Review: For the Life of the World

for the life of the world

For the Life of the WorldMiroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: Contends that for theology to make a difference it must address what it means for human beings to flourish in the world “in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.”

Miroslav Volf grew up in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Matthew Croasmun cut his teeth in ministry in planting a church. For both, a lived theology was vital, and remains so in their current work with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Their contention in this book is that “the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ” (p. 11). They argue for an emphasis of the flourishing life as a fundamental human quest. In so doing they propose a tri-partite definition of the flourishing life: life led well (agential), life going well (circumstantial), and life feeling as it should (affective). Furthermore, they argue that this is a quest that has been neglected in the universities, in the church, and in the theological world.

Addressing this last, they make the case that theology, at least as it is done in the West, is in a state of crisis. It is facing a shrinking job market and a shrinking audience. Most theological books mainly are read by other theologians, and purchased by seminary libraries. It is also in crisis because of how it has conceived of itself, either as a “science” engaged in description (e.g.. religious studies) or as advocacy (either for historic orthodoxy or progressive causes) rather than engaged in “descriptive work in service of a normative vision of human flourishing” (p. 56).

But why human flourishing? Isn’t theology about God, or about God’s redemptive work in Christ? The authors do not dismiss these ideas but show how a theology of human flourishing encompasses these concerns. Yes, theology is about a God who created a world as his home where his creatures flourish, and who is working to consummate that purpose even though the world has been marred by sin and oppression. Redemption is vital in this process not as an end, but rather because it crucially begins the process that leads to the consummation of that process of God restoring a world where humanity flourishes in God’s home.

One of the challenges that a theology for the life of the world faces is that of universality. It is a vision for not only individuals but for the world. The authors admit this and that such a vision will be contest by other visions. However, they argue the perspective inherent in the Christian vision allows for peaceful coexistence, collaboration, and learning from those who advocate other visions. Finally, they argue for room for a variety of particularities, for a kind of bounded improvisation within a normative vision.

Perhaps the richest part of this work was a chapter co-written with Justin Crisp on the life of the theologian, arguing for a fundamental alignment between thought and life. This means the life of a pilgrim marked by prolepsis, a striving toward a goal not yet fully realized in one’s life, and ecstasis in the sense that the life they lead is in and through another, Christ, rather than belonging to them. The example of Luther is commended in a life lived in the tension of a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. The chapter concludes in naming the intellectual dispositions of a theologian: a love of knowledge, God, and the world; a love for our interlocutors; courage; gratitude and humility; and firmness–with a soft touch.

The authors conclude with their own vision of a flourishing life–not a full-fledged theology–but the contours one might look for. They focus on Paul’s statement about the kingdom in Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (NRSV). Harking back to their tripartite definition of human flourishing, they propose that righteousness (or love) characterizes the life well led; peace characterizes the life going well; and joy characterizes the life feeling as it should. This is the content of the life lived in an already/not yet kingdom–a life that calls and allows for improvisation. It is a life that affirms the created goodness of our life in the flesh, even while we long for the consummation of the resurrection and the new creation.

The authors address a concern I’ve long had that theology is for the world, and not meant to be confined to seminaries. I review many theological books that I hope people outside the seminary world will read. I believe good theology books help God’s people flourish in his world, not because they contain a highfalutin version of “how to have your best life now” but because we desperately need to understand the story, the reality in which we live. Sadly, some, not all, of it is written primarily for other academics, even though the ideas are often important for the church and the world. I applaud the authors for naming this challenge and describing the attributes of those who pursue the noble work of doing theology “for the life of the world.”

One concern I have about this work is that it doesn’t address the vital need for a theology for the life of the world to be done by the theologians of the world. The discussion of the well-lived life is grounded in Western philosophy and has an individualistic feel even though the authors draw communal and societal implications. It would be intriguing to explore what Asian, African, Latino, and other theologians of color might contribute to an articulation of the contours of a theology of human flourishing.

The authors also talk about the tremendous cost of theological education in terms of graduate education and faculty salaries, wondering if it is worth it. The answer seems to be, “yes,” if done for the world. But I wonder if this is possible given the structural factors that isolate the seminary both from the church and the rest of the academic world. Volf and Croasmun’s work at Yale bridges a divide between seminary and academy. A growing movement advocating the importance of “pastor theologians” bridges the seminary-church divide. But how might the three come together to do what might be called “public theology” on the order of what figures like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr engaged in during the 1950’s?

The vision of flourishing life in God’s home has the potential to take theology out of esoteric discussions to talk about ordinary life in the world–work, family, society, the physical environment and its care, concerns for justice, political life. It allows Christians to engage in public discussions about shared concerns for flourishing, and the distinctive contribution of that faith. Most of all, this work offers a searching challenge to all engaged in “academic theology” to consider toward what end they are working, and whether in the end their work addresses the fundamental human quest.

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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: True You

true you

True YouMichelle DeRusha.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Using the analogy of pruning, explores how our true selves, our true callings can emerge when we remove the clutter of business, of false selves, and idolatries that obscure the true shape of our lives.

Michelle DeRusha proposes that the tending of ourselves may be much like the process  of fukinaoshi, or open pruning which allows a tree to flourish by cutting away the dense clutter of branches so that light can reach the center. It is hard pruning, cutting away living as well as dead branches that obscure the true shape of the tree. It is persistent, cutting away suckers that deplete the tree of nourishment. DeRusha proposes that God’s work of revealing our true selves follows a similar process.

DeRusha shares her own narrative to help us understand this process. It began for her with sitting on a bench for five minutes a day (“directed rest”) while walking her dog. She talks about the relentless press of busyness that clutters our lives and robs us of these contemplative moments. Sitting quietly is like studying the true to understand its essential shape and what needs to go. For DeRusha, a question came one day: “Why do you have trouble with intimacy?” An orthopedic injury came to represent physically a deeper question: “Do you want to get well?” It came to a head at a retreat in Italy when some more questions were asked:

“What does it mean for you that rest is found in God? What does it mean when we are away from him?

She broke down as she recognized that in her relentless restlessness, she didn’t know God, and thus finding rest, finding calling.

The remainder of the book describes the journey of “hard pruning” that began as it became clear what needed to be cut away. She talks about the dark night that comes in facing our brokenness, our apartness from God and our deep longing for God. She leads us into the stillness on the “far side of the wilderness” and the practice of waiting, of staying in place. She also discusses that learning who God is, and learning who we are go together–that this process of waiting, of resting begins to reveal the true shape of our own lives, our “birthright gifts.” In the end, this inward journey takes us outward, as we connect the rest we find in God, the gifts we discover in ourselves, and the needs of the world come together.

Each chapter includes a “Going Deeper” set of reflections at the end. This makes the book an ideal adjunct to a series of retreats, or an extended journalling process. This would also make an ideal Lenten devotional. She concludes the book with an appendix that includes practical tips for taking “directed rests.”

DeRusha combines the seemingly “ruthless” practice of open pruning with a gently written exploration that explores why we so clutter our lives, why we are so busy. Through her own story, she helps us ask if we are running from God–from resting in God and intimately knowing God. Her reflective writing helps us long to wait, to listen, to attend, to pay attention to our lives. She helps us to see how the pruning away of busyness and the false images of self opens us up to the true shape of our lives.

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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: Give and Take

Give and take

Give and TakeAdam Grant. New York: Viking, 2013.

Summary: Proposes that many of the most successful people are givers who have learned how to give without being doormats and without expectation of return and explores why such giving is so powerful.

It is common to think that robust success in any field requires a “winner take all and devil take the hindmost” approach that zealously pursues one’s own interests. Psychologist Adam Grant’s research has led him to a very different conclusion. For one thing, he identifies three styles of relationship styles: givers whose predominant approach is giving without expectation of return, takers who tend to get far more than they give, and matchers, who balance giving and taking. Not surprisingly, he found out that the givers were the least successful. The surprise was that those who were most successful, most productive, were also givers. Takers and matchers fell in between.

This book explores why some givers are so successful, and what distinguishes them from the givers who are not. He begins by distinguishing between givers and takers who are good at looking like givers. The contrast he offers is between Ken Lay, who presided over the demise of Enron, who seemed to do favors for the rich and powerful but built a company that served his interests and was focused around him, and Adam Rifkin, a shy Silicon Valley entrepreneur with over 3000 LinkedIn connections, and the most connections of anyone to those on Forbes’ most powerful people list. Both were networkers, but the difference was that Rifkin gave far more than he received, and without expectation of return. It is from Rifkin that we learn about the 5-minute rule that he zealously pursued: “You should be willing to do something that will take you five minutes or less for anybody.” Rifkin also teaches us the practice of not writing off our “dormant” networks, the people we once knew.

Givers are good collaborators. Grant profiles George Meyer, a comedy writer whose impact far exceeded the number of credits he received on The Simpsons. Meyer would often generate ideas and give them to others, and elevated the whole team of writers, contributing to the long-running success of the show. Perhaps his most famous contribution is “meh”–a new word for boredom or apathy, a contribution he didn’t even remember until other writers jogged his memory!  Again, Grant offers a contrast, this time with Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, whose least successful period was when he worked alone, and yet who hogged credit from his apprentices.

Givers look for potential in people and create self-fulfilling prophecies, often recognizing diamonds in the rough. At the same time, when things don’t work out, their identity is not tied up in the decisions in the same way it is for matchers or takers. They more quickly help people move on when they need to.

Givers learn the power of powerless communication. Instead of trying to win their way by wowing others, they take more modest approaches that give others the space to come to the conclusion one hopes they will come to, often by questions or more tentative approaches.

The last part of the book focuses on the distinction between unsuccessful and successful givers. Successful givers figure out how not to burn out. They learn to be “otherish” givers rather than selfless. They find ways to give to causes they care about, and then end up giving more. Grant talks about the chunking principle–that giving works best when done in chunks rather than sprinkled through one’s schedule. Givers who devote at least 100 hours over a year to their cause find more satisfaction. Effective givers also learn to identify and focus their giving efforts on other givers. As they lead organizations, they foster cultures of giving by their own active giving, by encouraging a “pay it forward” attitude. In these situations, even matchers and takers learn how to act like givers, further enriching the organization. He features organizations that set up “reciprocity rings” like Freecycle. Grant concludes the book with a list of “actions for impact.”

This was a fascinating and challenging book for me to read from my faith perspective as a Christian. My faith is grounded in the extravagant love of a giving God who even gives his Son for humanity’s redemption. It leads to an ethic of grace, of generous giving without expectation of return, of forgiveness without payback. Grant’s book, without referencing faith, raises the question: am I a giver, taker, or matcher? Also without referencing faith, he offers evidence that giving is the ground of healthy and flourishing relationships and organizational cultures, defying the apparent common sense of a cutthroat ethic. Most of all, his diverse selection of examples suggest that this is not exclusive to the non-profit world, but rather touches on something that is fundamental to the better angels of our nature.

I also like the challenge to actively give. I think I’m going to start with Adam Rifkin’s five minute rule. It actually sounds kind of fun to see where that will lead!

 

Review: Reciprocal Church

reciprocal church

Reciprocal ChurchSharon Galgay Ketcham. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Addressing the loss of young people from the church, makes an argument for a theology of the church as vital in our Christian life, and for mutuality and reciprocal engagement between youth and other generations in a flourishing community where all contribute.

Statistics show that young people are exiting churches in significant numbers. Sharon Galgay Ketcham contends that part of the problem is our “gospel passage” which often emphasizes the individual’s need for Christ, but has little to say about our vital need for his people. Church is a consumable, a support in my faith journey, but not a vital aspect of what I am saved into.

The first part of her book makes a theological argument for how the church is vital in our Christian experience. Our identity is as a people of God, our growth comes as we experience reconciliation with others, and we are transformed through those relationships. She writes, “Our churches simply lose credibility when what we claim about Christ’s redemption does not influence our relationships with one another.” When this is occurring biblically, it happens reciprocal, where young and older contribute to each other’s growth in Christ, and where young people are full participants in, rather than just recipients of the church’s ministry.

The second part of the book talks about the values and the practices that incarnate them that nourish reciprocal churches as flourishing communities. Ketcham argues for the importance of remembering our corporate story, both our big story, and the stories of each of our communities. She advocates for a mutuality that is authentic, empathetic, collaborative, and companionable. Youth are seen as people with potential, not as problems, and are invited to contribute fully to the life of the community. Finally, reciprocal churches value maturity, growing in the fruit of the Spirit through their relationships with each other.

This is not a how-to book to develop a bigger youth program. Ketcham’s argument is far more profound. She asks us to consider how integral our whole church is to the working out of salvation for youth, and for all of us. She challenges us to think not merely of the needs of youth, but how we all need each other to grow up in Christ. She encourages us to see youth not simply as participants but as full partners and contributors. She gives the lie to the idea that Christian growth is simply between the individual and Jesus, with the church as merely an optional support. She is one of a growing number of youth ministry writers who recognize how vital an inter-generational community is to the vibrant faith of youth, and perhaps all of us.

I welcome this book. As a young believer, one of the compelling arguments for the faith, even in the face of some of the problems I saw with the church, was the opportunity to learn of the deep faith of others of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Caring for the yard of one elderly woman in the congregation powerfully changed me as she invited me in for milk and cookies (seriously!) and talked about her missionary service in Egypt, and then prayed for me. Another time, I was paired up in a local outreach with a grandfatherly type wearing a bow tie among a group of youth in bell bottoms. My eyes were opened when I saw him listen to those we were engaging with genuine interest, and then share the love of Christ. These were people who entrusted me with ministry and mentored me in high school and college, and let me into their lives–their struggles, doubts, and determination to believe.

This is how the body of Christ works at its best. Sharon Galgay Ketcham reminds us of a vision of church not segregated by generation but vitally and reciprocally connected to each other, helping each other work out what it means to be the people of God.

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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: Basil

Basil

Basil (Oxford World Classics), Wilkie Collins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (originally published in 1852).

Summary: The account of a secret marriage between an aristocrat’s son and the daughter of a shopkeeper and all the ways things went terribly wrong.

You are the second, and favored son of a wealthy aristocrat. Your older brother, Ralph, is alienated from your stern father because of his indiscretions. Your sister, Clara, adores you, and delights in your company and wants only the best for you in all things.

And then one day you are smitten with a young girl you see on an omnibus–so smitten you discretely follow her home. Subsequently you see her in her window, talking to her parrot. You know this is love. You learn she is Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper, a shop keeper well below your social class. You know your father would never countenance such a relationship. Keeping your intentions secret from him and your sister, you manage an interview with Margaret’s father, speaking of your love, and seeking her hand in marriage. Mr. Sherwin agrees on one condition–that they marry in a week but not consummate the relationship for a year. He also has to take an insurance policy on his life. Without consulting anyone, he accepts. And so begins a strange relationship that eventuates in a betrayal, insanity, exile, death and mortal danger to the title character.

Basil goes through with the wedding, and is permitted to see her regularly, chaperoned by Mrs. Sherwin, who seems disturbed in some way about all this. Basil keeps all of this secret from his family. They know he has a secret, which estranges him, even as they respect the secret in their rectitude, and in Clara’s case, her affection and concern. At first, things seem wonderful between Margaret and Basil, with evenings spent reading and talking together.  Then Mr. Sherwin’s assistant Robert Mannion returns, with whom Mrs. Sherwin is decidedly uneasy. Margaret’s mood seems to change at this time, even as Mannion acts with unfailing courtesy toward Basil, even welcoming him to his apartment on a stormy night. As they part, a bolt of lightening illuminates Mannion’s face, giving it a sinister appearance. Only on the evening before the year is up does Basil discover the evil when he spots Mannion escorting Margaret, not to her home, but a hotel room!

I won’t spoil the rest of the story except that this is where the tale of insanity, betrayal, mortal danger, and death comes in–along with an element of family revenge. The buildup to all these things occupies roughly the first half of the book, and, at least this reader found himself wanting to shake Basil and alert him to how he is being taken advantage of by this conspiracy of father and daughter, and of the sinister Mannion. Ah, love is blind! It is the second half that is riveting as all of this blows up in Basil’s face, and his secret is exposed to his family. These pages seemed to read much more quickly, particularly as we discover the mania of Mannion (interesting name for a character!).

This is early Wilkie Collins, his second novel (the first was destroyed) and second publication, the first being a memoir on his father’s life. The plot seems a bit to obvious, and the characters are caricatures to a certain degree. It is obvious that Collins can tell a story, in this case through a first person narrative of the title character, and the story redeems some of the other flaws.

There are at least two aspects of Victorian society that Collins exposes. One is the rigid class structures that prevent marrying below one’s class and engender both the harsh rectitude of Basil’s father, and the resentments of Mr. Sherwin and the vengeance of Mannion.

The inferior place of women in this social structure also is in evidence. Basil and Mr. Sherwin really decide Margaret’s fate. Mrs. Sherwin is silenced (at least until the climactic events of the story). Clara is the loving but ineffectual sister. Ralph, the outlaw brother, is the one who gets things done. Margaret can only assert her wishes through manipulation, or an adulterous affair.

It seems here that Collins evolves in his later fiction. Consider the contrast between these characters and Valeria in The Law and the Lady (review). The Victorian structures still exist, but Collins has begun to envision stronger women characters and more creative plot possibilities for them.

If you are a Wilkie Collins fan and have read works like The Moonstone, or The Woman in White, or the above-mentioned The Law and the Lady, you will find this work of interest not only for the themes, but to see the development of Collins’s skill. If you are just discovering Collins, one of the first to write in the genre of crime fiction, I would go with either The Moonstone or The Woman in White first, and if you find you like him, then delve into other works, including this, the earliest published of his novels.

 

 

Review: Grit

Grit

Grit: The Power of Passion and PerseveranceAngela Duckworth. Scribner: New York, 2016.

Summary: Contends that those who achieve outstanding success combine purposeful passion with perseverance–in other words, they have grit.

Angela Duckworth came to a realization as a psychologist that psychology had no good theory of achievement. Talent, IQ, test scores, fitness–none of these were reliable predictors of who would achieve high measures of success. An answer began to emerge as she and colleagues studied those who survived “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of training of cadets at West Point. It came down to the fact that cadets who made it simply did not give up. This led to her developing the first “Grit Scale” which turned out to be the first reliable measure of which cadets would make it through. Duckworth has become convinced that most attempts to assess potential end up getting distracted by talent. The real issue is effort times two. Effort develops talent into skill and effort turns skill into achievement. Perseverance in effort, though, is fueled by purpose. Clarity in top level goals and ruthless evaluating low and mid-level goals in their light is critical. Duckworth concludes this discussion with the example of Robert Mankoff, who had nearly 2,000 cartoons rejected by The New Yorker before getting one accepted in 1977. The real key was determining that he was funny and loved doing this more than anything. From 1997 to 2017, he was cartoon editor, and now is an ongoing contributor.

There is hope for all of us. Duckworth offers a Grit Scale readers can take. Her research suggests that grit can grow over a lifetime as we define a sense of purpose and learn to pick ourselves up after failure and keep going.  It starts with identifying and developing an interest–noticing where our mind goes when it wanders, noticing what we enjoy in a task. Then we develop an interest, exploring its nuances, what keeps making it even more interesting. Practice is key. Gritty people not only practice more but they practice deliberately. They have goals and focus in their practice. Ultimately interest arrives at purpose, a sense of calling, of why one is in the world. Purpose in turn needs to be sustained by hope. Here, one of the key insights is the idea of attribution retraining–the conclusions we draw from events good or bad–are they focused on success or growth. Success says “your a natural. I love that.” Growth says, “you’re a learner. I love that.” Success says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.” Growth says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.

Duckworth discusses not only how we cultivate grit, but how others can cultivate it “from the outside in.” Parents cultivate grit by combining high support and high demands. She talks about the Hard Thing Rule in her family: 1) everyone has to do a hard thing, 2) no quitting is allowed until the season or term or whatever interval to which you have committed yourself is over, and 3) each person picks their own hard thing. She studies the “cultures of grit at J.P. Morgan Chase, with the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll, and at West Point. One of her most valuable insights comes from Carroll–the commitment to finish strong in everything.

Duckworth explains her research by examples from her own life and from clients she has worked with and studied across the spectrum of human endeavors. I loved her insights on practice. One of my “hard things” is music, something I’ve picked up late in life. It has been enriching to apply her ideas on deliberate practice to my practice of a major choral work we are performing later this month. Instead of just going over a part, I will work on pronunciation, or counting time to get my entrances down rather than listening to other parts (which usually makes you late). One practice session, I’ll focus on dynamics. Another time, I’ll go over the sections I don’t have “down” until I do.

I’m also fascinated by the high demand-high support culture that creates gritty performance–whether it is parents, sports teams, or businesses. There is both empathy and care, and the relentless demand to keep improving, keep growing, keep stretching. Finally the relationship between perseverance and purpose is intriguing. Perseverance both realizes and expands purpose, and purpose sustains perseverance when it is grounded in hope.

It strikes me in reading this that all of us are capable of more than we think we are. Duckworth’s book suggests that we have hard work to do in two areas. One is in paying attention to the things we really care about and relentlessly focusing our lives around them. Then there is the hard work of turning a talent and a passion into a skill, and the further work of using those skills with determination and focus to achieve worthy goals. That’s grit.

 

Review: Sinners and Saints

 

sinners and saints

Sinners and SaintsDerek Cooper. Grand Rapids, Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An unvarnished summary of the first five hundred years of church history, looking unflinchingly at the flaws, as well as the favorable qualities of early Christians.

Perhaps the worst thing any institution, and especially the church, can do is to pretend that it is better than it really is. As disheartening as it is to hear of respected leaders guilty of very human failings, it is even more repugnant when those leaders, and sometimes powerful institutions behind them, cover up those failings in images of sweetness and light. In so doing, institutions try to “gin up” their own sham holiness, instead of the genuine holiness God works when meeting people in their brokenness.

Derek Cooper believes that many of our church histories reflect this same pretense in portraying the church and its leading figures. This work, which covers the first five hundred years of church history, and is first of a series, takes a different approach. Cooper writes:

“Unlike countless other church history books that dance around the distasteful details of our Christian past, let’s humanize our history. Counterintuitively, perhaps, let’s emphasize as much grit as glory, let’s feature as much flesh as faith, and let’s showcase as many sinners as saints. It’s important for you to know at the onset, however, that we are not going to do this because we think mudslinging is a spiritual discipline, but only because we believe truth-telling is. I, personally, have no desire to sully the reputation of saints, nor do I find any pleasure in wallowing in the faults of our most faithful. When I air the dirty laundry of our most hallowed heroes and heroines, I am fully aware of all the clean clothes they have neatly pressed and attractively arrayed in their dresser drawers. Because of the nature of this book, I will not usually refer to that clean laundry; but make no mistake: I know it is there” (p. 11).

The approach of the book is thematic rather than chronological. He surveys these ten themes, and here are some of the highlights and my takeaways:

  1. Daily life. Except for the rich it was dirty, toilsome, and short.
  2. Leadership. From Paul on Christian leaders “led with a limp” and often fought tenaciously in controversy. Damasus, who commissioned the Vulgate translation, fought a bloody battle for his papacy in which 137 died.
  3. Martyrdom. While some martyrs died nobly, martyrdom was often sought in almost suicidal passion by some. Before his martyrdom, in pursuit of holiness, Origin castrated himself.
  4. Church faith and practice. In many respects, it would have looked strange to us: dinners in graveyards, holy kissing (and perhaps not-so-holy), and nude baptisms.
  5. Apologetics. This arose in response to attack on the church from both Romans and Jews. Able defenders like Justin Martyr and Chrysostom also helped introduce anti-Semitism to Christian rhetoric.
  6. The family tree of heresy and orthodoxy. From the beginning, controversy existed between the line of Simon the Magician and Simon Peter when it came to defining Christian orthodoxy. Cooper traces the rise of apostolic succession in the bishop of Rome as the authoritative means of adjudicating doctrinal disputes and defining heresy.
  7. Canon and apocrypha. Cooper discusses both the criteria of canonical New Testament books but the contents of the apocryphal ones–everything from apocryphal infancy and childhood narratives to the possibility that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s girlfriend. He also discusses the recently found fragment of The Gospel of Judas.
  8. God and money. With the growth and eventually Constantinian patronage of the church, the question became how to interpret (or re-interpret) the radical gospel teaching about money, widening the needle’s eye, as it were for the increasingly rich patrons of the church.
  9. Sexuality. Cooper traces how the church moved beyond chastity in its response to the promiscuity of the Roman world (where wives were simply for the procreation of legitimate heirs, and husbands sought pleasure elsewhere with both sexes) to the sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes clear privileging of abstinence and celibacy that reflected a view of all sexual intimacy as filthy. In the cases of both Jerome and Augustine, their own sexual histories may well have shaped their subsequent views.
  10. Missions: We learn about the spread of Christianity to other parts of the world–Africa, India, and Armenia–which may very well hold the title as the oldest Christian nation on earth.

Cooper writes in an engaging, witty style and definitely achieves his aim of an honest account of the failings and foibles and follies of the early Christians. While almost none of this was new to me, it was helpful to find this material in a work of popular scholarship, not buried in turgid text or footnotes, or hurled at the Christian community without context in an atheist diatribe.

In his introduction, Cooper alludes to the “clean clothes” of these saints, and that he “know[s] it is there.” I believe he does, and the text shows some evidence of this. However, I would not commend this as a stand-alone history of this period but as a complement to a standard church history text, particularly in an introductory church history course. Not everyone will know about the “clean laundry.” Most good modern church histories are not hagiographies, but this book serves as a good complement in “keeping it real.”

Just as it does not do the church well to conceal its flaws, controversies, and most grievous sins, it likewise does not serve well to gloss over these in our histories. An honest rendering, in books like this, reminds us of the challenges the church has always faced, from within as well as from without. It also reminds us of the providence of God– that through such flawed, broken people the Christian message has spread throughout the world, and with it literacy, universities, hospitals, and the rule of law, as well as unhelpful things like colonialism. Ultimately, the story isn’t about how good we are but rather how sovereignly gracious God has been with this motley bunch of sinner-saints.

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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: Modern Technology and the Human Future

modern tech

Modern Technology and the Human FutureCraig M. Gay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the factors shaping modern technology and how a mechanical view that fails to acknowledge embodiment has diminished human flourishing.

Unplugging retreats. Technology sabbaths. Concerns about technology addictions. These are all symptoms of a growing unease with how technology, rather than serving and enhancing human existence, is shaping and controlling and diminishing our lives. Craig M. Gay digs into the factors that have shaped our technological world, and how we might think Christianly about technology. He contends that what we need are not practical, technological fixes but a different philosophical and theological perspective to shape our development of and engagement with technology.

Gay begins by describing some of the ways that technology, far from enhancing human existence has diminished us, particularly in de-skilling us in both mechanical skills and cognitive function, and through invading our private lives. He traces much of this to the development of a mechanical view of the world coupled with an economic logic driving increasing efficiency, and assembly and bureaucratic control systems that have shaped the development of a technological worldview. Gay summarizes a discussion drawing on the work of theorists ranging from Charles Taylor to Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul as follows:

“As we have now seen, this mechanical world picture has deep and extensive roots within the Western tradition. To use Charles Taylor’s terms, modern culture is characterized by an ‘instrumental stance’ toward life, a stance that is ‘overdetermined’ in the sense that it has arisen from a number of different sources and is even now buttressed by compelling convictions concerning the meaning and purpose of human life. Not only is the instrumental stance supported by modern science, Taylor observes, but it has also become, largely by way of religious convictions, central within the modern ethical outlook. That outlook continues to place a high value upon taking rational and efficacious control of all things by way of methods, procedures, techniques, and technologies” (p. 129).

Gay contends that, for Christians, we must return to a Christian narrative of “where we are and who we are.” A mechanical/technological worldview loses sight of a creation brought into existence as a loving work of God and our own embodied existence. Far from a gnostic, “virtual reality,” God considers our embodied existence good. Instead of facing our fallenness, humans often have resorted to technology to evade and transcend the vulnerabilities of our bodies, and the reality of death. The redemptive work of Christ delivers us from our own technological attempts to save or extend our lives with the hope of resurrection. He contends for an approach to technology that “practices resurrection” in it valuing of human embodied existence, and adopts a non-mechanical way of relating to the world as a creation to be loved rather than stuff to be manipulated.

This is not a “how to” book on managing your technology. Gay does something far more challenging. He teases out the way of thinking that has become our “default mode” for engaging our world, even for those of us who claim to embrace a “Christian worldview.” His insights on how the logic of money is connected to technological development is worthy of reflection for those who claim to worship God rather than Mammon. It is rare, for example, to hear Christians reflect on how the logic of money has destroyed local “Main Streets” in our preference for big box and online vendors that enable us to buy more stuff for less, while destroying vibrant local economies and personal connection with vendors. Gay is also one of a growing number of prophetic voices awakening us to the dignity of our embodied life and future destiny. He invites us to recover a relationship of love and care for a creation that drives us to careful, even scientific study, but not mechanical exploitation, of God’s good creation.

Technology will not go away. Gay helps us see we have a choice between depersonalizing technological thinking, and a creational, incarnational, and embodied engagement with technology that pursues the flourishing of people and creation. The quality of future human existence may well depend not only on what we do, but how we think.

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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: Welcoming Justice

welcoming justice

Welcoming Justice (expanded edition), Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018 (original edition 2009).

Summary: A renewed call for the church to pursue Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community” even in a day of increased white nationalism and polarization.

When this book was first published in 2009, the first African-American president had been elected. Nine years later, the vision of “beloved community” that appeared to be on the horizon, now feels like a distant memory. Charles Marsh, in his new preface acknowledges the current circumstances in the events in his home town of Charlottesville where Heather Heyer, simply standing in solidarity against the demonstrations of white nationalists, died when struck by a vehicle driven into the crowd by a white nationalist from Ohio.

Yet Marsh, and his co-author, John M. Perkins, a leader in Christian community development work, have not given up on the vision of Dr. King. Both believe that despite appearances, there is a movement of God afoot toward “beloved community. In alternating chapters, the two authors share why they are still hopeful, and what they believe needs to happen.

Marsh leads off with the contention that the Civil Rights movement lost its vision and cohesion as a movement when it lost its connection to a church-based and gospel based vision of “beloved community.” At the same time, he sees movements, like that which Perkins has led at Voice of Calvary, continuing this gospel-based vision in its focus on relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation. Perkins, however, contends that the church, to realize such a vision, needs to give up its captivities to culture which has so divided it. He makes the fascinating observation that the neglect of outreach to a white underclass has made them open to the counterfeit community of the Klan. The challenge is to forsake the dividing lines of our captivities to reach out across those lines in the power of Christ.

Marsh then writes of the need for true conversion in our lives, a conversion that is always personal, even as it has social implications. He movingly recounts his first encounter with Perkins as a student staying with his segregationist grandmother. Perkins answer came not in an argument of what was wrong with segregation, but to send a gift of blueberries from his garden as his gift to her. Marsh in reflection writes:

“The existence of a compelling Christian witness in our time does not depend on our access to the White House, the size of our churches or the cultural relevance of our pastors. It depends, instead, on our ability to sing better songs in our lives. True conversion is always personal, but it is never sole about the individual who experiences God’s love and knows the good news of salvation. True conversion is about learning to sing songs in which our life harmonizes with others’–even the lives of those least like us–and swells into a joyful and irresistible chorus” (p. 78).

Perkins responds with stories of the young men and women he has the joy of working with, and the hope this gives him for awakening. He doesn’t speak of programs but of loving people, those of his own community, and those who come to learn, and then go and pursue a vision of community development across the country. Marsh in turn writes about the inner life of silent embrace of the gospel of the kingdom that sustains the practice of peace over the long haul. Perkins writes the final chapter calling for a re-building of our cities, interrupting the brokenness of our cities as churches re-assert their own love of the places and people to which they are called, forming the character of their young.

The question I had as I read this in the light of the present time is how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful. I think the difference between them and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose Between the World and Me I reviewed yesterday) comes down to the former’s belief in the gospel of the kingdom. Perkins knows the violence against blacks as well, or perhaps even better than Coates, growing up in Mississippi. He was beaten and thrown in jail unjustly by police. Perkins has experienced the power of the love of God in his own life, and devoted a life to loving his place and pursuing reconciliation. What he and Marsh describe seems to be illustrative of the parable of the mustard seed, where small, seemingly insignificant efforts, like Perkin’s work in Mendenhall, not only bring local healing and reconciliation, but spawn movements of people committed to King’s vision of the beloved community. Perhaps the real question is not how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful, but will we forsake our cultural captivities and join them in their hope and embrace God’s movement toward “beloved community?”

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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: Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015

Summary: Coates extended letter to his son following the Michael Brown verdict on the struggle for the dignity of his people against the violence to their bodies by those who “believe they are White” and part of a pursuit of a Dream built “on looting and violence.”

Th-Nehisi Coates fashioned this work as an extended letter to his son, Samori (whose name means “struggle”) following the decision that there would be no indictment against the policeman involved in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Samori, on hearing the news, simply responded “I’ve got to go” as he went to his room and wept.

This letter is Coates attempt to articulate what it means to believe in the beauty and dignity of one’s people in a world where the black body is often the object of violence. He describes growing up on the West side of Baltimore with a severe father who often beat him, declaring that it would either be him or the police, where Black children had to be “twice as good.” He describes the sobering moment when another boy pulls a gun on him, and his realization that violence to the body could snuff out a life and nullify all his effort in a moment. He recounts his engagements with “those who believe they are white,” whose pursuit of an American dream, has come at the cost of “looting and violence” against the black body.

He shifts the scene to Howard University, a Black Mecca where every form of what it meant to be a beautiful and great people was celebrated, often in a walk across the Yard, the green space on campus. He recounts his intellectual life in the Moorland Library, his loves, and the girl he lost to Prince Jones. He falls in loves again with the woman who gave him his son.

After leaving Howard, and having his own encounter with the fearsome Prince George police, he learns that the beautiful young man he knew as Prince Jones was followed by these same police in plain clothes across the D.C. area, and killed when supposedly he had tried to run them down.

He struggles as a young writer and father in New York, when a white woman pushes his young son aside to get on a subway. He stands up to her, and describes his subsequent conflicted feelings as he realizes how much he has risked his son’s safety while standing up for his son’s dignity. There are other moments in Chicago, covering the humiliation of an eviction in North Lawndale.

Coates recounts a respite during a trip to Paris, where for a brief moment he experiences what it is like to live without fear for violence against his body. And then he narrates his encounter with Dr. Mable Jones, the mother of Prince. She rose from being the child of sharecroppers to being chief of radiology in a Philadelphia hospital. She bought cars for her children including the Jeep in which Prince was killed. The conversation reflects both her Christian faith and deep grief that all for which she worked could be lost in a moment to law enforcement officials who would not be held to account.

Coates, who has rejected any religion, is provoked to wonder:

“…I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.”

In his concluding words to his son, however, he does not have much hope to offer the son who he obviously loves deeply, but only the struggle expressed in his name:

“And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of the Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”

I found myself reacting in a number of ways to this work. One was to just sit and absorb it and try to imagine a life lived every day with the awareness both of the preciousness of one’s body, and that it could be snuffed out in an instant by powerful others. I had to sit with the incredible pressure of constantly thinking I had to be twice as good because of the color of my skin. I had to sit and think what it must be like to want a different life for one’s children, and yet recognize that one’s own struggle, and peril, will be theirs as well.

The closest it seems that Coates gets to the transcendent is his descriptions of The Mecca of Howard, and his time in France. But I wondered what it must be like to glimpse goodness, truth, and beauty only to find it submerged in the ever-looming danger of structures that oppress, and powers that may kill, and a life of struggle against them.

Coates helps me to see how evil is the social construction we call “race.” He does this by speaking of people who believe they are white, who paint themselves white. One of the most sobering realizations that comes through is that this social construction not only is deadly for those labeled “black,” but also that the construction is deadly for “whites” as well. A former pastor once made the comment that “the American dream is killing us.” Racism is a burden for those who call themselves white. It drives us into suburbs, an automobile and energy dependent culture, the costs of maintaining a system of mass incarceration and much more.

I find myself thinking about the almost wistful longing Coates has for the faith that shaped Dr. Mable Jones life, and yet the sadness that such a faith could not protect her son. Coates challenges me that my work is not to persuade him of the Christian vision so much as to confront and repent from an American Dream that necessitates the struggle that he and his son alike face, and that is indeed our deathbed. It is time for such dreams to die, and for those who embrace the faith of Dr. Jones to lean into the call to the peaceable kingdom and beloved community. I think Coates is right that it is we “Dreamers” who need a conversion.