection that we become fully human as we stop trying to be what we are not, and begin to pursue a life of grace, of calling, of wholeness, discovering our True Self. Those who resist “falling upwards” go on in life to become cynical, emptily driven, emotionally detached and judgmental individuals. This is the story of the elder son in the story of the Prodigal.

There are several key places where I believe Rohr is articulating a spirituality grounded more in a “new age” spirituality than in Christian orthodoxy, despite his warm avowals of how for him Christ is the center. For one thing, he articulates a new age account of the fall of Adam and Eve as a “necessary fall” for their development of consciousness. I would agree with the formative nature of failure, transgression, and suffering that comes to the foot of the cross and finds grace. That is different from a theology that says the fall was necessary for the evolution of our consciousness. One involves restoration of what was lost through the cross. The other seems to involve evolutionary progress where a cross is superfluous.

A second place is Rohr’s proposal that “heaven” and “hell” have to do with our consciousness, rather than ultimate destinies. Certainly, our consciousness can be “heavenly” or “hellish.” Views like this have become popular of late, perhaps as alternatives to ugly forms of “hell fire preachers”. Yet I wonder if the grace Rohr speaks of can be meaningful without there being a real judgment.

Finally, Rohr seems to propose that our development is really through a transformation of consciousness through the “falling upward” experience, perhaps aided by the Spirit of God, rather true spiritual rebirth. There is language of “union with ourselves and everything else” that seems more the language of pantheistic monism than of being “at-one” with God in Christ. In fact, it seems at times that Rohr is among those who say that all religions are really saying the same thing and that those who say otherwise are guilty of “either-or” thinking. I would contend that the difference between a “both-and” view that wipes out distinctives and the Christian faith is that the Christian faith is a faith of reconciliation–a third way between “either” and “or” that doesn’t wipe out distinctions but reconciles them in Christ.

This is regrettable in my view because his insights into the two halves of life and the transition of what I might call “fall into re-formation” may be grounded far more robustly is what C. S. Lewis would call “mere Christianity.” There are so many things that, for one living in the second half, connected deeply for me. His description of “the second simplicity” and the “bright sadness” ring true. I think part of what so many like in Rohr, and I’ve appreciated in his other writings is his ability to capture the imagination and heart in his word paintings. However, as one who cares about the second half journey and believes it is best grounded in “mere Christianity” I would recommend Hagberg and Guelich’s The Critical Journey as one of the best books I’ve come across on the issues of our life journeys.


Dialogue Within the University: A Reading List

Dialogue in the UniversityThis past Saturday, I was part of an online video-symposium hosted by the organization I work with on encouraging Christians who work in the university context to engage in “Dialogue Within the University”. The concept behind this title is that it is a tendency of Christians working in the university (not unlike other social groups) to talk only among ourselves on important issues, or to try to invite others to join our conversations. Meanwhile, there are often important conversations that occur in classrooms, campus lectures, student and faculty papers, student governments and faculty senates, and university centers on matters from sustainability, to issues of justice, to the ethical use of technological breakthroughs, to transparency about university finances. Often a Christian voice is absent from these conversations. Sometimes it may not be welcome, but more often, it is thought that Christians really have nothing to say about these things, being caught up in more “spiritual” matters. Sometimes we are, and sometimes, we are just fearful to take the first steps to engage with different points of views or do not know how to do so in a way that is both cogent and charitable.

Because I’m kind of known as “the book guy”, I was asked if I could compile a list of book recommendations. This is far from exhaustive but represent my thoughts of places to start in three key aspects that were talked about during the symposium: dialogue skills, the university world, and thinking Christianly. I’ve provided links to publishers as well to any reviews I’ve written.


Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative CallingDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008. Explores how cultures are made and shaped and explores ways Christians     can engage with and create culture with pursuing “culture wars”.

Felton, Peter, H-Dirsen L. Bauman, Aaron Kheriaty, and Edward Taylor. Transformative Conversations: A Guide to Mentoring Communities Among Colleagues in Higher EducationSan Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013. Discusses how faculty can develop “formational mentoring communities” exploring questions of meaning, calling and values. Great conversational model. Reviewed here.

Hunter, James Davison. To Change the WorldNew York, Oxford University Press, 2010. Hunter challenges the rhetoric of “culture change”, shows the importance of cultural     elites, and explores the role of “faithful presence”. Reviewed here.

Muehlhoff, Tim. I Beg to DifferDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Muehlhoff explores communication strategies for difficult conversations with those with whom we differ. Reviewed here.

Volf, Miroslav. A Public Faith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. He argues that Christians can choose a third way of seeking the public good while remaining faithful to the core values of their faith. Reviewed here.


Delbanco, Andrew. College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. He explores the history, current state, and his own future hopes for the university, with nods to the contribution of Christians to discussing important questions in the university. Reviewed here.

Kronman, Anthony. Education’s EndNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. A thought-provoking book by one who is dismissive of religious answers but wonders why colleges have given up on the big questions. Reviewed here.

Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established NonbeliefNew York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Explores the history of Christian engagement in the American university and the forces behind the establishment of secularism as the university’s stance.

Newman, John Henry Cardinal. The Idea of a University. South Bend, University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. John Henry Newman’s classic work on the liberal Christian university–one of the first to articulate a vision of faith and scholarship together. Not easy going but a foundational book. Reviewed here.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Educating for ShalomGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004. A collection of essays that chronicles Wolterstorff’s developing thinking about the integration of faith, learning and practice in the higher education world. Reviewed here.

I find keeping up with articles published in The Chronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Edand University World News (which gives me global coverage of university issues) helpful to staying aware of possible university conversations. I published a review post of higher education books here in June of 2014.

Thinking Christianly:

Milne, Bruce, Know the Truth. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. An outline of basic systematic theology with scriptures and discussion questions to make one think about what one believes. A predecessor to this book was critical in my early years of ministry in helping me think through the faith deeply for myself.

Neuhaus, Richard John. The Naked Public SquareGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. A foundational book reflecting a Christian perspective for how we engaged the public arena. A landmark book by the longtime editor of First Things.

Noll, Mark A. Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. Noll demonstrates the importance of Christology to thinking Christianly about various academic disciplines. A fine example of a historian thinking theologically about doing history. Reviewed here.

Walsh, Brian, and J. Richard Middleton. The Transforming VisionDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984. The authors show how Christian worldview can be basic to thinking Christianly about various academic disciplines. The book includes a “bibliography you can’t live without.”

Wolters, Al. Creation RegainedGrand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. Traces the themes of creation, fall, and redemption, and how these may inform our efforts to think Christianly about anything else.

This is just a start. Some of you may have other resources you’d like to recommend. Please feel free to add them in the comments section of the blog!




Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Working Class?

Recently, I received a comment on Facebook to one of my previous posts asking about the “working class” part of the title for these posts, and why that modifier. Why not just “growing up in Youngstown.”

That’s a fair question. I’m not interested in fostering class warfare by any means. And I realize that Youngstown when I was growing up was comprised of lots of people who were not “working class.” And strictly speaking, my father worked in sales and lower management positions in insurance and retail, as well as for a time, with a manufacturer who eventually moved out of the Youngstown area. If anything, he probably earned less most years than those in labor positions.

However, the physical, and social location that shaped me significantly was growing up on the lower West side, in the shadow of the mills. Most of the fathers on my street worked either in the mills or some other labor job. Likewise for many of the fathers of children in my elementary school. It was different by the time I got to Chaney, where some of the student body was from more middle class, and at the time, suburban parts of the West side. I was aware of the difference — in clothes and life experience.

This series of posts began when someone asked me what it was like growing up in working class Youngstown. It led to some thinking about the values and experiences that I think shaped many of our lives–from food to family to faith and values of hard work, self-reliance, and the love of beauty in a life that was often hard and harsh. We loved Mill Creek Park and Idora Park as oases from all the mills along the Mahoning River. We loved music, and dances, and art as things that made the hard work worth it. I don’t think we were alone in loving those things but I think they had a particular meaning for those of us who grew up in working class neighborhoods.

What has impressed me is how rich the life experiences of growing up in my working class neighborhood were. Sometimes I think “working class” or “blue collar” people are thought of as culturally impoverished. Yet my reading about these things points to “athenaeums” where workers took classes to improve themselves and their knowledge of the world. Some of the sharpest and most creative people I’ve met come from these backgrounds. In our neighborhood, many parents, though tired from work, cared about our homework, took us to libraries, and showed up at parent nights at school because they wanted us to succeed.

We may not have always traveled to far-flung places, but we appreciated a day at the lake, an overnight at Niagara Falls or staying in tourist cabins where we brought our belongings in shopping bags, and not fancy suitcases. I don’t think we thought much about what we didn’t have, but rather lived grateful for any enjoyment we could snatch from life that revolved around hard work at home or the factory.

So, while the things I write about have Youngstown as a common thread, when I write about things like field trips to Stambaugh Auditorium or neighborhood bars or family grocery stores, I’m writing out of the particular place and community within Youngstown where I grew up. I’ve had a lot of experiences since leaving the Valley and I work these days among highly educated folk. But I carry those “growing up” years in my heart and outlook on life.

Writing about it and interacting with so many who have shared these experiences has helped make more sense of life. A philosopher by the name of Kierkegaard once said that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Maybe another way of saying that is that understanding where you have come from helps you know where you must go. I hope these posts, and the conversations we have around them help us all a bit in that way.