Review: The Road

The Road, Cormac McCarthy. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Summary: A dystopian story of a father and son helping each other survive in a post-nuclear America, scavenging for food and avoiding murderous mobs.

The man. The boy. The road. One’s life in backpacks and a grocery cart.

Using an old map to walk back roads to the South and warmth when there is no heat.

Evading murderous gangs who kill and eat their victims.

Searching every dwelling for any scrap of food. A fallout shelter unused stocked richly. Can’t stay long for the risk of being discovered.

A lone boy. He has someone, he can’t go with us. He’ll be OK. Really? Really.

Ash everywhere. Rains smell of ash. Snow is gray. A gray, sullen landscape under gray skies. Nothing alive.

Nights under tarps, shivering in each other’s grasp, trying to stay warm, yet hidden.

A cough. Worsening. Spitting up blood. Must protect the boy.

We carry the fire.

This is The Road. Not a happy story. One to give anyone who thinks a nuclear holocaust survivable. This strikes me a good rendition of what “survival” would be like.

It reveals the heart of darkness that emerges when the structures of civilization fail. Yet it also reveals the bond of a father and son, the eternal flame of hope, or will against all despair to live captured in the words, “we carry the fire.” It recognizes a goodness that will not die (“we are the good guys”) even if this means that you will only kill and not eat the enemy who threatens you. Yet it is a world where you are wary of any human beings, the few who remain. Are there any other “good guys?”

It makes one think of what we have seen during the pandemic, when a virus and a polarizing president have threatened the social fabric–violent mobs in the streets, and roving the Capitol. Plots to seize and kill health officials and governors and even vice presidents. Elevated gun violence. Car jackings. Neighbor fighting neighbor over the refusal to don a mask. What do we need to see that the fabric of society is more fragile than we imagined? The Road may not be so far off as we think.

Review: The State of the Evangelical Mind

The State of the Evangelical Mind, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays surveying the state of evangelical thought twenty five years after Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

In 1994, Mark Noll ignited something of a firestorm of conversation, particularly among evangelicals working in academic circles, when his book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was published. It didn’t take much past the opening line to get the conversation started: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” It was around this time that I joined what was then Graduate Student Ministry (later Graduate and Faculty Ministry) of InterVarsity, and we saw ourselves on the vanguard of trying to change this situation in our work with those preparing for academic careers. Mark Noll even spoke for a couple of our conferences, encouraging our efforts.

This book came out nearly twenty-five years later and serves as kind of a survey of the landscape, assessing where we’ve come–or not.

Mark Noll contributes an essay to this collection recounting both the fascinating history of the Reformed Journal and noting a number of more recent developments that give him cause for encouragement, noting evangelicals in many fields publishing at academic presses, the growth of Baylor as a Christian research university, Christian study centers on many campuses, and Christian professional organizations. Sadly, though, we’ve witnessed the passing both of the Reformed Journal and Books & Culture. Noll sees silver linings in these losses.

That’s less the case with Jo Anne Lyon’s essay. Lyon, who has an exemplary career in leadership of evangelical social action and justice organizations. She traces the history of evangelical social action from Wesley to the present, citing the historic Chicago Declaration of 1973 (on which I recently wrote). She remains hopeful but believes evangelicals need to recover their narrative of being on the forefront of efforts of justice, mercy, and love, a narrative co-opted by political alliances and nationalism.

David Mahan and Don Smedley’s two part essay contend for the place of campus ministries in the recovery of an evangelical mind, and, for Smedley, a sharp critique of Noll’s approach that criticizes Scottish Common Sense philosophy and apologetic approaches to evangelical intellectual engagement. Smedley prefers the apologetic approach of J. P. Moreland that affirms the very things Noll critiques as vital for evangelical engagement.

It is hard to discuss the Christian presence in higher education without reference to John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. Timothy Larsen contributes the requisite paper discussing Newman’s relevance to the present day university, addressing the formation of persons and not just minds, Newman’s apologetic for a liberal education when career training is a focus, and the vital role theology plays within the university.

If theology is important, what then is the role of seminaries? Lauren Winner addresses these questions focusing on the cross-shaped formation of both pastors, and of those in the pew. Winner makes the proposal that in our activist-oriented churches, it sometimes may be a win if someone thinks differently about something after worship.

James. K. A. Smith is perhaps the most explicit of the contributors to address the parlous state of evangelical churches. He contends that the independence and unconnectedness of so many of these churches ought be addressed by an embrace of the catholic character of the church, a rediscovery of cardinal doctrines offering a far more bracing vision of life than our political illusions.

Mark Galli concludes this collection with the observation of the uniquely “Jesusy” character of evangelicalism. He argues that this is what drives the uniquely evangelical presence in places like the garbage dumps of Cairo, and contends for the need to re-embrace this quality. He also recounted his own formative years in InterVarsity inductive Bible studies, and how they taught him how to read, not only scripture but other works as well.

This was my own experience at an urban university. Similar training taught me to read carefully, to pay attention to the text, to question the text. As much as any other discipline, this taught me to think Christianly, not only about scripture but about anything I read, or heard. It raises questions for me as I think about this survey of the state of the evangelical mind. Mark Galli suggests we need to be more “Jesusy” and I would agree. The embrace of the one, holy, catholic church and her historic beliefs (catholic in the sense of universal, not specifically the Roman Church) is important. But the Bible is another aspects of Bebbington’s quadrilateral. There are naive and destructive readings of the Bible, to be sure. But the careful reading of scripture, tested by the faith once received, seems foundational to me for an evangelical mind, and it concerns me that both traditional and new forms of media have increasingly been substituted for lives saturated by careful reading and thought, first about scripture and then all things.

What both this collection and my own reflections suggest is that while there are bright spots and resources, there is much work to be done. While I remain a person of hope because I believe in a God who redeems and revives, I am saddened by what seem large swaths of Christians in America who are politically captive and convictionally compromised. This may be the work of a remnant, and yet one that must never fall into an enclaved remnant mentality. It may be that such work is not one of awakening a church that may be in large parts apostate but engaging a culture in search of it knows not what, and an academy struggling with the fragmentation of increasingly specialized knowledge and the multiplication of identities. This was the work of Christians in the Middle Ages that led to the rise of the universities. It may be our work in this time.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — St James Meeting House

Nyttend, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was a joyous day. My friend from college had found love again after having lost his first wife to cancer. They decided to marry at the St. James Meeting House in Boardman Park. We had driven by many times but had never before set foot in this historic building. By modern standards, it is a spartan building with limited restroom facilities downstairs as well as a dressing area for bride and groom. Upstairs, the sanctuary has vintage hardwood floors, a two-level raised chancel with dark red boards, and white walls, white narrow pews, and woodwork. Above the chancel is a gorgeous stain glass window with a central section and two side sections. One of my memories of the wedding was of the afternoon sun shining through the glass onto my friends. As I said, it was a glorious day in a building that looked like it came from a New England town.

In a way it did.

In 1807, a few years after the initial settling of Boardman, the Parish of St. James was established. Henry Boardman, son of Elijah Boardman of Connecticut, after whom the township was named, donated land, money, and some of the materials for the building. St. James Episcopal Church was built in 1827 and 1828 and consecrated in 1829 by the first Episcopal bishop of the diocese of Ohio, Philander Chase. It was the first Episcopal parish and church in the Western Reserve. The belfry and steeple, which add so much to the building, were added in 1882. The stained glass windows were also added during this renovation.

The building was sited just south of the Boardman town center on the east side of Market Street. A moment’s thought will remind you that this is where Southern Park Mall (or what is left of it) is located along with various outbuildings (Chili’s Restaurant and Bar now occupies the site of the church). In 1970, the Edward J. DeBartolo Company developed the land behind the church into the mall. With the area around it being commercialized, the congregation built a new facility on Glenwood Avenue into which it moved in 1971. It looked like this venerable old building, then 144 years old was slated for demolition. The diocese deconsecrated the building. Briefly, there was talk of moving it to the Pioneer Village at the Canfield Fairgrounds, but that was too costly.

Then the Boardman Historical Society, under the leadership of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Masters and Mr. and Mrs. George Marks, started a drive to move the building to Boardman Park, just down the road. They overcame legal difficulties with the deed and raised $45,000 to move the building down Route 224 to the park. Now it is the central structure in a collection of historic buildings that include the Beardsley-Walter-Diehm House (circa 1828), the Oswald Detchon House (circa 1840), and the Schiller-Chuey Summer Kitchen. In 1979 the building was added to National Register of Historic Places. Supported by the Ohio Bicentennial Commission, The Longaberger Company, The Boardman Historical Society, and The Ohio Historical Society, an Ohio Historical Society marker was erected for the building in 2001.

These days, weddings are the primary events at what is now the St. James Meeting House. It is a popular wedding site, normally averaging 300 weddings a year. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, listed at the time of writing at $170 for Boardman residents and $254 for non-residents. The building can seat 125. This includes a two hour wedding and an hour rehearsal. Groups interested in touring this historic landmark may schedule a tour by calling the Park District office at 330-726-8107, Monday through Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (subject to COVID restrictions).

The building costs about $9,000 a year to maintain, $7,000 of which is defrayed by wedding fees. In September of 2020, the building received a fresh coat of paint. This year, the building, considered the oldest existing church building on the Western Reserve will turn 193 years old. The year 2022 will mark 50 years on the Boardman Park site and 2028 its bicentennial. Obviously, Henry Boardman and the people of St. Mark’s built well and it is to the credit of the people of Boardman, Boardman Park and the Boardman Historical Society, that this piece of Youngstown area history has been preserved so well. One hopes it always will be.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Ida M. Tarbell

Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business — And Won!, Emily Arnold McCully. New York: Clarion Books, 2014.

Summary: A biography for young adults highlighting Tarbell’s journalistic career including her series of articles and books taking on Standard Oil, her relationship with Sam McClure, her views on women’s suffrage, and her lifelong labor to support her family.

Probably no one was better fitted to take on Standard Oil, the empire Rockefeller built. She grew up near or in Titusville, where the oil boom began. Her father’s and brother were in the oil business, and directly affected by Rockefeller’s monopolistic practices. At an early age, she determined not to marry, believing wedlock was bondage. But she had not thought of becoming a journalist. She loved science. She pursued her ambitions at nearby Allegheny College, being given the run of Professor Jeremiah Tingley’s laboratory. At that time though, the only careers open for women were teaching and missionary work. Having her doubts about God, she chose teaching and accepted an offer to teach at Poland Union Seminary in Poland, Ohio. Teaching only lasted two years until she returned home to Titusville, set up her microscope in the tower room, and tried to figure out what to do with her life.

A visit by Reverend Theodore Flood led to a chance to work on science articles for women in The Chatauquan. She quickly mastered every aspect of the business, making herself indispensable. She became interested in the fate of laboring people and the growth of trusts. Her capacity to quickly master a subject, and write with clarity led to an endless stream of writing assignments until she felt she was no longer developing. She decided to risk all, move to Paris, research Madame Roland, and try to support herself with articles from Paris. She sold a short story and some articles, one of which was on the paving of Paris streets, and lived a more or less hand to mouth existence. Then Sam McClure came along and changed her life forever. He’d read Ida’s article on paving streets, and told his partner, John Phillips, “This girl can write.” First she freelanced and eventually joined the staff of the fledgling McClure’s which became the home of a brand of investigative journalism dubbed by its enemies, “muckraking.”

Emily Arnold McCully chronicles her rise at McClure’s. Much was due to her own writing talent. But there was a synergy between that talent, including her dogged research skills, and McClure’s dynamic (and sometimes erratic) character. McClure inspired pathbreaking journalism, while lacking real business sense. She wrote articles on Lincoln and on Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. McCully’s narrative describes the talented group around her and both the stress and fun of putting out the magazine. Perhaps at the publication’s peak, Tarbell was assigned the task to research and write on Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller, the work for which she was most famous and would eventually be published as a book, leading to the breakup of Rockefeller’s monopolies.

By 1906, the magazine began to unravel as McClure struggled with debt. While Tarbell easily found work throughout the remainder of her life, it was never quite the same and her writing never after achieved the same greatness. Her continuing challenge from then on was her family, supporting her mother and brother. McCully also explores what many consider the black mark on her career, her resistance to women’s suffrage and legal equality of women with men. Her views were complicated because she supported opportunities for women in education and work and championed the cause of women had no choice but to work, often in harsh conditions. But she didn’t think women needed laws to be equal, and worried about the effect politics would have on women.

Ida M. Tarbell lived until 1944. She wrote several more business biographies and a book on life after eighty, even as she struggled with the onset of Parkinson’s disease. McCully gives us a highly readable account of this life in full, written for a young adult audience. The book includes a number of photos of Ida and the people and places with which she was associated. While not a feminist, she demonstrated the possibility that a woman could equal men by the sheer excellence of her work. She was striking in not trying to have it all. Perhaps the closest thing to a partner for her was Sam McClure. He pushed her, even as she helped hold McClure’s together. McCully gives a well-nuanced account of this brilliant and complicated woman.

My Generation’s Failure

The YMCA where the signers of the Chicago Declaration of 1973 met.

It was a wet, cold day at the end of November in 1973. We were in the middle of Watergate. It was during this month that Richard Nixon said, “…people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” The Vietnam war was winding down. Arab cartels were limiting oil production. To conserve speed limits, the U.S. lowered speed limits to 55 mph. A group of evangelical Christians met in the basement of the YMCA in Chicago and hammered out a statement declaring the incompatibility of racism, economic materialism and inequality, nationalism, sexism, and unholy political alliances with biblical teaching. Here was the statement they came up with, titled The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. This is the statement in full, reproduced from the Center for Public Justice site:

As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.

We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society. Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines. Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system.

We affirm that God abounds in mercy and that he forgives all who repent and turn from their sins. So we call our fellow evangelical Christians to demonstrate repentance in a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation.

We must attack the materialism of our culture and the maldistribution of the nation’s wealth and services. We recognize that as a nation we play a crucial role in the imbalance and injustice of international trade and development. Before God and a billion hungry neighbors, we must rethink our values regarding our present standard of living and promote a more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources.

We acknowledge our Christian responsibilities of citizenship. Therefore, we must challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might–a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad. We must resist the temptation to make the nation and its institutions objects of near-religious loyalty.

We acknowledge that we have encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity. So we call both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship.

We proclaim no new gospel, but the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, frees people from sin so that they might praise God through works of righteousness.

By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.

We make this declaration in the biblical hope that Christ is coming to consummate the Kingdom and we accept his claim on our total discipleship until he comes.

November 25, 1973

I came across this statement recently in something I was reading, and it was the saddest page I’ve read in a long time. It was an indictment of the failures of my generation.

I was a college sophomore in November of 1973. I learned of this statement, and a similar one at Lausanne 74 the following summer during the summer of 1974. This statement expressed the rallying cry of my generation of young evangelicals, written by a group barely a few years older than I was.

Here I am 47 plus years later. I’m dismayed by the continued complicity of white evangelicalism in the racist divisions in our country. I’m dismayed by the unholy alliance of at least three-quarters of white evangelicalism with one political party. I’m dismayed at the rise of Christian nationalism. I’m dismayed by story after story of abuse of women in Christian circles. I’m dismayed by the indulgence in and defense of economic materialism and inequity–more pronounced than 47 years ago. I’m dismayed by the trillions of dollars spent on endless wars. I’m dismayed by the climate change-induced dislocation and hunger faced by millions of the world’s poorest.

I’m dismayed because we knew better, and aspired to better. I’m dismayed because we used power to perpetuate and enlarge all these things we knew were incompatible with biblical teaching. I’m dismayed because instead of not proclaiming a new gospel, we are not interested in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ at all, preferring endless partisan political harangues, whether on the left or the right. I’m dismayed that about the only things that carry over and are as true in 1973 and 2021 are these:

We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives.

We acknowledge that God requires love. But we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.

Perhaps most of all, I am dismayed at our unrepentance, at our hardness of heart. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, a near coup attempt upon our government, natural catastrophes, and deepening social divisions that should drive us to our knees, but seem to only drive us to endless tweeting and posting, and trying to act as if life is “normal” in a most abnormal time.

I write this on Ash Wednesday evening. When ashes are applied to the forehead it is customary for the officiant to say either “Repent and believe in the Gospel, or more customarily, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ash Wednesday begins a season of self-examination and repentance as we look toward Eastertide. It is a time to renounce all earthly powers, all our idolatries of money and power and earthly kingdoms, and to acknowledge the gospel of Jesus, his death and resurrection for us as our only hope as we approach our own inevitable death.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that the white evangelical church will use the Chicago Declaration of 1973 as a statement against which to examine ourselves and as a call to repentance. And yet I do, because this is my “tribe,” those with whom my life and work has been most closely identified. But whether or not this happens for others, it will for me, along with prayer that the generation rising will not go our way.

Review: Sweet Land of Liberty

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, Thomas J. Sugrue. New York: Random House, 2009.

Summary: A history of the fight for civil rights in the North from 1920 to roughly 2000, focusing on movements, leaders, issues, and their expression in northern cities.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham, John Lewis, sit-ins, James Farmer, the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When we thing of the history of the Civil Rights movement, we often are thinking of the movement in the South. But racism and the efforts of Blacks to assert their rights in the North was just as real, even if the racism was not so out in the open. Thomas J. Sugrue traces this history beginning in the 1920’s, at the time of the great northward migration of Blacks, in a dizzying array of detail that I can only begin to summarize.

We are introduced to leaders: Henry Lee Moon, A Philip Randolph, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Attorney Cecil B. Moore, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, Constance Baker Motley, Reverend Albert Cleage, and so many others. Sugrue covers their contributions. Perhaps one of the most striking profiles was Roxanne Jones, who rose from poverty to street activism to the state senate of Pennsylvania.

We learn about the movements: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Urban League, CORE, the NAACP, with their attorney and litigation strategies, Nation of Islam, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and Mothers for Adequate Welfare.

Then there are the issues. Workplace rights. Equal access to facilities, a reality in the north, but often implicit rather than explicit. Open housing is one running through this narrative from redlining to exclusion from the Leavittown suburbs and restrictive covenants to real estate “steering” practices that preserved segregation in housing. There is the struggle for equal resources in schools, the struggle to desegregate, whether through redrawing school boundaries or busing, and all the pushback that occurred. He covers government employment programs and the ongoing income inequities.

Finally, because this happened in the North, this is a narrative that takes place in cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, and Chicago. This last I found intriguing because the issues, the patterns, and struggles were ones I see as I study the history of my own home town of Youngstown. Sugrue’s history parallels the history both in time and struggle what I’ve observed. In the struggle for history, local history is national history.

Sugrue’s history demonstrates how so much of northern racism is woven into the fabric of our cities: government, residential patterns, workplace policies, school systems, economic policies. It explains the necessity of the movements because these systemic issues would not be changed out of the goodness of people’s hearts. They needed to be protested, resisted, litigated, boycotted, and legislated. Gradualism and patience was not adequate to bring about change. Yet often the targets were subtler and tougher to call out, and invidious actions could be justified by what seemed common sense or even noble reasons, always aiming to preserve the status quo.

We must face what is broken before we can repair and heal it. It seemed so much of this history was one of efforts to call out what was broken, and the stubborn refusal, or if that was not possible, the superficial steps to heal deep grievances and brokenness. We should not be surprised by the protests we saw in our streets in 2020. Within the frame of this book, they were simply one more expression of a hundred year history going back to the great Black northward migration in the first decades of the last century, one more cry to be heard, one more plea that we embark on the hard work of justice it takes to truly become the sweet land of liberty of which we sing.

Review: Ecology and the Bible

Ecology and the Bible, Frédéric Baudin. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on ecology, and how it bears on our current crises.

Imagine an art patron leaving a priceless Cezanne in your care. You fail to dust it, leave it in the sun, allow your children to play underneath it leading to inevitable damage. It is irreparably damaged and you turn the painting toward the wall. Then the owner returns. The author of this book suggests this as an analogy for our care of the creation God has entrusted to us.

The aim of this work is to consider our present ecological crisis in the light of scripture, particularly in light of God’s mandate for human beings. Baudin begins with considering Genesis 1:28 and our stewardship mandate. He looks at the words used that underline our role to properly manage God’s creation, an earthly temple we guard and serve, language used for those who do this later on in Israel’s temple. Instead of exercising proper dominion, they submit to the serpent, and begin, as fallen creatures, to misuse the creation. In various ways, we exceed the laws and boundaries God sets for his world, including sabbath.

In the gospel, we are reconciled to the creation we had been alienated from, which is not an invitation to exploitation but care and restoration. The continuities and discontinuities between the creation and the new creation challenge us to not put all our hope in our work in this world while living in the hope that our work in caring for creation will matter in the new creation. Baudin discusses this eschatology in light of competing ideologies and various conceptions of the millenium.

Having considered the biblical narrative from creation to new creation, Baudin then turns to a discussion that moves “from theory to practice.” He explores the relation of economy and ecology, not merely in the etymology of the words, but how these interact in modern life, particularly in consumerism and advancing technology. He discusses politics on the global scale in which ecological decisions must be made. He turns to the efforts of Christians. and emphasizes the unique contribution our trust in the providence of God, shaping the tenor of our care of creation, putting God first, then people, and finally the welfare of the whole creation.

This work combines solid treatment of the scriptures, particularly apparent in the discussion of continuity and discontinuity in the New Testament. Given the work was originally in French, it reflects a European perspective. I would also note that whether it was an issue in the original text or the translation, the writing is characterized by the passive voice making reading more difficult. However the combination of solid treatment of scripture and the global perspective makes this a valuable work for Christians who would root their ecological thinking in scripture.

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

Review: Public Intellectuals and the Common Good

Public Intellectuals and the Common, Edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A collection of presentations defining, articulating the need for and practice of Christian public intellectual work that pursues the wider good.

Public intellectuals? We don’t have any of them around here. That seems the verdict of many who struggle to name a good example of a Christian public intellectual since the time of Reinhold Niebuhr or Martin Luther King, Jr. George M. Marsden discusses this sense in the foreword to this volume and contends that the size of the audience isn’t the only criterion for a being a public intellectual. What is critical for Christians is that they do this, reflecting not only excellence of thought but also the sacrificial work of Christ in love for those who may differ for this.

In their introduction the editors identify the challenges for evangelicals in considering public intellectual work. Do we see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers? We are both politically divided and as an evangelical movement, fragmented and amorphous. We’ve been distracted from the hard work of excellent scholarship and so our engagement is often mediocre, with some exceptions. We’ve not created the mechanisms of rigorous critique to develop better ideas common in the public environment. And they introduce us to a Catholic scholar of the last century who exemplified loving excellence for the common good, Jacques Maritain.

The contributors of this volume (originally conference presentations) lay the groundwork for a vision of public intellectual work for the common good. The first two essays are theological reflections. Miroslav Volf articulates the need for and character of the public intellectual, pointing us back to Sarah and Abraham through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Of any essayist he articulates most clearly the challenge of public intellectual work in the time of disorienting change:

“To negotiate all these changes, we need at least three things: (1) to understand the seemingly chaotic world around us; (2) to discern, articulate, and commend visions of the good, flourishing life in diverse and largely pluralistic settings, and (3) to find navigable paths to reach together the goals aligned with those visions.

Amo Yong turns us to the apostles and emphasizes both the discursive and performative acts of their ministry and the essential element of the work of the Spirit. He contends that theologians as public intellectuals should not jettison their theological insights but be resolutely theological in their speech and activities, even as they recognize their pluralistic setting.

The second part includes messages from those in the marketplace. Linda A. Livingstone, president of Baylor University, insists on the importance of presidents of Christian institutions leading in public intellectual work within their institutions as well as facilitating that work among faculty. Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, considers three of their Templeton Prize winners as exemplars of public intellectuals working for the common good, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and Professor Alvin Plantinga. All three are unapologetic adherents of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity respectively. Yet all three are characterized by humility that builds bridges to other faith leaders and scholars who differ with them, exemplifying what John Inazu calls “confident pluralism.” Katelyn Beaty, a former editor at Christianity Today, closes out this section describing the role of journalists in a post-truth era, offering her own example in covering the fall of Bill Hybels, and how Willow Creek addressed allegations against him.

The last section consists of two reflections. One, by Emmanual Katangole, describes his personal transformation when he worked with Chris Rice at the Center for Reconciliation, moving from theoretical work to public engagement around racial reconciliation. Then the concluding presentation is an interview with John Perkins and the centrality of his relationship with Christ to all his reconciliation and community development work.

I traced several themes running through these essays. One is that public intellectual work by Christians must always be grounded in Christian piety and conviction that refuses to mute this in public engagement. Second is the vital character of moral and intellectual excellence rooted in Christian humility. Third is that public intellectuals offer and embody sense and clarity in our divided and fragmented world rather than perpetuating the confusion. Finally, their work is moved neither by animus nor fear but by love that seeks the flourishing of all human beings, and not just the ones in agreement with you.

I appreciated the mix of presenters from academia and the public realm–emphasizing the work of philanthropy, journalism, and community development in particular. This is not a “how to” book but in it we encounter both theory and exemplars. Perhaps the most helpful word is from George Marsden at the beginning: this is not work for a select few, but one for all Christians who recognize the vital role of the life of the mind to bring greater clarity to our disorienting times, to the end of the good of our neighbors–all of them. In this collection, the editors combine vision, urgency, and hope for this noble and much needed work.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield, the First County Seat

Old Mahoning County Courthouse in Canfield, Ohio. Photo: Robert C. Trube, all rights reserved

Unless you grew up in Canfield, it is likely that your first visit to Canfield was to go to the Canfield Fair. That was true for me. It was a memorable night with my dad–the rides, the animal barns, footlong hotdogs, and to top it all off, while we waiting to turn left into our street coming home, a drunk rear-ended us! Nobody was hurt, but the rear end of my dad’s ’61 Ford Galaxie was crumpled.

The fair came nearly 50 years after the first settlers from Connecticut settled in what was then Township 1, Range 3, shortly after it was surveyed in 1798. Six people purchased shares in the 16,324 acres making up the township. The largest share, 6,171 acres, was purchased by Judson Canfield. After briefly calling the township Campfield, they early settlers saw sense and on April 15, 1800, they voted to call it Canfield in honor of the largest landowner.

The earliest settlers were all from Connecticut. They included Judson Canfield who was there in June of 1798, two of the surveyors, Samuel Gilson and Joseph Pangburn, and Champion Minor with his wife and two children, the youngest dying shortly after they arrived. The center of town was laid out, a log cabin and two homes were built and a barn. They also cut an east-west road, what is now Route 224. Groups from Connecticut added to the settlement each of the next several years.

In 1801, the first business, a sawmill, was built on the northeast part of the townshipThe first birth occurred June 22, 1802, Royal Canfield Chidester. Herman Canfield (Judson’s brother) and Zalmon Fitch operated a store. Fitch also opened a tavern. A small school was started in a combined school, community center and church building with Caleb Palmer as teacher. Samuel Gilson handled mail delivery, traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh to get the mail. By 1805, the little settlement had 17 homes, a store, a school and a sawmill. Immigrants from Germany came in 1805. A significant later immigration of Irish Catholics in 1852 augmented the population.

Canfield was originally on the southern edge of Trumbull County (along with Youngstown, Poland, Boardman, Austintown, and the all the Township 1s and 2s in the southern part of Trumbull County, the county seat of which was Warren. In the 1840’s communities like Youngstown and Canfield were growing because of routing of canals and railroads through the area, even while the county was represented by people from the Warren area in the state legislature. Finally, in 1842, Eben Newton, one of Canfield’s leading citizens was elected to the legislature. Working together with others, a proposal creating Mahoning County as Ohio’s 83rd county passed in the state legislature on February 16, 1846. The southern two tiers of townships from Trumbull County were combined with the northern tier of Columbiana County (surveyed as 6 x 6 mile squares as opposed to the 5 x 5 system used throughout the Western Reserve).

And Canfield? Because of its central location in the new county, it was designated county seat, with the courthouse in the photograph above being erected. The town underwent a boom as it became the center to transact legal business, with its hotel thriving. County seats are typically the sites of the annual county fair, and the first Canfield Fair was held October 5, 1847 as a one day event. In 1851 the Fair moved to its present location, which was expanded in 1867. The first superintendent of the fair was J.W. Canfield, grandson of Canfield’s founder.

Canfield was the agricultural heart of the county, so this made sense. But Youngstown had never been happy about the decision to site the county seat in Canfield. Youngstown was going through its first industrial boom, starting in the 1840’s, and especially in the 1860’s during the Civil War. In 1874, a bill to move the county seat to Youngstown passed in the state legislature. The bill was challenged in court, first argued in Canfield with James A. Garfield representing Canfield. The case eventually went to the Ohio Supreme Court, with the court upholding the bill.

The move of the county seat to Youngstown meant a different future for Canfield, combining the feel of a farming community with Classical Revival architecture, giving the community a sense of refinement–a community of schools and churches. In 1881, the Northeastern Ohio Normal School was established in Canfield to educate teachers for the community. It operated until 1910 when it closed for lack of funds.

For most of the year, Canfield is known as a quiet, relatively affluent city of good schools, a town square that retains its historic character, and a diverse mix of restaurants and local businesses. But for one week of every year, the rest of the county, as well as people from far and wide come to the largest county fair in Ohio. That’s how most of us growing up in Youngstown discovered Canfield.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Life’s Edge

Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive, Carl Zimmer. New York: Dutton, (forthcoming) 3/9/2021.

Summary: An exploration of how scientists attempt (and have failed) to define what life is and the quest to understand how life arose.

Philosophers talk about the meaning of life. Carl Zimmer offers us a glimpse into the world of scientists who are trying to define what is life. What is the definition of life and when can something be defined as alive? What about particles like viruses and prions that appear dead until they interact with other living matter? And how did life originate here, and has it in other places in our solar system and beyond?

Zimmer takes us on an exploratory tour of this question that begins in the Cavendish Laboratory in 1904 with John Butler Burke who believed he had created the missing link between inorganic and organic life when he released grains of radium into a sterile broth and discovered under a microscope that shapes were there and were dividing. He called them radiobes and he believed that the radium provided the “vital flux” to turn the constituent elements into blobs of protoplasm. Eventually, he was disproven by other scientists after enjoying fleeting fame.

Zimmer takes us through the history of research on life from van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries of microscopic life, to the growth of neural networks in laboratories. We go with him to pools near the mouths of volcanoes where some think organic life developed to discussions with researchers studying vents in the ocean. We enter caves to learn of the homeostatic relationship between hibernating bats and parasites who live off them and can kill them if they draw too much energy from the bat. We read of research demonstrating the lifelessness of soil samples on Mars and a meteorite from Mars that may evidence signs of life. I learned that red blood cells have no chromosomes and cannot divide and multiply like other cells.

Zimmer recounts the efforts of scientists to re-create the conditions under which they think life arose, whether it is in forming a strand of RNA or figuring out how to form a lipid membrane of the sort that surrounds every cell. Some scientists believe that the constituents of life have to come together fast, within 10,000 hours, because of the entropic forces that would destroy the constituents. That leads some to believe that they will achieve this in the next ten years.

In the end, he comes back to the question of the definition of life, cataloging the many scientists have proposed. He introduces us to Carol Cleland, a philosopher of science who thinks the whole enterprise is flawed and that what is needed is not a definition of life but a theory of life that helps us understand what life is.

As one reads Zimmer’s account, one realizes what is so fascinating in this quest to understand life and how it is possible. Zimmer introduces us to so many forms of life and the wonder of a planet teaming with life from microbes to every other form of life including ourselves. Some religious believers dismiss this whole quest to understand life and its origins with a wave of the hand saying, “God did it.” I’m not so quick to dismiss these quests. I realize some see nothing beyond the physical reality. Others, and I include myself here, would recognize in every scientific discovery the wonders and wisdom of God. If someone replicates the physical processes by which life arose, I will be delighted rather than distraught. My faith doesn’t rest on the gaps in our knowledge remaining gaps.

Zimmer gives us a glimpse at the reality of science. He shows us both the amazing things we are learning about the world, and the questions that remain, some on which multiple generations of scientists will work. He shows us the mistakes, and the ways that continued research and the rigorous peer review processes of science correct those mistakes. He shows us the big questions and what we still don’t know. This is great science writing!

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