Review: The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher. New York: Sentinel, 2017.

Summary: A proposal that in the face of pervasive cultural decline that has led to political, theological, and moral compromise within the church, it is time for Christians to consider a kind of strategic withdrawal patterned on the monastic movement founded by St. Benedict.

The idea of “the Benedict Option” first came to my attention last summer when I was writing decrying the poisonous discourse, and what I felt was the lack of real choices in our presidential and some other races. A friend posted a comment pointing me to the writing of a conservative commentator, Rod Dreher, and articles he had written about “the Benedict Option,” inspired by the ideas of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Subsequently, I wrote a post asking the question, “Is it Time for the ‘Benedict Option’?” My own opinion at the time was that while Dreher raises some critically important issues to which I believe churches must address themselves, I argued for an alternative sociologist James Davision Hunter calls “faithful presence.”

Now Dreher has published a fuller version of his argument in the recently released The Benedict Option. While I stand by my earlier opinion about the proposal, I have a deeper appreciation for the concerns that motivate Dreher and the value in what he proposes. Reading this fuller statement of the outworking of his ideas raised some additional concerns both about what he proposes and what he fails to address.

First of all, critical to understanding Dreher’s proposal is his assessment of the state of our culture in America. He opens the book likening the situation to a catastrophic flood in which the most strategic option of the survival of the church is the build an ark. He cites the failure of political “culture wars,” culminating in the legalizing of gay marriage, and the morally and theologically compromised state of conservative, mainline Protestant, and Catholic churches alike, typified in what Christian Smith has called “moral therapeutic deism”. He contends that it is time for the church to consider a strategic withdrawal along the lines of St. Benedict, who found Rome after barbarian invasions both in ruins and decadent. It is important to read Dreher closely here or one will simply hear him as saying we need to “head for the hills” or all become monks. Perhaps his choice of flood imagery is unfortunate here. Many of his examples in subsequent parts of the book suggest rather Christians who are part of counter-cultural communities that form people in Christ in the midst of an increasingly and more radically secular environment.

What does Dreher draw from the example of Benedict (and modern day Benedictine communities which he visited)? Fundamentally he argues that Christians need to be in a community with a rule of life that forms character, informs behavior, and educates for orthodoxy. Such communities reflect a God-shaped order, life of prayer, work, ascetic practices, stability, hospitality, and balance.

After making the case for the need for the Benedict Option, including a history of the decline of western culture, and describing what may be drawn from the Benedictine example, Dreher discusses what this means for a number of areas of life:

  • Politics. Dreher contends efforts of “values voters” to shape a national agenda around Christian values has failed. He calls for a localism that begins by re-establishing bonds of substantive community both within local congregations and in one’s local setting.
  • The Church. He argues for rediscovering how Christians prayed, lived, and worshiped in the past. This includes recovering liturgical worship that involves the whole of one’s body, fasting and other ascetic practices, church discipline and witness through the arts.
  • The Christian Village. Dreher thinks not only the family but also “the village” has an important impact on our lives, and particularly those of our children and strengthening our social networks within churches and between orthodox churches should be a priority.
  • Education. Dreher’s concern for children comes through in many chapters, and particularly here. He argues particularly for pulling children out of public schools and for “classical Christian education.”
  • Work. He argues that Christians should be prepared to lose their jobs in many fields where choices of conscience may mean being fired. Christians may need to be entrepreneurial and start their own businesses, be prepared to work in trades and do physical labor, and support one another.
  • Sexuality. The church needs to recover a vibrant message about sexuality rooted in creation and incarnation that supports chasteness and marital fidelity between men and women, particularly stands with those who are single and recognizes the scourge of pornography.
  • Technology. We need to recognize how we’ve allowed technology to take over our lives, through the internet, smartphones, and even reproductive technologies and that technology is not morally neutral. Dreher would withhold smartphones from teenagers.

I think the most compelling part of Dreher’s argument is that American culture is eating the church’s lunch, so to speak. At best, churches provide a thin, spiritual veneer over beliefs and behaviors that contradict church teaching and reflect secular culture rather than vibrant Christian belief and practice. The most important part of his argument is his call for learning from Benedict about the value of a communal rule of life that shapes character, belief, and practice.  Dreher has a positive, supportive view of the arts and a vision for the attractive value of cultivating beauty in our communities. I affirm his concluding call that the Benedict Option be embraced out of love, not fear.

Other parts of his argument rest heavily on whether you accept his assessment of the culture, and the remedy of radical withdrawal. With politics, I think there is something to be said for a greater focus on localism and a disengagement from national political efforts. I disagree that we should do so because of “failure” but rather that the church’s “captivity” to particular political parties was never a good idea. His discussion of withdrawing from schools was particularly troublesome to me as a sweeping recommendation (I realize this may be necessary in some contexts). Christians who come together to pray for, volunteer with, support, and engage their local schools have a great impact in many cases, support Christians teaching in the schools, and can teach their children how to think critically about what they are hearing and engage appropriately.

I’m also concerned for what I do not hear. Apart from one or two statements against racism, this felt like a very “white” book. It did not seem rooted in conversations with people of color or the ethnic churches of which they are part. Education proposals that focus on classical education in the western tradition ignore the realities of ethnic minorities who bring other rich cultural and intellectual traditions with unique insights into the Christian faith into our communal life. The book appeared to me to assume an audience that is conservative and college educated. While focusing heavily and repeatedly on sexual politics, the book had little to say about solidarity with Christians across racial lines, addressing issues of income disparities (apart from some ideas of distributivism and “helping each other out”), or caring for the creation (something the Benedictines do both in living close to the land, and with their focus on poverty which takes just enough to live from the land).

Dreher’s proposal has provoked a national conversation, including reviews and discussion in major media outlets and even an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times. It is a book that deserves the attention of church or ministry leaders who take seriously their responsibility for the formation of those in their care. It is worth a read by public educators to understand the concerns (whether warranted or not) many thoughtful religious people have about the current state of public education. I hope this book brings Dreher into a wider conversation beyond the conservative constituency for whom he typically writes, that they will engage seriously with his central contentions, and in turn, that it might lead Dreher into a greater “communion of the saints” that includes Christians of other ethnicities and political commitments.

_____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving BadlyMark L. Strauss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Explores some of the disturbing acts and statements of Jesus, that actually reveal his counter-cultural message and mission.

A number of years ago I was leading a Bible discussion with a group of students on Mark 7:25-30, where a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. He answers her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). A student in the group commented, “I understood everything that was going on until Jesus opened his mouth.”

I suspect he wasn’t the first person to read the gospels and, and instead of finding “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” discovered challenging Jesus, disturbing and troubling. Mark L. Strauss has written this book for those who don’t find everything they encounter in reading the gospels easy to swallow and wonder how a person could possibly give their ultimate allegiance to a Jesus who says and does such disturbing things.

The instance I cite is just one of those Strauss explores in chapters that explore whether or not Jesus spoke in revolutionary or pacifist terms, was loving or angry, a scorched earth prophet cursing fig trees and killing a herd of pigs. Was he a works-oriented legalist demanding the rich sell all to attain heaven, a hell fire preacher (Jesus says more about hell than anyone in the Bible), an anti-family crusader who speaks of hating one’s parents, a racist (as in the passage above), a sexist, and an anti-Semite? In the end was he a deluded prophet of the end time who ended up a decaying corpse?

Strauss goes behind the scenes as it were, and explains the background and intent of some of Jesus most puzzling acts. He doesn’t “explain away” these things, but rather brings out the radical implications of who this Jesus is. While offering various ideas about hell that Christians affirm, he upholds the idea that God won’t just ignore evil and leave it unpunished. He points out that his word to the Syrophoenician woman was the diminutive of dog, softening the insult, yet provoking the woman to answer him in kind, and win, not only the argument (the only one who ever did and a woman at that!) but Jesus’ commendation and the deliverance of her daughter. He offers plausible interpretations of the end times sayings that demonstrate that Jesus did not get it wrong, and good reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

The book is a great one to give to the skeptic or seeking person or even the believer who is troubled by these things. Strauss’s discussions reveal a considerable background in biblical scholarship (he is a professor of New Testament) and yet very readable and easily understood.  Here is a sample, in his discussion of Jesus harsh words and conflicts with the religious leaders:

    “It becomes clear in this context why Jesus responded in such a forceful manner. He believed that his coming was the center point in human history, the climax of God’s plan of salvation. There was no plan B. His mission was to call Israel to repentance and faith in preparation for the kingdom of God. Anyone who opposed this message stood in defiance of God. Jesus said, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30//Lk 11:23). When the leaders of Israel rejected Jesus, he had no choice but to reject their authority and to publicly denounce them. He calls them ‘blind guides’ because, from his perspective, that is what they were. They were leading God’s people astray and missing out on God’s plan of salvation–the climax of human history.”

Strauss puts this out to his readers both forthrightly and yet gives them space to consider for themselves whether he has made his case. He acknowledges that not all will buy it, which I think for many is winsome. He deals with liberal scholars like Albert Schweitzer, and debunking critics like Bart Ehrman, whose work and television appearances may have swayed some.

The book includes a study guide which can be useful for both individuals and groups discussing the book. The season leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday sometimes leads to discussions about the significance of Christ. This is a timely book to make sense of a Jesus, who, as Rebecca Pippert describes him in Out of the Saltshakercould be both “delightful and disturbing.”

Review: Theology in the Flesh

Theology in the Flesh

Theology in the FleshJohn Sanders. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.

Summary: A survey of how the field of cognitive linguistics lends insight into how we understand theological matters ranging from morals to the nature of God to understanding the Bible.

There are some who would deny that it is possible to speak of God, who is “wholly other.” Any speech about God, to them, would be to make God in our image. Some would allege that is all that we ever do. However, others, who believe we exist in the image of God, would say that we are both like and unlike God, and that some form of communication about God rooted in our “like-ness” may be possible.

John Sanders does not try to argue this matter, but rather helps us understand that any talk of God or other religious subjects such as truth, morality or the Bible, is deeply rooted in our embodied nature and even the kinds of bodies we have. As bipeds, we have a vertical orientation (up and down) and a front and a back associated with movement forward or in reverse. He contends that our embodied character, including our perceptual apparatus, are the tools we use to perceive and communicate anything. We don’t have a separate apparatus for religious perception and communication. He believes we do well to draw on the field of cognitive linguistics, which studies that interaction between language and our thought processes in how we make meaning of our world, shaped by our embodied nature and informed by our particular cultural setting. He would contend this is critically important to how we understand the nature of truth, morality, the Bible and God, and how we speak of these matters and the differences we have with each other.

The book consists of three parts. The first lays out basics of cognitive linguistics, with a particularly helpful chapter on metaphor, which helps one understand how large a role metaphor and other figurative language plays in our everyday communication and that often metaphor communicates both more fully and more accurately than a “literal” statement. In this section we are also introduced to image schemes, frames, and other conceptual tools used by cognitive linguists. The second is an exploration, using cognitive linguistics, of how, in general, our understanding of truth, how meaning is perceived differently in different communities and why differences in moral thinking arise.

The third section, then focuses in on Christian reasoning about doctrines, the Bible and the nature of God may be understood through a cognitive linguistic lens. For example, the section on Christian doctrine looks at the different metaphors for sin, salvation, and divine judgment. The chapter on the Bible explores how our cultural frames shape our reading of the Bible, using the example of how different cultures read passages on anger and distress. The chapter on God observes how “anthropogenic” if not anthropomorphic our language about God is.

Sanders does not advance particular theological positions. Nor does he make a case for cultural relativism. Indeed, Sanders observes both universal or nearly universal ways we frame certain things such as God and heaven being “up,” as well as how our cultural frames, uses of metaphors, and so forth, lead to different perceptions of the same phrase in scripture, for example. It is here, Sanders argues, that a grasp of cognitive linguistics, and using this as a tool in cross-cultural (or cross-era) conversations may be important to better understanding of each other or even shared understandings.

Certainly not all theological or interpretive or ethical discussions may be resolved on these terms. But the reminder that how we make meaning of language is inextricably connected to our embodied nature and our cultural frameworks should contribute to a kind of epistemic humility in conversations that foster at least greater understanding, if not always agreement. That, it seems to me, would be an advance in theological as well as in other forms of conversation.

_________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: American Covenant

American Covenant

American Covenant, Philip Gorski. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Summary: Traces and argues for an American civil religious tradition combining prophetic religion and civic republicanism that avoids the extremes of religious nationalism and radical secularism.

Philip Gorski is one who has looked at the history of America’s culture wars and asks if there is another alternative to what he sees as the extremes of religious nationalism and radical secularism. He believes that there is and that it has a long history. He proposes that there may be a form of “civil religion” that is not invidious and that it is critical that we retrieve and strengthen a tradition that he believes has been at the center of our national life and combines what he calls “prophetic religion” and “civic republicanism.” He calls this “prophetic republicanism.”

Although Gorski suggests that the reader may skip chapter one, I would argue that it is essential to understand how he defines the above terms, which he will use throughout the book. I would particularly recommend keeping a marker on the diagrams on page 19. To briefly summarize, religious nationalism is sees America as a divinely chosen nation and fuses religious fervor, patriotism, a willingness to shed blood and often an apocalyptic vision in triumphing over evil. On the other hand, radical secularism tries to deny any positive influence of religion in our history or any expression of it in the public square. Civic republicanism understands that sovereignty rests with the people but can only succeed where civil virtue exists. Prophetic religion is the strain that continues to call the nation to justice and righteousness for all people, epitomized in the presidency of Lincoln and the lives of W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr. among others.

The next six chapters survey our history in six periods: the New England Puritans, the American Revolution, The Civil War, The Progressive Era, the Post-World War II era of Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, and the period from Reagan to Obama, where he believes the prophetic republican position was corrupted and almost recovered. In each period, he traces both the development of a civic republican tradition and the religious nationalist and radical secularist strains. He not only survey events but offers a tour on American intellectual history from John Winthrop through Hamilton and Jefferson, to John Calhoun and Frederick Douglass in the Civil War period.

The chapter on the progressive period was most fascinating as he explores John Dewey, Jane Adams, W.E.B,. DuBois, and Reinhold Niebuhr. On the extremes, we explore the religious nationalism of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and the radical secularism of H. L. Mencken. In the post World War II chapter he introduces us to the works of Hannah Arendt and John Courtney Murray, the Catholic social thinker. He then argues that beginning with the Reagan years, we witnessed a corrupting of a civic republic tradition toward a religious nationalism, offset by Democrat leaders who tilted toward a radical secularism until Obama tried to revive something of a civil religious tradition, although the author argues that this failed to return to republican ideals.

He concludes by arguing for the superiority of prophetic republicanism over the alternatives and some modest recommendations for how a healthy civil religious tradition that supports prophetic republicanism might be implemented. He contends,

“…we are, or at least aspire to be, a sovereign and democratic people. We are part of a collective, multigenerational project, an ongoing effort to realize a set of universal political ideals–above all, freedom and equality–from within the confines of a particular historical trajectory. Some of us are thrown into this project by birth; others enter into it by immigration. We are part of an ever-expanding river, flowing through historical time toward an uncertain future. Our civic conversation concerns those who have entered and exited the stream before us, and the course we hope to steer into the future. It is a dialogue in which quiet conservatives and open-minded progressives might become reengaged.”

I do believe Gorski offers a rendering of our history and a vision of what we need to recover that is compelling. I also sense that there is indeed a group of people, perhaps a majority of Americans, who long for a recovery of the kind of prophetic republican tradition he articulates. They wish neither to commit America to a religious crusade nor divorce spiritual values from public discourse. They sense power continues to be concentrated into the hands of the few and that the will of the people is not being heard. Rather than culture war, they want to recover a vibrant public square and deliberative processes that pursue the best approximation to common good possible for fallible humans.

What I wish I could talk with Gorski about is what prospects he sees for such a recovery and from whence would it come? In our post-Citizens United, highly gerrymandered, toxically divisive political scene, what is the way back? It seems only an engaged citizenry with a clear vision shaped by the kind of prophetic republicanism Gorski writes of, could counter the polarized and concentrated power we see on our federal government scene. What most troubles me is that most of the responses I see are merely competing forms of outrage rather than a civic vision seeking the common good of all our people.

Gorski’s book provides, on a high level, the kind of education for citizenship, for republican virtue (not of the party-type) that we desperately need. It is the kind of education needed with our rising generation, as well as for all who sense that neither of the extremes of our culture war offer a good vision for our national life. It offers a substantive alternative and not a bland compromise to our polarized discourse. I only hope someone notices.

_____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (with an introduction by James M. McPherson). New York: Vintage Books/Library of America: 1991 (originally published 1852).

Summary: Stowe’s classic novel depicting the evils of slavery, the complicity of North and South, and the aspirations and faith of slaves themselves.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and it’s author the one who Abraham Lincoln reputedly greeted as “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” While much has been written of and imputed to this book, one thing that I think Stowe herself would denounce is the idea that she wrote this book to embroil the nation in war.

What then did she do? First of all, she wrote a novel with memorable characters, evocative scenes and a plot line with the right mix of pathos and triumph. Of course there is the title character. More recently, “Uncle Tom” has become an epithet for blacks who sell out to the white system, but this seems an unjust reading of Tom whose faith leads him to serve, to evangelize, and when ultimately necessary, resist his white overlords. There is Eliza, whose memorable flight to freedom across the ice flows of the Ohio River keep the reader’s rapt attention. We have the evil Legree, who epitomizes the worst of slaveholding, as well as the consequences of a heart hardened and given over to evil. The death of Eva pulls at the heartstrings, drawn out over a couple chapters. The plot line of Tom’s sale for the debts of the Selby’s, his descent to New Orleans and the temporary rest of St. Clare’s liberal household, the nadir of conditions under Legree, followed by redemption and the closing of several circles leads the reader through an expose of the different dimensions of slavery while drawing to a climax and satisfactory conclusion.

She writes artfully, if not with subtlety. She interposes humorous chapters with grievous ones, and moments of rest, such as the reunification of George and Eliza among the Quakers with stories of mothers and children being parted by slave traders. She challenges Northern sensibilities as well as southern ones. St. Clare’s dialogues with prim and abolitionist-proper Ophelia reveal the hypocrisies of northerners who would end slavery but want little to do with Blacks as co-equals. Her struggles with Topsy expose to her her lovelessness. On a structural level we see the complicity of Northern politicians in passing fugitive slave laws and bankers whose practices of lending helped perpetuate the economics of slavery.

This is what makes the simplistic comment that this book made, or helped make the Civil War, while probably meant as a jest, an unfair charge. Yes, Southerners vigorously defended themselves against the claims of the book, claims which Stowe subsequently documented, demonstrating that, if anything, her portrayal was restrained. I think Stowe’s aim was not to condemn, except for those like Legree, but to encourage slaveholders who had their own doubts of the justice of slavery. Her portrayals of both the Selbys and St. Claire reflect the ambivalence of slaveholders who saw the evil of the system of which they were a part. What is more striking to me, perhaps because I live in the North, is that Northerners ignored her critique of their own hypocrisies and complicity in regard to slavery, and gave heed to the voices that inflated their sense of self-righteousness.

The book is not without its problems. It indulges in racial stereotypes that are offensive to the modern reader. And it seems to participate in the hypocrisy of celebrating the spirituality and humanity of blacks and yet suggests that perhaps it indeed is best to free them, educate them, and send them back to Africa, when in fact blacks were here before the Mayflower and had as much a claim to this country as do whites.

At the same time, Stowe does a radical thing in this book. She portrays Tom as a black “Christ figure” to a racist nation. She does something similar to what Jesus himself does with Jewish religious leaders in using a despised Samaritan as the model of a good neighbor. She exposes her readers to the reality not only of the humanness of blacks but of their spiritual brotherhood with others who would identify as “Christian,” which would have been much of America, North and South. We are forced to deeply identify with the offense of treating as a piece of property to be disposed of as one would wish, one who we would call “brother.”

This is a book that, with all its flaws, is part of the cultural history of a nation, and, I think, should be on the reading list of every literate American. It continues to raise questions for us of how we will act when what is legal may not be just. It helps us understand the power of systems of injustice, and yet the personal choices both those with power and those without may make to resist injustice. It is a book to make us search our own souls.

Review: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

Caring for Words

Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Summary: Explores, in a culture of “spin” and poisoned discourse, practices for caring for our use of words, that they may be used well and true.

If you have been following this blog recently, you know how highly I think of this book. Written prior to the latest spate of “alternative facts,” agenda journalism, and the publication of “fake news,” McEntyre’s book explores the abuses of our language, the deadly consequences to which this may lead, and the responsibility of all who preach, teach, and write to care for the language. She summarizes with elegance the theological case for such care:

    “Peter’s admonition to ‘be sober, be watchful’ applies to this enterprise. Noticing how things are put, noticing what is being left out or subverted, takes an active habit of mind. But what is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”

What follows in this book are twelve “stewardship strategies” by which we might care for the words entrusted to us and the wider use of words in our culture. McEntyre, who is a retreat leader as well as English professor, gives us, as it were, formational practices that usher us into the careful use of words. She begins with the simple truth that we must start with loving words. Whether they be single words in themselves or the elegant and arresting expression of words in literature, it makes sense that the care of words begins with loving and delighting in their felicitous expression. She then leans into the challenge of truth-telling, giving the example of asking her students to define terms in common parlance: liberal, conservative, patriotic, terrorist, and Christian. Imprecision and hyperbole make it possible to lie with words, or at least to be obscure in our meaning. This chapter is paired with one on not tolerating lies, in which she shares the questions she teaches her students to ask.

The next chapters (“stewardship strategies”) might come under the heading of cultivating our skillful use of words. She urges us to read well, including the incorporation of the practice of lectio divina into our reading. She writes about the importance and delights of good conversation, cultivating the skills of asking good questions and attentive listening. She explores the richness of story, not only those we read but the life stories of those in our families and communities, that give perspective and offer challenge as they are told.

Two of my favorite chapters followed. One was on loving the long sentence, contrary to what you hear from most writing teachers and editors. She contends that “long sentences ask us to dwell in a thought rather than come to a point.” The other chapter is on practicing poetry, something missing from my life. After reading this, I picked up a collection of Seamus Heaney poetry, having thoroughly delighted in his rendering of Beowulf. She then wrote about a practice I hadn’t given much thought, that of translation. She observes that all of us who use words are translators, conveying a thought (whether our own or another) to a particular audience. Those who have to learn more than one language and translate between languages uniquely appreciate this challenge.

The final three chapters seemed to me to be overarching stewardship strategies to be used in conjunction with the others. One was simply to play with words and ideas and see where they will take you, which is sometimes to unexpected places. I like this because often I discover what I think about something as I write. The second is to pray, both in our own words and those of others and to listen. And this leads to the third, which is to cherish silence where words of clarity and grace and power may come.

What made this work so rich was that one has the sense that McEntyre has lived into the strategies she commends to others. More than this, to read this book is to read words that have been cared for, and chosen for their ability to teach us to love them, and others like them. McEntyre does what she advocates. I found myself wanting to love words more attentively, read better, converse more thoughtfully and write with greater clarity. I found myself wanting to discern with greater acuity the coarse and cavalier ways words are used to poison discourse and spin webs of deceit, and to resist these ways of twisting God’s good gift of words to humanity.

“A book for our times” almost seems too cliché, and yet it is accurate to describe how important this work is for all of us who care for words, care for culture, and long for better conversations about the common good. It is not enough to aspire to such things. McEntyre’s “stewardship strategies” show us how to translate aspiration into action in our care for words.

Previous posts on this book:

Word Care as Culture Care

A Poet in Your Pocket

Review: Resolving Conflict

Resolving Conflict

Resolving ConflictLou Priolo. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2016.

Summary: A practical guidebook to the biblical prerequisites and principles of resolving conflicts between Christians both in home and church contexts.

It might be said that wherever two or more are gathered there is conflict. It is part of the human condition and just because one is a follower of Christ does not mean you can escape conflict. We can try to avoid it, or we can do it very badly. Lou Priolo argues there is a better way and that is to do it biblically, which offers the potential of making peace with each other and going deeper in shared community together.

Priolo begins by outlining four biblical prerequisites to conflict resolution: humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance. He devotes a chapter to each, surveying the scriptures that speak of these qualities. Priolo argues that these chapters are actually the most important of the book. The last, loving forbearance, is especially important where sin is not at the root of the conflict. People may just be different from each other and sometimes learning to bear with and even begin to delight in those differences can circumvent many conflicts.

At the same time, that is not always possible, so how does one, embracing the four prerequisites, resolve conflict? The next ten chapters get very practical with the “how” of conflict resolution. He begins by distinguishing three kinds of conflict: those over differentness, those over sinfulness, and those over righteousness (where we disagree about what is right). He explores how love communicates, how we respond to reproof, the heart motives behind conflict, ways we respond unbiblically to conflict, good questions we can ask to resolve conflict, how far to go in a conflict, and the importance of doing all we can insofar as it depends on us to resolve conflict.

In addition to the prerequisites, this book assumes three things about the reader. One is that you are really serious about resolving conflict, serious enough to taking a hard look at your own contribution to a conflict, to face the ways you have sinned against another, and to be willing to take personal steps to change. Second is that you really want your life to be shaped in detail by the teaching of scripture regarding conflict, as well as in other matters. Every chapter includes detailed biblical material and Priolo wants to call things, particularly our sins, according to what scripture says. Finally, this book assumes you are willing to do some hard work, first in self reflection through checklists and journalling exercises, and then in conversation with another.

For those with familiarity with various forms of Christian counselling, Priolo is a disciple of Jay Adams. The book reflects a rigorous Reformed perspective including frequent quotes of one of the best of the Reformers, Richard Baxter, and in marriage relationships assumes a complementarian perspective, though not aggressively advancing this. One need not share these perspectives to benefit from the counsel and exercises Priolo provides. His discussion of the prerequisites for resolving conflict and the exercises that prompt self-reflection would seem helpful regardless one’s theological persuasion.

The style is highly readable and one gets a clear sense of the author’s voice. It may not be the reader’s and the author encourages people to put things in their own words, not just mimic his. All told, this is a useful resource for conflicts in homes, and in the church.

_____________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Wilson

Wilson

Wilson, A. Scott Berg. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.

Summary: A definitive biography of Woodrow Wilson, that traces the arc of his life from boyhood to professor to college president to U.S. president in biblical terms fitting for this deeply religious man.

For many of us, Woodrow Wilson is the somewhat tragic figure associated with the cruel peace of Versailles that sowed the seeds of World War II, the unwillingness of Congress to embrace U.S. entry into the League of Nations, and the secrets of his final year as president, severely impaired by a stroke, protected by his wife and doctor. That is only a small part of the story of this deeply religious man who combined a progressive vision for the nation with great integrity, and, for over six years of his presidency, masterful leadership. It is this fuller story that A. Scott Berg renders in what may be, for our generation, the definitive biography of Wilson.

As befits the staunchly Presbyterian Thomas Woodrow Wilson (he dropped the Thomas in college), Berg uses a biblical narrative arc to trace his life. Berg’s opening chapters capture the pinnacle of Wilson’s “Ascension” as he arrives to acclaim in Europe for peace talks after the Armistice and the “Providence” of his boyhood as a Presbyterian minister’s son.

We then begin with the Eden of college years at Princeton, where he would spend much of his life. There were the Sinai years of wilderness wandering in law school and then graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, followed by several professorship, culminating in his appointment at Princeton, where he and first wife Ellen would spend much of adult life, first as a remarkably popular professor and scholar, and later as an ambitious reforming president. “Advent” covers the politics of the latter part of his presidency, the first signs of arteriosclerosis that would play a significant role latter, and his (likely non-sexual) dalliance with Mrs. Peck.

“Paul” covers his brief tenure as New Jersey governor and presidential campaign. It was striking to me that one of the things that won people to Wilson was that he never “talked down” to people but rather his elevated speech lifted them up. “Disciples” discusses the people Wilson surrounded himself as he prepared for his first term and the reforms he hoped to introduce. We meet Colonel House, who holds no office but was perhaps his most intimate adviser and emissary until their falling out after the peace talks at the end of the war. There is William McAdoo, who will later become his son-in-law. We are also introduced to Dr. Cary Grayson, the military doctor who oversaw the president’s health. “Baptism” covers the beginning of the first term and “Ecclesiastes” the death of Ellen from Bright’s disease and the subsequent courtship and marriage to Edith, who would play such a critical role at the end of his presidency.

“Deliverance” describes his election to a second term on the slogan “he kept us out of the war” and the increasing awareness that it would not be possible for the U.S. to remain neutral. “Armageddon” chronicles the entrance into the war, and how Wilson masterfully mobilizes the nation to move onto a war footing. “Isaiah”and “Gethsemane” give an account of the peace talks and the maneuvering of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and others to undermine Wilson’s lofty ideals about both the League of Nations and the terms imposed upon Germany. “Passion” tells the tale of Congress’s rejection of his treaty efforts, and the punishing cross-country journey to try to sell the treaty to the people that led to a series of small strokes, culminating into a major one that left Wilson paralyzed on his left side. “Pieta” describes the efforts of Edith, Grayson, and others close to Wilson to sustain his presidency when he was greatly disabled, and the passing of the presidency to the antithesis of Wilson, Warren Harding. The final chapter, “Resurrection” tells the story of his final years, the rise of his reputation in the nation including outliving Harding, and his passing and burial in the National Cathedral.

We have a portrait of a great and tragic figure. He wasn’t perfect. He was a man of integrity who could be unforgiving when trust was betrayed, as he was with some of his closest advisers at the end of his presidency. He was that rare occurrence, an effective scholar-politician. His record on race was spotty, but he advocated for women’s suffrage. He fought big business and pressed tariff reforms that helped many in the country. He resisted the drumbeat of war, and when it could be resisted no longer, led the nation into a disinterested effort to fight a “war to end all wars.” He saw further than others, and fought in vain for the settlement and the institutions that would forestall a renewal of war. His sense of duty, and obligation to the fighting men, led him to efforts that nearly killed him, and did break his health irreparably.

Reading the biography reminded me that the struggle between American self-interest and an expansive view of our role in the world has run throughout our history. It portrayed how much we ask of our presidents, and the wonder that any of them survive their terms in office. A. Scott Berg’s biography of Wilson is a fascinating exploration of what makes for presidential greatness, the shaping of presidential leadership and the perennial conflicts that seem inherent in the American experiment.

 

Review: American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism and Civil ReligionJohn D. Wilsey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: Explores the history of American exceptionalism, distinguishing two kinds of exceptionalism and considers them under five theological themes.

Most discussions of American exceptionalism that I’ve seen either embrace this idea more or less uncritically, arguing that America is God’s “city on a hill,” or they utterly reject the idea as a form of egregious cultural imperialism and a Christian heresy. John D. Wilsey offers us a history of this idea, and suggests a more nuanced view that allows a place for a certain kind of American exceptionalism while rejecting other forms of it.

Specifically, Wilsey proposes that there are two kinds of American exceptionalism. In an interview with the publisher, he differentiated these as follows:

“As a civil religious concept, exceptionalism has historically been articulated in one of two ways: One form of exceptionalism is imperialistic, exclusivist and justified in theological terms. Another is informed by the liberal ideals of natural rights, individual freedom, and human dignity and equality. I call the former closed exceptionalism and the latter open exceptionalism. Open exceptionalism forms the basis for faithful and biblical citizenship.” (IVP Academic Press Kit)

In the first two chapters, Wilsey traces the history of American exceptionalism, beginning in the first chapter with our national origins and then in the second with our national expansion, including the challenge of slavery. We learn that the ideas came from our English antecedents and that the term was probably coined first by de Tocqueville. He considers what would be closed expressions of exceptionalism in the expansion of slavery and the idea of “manifest destiny” in contrasts with Lincoln’s emancipating vision of extending American ideals of equality and justice under the providence of God to all peoples, black and white.

The next five chapters consider five theological themes of “closed” exceptionalism:

  1. Chosen nation: That America has been divinely chosen or elected by God in a special way as a kind of new Israel (excluding Native peoples and Blacks) even though the scriptures speak of the kingdom of God as comprised of the inclusion of peoples of many nations with none preferred.
  2. Divine Commission: That America has been uniquely commissioned to “save the world.” Wilsey looks in detail at the tenure of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and America’s role in saving the world from communism.
  3. Innocence: The articulation of America as a pure and upright nation. The chapter focuses on the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. This innocence ignores past and present injustices or takes an “America right or wrong approach.”
  4. Sacred Land: A Chosen Nation occupies a Promised Land. Wilsey surveys the history of this idea from the Puritans through America’s landscape artists, and the struggle between those who would conserve the nation’s resources and beauty and those believing it was given for dominion.
  5. Glory: The author examines this idea through the lens of the three most popular homeschooling history texts used over the last twenty years. All three emphasize Christian origins, downplay slavery, and portray America as divinely privileged vis à vis other nations. They argue contemporary America is in serious decline from these origins.

Wilsey would see these ideas as an appropriation of theological ideas into an idolatrous civil religion, often endorsed by wide segments of the American church.

Unlike some, he makes the case for an alternative, open form of exceptionalism that may serve as the basis of Christian civic engagement and he addresses this in his final chapter. He argues that America’s liberal ideals at their best are indeed worth cultivating, preserving, and commending: liberty, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance. Open exceptionalism seeks these for all of our own people and believes they are worthy ideals for the world, cultural riches to be added to the riches of other nations. He commends two unusual models of engagement: Justin Martyr and W.E.B. DuBois.

What I appreciate in this treatment is the articulation of a form of patriotism that is appropriate to a person whose first loyalties are to the kingdom of God, as well as a clear repudiation as idolatry of closed forms of exceptionalism. It is not a claim to chosenness as a nation or hypocritical innocence that ignores the times we have failed to live up to our own ideals.Rather, open exceptionalism is a love of country that that faces and addresses injustices and seeks to preserve and freely include others in the cultural goods of liberty, justice, and democracy we have enjoyed. It lovingly cares for and carefully stewards our land, not as some special sacred ground, but as part of God’s global creation for us and our children’s children.

I do wrestle however with the embrace in any form of the term “exceptionalism,” other than to acknowledge the history of this idea in our national history. It is one thing to recognize some of the particular gifts that have been part of the American experience, and to want to include others in the goods we have enjoyed. But the very term “exceptional” may quickly morph into forms of national superiority that smack of arrogance and hubris, or may still be culturally imperialistic, even if not idolatrous or ill-intentioned. I’m not certain what to replace the term with except for some form of “generous care” for the institutions, the values, and even the place, that have defined us at our best. I think of the generous care that rebuilt much of Europe and Japan after World War II under the Marshall Plan that allowed for the establishing or re-establishing of democratic institutions. Rather than “exceptional” or “great,” I long for an America that is just and generous, both at home and abroad. That would be good enough.

 

Review: Across A Billion Years

Across a Billion Years

Across a Billion Years, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013 (originally published in 1969).

Summary: A group of space archaeologists from different planets make a discovery that puts them on the trail of an ancient, highly advanced race that disappeared nearly a billion years ago.

Tom Rice is a graduate archaeology researcher part of a team drawn from several different races from different planets on an expedition excavating a site on one of the planets occupied by an incredibly advanced and ancient civilization, The High Ones. Tom, in his youthful enthusiasm, is the narrator of this story. The chapters are recorded messages to his telepath sister, Lorie, whose mind can communicate across the galaxy while her invalid body is confined to a hospital bed.

The dig, like most, is tediously routine at first, allowing us to get to know the expedition’s characters–the android Kelly, the rhino-like Mirrick, Dr. Horkk from Thhh, Steen Steen, a hermaphroditic creature, Saul the stamp collector, Leroy Chang, who turns out to be kind of creepy, Pilazinool, who loves to remove and replace his robotic limbs, Dr Shein, who heads the expedition, 408b, an octopoid creature, and Tom’s love interest, Jan, who at first is more interested in the stamp collector.

The expedition shifts from tedium to intrigue when Tom discovers a sphere that is kind of a projector, that plays back scenes from The High One’s civilization. Nothing like this has ever been discovered. More than that, it puts them on a trail of discovery leading first to an asteroid where a robot has been entombed in a cave, it turns out over 800 years ago. They find the asteroid, and the robot intact, who conveniently is a universal translator. The robot in turn takes them to a home planet, abandoned “just” 275 million year ago by the Mirt Korp Ahm, as the High Ones call themselves. The planet continues to be inhabited by a fantastic assemblage of self-maintaining robots, much like Dihn Ruu, their interpreter.

It is here that Dihn Ruu learns why the aging home star of the Mirt Korp Ahm cannot any longer be seen. The planetary system has been enclosed by a Dyson sphere to conserve energy. And with this news, the explorers lay plans to head there, only to face arrest from Galaxy Central!

Will they make it to the home planet of the Mirt Korp Ahm? If they do, what will they find? Will they be received or destroyed? And how will these discoveries change them? These are interesting questions that I cannot answer without spoiling the conclusion.

Perhaps as interesting as this adventure from planet to asteroid to planet are the relationships between the members of the team. Silverberg explores the human-android relationship–are humans from a vat really different from those conceived the old-fashioned way? And why do humans inherently suspect other species?

Equally intriguing is Tom’s perception of his sister. He pities her physical disabilities and “guards” her from aspects of his life that highlight her disabilities. Silverberg gives us an interesting portrayal of how the “abled” view those “differently abled” and how the “differently abled” see things.

Oddly, it seemed to me that what Silverberg considers the least is the encounter between species, and how such contact, particularly if one is far advanced, would change the explorers civilization. Nor does there seem to be much interest in the highly advanced robotic civilization, other than as stepping stones to learn what has become of the Mirt Korp Ahm.

Nevertheless, he raises the interesting question of what a race a billion years old might be like, for humans who reckon the advance of modern civilization over less than 50,000 years. Silverberg presents us with this interesting thought experiment clothed in a chase across a galaxy.