Book FOMO

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I figured it out. There is this weird phenomena for many of us who love books. We tend to acquire more books than we can possibly read in our lifetimes. There’s even a Japanese word for this, tsundoku. I’ve puzzled why we do that. Or to get more personal, why do I do that?

I think it comes down, at least in part for me, to fear of missing out (FOMO). I read a review of an interesting book. I learn of a book that addresses a question I’m interested in. I see a list of recommended books, or a footnote in a book I’m reading. My wife tells me about a book she’s heard about that is interesting. A book I’ve heard about turns up in a used book store, or at a low price on Amazon Kindle (usually $2.99 or less for me). I see a forthcoming book that looks interesting and request it for review.

I don’t want to miss out on a chance to read any of these great books. I rationalize this with the thought that I may get around to reading the book someday. For books I’ve identified for review, I usually do, since publishers don’t like to send out books to reviewers who don’t review their books. For others, I may end up pulling them out if they relate to a subject I want to read up on, or if they strike my fancy.

But that also means I literally have boxes of stored books acquired in years past, and it is increasingly unlikely that I will get to many of these unless the pandemic goes on for years (which none of us want!). Every one of those books was acquired for some reason of interest–I’d like to read about that, and want to have the book at hand. Alas, newer acquisitions pushed older ones aside into boxes, stored away in a closet.

As it happens, that closet is probably the best place to shelter in our home in the event of severe storms or tornado warnings we get a few times a year. We’ve agreed that those boxes of books must go, along with stacks of books I have read but don’t need to keep. It’s tough though–I can imagine doing the Marie Kondo thing and end up discovering that they all give me joy. I may do better if I don’t open the boxes and just haul them away.

The truth is, I will miss out. I can’t read all the books in my own house within my likely remaining years, let alone the new books that will come out in years ahead and all the wonderful books that have been published that I don’t have. The antidote to my FOMO, oddly enough, is coming to terms with my mortality. It means accepting that God may be all-knowing, but I never will be. One of the comforts of my faith in everlasting life will be the chance to keep learning in whatever form that might take.

Hopefully, this will make me wiser in the new books I acquire. I do find myself asking more often “will I really read that?” The pandemic has helped in limiting some of the sources of lots of cheap books like library book sales and used bookstores.

Where I’d like to get to, and haven’t yet, is to reach the point where I don’t look at those book stacks and feel, “I’ve got to read all those books!” (so now you know the shape of my OCD!). It may be that making some of the stacks disappear will help. Perhaps it is applying a principle of relationships with people to books: if you are thinking about any other book than the book you are with, you are not with any of your books. A spiritual lesson I’ve been learning is to be present in the present rather than somewhere else. When I fear missing out, I’m taking away from the enjoyment of the book I’m reading right now. Perhaps with the uncertainty of the present time, it is not a bad thing to live in “right now.” With the book I’m reading. In my comfortable chair. With a coffee at my side. In those moments, I’m not missing out at all.

Review: For the Love of Books

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For the Love of Books: Stories of Literary Lives, Banned Books, Author Feuds, Extraordinary Characters, and MoreGraham Tarrant. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: A fun read about everything books, from the beginning of the book, stories of authors and their loves and their fights, different genres, and the world of publishing.

Those who love books love reading books on books. This is one of the most enjoyable such books I’ve come across. Graham Tarrant explores everything from the beginnings of the book to the spats that have occurred between authors (e.g. Mark Twain versus Bret Harte, and more recently Norman Mailer versus Gore Vidal). We also hear about their loves–both gay and straight. Tarrant also explores their work habits, and their drinking and drug habits. Writing brilliant works do not make authors sterling characters by any means. Some were criminals. Some, like John Bunyan wrote their greatest works in prison. Jeffrey Archer got his start there.

We learn about the world around books–efforts to ban books, the parallel careers of authors and their characters, the various literary prizes, and the ins and outs of the publishing industry. But the major part of the book are the different genres of books, major works in each and the stories behind them. Tarrant periodically throws in lists of great works in the genre–from novels to crime fiction to memoirs and science fiction.

This latter makes the book a great resource for reading ideas, particularly of classics in a genre we may like. Writing any book is a challenging job with an uncertain outcome. The exploration of the lives of the people who do this is fascinating, and given some of their duels, fights, and other activities, one is amazed that we have what we have. It also leaves us with sadness of how many lives were claimed early, how many books we’ll never see from these authors.

What you have here is not serious literary criticism but more of a romp through the lives and works of literary figures. If you are looking for a lighthearted book that will stock you with trivia about books and their authors, this is the book. Enjoy!

Review: The Beautiful Community

the beautiful community

The Beautiful Community, Irwyn L. Ince, Jr., Foreword by Timothy Keller. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An argument that churches united amid their diversity are beautiful communities that reflect the beauty of the triune God they worship.

Most of us love beautiful things and are drawn to them. That is often not the picture we have of the church, fraught with conflict and division, including division across racial lines. Irwyn L. Ince Jr. believes that such community is necessary, possible under God, though not easy, to point the world to the beautiful God as reflections of God’s beauty. Ince has walked this talk as a pastor within the Presbyterian Church of America, part of a multi-ethnic pastoral team pastoring a multi-ethnic church in urban Washington, DC. He is the executive director the Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission. In 2018, he was unanimously elected to serve as moderator for the PCA General Assembly, the first Black moderator in the denomination’s history.

Ince grounds his argument for the beautiful community is grounded in the relational beauty of the Triune God, and the first part of his work is devoted to this idea. In his introduction, he lists twenty-two attributes of the beautiful God. This is the source of our beauty as creatures in the image of God, the source of our dignity. And since the beauty of God is a beauty in community, no single individual can fully reflect that beauty but only the diverse community of humanity.

Ince writes, “We were made to image God as beautiful community but sin ruptured our communion and polarization has been our story ever since.” Ince argues that we moved from garden to ghetto, including the racial ghettos of the American landscape. He argues that while race is indeed a human construct, it is one that has had real effects on the lives of people. He would contend that those who want to do away with the term are unwilling to deal with the harmful consequences of this sinful construct, and how the history of race in this country shapes our present context. He notes the often-failed efforts to form multi-ethnic congregations and the exodus of people of color from many evangelical congregations following their overwhelming support of the current president. He notes how ethnic identity may feel central for all, including whites whose ethnic and cultural practices subtly dominate in many multi-ethnic churches and only the new garments of an identity established in Christ can transform us.

One of the striking chapters in this work was the critical importance of devotion to doctrine. He argues that the injustices people of color have faced are departures from the fundamental truth of the unity of a diverse church, and gospel integrity calls us to address these injustices. He follows this chapter with a call to costly holiness, a holiness that faces and confesses our failures, and relinquishes majority dominated power structures. After challenging words, he concludes with a joyous vision of a beautiful, beloved community enjoying the pleasures of the Lord, including the pleasure of table fellowship, the sharing of good food.

The power of this book is that Ince addresses a challenging reality with a beautiful God-centered vision. Sociologists he cites have analyzed as a near impossibility that churches can gather across racial differences. Yet his doctrinally formed vision of God, of humanity, of the work of Christ, and of the church come together in his beautiful vision, under God’s grace. His conviction is that it won’t be easy, that it will involve intentional hard work, and reliance upon the grace of God. The question for us is whether our vision of the beautiful God will fuel our vision of a beautiful community that reflects God’s beauty to the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation

Retrieving Augustines Doctrine of Creation

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, Gavin Ortlund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of Augustine’s writing about creation and what that might contribute to the contemporary controversy.

Imagine a gathering with a young earth creationist, an old earth creationist, and an evolutionary creationist. Fireworks, right? Now imagine that Augustine time-travels from the late 4th-early 5th century and sits down with this group. What would he contribute to the discussion and how might he offer unique perspectives? These are the questions Gavin Ortlund explores in this new work.

First of all, Ortlund observes that Augustine helps us to step back from the controversy to consider the sheer wonder of creation. God created, not out of need, but his extravagant goodness. Augustine was absorbed with creation, believed it mirrored our own purpose of being created for God and finding rest in God, a theme he develops at the end of The Confessions. Indeed, for Augustine, the doctrine of creation was not an optional prequel to theology but absolutely foundational.

While not afraid to speak from conviction about the goodness of creation when faced with the dualism of Manichaean heresy, Augustine urges humility and the avoidance of rashness in interpretations, admitting where he thinks several views are equally possible. He exemplifies this with his own careful handling of Genesis 1, and his rejection of literal twenty-four hour days because of difficulties within the text including fitting all the events of day five into twenty-four hours.

Augustine also offers different perspectives on the problem of animal death and suffering. Responding to Manichaean ideas, he defends the goodness of predation. He also proposes the idea of perspectival prejudice, in which our local perspective often obscures the larger picture.

Finally, Ortlund looks at Augustine’s writing on Genesis 2 and 3 concerning the question of a historic Adam and fall. Augustine both admits the literary complexities of the text and his convictions about the historic character of Adam and the fall in the garden, while leaving room for figurative interpretations.

In one sense, Augustine can’t resolve the differences between the contemporary “camps.” He was unaware of the science to which contemporary interpreters respond in differing ways. By modern standards, some of his exegetical conclusions would be ones to which many would take exception. Yet Ortlund proposes that Augustine offers perspective that may enrich and change the tone and character of these discussions. He reminds us of the wonder of God’s work in creation. He exhibits an uncharacteristic humility, admitting both what he knows and does not, speaking with conviction about what is clear, and peaceably and humbly the matters on which interpreters may differ. In such areas, he exhibits a flexibility and openness contemporary scholars might emulate. Ortlund also shows us a careful scholar dedicated to rigorous study to understand what scripture affirms. These dispositions would not resolve our conflicts, but would create a character of conversation that would be God-honoring.

Ortlund’s concern focuses on the conversation between Christians. But wonder, humility, and rigor of study are also dispositions characterizing dedicated scientists. The animus between faith and science that has existed may well be rendered unnecessary if more on both sides emulated Augustine. We cannot invite him to the table except by mining his writings. Ortlund offers a study of Augustine’s writings worthy of Augustine’s dispositions.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, Anne Applebaum. New York: Doubleday, 2020.

Summary: An extended essay considering the shift to authoritarian leaders in Europe and the United States, analyzing both why such leaders are attractive, and the strategies they used to gain power.

Anne Applebaum’s book might be subtitled, “The Tale of Two Parties.” It is bookended with a party in 1999, and one in 2019. Many on the guest list of the first would not be on the second, or even on speaking terms with the author. Applebaum is a center-right neo-conservative, married to Radek Sikorski, a Polish politician. For much of her career she has written award-winning books documenting Soviet-style totalitarianism. The time of 1999 was a heady one, with former eastern bloc countries embracing Western style liberal democratic ideals (at least to some degree).

The book begins with Applebaum describing the fate of three of those on the list, one who had drawn close to Poland’s Law and Justice party leader and would no longer speak to her, another who had become an internet troll, amplifying American alt-right proponents, while a third had become engrossed in conspiracy theories. Throughout the book, Applebaum moves between trying to understand what has happened to her friends, and what is happening in a number of European countries, from Poland and Hungary, to England and the United States, where shifts have occurred to authoritarian ideas and leaders.

She explores how contemporary movements differ from fascism and Communism. Instead of the “Big Lie,” these leaders use the Medium-Size Lie designed to play on fears and offer simple explanations for complex realities–immigration explains economic woes and crime, for example. Sometimes it is a conspiracy, for example “the deep state,” when in fact the real conspiracy lies with the networks of people fomenting these ideas. She describes how this works for example in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, where all of Hungary’s woes can be attributed to non-existent Syrian refugees (to whom Hungary never opened their borders) and George Soros, whose conspiratorially funded the immigrant hordes. All of this buttresses a corrupt, self-serving government where power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of its leader. Chillingly, Applebaum observes that studies show roughly one-third of the people in most societies to be susceptible to authoritarian leaders, particularly in times of upheaval.

She discusses the appeal of nostalgia, the longing for some idealized past when those appealed to dominated the culture as an alternative to the pluralistic, multi-ethnic cultural landscapes that increasingly characterize both Europe and the United States. She describes how Boris Johnson leveraged this nostalgia in the run-up to Brexit, even though the English had led the initiative forming the European Union. Particularly dangerous, she believes, are the “restorative nostalgics” whose “memory” of the past is often selective, and whose vision for restoration reflects those gaps in an idealized version of the past.

She portrays the manipulation of digital media streams to promote the narrative, including the characterization of established media as “fake” and part of the “conspiracy.” She writes:

This new information world also provides a new set of tools and tactics that another generation of clercs can use to reach people who want simple language, powerful symbols, clear identities. There is no need, nowadays, to form a street movement in order to appeal to those of an authoritarian predisposition. You can construct one in an office building, sitting in front of a computer. You can test messages and gauge the response. You can set up targeted advertising campaigns. You can build groups of fans on WhatsApp or Telegram. You can cherry-pick the themes of the past that suit the present and tailor them to particular audiences. You can invent memes, create videos, conjure up slogans designed to appeal precisely to the fear and anger caused by this massive international wave of cacophony. You can even start the cacophony and create the chaos yourself, knowing full well that some people will be frightened by it. (117-118)

She describes the shift she saw in once-friend Laura Ingraham. I think one of the most important insights Applebaum offers here is the increasing concern Ingraham, and others like Pat Buchanan have over the evidence of American moral decline. Ingraham decries various forms of extremism from “cancel culture” to overreach into religious communities, breaching First Amendment protections. These signs of decline have led her and others to conclude that they cannot be fought by “politics as usual” but require more extreme measures and justify “undemocratic” means.

I wish Applebaum would have done more with what I thought a perceptive observation. I know people like those Applebaum describes, and one thing that is overlooked is that most of these feel that figures like our current President are the first to take them seriously. Many of these people live in America’s heartland. They probably are more religious. Most work hard and pay their taxes. And they feel patronized by many politicians, overlooked, treated as part of “flyover” country. Like Laura Ingraham, they also feel they are witnessing a “twilight of democracy.”

While I am deeply sympathetic to Applebaum’s concerns about authoritarianism, all her talks about toney parties with fellow refugees from the neo-con movement don’t really address the concerns of the time adequately. She concludes by addressing some vague hope in the cycles of history to right things, which seems to me a hope that, after a time, the “right” people will regain power. My observation is that we are in the midst of more and more violent pendulum swings, with winners and losers becoming increasingly energized against one another. What I do agree on with Applebaum is that democracies are not indestructible. Might our common care about the future of democracy be a starting point for a different kind of political conversation? Might this common, and urgent concern bring people together from across the political spectrum who all perceive the abyss toward which we are hurtling? I cannot help but think that this next decade may be decisive in many ways for our country–and for humankind. Will the twilight we are in give way to night–or a new dawn?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ed Matey

Ed Matey teacher and coach

Edward Paul Matey, teacher and coach. Photos from 1970 Lariat

As I was finishing an article on Chester McPhee, the first of a long line of great Chaney High School coaches, I saw comments on a Chaney alumni site of the passing of another Chaney coach Edward (“Ed”) Paul Matey on Thursday, July 30, 2020. Confirmation soon followed in Youngstown news media. Mr. Matey had died in his home at the age of 74.

I knew Mr. Matey best as my U.S. History teacher. At that time, he was assistant coach to Lou “Red” Angelo. He would take over as head coach the next year and Lou Angelo would become Athletic Director. I had a number of tough teachers at Chaney. Truthfully, Mr. Matey wasn’t one of them. We learned all the important facts about U.S. history, we watched a lot of films, and the exams were straightforward. If you studied what he told you would be on the exam, you would pass, usually with an “A.” What I do remember was that he was always immaculately dressed–ironed white shirt, pressed slacks, shined shoes, and tie. The most he would do would be to roll up his sleeves in hot weather. While he wasn’t a hard teacher, you didn’t goof off in his class, any more than in gym classes taught by his mentor, Mr. Angelo.

Until his passing, I didn’t realize how much he did both before and after I was at Chaney, and how much he contributed to athletics, and to the Youngstown community. He was born and raised on Youngstown’s West side, born right at the end of World War II, on October 30, 1945 to Andrew and Helen Matey. He played football under Lou Angelo at Chaney from 1960-1963, playing both ways, as players often did then, winning All-City, All Northeastern Ohio and an All State awards in 1962.

He stayed in Youngstown when he could have played for many college teams, playing defense for Dike Beede from 1963-1966. He won a varsity letter in his freshman year, starting from his second game on for the rest of his college career winning four varsity letters. In one game during his freshman year against Southern Connecticut, he had fifteen tackles and six sacks. During his sophomore year, the Penguins were 6-1-2, in part because of his great defensive play. He won most valuable player awards in his junior and senior years and YSU’s Most Valuable Male Athlete for 1966-67. In 1997 he was inducted into the YSU Athletics Hall of Fame.

Leaving Youngstown State with an education degree, he became a teacher at Chaney High School, where he would work until 2002. In addition to teaching U.S. History, he was assistant coach under Lou Angelo from 1967 to 1971. He took over as head coach in 1971 and coached for 17 years. During that time his teams won eight City League championships, including Chaney’s first 10-0 team. He had an overall coaching record of 83-67-4, coaching future NFL players like Matt Cavanaugh and Jerry Olsavsky.

After his coaching years, he became athletic director, and then assistant principal at Chaney until retiring in 2002 after 35 years at Chaney. His career as player, teacher, coach, and administrator earned him induction into Chaney’s Wall of Fame in 2005 beside greats like Chester H. McPhee and Lou Angelo.

His service to Chaney and Youngstown area athletics didn’t end with his retirement. He served as Athletic Director for Youngstown City School District until finally retiring in 2017. He knew everyone in the Mahoning Valley and used his ties to spearhead a campaign to build the new Rayen Stadium, which became the shared home field for Chaney and East High School, Youngstown’s two remaining high schools.

His obituary notes his marriage of thirty-three years, and his love for his children and grandchildren, his love of hunting and fishing with them, and his skills in carpentry. Reminiscences of former players I’ve seen note his impact on their lives and lifelong friendships. And typical of Youngstowners, he made pierogies with friends at Holy Trinity on Thursdays.

It is hard to believe the young teacher and coach of my high school years is gone. As sad as that is, I also celebrate a life well-lived, a life invested in family, athletes, a school, and a city. Rest in peace Coach Matey.

Review: Goshen Road

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Goshen Road, Bonnie Proudfoot. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 2020.

Summary: A story told across two generations of two sisters, their husbands and children, and their dignity and struggle to exist in working-class, rural West Virginia.

J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of coming from eastern Kentucky hill country to Middletown, Ohio, and the fierce loyalty and scrappy toughness of his relatives, the substance abuse struggles of his mother and many around him in rust-belt Middletown, and a grandmother and mentor who made the difference in his own success.

Goshen Road, a first novel by southeast Ohio author Bonnie Proudfoot, captures some of the same realities, but in a different tone, one that perhaps more fully captures the dignity of rural families facing hard lives, poverty, and less than perfect marriages and family situations. The story centers around two sisters, their husbands, and their children over 25 years (1967-1992) and proceeds as first one, then another, narrate the unfolding of their stories. We see each both through their own aspirations and struggles, and through the voices of the others, offering rich and complicated portrayals of each character.

Lux Cranfield, being rushed to the emergency room after a logging accident that would cost him the sight in one eye, sees Dessie Price smile as he passes by. When he recovers, he determines to court her, asks her father Bertram Price for her hand, and starts out married life on Price land, learning to work in the sawmill instead of the woods. They attempt to build on family land up the hill on Goshen Road but feuds, flooding and the sense of being nearer Dessie’s family as children come along lead them to give up the effort. We trace the family through struggles with weather, illness, economic downturns, getting by on food stamps, but feeding government surplus handouts to their animals.

Meanwhile Dessie’s younger sister Billie marries Alan Ray Munn, Lux’s friend who rescued him in the logging accident. As time passes and children come, Alan Ray has a roving eye and a growing problem with alcoholism. Domestic violence is always in the background. The two sisters help each other out. One shining moment comes when Alan Ray’s team defeats a much more impressive team in the nearby town. Alan Ray recaptures a moment’s youth before the hard life of logging and alcohol take their toll on his body.

Momentous events like deaths are interwoven with narratives of canning and putting up food. Eventually we hear the voices of children as well. One of the finest was when Lissy, Dessie’s daughter describes the momentary freedom of a run in the country, away from a violent husband, and then as night falls, growing fear, aware of reports of a rapist who had preyed on other women in the area. We learn what it is like to grow up gay in the rural hollows through Ron, Dessie’s son.

The novel portrays a life of hard work for everyone, of hard and dangerous, and economically uncertain jobs for men, of the violence in the home women faced, and the strength they exercised in supporting each other, and with their men in time with even less protection against domestic abuse than the present. There are both the stereotypes of fundamentalist religion and episodes where pastors give profound counsel and comfort. We see imperfect people in hard circumstances who somehow are there for each other in the toughest of times, sisters who grew up as rivals, who are strong for each other when it is needed.

This is fine writing from a first time Appalachian novelist. She helps us enter into the realities of Appalachian life, how people both eked out a life, and really lived. The different voices humanize and individualize the characters. The prose is lean yet descriptive, the dialogue believable. Reading this engaged me with the lives of the characters and transported me to rural West Virginia.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Why Science and Faith Need Each Other

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Why Science and Faith Need Each OtherElaine Howard Ecklund. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: A sociologist who has researched the relationship between science and faith proposes that there are eight shared values that make it possible to move beyond a relationship of fear or conflict between religious and scientific communities.

Most of the books I have read about science and faith have come from either theological perspectives or those of physical science. What marks out this book as different is that it is written by a sociologist as a distillation of her research about attitudes of scientists toward faith, and those of believing people toward scientists. Her thesis is that there are shared values in both communities that make it possible to move from fear and conflict into constructive and appreciative dialogue with each other.

The first part of this book deals with preliminary considerations. She observes how fear often dominates the conversation within churches, that science is out to disprove God. Either we don’t talk about science, or we create binary choices–either faith in God or godless science. She observes that this doesn’t consider the reality of many Christians working in science and many scientists in the church, and that we might do well to listen to them. She also tackles the big elephant on the table in this discussion–evolution. She describes how in her research that she allows people to choose among six options in describing their beliefs about creation and evolution, rather than a binary choice. When this is the case, many Christians acknowledge the possibility of some form of evolution, along with the important conviction of God’s creative involvement, and the importance of the image of God, belying the science-faith binary.

She then explores eight shared virtues of people of faith and scientists. She divides these in two parts. The first are those of process, crucial in scientific research processes but also in vibrant Christian communities. These are curiosity, doubt, humility, and creativity. The second concern how science and faith might come together in redemptive practices, including healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude.

Her chapter on doubt is an example of the surprising concurrence of these values. Scientific research is rooted in doubt–either questioning an existing theory about a phenomena as an inadequate explanation of the data, or some question that hasn’t been explored that the scientist does not understand. In the church, doubt is often discouraged, yet everyone wrestles with questions while believing. Perhaps Christians may even learn from scientists, who believe in their process, even while “doubting.” Acknowledging together that we have honest questions builds bridges of understanding and can allow for real growth. Scientists can show how faith doesn’t require certainty.

Another example was the chapter on awe, something bringing atheist scientists and Christians together as they explore the wonders of the world at every level from the smallest components of life to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course for the Christian, this awe points us to a more profound awe, that of God.

Ecklund concludes the book talking about the virtue of gratitude. She speaks of gratitude in the practice of science, gratitude for science and the scientists in our midst, and gratitude for our faith. She concludes by illustrating this with a personal statement–what she would now say to her grandfather who asked her why she pursued a graduate degree in sociology when it might not result in greater pay. She writes:

I am devoting my life to sociology, and to the sociological study of religion, because of gratitude. I am grateful for my Christian faith and the role it plays in my life. I am grateful for my church community. I am also grateful for the advances that science and social science have made in helping us better understand and navigate our world. I am grateful for the scientific tools and concepts that allow us to better get along and work together. Indeed my gratitude for both faith and science has compelled me to study faith communities and scientific communities and to endeavor to give back to both of those communities. And because of this gratitude I can say that my work is part of my worship.

I’m grateful for this approach! I didn’t discuss humility, but my experience is that humility often seems in short supply in science-faith discussions. Yet both Christians and scientists have ample grounds for humility. We each are profoundly blessed in our lives beyond what we deserve–whether enjoying generous grants to build expensive apparatuses for our investigations, or exploring the infinite wonders of a generous God.

There is one other virtue Ecklund doesn’t mention that also seems a part of process. It is that of rigor or discipline. Scientists ruthlessly critique each other’s research in the pursuit of truth and often expend years on a research problem, running numerous experiments or simulations, crunching massive amounts of data. Sometimes this is also true in the church, whether in the care of framing our theology of the atonement, or the rigor shown in developing a program that serves one’s community. But we might also have much to learn from scientists in the rigor of our thinking and the testing of our ideas.

This is not so much criticism as evidence of how much fun it can be to consider what we share in common, and how we might learn from each other about living more virtuously. This provides a far better ground for good conversations that offer the hope of making us both better Christians and better scientists.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Uncommon Ground

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Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference, edited Timothy Keller & John Inazu. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020.

Summary: Twelve individuals from different walks of life discuss what Christian faithfulness and the pursuit of the common good looks like in a deeply divided culture.

How are Christians to live in this time where we seem deeply divided about everything from wearing masks to the status of an embryo in the womb to the seriousness of the changes we are witnessing in the world’s climate? Not only are divisions around these and a host of issues deep, but engagement between those who differ seems nearly impossible. So what is a Christian to do? Many have decided that the only options are to “go to ground” and talk about vacations and share cute cat memes. Others have concluded that you must side up on one side of the divide and “unfriend” all those one disagrees with. How is a Christian to live if one cares about the common good and about faithfulness to a kingdom-of-God-shaped life that anticipates the peaceable kingdom and beloved community of the world to come.

These are the questions addressed by the twelve people who contributed to this book edited by Tim Keller, whose Redeemer Church has had a redemptive influence in New York City, and John Inazu, a law professor from St. Louis engaged in a program called the Carver Project whose stated mission is framed in these terms:

We empower Christian faculty and students to serve and connect university, church, and society. We work toward uncommon community, focused engagement, and creative dialogue.

Joining them are theologian Kristen Deede Johnson, InterVarsity/USA president Tom Lin, social entrepreneur Rudy Carrasco, writer and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, songwriter Sara Groves, rap artist Lecrae, Christian college network leader Shirley V. Hoogstra, psychiatrist Warren Kinghorn, African American community engagement leader in the Southern Baptist Convention Trillia Newbell, and Pastor Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. a peacemaker in Charlotte, North Carolina, leading a multi-site, socially engaged church, The Park Church.

Some essays are more inward looking as is Tish Harrison Warren’s describing her discovery of a calling as a writer, that of naming reality through words. Tim Keller traces his calling from a rural pastorate to New York City and his sense that the gospel critiqued both rural conservatism and urban secular culture, and the sense that in planting a church, Redeemer was called to be salt and light in the city, citizens both of an earthly and heavenly city with the latter taking priority.

Others think more about the terms of engagement of Christians with a divided and pluralistic society. John Inazu advances the virtues of humility, tolerance, and patience as he seeks to translate between the church and the university. Warren Kinghorn talks about walking with the psychologically wounded. Both Trillia Newbell and Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. explore what it means to be reconcilers, peacemakers in a racist society.

Keller and Inazu tie up the strands of the different essays by calling attention to one of the most significant works on Christian engagement written in the last thirty years, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. They single out Hunter’s idea of faithful presence and articulate four themes from the essay of what it takes to find “uncommon ground” in our culture while living faithfully to Christ:

  1. Christians should not overidentify with any particular political party or platform.
  2. Christians should approach the community around them through a posture of love and service.
  3. Christians should recognize that the gospel subverts rival stories and accounts of reality.
  4. Christians should reach out to others with humility, patience, and tolerance.

My one hesitance with the language of faithful presence is that it needs more definition to avoid being reduced to a life of service, integrity and niceness. Particularly considering the issues of justice roiling our culture with women, people of color, immigrants and more, is there something more to be said about Christians stance with those on the margins? Perhaps that is implicit in the idea of a subversive gospel. Several do touch on this. Lecrae talks about the narratives that color our perceptions around race and the necessity of telling different stories. Claude Richard Alexander, Jr. gets closest to “edgy” in stating that “[m]aking peace and striving for justice are intimately intertwined.”

I’ve always wanted to be in the place of reconciling differences, of finding the common ground, even if it is a third way shaped by the gospel. What I wrestle with is knowing when it is not possible to find common or uncommon ground. Are there things with which we cannot reconcile–for example white supremacy? Are there “brightline offenses” that must be called out and resisted without equivocation? What does it mean to love across these kinds of differences? How does one do this without becoming a partisan?

At the same time, the writers cast a vision for being very different Christians from what the world expects, and what is often portrayed in the media. The use of personal narratives helps us identify different examples of what it looks like. Yet this is not engagement “lite.” Most of the writers couple theological frameworks with personal stories, offering us rich fare for thought and community and life. Keller and Inazu not only contribute substantive essays but set up the collection and tie it together well. Even more, they created a conversation among the contributors, who often play off each other, giving the work a coherence not often found in a collection of essays. This was an “uncommon” conversation on “uncommon ground.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Ages of Globalization

ages of globalization

The Ages of GlobalizationJeffrey D. Sachs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of seven ages of globalization, in which geography, technology, and institutions result in scale-enlarging transformations with global impacts.

Jeffrey Sachs is one of those big picture thinkers one needs when tempted to focus in the minutiae of life. I first came across this in The End of Poverty, published in 2005, where Sachs wrestled with the steps needed to eliminate poverty throughout the world.

Here, he enlarges his focus to the whole 70,000 year expanse of human history. He traces seven ages of globalization, contending that the interplay of geography (including climate, natural resources, and biodiversity), technology (from hunting implements and stone tools to steam driven machinery to digital information systems), and institutions (religious, economic, and political) came together in each age to create scale enlarging transformations with global implications.

The seven ages through which he traces these interactions are:

  1. The Paleolithic (70,000-10,000 bce): foragers arising from Africa to adapt to a variety of habitats, using tools to manipulate nature, and formal tribal societies.
  2. The Neolithic ((10,000-3000 bce): The transition to agricultural societies across the temperate zones (“the Lucky Latitudes”) allowing the rise of farming settlements with domesticated animals.
  3. The Equestrian Age (3000-1000 bce): The domestication of the horse facilitating transport and travel, writing systems, accompanied by more sophisticated administrative institutions allowed for the first empires.
  4. The Classical Age (1000 bce-1500 ce): The successive rise and fall of empires in Asia, the Fertile  Crescent and the Mediterranean, all aligned on travel routes and the Lucky Latitudes, including the rise of Islam. This was the period of the rise of  the major religions and the ideas and institutions multiplied the expansion of global reach.
  5. The Ocean Age (1500-1800): The explosion of knowledge disseminated by the printing press, the development of sailing vessels into ocean-going ships led the most effective countries to extend their power into the Americas and East Asia,  resulting in the expansion of capitalism.
  6. The Industrial Age (1800-2000): The steam engine and then the internal combustion engine, the massive growth in food production resulting led to global population growth and increasingly sophisticated financial and political structures and a parade of successive global powers: Great Britain, the United States, China and other East Asian countries.
  7. The Digital Age (Twenty-First Century): The shift to an age of global information systems, highly integrated economies, resulting both in political rivalries and the necessity of global political institutions to address global crises such as climate change.

Sachs combines description with quantitative tables and statistics to illustrate trends. His argument is that we have always been a global family (albeit the Americas and Australia and the Pacific Islands being isolated from Africa and Eurasia until the Ocean Age) and human migrations, technological innovations and ever-more sophisticated institutions facilitated global connections, and increasingly global empires and systems. He argues that all these have brought us to a place where we face three major challenges: rising inequality, massive environmental degradation, risks from major geopolitical changes, including the possibility of devastating conflict. He contends for working toward sustainable development with a dynamic and adaptive process of planning on a global scale. He argues for a social-democratic ethos as has contributed to the success of northern European countries. Most fascinating, and a check on the consolidation of power, is his discussion of the importance of subsidiarity, of moving tasks to the most local level compatible with effective management.

I suspect some version of what Sachs proposes may be right. Yet the rise of authoritarian movements, the denial or overly simple explanations of poverty or environmental issues, and the breakdown of international cooperation seems a cause of great concern for me. Sachs offers us a tour de force treatment of the development of globalization through human history. But it seems idealistic in a way that seems to rely on us heeding the “better angels of our nature” if there is such a thing. I wonder if the failure of such optimism to deliver on its promises contributes to the rise of authoritarianism. I wonder if the only hope is a somewhat pragmatic and proximate politics without grand schemes, tyrants or visionaries, a politics of adults who realize all solutions are proximate.  Yet that doesn’t mean resignation. We can come up with less than perfect political arrangements, less than perfect environmental solutions, and less than perfect economic arrangements. We might do something more sustainable, more just, and more equitable, and probably different than our plans. And reading Sachs, we may have a better sense of the connection of the local and the global, and the ways geography, technology, and our institutions link us together.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.