Review: The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers

Sayers

The Gospel in Dorothy L. SayersDorothy L. Sayers with an Appreciation by C. S. Lewis, edited by Carole Vanderhoof. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An anthology of Sayers’ work organized by theological topics, drawing on her detective fiction, plays, and essays.

This work is the latest installment in Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in Great Writers series, and it is a gem. Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. Her experience in an ad agency became a resource for a series of Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane) detective mysteries. As a committed Christian, and friend of the Inklings, she was called upon by the BBC to speak and write about the Christian faith. She published several plays that brought the gospel accounts to life. She was an essayist, and her extended essay on The Mind of the Maker, simultaneously served as a work of Christian aesthetics, and a reflection on the Trinity. Many consider her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Paradiso completed posthumously by Barbara Reynolds) to be one of the best.

In this anthology, we have material from many of her works, that introduces the reader both to the different facets of her writing and the deep theological insight to be found. The material is organized into twenty chapters, each on a particular them, and combining either her fiction or plays with essay material on the same themes. Themes range from Conscience to Covetousness to Despair and Hope to Work and finally Time and Eternity.

What struck me afresh in reading this collection was how delightfully frank and able to cut through pretense Dorothy could be–the counterpart of Harriet Vane in her detective stories.

In writing about Judgement, she notes:

“It is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.”

In her essay, The Dogma is the Drama, she concludes:

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slip-shod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the Kingdom of Heaven before them.”

In her play The Man Who Would Be King, she uses informal language to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bishop of Winchester protested this. Here is Dorothy’s reply:

“I’ve made all the alterations required so far, but now I’m entering a formal protest, which I have tried to make a mild one, without threatenings and slaughters. But if the contemporary world is not much moved by the execution of God it is partly because pious phrases and reverent language have made it a more dignified crime than it was. It was a dirty piece of work, tell the Bishop.”

In her essay Why Work?, she makes this trenchant observation:

“How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”

This work is rich in such observations and often the essay excerpts are a good reflection of the key ideas in those essays. If there is any flaw, the excerpts from the detective fiction do not sufficiently reflect these works as a whole, even if they are connected thematically to the other pieces in the chapter. Hopefully, something of the character of Lord Peter Wimsey shows through, which develops over the course of Sayers fiction. The only remedy for this is that you need to read the works in their entirety, often available in inexpensive print or electronic editions.

A bonus to this volume comes in the form of “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers” by C.S. Lewis, written following her death. I think she would have most appreciated this comment:

“There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works. In them, as in it, she is first and foremost the craftsman, the professional. She always saw herself as one who had learned a trade, and respects it, and demands respect for it from others.”

For those who only have heard of Dorothy L. Sayers, this volume is a wonderful introduction to her broad range of writings, and her acute thinking about theology and art. For those who have read her works, it is a wonderful review that serves to connect the dots between her different genres of work. For all of us, this work gives us a chance to think along with one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century.

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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: The Story of Henri Tod

The Story of Henri Tod

The Story of Henri Tod (Blackford Oakes #5), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1983).

Summary: As East Germany takes steps to stem the emigration of its people to the west through East Berlin in 1961, Blackford Oakes is tasked to find out what their intentions are and how they and Moscow will respond if NATO and the US intervenes.

After appearing weak and inexperienced in an initial meeting with Nikita Khrushchev President Kennedy learns that East Germany is taking steps to partition East and West Berlin to stem the tide of people emigrating from East to West Berlin and West Germany. This would violate agreements made at the end of World War II, and could trigger a new war, perhaps even a nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. CIA agent Blackford Oakes is tasked with getting critical intelligence to determine whether Berlin will be completely isolated from the West, and what the East will do if NATO responds.

Oakes key contact with East Berlin and the East Germans is Henri Tod. Tod leads a resistance organization from West Berlin against the Communists. They call themselves The Bruderschaft and are not above violent efforts to subvert the Communists. He has become enemy Number One but has eluded capture. But the Communists have discovered an Achilles heel. Tod, whose real name was Toddweiss, was a German Jew, who along with his beloved sister Clementa, was shielded by the Wurmbrand family, when Jews were being sent to the death camps. They spirit him out of the country when he becomes draft-eligible. They pay with their lives and Clementa is sent to a camp to die. But she is liberated by Soviet troops, only to become their captive. Thought dead, she lives, and becomes the means to lure Tod and capture him, with Oakes being involved as an intermediary.

Meanwhile, East German leader Walter Ulbricht also has his own Achilles, a nephew Caspar, who he has taken under his wing as a personal assistant, perhaps to atone for killing his father. Caspar has discovered the rail car used by Hitler, abandoned in a rail yard, and turns it into a love nest for him and his girlfriend Claudia. Their paths cross with Tod when Tod is wounded after an assassination of an East German official and the rescue him from his pursuers, nursing him back to health in the rail car, and becoming converts to his cause and a source of critical information.

Blackford Oakes has all this to deal with, as he tries to get the needed intelligence to the President. How will he respond to the likely trap using Tod’s sister? How will he work with the independent Tod and his rogue organization? How will they react to the intelligence they are passing along to Oakes? And what will the U.S. government do?

The book is a page turner, moving quickly between Kennedy, Khruschev and Ulbricht, Oakes and Tod, Caspar and Claudia. Perhaps the most fascinating element is the challenge of divining an enemy’s intent and character, what action one should take, and how one’s adversary will respond. Anyone who has studied this era realizes how easily things could have turned out otherwise than they did, a salutary lesson for our own day.

 

Review: An Unhurried Leader

An Unhurried Leader

An Unhurried LeaderAlan Fadling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017/

Summary: Proposes that influential spiritual leadership that bears lasting fruit arises out of unhurried life in God’s presence that results in unhurried presence in the lives of those one leads.

Leadership can be demanding. People come from many directions with needs, agendas, and sometimes, criticism. To-do lists are longer than there are hours in the day. One may feel they have to run faster and faster, even as energy seems to be draining away. In more reflective moments, we might ask, are the people we lead maturing as Christ-followers, more effectively able to use their gifts and engage their world? That is, if we get a chance to ask the question in the midst of a hurried life.

Alan Fadling doesn’t think we will ever evade these demands. Rather, his thesis is that leadership that bears lasting fruit comes out of unhurried time in the presence of God that both fills us, and overflows into our leadership life. Most of all, he contends that when we cultivate this unhurried life with God, it allows us to come along people as an unhurried presence, able to wait and listen for what God is doing in their lives and through our encounter with them.

A key verse for Fadling is Isaiah 30:15:  “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Fadling writes:

“…Isaiah said that we’ll find salvation—help, wholeness, or rescue—in repentance and rest. He said that we’ll find strength—power, influence, and energy—in quietness and trust. Unhurried leaders are different.

  • Rather than fill their lives with noise, unhurried leaders make time for silence in which to listen (quietness).
  • Rather than allow anxiety to drive them, unhurried leaders learn to depend on a reliable God who invites them to join a good kingdom work already well underway (trust).
  • Rather than tackle self-initiated projects under the guise of doing them for God, unhurried leaders humbly orient themselves to the Leader of all, learning to take their cues from him (repentance).
  • Unhurried leaders also learn to rest as hard as they work.
  • Rather than measuring the productivity of their lives only in terms of what they do, unhurried leaders understand the importance of certain things they don’t do.”

Fadling walks us through what he has learned about leading out of abundance, allowing God’s living water to flow through us. He invites us to “come, listen, buy, and eat” in God’s presence, and to cultivate practices of contemplating God’s greatness where we open ourselves to a vision of God from which we lead. “Questions that Unhurry Leaders” was a delightful chapter that was not what I expected but rather a reflection on the wonderful questions Paul asks in Romans 8.

He turns to how our unhurried life with God flows into unhurried influence in leadership. He explores how developing fruitful leaders takes time–not trying to pursue quick, but not abiding fruit. He talks about how grace empowers us, as God meets and works through us in our weakness. Grace doesn’t make us strong, but rather we are strong in God’s grace in our weakness.

One of the most challenging aspects of leadership is the relentless stream of thoughts that hurry through our heads. Fadling offers a practice of noticing, discerning, and responding, allowing God into our thoughts–both those unworthy of us, and those that are, in fact, his promptings. This takes us into a life of prayer, in which our primary influence comes through prayer, and in which we do our work “with God,” which has the power to transform our “to do” lists–not necessarily by shortening them, but by allowing us to rest in God rather than anxiously work. He ties all this up by proposing a cycle of contemplation, discernment, engagement, and reflection that may become a rhythm of unhurried leadership.

Fadling helps us “try out” this unhurried leadership life through practices in each chapter as well as reflective questions that help us examine our own leadership. I took this book with me on a recent retreat and found the content, the practices, and the questions all helpful in reflecting on my own leadership journey. Most of all, he reminded me of the foundational truth that I learned as a student leader, and am still learning that he succinctly sums up:

“The secret of my spiritual leadership is God.”

Fadling helps us to examine our own leadership and ask if God is really enough for us. He helps us consider whether our leadership is simply a function of technique and skill, done in our own strength, often leading to hurried drivenness, or whether it is the unhurried leadership that is the overflow of abundant life with God. This is a great book to read for personal renewal, and even better with a team of leaders who can think together how they might encourage each other in the “unhurry” practices Fadling commends. The rest and refreshment both leaders and those they lead experience will more than amply repay the cost and time spent on this book.

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Visit my review of Alan Fadling’s earlier book, An Unhurried Life.

Review: Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity in the Roman empire

Christianity in the Roman EmpireRobert E. Winn. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A survey of Christian history in the post-apostolic era from 100 to 300 A.D., introducing the reader to key figures, events, controversies, and the development of various church practices and structures.

For many of us, there is a huge gap in our knowledge of the history of Christianity that extends from the close of the New Testament era until the Reformation era. The era this book covers, 100-300 A.D. was particularly crucial not only in the church’s response to persecution, but also in the development of various aspects of church order and practice and the growing recognition of the body of works the church would consider canonical, and figuring out the relation of these to the Hebrew scriptures they began to call the Old Testament. In addition, controversy forced the church to more clearly articulate its understand of key beliefs, particularly related to the person of Christ.

Robert E. Winn presents this material in a compact 137 pages of text, suitable for use in an adult education series, small group, or reading group, as well as for personal reading. He divides his treatment into three parts:

  1. Christianity in the Year 100. He begins with the contours of Christianity in the first generation following the apostolic era. They had arisen out of a Jewish context that has been decimated in its rebellions against Rome from which they drew apart, they spoke of Jesus as “Lord” and had developed clear authority structures and a moral life. Roman rulers like Pliny were presented with a conundrum of how to treat them. Early teaching in The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas set out the distinctive way Christians ought live. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians builds on this and reminds them of their common faith, as well as obedience to the bishops as key to their unity. Ignatius, in addition to addressing the importance of obedience to the bishops, is perhaps the earliest to address false teaching, both from “Judaism” and from the docetists, who maintained that Christ only “appeared” to be human. The section closes with these teachers instructions on church order including baptism and the Eucharist, laying groundwork still evident 2000 years later.
  2. Christianity in a Hostile World. Over the next 150 years, the church confronted attacks on its teaching and very existence. The section opens with the first comprehensive attack on Christian doctrine and practice by Celsus, and the anonymous response in the epistle to Diognetus, a Roman official. Then, Winn summarizes Justin Martyr’s First Apology, responding to charge that Christians are atheists, immoral, and disloyal to the empire. While Christians are not searched out from house to house, key leaders are martyred, including Polycarp, and two women, Perpetua and Felicity, whose stories are recounted. The persecution threatens the unity of the church about how those who denied their faith to escape death should be treated if they seek re-admission to the church. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was a key figure in arriving at a response that was kind of a via media between extreme factions on either side of the issue.
  3. Faith and Practice in the Third Century. The church’s belief and practice continued to develop in the third century. Winn opens his discussion with the development of a canon, and the different ways of reading scripture that developed, the typological being represented by Melito, and the allegorical represented by Origen. Irenaeus of Lyon’s articulation of the faith around the triune God, against heretical ideas, is considered. Tertullian’s defense of Christianity against Marcion follows in defending the divinity and humanity of Jesus. He returns to Origin in his teaching on prayer, emphasizing both the hours, and the postures of prayer. We close with Eusebius’ history of early Christianity, striking in his account of Christians’ response to plague, the transmission of the faith, and the dealing with heretics like Paul of Samosata.

Each chapter includes questions at the conclusion to review and reflect on the chapter content. Chapters are short and many include quoted material from the early Christian writers. There is a “What to Read Next” section at the end of the book that provides both general readings and books on each part, many of which are texts on, or by, the early church fathers.

Perhaps the one surprising omission in this work is the lack of discussion of Gnosticism, and the challenge it posed, particularly in the second century. This is all the more significant given the resurgence of interest in Gnosticism in our own era, and even the contention that it was an alternative form of Christianity that was suppressed by “official” Christianity. Irenaeus was a key figure in these controversies and Against the Heresies an important part of the church’s response. Winn summarizes this work but is silent about Gnosticism.

What this book does do is provide a concise treatment of early Christian history, focused on Christian practice, key beliefs, and the response to the ever-present threat of persecution from Rome. Winn acquaints us with the writings of the early fathers (the reading of which I would encourage!). He helps us see the origins of ways of reading scripture, of articulating and defending the church’s faith, and ordering the church’s life that are with us in some form to this day.

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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: Race on Campus

race on campus

Race on CampusJulie J. Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018.

Summary: Addresses myths and misconceptions around issues of race on college campus using research data.

Race continues to be an issue on campus as well as in our larger society. It is popular to note how students of color may be found sitting together in the college cafeteria and self-segregate into ethnic-specific organizations. Some object to using race in admissions processes and argue that the same ends might be achieved by class-based admissions alone. Of course, affirmative action is argued back and forth, and the case has been made for students with high test scores who were turned down for admissions including those from Asian-American backgrounds. Recognizing some of the inequities in college tests, proposals have been made to remedy with offering universal test prep. Some have recommended that affirmative action programs at some of the nations elite schools “mismatch” students of color and set them up for failure, when they may have excelled at a lower tier university.

These are the issues Julie J. Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, addresses in Race on Campus. Her approach is to come up with data-driven insights from peer-reviewed research to explore if what is being proposed or observed is actually the case. Often times, she argues, the data reveals a very different story, and that cognitive bias is actually a big issue in discussions where data belies what is contended. Here is a sampling of some of her findings:

  • The self-segregation of students of color in cafeterias and organizations reflect only an hour or two a day of a student’s life, and that students in ethnic specific organizations actually have more interactions with those of other ethnicity. Times with one’s own ethnic minority re-energizes students for engagement across ethnic boundaries. She also observes that most of us don’t notice that all the white students are also sitting together, or the instances where students are crossing boundaries.
  • Where self-segregation is a greater issue is in Greek life on campuses, as well as in religious organizations. Especially in the Greek system, self-segregation leads to fewer interactions with non-White students. This is less the case in religious organizations, but most students in self-segregating religious groups will have fewer close friends of another ethnicity.
  • Studies show that admissions processes that are both race- and class-conscious result in far more diverse classes than class-conscious approaches alone. She observes the wealth gap between median household wealth of Black and White families ($7,113 versus $111,146) and that this supports that we need to focus on race to get to class diversity because of disparities in wealth.
  • Asian-American students actually benefit from affirmative action, both by not being discriminated against, and in being part of more diverse student bodies. The discussion here goes beyond the test scores to the variety of factors in a student’s profile that are considered in admissions and student success. She deconstructs the “140 points” myth (that Asian-American students need to score 140 points higher on the SAT to be competitive with other students for admission).
  • There are all kinds of problems with admissions tests and the test-prep programs touted to bring big score increases. The actual overall gains, from test to test using test prep are minimal. Furthermore, there are inequities both in educational backgrounds that cannot be made up for with a test prep course, and inequities of access to the best test prep programs that make tests like the SAT an unreliable measure of how a student will perform.
  • The problem with the “problem of mismatch” is that under-represented minority students admitted to elite schools on the whole do about as well, and in some cases, better than majority students. Here, Park takes apart a study by Sander and Taylor that has been invoked for encouraging students to go to “slower-track” institutions.

This is a winsomely written book addressing a tough subject. I especially appreciate the epistemic humility of Park, who in the course of her research discovers some of her own cognitive biases, and has the courage to admit them. I also appreciate an academic citing academic research who writes accessibly for a wide audience. In the Introduction, she says,

“Who should read this book? Everyone! If you’re a graduate student, academic, policy-maker, educator, everyday citizen–come on in. One of my key goals is to highlight empirical studies on race in a way that is more accessible than the original peer-reviewed journal articles, which are primarily read by academics. Don’t get me wrong, academic journals are riveting reading, but it can be tedious to comb through study after study, so I’ve done that work for you. I’ve also done my best to write this book in a conversational tone to make it accessible to a wide range of readers” (p. 6).

I believe she succeeds on both counts. The work is meticulously researched with 32 pages of end notes in a book that comes in at under 200 pages. Park keeps it accessible, citing key statistics within the text without bar charts and graphs (which I know will disappoint some). The tone remains conversational, and Park avoids the “detached researcher” voice that often result in accurate but sterile works.

This work is important for its conclusions as well–that we are tempted to adopt policy proposals driven by cognitive bias rather than data, that we need more robust measures of merit than test scores that recognize different ways excellence manifests in students across race and class, and that racism and racial inequalities continue to need to be addressed on campus. The book challenged some of my own cognitive biases around issues like self-segregation.  This is an important book for anyone connected to higher education who aspire to seeing campuses as diverse as our population, that prepare students to lead in a diverse society.

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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: God’s Mediators

God's Mediators

God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of the Priesthood (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew S. Malone. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study of the biblical material on priesthood, considering both God’s individual priests, and the corporate priesthoods of Israel and the church, and some implications of this material for our contemporary understanding of priesthood.

The language of priesthood can mean quite a number of different things in church circles. We may think of ordained religious workers who lead the church in its liturgical and eucharistic functions, particularly in Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox settings. Depending on what part of the Christian family we are part of, we may regard this favorably, neutrally, or unfavorably. Then there is this stuff about the “priesthood of all believers” that particularly arose out of the Reformation, contending that every believer has access to God through Christ, and may minister for God in the world.

The purpose of this work is to look at the biblical theology of priesthood. That is, looking at the passages that speak about priesthood in Old and New Testaments, and formulating from this, the Bible’s teaching about priesthood, mindful of other doctrines and how they intersect with the truths we uncover.

The book divides in two parts reflecting two major threads in the biblical material about priesthood. The first are individuals who are set apart by God both to represent God to people, and to act on behalf of people with God. The second set of references are corporate in character, referring first to Israel, and later the church as a “kingdom of priests.” After an introductory chapter, the book devotes four chapters to individuals as priests, and two chapters to corporate priesthood, with concluding reflections on the relevance of this material.

In Part One, Malone focuses first on the Aaronic priesthood of Exodus, and the clear restriction of that priesthood to Aaron and his familial descendants. Only they may approach, under strict commands, the Lord. But they act such that other Israelites, may “draw near” God, and that through them, God communicates with Israel. Then Malone steps back and considers antecedents to the Aaronic priesthood including a fascinating section on Eden as a garden sanctuary, Adam and Eve as priests, priestly behaviors of the patriarchs, Melchizedek, other priests, and the priestly activity of Moses. Particularly, the activity of setting up altars and the offering of sacrifice certainly antedates the Aaronic priesthood.

The story of the priesthood after entering the land is one of decline, with occasional exceptions, prophetic denunciations, and a glimmer of hope for the future. The priesthood continues into the New Testament period, often portrayed in conflict with Christ and the nascent Christian movement. He studies the hints of Jesus as priest in the gospels (the Son of God, the Holy One of Israel, the prayer of John 17, and the connection between Jesus and the Temple). Clearly, Hebrews represents the culmination of the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as great high priest, superior in every way to the priesthood that had gone before it.

Part Two turns to corporate priesthoods beginning with that of Israel in Exodus 19:5-6:

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5-6, NIV).

The question is whether this priesthood derives from the Aaronic priesthood. In fact it precedes that priesthood, and Malone suggests “perhaps God instituted a class of priests in order to illustrate what the nation’s corporate identity might look like.” As a people, they had a “priestly” role in representing the character of God by the character of their national life to the nations. Sadly, much of the story is one of failure to fulfill this destiny.

Attention then turns to the church’s priestly commission, particularly the echoes in Peters words in 1 Peter 2: 4-10 of Exodus 19:6, the regal priesthood language of Revelation, and the access to God Hebrews speaks of through the priestly work of Christ. Perhaps most fascinating is his exploration of the priestly language Paul uses in describing his ministry to the Gentiles. The sense throughout is not taking the place of Christ as mediator, the great high priest, but fulfilling the priestly mission of the people of God among the nations, both representing God to the nations and bringing the nations to God.

So what may be concluded? First of all, he contends that the corporate priesthood of the church derives, not from the individual priesthood of Jesus, but as the fulfillment of the priesthood of Israel. What then of the contemporary priesthood as a vocation for individuals? He addresses the lack of basis in the biblical accounts–the priesthood of Jesus is unique and a class of those who mediate, as in the Aaronic priesthood are not necessary. He also observes the difficulty of language, where our usage of “priest” derives from the word used for elder (presbyter) rather than the biblical idea of one who offers sacrifices. His argument is not that the church leaders who are set apart under this term are not important but that a vocational priesthood, in the same sense as the term is used in scripture has problems with aligning with the biblical usage of the term because of the definitive work of Christ. Rather, the work of such individuals is one of calling the whole church to its holy priestly mission in the world.

Certainly, some of this might arouse a fierce response on the part of some who would defend the ordained priesthood. It is significant that Malone writes this as a member of the Anglican communion where this terminology is used. What I found in his writing was great exegetical care throughout to claim neither more nor less than could be established from the biblical texts. I found this especially in his handling of gospel texts that some might press further in arguing Jesus’ priestly role. He is content to focus on Hebrews as well as some material in Revelation, where this is more clearly established. He is also careful to not derive the priesthood of believers from Jesus, where evidence of this is lacking.

Yet the effect here is not to arrive at a place of simply telling us what the Bible does not say. Rather, the conclusion I derived is a deepened appreciation of both the high priestly work of Jesus that fulfilled where the Aaronic priesthood failed, and the noble calling of the church as a holy kingdom of priest, representing God’s reconciling work to the world. There is plenty here both for worship, and our work in the world.

 

Review: Finding Holy in the Suburbs

Finding Holy

Finding Holy in the SuburbsAshley Hales (Foreword by Emily P. Freeman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Suburbs reflect our longings for the good, that we often fill with gods of consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. Only when we repent and find our longings met in belonging to God, can daily life in the suburbs become a holy endeavor.

Nearly one-half of Americans live in suburbs, and yet many view the suburbs as a place of desolation, a deadening affluence and isolation that James Howard Kunstler has described “the geography of nowhere.” In many Christian circles, the “cutting edge” Christian life is one lived in urban neighborhoods. So what does one make of a call of God to leave an urban community that has been a thriving place of ministry and rich relationships to return to the California suburb of one’s youth? That was the challenge faced by Ashley Hales and her husband as they moved from urban Salt Lake City to that California suburb.

Hales discovered that there was a hunger in the suburbs, a longing for “home” that people filled with consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. In the first part of this book she described her own wrestlings with these false gods. She describes the consumeristic fantasies of granite countertops and therapeutic shopping at Target. She describes the individualism of measuring worth in the square footage of suburban castles that close us off from community. She narrates the busy life of the mom in a minivan ruled by the schedules entailed by all the childhood experiences our community says our children must have. She confesses the fears for safety that lead to walls and fences and gates that end up shutting out the joyous life of the kingdom.

Hales believes that “healing begins at the place of hunger.” It is when, in conversations over coffee, or the back fence, the doubts and frustrations arise that expose the brokenness of this life and the chance to “find holy” opens up. The middle part of the book deals with two movements that are critical. The first is repentance, when we acknowledge that the “glittering images” of suburban life mask an inner emptiness. The answer is not to double down or to look for a different place, but to acknowledge our mess, and stay put, waiting for God’s grace. The other part is to know that grace, that we are God’s beloved, and that our belovedness is not in how “ripped” or svelte we are, but in finding a better Lover who sees us in our beautiful brokenness and will not let us go. The challenge is to live in that reality each day in the little acts of suburban life.

The concluding chapters commend an alternative life in the suburbs that arises from repentance and belovedness. It begins with hospitality that doesn’t worry about how Pinterest-worthy our homes are but shares meals together as family and invites others into the warmth, with children interrupting, and crumbs in the sofa. Instead of consumerism, we live with an open-hearted and intentional generosity with our stuff and our time and our money. It means choosing vulnerability over safety in opening up our lives to our church and our neighborhood. It is living into the shalom of God in the midst of our broken-busy lives.

Hales writes in a style that at once evidences deep spiritual reflection, and personal honesty about her own moments of failure, repentance, and of rooting her life in the suburbs in an awareness of the presence of God in the ordinary. Each chapter concludes with some practices that individuals, families or groups may use.

As one who has lived in a suburban community for 28 years, there was much that I recognized, from the dreams of kitchen remodels to the minivan lineups at schools, practices, and fast-food drive-throughs, to the concerns for safety (far greater than in the urban community of my youth). I appreciate the insight of the author to see beyond these things to the hunger and longings of her neighbors, and the needed posture of Christians who live in this setting.

At the same time, I wonder if her and her husband’s commitment to minister in that community sets them apart from many. Our suburb significantly empties out during the day as people spend the bulk of their waking hours working somewhere else–often a place where they form their most significant friendships. She doesn’t deal with the transience of suburban communities (the house next to us has had four owners during the time we have lived here, the house behind us seven). Suburbs have life cycles from the squeaky clean “new build” stage to aging housing stock and changing demographics as many move to newer exurbs while some stay after raising families to become empty-nesters, and eventually, those who choose to “age in place.”

I hope the author and her husband will stay long enough to wrestle with these realities and work out the practices described in this book, which I believe reflect what kingdom presence looks like, as believers in the suburbs. Many suburbs really are a “geography of nowhere,” removed from shops, services and workplaces, and with attached garages that allow us to enter our “castles” without any interaction with neighbors. Many communities have no real identity and have little beyond the local schools to offer cohesion.  This work describes well the spiritual landscape of suburban life and the posture needed for those who will minister there. I look forward a sequel to this book, something like, “Further Adventures in Finding Holy in the Suburbs.” This is 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.

Review: Cosmology in Theological Perspective

Cosmology in theological Perspective

Cosmology in Theological Perspective, Olli-Pekka Vainio. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the place and significance of human beings in the cosmos, how this has been thought of through history, and how Christian theology might address contemporary questions raised about our place, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, the size of the cosmos, drawing upon the approach of C.S. Lewis.

Anyone who has gazed up at the night sky, ancient or modern, has likely been filled with a sense of wonder, a sense of the vastness of the cosmos, and wondered about our place, and how we could possibly think ourselves of any significance before such vastness. Modern scientific discoveries of millions of galaxies, and the proposal of our universe being but one of many multiverses only multiplies the vastness. That leaves all human beings with many philosophical questions, and Christians with particular questions of how they make sense of the cosmos, the magnitude of it, and the possibilities of other life forms, and where God is in all this.

Olli-Pekka Vainio, who is working with NASA on a project on astrobiology, has thought deeply about cosmology and matters of faith and this book, drawing on the approach of C. S. Lewis. He writes of Lewis:

“In his essays, Lewis offered reasoned commentaries on our place in the cosmos that drew from the ancient Christian tradition, encountering head-on the contemporary challenges, which he often showed to be based on misunderstandings or superficial knowledge of history. He resisted the scientistic worldview as “all fact and no meaning,” that is to say, a worldview that tries to be too secure and is thereby paradoxically vacated of those things that really matter to us. By mixing elements from the contemporary and ancient cosmologies, he wished to underline the meaning that was lost, as “pure facts” had taken over the collective imagination. In a way, his science fiction was a project that tried to re-enchant the world after the disenchantment brought by scientism and crude materialism.”

He describes this approach as bringing together three elements: an understanding of history, a coherence of knowledge, and intellectual virtue. Attempts at cosmology must be understood in historical context. Coherence of knowledge for the Christian consists in the canonical witness, the ecumenical tradition, and the ecumenical consensus. Intellectual virtue “includes values like honesty, open-mindedness, critical thinking, courage, and wisdom” without which we end up “in either relativism or dogmatism.”

With this methodology in mind he begins by surveying ancient cosmologies including the Old Testament and those of Plato and Aristotle which influence the early church. He then turns to early Christian thinking, particularly that of Basil the Great and Saint Augustine, considering the philosophical and hermeneutical tools they used. He moves forward to debates surrounding the work of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin and develops observations on how to think, and not to think, in relating theology and scientific facts.

After these first three introductory chapters, he turns to contemporary questions. Chapter 4 considers the possibilities of multiple habitable planets and multiverses and how this might connect to Christian theism and proposes the interesting idea that a good Creator might create good things in abundance, or plenitude. Chapter 5 considers different understandings of the imago dei, and how that might be applied to alien life forms, artificial intelligences, and whether animals might in any sense share in the imago dei. Chapter 6 explores two possibilities: one that we are alone in the universe and two that there are other “alien” life forms. Vainio shows how Christian theism might accommodate either of these possibilities. Having considered the vast cosmos, chapter 7 asks why God did not create a human-sized cosmos and why there is so much empty space. Chapters 8 and 9 explore a number of questions about God–God’s relation to such a vast creation and where God may be found, and the question of whether the Incarnation of Christ was a unique event that might apply for other worlds, or if Christ entered other worlds in other ways.

His concluding chapter returns to C. S. Lewis, and explores how Lewis related reason and imagination in formulating his ideas about cosmology, and how this approach might be helpful in our own day. Lewis did not see these in conflict, leading to extremes either of reducing things to “all facts and no meaning” or that faith is believing what we know is not true. Rather, the cosmic significance of our faith nurtures our desire to understand the cosmos more fully, and good scientific work only deepens our wonder and awe.

The value of this work is not to enunciate inflexible dogma concerning matters of cosmology but rather to explore the questions at the boundaries of our knowledge both of science and theology and to suggest that Christian theism has the resources to address various possibilities and coherent and imaginative responses to the questions we might ask. Vainio offers us careful theological and philosophical reasoning throughout (and an extensive bibliography), that identifies the different possibilities and their strengths and weaknesses of various proposals. I appreciate the combination of careful scholarship and epistemic humility in this work that creates a space for fertile discussions between scientists and theologians working together to make sense of the cosmos.

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

Review: The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Summary: Discusses three bad ideas that result in a culture of “safetyism” in higher education, chronicles the consequences of these bad ideas, traces factors that led to the embrace of these ideas, and how we might choose a wiser way.

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt contend that these three bad ideas constitute a well-intentioned but toxic basis for a campus culture of “safetyism.” They argue that these ideas contradict ancient wisdom, psychological research on well-being, and are harmful to the individuals and communities who embrace this mindset. Lukianoff, the president of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Haidt, a social psychologist perhaps best known for his recent work, The Righteous Mind, began to notice, from 2013 on, an increasing trend of concern on university campuses about “triggering material,” efforts to disinvite, or obstruct controversial speakers by heckling or even violence, coupled with reports of increasing levels of anxiety and fears about safety.

There seemed to be an increasing perception by university administrators that students were “fragile” and needed protection and “safe spaces.” They noted the priority given to feelings, and that the response to anything that evokes negative emotions is not to consider how one ought think about the external cause, but to simply remove whatever offends or causes stress–be it course material or offensive speakers, or perceived “microaggressions.” (Although I wonder whether two white men can fully take on board what it is like to experience frequent microaggressions because of one’s race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, or disability.) They also noted the framing of the world in terms of a toxic form of identity politics, focused on common enemies rather than common humanity–us versus them, good versus evil.

After delineating the contours and problems with these “three great untruths,” the authors chronicle a number of incidents in the last five years that they believe result from these often well-intentioned but bad ideas. They chronicle violent outcomes to this thinking at Berkeley after Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak with no disciplinary action by the university, and at Middlebury College when controversial scholar Charles Murray attempted to speak and a hosting faculty member suffered a concussion and whiplash requiring six months of physical therapy, in attempts to disrupt the event. Perhaps not as well publicized were the “witch hunts,” often against liberal faculty like Erika Christakis at Yale, who objected to an administration’s paternalistic instructions about offensive Halloween costumes, suggesting that students might be mature enough to set their own norms. Students called her out as a racist, for creating an unsafe space, and sought her firing. She ultimately resigned. On many campuses, faculty feel they are walking on egg shells, often choosing to avoid anything controversial for fear that it may evoke complaints, or a witch hunt.

The authors identify six contributing factors to this culture of safetyism, devoting a chapter to each:

  • Rising political polarization, with campuses shifting leftward and increasingly distrusted by those on the right.
  • An increase in adolescent anxiety and depression beginning in 2011, significantly correlating to smartphone usage. This group began arriving on campus in 2013.
  • Paranoid parenting resulting in far less unsupervised play and greater fears of abduction (even though crime rates for this crime have dropped).
  • The decline of free play and the rise of emphasis on test preparation.
  • The growth of a bureaucracy of safetyism at universities, driven by federal mandates, risks of lawsuits, and a consumerist mentality, in which students are the consumers.
  • The quest for justice, evoked by events between 2012 and 2018 that sometimes focuses on “equal outcomes social justice” in which any demographic disparity is assumed to be the result of discrimination, and alternative explanations are themselves considered discriminatory.

The authors observe that many of these factors arise from good intentions taken to extremes and are careful to distinguish between legitimate forms of concern (like protecting physical safety) and more extreme forms of safetyism.

They conclude with three chapters on wising up, with applications to children, to universities, and to the wider society. They argue for preparing kids for the road rather than the road for the kids. They propose that our worst enemies cannot harm us as much as our emotional reasoning. And they encourage the recognition that “the line dividing good and evil goes through the heart of every human being,” and that we ought be watchful for any institution that promotes a common enemy rather than common humanity narrative. They commend the Chicago Statement (including a version of it in an appendix) that promotes free speech, academic freedom and free inquiry and sanctioning efforts to suppress speech.

The authors, particularly Greg Lukianoff, who benefited personally from this approach, advocate for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that improves mental health and coping skills through recognizing cognitive distortions and maladaptive behaviors, and challenging and changing these. Essentially, they would contend that their “three bad ideas” are both cognitive distortions and lead to maladaptive behaviors good neither for the person, nor the university, nor society. Hence, it should be understood that CBT is integral to their critique and recommendations.

Working in a collegiate setting, I’ve seen many of the conditions the authors describe. Most faculty I know readily resonate with the feeling that they walk on egg shells, even while being deeply committed to academic freedom and challenging students thinking. I’ve seen the growing sensitivity to microaggressions. I’ve witnessed the surprise when I’ve suggested that being offended is a choice–that no one can offend us unless we let them, and that there are other options. I have been concerned that universities often seem to be echo chambers for the progressive end of our political discourse, blind to the very practices they excoriate on the right.

Given the character of our wider society, it seems the last thing universities should be doing is engaging in the kinds of “coddling” Lukianoff and Haidt describe. If we are to have any hope, it will take resilient, anti-fragile people who will engage and keep engaging differing and even off-putting ideas. Most of all, in a climate of us versus them, we need people able to follow the Pauli Murray principle: “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.” Here’s to drawing larger circles!

Review: Creation Care

Creation Care

Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural WorldDouglas J. Moo and Jonathan A. Moo. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018.

Summary: An survey of the relevant scriptures concerning how we might think biblically and theologically about the creation and our role in it, and the relevance of this teaching to current environmental concerns.

Many discussions about the environment get caught up in arguments about scientific findings and public policies. Often Christians end up fighting each other about these matters as well. What the father and son team of Douglas and Jonathan Moo offer is a study that takes us back to first principles. As Christians, our actions in the world ought not be informed fundamentally by talk radio, political party positions, or scientific papers, but rather biblical teaching, and the wisdom principles that arise from that teaching that we seek to humbly and prayerfully apply to all the activities of our lives.

This work serves as a kind of sourcebook for thinking about caring for creation. The authors begin by asking what we mean by the care of creation and contend that this ought matter to us because it matters to the God we love. They then explore how do we develop a theology of creation, and how we understand the evidence of scripture in light of theology, culture, and science. They suggest a “roundabout” model where understanding of text and these influences feed into each other.

The next seven chapters, the majority of the work, develop the teaching of scripture. They begin with the beautiful world God has created, that it is his and our beginning posture is one of joining all his creatures in worshiping his goodness. They turn to our place as members, rulers, and keepers of creation. In discussing dominion and the idea of subduing the earth, they suggest particularly the idea of “bringing the earth under the appropriate rule of those who bear God’s image,” a task that becomes even more urgent in a post-Genesis 3 world. This involves abad and shamar, working and caring for God’s garden. They explore Israel’s relationship to the land, their homeland, and yet owned by God and thus a gift and not a possession. Their use is shaped by sabbath and jubilee, as they trust God to sustain them in the land.

At the same time, they discuss the impact of the fall on a creation “subject to frustration.” All creation suffers because of our rebellion against God, yet the context of Paul’s reference is that God has acted to redeem and reconcile both us, and the creation. The incarnation reveals God’s care for the material creation. God in human flesh in the person of Christ reveals what it means to properly rule in God’s world as his image bearers, and died and rose to inaugurate the renewal of God’s loving rule through his reconciled creatures. They are part of the new creation accomplished through the resurrection of Christ that not only means new life for those who believe but a new heaven and a new earth. They deal with 2 Peter 3, often understood as “it will all burn,” and used to denigrate our care for what will be destroyed, and contend that this passage is best understood as speaking of refining and not destroying fire, consuming all that is dross and evil, preparatory to the new creation.

The last part of the book is a reflection on the relevance of this biblical material in our present time. They propose that caring for creation is an integral part of our gospel. They affirm our role as stewards accountable for good care of the creation, that is also shaped by the realization that our care for creation also is an act of caring for people, and their flourishing. Understanding the biblical teaching leads us into wisdom, which involves knowing and doing, using all of our knowledge of the world, much coming from science, to care for the world in ways that acknowledge God’s ownership, the earth’s goodness, is just toward all God’s creatures, in dependence upon God.

The authors include a chapter briefly summarizing current environmental challenges that require our caring attention: the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, the plight of the world’s oceans (depletion of fisheries, destruction of coral reefs, etc.), soil loss and developing sustainable agriculture, and our changing climate. They are measured in their treatment, providing peer-reviewed data. They conclude with the importance of putting creation into our teaching of new creation and putting ourselves into the creation. They commend five ways in which we might be AWAKE to caring for creation:

  • Attentiveness to the creation and its suffering.
  • Walking and de-emphasizing mechanized transportation.
  • Activism, often beginning in our own churches and communities.
  • Konsumerism: learning to step back from excess to enough.
  • Eating, through choosing food grown sustainably.

While others have covered this ground, Douglas and Jonathan Moo bring strong evangelical credentials and careful treatment of biblical texts to this task with a strong commitment to biblical authority. Because of this most of the work is formulation of the Bible’s teaching. It might be faulted on being short on practical recommendations, yet what this allows is for the reader to reflect on the theology of creation care and determine their own response, perhaps side-stepping politicized discussions.

I would love to commend this work for adult education in churches. The difficulty is that this is a more academic work than I sense many adults in the church willing to engage in an adult education program. The issue is less comprehensibility than comprehensiveness. The treatment of the biblical material is thorough and lengthy, more appropriate for a college or seminary level course. It also would be a good resource for a creation care task force in a church or Christians concerned about the environment who want to think Christianly about their activism. The authors do help us see what is distinctive about a Christian concern for creation and balance proper dominion with care and serving of the creation. They help us understand both how fallen human beings are the problem, and offer hope that as redeemed and reconciled new creations, we can care for God’s good world in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth.

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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.