Review: Chesapeake Requiem

chesapeake requiem

Chesapeake RequiemEarl Swift. New York: Del Rey Books, 2018.

Summary: A journalist’s account of nearly two years on Tangier island, the tight knit community organized around watermen harvesting blue crabs, and the likelihood that it may disappear within the next century.

I first learned about Tangier Island nearly twenty years ago when I heard one of the people mentioned in this book, Susan Drake Emmerich, speak about the Watermen’s Covenant she helped facilitate, rooted in the strong Bible-based beliefs of the island’s watermen, that helped ease tensions over state and federal laws and fostered care for the island environment as well as the crabs and the Chesapeake Bay that provided their livelihood.

Earl Swift chronicles a different threat to the very existence of the island. Throughout the Chesapeake, there are shoals that were once inhabited islands. Over the last two centuries, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its land. The northern part of the island, called Uppards, once was inhabited. Now its graves are washing into the sea and most of it is a patchwork of marsh and open water. The west end of the island’s shipping channel has widened to over 75 feet. A seawall protects the landing strip on the south end of the island. Residents are hoping for a jetty off of the shipping channel, and a sea wall around the island. The cost is over $30 million, and most consider that it would be cheaper to relocate this community of under 500 to the mainland. The most obvious cause is coastal erosion, evident after every major storm when more coast is lost and parts of the island are inundated. However, geologically, Tangier is slowly sinking, and the Chesapeake is slowly rising. It’s possible that all or most of it could be submerged within 50 years.

Swift, who first visited a much bigger island in 2000, returned in 2015 and spent the best part of two years researching his account of the island. It is not only an account of what is happening to the island, but an account of the community that traces its origins back to 1608 when John Smith mapped it and the Revolutionary War, when it was settled. Many of the current residents trace their lineage back to these early settlers and most are related.

Swift joins in every part of the island’s life from sessions of the island’s elders at “The Situation Room” to attending both of the island’s churches. He eats at the restaurants, endures the insects, and attends the funerals. He describes town services from the sewage plant to the local grocery, the school, and the visitor center (a place representing a painful memory). Most of all, he spends time with the watermen on their boats, especially James “Ooker” Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and the town’s spokesperson when the media come calling. Up before dawn, we get a sense of how hard the work of crabbing is, and how precarious this existence always has been, even before declining catches.

Perhaps the most riveting part of the account is that of Ed “Eddie Jacks” Charnock and his son Jason, who are stranded on a sinking boat during a blinding, gale force storm on the bay, and the urgent rescue efforts mounted by the other islanders who hear the one distress message they were able to send out. It is a story that represents the tightly knit character of this community as well as the deep biblical faith that undergirds their life.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Swift is his ability to portray the islanders on their own terms. There is no deprecation of their religious faith or their avid support of President Trump and denial of climate change (islanders attribute all the loss of land to erosion and dismiss evidence of island subsidence and water level rise.) He even affirms that Ooker Eskridge bests Al Gore in a discussion with his straightforward assertions that he has seen no water level changes at his crab shack.

At the same time, he describes an island that is slowly dying, no matter what the islanders believe. Youth are moving to the mainland, and the elders are dying and the population continues to decline. Properties are abandoned, and despite the religious rectitude, there is evidence of drug use among a portion of the population. There are tipping points approaching for sustaining everything from the local school to the grocery.

Swift calls his book a requiem. While Tangier has not yet died and its residents have not given up, the book helps us to appreciate on a small scale what it would mean to this beautiful place and its tight knit, beautiful, and productive community, to be lost. He helps us care for these people and their place.

I find myself also thinking that this might be the first of many requiems, or perhaps a more hopeful image is that Tangier is the canary in the coal mine, a warning of how much more we might lose if we fail to act. The factors that endanger Tangier are the same ones that put our naval station at Norfolk at risk, and even our nation’s capitol, as well as the coastal cities of the world. Perhaps the irony that the islanders themselves dismiss climate change and its effects is also salutary. It is one thing to have to relocate under 500 climate refugees. Potentially this could be multiplied by millions in the years ahead. Will we close our ears to this requiem until catastrophe is upon us, or take prudent steps now? If the trends at Tangier are any indication, we may know the answer within a generation.

[PBS News Hour profiled Tangier including interviews with Ooker Eskridge and Earl Swift.]

Review: Relationomics

relationomics

RelationomicsRandy Ross. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: The health of relationships within organizations and with customers is directly connected to productive and profitable economic activity.

The odd title of this book, Relationomics, is the author’s way of communicating the vital importance of healthy relationships to healthy organizational economics. He defines relationomics as:

“…the study of the observable impact that relationships have on economic activity. It’s an assessment of the value created by relationships as opposed to simply a fiscal transactional analysis. In the marketplace, a significant causal correlation exists between the strength of the relationship and the flow of resources. The stronger and healthier the relationships, the more productive and profitable the transactions between those parties tend to be” (p. 36).

I found this an extremely practical and wise book that rings true to my years as a director in a religious non-profit, and challenged me to take a look at my own relational practices. The book is organized around four relational qualities, with several chapters under each of the following: intentionality, humility, accountability, and sustainability. I’ll share some of the most valuable insights and takeaways for me from each section.

Intentionality. As a kid who grew up as something of a loner, his chapter on The Great Deception names a lesson I’ve had to learn–that growth comes in relationships as we have others who encourage, sharpen, and challenge us. He calls the effort to grow outside of relationships the “Luciferian lie.” When organizations treat people as pawns and foster cut-throat competition rather than collaboration, they suffer. He argues that effective leaders foster remarkable cultures where people “believe the best in one another, want the best for one another, and expect the best from one another” (p. 63).

Humility. Humble leaders know themselves well and are comfortable in their own skin, which breeds in turn authenticity and empathy. He describes two kinds of growth spirals. One is descending characterized by defensiveness, rationalization, stagnation, and alienation. The other is ascending, characterized by openness, honest evaluation, solution orientation, and inspiration through unity. He also proposes a Poor Man’s 360 question that I intend to use: “What’s it like for you to be on the other side of me?” He also states that there are two kinds of leaders in organizations. There are value creatorswho bring more to the table than they take away, enriching the lives of others and their relationships. There are also value extractors, who get more from you than they offer. It shows up at networking events, and Ross proposes a practice he calls “NetWeaving,” of looking for ways, to connect others with common interest, “paying it forward,” as it were. Often we don’t lead like this because of fear, which great leaders transcend when they decide that being open-handed actually creates for them a greater capacity to receive as well as give.

Accountability. Good organizational relationships flourish when everyone’s OAR is in the water: when there is ownership, accountability, and responsibility. Good organizations have accountability in how they engage in workplace conflicts, the goal of which is to avoid throwing sand. He gives five practical suggestions in this regard:

  1. I will talk to you before I ever talk about you.
  2. I will engage in candid conversations with humility, knowing I have room to grow.
  3. We will seek objective input if we come to an impasse.
  4. I recognize that the objective of the conversation is to seek understanding, resolve issues, and move toward unity.
  5. I will forgive quickly [with some qualifications about destructive behaviors] (pp. 177-183).

Sometimes this means practicing RAW conversations. These Reveal reality, Advance creative dialogue, and Wrestle with solutions. This last seems particularly important–that both stay at the table (with time outs if it gets too emotional) until there is resolution.

Sustainability. This circles back to the idea of leaders who move beyond self-interest in their leadership. They are grounded leaders who are emotionally mature, have established convictions, and are determined. They are “rooted in reality, emotionally centered, relationally rich, results-oriented, other focused, mission-minded.” He offers a great example in the founder of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, who is committed to high wages for his workers, and a share of the enterprise. His insights about the revolving door of employee turnover focuses on how most organizations hire too quickly, and he contrasts Chick-fil-A, where hires are interviewed by every person they will directly relate to in the organization over an extended period.

Each chapter includes reflection questions to help one crystallize the chapter content and apply it to one’s own situation. The writing style is clear, personal, filled with illustrations and acronyms to help remember the content. If that is not sufficient, Ross includes a glossary at the end of the book. For those looking for an approach to relationships that is faith-based, you may recognize biblical allusions and principles in the writing. But because this seems directed to a wider audience, there are no Bible references or discussions of faith in the workplace.

There are lessons here for any relational context, including marriage. This is especially valuable for anyone who leads a team or an organization–whether a sports club, a work group or business, a task force, or a church or non-profit group. Unhealthy relationships can suck the life out of an organization. Healthy relationships with a high performing team can be exhilarating. Randy Ross’s book can help a leader, who is ready to learn, to develop the latter.

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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: In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

electric mist

In the Electric Mist With Confederate DeadJames Lee Burke. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011 (my Avon edition, 1994).

Summary: Investigation of multiple rapes and murders, and a murder from 1957 confront Robicheaux with dark figures from his past, and pose a threat to all he holds dear.

If Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote crime fiction about rural Louisiana, he might have produced this book. I didn’t expect to encounter magical realism in this, the sixth of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories. It was strange, but for me it worked better than some of the Marquez I have read. The magical realism part has to do with dreams or waking visions of the Confederate dead (hence the title), appearing first to an oft-drunk movie actor, Elrod Sykes, and then to Robicheaux, who is now stone-cold sober. Robicheaux even has conversations with General John Bell Hood, who seems to be his version of Obi-Wan Kenobi, speaking in metaphors and riddles that offer clues and sometimes warnings.

The story begins with a gruesome kidnapping-rape-murder of a young woman. While investigating the murder, Robicheaux pulls over a drunken Elrod Sykes, who subsequently proceeds to tell him a story of seeing Confederate soldiers in the Atchafalaya swamp where he is being filmed by a movie company that has more or less taken over Robicheaux’s New Iberia (in more ways than one). He also tells him of finding a dead body in chains. It turns out this is no drunken illusion. The body is near a location where Robicheaux had witnessed a murder of a black prisoner in chains — in 1957 — reported but dismissed by the authorities.

He’s joined in the investigation by an F.B.I investigator, Rosie Gomez, partly because of the kidnapping element (and evidence of more murders), but also because of the presence of Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, an investor in the film, who has returned from the New Orleans underworld to New Iberia, where his family once controlled organized crime. He and Robicheaux were also once classmates, and baseball team mates. He has a group of “associates” including his consigliere, Chollo, the movie security guy, Murphy Doucet, a former cop, and Twinky LeMoyne, Doucet’s partner.

In an unlikely turn of events, Sykes ends up living with Robicheaux after his girlfriend, Kelly is shot. He quickly becomes a favorite with Bootsie, Dave’s wife, and his daughter Alafair, and manages to discover a new-found sobriety. Robicheaux, however, as he investigates Balboni and his connections falls out of favor with the townsfolk, and then is set up taking the fall for a murder of an unarmed prostitute. Evidence exonerates him but then another murder of an old detective friend comes closer to home. Throughout, he continues to see Hood and his soldiers at key turning points. The closer he gets to the killer he seeks, and the solution to the 1957 murder he witnessed, the closer danger comes to him until an exciting conclusion.

One of the qualities of Burke’s work is his descriptive power to create an atmosphere, in which you feel the humidity, smell the trees, the ozone of the lightning, the fetid smells of the swamps. I’ve never been to that part of the country but I felt like I was there as I read. Robicheaux is a fascinating character–a Vietnam vet with troubled memories, a reformed alcoholic, someone who carries troubled memories and lives in an uneasy truce with them, who has a strong sense of rectitude, and yet will bend the rules of evidence and interrogation in pursuit of his ends.

This was my first Robicheaux novel, picked because of a recommendation of a bookseller, and the intriguing title as much as anything. Burke’s writing, and Robicheaux’s character were good enough that I am ready to come back for more.

Review: Sculptor Spirit

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Sculptor SpiritLeopoldo A. Sanchez M. (Foreword by Oscar Garcia-Johnson). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Starting from a “Spirit Christology,” explores five models by which the Spirit shapes our lives in the likeness of Christ.

For many of us, this work will break ground in two ways. The first is that it will introduce us to the idea of “Spirit Christology.” In the author’s words:

“A Spirit Christology focuses on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life and the mission of Jesus. It asks what the identity of Jesus as the receiver, bearer, and giver of God’s Spirit contributes to our theological reflection and Christian living.”

For Sanchez, this does not replace, but rather complement a “logos Christology,” which focuses on the meaning and nature of the Incarnation, of God become man, the Word become flesh, fully human and fully divine. Rather, to observe what it means for Jesus to live, die, and be raised in the fullness of the Spirit sheds valuable light on how we might be formed in Christ.

This brings us to the second way this book breaks ground. Sanchez proposes five models for the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctifying us, or “sculpting” us in Christ’s image. Each complements the others and is an aspect of this sculpting work. The five models are:

  1. Renewal: The recurring dying and being raised to new life as we return to the cross in daily repentance toward God, reconciliation toward others, and embrace of our new identity in Christ.
  2. Dramatic: This is the model of standing firm when faced with spiritual attacks through dependence upon the Spirit who intercedes for us in prayer and empowers the ministry of the Word and the affirmation of our baptism as a “little exorcism.”
  3. Sacrificial: Attention here is focused on the life of serving with excellence in our callings and sharing through “happy exchanges” of mutual care where we each give what we have and receive what we need in partnerships.
  4. Hospitality: Following the example of Jesus’ hospitality, the practice of welcoming strangers and the marginalized, participating in the Spirit’s work of calling people from the margins.
  5. Devotional: The worship of God through Spirit-given rhythms of work, play, and rest.

In elaborating these models, Sanchez considers pictures of the Spirit’s work in the life of Jesus and elsewhere in scripture, catechetical models drawing upon the early fathers who wrote about the Holy Spirit (Irenaeus of Lyon, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind,  Ambrose of Milan, and St. John Chrysostom). As a Lutheran theologian, he also draws on the theology of Martin Luther, making a case that Luther had a theology of sanctification, as well as one of justification. In his treatment of these theologians, he identifies catechetical images for each model from their writings.

One of the highlights of this work was to view this discussion through the eyes of a Hispanic theologian and church leader. This was most evident for me in the chapter on hospitality, or welcoming the stranger. For example, he writes of the bittersweet and painful experience of mestizaje, the forced coming together of races in the Spanish conquest and colonization of the New World. Despite the violence and even death, under the cross, a new people was created–mestizo people, yes–but also revealing the church catholic–not monocultural or monolinguistic–accepted without shame at the foot of the cross.

Sanchez concludes this work by sketching how these five models help us tell the story of Jesus in the world–how Jesus came filled with and bearing the Spirit, and how the Spirit meets us and forms us in Christ. An appendix offers a chart that summarizes the five models and his elaboration of them and an extensive bibliography is provided.

It has been encouraging in recent years to see the growth in Trinitarian theology. This book is an important contribution in exploring the intimate relationship of Jesus, the Spirit, and the believer. It moves away from inordinate focus on the Spirit or the silence of a binatarian theology. It offers a well-rounded vision of the work of the Spirit in forming us to be like Christ.

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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: Travel

Travel

Travel: In Tandem with God’s HeartPeter Grier. London: Inter-Varsity Press (UK), 2018.

Summary: A travelogue with a difference, exploring travel from a Christian perspective and how God may work in and through our lives as we travel.

Never has travel to anywhere in the globe been so readily available. In conversations with graduate students, it is not uncommon to hear of people traveling to southeast Asia, central Africa, central or South America, the South Pacific, you name it. Nor is it at all unusual to encounter travelers from all these countries in one’s own. Students and young adults, often unencumbered with jobs and families and able to travel cheaply without concerns for amenities often make the most of these years. What nearly all will tell you is that travel changes you–exposes you to incredible beauties, diverse cultures, and underneath, our common humanity.

What Peter Grier has done in this book is share something of his own travelogue, and how he has reflected as a Christian on his travels, and indeed the role of travel in the Christian narrative. He explores the goodness of travel and the goodness of God’s world while recounting travels to the Arctic Circle.  Alongside travels to China, he reflects on life “east of Eden”–our finite and broken humanity, how we also are “beautiful ruins.” Negotiations in a Middle East market lead to discussions of the difference between honor/shame and innocence/guilt cultures and help us see how the biblical story speaks to people from both. A pair of chapters look at travels in the Old Testament, where people experienced the faithfulness of God, and the New Testament, where travel was connected to the mission of God. A risky journey to Columbia prompts reflections on dying into the Jesus life. The final chapter thinks about the better destination for which we are destined, the identity as one of God’s beloved that this implies, and the freedom to enjoy travel, or not, without wanderlust or a drivenness for experience.

The mix of travel stories, reflections, and biblical reflections help the reader connect to their own travel experiences and musings about life. Each chapter ends with some reflection questions and a prayer that is worth the price of admission. The book lives well in a tension between the goodness of travel and our desire for home and community and nurtures a contentment whether we may travel or not. It helps us listen for God’s invitations in our travel.

The book includes two helpful appendices with travel tips. The first deals with ethical questions like money, photography, environmental sustainability and culture. The second is simply a list of top ten travel tips with everything from a packing list to the encouragements to find out and join in on what God is doing locally at your destination. He also provides a helpful bibliography of recommended reading.

Are you a travel lover? Thinking of some summer or gap year travel? Get this along with whatever travel guides you are buying. Sometimes we leave our faith journey behind when we travel. Peter’s book suggests how both our faith and our travel may be immeasurably enriched when one puts the two together. 

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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: Madison’s Gift

Madison's gift

Madison’s Gift, David O. Stewart. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Summary: A biography of our fourth president, through the lens of five key partnerships he formed that helped establish a new nation.

Of the Founders of the United States, James Madison seems always to be somewhat in the shadows of the more brilliant lights of Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and even Alexander Hamilton. He played pivotal roles in the Continental Congress, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, the establishment of a government under that Constitution, the formation of the first real political party, and helping the country survive a war with a Great Britain that was vastly more powerful. Yet he was soft-spoken, lacking in the skills to be a battle field leader, or the charisma that naturally commanded followings.

David O. Stewart helps us to see that Madison’s gift was his ability to collaborate substantively with personalities often stronger and different than his, bringing his own gifts of political astuteness to those partnerships. Stewart renders the story of Madison’s life through five of these partnerships:

  1. Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was far more flamboyant but the collaboration of these two in the Continental Congress, staving off soldier uprisings by coming up with financing means, and later, working together to draft the Constitution. They teamed up to write the Federalist Papers, providing a formidable intellectual defense and explication of the Constitution, that resulted in ratification of the Constitution. These Papers continue to be a primary resource for Constitutional scholars. His understanding of human failings and the systems of checks and balances between branches of government, houses of Congress, and federal and state government was perhaps his most profound contribution.
  2. George Washington. As a fellow Virginian, he worked with Washington on everything from Potomac navigation to serving as his adviser while giving leadership in Congress in how to turn the Constitution into a functioning government.  He played a pivotal role in the ratification of the Bill of Rights, without which the Constitution may not have survived.
  3. Thomas Jefferson. Both men were lovers of books, land- and slave-owners troubled with slavery and making ends meet, and Virginians. As they observed the centralizing tendencies inherent in the policies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, they came together to form the Democrat Republican party as a check against these tendancies, and effectively collaborated to elect Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe to presidencies spanning 24 years.
  4. James Monroe. This was perhaps one of the most interesting of partnerships because at the start, the two were political rivals. Later, when Madison failed to support a treaty with Great Britain that Monroe negotiated, the two fell out for a couple of years. But when tension with Great Britain were leading up to war, Madison, not nearly as accomplished in diplomatic or military matters, asked Monroe to join as his Secretary of State and Secretary of War. Despite the sacking of Washington, they were able to work together to lead resistance that basically led to a stalemate, and a settlement that unleashed American prosperity.
  5. Dolly Madison. She was a beautiful complement to the reserved Madison and presided over a social scene far more congenial than the stiff and formal receptions of previous presidents. She was fun, she dressed colorfully, and marked by her self-command. When the British were coming to sack the White House, she rescued the silver, and Peale’s painting of Washington, barely escaping herself. In retirement, Stewart describes them as the “Adam and Eve of Montpelier.” They ran footraces on the front porch of Montpelier, hosted numerous guests, and regaled them with stories. They set the pace for presidential retirements. Madison contributed significant defenses of the Constitution against the growing threat of nullification. He succeeded Jefferson as rector of the University of Virginia and participated in the 1829 Virginia constitutional convention. Dolly accompanied him on most of this, and nursed him when his health turned increasingly frail.

Stewart, like many other scholars of this period, writes about the struggle with the question of slavery. For Madison, the issue was personal as well as Constitutional. He recognized that the contradiction between enunciated rights and aspirations, and the compromises of slavery carried the risk of tearing the country apart. Yet he incarnated the difficulty of what he wanted to do on principle, and the economic realities of his situation. He never emancipated his slaves.

Stewart helps us to see that leadership, and presidential, greatness may take different forms. In Madison’s case, a combination of intellectual gifts and capacity for collaboration was crucial for the work of crafting a government from scratch. To collaborate with markedly different personalities suggests a great sense of personal security and sense of self. His willingness to contribute his own astute wisdom while letting others claim the limelight resulted in enduring good for the nation. Stewart’s focus on Madison’s collaborations brings to light his distinctive form of greatness.

 

Review: Rush

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Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding FatherStephen Fried. New York: Crown, 2018.

Summary: A full-length biography of this doctor-founder of the American republic covering his personal life and beliefs, advocacy, war service, and friendships with the Founders, and estrangement from Washington.

He turns up in almost every biography of an American founder or account of the American War of Independence. He played a pivotal role in battle field hygiene, the training of American doctors, and in the field of mental illness. His profile adorns the logo of the American Psychiatric Association. But one has to look hard for accounts of the life of Dr. Benjamin Rush until recently. Even John Adams expressed displeasure that Ben Franklin received far more notice although he believed Benjamin Rush the better man. In the past year, this balance has begun to be redressed. Harlow Giles Unger, who has written on most of the Founders has published a biography on Rush.

A fellow Philadelphian, journalist Stephen Fried, has completed what may be the definitive account of Rush’s life, using a growing archive of Rush’s correspondence and other documents, to give us a many-faceted portrait of one of America’s most distinctive Founders.

He begins with a spirited young boy who lost his father before turning six, lived with an aunt and uncle while attending Reverend Samuel Finley’s school. He graduated from Princeton at fourteen, apprenticed under Dr. John Redman for the next five years, and then went to Edinburgh for medical studies.

On his return, he is offered a chair in Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, while alienating two of his mentors, John Morgan and William Shippen over credits on publications. With Shippen, this is just the beginning.

He is friends with nearly all the Founders, particularly as their paths crossed in Philadelphia. His welcome and advice to John Adams was critical in winning the support of the other colonies to the resistance that began in Massachusetts. He was highly esteemed by Franklin and succeeded Franklin as chair of the Philosophical Society of which they were both a part. He was a sounding board to Thomas Paine as he composed Common Sense. He is one of the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Like others, he sets aside personal interests to head a surgical department for the war effort, and confronts horrible battlefield conditions and Dr. Shippen’s mishandling of funds and resources as Surgeon General. His efforts to protest this ultimately fail, but here, as elsewhere, his pen achieves what he otherwise could not in his manual for battle field hygiene, implemented over the next hundred years and saving many lives. The other, and more profound controversy of the war concerned an unsigned letter he sent to Patrick Henry expressing reservations about Washington’s leadership. Henry passed the letter along to Washington, who recognized Rush’s handwriting. Relations were never warm, thereafter. In later years, he expressed both regret for the letter, and admiration for Washington.

The same passion that got him into trouble also made him an effective advocate with many causes. He was a devout believer, but participated in both Presbyterian and Anglican congregations and was an early proponent of religious tolerance. He loved conversation with skeptics like Jefferson while remaining orthodox in his own beliefs (even reciting an Anglican prayer book prayer on his deathbed). He advocated for the rights of blacks and the abolition of slavery (although he owned a slave that he only eventually and quietly emancipated) and helped start the first African church in Philadelphia. He was a proponent of education, founding Dickinson College, and advocated for the education of women. Perhaps most significant, with his appointment to the Philadelphia Hospital, he noticed the poor conditions of those suffering from mental illness, campaigning for separate and more humane treatment facilities. One of the most poignant aspects of this focus was that his eldest son John was one of his patients. He pioneered occupational therapies and treatments for addiction.

As a doctor, Fried’s portrait is of a dedicated, even heroic figure, tragically wedded to the dubious or even harmful methods of his day, notably the bleeding and purging of patients, which may have hastened mortality in a number of cases. His medical treatises often are extended defenses of these measures. Still, he remained in Philadelphia through a horrendous yellow fever epidemic, contracting (and surviving) the disease himself. He was considered one of the leading medical figures of the day, consulting with Lewis and Clark, provisioning them with medicines, including what they reported to be a very effective laxative! His greatest medical contribution may have been the hygiene and sanitation measures he recommended for the military that no doubt reduced the number of deaths from conditions in military camps.

While Rush’s correspondence got him in trouble in the early part of his life, at another point, he was responsible for a reconciliation that led to a most amazing exchange of letters. For a dozen years, Adams and Jefferson had been estranged from each other since the election of 1800. Rush was friends with both. He began by sharing a “dream” with Adams (a common device in their letters) about Adams and Jefferson resuming their friendship. Slowly, he helped the two of them resume correspondence, which eventually swelled to over 280 letters before both died July 4, 1826, fifty years after signing the Declaration of Independence with Rush. Both would outlive Rush, who died either of typhus or tuberculosis in 1813.

Altogether Rush and his wife Julia had thirteen children, a number dying in infancy or youth (not uncommon at this time). Richard, the second born served in both the Madison and Monroe administrations in cabinet positions while James followed in his steps as a physician and became a prominent figure, marrying into wealth.

Fried’s portrayal drew me in by exploring this distinctive man in his greatness and flaws. His youthful ambition and sense of rectitude overpowers his judgment of what is both appropriate and possible. He could be quite prickly in defending his own reputation, especially during the yellow fever epidemic, where his methods, if not his dedication, could be questioned. He shines in his friendships, his advocacy, and his love for his wife. He also seems something of a tragic figure as he watches the dissolution of his eldest son’s sanity, and the hopes that he would follow in his steps. I suspect he wasn’t an easy man to have as a father.

Fried has done us a great service. He has chronicled in full the life of one of the Founders who obviously deserves far more attention than he has received. Instead of being a bit player in the stories of others, we are introduced to Rush on his own terms, and begin to understand why he was in all the other stories. Were it not for him, we would not have the sparkling correspondence between Adams and Jefferson and the humane treatment of the mentally ill. You might say, he was the doctor who assisted at the birth of a nation.

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

Guest Review: God’s Good Earth

God's Good Earth

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, Jon Garvey. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019.

Summary: A biblical, theological, and scientific case for no fall of nature.

In this book, Jon Garvey, a retired medical doctor, challenges “some of the underlying assumptions now made in the discussion of natural evil, particularly within the evangelical Christian tradition, about what Christianity itself has taught on it, both from within its biblical foundation, and in its theological history.” (p. xvii) He presents “the true position of biblical and historic church teaching as clearly as possible.” (p. xviii) “It has to be a worthwhile goal to take an authentic view both of what science and Christian doctrine actually reveal about the world.” (p xix) “[T]he aim of this study is to point out that what happened to humankind in the garden did not spread to the rest of the world”. (p. 4)

In section one, Garvey surveys the relevant biblical material and showed that the Bible’s position is that the natural creation remains God’s servant, and has not become corrupted or evil because of human sin. This section included some interesting and new (at least to me) observations from Scripture supporting the case for an unfallen world by pointing out how good God’s creation actually is. Garvey concludes that neither the sin of humanity nor the corruption of the angelic powers is associated in Scripture with any major changes in nature.

The second section documents the history of “the doctrine of nature, with reference to the fall, through the past 2,000 years, to show how the balance shifted from a strongly positive view of the goodness of creation to a seriously negative one” (p. xix), including possible reasons why the traditional view rose to prominence around the sixteenth century. He includes a little more than I wanted to know about that history, but obviously believed it was important in order to make his point. Chapter 7, aptly titled “Creation Fell in 1517,” describes a profound reversal in the writings of the reformers. Garvey attributes at least some of this to the Greek Prometheus cycle, particular Pandora’s jar (aka Box), suggesting that natural evil flew out of a jar in a Greek myth, and not primarily from Christian Scripture at all. (p. 112) This section was well worth getting through for what came next.

In the third section, Garvey looks at natural evil as evidenced within the world itself and why nature is now so widely perceived as cruel and malevolent, when once it wasn’t. Garvey makes good use of his medical training and practice to frequently provide a fresh perspective on the usual arguments for “nature red in tooth and claw,” suggesting that they have been somewhat exaggerated. For instance, he completely discredits the claim that most animals suffer an agonizing death. Garvey proposes that “since evolution and the living world generally are found on close examination not to be steeped in selfishness at all, but overwhelmingly founded on cooperation and interdependence, human sin and selfishness may be seen for what they truly are—an aberration within God’s good creation.” (p. 146)

In the final section, he sketches out the differences it makes to Christian life and hope to accept either the traditional view that creation is tainted by the fall, or the view that it is not fallen. For instance, “one is much more likely to wish to preserve what one loves because it is God’s good handiwork, than if one views it as irretrievably corrupted by evil” (p. 199) There is also “the Christian hope engendered by the resurrection of Christ [in] the renewal of all things in heaven and earth, not their complete replacement . . .” (p. 199)

Finally, “This understanding will demand, for many of us, some fundamental readjustments of beliefs and attitudes, but we may take comfort in the fact that we are not, by making those changes, moving away from the faith of the Bible and the church of Christ, but closed back towards both.” (p. 202)

This book was written by a Christian layman, and it is suited for Christian laymen as well as anyone else interested in a fresh perspective on the fall of nature. I highly recommend it.

This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

Review: Originals

originals

Originals: How Non-conformists Move the WorldAdam Grant (foreword by Sheryl Sandberg). New York: Viking, 2016.

Summary: A study of the characteristics and practices of those who make original contributions in personal and professional life.

Why did Seinfeld barely escape the cutting room floor to become the most successful comedy ever? Why might enemies make better coalition partners than friends? If you have a truly innovative idea, you should drop everything and risk it all–right? Are there times when procrastinating pays off?

Adam Grant explores all these questions and more in Originals. The subtitle of the work gives away a key thread that runs through the book. Those who come up with powerful new ideas and innovations are marked by a basic non-conformity. You might even by able to determine that by what browser they use on their computer. Those who use browsers like Chrome or Firefox might well be “originals” because they do not choose the default browser. They are people who are not content to choose defaults, and often may be either at the bottom or top of an organization, not in the comfortable middle. They are also savvy in managing their “risk portfolio.” They may start a new company (like Google) while keeping their day jobs.

Grant suggests that often, the “originals” succeed in what seem to be counter-intuitive ways. People may innovate in an area where they do not have much previous experience because of taking a fresh look at the problems. People who pursue hobbies in the arts often bring unique perspectives to how they look at a problem. The guy who saved Seinfeld didn’t work in comedy. Sometimes the best way to sell an idea is to show people what is wrong with it, turning them into defenders. Originals learn that you either need to speak up or leave to succeed. Hanging in there or becoming indifferent will never cut it. Sometimes the early bird doesn’t get the worm. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream speech” is a classic example, written the night before in the mood of the moment, and improvised when Mahalia Jackson urged King to tell them about the dream.

Grant also explores why ideas fail. Everyone from Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs thought Dean Kamen had a great idea with his Segway. Kamen was a technical wiz who had developed innovative medical devices from a portable dialysis machine to a drug infusion pump. Yet his Segway was a flop and illustrates some important lessons. One is that creators are not always good at judging their own ideas, and in Kamen’s case, he listened to people who didn’t know any more about transportation than he did. He also illustrates the “kissing frogs” principle. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find Prince Charming! Not all risks succeed, in fact most don’t.

Finally, Grant explores how families and organizations might cultivate the non-conformity that leads to original contributions. An interesting statistic is that one thing most of the great base-stealers have in common is that they are laterborns. Often laterborns compete by finding a different niche in which to succeed than the firstborn. Parents tend to be less strict with laterborns, and emphasizes the importance of parents giving children freedom to be originals–focusing less on rules than moral values–praising them for good behavior more than disciplining bad behavior. Also, focusing on the significance of actions for others, rather than just for oneself enhanced things like hand-washing in patient care. Likewise, good organizations to entrance, rather than exit interviews, getting the fresh perspective of new hires. They foster atmosphere where saying hard things needed to improve performance to bosses is rewarded rather than punished. They learn how to foster a sense of urgency.

Grant illustrates his ideas from a variety of domains from sports to politics to engineering and entertainment. The book is valuable to anyone who wants to be entrepreneurial, and all those who want to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit–parents, teachers, company leaders, coaches and mentors. Grant sums it all up in an “Actions for Impact” section with actions we can all take, how we can learn to champion our ideas, how we can spark original ideas in organizations, foster cultures of originality and what parents can do. Grant’s book suggests that we are all “originals.” and that it is not beyond any of us to be people who make original contributions in our part of the world.

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.