Review: Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age

Ecologies

Ecologies of Faith in a Digital AgeStephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Proposes an ecological model of faith formation and the possibility of creating this kind of spiritual ecology in online educational settings.

It was in a college biology course that I was first introduced to the reality of ecosystems. My biology prof wisely told us to select a patch of nature and to take time to observe all that was going on–from the soil and the creatures that lived in it to the vegetation, shrubs, trees, to insects, animals, and birds. I never thought before of how these were not disparate elements but interdependent on each other to flourish.

Stephen and Mary Lowe propose in this book an ecological model of growth for human beings consisting of six elements: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, moral, and spiritual ecologies. The first part of the book develops this ecological motif in scripture, particularly in the parables and Paul’s image of the body of Christ. The authors argue that this is possible not only in shared physical communities but that spiritual ecological communities may form online as well and contribute substantively to each other’s growth.

They especially engage the criticism that online community is a weakened form of mediated presence. They note that the doctrine of the communion of saints and the bonds of the Holy Spirit are not limited by distance and share examples from thoughtful online discussions eliciting more than what people would say in a classroom to compassionate support when difficult circumstances are shared with a group on Facebook. Online connections serve as a form of social capital, as do in-person connections, and sometimes these intersect. Instead of creating autonomous, isolated learners, online technologies foster connected, collaborate learning and growth. The Lowes also note how this is not new to our day. The Apostle Paul uses the mediated communication of letters, read by emissaries as a way to be absent in body but present in spirit to churches in different locations. They also note the power of reciprocal influence in social networks, especially as the diversity of those networks increase (diverse natural ecosystems tend to be far more robust).

The final part of the book focuses more on the nature of connectedness, looking at our connetions with Christ (syn Christo), with each other (synkoinonos) and the “one anothering” that runs through the New Testament. They propose the idea of ecological or contagious sanctification with examples of leaven and root and branch systems used in scripture.

Finally they propose a series of propositions for thinking ecologically about spiritual growth:

  1. God created a universe that exists and functions as a cosmic ecosystem.
  2. The earth exists within a larger cosmic ecology and operates by ecological laws.
  3. Natural growth follows ecological laws and teaches us that everything grows through ecological interconnections and organic interactions in a mutualistic relationship of interdependence.
  4. Ecological laws that govern natural growth operate similarly in the spiritual realm.
  5. Christians have a spiritual connection to Christ and other Christians, which forms a spiritual ecology.
  6. The spiritual connections we have with other Christians create opportunity for reciprocal exchanges of spiritual nutrients.
  7. The spiritual ecology created by Christ through the Spirit is unbounded by time and space, enabling Christians to enjoy the benefits of this reality at any time and in any place, whether in person or online.
  8. Christians who share a connection to Christ through the Spirit receive an imputed holiness that makes them mutually contagious and provides us with the ability to spread our contagion in online ecologies of learning (pp. 211-222).

This last point seems to engage in theological imprecision. Scripture speaks of the righteousness of Christ being imputed to the believer, but not holiness, a progressive work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our lives. I also question how we can spread something imputed by God. We can only point others to the one who imputes righteousness through Christ. That said, Christians may certainly influence one another to endeavor, with the Spirit’s help, to live holy lives.

I also thought that this book tries to do two things and does one reasonably well, and one less well. The book makes a good case for an ecology of spiritual growth, for the ways we are interdependent upon one another, whether together, or separated by space and time, in fostering each other’s growth. This book thus makes a good case for online community and its power to contribute to our growth in Christ.

What the book does less well is describe how this may be done well, as well as dealing with the dysfunctional aspects of online media. Just as good gardeners work with the ecology of places in choices and arrangement and cultivation of plants, it seems that those who curate online spaces likewise can do things either to foster or inhibit spiritual growth in those spaces. It would have been very helpful for these educators to give more specifics, and not just anecdotes, of how they translated their theory into practice.

Good gardeners often plant in groupings rather than single plants. Plants thrive together.  The Lowes help us see that the same is true for Christians–we grow better together, and together can include online forms of togetherness. These can be substantive, and formative. Hopefully this work will contribute to the development of good practices that foster such outcomes.

 

Review: The Pioneers

The Pioneers

The PioneersDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

Summary: An account of the first European-Americans to settle the Northwest Territory, focused on their settlement at Marietta, the challenges they faced, key figures in the town’s early history, and three important conditions they established in the new territory.

I’ve long been a fan of the work of David McCullough. So it was only natural to pick up this latest work of his. Little did I realize that the focus of this work was on the settlement of the first town in my home state, indeed, all of the Northwest Territory. I suspect that many Ohioans are unaware that the scenic little town on the Ohio River in southeast Ohio, Marietta, was the first settlement of European-Americans in Ohio and the Northwest Territory.

The story begins with a minister, Manasseh Cutler and some of his friends, including General Rufus Putnam, who helped in forming the Ohio Company. When the Revolutionary War ended, the British ceded the Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota) to the United States. McCullough tells the story of the critical influence of Cutler on the drafting of the ordinance for the governance of the Northwest Territory in establishing three conditions: freedom of religion, free universal education, and the prohibition of slavery.

While Cutler remained in Massachusetts except for a brief visit to the settlement, General Putnam led the initial expedition that established the settlement. One of Cutler’s sons, Jervis, was reputedly the first to set foot on the land. Putnam was critical to the first years of the settlement and McCullough describes his leadership in laying out the town, creating the fortification known as Campus Martius,  when the Native peoples arose against the influx of new settlers, while preserving pre-historic mounds within the fortification.

Between attacks of the Native peoples, their depredations on wild life on which the colonists depended for food, and illness, the settlement struggled in the early years of its existence. The eventual defeat the Native peoples, and removal combined with the solidarity of the settlers in their struggle for survival resulted in the endurance and growth of the town.

McCullough tells the story of the established settlement through focusing on the lives of four individuals: Putnam, Ephraim Cutler (another of Manasseh’s sons, Samuel Hildreth, and Joseph Barker. Putnam gave leadership to the settlement. Cutler served a critical role in representing Marietta in the new capitol of Ohio, Columbus, translating the conditions of the Northwest Ordinance into reality: maintaining religious freedom, making provision throughout the state for universal free education, and resisting efforts to establish slavery in Ohio. Cutler was instrumental in the founding of Ohio University, and also Marietta College.

Samuel Hildreth was a physician, and along with his son, saw to the medical needs of the people, particularly through epidemics of influenza, small pox, and yellow fever. Survival rates under his care were higher than elsewhere, attesting to his skills and devotion to his patients.  He was an early leader of the Physicians Society of Ohio, and also kept journals and drawings of nature observations that qualify him as one of Ohio’s first naturalists. Joseph Barker was the builder and architect of Marietta, responsible for many public buildings and private residences, as well as the ill-fated Blennerhassett mansion on nearby Blennerhassett Island. The dream home of Harman Blennerhassett and his wife was caught up in the conspiracies of Aaron Burr against the United States, to the great loss of the Blennerhassetts.

McCullough’s account has been criticized for primarily looking at the challenges faced by the European-Americans who settled the Ohio country, and not those faced by the Native peoples who already occupied this land. McCullough shows cognizance of these issues in describing the motivating concerns of the aggression of Native peoples as they witness the large numbers of settlers with a very different idea of land ownership coming onto lands they occupied, the courageous and often skilled warfare they fought under leaders like Tecumseh, and the sadness of the eventual removals of these peoples. More than this would have resulted in a much longer and less focused narrative. What I think McCullough might have done is discuss the notable omission of the Northwest Ordinance to address the just treatment of the Native peoples and how their presence would be acknowledged and govern settlement patterns and practices. He addresses the positive distinctives, but not this critical omission. The assumption was that if you could survey it, you could occupy it, one reason why Native peoples especially targeted surveyors. Two very different ideas about land ownership clashed here and throughout the country, without a just resolution.

Nevertheless, I found this a fascinating study of the key figures in this book, and the early history of the settlement of my state. Ohio eventually played a key role in the Underground Railroad movement. The fight to prohibit slavery made the state a haven for fugitive slaves enroute to Canada (there is some evidence that the Cutler family even played a part in this). It was an early pioneer of public and higher education, the home of the McGuffey Reader and a network of public and private colleges throughout the state of which Ohio University and Marietta College were the earliest. McCullough gives us a narrative of the character, courage, and enterprise of these pioneers who not only survived but profoundly transformed the Ohio country during their lives.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Bears Den

1908 Postcard of Bears Den

1908 Postcard of Bears Den

Did you ever climb around the rocks in the Bears Den area of Mill Creek Park? The area makes you wonder if there was a time when a group of giants were tossing the huge boulders at each other, they look so tumbled down.

Maybe your visits were tamer, perhaps hiking a trail along Bears Den Creek or going to a gathering at Bears Den Cabin, having a picnic in the picnic area in the Upper and Lower Meadows, or playing a game of ultimate frisbee on the open field of the Upper Meadow.

I think at one time or another, I probably did all of these things. You probably did as well. Have you ever wondered about the history of this area, where all those rocks came from and how the area developed?

I always thought all those blocks were left by glaciers. I came to discover that the more likely explanation was that as Bears Den Run (or Bear Creek as it is sometimes called) flowed into Mill Creek, it cut through the sandstone, of which the rocks consist to underlying softer layers of shale, undercutting the sandstone until pieces of it collapsed into the creek. Gradually the descending creek cut the ravine we see today. It’s not particularly complicated. It mostly comes down to running water. (From a paper by John S. Petrek, Geological Features in Mill Creek Park Youngstown, OhioJune 1971, pp. 26-27).

I say mostly because there were industries along Bears Den Run at various periods. Grist and sawmills. Blacksmith shops. And most significant, several quarrying operations, one of which was in the ravine behind Bears Den Cabin (William McKinley was one of the business partners), another, the Jake Stambaugh quarry in the bluff next to the Wick Recreation Area along Bears Den Road. Stone from these quarries were used for bridges over Bears Den Run, the Bruce Rogers Bridge at Birch Hill, the Lake Cohasset Dam, and the Wall Garden overlooking West Drive.

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Part of Bear Creek (Bears Den Run), Bob Trube © 2019

If you look at a map of Mill Creek Park, you readily notice that most of it runs south to north on either side of Mill Creek and the three lakes formed by dams. Bears Den and the Wick Recreation Area to the north jut out to the west from the rest of the park. The park was created in 1891. Volney Rogers continued to acquire parcels, and acquired the Bears Den properties in 1894. However this area was not connected to the rest of the park until 1921 when another 60 acres were acquired in the Bear Creek Valley (the narrow corridor connecting Bears Den with the rest of the park at West Drive) and Bears Den Drive was constructed.

Bears Den Cabin was built in 1931 in the northwest corner of the Upper Meadows. A kitchen was installed in 1960, a parking lot in 1962 and modern lighting in 1963. Pictures on the park website suggest the kitchen and interior has been further updated. The cabin is heated and also has a fireplace but no air conditioning. It can accommodate up to 40 people and be rented by the half or full day ($75 for a half day; $125 for a full day for Mahoning County residents; $100/$165 for non-residents, as of 8/2019).

The name “Bears Den”? At one time there really were bears living in those caves and roaming the ravine. One still hears reports of black bears in other areas around northeast Ohio, so this shouldn’t be entirely surprising,

Finally, about all that climbing around in Bears Den. This actually violates current park regulation 20.6 which reads: “No person is permitted to climb or rappel hillsides or ravine areas on Park District lands.” These regulations were first published in 1989 and most recently amended in 2017. Whether any of this existed when most of us were growing up I don’t know. Certainly none of us knew anything about that. Even the distinguished Dr. John C. Melnick recounts this incident from his youth in The Green Cathedral:

One of the author’s most harassing experiences occurred in Bears Den. Once as a young boy hiking in the Bears Den it was decided to climb up the side of huge boulders. After several of these were conquered, an attempt was made on a very high boulder measuring over 25 feet in height. By use of small hollows in the rock for steps and grasping places, success was achieved for about three quarters of the height when additional footing was lacking. No progress could be made either up or down. In a state of apprehension, help from his friends saved the day” (pp. 145, 147).

Whether it is the placid sound of the running waters of Bear Creek as you walk along side on one of the trails, the rugged beauty of the tumbled boulders in the ravines, or the pleasant picnic areas, the Bears Den area is one of areas of the park that has been delighting visitors over the last hundred years.

Would the Apostle Paul Have Written a Blog?

blogging-blur-communication-261662I’m working out some ideas here, so I’d love to hear what others think about this. I recently was appointed the director of a national effort of the collegiate ministry I work with that we describe as a “digital first” effort to encourage and engage aspiring scholars who want to link their faith and academic life. It has me thinking about the place of online media in forming communities around similar interests; in this case around faithful Christian presence in the university world and what that looks like.

Much has been made of the movement of people from “on-the-ground” communities in particular places to online, or what some would call, virtual communities. Many think these online communities are poor substitutes for “on the ground” community, which for some is real community. Church attendance dwindling? Blame it on the internet. That sort of thing. Inevitably, online forms are opposed to “on the ground” forms, and labelled inferior.

A book I’ve been reading recently, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age has me re-examining assumptions. One of the most startling insights for me came from their attention to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul, like all of us, could only be in one place at a time. Over the course of his life, his travels took him from modern day Syria through Asia Minor and Greece, to Rome, and perhaps onward to Spain. He wrote to groups of believers where he had started churches (in Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, Thesalonica, and Philippi, and to groups he had never visited (in Colossae and Rome). Twenty-eight percent of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters and he wasn’t the only letter writer! What is striking is that Paul both seeks to communicate spiritual truth and instruction with those he is not with, but also assumes deep friendships and collaboration. He describes the Philippians as “partners with” him (synkoinonia) and the Romans as people he “longs to see.”

I wonder if Paul would have been a blogger today. Or would he have used podcasts to stay in touch with and instruct those he was away from for whom he cared? Maybe they would have used video conferencing or Facebook groups (I’m not sure he would have used Twitter–have you seen some of his sentences, particularly in Greek!). Then Paul would come visit, or perhaps gather leaders from many places at a single location for a conference

I wonder if a better way to think about these things is to see face to face and remote communication as complementary means of sustaining community and maintaining the values and mission we are engaged in together. Rather than either-or, there is a both-and engagement that is rich and substantive and two-way or even networked, whether we are together or not.

There are educators I know who have taught both in the classroom and online, and often have found the online interactions superior in terms of thoughtfulness of responses, and the engagement of quieter students who may not speak up in classes. Much hinges in how you set up what the book I mentioned earlier calls the “ecology” of a given context. While social media is justly vilified for echo chambers, bullying, and toxic discourse, I’ve also seen online contexts where differing perspectives are aired with both candor and mutual respect, and where people extend genuine and deep care for each other on and offline.

Finally, I’m struck that what makes this work, for Paul, and for us, is genuine affection and deep regard, even love. for those one is interacting remotely with. I’ve received many warm and thoughtful online messages. I remember those messages when I see the people who have written them, and it strengthens the bonds we share.

It is true that all forms of communication with those remote from us cannot easily convey all that we would be able to express verbally and non-verbally face to face. Actually, it makes me more intentional, more thoughtful. It makes me think and work harder, and read and listen more carefully. To write a response, particularly if it is not a tweet, requires more deliberation than off-the-cuff statements.

Yes, my hunch is that Paul would have written a blog. What do you think?

Review: Hidden in Christ

hidden in Christ

Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s BelovedJames Bryan Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2013, 2019.

Summary: Thirty short reflections on different key words found in Colossians 3:1-17 on what it means to be “in” Christ.

A number of years ago, I had the chance to go through James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God (review) with a group. Perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of this study was memorizing Colossians 3:1-17 together, a verse or two each week, forcing us to really meditate on each word of the text. The first three verses of this text are as follows:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3, NIV)

The title of this work draws on verse 3, and one of the themes Smith explores is what it means for us to live in Christ. Above all, it means to live as God’s “holy and dearly loved” people, (verse 12). In this pocket-sized work, James Bryan Smith leads us through a kind of lectio divina on this text in Colossians, focusing successively in 30 chapters on key words found in the text, offering short reflections on each one. For example, the first five are drawn from the verses above: raised, with, seated, set, hidden. As he considers the word “set” in verse 2, he offers these reflections:

   When it comes down to it, living the Christian life is simply a matter of where we set our minds. Every waking moment we have a choice about where, and on what, we will set our minds. That is something we are free to do. Having been raised with Christ and forgiven forever, and having Jesus with us in all we do, the primary practice of living as a Christian boils down to what we think about, what we dwell on, what values we keep before our minds, what truths (or lies) we have in our consciousness. (p. 37).

In addition to these brief reflections, there are sections about “Living into the Truth,” an “Affirmation” which is a brief statement summarizing the key truth represented by the word, a “Prayer,” and finally questions for “Reflection.” The short chapters and focus on a single word make this an ideal devotional resource that could be used over a month, or perhaps once a week for thirty weeks. There is also a group discussion guide at the back of the book for a five week discussion using six chapters each week.

In addition, this little book is a good introduction to the ideas in the Apprentice Series by the same author–or perhaps in my case, a good refresher. Recently, a paperback version of the book has been released, making it available at a lower price. What Smith models for us is the slow, reflective opening of ourselves to the message of scripture we often pass by in our instant-everything world. When we omit these practices, we do not gain time but lose the chance to hear God’s assurances of our belovedness.

 

Review: The Impeachers

the impeachers

The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just NationBrenda Wineapple. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A history of the accidental presidency of Andrew Johnson, his resistance to the civil rights fought for in the Civil War, and the impeachment proceedings against him.

Impeachment. Only twice in American history has Congress pursued impeachment proceedings against a President of the United States. Neither instance resulted in conviction of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This book chronicles the first instance where this remedy was pursued, during the presidency of Andrew Johnson.

Brenda Wineapple gives us a well-crafted account of the presidency of Andrew Johnson, the circumstances leading to his impeachment, the key figures from the House of Representatives that prosecuted the impeachment, as well as the presiding Chief Justice, the defense, and the final denouement.

Andrew Johnson was always a bit of a lone wolf, rising from tailor to accidental president when Lincoln was assassinated. When the Civil War began, though sympathetic with the white supremacy of the South, Johnson argued against secession as unconstitutional, and that in fact it was impossible for states to secede from the Union, a position he maintained later on as president. When Tennessee seceded, he continued to take his seat in the Senate. Later, Lincoln named him military governor of Tennessee. When it came time for Lincoln the Republican to run for his second term, he did the unusual thing of offering Johnson, a Democrat, the Vice Presidency, partly to weaken the Democrats, and perhaps with a view toward the restoration of the Union.

Wineapple describes how Johnson quickly instituted his own version of Reconstruction, allowing many of the old leaders of the south to return to office, undercutting newly won civil rights for blacks, and looking the other way when blacks were violently attacked, lynched, and slaughtered. He undercut the efforts of moderate Republican Lyman Trumbull to extend the Freedman’s Bureau by vetoing the bill, even after Lyman’s extensive consultations with Johnson led him to think it would be passed. It increasingly appeared that all the sacrifice of Union troops was for naught, as Blacks still were treated as slaves in all but name. The crowning insult was Johnson’s campaign trip, the “swing around the circle” during the 1866 elections where he denounced Republicans Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Philips by name.

While Republicans in Congress seethed at this treatment and the reversal of gains fought for during the Civil War, all of this occurred under the cloak of legality. Wineapple then discusses the efforts to limit the military occupation, including the work of Secretary of War Stanton and General Grant. This was one of the remaining protections for Black citizens. To protect Stanton, Congress passed over Johnson’s veto the Tenure in Office Act, prohibiting the firing of cabinet officials without Congressional approval. Johnson, believing the act unconstitutional, eventually sacked (or tried to) Secretary Stanton, which represented the crossing of a threshold that triggered the vote of impeachment in the House, and the impeachment trial in the Senate.

Wineapple takes us through the trial, introducing us to the managers for the House prosecution: Benjamin Butler who presented much of the evidence, and George Boutwell, and the courageous Thaddeus Stevens, enfeebled and dying. She gives us sketches of Chief Justice Chase, the defense for the president, key senators like Ben Wade, who stood to succeed to the presidency if Johnson was convicted, and correspondents including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Georges Clemenceau. Then came the vote, 35-19, with a key Republican, Edmund Ross changing his vote to acquit at the last hour. Six other Republicans joined him and twelve Democrats in voting to acquit. Though never proven, there was evidence of payoffs.

Johnson served out his term, but was disappointed not to receive the appointment of his party. He eventually returned to the Senate, dying in office in 1875. Ulysses Grant succeeded to the presidency, reversing to some degree the effects of Johnson’s “Reconstruction.” But the promise briefly glimpsed by Lincoln was never to be.

Wineapple does an outstanding job of unfolding the history and the fascinating characters around the impeachment. Her account of the life and death of Thaddeus Stevens was particularly striking. Her book makes the case for the challenges of impeachment: the ambiguities of language and procedure. The truth was, Andrew Johnson was a disaster and a white supremacist and could not be removed for these reasons alone. Only the violation of a questionable law (later ruled unconstitutional) provided the pretext. Even this effort fell short. Wineapple also shows us that white supremacy is nothing new but has a long and ugly history in our country, one accustomed to the commission of sordid acts and the constraining of civil liberties with the pretext of respectable legality.

Essentially, impeachment is an unproven remedy for the removal of presidents considered to have committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Section IV of the 25th Amendment has never been attempted. This brings us back to the critical importance of the choices we make for who we elect to be president and vice-president. Whether in office by vote or accident, the only proven way presidents may be removed from office is by the Electoral College, reflecting (hopefully) on a state by state basis the results at the ballot box, an opportunity that comes only every four years. The attacks of White Supremacists on voting rights in Johnson’s day also remind us of the vital task of rigorously protecting voting rights for all our citizens, recognized as critical for “liberty and justice for all” then–and now.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Confronting Old Testament Controversies

controversies

Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions About Evolution, Sexuality, History, and ViolenceTremper Longman III. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: With a commitment both to the authority of the Bible, and pastoral concern for readers, the author addresses controversial questions about origins, historicity, violence, and sexuality.

This work took a certain amount of courage to write. I suspect there will be a number who read it who applaud what the author says in some places and vehemently disagree elsewhere. Throughout, the author seeks to offer a reading of scripture, particularly the Old Testament that engages the text as a whole and seeks to listen to its overarching  message, that engages scholarship, including scholars, some friends, with whom the author disagrees, and seeks to exercise pastoral care, even for readers who may disagree.

The four issues the author addresses are the controversy of how we read the creation accounts of scripture in light of evolution; whether we can trust that the exodus and Canaanite conquest are historical events, despite claims that they did not happen; how we should think about the claims of divine violence in scripture; and what the Bible teaches about same-sex relations and the pastoral implications of this teaching. My brief summaries of the author’s responses to these controversy should not substitute for a careful reading of his responses, especially if one thinks one differs with the author.

  • On evolution, he both argues against “wooden reading that would lead us to think that it was the intention of the biblical author to provide us with a straightforward description of the how of creation” and equally against those who would deny “a historic fall and concept of original sin.” He contends that the Bible is interested in the who and why of creation while science addresses the how.
  • On history, he affirms the historical reality as well as the theological import of the exodus and conquest narratives.
  • On violence, he believes that attempts to claim God didn’t hurt anyone or that seek to minimize the harm, do not do justice to the biblical text, which, consistent with the New Testament portrays a God who fights against, and finally defeats evil. He actually suggests that the violence of the Old Testament, first against the nations, and later against Israel herself, stand as forewarnings of God’s final judgment.
  • On sexuality, he affirms the historic view of the church affirming sexual intimacy within the boundaries of a marriage between a man and a woman. He thoughtfully deals with key texts and alternative readings. While he holds to what is now called a “traditional” view, he contends he speaks only to the church here and that there are implications of the Bible’s teaching about sexuality that challenge every believer. He opposes crusades against same-sex marriage or the withholding of business services to LGBT persons offered to others.

What I most admired are the gracious ways in which Longman engages and charitably differs with scholars, including one who was a former student, and another who is a close friend. I affirm the ways he shows pastoral concern without compromising theological integrity, modeling a belief that love and truth, story and principle need not be at odds. Finally, I appreciate the thoughtful, nuanced yet concise, responses to four controversies, each of which have been the subjects of multiple complete books. What each have in common are that they represent shifts from historic understanding, arising both from scholarship and other cultural forces. Longman offers a thoughtful restatement of the biblical teaching that weighs the counter arguments and finds them inadequate to justify abandoning historic understandings shared by most of the church through most of its history.

The work serves as a good starting place for someone who wants to read a well-stated “conservative” view (although some conservatives and some evolutionists alike would be unhappy with Longman on evolution) on the four controversies addressed by this book. The documentation points people to the full range of scholarship on each of the questions. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter may help both with personal reflection and group discussion. Most of all, the work models a spirit in desperate need of recovery, that can both speak unequivocally about one’s convictions yet shows charities toward one’s opponents.

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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.

 

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

midnight at the bright ideas bookstore

Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMatthew Sullivan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: When Joey the Bookfrog commits suicide at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Lydia Smith’s ordered life is overturned as she discovers a connection between his death and buried memories from childhood that had marked her life ever since.

Lydia Smith seems to finally have found the haven she was looking for as a bookseller at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Surrounded by books, an interesting collection of fellow booksellers, and the “Bookfrogs,” street people who spend their days in the recesses of the store, life is pretty good. That is, until the night she finds Joey, one of the Bookfrogs with whom she had a special connection, dead by suicide in the store. In his pocket is a picture of Lydia blowing out candles at her tenth birthday with two friends, Raj and Carol. A picture she had not know existed. How could Joey have gotten it? A picture taken just before that terrible night.

Lydia had been brought up by her father, Tomas, a librarian. One night, she and Carol, the new friend who was crowding out Raj Patel, at whose parents’ gas and donut shop she used to go after school to talk with Raj, were to have a sleepover at Lydia’s. Tomas had totally forgotten about taking a bookmobile to a remote location outside Denver and his boss insisted he drive there that night, in a snowstorm. Carol’s parents, the O’Tooles, offer to host. That night, “The Hammerman” brutally murders all three O’Tooles. Lydia, hiding in a cupboard under a kitchen sink, is spared. The Hammerman is never found, though at least one detective, now retired continues to suspect Tomas, who was having an affair with Dottie O’Toole, and when he came for Lydia in the morning, had compromised the crime scene. Tomas and Lydia flee Denver for a small town, Rio Vista, changing their last name. He became a prison guard, and slowly he and Lydia grew estranged, resulting in her eventual return to Denver.

In addition to the photo, Joey has left her a collection of books, all of which have little windows cut out of them, and a sale label for a different book. When the books are matched up, page for page, they reveal messages that point Lydia to the reason Joey took his life. The messages and a picture taken of Lydia watching Joey’s body being carried out of the bookstore lead to connections back to her father, to Raj, and ultimately to the identity of the Hammerman.

This mystery is a bibliophile’s dream. Set in what sounds like a dream of a bookstore, with the main character a meticulous, quiet but caring bookseller working with a quirky cast of fellow booksellers, it is a story a bibliophile can find oneself within. As we follow the twists and turns as Lydia tries to unravel Joey’s messages, the mystery of his last days, and his connection to her, her father, and that terrible night, we feel with her the choice of both wanting to know, and not wanting to know; of wanting to know the truth of that night and what her father’s part was, or just wanting to get on with her life with him out of it.

The book is well-paced, getting each piece of the puzzle in place, and moving to the next, even while several pieces seem to remain hidden. While this is not an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller, I found my interest and curiosity building until the final pages where all the connections become clear including what happened on that terrible night.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — William H. and Mattie Kilcawley

Kilcawley House

Kilcawley House through the trees. Photo: Robert C Trube © 2010

 

I probably spent more time in Kilcawley Center as a student, and later for a time in the 1980’s as a campus minister at Youngstown, than any other place on the Youngstown State campus. I had several good friends who lived in Kilcawley Dorm (now Kilcawley House) and attended a Bible study group there. I went to various meetings in meeting rooms, listened to music in the music listening room, where I first heard the classic Buckingham-Nicks album, used to love all-the-spaghetti-you-could-eat Wednesdays, bought books in the bookstore, typed papers on typewriters (and had textbooks stolen from me), went to free movies, and probably bought beer from Ed O’Neill in the Pub.

I never knew until writing this post that I had William H. and Mattie Kilcawley to thank for this gathering place. I learned that they had a close connection to two other families whose names appear on Youngstown State buildings. In 1914, William H. Kilcawley joined Leon A. Beeghly and William E. Bliss in forming the Standard Slag Company. Slag is a stony or glass-like by product resulting from the smelting or refining of iron ore. At first glance, this sounds like waste material, but there are a number of uses of slag in concrete, road bases, railroad ballast, waterway construction, and even for soil amendments in agriculture. Obviously the steel industry of the Valley furnished an ample supply. Kilcawley was the secretary-treasurer of the company.

In 1945, the Kilcawleys bought Red Gate Farm, a 290 acre property at US Route 62 and Leffingwell Road. Previously, they lived at an estate called “Raccoon Acres” on Raccoon Road, and in a home on High Street in Canfield. The Kilcawleys raised sheep and cattle on the farm. Their agricultural interests also led to William’s involvement as president and treasurer of the Canfield Fair, and one of the gates to the fair is named in his honor after William died in 1958. The Kilcawleys had one daughter, Anne, who married Byron Christman. They lived in Illinois until returning to the farm in 1967, raising pigs, sheep, and grain. Anne was involved on the board of the Butler, and a trustee of the Stambaugh Auditorium Association. Anne and her husband had no children and she died in 2002.

Mattie was a member of the Youngstown State Board of Trustees. It was in this capacity that she arranged a $300,000 gift from the family trust for the construction of Kilcawley Center. She never saw the full complex, dying in 1972 before the second phase of its construction. The William & Mattie Kilcawley Foundation has give over $1 million to Youngstown State as has the Anne Kilcawley Christman Foundation.

Since the 1970’s students have gathered to eat, study, meet, and relax at Kilcawley Center. All this goes back to a successful company that processed a waste product of the steel industry, and the generosity of the wife of one of its founders, Mattie Kilcawley. Thank you, Mrs. Kilcawley for all those great memories from times at student center that bears your name!

Sources:

Joseph G. Butler, History of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, Ohio, Volume 2 (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1921), pp. 192.

History Red Gate Farm, The Vindicator, May 18, 2003.

Notable Giving Societies,” Youngstown State University

Susan Tebbe, “Canfield Still Paying for Redgate Farm, Despite Lack of Development,” The Vindicator, March 27, 2013.

 

Learning Questions

Question Mark Questions What Why How Where WhoI sympathized with a Facebook friend who posted the other day a statement that said, this is not for “discussion but for declaration” and that he wished there was a feature on Facebook that allowed for turning off comments. I have wished for that feature many times!

There are times when I’ve posted a comment, sometimes on a controversial issue, or an article, that reflects my own thinking and convictions, and immediately it is beseiged with arguments or counter-posts or even hi-jacked. Trying to engage in an intelligent fashion often seems futile. I honestly feel the commentators just want to shut me down. Sometimes they succeed. I understand why many people only post pretty pictures and cat memes on Facebook!

Frankly, I think it is rude to assume that I am inviting an argument. Sometimes, I just want to express what I am thinking or feeling or share something that I believe is reflective of my convictions that says it better than I could. I see plenty of things I take issue with on others’ profiles. If it is an article, sometimes I stop by and read. Sometimes I learn something. I guess I’ve never assumed the person was inviting an argument, unless they explicitly say so. However, the capability built into Facebook invites argument, wanted or not. Most of the time, it accomplishes nothing except inflaming the feelings of all involved.

I’ve seen a few places where this works, mostly closed and moderated spaces with clear ground rules for online discussion. One of the differences between the futile arguments that proliferate on so much of social media and healthy discussions, is that healthy ones are characterized as much by questions and listening as by statements and speaking. These discussions don’t always exclude efforts to persuade, but do so from a foundation of respectful listening and learning and questioning, and an openness to learning from another, even if this means change. It’s rare, and it leaves space for people to make up their own minds without rhetorical bludgeoning.

One of the marks of such conversations is that they are characterized by learning rather than leading questions. Learning questions are genuinely curious and really want to understand what a person thinks and feels and values and why. Leading questions are trying to maneuver a person into a place where one can assert the superiority of one’s own ideas and beliefs. Learning questions are open and open-ended. You really don’t know what the other will say or where the conversation will go. You might even discover something that changes you. Leading questions have already decided where you want things to go and what you want the other to say.

While I think it could happen in a Facebook comment box, I think it is far better face to face. Here are some of the kinds of questions one might ask:

“I’d love to know how you came to think the way you do about this question?”

“This is something I didn’t quite understand. Could you tell me more?”

“That’s really interesting. Could you say more about the basis for this idea?”

Who or what has been most influential in leading you to these conclusions?”

What has your way of thinking about this meant for how you live?”

So what should you do if you still think differently and would like to have a conversation about that difference?

First, a good test of whether you’ve really understood the person is that you can re-phrase what they think and they say, “yes, that’s it.”

Second, ask yourself if you really want a discussion of your thoughts in the same way you’ve been learning from your friend. Are you willing to be asked questions and to explain yourself so another can understand.

If so, then I think there is one more learning question that might be something like this:

“I think we differ about what we’ve been discussing. Would you be open to discussing how we might differ?

We cannot assume that another wants to have this discussion. Here, too, it seems we need to learn. We are inviting someone into a situation where we are having a good argument, one in which we differ, and are seeking to understand the difference and whether one of these is superior to the other (it could be that there is another way of thinking that has occurred to neither of us!).

Theoretically, one might do this on Facebook, but it would take a lot of typing! I think that is one of the problems with the format. It is designed for the quick response, not the deliberate step-by-step process by which two people understand each other. It is often a free-for-all with many people who know nothing of each other throwing in their two cents worth. No wonder it is usually a hot mess.

I do think Facebook can be a place where we learn something about what each other think. What would help me, and perhaps help this space, would be that if we disagree with what we’ve read, we ask first, would you be willing to discuss your ideas about this? That’s a learning question, as well as a courtesy. Then, if we want to, we can figure out the best way to do that, which might not be on Facebook. Would that be so hard?