Review: The Triangle

the triangle

The Triangle, Nakisanze Segawa. Middletown, DE: Mattville Publishing House, 2016.

Summary: Set in Buganda, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the novel narrates through the eyes of three figures intra-tribal struggles fed by competing colonial powers, weakening African rule, and ultimately leading to colonial rule under the British.

Nakisanze Segawa is a Ugandan writer and performance poet. She has contributed short stories to various anthologies, writes for the Daily Monitor and Global Press Journal. This is her first full-length novel.

The Triangle looks at the transition from tribal to colonial rule in Buganda (modern day Uganda) through three characters, each dependent in different ways upon the tribal chief or kabaka, Mwanga (Mwanga is an actual figure in Bugandan history). Nagawa is Mwanga’s second wife, hoping to bear a son who will eventually be kabaka, before one of the other co-wives. Kalinda is one of the kabaka’s pages, a servant in the royal court, and an intimate in several senses of the kabaka, who seems of late to have lost favor. Reverend Clement is a Church of England missionary, seeking to win converts, which means convincing people to leave the traditional ways, while yet courting the favor of the kabaka.

“Triangle” is a fitting image for the progression of this story, not only because of this particular set of three characters, but other triangles that run through the book. “Triangles” in relationships often reflect either three competing parties, or one party caught in a tension between two others. Such tensions run through the book. There are three wives all wanting to bear the future kabaka. Court pages, compete for the favor, including the sexual favors, wanted or forced, of the kabaka, who seems more interested in them than his wives, particular Nagawa. Sekitto, in particular has become the new favorite of the kabaka, supplanting Kalinda, and the increasingly disfavored Bukenya, a Catholic convert who has the temerity to plead for the life of a Bishop who did not take the approved but longer route to Buganda.

A religious triangle of Anglicans, Catholics, and Muslims, compete for the religious affections, and control of the kabaka-ship. Back of these religious interests are commercial and colonial interests of Muslims, French and English.  Mwanga has two brothers, who also are in line for the position of kabaka if Mwanga can be displaced.

As one may imagine, the noble aspirations, the commonplace longings for a peaceable existence, and the baser instincts of people clash. The kabaka and his premier recognize the encroaching threat of Christianity upon tribal ways and leadership, resulting at one point in Clement’s imprisonment, and his witness of the horrible martyrdom of both Anglican and Catholic converts. Brothers with Muslim allies succeed in deposing Mwanga who flees in exile, along with Christians who eventually become his allies. Kalinda aids in the overthrow, obtains high office, and then flees in turn when one brother eliminates the other, and Muslim control of tribal leadership becomes complete.

The latter part of the book chronicles Mwanga’s exile and plots to regain his position, bringing him increasingly under the sway of Reverend Clement and his British friends. Clement’s work becomes as much about guns as the gospel and we begin to see how the spiritually motivated missionary becomes entangled in imperial interests.

Segawa’s triangle of central characters around the embattled kabaka, Mwanga lead us into the competing and interlocking tensions that help us understand something of the dynamics of how an African kingdom might have been fatally undermined leading to British control under the British East Africa Company. Even as we root for Nagawa to conceive a child, for Kalinda to survive through the shifting alliances, we also see a ruler struggling to maintain a way of life during the colonial powers “Scramble for Africa.” We witness the nobility and courage of converts to Christianity as they are martyred, and the compromises with temporal power made by missions that undermined the spiritual power of their message. Segawa weaves all of this together in a powerful first novel.

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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.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Lanterman’s Mill and Falls

1024px-Lanterman's_Mill_-_Mill_Creek_Park

By Keith Roberts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I suspect if someone were to try to come up with a list of the most scenic views in Mill Creek Metropark, Lanterman’s Mill and Falls would be at the top of the list. During my teen years, I loved exploring the trails that run through Mill Creek Park. Of course I had seen the falls and the mill many times from the Youngstown-Canfield Road bridge on car rides. It wasn’t until I was walking along the trail downstream from the falls and came to a point where the falls and the mill was framed by the Youngstown-Canfield Road bridge that I realized what an incredible view this offers.

Apparently people have thought this view one of the most spectacular over the years. Here is a photograph I found from the early 1900’s:

Historic Lanterman Falls

The picture shows an earlier, and less substantial bridge over the river gorge than the one I grew up with which is still there.

The history of this site goes back to the beginnings of Youngstown. Two of the surveyors working with John Young in 1797, Phineas Hill and Isaac Powers surveyed Mill Creek and came upon the falls and immediately recognized the potential for a mill on the site. Hill agreed to purchase 300 acres around this site with the condition that a saw- and gristmill be built within 18 months, one of the first industries in what would become Youngstown. They operated the mill from 1799 until 1822. In 1823 Eli Baldwin replaced the structure and operated it as a gristmill only until it was washed away in a flood in 1843. According to the Lanterman’s Mill History page at the Mill Creek Metropark website, the millstone is still resting about 500 feet downstream in the creek bed.

German Lanterman built the third mill on this site with it’s current wood frame structure. He operated a gristmill with three sets of grinstones until 1888. For most of this time the mill was highly successful. In 1892, as Volney Rogers was acquiring the land for Mill Creek park, saving it from an industrial future, he acquired a building falling into disrepair and, along with Pioneer Pavilion, initiated repairs and preserved this iconic structure.

Originally, it held a ballroom, bathhouse for the nearby Pool of Shadows which was used for swimming, and a concession stand. Boats were stored on the upper floor in the winter. Later in 1933 the first floor was converted into a nature museum. Later it became the park’s historical museum. Major renovations were made in the early 1980’s, and one of my college professors, Dr. John White organized an archaeological dig and found evidence of an earlier raceway. The work was made possible by the Florence and Ward Beecher Foundation who made a $600,000 grant to the project. Lorin Cameron, an expert gristmill renovator oversaw the project.

As a working mill, Lanterman’s Mill requires continued maintenance, especially the wood of the water wheel and its supporting structures. In 2013 a new support beam for the water wheel was installed. The first Recipes of Youngstown cookbook proceeds were dedicated to water wheel repairs.

The mill is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission for Mahoning County residents is $1.00, for non-residents $2.00, students and seniors $.75 and children under 6 are free. Visiting the mill is a lesson in Youngstown’s industrial history. Walking the paths, the covered bridge, and standing on the observation deck help visitors discover the scenic wonder that has captured the hearts of generations of Youngstown area residents, including mine.

 

Leave the Label But Not the 81 Percent

Scot_McKnight_ACU_Summit_2013

By Flofor15 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Popular blogger and theologian, Scot McKnight, argued recently on his blog that it is time, and past time to bury the identifier “evangelical.”  Recently the former Princeton Evangelical Fellowship changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship, citing the confusion and negative associations the term has with students. Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical publication, now uses the language of “beautiful orthodoxy” to describe its vision. What it comes down to is the term is now associated with the 81 percent of voters who self-identified as evangelical who voted for our current President, and that essentially “evangelical” equates with a certain kind of Republican, and is a divisive and alienating term if one doesn’t identify with those Republicans.

I find I have to agree with McKnight, albeit with great sadness. This is the death of what was once a good word, literally. It has been corrupted by making it politically captive to one party whose policies and practices many thoughtful Christians find impossible to reconcile with a biblical faith.

McKnight is not one who is leaving what would be defined as an evangelical faith in abandoning the term, unlike others who have changed their beliefs along with their identification, some leaving Christianity altogether, others finding a home in mainline Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox bodies. What I hope for McKnight (and I would include myself along with him) is that he doesn’t leave behind the “81 percent” who still use the identifier.

I think there is a great danger for the “19 percent” to fall into the same error of the Democratic elite in this last election, who lost touch with their base, particularly in the working class and perhaps even looked down their nose at them as the “great unwashed” or “the basket of deplorables.” I would argue that there is an evangelical elite as well–academics, writers for national organs like Christianity Today, who would identify as “socially progressive” on many issues while remaining theologically orthodox. And this elite has its own “echo chambers.”

In his book Just ImmigrationMark Amstutz observes the progressive position on immigration of the Evangelical Immigration Table, and the disconnect between these evangelical leaders, and many of those in the denominations and ministries they represent. What this suggests to me is a telling lack of influence by those charged with teaching and shepherding their flocks. Amstutz also notes a troubling disconnect between biblical principles and policy recommendations reflecting a very thin biblical and theological analysis of the issues. When evangelical leaders fail to root their teaching in careful biblical argument, and promote a policy position that looks very much like a party platform, is it little wonder that there is a disconnect between shepherds and flock?

It is probably not uncommon for those in the “19 percent” to bemoan the divisive politics in our country. But what are we doing to heal the deep fault lines with the “81 percent”? I found it deeply troubling to read the uncharitable things written by those in the 19 percent about those who voted for the current president. Dropping the term “evangelical” helps shed what is a negative identification. But if it means dropping identification with those who share our core convictions, who we would call brothers and sisters in Christ, then we mirror our country’s political divisions in the body of Christ. What place have we for complaining about our nation’s divided house when we cannot even restore our own?

Scot McKnight represents a significant group within the 19 percent–those who are the teachers and pastors of the church. Ultimately, if the flock of God has entered into unholy alliances that have compromised our identity in the world, at whose feet must this be laid but those who are teachers and shepherds of that flock? Will we then distance ourselves to preserve our progressive theological purity and simply say “they” are the problem. How far from the prophets of old who identified with the sins of their people, or even Christ, who accepted a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin” even though he had no sins of his own to repent.

What is the responsibility of teachers and pastors when they believe their people in error? The apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

I wonder if we might need to spend less time in our echo chambers and more time with the people we serve, exercising kindness, able teaching, patient endurance, and gentle correction?

I also realize that some evangelical leaders are among those who have strongly supported the President. I’ve seen them decried in numerous blogs, but I wonder how many efforts have been made to “reason together” face to face.

Beyond all this, I wonder if there might be value in laying aside the politics to re-affirm the defining essentials of evangelicalism, even though we may need to find another name for it? Classically, we have been committed to the authority of the Bible in all of life, the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, the promise of new life through conversion of once lost persons, and activism in both witness and social concern. While we squabble about politics, a generation is embracing a secular ideology and a variety of alternative spiritualities, we face a rampant opioid crisis and growing disparities of wealth and poverty, education, and even life expectancy. We are witnessing militant extremists deepening our racial divides and promoting violence.

If we really believe the gospel in its wholeness is very good news and is a message of transforming power, why aren’t we coming together to consider how we might fulfill our Lord’s commission in our day? Why are we looking to the political order to deliver us, whether we are the 81 percent or the 19 percent? I wonder what would happen, and how many of our differences might either be resolved or set aside, if we came together across the spectrum to get about the Lord’s business.

Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners, wrote an article critical of Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright for his support of right wing causes. Bright was deeply hurt and the two didn’t speak for many years until they were staying at the same hotel and Wallis approached and apologized for failing to mend the breach between the two. Another meeting followed, Bright affirming that the Great Commission included care for the poor in doing all Christ commanded. The two prayed for each other’s work. Some time later, Wallis received a $1,000 donation for his work from Bright, along with a personal note,  at the same time that he had learned Bright had just died. He realized this gift and note were among the last things Bright did.

Might we give ourselves to healing such breaches and come together around our shared calling once more? It would be a sad thing if we gave up hope for that kind of healing along with the name “evangelical.” To do so would be to give up on the gospel.

 

Curious Bibliophiles

Karel_Rélink_Der_Bibliophile_1902

Karel Rélink [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bibliophiles are curious people. That may be taken in two ways and both are true. They are “curious” in the sense of being kind of odd or unusual. Books are part of their home decorating scheme. When packing for a trip, the question of “what books will I take?” may be more important than what clothes will I need. A great day is when I discover a new bookstore, or find a book I’ve always wanted to read. We are “curious” people, to be sure.

We are also curious people in that we read to understand our world. At least one of the reasons for at least some of our book choices begins with, “I always wanted to learn about…” or “I came across a book about…and I decided that might be fascinating to read.” Sometimes our curiosity is driven by real life concerns, such as when I read an in depth account of the battle of Gettysburg before visiting the battlefield. And sometimes, our curiosity seems just sparked by a whim.

Curiosity has taken me all kinds of places, from exploring the doctrine of the Trinity to the everyday phenomenon of rain. It has led me into the delightful world of Wendell Berry’s Port William Society, and through a friend’s suggestion, into the fantasy world of Middle Earth, a place I’ve visited again and again in every decade of my life. It’s taken me into darker places as well–the specter of eviction, the “problem from hell” of genocide and the evil of human trafficking.

This brings me to a question I’ve been thinking about lately. Ought we have any boundaries on our curiosity? I’m not talking about boundaries others set, which I would consider an improper, and in the American system, unconstitutional intrusion upon our liberties. The question was provoked for me when I read Bookstore, and particularly passages in which the store owner spoke of her fascination with reading about inter-species sex and about cannibalism. I think my first response was “yuck” and my second to wonder “why ever would you be interest in that?” Then it occurred to me that, much as I find these things repugnant, the truth is that they are part of the human experience, and it might not be utterly bonkers that someone would research these things and others understand them. As far as I know, this person never participated in such things and curiosity to understand phenomena like these no more necessarily leads to doing them than reading about human trafficking inclines me to traffic human beings.

I do wonder if there might be two situations in which curiosity might exceed the bounds of health. One is where that about which we are curious leads to an insatiable quest to know more and more, to the neglect of duties in real life. Do you know those who have developed an unhealthy absorption with conspiracy theories, who are constantly reading about them, talking about them, worrying about them, and in the process, alienating their friends?

The other is when curiosity leads to our minds and emotions going to places we know that for us are not healthy or even tempt us to act out in ways that are morally wrong. And here, two people may be very different. Descriptions of violence, even when not gratuitous, or erotic scenes may affect two people very differently. I had to set down the work of one science fiction writer, fascinating as I found his writing, because there was something in his recurring portrayals of violence that was not good for me. Nor do I think exploring the world of the occult, with the view of searching out the things God has hidden to be a healthy exercise of curiosity.

That said, for the most part, I think curiosity a good thing–that we were given minds of such capacity to explore every nook and cranny of God’s good world. Books are a wonderfully convenient way to do that. I don’t just read pages, but embark on a journey of discovery, whether it is of astrophysics or the composition of a Mozart. I think curiosity is one of the reasons for why we read. Curious bibliophiles, indeed!

What do you think?

Review: A World to Win (Lanny Budd #7)

A World to Win

A World to WinUpton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1946).

Summary: Presidential Agent 103, in the guise of an art dealer, embarks on a series of journeys, planned and unplanned, in which he gathers significant intelligence for the Allied cause in its fight against Nazism.

Most of us know Upton Sinclair as the author of The Jungle, an expose’ of conditions in Chicago meat packing plants at the beginning of the twentieth century. I was unaware that he was author of the Lanny Budd series of eleven novels, named after the primary character, the son of an American arms dealer, a gentleman of tact and insight who moves among the major figures of the first half of the twentieth century, and eventually becomes Presidential Agent 103, using the cover of a fine art dealer to travel into occupied France and Germany to gather intelligence against the Nazis critical to the allied threat. The third book in the series, Dragon’s Teeth won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for Novel. The series went out of print for years only to recently be resurrected by Open Road Media.

Some of you may remember The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. The main character of that book “Pug” Henry was also an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and met with a number of world leaders. Reading A World to Win, I couldn’t help but wonder if Wouk had drawn his inspiration, consciously or not, from this work, published 25 years earlier. In the course of this novel, Budd meets with Marshal Petain, Hermann Goering, Rudolph Hess, Adolph Hitler, alludes to meetings with Churchill, hobnobs with William Randolph Hearst, is entertained by the widow of Sun Yat-sen, meets Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), and finally, at the end of the novel, Joseph Stalin.

After each of his forays, including a kidnapping by underground forces who suspected him of Nazi ties when he was actually on their side, escapes from Luftwaffe bombings, and other perils including a near fatal plane crash, he has late evening meetings in the bedroom of Franklin Roosevelt where P. A. 103 is debriefed. During one of these, he even gives Roosevelt the words, “the arsenal of democracy,” that Roosevelt used in one of his famous speeches! This incident underscores Budd’s singular ability to endear himself to whoever he is with, even those he inwardly despises, like Hitler, and keep them persuaded that he is nothing other than a disinterested art dealer.

At the same time, Budd’s endearing qualities draw him into affairs of the heart with two women. Lizbeth is the young daughter of a Baltimore industrialist, beautiful but incapable of anything beyond conventional conversation on conventional subjects. Laurel Creston, her cousin is a socialist-leaning anti-Nazi journalist who Lanny helped escape from the Gestapo, and easily his intellectual equal. While on his “missions” for the president, he refuses to consider either, given his dangerous lifestyle. But when “furloughed” after the plane crash, which also destroyed his “cover,” he finds himself in a different place.

Things get even more interesting when Lanny gets invited on a cruise to Hong Kong (where a psychic had predicted Lanny would die) by Lizbeth’s father. Laurel also manages an invitation, leading to an interesting predicament. Who he ends up with, how they escape the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, and how they end up meeting Mao and Stalin, I will leave you to discover.

One detects in the book Sinclair’s life and interests–Baltimore where he grew up, interests in psychics and spiritualism, and socialist leanings, which characterize Laurel, and in a more chastened form, Lanny himself, despite his loyalty to Roosevelt and to his arms manufacturer father.

While the idea stretches credulity that Budd could somehow manage to meet all these great personages in one novel, and end up traveling around the world, the journey is rip-roaring good fun. The closest this seemed to me to get to a plot was the recurring allusions to Budd’s death in Hong Kong, fantastic at best, until Hong Kong becomes a cruise destination and we realize that his arrival date coincides with the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s invasion. At the same time, there are seasons of reading when one does not particularly care as long as the book keeps your attention.

I should say that I started this series with this book which is number seven, which happened to be available at a discount in e-book form. It was definitely good enough that I want to go back and read the series from the beginning. If that sounds interesting to you, Open Road has a page showing all eleven novels in their proper sequence, and other Sinclair works, with links to purchase them in different e-formats.

Review: Jesus, Beginnings, and Science

Jesus, Science and Beginnings

Jesus, Beginnings, and Science, David A. Vosburg and Kate Vosburg. Farmville, VA: Pier Press, 2017.

Summary: A guide for group discussions on the Bible and beginnings, human origins, and science co-written by a scientist and a campus minister.

Many people think there is a war between Christian faith and science, and one must “choose up sides.” Sadly, many committed to science have thus rejected faith, and many committed Christians either distrust science or distort it to conform to their faith. The husband and wife team of David and Kate Vosburg, a chemistry professor and campus minister, respectively, represent a marriage of science and faith. Investigation of the physical world deepens their appreciation for the work of God, and embrace of a biblical world and life view enhances their love of the scientific enterprise.

In this group discussion guide, they provide a series of twelve discussions around three main areas where tension may arise: the Bible and creation, the Bible and human origins, and the Bible and science more broadly. Part One looks at the Bible and creation and in four studies looks at Jesus’ role in creating and sustaining the world, praise to God for the majesty of creation, the creation account of Genesis 1 as a liturgy of creation, and the new creation of Revelation 21-22.

Part Two turns to what is often more controversial, the origins of human beings. This portion begins with considering the authority of the Bible and how we read the Bible, then turns to the Genesis 2 narrative of the creation of the first couple. The third study in this section considers this disagreements among Christians on origins, how we talk about these with each other and provides a very helpful table outlining the major positions. The fourth study focuses on Psalm 139, and how the wonder of God’s involvement with us from conception ought temper our disagreements.

Part Three is more broadly concerned with Christians and the scientific enterprise. The first study looks at some of the descriptions of the physical world in scripture and how these might not be so much about the science of creation but the Creator of science. The second study explores the limits of human knowledge and how this ought temper our statements about what we learn from science and conclusions about what role God does or does not have in the world. The third study was particularly helpful in showing the compatibility of foundational beliefs of science and Christianity. The last discussion concerns how pondering God’s deeds in the world is a way of loving God and opens the doors for Christian involvement in science.

Each study begins with review of the previous session or an activity between sessions, then offers an opening question followed by biblical texts with time for personal study and questions for group discussion. The discussion closes with a Share. Pray. and Reflect question. This is followed by a “Scientist’s Reflection” written by David, song suggestions if groups incorporate music, and further readings. Each of the three parts ends with a summary of that part. The book also includes an extensive bibliography at the end.

At the end of the guide, David and Kate reflect on their journeys. I appreciated what Kate has written here, which parallels my own journey in exploring these questions:

“In studying Scripture and combatting my biases against science based on fear, I’ve realized how much more Scripture tells me about God and the world and how much less it tells me about science. I’ve come to trust scripture much more deeply and become less defensive and nervous when people raise questions or issues. For example, I used to read Genesis 1 and be disturbed by conflicting scientific creation accounts. Now when I read Genesis 1, I see a beautiful poetic description of God’s creating. I see how the Lord is shown to be good, powerful, and creative. I see the incredible relationship God established with humanity. And it leads me to worship” (p.85).

The studies encourage respectful dialogue, and the Vosburgs don’t expect everyone to agree with them or each other. Rather, what they have come up with is a great set of discussions meant to facilitate thoughtful conversation around the Bible and what it does and doesn’t say, and how it bears on scientific findings and work. I think this could be used equally well by a group of Christians, or Christians and seriously seeking friends wondering about Christianity and science (I might skip the songs in that context). There is a great need for a better conversation about Christianity and science than what we often see in our media and in some of our churches. This is a great resource toward such conversations.

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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.

My Response to #MeToo

Don’t usually post twice in one day but wanted to get this out there:

I’m deeply grieved to see so many good friends posting #MeToo. One is a colleague on my work team. Others are dear friends, or those who I deeply respect as gifted, intelligent women. I suspect there are also men out there who have been abused at the hands of men. I’m deeply sorry for the ways my fellow males have acted and that the world is so unsafe for women, children and other men.

To my brothers:

1. Having “your way” with women is not the way to obtain your “man card.” It just shows how much you still have to learn about real manhood which is measured not by your sexual exploits but your self-control and service to others,
2. I never want to hear another man use the idea of “it was her fault.” or “she wanted it” again. “No” never means “yes” and all this tells me about you is how weak and immature and self-deceived you are. It says nothing to me about the woman.
3. Don’t tell me that you can’t control yourself. If that’s true, you need to get help fast! You risk losing your job, destroying your marriage, suspension from a university if you are a student, and criminal charges and a sex offender label.
4. Don’t think porn is a safe alternative. Objectifying and having sex with what you think are virtual women (or others) only contributes to distorting your views of real human beings and feeds the lust for more. And the women (or others) are real people–and often are experiencing exploitation. There are groups to help you escape porn addiction.

For churches and other institutions. When these things occur (and sadly they will) in our midst, we need to realize that the only protection that should be going on is of the victim. The only protection alleged sexual offenders should have is of due process rights under law as part of a criminal investigation.

Men, we need to take responsibility to watch out for each other in this regard, and call each other out at the first hint of disrespecting women. There are a number of ways from words and jokes, to visual materials, to looks and gestures, in which we disrespect women and create a threatening atmosphere or discomfort that fall short of crimes and these also need to be called out. It saddens me that so often it is the women who are doing the calling out. They shouldn’t have to because as fathers, brothers, colleagues, and friends, we are doing it first.

That’s all.

Review: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit

cultivating the fruit of the spirit

Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Christopher J. H. Wright. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A study elaborating what it means to grow in Christlikeness looking at each of the nine fruit of the Spirit.

“Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

This is a portion of a prayer prayed by the late John R. W. Stott each morning. Perhaps, as author, and Stott’s successor in leading the Langham Partnership, Christopher J. H. Wright notes, it is no surprise that many who met Stott felt he was the most Christlike person they’d ever met.

This is a book about growing to be more like Christ through cultivating in one’s life the nine fruit of the Spirit the apostle Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23. Wright nicknames these the “9-A-Day” through which our character is formed to be like Christ. He begins this study by setting Paul’s list in its Galatian context. Paul argues for the gospel of being reckoned right with God by our faith alone apart from works. Then he addresses what may be a criticism–that in rejecting legalism, haven’t you opened the door to license? Rather, what comes through the Christ who indwells us by the Holy Spirit is freedom from slavery either to law or to licentious sin. This Spirit, as we root our lives to Him each day in prayer, study, and faithful obedience bears the fruit of Christ’s character in us over the course of our lives.

Wright goes on in the next nine chapters to consider each quality in Paul’s list. His approach is not to tell a lot of stories but to focus on the biblical material about each of these qualities, both how we see this quality in the character of God, and what this looks like in the life of a Christ-follower. Much like the teaching of John Stott, Christ gives is clear and memorable outlines to help us reflect on each of these qualities, and concludes with practical application to everyday life. For example, in the chapter on “kindness” his subheadings are “Kindness and the Character of God,” “Kindness as a Quality of Those Who Worship God,” “Kindness and the Example of Jesus,” and “Kindness as a Habit of Life.” He concludes this chapter with two questions that may help us in our practice of kindness:

  • What would I do for people if were the Christ?
  • What would I do for people if they were the Christ?

Wright concludes each chapter with a few reflection and application questions. An additional feature at the end of each chapter is a link to a video of Wright talking about the particular fruit of the Spirit. For a sample, here is a link in which Wright introduces the series.

This is a book I wish I had as a young Christian. I understood that I had become a Christian through the work of Christ. But I found little help in what it meant to be a Christian, to live a life marked increasingly by the character of the Christ I was following. This is such a helpful study that offers hope that God, through his Spirit will indeed work out his character in our lives as we root our lives in Christ, heeding his word, gathering with his people, yielding ourselves in prayer, and faithfully acting on what he says.

I also appreciated the combination of scripturally-based instruction, and thoughtful application throughout. This comment about patience is just one example:

“That kind of patience is sadly needed more than ever in Christian churches–and even (maybe especially) among Christian leaders. In the world of instant blogging and commenting (and comments on comments), patience seems to be a very neglected virtue. Some people simply can’t wait to put their word in, get their point across, speak their mind — however harmful and hurtful it may be. We have become very impatient — in attitudes, communication, and expectations” (p. 79).

This strikes me as a great book that one might use for personal reflection, for discussion with a younger believer, or in a group. In that context, using Wright’s videos to set up discussion of each chapter could work very well.

It also strikes me that this work, unassuming as it may seem, is vital in our day. I observe on one hand Christians bemoaning the flight of millenials from the church and at the same time grasping at power and influence in American culture. Wright’s quote of a Hindu professor points to why the Christlikeness of lives characterized by the fruit of the Spirit is so important:

“If you Christians lived like Jesus, India would be at your feet tomorrow.”

Dare we believe it could be so of our own country?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Why We Remember

YoungstownOhio1910s

It is hard for me to believe that I have been writing these posts for over three years (going back to April or May of 2014)! It has been quite a journey, not only through my own memories of growing up in Youngstown, but also the memories of so many of you who have commented on Facebook or on the blog itself. You have reminded me of things I’ve forgotten and enlightened me on things I either did not know about or poorly understood. My wife often sees me smiling when I am reading comments from you and that is because so many of them have recalled good things and brought joy to my heart, especially as we have savored memories of good food and good times in our common home.

That brings me to the question that is the title of this post–why do we remember? I have encountered a few along the way who scoff at this, who contend it is best to leave the past in the past, and as for Youngstown–we have to deal with what is now, and the future, however we see that. I respect that, and agree that we can’t live in the past.

At the same time, I do think there is value in remembering our experience in growing up in Youngstown. Here are several reasons why I think we remember:

  1. We enjoy remembering. While we may have painful memories, in time, many, but not all, fade and what stands out in our minds are the good experiences we have had through our lives. As we grow older, I suspect most of us would agree that while it is nice to have a flush bank account, what you really want is a bank of memories of family, friends, good food, and great experiences that you can make daily withdrawals from without it ever being depleted.
  2. We learn from our memories. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” I have found that I’ve learned through reflecting on memories, particularly about how growing up in Youngstown shaped me. Everything from a love of beauty to being able to detect when someone is giving me a load of bull came out of growing up in Youngstown. Growing up in Youngstown taught me both how to work hard, and how to savor the fruits of work.
  3. We dignify what it means, and meant to be “working class.” Remembering, and celebrating our shared culture, and writing it down leaves a record of the richness of life in a working class town. In some educated circles, it is not unheard of to look down on people who grew up where we grew up. I would suggest that the culture of other classes, and what some call “elite” is not superior to working class culture, just different. We enjoyed a rich cultural life of food, music, sports, and celebrations, and there was an emphasis on education, hard work, the value of money, and appreciation of beautiful things and places like Mill Creek Park.
  4. Remembering is also a way that we sift out and decide what we want to take from our past and carry into our future. While some of the things I’ve written about are about the good things that are no more, there is so much about what made Youngstown a great, good place that had nothing to do with jobs and economics. They were already present when Youngstown was getting on its feet and are important for the future of Youngstown, or any place we live — good civic leadership, an investment into cultural institutions like art museums and symphonies, the creation of good parks as well as good businesses, the value of family and neighborhoods where people look out for each other, good schools and universities, and maybe most of all, lots of good occasions to gather over good food and drink.

Finally, without remembering we would not have stories to bore our grandchildren! Happy remembering!

To explore more memories of Youngstown and what it means to grow up working class, all my posts can be found at “On Youngstown” on the menu.

Review: The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind

The Life of the Mind, James V. Schall. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006.

Summary: A series of meditations “on the joys and travails of thinking” focused around the central idea that thinking is discovering “what is.”

It is likely the case that other creatures “think” but thinking is one of the things that particularly sets apart human beings. We may also recognize that it is possible to think well or poorly and that an education, even a liberal education, may not necessarily set us up to think well.

This is a book about thinking, about the use of our minds to think well. The chapters are a series of meditations on aspects of the life of the mind. Schall begins with a fundamental premise, that the life of the mind is about the discovery of what is. As a Platonist (and a Christian), he believes that there is a reality that is “not ourselves” and that it is possible to discover this what is, and that it is.

He begins, in the chapter “On the Joys and Travails of Thinking,” to introduce us to A. D. Sertillanges book The Intellectual Life and the “habits of mind” necessary to an intellectual life. This then leads to a broader discussion on “Books and the Intellectual Life” of the place of books in the discovery of what is. He reminds us that any truly great work is worth reading more than once. He concludes the chapter with this peroration:

“Tell me what you read and I will tell you what you are. In any intellectual life, books and the books we have around us do not just indicate where we started or where we have ended, but how we got there and why we did not go somewhere else or by some other path. They ground and provoke our inclination to know. Books and the intellectual life go together, provided we always remember that it is the books that are for the life of the mind and not the other way around” (p. 20).

In his chapter on the liberal arts, he observes that the liberal arts as opposed to the “useful” arts open us to the what is that we have not or cannot make. Then he moves to “wisdom” which is the fruit of liberal study and learning what is, that we might live well, employing our energies for what is best in ways that yield joy.

“On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited” is a chapter of comfort for those who only later in life discover Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, and other great writers. Often, these works mean more than they possibly could when we were young and lacking in the experience of life. There is a marvelous little chapter on “The Metaphysics of Walking” which is yet another way of our encounters with what is, and that there is a long history of walking thinkers! Then he speaks of the joys of discovering “a most wonderful book.” Most bibliophiles have had this experience and will gladly share their most wonderful book.

In later chapters, he challenges the relativism of the modern academy and the idea that it is all about questions. He believes that good philosophy, and good teaching leads to answers, and not just questions.

He concludes these reflections with an observation that is worth chewing on: “In the end, it is indeed a ‘risk’ to be a human being. That risk consists largely in our choosing not to know what is because we do not want to know where such knowledge might lead us.” I’ve often found that in discussions of faith that the real issue is not an inability to believe, but an unwillingness to consider belief because of what that might mean in one’s life, where that might lead one. Thinking can be dangerous!

The book also includes three appendices including a list of twenty books to awaken the mind (!), a transcript of an interview in the National Review Online on Education and Knowledge, and the text of a talk he gave on “Reading for Clerics” that speaks compellingly to the importance of reading and thinking to maintain vitality for any who engage in ministry, lay or clergy.

While Schall is a Catholic priest, this is not a Christian or Catholic text per se. What it represents is a good example of a work written for a wider audience that draws on Plato and Aristotle, as well as on Christian thinkers. He does what I think scholars who are Christians in the public square ought to do: engage a subject in the language of their discipline while unashamedly speaking of the contribution of Christian thought to that discourse. That too, I would propose is one of the fruits of a long engagement with careful thinking, a seamless weaving together of faith and reason in helping all of us understand better what is.