Review: The Church as Movement

the church as movement

The Church as MovementJ.R. Woodward and Dan White Jr., Foreword by Alan Hirsch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2016.

Summary: An interactive guide for communities wanting to learn how to become “missional-incarnational movements” rather than “Christian-industrial complexes” through growth in eight competencies.

J.R. Woodward and Dan White Jr. believe there is something fundamentally wrong with an American church model focused around the metrics of “buildings, butts (in the seats), and budgets” (as one friend describes it). They refer to this as the “Christian-industrial complex” that has indeed become big business to the point that it shapes how Christians pursue life together and mission, and engage society. In this interactive guidebook, the authors propose a model of church as movement–one that focuses on our communion with God, our sentness as a community, and our co-mission to live as a “sign, foretaste, and instrument of his kingdom in ever-expanding geographical areas” (p. 23).

This happens as groups grow into eight competencies, around which the book is organized:

  • Movement Intelligence: Movements are on the street rather than the stage, multiply as they move outward and leverage a five-fold set of people gifts.
  • Polycentric Leadership: Movements organize around many centers of leadership in a flat structure rather than around a single leader over a hierarchical structure.
  • Being Disciples: Movements recognize that one must be a disciple to make disciples, growing in inward, outward, and upward journeys, overcoming soul pressures, and becoming sacred companions who experience a depth of vulnerability that enables people to embrace their true selves.
  • Making Disciples: Movements make disciples through “meta, reflective, and experiential” learning (a pedagogy used in this guide), build on a scaffolding of safety and stretching, and gather and develop discipleship cores through phases of forming, storming, norming and performing.
  • Missional Theology: Movements understand the missional story of which they are a part–God’s social and sending nature, the nature of his kingdom, the holistic gospel (in six acts), and the sacramental markers of baptism and the Lord’s table.
  • Ecclesial Architecture: This is not about church buildings but the structuring of a movement’s life around communion, community, and co-mission, the gathered and scattered rules of life that constitute a movement, and the different spaces of belonging (intimate, personal, social, and public) in which it exists.
  • Community Formation:  Movements develop a common life, a shared table and learning, healing, welcoming, liberating, and thriving environments. Movements are characterized by trust-building, truth-telling, and peacemaking.
  • Incarnational Practices: Movements come NEAR their neighborhoods: they learn its Narrative, Ethics, Associations, and Rituals and learn to be present in that context, often with the aid of a person of peace.

The guide follows a three-fold formational learning approach.

  1. Meta-learning is identifying the overarching essential truth in each section for one personally.
  2. Reflective learning explores how what you are learning makes you feel including points of conflict, clarity, or confusion.
  3. Experiential learning identifies real time action steps a group will take to attempt to put into practice what they are learning, and the learning that comes from this experience.

Each of the eight competencies has several sections concluding with a set of formational learning questions following this three-fold pattern. It is suggested that people work through this material with a group. Groups meeting weekly can take a section at a time and complete the guide in eight months. Alternately, groups meeting twice a month might take a chapter each time they meet and complete it in four months. The latter approach seems less workable to me because each competency provides several sections of content, difficult to cover adequately, and more difficult to experience in a single session every two weeks.

I can see several settings in which this might work. One would be for a church leadership team trying to make the transition from industrial complex to movement, to practice first within themselves and then to multiply through their church. A second would be for a small group within a church (or network of groups) who want to become “missional incarnational communities”. It would seem important after several weeks of meetings to “storm and norm” to get to a place of group ownership. Finally, a group, perhaps set apart by church to plant in a nearby community, might use this as a guide for laying the groundwork to plant.

What is helpful for all these groups is an approach that focuses on shared competencies rather than merely planting or growth strategies. Actually most of these flow from the practice of the competencies in a particular neighborhood context. So often, in the eagerness to “do something,” these competencies are neglected. Disciples are not developed. A nimble leadership is absent and there is a reversion to hierarchy, and often burnout. Instead of a compelling story, we recycle nostrums. Woodward and White, out of their own extensive experience of growing such movements provide a comprehensive guide for others warming to God’s missional heart.

Review: Breaking the Huddle

Breaking the Huddle

Breaking the HuddleDon Everts, Val Gordon, Doug Schaupp. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores how Christian communities can move from being huddled groups to become witnessing, and even “conversion” communities where growth through people coming to faith becomes the norm.

One of the realities of many Christian communities, whether they are churches, or campus groups or groups in other places is that they are huddled. It is not that they don’t believe in sharing their faith with those who don’t believe, but that’s not happening very often, and even less often does someone actually come to faith. If these churches or groups grow, they usually grow from people who already believe and have joined them after leaving another group.

The writers of this book (a pastor and two collegiate ministers) believe that can change and write in the early chapters of this book of how groups can go from being huddled, to witnessing to becoming conversion communities where most of the growth is through people coming to faith. In the first three chapters, they explore the characteristics of each type of community and what communities have done to move from one type to another. They also note the reality of entropy, and how vision for evangelism quickly leaks and energy is lost.

Discipleship cycle

Discipleship Cycle

In Part Two, they outline two “macrostrategies” to help groups transition from huddled to witnessing communities. One is to nurture discipleship momentum through incorporating the discipleship cycle in which hearing the word is followed by making an active response, which is then debriefed. This third step is often neglected meaning that people have experiences but do not reflect on their significance and to what God might next be calling one. Only this kind of transforming discipleship can sustain witness.

They then turn to the need to mobilize relational witness. Here they draw on earlier work by Everts and Schaupp (I Once Was Lost) in integrating an understanding of the “five thresholds of post-modern conversion” into a community’s life. These steps recognize that in coming to faith, many people cross thresholds from trusting a Christian to becoming curious to opening up to change to actively seeking to entering the kingdom. In this book, they extend these ideas to how communities can respond appropriately to people at different points in their journey to faith.

5 thresholds

Five Thresholds

Part Three is perhaps the most significant part of this book as the authors talk about the dynamics of conversion communities, where people are regularly coming to faith. They explore the significance of lingering in “God moments,” lifting up their eyes, and laboring in the harvest. In these ways, God moments become God movements. The most significant insight for me was the idea of not being content with individual conversions but looking for whether God may be doing something more in which many others might also come to faith. These communities also align their vision, their structures, and their efforts to develop people around these God movements. The concluding part talks about how one leads the change and in fact incarnates the change.

This is a hopeful book, even for the many who might still feel they are in the huddle. The authors write at the beginning:

“Every athlete needs to take a knee for some time as she circles up with her teammates to figure out the next play. But then the team breaks the huddle and heads back out to the playing field. Breaking the huddle is an inherently hopeful, purposeful thing to do. May all our communities break the huddle and engage in the next play God has for us.”

The authors give not only a number of practical how-to’s but share their own journeys of discovery along the way. They lay out the work to be done, but also the hope for real change in our communities. Each chapter concludes with a prayer, and questions groups studying through this book can use together, making this ideal for church or ministry leadership teams.

Doug and Val are colleagues and friends in the collegiate ministry which is my day job. What I most appreciate about what they have done here (along with Don Everts!) is to integrate into a seamless whole different “pieces” of ministry strategy, weaving them together with a narrative of transforming communities from huddled to witnessing to conversion, and moving from isolated “God moments” to ongoing “God movements.” They tell a story rooted in God’s gracious intentions to draw people to himself, and recover for us the wonder of being communities instrumental in seeing significant numbers of those people experience new life in Christ.

Review: Three Days in January

Three Days in January

Three Days in JanuaryBret Baier with Catherine Whitney. New York, William Morrow, 2017.

Summary: An account of the final three days of the Eisenhower presidency, focused around his farewell speech, highlighting Eisenhower’s principled leadership and contribution to the nation.

Dwight Eisenhower is the first president I remember. My recollections seem to be mostly of Eisenhower on the golf course. He didn’t hold the attention of this five-year old when he spoke. He faded quickly into the background when the dashing Jack Kennedy took office. His successors were much in the news in my growing up and adult years from the Vietnam war to Watergate and the pardon to the Iranian hostage crisis to “morning in America” to “shock and awe.” I didn’t think much about Ike as a president, probably more as the general who led us to victory in Europe in World War Two.

Bret Baier suggests that a re-assessment might be worth it. Behind the bland exterior was a president who ended the Korean War and presided over eight years free of war (if not the threat of nuclear war, which he skillfully addressed). He launched the Interstate Highway System revolutionizing travel and transport in America. He signed some of the earliest civil rights legislation (though many will criticize him for not going further) and balanced budgets. He argues he gave the right kind of presidential leadership to a nation weary of Depression and war.

Baier explores the life and contribution of this president through the window of his last three days in office beginning with his Farewell Speech, most known for his prescient warnings against the “military-industrial complex.” But first he goes back. He begins with narrating the meeting he had with recently victorious Jack Kennedy in early December, and Eisenhower’s determination to make a much better transition than Truman had in handing the presidency over to him, briefing the incoming president on everything from the policy apparatus he had put in place (which Kennedy dismantled) to world and domestic situations.  Significantly, he briefed him on a covert operation in the planning stages against Castro’s Cuba involving a landing in the Bay of Pigs. He warned against moving forward unless adequate leadership was in place. Kennedy mistook this for an endorsement of the operation.

Baier then recaps Eisenhower’s life from boyhood, to military service to his rise to the Allied command, post war activities, and his entry into politics as a very apolitical Republican (much to Truman’s disappointment, perhaps accounting for the frosty reception he gave Eisenhower).

He recounts the Farewell Speech itself, which he sees as modeled after Washington’s. He explores the writing of the speech and Eisenhower’s interactions with his speechwriters. He describes a relationship with Congress that was “interdependent,” striking because Democrats were in the majority for six of the eight years of his presidency. Eisenhower regularly hosted bipartisan meetings of Congressional leadership and fostering warm personal relations with Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson.

He describes the hostile global situation, particularly significant because of the chill in relations with the Soviets despite Ike’s efforts to pursue peace, recognizing the necessity of a strong deterrence. He had fought along with the Soviets against Germany, forging personal ties with General Zhukov, and hoped it could eventuate in a more durable peace, which was not to be. He goes on to discuss Ike’s frustration both with the false accusations of a “gap” in the arms race when the U.S. enjoyed superiority, and with his inability to find a way out  of that race, which he recognized an exercise in futility.

Finally, he turned to the “military-industrial” complex in which peace-time defense industries and their survival threatened to co-opt American foreign policy for its own perpetuation. He warned:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The concluding section of Baier’s book covers the last three days. He discusses the thorough work Eisenhower did in planning the transition from his end to provide continuity and to allow the new president to be able to lead well from day one. He held a good-bye press conference. On his last day, he dealt with the huge snowfall that blanketed D.C. and prepared to greet the incoming president and for the handing off of power. He said goodbyes to the White House staff, met the Kennedys, heard Kennedy’s magnificent address, and then departed for Gettysburg.

He would meet again with Kennedy a few months later at Camp David, where he discussed the failed Bay of Pigs mission with Kennedy and helped him debrief that experience and consider how he would handle future instances of proposed actions. Eisenhower unfailingly offered his advice when sought, wrote his memoirs and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity until his health failed in 1968 and he passed in 1969.

Baier’s account seemed to me more adulatory than a balanced history. Yet he underscored several important points about Eisenhower worth consideration by our present political leaders. One was his willingness to work with the whole Congress and not just his own party. There was clarity about the common task they shared to serve the whole country, even while they differed at times how to do so. Country was always ahead of personal ambition. A second was the soldier committed to pursuing peace, perhaps truer to his Quaker roots than many thought him. He got the country out of Korea and kept it out of war, while never sacrificing a clear-eyed strong defense. And finally, he was a man of principle, not perfect but honorable. Baier’s point is that these are qualities that we should look for in all of our presidents, something I cannot dispute. The tougher question to my mind is, why don’t we?

Review: Beauty for Truth’s Sake

Beauty for Truths Sake

Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Stratford Caldecott, (foreword Ken Myers). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017 (my review is of the 2009 edition).

Summary: An argument for the unity of faith and reason, beauty and truth, the sciences and the humanities, and for the recovery of education as a lifelong pursuit of wisdom, both rooted in and eventuating in liturgical worship.

As one who has long worked around universities, the fragmentation of knowledge among the disparate disciplines is an established fact. Those who teach in the humanities, and in the sciences often hold each other in mutual suspicion if not contempt, and speak in languages often unintelligible to each other. One of the few things that unites a number of these people is a shared suspicion toward religious faith (sometimes, but not always, warranted by stupid or wicked things done in God’s name).

In this work, Stratford Caldecott contends for an ancient, and yet contemporary vision of a restored unity of knowledge that brings together arts and humanities, math and the sciences, the beautiful and the true, reason and faith in a “re-enchantment” of education that leads to wisdom, and worship. He writes in his Introduction:

“I believe it is possible to remain an active learner throughout life, and yet to maintain a moral compass in good working order. But vital though they are, adaptability and ethics are not enough by themselves. There is a structural flaw in our education that we need to overcome. It is related to a profound malaise in our civilization, which by progressive stages has slipped into a way of thinking and living that is dualistic in character. The divisions between arts and sciences, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, have a common root. In particular, our struggle to reconcile religious faith with modern science is symptomatic of a failure to understand the full scope of human reason and its true grandeur” (p. 12).

Caldecott would argue that our modern fragmented education divorces meaning from fact, dooming the humanities to solipsism and the sciences to sterility. He would argue, along with Dorothy Sayers (in The Lost Tools of Learning) for a restoration of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and an adaptation of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, expanded for additional disciplines). He believes that the key to the unity of these disciplines is beauty, which serves as a pointer to truth, as well as goodness. He connects the recovery of the poetic imagination with its focus on symbol to the recognition of the symbolic in the scientific study of the natural world, opening us to the wonder of what is beyond. He explores the beauty and symbolism in math and geometry, the structure and beauty of music, and concludes with how this “re-enchanted” cosmology finds its consummation in liturgy.

What I most appreciated in this work is the sense of the recovery of wonder in our inquiry. In the modern academy, it seems that one of the prices paid for advancing in proficiency, whether in “getting good data” in science, or in applying critical theory to historical events or literary works is the loss of wonder–the joy of a good story, admiration for a historical figure, appreciation of the structure of the cosmos. Certainly this is not always so, but to see the wide-eyed wonder of young scholars replaced by cynicism is grievous whenever it happens, and I cannot help but think that the educational flaws Caldecott critiques contribute to this loss.

Where Caldecott may be critiqued is in his “Christian Platonism” that views our language, our numbers, our physical world pointing to a world beyond–the world of forms, ideas, perhaps all found in the mind or person of God. I have to confess that I don’t have the philosophical wherewithal to critique or defend this idea, and I haven’t thought of things in quite these terms. I do believe that all human artistry, and the artistry of the physical world is a reflection of the Great Artist in a general sense. But I’m not as sure about the effort to “symbolize” all physical reality as a signifier of transcendent reality. There is something that feels as if it could be forced to me, akin to those who try to find some spiritual lesson in everything and sometimes reach some pretty wacky conclusions. I think I’d rather be open to beauty where I find it, to be attentive to what it points toward, and aware that we sing God’s songs, and think his thoughts after Him.

I’m not sure if that makes me a Christian Platonist or not. And perhaps that points to the goodness of this book, that it is making me think and re-examine my own understanding. It makes me think about how I relate goodness, truth, and beauty, how it is that I can claim reason and faith are not at odds and that there is an underlying unity to all knowledge. It poses the question to me in my work of how I can claim to suggest that the integration of faith, learning, and practice are a possibility in the modern university, and not just a slogan. Most of all, it inspires me afresh to think of how wonder might lead to doxology.

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

 

Review: The Loyal Son

Loyal Son

The Loyal SonDaniel Mark Epstein. New York: Ballantine Books, 2017.

Summary: The history of relations between Ben and his illegitimate son William Franklin, from filial loyalty to estranged parties as a consequence of the Revolutionary War, and each man’s choices.

I’ve read a biography of Ben Franklin and numerous histories of the Revolutionary War, and had never realized how deeply estranged Franklin and his son were until I read Daniel Mark Epstein’s well-researched study of the lives and the tragic relationship of these two men.

It was not always so. William, an illegitimate offspring of Franklin’s, was raised as a son by him and Deborah. They worked side by side in the affairs of Philadelphia, fought alongside each other against Indian attacks, and went to England together to plead against the Penn family, who as proprietors of Pennsylvania enjoyed an exemption from taxes for defense of the Commonwealth. Franklin supported William in his legal studies while William was at his side in his laboratory and often his emissary in legal pleadings with the Solicitor General. They were engaged together in a land deal for western lands. William gained such a reputation that he even marched in George III’s coronation procession while Ben observed from a distance. While in England William met and married Elizabeth, shortly before they all left for America.

For a few short years, the family was together as Elizabeth gave birth to William Temple Franklin (who would be known as Temple). Ben returned to England as a representative of the colonies for their growing list of grievances against England. William eventually secures an appointment from the Royal Court as governor of New Jersey. From here their paths begin to diverge. Ben becomes increasingly disenchanted with England and concludes that independence for the colonies is the only answer. William remains a loyal to the crown, executing his office well (New Jersey being among the last to join to movement for independence). When Ben becomes involved in the cause against fellow governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, the divide becomes greater.

After a brief return to America in 1775 (after Deborah had died of stroke during his long absence) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Ben went to France as America’s emissary, taking Temple, who played a role similar to William in his earlier years. Before he departed, he tried to intercede with William to withdraw from his governorship gracefully.  William, stood firm, until finally arrested. When paroled, he acted subversively, endorsing pardons of New Jersey loyalists and otherwise acting to subvert the revolution. When discovered, William is imprisoned under deplorable conditions in Litchfield. Ostensibly, Ben does, and can do nothing without seeming in complicity with the son and giving fodder to his own enemies in the colonies. Eventually, in ill health, he is released, but too late to comfort Elizabeth, who dies in New York City. Instead of leaving the country, William continues efforts to mobilize loyalists in subversive activities in support of England, including and indirect role in the seizure and hanging death of hated Captain Jack Huddy.

Only when peace is finally achieved is an attempt made at reconciliation. William makes the first move, in a moving letter of apology to his father, to which Ben responds with coldness. Eventually the two meet, but only for William to sign over lands to satisfy debts to his father. They remained estranged for the rest of their lives, and it was Temple, and not William, who remained in England on a government pension, who inherited from Ben. Sadly, Temple did not otherwise benefit from the influence of his illustrious grandfather, living a dissolute life without direction or purpose.

The “loyal” in Epstein’s title underscores the crux of this book, William’s choice of loyalty to Crown above family. It might have been one thing had he fulfilled his office of governor until displaced. His persistence in the loyalist cause, against all his father and family held dear was fatal to his relationship with Ben, who could not forgive this. Yet one wonders if things might have been different had Ben been more present as a father, particularly in that critical period after he was arrested, and eventually transported to Connecticut. Did his resistance stem in part from his father’s absence when his mother Deborah’s health was failing, while Franklin engaged in affairs with other women?

While William comes off as stubborn, and from an American point of view, a traitor to his country, Ben Franklin comes off little better, and perhaps worse–more interested in money owed than in restoring the son who once worked and fought at his side. Each had betrayed the loyalty of the other, yet it is a mark against the legacy of the elder Franklin that he was so unwilling to forgive. One may attribute this to the exigencies of war which often presses people to hard choices, yet in Epstein’s telling, the elder Franklin comes off poorly.

Epstein shows us a side of Ben Franklin’s life that has been muted in many portrayals of this founder, as well as giving us a full-bodied rendering of William. One unusual aspect of this rendering is the debt Epstein acknowledges to William Herbert Mariboe, whose unpublished 1962 doctoral dissertation on William Franklin he calls “the best biography of William Franklin ever written.” One wonders what might have been if such generosity had existed between father and son Franklin. Sadly, that is a story not to be told.

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

Review: Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures

Ministering in Honor-shame Cultures

Ministering in Honor-Shame CulturesJayson Georges and Mark D. Baker. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A text which explains the differences between guilt-innocence and honor-shame cultures, outlines a biblical basis for ministry in honor-shame cultures and discusses practical implications for ministry in these cultures.

Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. For those of us from guilt-innocence cultures (many from Euro-American backgrounds), our encounters with those from honor-shame cultures often leave us baffled as we fail to understand why we are unable to connect or why we have offended. Our globalized world makes this kind of cross-cultural understanding vital.

This is especially so with those engaged in mission in these cultures. Incarnational ministry means getting inside the skin of those with whom we are engaged in ministry. In this text Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker take us inside both honor-shame cultures and the scriptures and help us understand what ministry in honor-shame cultures might look like.

First of all they help us understand how honor-shame cultures are different from guilt-innocence cultures. Fundamentally, these cultures are about who we are in relation to others rather than what we have done in relation to a set of laws or principles. Honor-shame cultures manifest themselves in terms of patronage, indirect communication, event orientation, purity, hospitality, and social roles. Unfortunately, those of us from guilt-innocence cultures often see dependence and corruption, lying and deception, tardiness, rituralism, obligation and ostentation, and oppression. Can you see where things might go wrong?

Perhaps the highlight of the book for me was where the authors show how the Bible, written in an honor-shame context provides us a basis for understanding shame and for restoring and seeking honor. They trace these ideas through both the Old and New Testaments, culminating in the work of Christ in which he bears our shame, making it possible for us to be restored to honorable relationship before God.

The last half of the book works out the implications of an understanding of honor-shame cultures and a biblical framing of honor-shame for redemptive ministry in these cultures.

They begin with a spirituality of honor and shame, noting the great reversal of the gospel where pride equates with shame and humility with honor, and how this reshapes our ideas of honor and shame. A chapter on relationships follows with “Eight Commandments” for relationships in honor-shame contexts: 1) use a cover, 2) reconcile symbolically, 3) be a client, 4) guest well, 5) share gifts, 6) be a patron, 7) be pure, and 8) give face.

The chapter on evangelism begins with building bridges of honor in relationship and then shows how the gospel is a story of status reversal. Our problem of sin is unfaithfulness–disloyalty toward God that breaks relationship. Our dilemma is shame, a disgrace that merits banishment from God’s presence. God’s solution in Christ, is that his death is a bearing of shame that restores our relationship by repairing our honor. Our response is one of allegiance–loyalty to honoring God. The result of all this is that God makes outcasts his children and exalts us to eternal glory and honor. Conversion, then is often communal and involves the transference of allegiance, not only to Christ, but a new group.

Ethics is the pursuit of honor in a different key, which often involves humbling of self to serve. While to the watching world, this may be shameful, and difficult, it is motivated by the honor that comes in faithfully serving God. It is an honor shaped by pursuing glory, purity, and love. Finally this is pursued in a community that transforms shame by reintegrating the shamed into community, where forgiveness is practiced to restore relationship, and where leadership is practiced not from a position of privilege but rather service that seeks God’s honor.

The book concludes with appendices of key honor-shame passages in scripture, key honor shame stories, and a bibliography of resources for further study. Each chapter concludes with discussion questions that may be used for personal reflection, or classroom or group discussion. The book is written at a level suitable for an academic course on cross-cultural communication, but equally can be beneficial for churches and individuals engaged cross-culturally with those from honor-shame cultures.

The authors do not argue for one or the other frames being superior, and note that all cultures have a mix of these elements with guilt-innocence dominant in many Western contexts while shame-honor is dominant in most Majority cultures. While generalizing, they note that each culture expresses these differently and to understand honor-shame in one context is not to understand all. They liberally illustrate from experiences in a variety of cultural contexts, often at their own expense in sharing their failures as well as successes.

One of the big conclusions I drew was the priority of relationship. Rightness is not legal rightness, but being in right relationship in community, and with God. To build bridges of honor that communicate how important a person is to us, to give face, to restore the shamed all are biblical ideas but so different than doing the right things and having the right ideas. I also appreciated the thoughtfulness the writers showed in redeeming honor and shame, which sin may distort, providing paths of restoration, and better ways both to live for honor and honor others. In doing so, they move beyond cross-cultural understanding to cross-cultural mission with a gospel that is redemptive in every culture.

 

Review: Single, Gay, Christian

single gay christian

Single, Gay, ChristianGregory Coles. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017 (forthcoming August 22, 2017).

Summary: An autobiographical narrative of a young Christian who becomes aware of his attraction to other men, his struggles against this within a Christian context, his experiences of “coming out,” and how he has decided to follow Christ through all of this.

This book had me at the first page. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t quote so extensively, but I know nothing better to give you a sense of Gregory Cole’s story, and of his exquisite writing:

“Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other.

I promise to tell you my story. The whole story. I’ll tell you about a boy in love with Jesus who, at the fateful onset of puberty, realized his sexual attractions were persistently and exclusively for other guys. I’ll tell you how I lay on my bed in the middle of the night and whispered to myself the words I’ve whispered a thousand times since:

“I’m gay.”

I’ll show you the world through my eyes. I’ll tell you what it’s like to belong nowhere. To know that much of my Christian family will forever consider me unnatural, dangerous, because of something that feels as involuntary as my eye color. And to know that much of the LGBTQ community that shares my experience as a sexual minority will disagree with the way I’ve chosen to interpret the call of Jesus, believing I’ve bought into a tragic, archaic ritual of self-hatred.

But I promise my story won’t all be sadness and loneliness and struggle. I’ll tell you good things too, hopeful things, funny things, like the time I accidentally came out to my best friend during his bachelor party. I’ll tell you what it felt like the first time someone looked me in the eyes and said, “You are not a mistake.” I’ll tell you that joy and sorrow are not opposites, that my life has never been more beautiful than when it was most brokenhearted.

If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me.”

In succeeding chapters, Coles unfolds, often in a self-deprecating yet not self-hating fashion, his growing awareness that he was gay, his silence and attempts to cover this up by dating girls and even of trying to awaken heterosexual desires through them. He describes the scary and wonderful moment he comes out to his pastor, who listens, and loves, and keeps on loving.

We trace with him his journey to reconcile his faith, his orientation, his understanding of biblical teaching, weighing but rejecting “affirming” interpretations, which precludes for him acting on his gay attractions by pursuing intimacy with another man, and what it means for him to believe that God has nevertheless made him good.

He helps us hear what is often said in churches that affirm a “traditional” view from the perspective of a gay person. I cringed here as I read things I’ve said. He also leads us into a broader conversation about sexuality and how the fall has affected it for all of us, gay or straight.

He speaks about his choice to live single, both the heartache, and the joy. He raises the question of views of discipleship that never involve suffering or self-denial. He casts a vision for a life that is full, and has a unique capacity for relationships because of who he is as a gay man. Where the church often sees LGBTQ persons as a threat, Greg helps us see persons like himself as a tremendous gift.

Coles speaks with a voice of conviction without dogmatism. He speaks for himself and his own journey, allowing that others might conclude differently. As he writes in his introduction, he tells us the truth about himself, and lets us decide.  He doesn’t see himself as any kind of role model but simply as a “half-written story.”

I deeply resonated with his comments about encountering the “are you side A or side B?” question. He writes, “I didn’t want to be reduced to a simple yes or no. I wanted a new side.” I find myself deeply in sympathy with him. And perhaps this book might take us a step closer to that new side.

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

Review: The Death of Adam

the death of adam

The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Summary: A collection of eleven essays taking modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward its intellectual antecedents.

Anyone who has read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction discovers a view of life framed in older, theological modes of thought that trace back to the Reformation and beyond. Her appreciation for that framework is evident in this collection of essays that takes modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward, and often uninformed rejection of these older modes of thought. Much of this is grounded in one of the fundamental premises of Robinson’s thought–go back to the primary sources!

She demonstrates this in an introductory essay where she takes Lord Acton and others to task for misrepresenting John Calvin (or Jean Cauvin, as his name appears in French), often failing to actually read Calvin himself. She returns later in the collection in two essays on Marguerite of Navarre to defend Calvin against charges of religious bigotry and to recover the contribution Calvin has made to democratic ideals. In particular, she addresses the case for which Calvin is most excoriated, that of Michael Servetus, noting that Calvin was not among the civil authorities who sentenced him and that his execution for heresy was the only such to occur in Calvin’s Geneva, mostly because of the troublesome character he had been. She doesn’t excuse the execution or Calvin’s role but tries to set it in a context of a restrained policy, considering the times.

This “contrarian approach” is taken up in her initial essay on Darwinism as she explores the much more brutal human ethic of survival, selfishness, and progress, contrasted with the older one of human dignity as creatures in God’s image, as well as an understanding of human fallenness that does not excuse human evil with socio-biological explanations.

She notes the struggle of modern thought to face reality when confronted by the crises of life that raise profound questions about our existence. She writes of an older way of understanding such things:

“The truth to which all this fiction refers, from which it takes its authority, is the very oldest truth, right out of Genesis. We are not at ease in the world, and sooner or later it kills us. Oddly, people in this culture have been relatively exempt from toil and pangs and death, to, if length of life may be regarded as a kind of exemption. So why do these things seem to terrify us more than they do others? One reason might be that, as human populations go, we are old. A few decades ago the median age was in late adolescence, and now it is deep into adulthood. Midlife has overtaken the great postwar generation. So the very fact that we have, in general, enjoyed unexampled health has brought us in vast numbers into the years when even the best luck begins to run out. This is true of the whole Western world (pp. 81-82).

Two of her essays concern Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Holmes McGuffey. In the case of Bonhoeffer, we see a contrarian who withstands Nazi ideology drawing on wellsprings of an older faith. In McGuffey, whose famous readers are taken to task for bourgeois values, she observes his associations with abolitionists from Charles Finney to Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Lane radicals of Cincinnati. His readers shaped a consciousness in the American Middle West that had no place for slavery in human society.

This is followed by a delightful essay on “Puritans and Prigs” in which she contends the Puritans were a far more joyful and liberal band that stands in contrast with modern liberal, fish-eating “priggishness’ and that the Puritans understanding of human fallenness makes room for forgiveness and the restoration of people, rather than their outright removal from society. She also challenges, in her essay on Psalm 8 the idea of the “transcendent” that has been such a part of American religious and philosophical thought. She writes”

“So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention. In certain contexts the improbable is called the miraculous” (p. 243).

Whether writing about family or wilderness and ecology, as she does in other essays in this collection, or Calvin, Bonhoeffer, and McGuffey, Marilynne Robinson challenges modern ways of thinking about these issues and persons. Some will no doubt be angered by this, hearing in Robinson a call to return to some former repressiveness. That, I think, is to misread her. I think rather her argument may at times be one of, “are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and substituting the polluted waters and questionable heroes of modernity?” What her essays do is question our intellectual conventions, and suggest that we may not want to believe everything we’ve been told in school.

Review: The Last Boy

The Last Boy

The Last BoyJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Summary: A biography of the life of Mickey Mantle, covering his family roots, baseball career, and post-career life, including his injuries, alcoholism, affairs, and something of a redemption at the end of his life.

Every summer, I read at least one baseball book, and so when I received this book as a gift earlier this year, I knew what my book would be this year, not that I would need much persuading. Mickey Mantle was one of my childhood heroes, even though, as an Indians fan, he played for the hated Yankees. We all followed the rivalry between him and Roger Maris to see if either could break Ruth’s record of 60 home runs. We all tried to switch hit when we played baseball, something most of us did very badly. We debated, as this book explores, whether Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was the better player.

I was also pleased to see this was written by Jane Leavy. I had thoroughly enjoyed her biography of another childhood hero, Sandy Koufax. Mantle, it turns out was a far more complicated person, a mix of the great and the tragic and the tawdry wrapped into a single individual.

She tells Mantle’s story around twenty key dates in his life, which sometimes involves some back and forth between the key date and events prior and following. She begins with his family, and the powerful influence of his father, Mutt, who did not want his son to spend his life in the mines, taught him to bat from both sides, and guided him just long enough for him to get a contract with the Yankees before he died at an early age from the cancer that seemed to run through the family. Long enough to push him to the edge of greatness, but not long enough to help him deal with that greatness.

We learn of Mantle the athlete and his incredible speed and power and the tantalizing “what ifs” of just how great he could have been. In his first season with the Yankees, in 1951, running for a fly ball in the World Series, he caught a cleat in a drain in the outfield left uncovered, and blew out his right knee before there was such a thing as ACL surgery. He was never the same, and part of the story was how he could play at such a high level despite the physical problems that multiplied over the years. Leavy chronicles in detail the home run out of Griffith stadium in 1953 and enlists physicists and witnesses to figure out how far it actually traveled. She even includes analyses of his swings from both sides of the plate, and the near perfect form Mantle had at his best. She recounts his last at bat.

One of the great “what ifs” has to do with how Mantle lived off the field, something sportswriters in the Fifties and Sixties kept hush-hush, at least until a Yankee brawl at the Copacabana. Mantle was a high-functioning alcoholic in these years, at some points even hitting home runs when he wasn’t completely sober. Only in the Sixties, did this begin to tell on his body, combined with his injuries. She also doesn’t shy away from his womanizing and the complicated relationship he and Merlyn Mantle had throughout his life,

After baseball, he was unable to find something to do with his life. He was troubled by thoughts of an early death, which ran in his family. The drinking and affairs continue. He doesn’t listen to the few who try to warn him. “Sudden” Sam McDowell, former Indians fastballer and a reformed alcoholic tried to organize an intervention, only to have it aborted after a “friend” tips off Mantle. He tried and failed at a number of ventures, went into the memorabilia business with one of his lovers, and even was banned from baseball for a period because of an association with an Atlantic City casino, where he was paid simply to appear so guests could say they met Mantle.

It is in this context that Leavy met Mantle in 1983 for an interview that shattered her own image of Mantle. She unfolds this weekend encounter through the course of the book, from his gentlemanly effort to get her a sweater to keep her warm on the golf course, to his drunken efforts to pick her up that end with him slumping over asleep in her lap.

The book ends with Mantle experiencing a sort of redemption. Late in life, he began the work of facing his inner demons, including childhood incidents of sexual abuse that might have influenced his sexual proclivities. With serious liver problems looming, he checks into the Betty Ford Clinic and manages to stay sober for the rest of his life. He makes efforts to reconcile with his sons and make amends with others. He experiences what seems like a genuine death bed conversion as former teammate Bobby Richardson ministers to him.

I’m not sure Mantle really was the last boy. The image in part is one of America losing its illusions in the late Sixties. But the truth is that athletes continue to reach the peak of their physical powers long before they mature as people, and while they can perform on the field, they are unprepared for the hangers-on, the fast lifestyle, and the sudden affluence that comes their way. Like others with power, they often have no one to hold up a mirror to help them see their true selves, no one who will tell them what they do not want to hear. Certainly Mantle bore responsibility for this, and more and more toward the end of his life he acknowledged it. What the “last boy” title fails to capture is that our culture of adulation towards sports heroes still celebrates the physical gifts of youth while failing to affirm the character qualities of maturity that distinguish men and women from boys and girls. Perhaps the most tragic figure in this story is neither Mickey nor his boys, but Mutt, who pushed his boy to succeed, and only realized when he was dying that no one had prepared him to handle success.

 

Review: Ethics at Work

ethics at work

Ethics at WorkTheology of Work Project. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017.

Summary: A discussion guide outlining a Christian approach to ethical decision-making in the workplace based on three principles: commands, consequences, and character.

What does Sunday morning have to do with 8 to 5 Monday through Friday (or whatever our working hours may be)? For many Christians that lack of connection between our worship and our work eventually leads to questions either about the truth and reality of our faith, or the possibility of living Christianly in the workplace.

The Theology of Work Project, the developers of this discussion guide and numerous other related resources, are thoroughly committed to the idea that our faith and our work life may be seamlessly connected. On their “about” page, they describe the vision of the Project in these terms:

“The vision of the Theology of Work Project is that every Christian be equipped and committed for work as God intends. A Christian approach makes work more meaningful and productive, benefits society and the people we work with and for, gets us through the challenges we face on the job, draws people to Jesus, and brings glory to God.”

This guide is designed for Christians in the workplace interested in developing a Christian framework of ethical decision-making. It consists of 21 half-hour lessons grouped into seven sections. Each lesson provides short readings (one page or less) with a few biblical texts, interspersed with “Food for Thought” sections, and a concluding prayer. One thing I like is the “less is more” approach that seems to me realistic to accomplish in a half hour discussion over a lunch break or before work.

After exploring some different popular proposals on ethical decision-making, the guide develops a “three-legged” stool approach around the following:

  1. Commands: is there a relevant biblical command to obey or something to avoid.
  2. Consequences: how will the various parties involved be affected by the possible choices?
  3. Character: What kind of person do I want to be or become?

Under this last “leg”, the writers adopt three key aspects of the character of God which scripture calls us to live by, first proposed in Alexander Hill’s Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace (Hill was the former president of InterVarsity/USA). These are holiness, justice, and love, and need to balance each other.

The guide also introduces a case study developed through the different lessons. A Christian auto dealer (“Wayne”) sells a used car that is in good operating condition with no know defects. Just over a year and over 13,000 miles later, the owner contacts him about transmission problems and asks what he will do to fix it. Subsequent lessons apply the different principles and trace out “Wayne’s” process in reaching a decision about how he will deal with this customer.

While written specifically for use with workplace groups (there is even a section on “Wisdom for Using this Study in the Workplace”), I also think this could be highly useful in adult education courses in churches and with Christian groups in business schools, particularly for those who have already had work experience. I would also highly recommend supplementing the material in this book with resources from the Theology of Work Project website, which includes commentaries related to a theology of work from every book of scripture and a number of other articles on related topics.

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