Review: A Week in the Life of a Slave

a week in the life of a slave

A Week in the Life of a Slave (A Week in the Life Series), John Byron. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A creative re-telling of the story of runaway slave Onesimus that casts light on the institution of slavery in Greco-Roman society and the church’s response.

Onesimus. Philemon. These two names are associated with Paul’s shortest letter. One wonders at times why it was included. It seems to be a personal appeal for Onesimus, a runaway slave, who during his time with Paul became a follower of Jesus. He appeals for Onesimus to receive him back as a brother, and charge any debt or wrong to Paul. A beautiful appeal to reconcile a runaway slave to his master, a fellow Christian. Just a personal letter? Perhaps, but it is also addressed to the church that meets in Philemon’s home (v. 2). Is there a larger message for the church from the apostle who taught there is “neither slave nor free. . . but you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).

These questions and many more John Byron explores in this newest contribution to the “A Week in the Life Series.” Through both a creative re-telling of story and the sidebars, Byron casts light on the institution of slavery in the Roman empire. We learn how people became slaves, how they were treated, their status, even when freed, and what a serious matter it was for a slave to run away. Beyond flogging, a slave could likely be sold, usually into inferior conditions with even less chance of obtaining his liberty.

Byron tells the story through the cast of characters we find in the letter, and a few others, including a prison superintendent who is a believer, who at risk to himself allows Paul to see Onesimus long enough that he can understand and believe the gospel. In doing so, he posits an Ephesian imprisonment, which makes sense with its proximity to Colossae. He includes Luke and Demas and Epaphras who shares his imprisonment. Demas hosts a church in his home and shelters Onesimus, who witnesses the mingling of slaves and free persons in worship.

Byron explores what it might have been like for churches to grapple with the question of the inclusion of believing slaves in their worship. He creates a contrast between Ephesus where all are brothers in Christ when they gather for worship, and Colossae and the church in Philemon’s home, where slaves are excluded–until Archippus (a kind of overseer or bishop of churches in the Lycus valley) challenges their practice, and their socially stratified worship. One begins to grasp how “neither slave nor free” in worship was itself an incredibly radical step.

Many who discuss the issue of slavery in the New Testament argue that an infant church couldn’t challenge this powerful institution. I appreciate that Byron doesn’t make this argument, which can ring hollow. Rather he shows what it was like for early house churches to take the first steps to press out their theological convictions about oneness in Christ into eating and worshiping together, steps that in themselves broke with established social convention.

We don’t know what Philemon did with regard to the legal offense of running away. Paul only appeals and doesn’t offer a specific course of action. But Byron picks up on the legend that the Bishop Onesimus mentioned in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians. If that were so, at some point Philemon granted this runaway his freedom. One wonders if the Philemon-Onesimus incident was something of a watershed moment with implications beyond their immediate relations. Was this perhaps the reason for the letter’s preservation. Did Bishop Onesimus, as Byron writes the story, have something to do with the letter’s preservation?

These are plausible speculations at best. What Byron’s book does so well for us is bring to life the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, perhaps different in treatment from American slavery, but nevertheless demeaning of the personhood of the enslaved. We grasp the risks Paul, and all who helped shelter Onesimus ran. We begin to understand the costly counter-cultural actions of a nascent church that shelters, welcomes at table, and worship, the slave, calling him “brother” and her “sister.” We only are left wondering why it took the church another eighteen centuries to follow the arc of their theology to its ultimate conclusion in practice and law.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Placemaking and the Arts

placemaking

Placemaking and the Arts, Jennifer Allen Craft. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Considers the “place” of the arts in placemaking, particularly in the settings of the home, the church, and the wider society.

Urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte have pioneered a movement known as “placemaking,” the gist of which is the planning and design of urban spaces that promote the health and well-being of those who live in them. This movement has also included writers of “place” like Wendell Berry who urge loving attention to local places, their people, and their ecology.

In this work, Jennifer Allen Craft explores the role of the arts, particularly the visual arts, in placemaking, and how for the Christian in the arts, artists may both seek the flourishing of their places, and anticipate the coming of the new creation, the kingdom of God.

Her first chapter explores the “placed” character of art. Every artist works in a place. Art is an embodied practice that can only occur in a place and in various ways interacts with that place. Through all this runs a theology of creation, incarnation, and resurrection hope for the new creation. One’s art is integrally connected to one’s relationship with God, other people and creatures, and the place in which we work.

The next four chapters explore how this works out in different settings: the natural world, the home, the church, and in society. In the natural world, art enables us to understand, love and, in the words of Wendell Berry, “practice resurrection” in the creation. Art in the home is a “homemaking” practice that creates beautiful spaces that also may become hospitable places for those experiencing dis-placement. Art in the church creates a welcome “place” for community, for encountering God, and for “embodying” the spiritual in a local place, as does liturgy and the Eucharist. The arts also have an important role in the pursuit of human flourishing in society, in creating “place” for the displaced, and bringing artistic considerations to the design of places.

Her final chapter is an attempt to articulate a placed theology of the arts. This commences with six key dialectic features of art: physicality/spirituality; particularity/universality; individuality/community; given/made; beauty/usefulness; contemplation/action. It seems that part of the theological ground of this dialectic approach is the sense of already/not yet of the kingdom and the dialectic of reflection and action in spiritual practices of faith.

The author seems to primarily be writing for an academic audience at the intersection of theological studies, sociology, and art theory, an important group to engage. I found myself wondering how accessible this would be to most of the practicing artists I know, many who might be appreciative. Many are believing people but unaccustomed to reading academic prose and would struggle to read a book like this, or they would just put it down and paint.

At the same time, as an individual who participates in a local arts group and a local choral organization, this resonated deeply with me. Joining a group of plein air painters in various locations in our “place” helps me see and cherish that place more deeply–the particular light of our summer skies, the gently rolling landscape, the river valleys, the species of trees and the shades of green of each. Whether it is a local park or town square, these become intimately a part of the place where we live as we seek to render them on canvas. To study and rehearse great works of music, and then to perform them in an assembled community in our place brings these works to a particular life that enhances life. The works we and others have painted that adorn our home make it a distinctive and welcome place. Singing four-part acapella harmonies with a few friends in my church embodies community and invites worship in our local place.

What this work offers is a theological framework for thinking about both the embodied practice of making art in local places, and how faithful engagement in the arts may be a part of our kingdom callings. I hope she will think about how to articulate these ideas to a wider art and craftwork community, many whose work is indeed grounded in place, and could use the encouragement and affirmation of their work present in this book.

Review: Working

Working

Working: Researching, Interviewing, WritingRobert A. Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Summary: Less a full biographical memoir than a description of the author’s methods of researching material for his books, writing them, and the question that has driven his work.

It seems that I have been reading one of Robert A. Caro’s books from time to time since I moved to my current home town nearly thirty years ago. He has been writing them even longer. The four volumes in print of his Years of Lyndon Johnson. His massive The Power Broker on the life and pervasive influence of Robert Moses on the city of New York and Long Island to this day. He is currently at work finishing the fifth, and hopefully final, volume on the presidency and post-presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his work on Robert Moses, and one for one of the Johnson volumes, and just about every other major book award.

In contrast to his massive volumes, Working is a thin and pithy piece of writing in which Carol describes his process, and the question that has driven all his work. From his days as an investigative reporter for Newsday, he had a passion for discovering and explaining to people how things worked in government. That led to the realization that to explain this, you had to understand how power worked. Robert Moses, a figure who never held elective office and yet who probably displaced a half million people for his freeway projects through New York, who created parks for the people of the city and roads to connect them, taught him how power worked. Then to understand the exercise of political power by elected officials, he set his sights on Lyndon Johnson, who rose from the hill country of west Texas to the White House. Along the way, he gained a mastery of legislative processes and control over the Senate and his party that has not been seen before or since.

Such figures do not give up their secrets easily, if at all. Much of Caro’s books describe his exhaustive research methods, driven by his curiosity and instincts to get the whole story. One of his early mentors told him to “turn every page.” As he did this with Johnson, he discovered a notable change of pattern in the young congressman courteously seeking favor of others, to those others, even senior figures, seeking his attention. More careful page turning isolates the turning point to October 1940. More sleuthing in files pulled out of his House archives uncovered correspondence that indicated he had become the conduit for major campaign donations from a Texas fir, Brown and Root. And so Johnson began to accumulate power.

Part of his research was to see the things of which he was writing, and invite those who he was interviewing to the site of events to describe not only what happened but to describe the scene so he could see it. Soon, memories would flow, and Caro, could then write about events so that his readers could see them. To understand Johnson’s youth and gain the trust of area residents he wanted to interview, he and his wife Ina moved to the Hill Country of Johnson’s youth for several years. He describes movingly what it was like for Rebekah Johnson, Lyndon’s mother, to live in a house out of sight of any others as night fell on the Hill Country.

He describes his determination to get to the bottom of the question of whether Johnson stole his 1948 election to the Senate, won by a razor thin margin with the ballots of “Box 13” in Jim Wells County. His research took him to Luis Salas, who he tracked for years, who finally entrusted him with a manuscript that provided the evidence that the election had indeed been stolen. He recounts in interviews the times he “had the story” and yet sensed there was more and dared to ask one more question, and discovered there was more.

In addition to describing how he researched, how he interviewed, recounting a number of those interviews, he describes his writing process. Someone has said there is no good writing, only re-writing. Caro is proof of that, moving from longhand manuscripts to typewritten copy marked up and re-typed, to corrections throughout the publishing process. He admits he would re-write the finished books if he could.

And now I understood how it has taken him fifty years to write those books, and still not be done with Johnson. He gives us an inside glimpse into what it takes to create these magisterial works: curiosity, diligence in the archives, dogged persistence in the interviews, working and re-working the material to get it right.

With investigative journalism struggling for its life, I concluded the book wondering whether I was reading the narrative of some of the last of a breed. It seems this is an important question because of the larger vision that drives Caro. The book ends with a 2016 interview in The Paris Review. The interviewer has observed that Caro hopes “the books serve a larger civic purpose.” Caro replies:

   Well, you always hope something. OI think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we’re voting about, the better. We live in a democracy, so ultimately, even despite a Robert Moses, a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.

We need investigators like Caro to throw light on processes. Will we find ways to continue to mentor and support them and offer them platforms from which to shine their light? And when they do, will we pay them any heed? One thing Caro is right about. Our democracy depends on it.

Guest Review: Finding Ourselves After Darwin

Findng Ourselves After Darwin

Finding Ourselves After DarwinStanley P. Rosenberg ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: This book presents and discusses multiple approaches to thinking about the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in light of biological evolution.

This collection of essays is one result of a research project at Oxford University which “assembled scholarship presenting different approaches and methods and insights, introducing a variety of models that may be considered . . .” (p. 8). The individual authors are primarily theologians and biblical scholars, some with a science background.

As the title implies, biological evolution is presupposed, and the issue is how to think about the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in the light of biological evolution. The book is divided into three parts, one for each topic. Each part includes a brief introduction, a discussion of the questions, challenges, and concerns for the topic, several essays offering different approaches, and a conclusion and further reading list.

Part 1 deals with why the image of God is important in the theology-evolutionary science dialogue. It begins with a discussion of what constitutes human distinctiveness. After four essays offering different views of the image of God in the light of recent developments in evolutionary science, Michael Burdett concludes by suggesting that “it is entirely possible that each of these models could be combined in interesting ways such that hybrid models could be constructed that rely on aspects from each one outlined here.” (p. 109)

Part 2 deals with original sin. The opening essay by Gijsbert van den Brink suggests that biological evolution does not require a radical abandonment of the doctrine of original sin, but rather a recontextualization within an evolutionary framework. After essays on Augustinian, Irenaean, federal headship, and cultural approaches, Christopher M. Hays presents a compelling account of the ways in which evolutionary theory aids our understanding of the universality of sin without appealing to an Adamic fall. In his conclusion, Benno van den Toren suggests that “Insights from different theories might well be combined for a new theological synthesis to arise out of this fermentation process. (p. 206)

Part 3 deals with the problem of evil by presenting a variety of approaches. Essayists discuss Augustinian, Irenaeasn, fall-of-the-angels, free process, only way, and non-identity theodicy and how they relate to evolution. The concluding essay by Michael Lloyd suggests that, despite their differences, the contributors to this part seem to believe the following: (1) the current state of evolutionary biology and modern genetics leaves plenty of room in which to do theodicy, (2) the seriousness of the problem of evil in relation to the evolutionary processes, (3) this volume falls far short of a full theodical narrative, and (4) their positions still have challenges to face and work to do.

The three Further Reading lists, the 26-page Bibliography, and the numerous informative footnotes provide a wealth of opportunities to pursue specific topics of personal interest.

It would help to have some familiarity with the issues before tackling this book, but it does succeed in bringing together multiple approaches to dealing with the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in light of evolution. I can recommend it to anyone interested in this topic. Three other helpful essay collections on the same topic are “Perspectives on an Evolving Creation”, “Theology After Darwin,” and “Darwin, Creation and the Fall.”

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

Review: A Liberated Mind

a liberated mind

A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What MattersSteven C. Hayes, Ph.D. New York: Avery Books, 2019.

Summary: An introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a psychological counseling approach that develops psychological flexibility through learning acceptance rather than resistance or flight from painful thoughts and reality, and how we may pivot toward commitments rooted in what we value most deeply.

Steven C. Hayes proposes we all have a Dictator Within. We all have thoughts that cause us problems. We try not to think about pink elephants, painful experiences, messages that tell us all sorts of negative things about ourselves, or that raise our anxieties. We try to argue with those thoughts or avoid them or get rid of them, often in inflexible ruts where we go round and round with little success. At very least, we struggle with lack of peace of mind. At worst, these ways of thinking hamstring the way we live and the relationships we form.

Hayes, one of the pioneers of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) proposes a very different approach. He describes an approach that begins with acceptance of our thoughts. He proposes that one of the things that defuses the power of our thoughts is simply to stop trying to get rid of them and notice them. There is a sense that we step outside these mental processes and take perspective. And it means acceptance of the painful and approaching that pain with curiosity and openness where our goal no longer is feeling GOOD but FEELING good.

Moving from Acceptance to Commitment we learn the practice of presence,  of living in the now, the present rather than a painful past or a yearned for future. We identify what we value and then identify actions to which we may commit that support our values.

After tracing the development of this approach in Part 1 and the idea of developing psychological flexibility rather than rigidity through crucial pivots in our lives, in Part 2, he describes the six pivots in greater depth:

  1. Defusion–Putting the Mind on a Leash
  2. Self–The Art of Perspective Taking
  3. Acceptance–Learning from Pain
  4. Presence–Living in the Now
  5. Values–Caring by Choice
  6. Action–Committing to Change

He devotes a chapter to each, sharing, and even walking us through exercises for each pivot.

In Part 3, Hayes applies ACT principles to a variety of aspects of life including healthy behaviors, mental health, nurturing relationships, various types of performance, including sports performance, spiritual well-being, and coping with illness. Here and elsewhere Hayes cites studies showing the superior effectiveness of ACT to other counseling approaches.

I cannot assess his claims. I do have two criticisms. One is how often he repeats the claim of the superiority of this approach, to a point that I found tiresome. The second is that there seemed to be an inadequate “cutting room floor” and I felt that at times, his central ideas and arguments were obscured by excessive verbiage.

Nevertheless, the ideas of acceptance, of defusing, of perspective-taking, of becoming attentive and curious, even about pain, are at the heart of contemplative spirituality that has been helpful to many. To couple this with learning to be present and to live in the now, and to allow our values to shape our commitments seem to reflect the wisdom of many approaches toward transformation. I appreciated Hayes receptiveness to religious faith and an approach that recognized the complementary character of his therapeutic approach and the formational practices in religious traditions.

Perhaps the founder of this approach may be forgiven what I criticized as excesses. He’s talking about his baby! What is evident throughout the pages of this book is the author’s personal embrace and passion for ACT principles, his extensive clinical practice, and the deep care he has for clients and for seeing people flourish in their lives through applying the psychological flexibility skills he teaches in this work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Science & Faith

science and faith

Science & Faith: Student Questions Explored, Hannah Eagleson, editor. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of essays addressing various questions on the relationship of science and Christian faith, incorporating groups discussion questions for use with small discussion groups.

Nearly every Christian college student has at some time confronted the question of the relation between what their faith teaches and what we might learn about the world through science. The question is more acute for science students. In some settings, students are taught both in church and in the science classroom that one has to choose between science and faith. One would think these are in a war in which only one side can win.

The contributors to this volume write from a different conviction. Most are actively engaged in scientific research and teaching as well as whole-heartedly embracing the Christian faith. The work is organized in four parts:

Part One focuses on preliminary considerations. Joshua Ho, a graduate student in Developmental Biology discusses the questions he brings to a science-faith questions: questions of personal identity, mission, and approaching questions of origins. Two scholars, one a theologian, one a scientist discuss how the Bible supports the use of the scientific method to study God’s world. The section concludes with a reflection on our ways of understanding God and understanding his world.

Part Two is about building good conversations among scientists about faith. Ruth Bancewicz opens with a delightful account of how science enhances her faith. Andy Walsh discusses the relevance of God in a scientific age. Neil Shenvi responds to the challenge that Christians face when scientists describe Christian faith as irrational. He points out both that powerful emotions do not disprove the rationality of any belief, scientific or religious. Furthermore he points out the resources available to demonstrate the rational basis for Christian belief. Finally, plasma physicist speaks of using God-given creativity (including his involvement in his church’s Vacation Bible School) to speak of his faith with colleagues.

Part Three tackles the perennial issue of how we engage origins questions. David Vosburg, a chemistry professor, sets out good principles for fruitful conversations: praying about when to engage, cultivating grace in community, start with the Bible, and not just Genesis, and that disagreements are not always rooted in science or theology. Gerald Rau then devotes a couple chapters to different views of origins Christians who believe in creation hold.

Part Four explores broader issues. Royce Francis addresses the unique opportunity scientists have to foster science literacy among fellow believers. James Stump offers a pithy chapter on epistemology, or the question of how we know. Then James C. Ungureanu contributes three chapters on the history of the relationship between science and the church. One of the most intriguing observations he makes is that the approach of the two books of revelation, scripture and nature, often in the modern area collapsed into one book, that of nature. He attributes this to the autonomy granted to natural revelation that ended up competing with or superseding special revelation.

Each chapter includes discussion questions that can be used either for personal reflection, or even better, for group discussion. It should also be noted that the selection of articles came out of preliminary surveys with students and ministry leaders and were field-tested before publication.

The book is edited by the Emerging Scholars Network’s Associate Director Hannah Eagleson, who offers guidance in using the book, and helpful chapter introductions, linking the content to the overall theme of the book. It can be used by everyone from undergraduate students in the sciences, to graduate researchers, and university faculty. While designed for Christians, I could see this being useful for those exploring faith who wonder whether Christianity is anti-science. The good news of this guide is the relationship of faith and science is not one of war, but peace, of each enhancing our grasp of the other.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. In the interest of full disclosure, while the above represents my honest assessment of the book, I have a personal connection with this publication. On July 1, I was appointed the new Director of the Emerging Scholars Network. When this occurred the book was already at the printers. However, it represents well the work of the Emerging Scholars Network to connect faith and scholarship, the love of God and the love of learning, work I am both proud of and to which I am deeply committed.

Review: Fundamentalist U

fundamentalist u

Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher EducationAdam Laats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Summary: Traces the ways eight institutions that developed with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s responded to the changing fundamentalist/evangelical movement and wider trends in higher education and American society up to the present time.

Adam Laats attended public universities and teaches in one, and does not share fundamentalist/evangelical beliefs. Neither does he share any animus toward these this movement nor the schools that arose during the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s. What he does is give us a fascinating and even-handed account of eight flagship fundamentalist/evangelical institutions and how they negotiated the pressures exerted by this complicated and diverse movement and the wider landscape of American higher education and culture.

The schools he studies are Biola, Bob Jones University, Gordon College, Liberty University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary. Each of these were chosen as non-denominational institutions that were aligned with the fundamentalist movement during it rise.

He begins with a brief history of American higher education and the disenchantment of those associated with the fundamentalist movement who increasingly recognized the need for their “own” schools who would adhere to strict interpretations of scripture and prepare young men and women for Christian service. Much of this was a reaction to a perceived Darwinism and theological and cultural liberalism that many felt increasingly characterized not only public institutions but even the church affiliated schools founded in earlier generations.

Succeeding chapters chronicle how administrations, often in authoritarian fashion in early days, attempted to forge institutions that reflected these concerns, and persuaded parents and donors that they were not going soft on biblical fundamentals. This was a challenge as the fundamentalist movement struggled with its own identity and the development of neo-evangelicalism post World War II. Because of the lack of a coherent theological or ethical core, these schools ended up having to negotiate their way between conflicting factions, some more conservative, some more progressive, and some more concerned by the quality of education, or even toward what end these institutions were preparing young people. Were they missionary and ministry training institutions, a place to meet one’s mate, or simply a Christian alternative preparing students for careers in competition with their peers at secular institutions? In truth, they have functioned in all these roles, often with both academic and moral excellence.

Laats describes the different courses schools took. Bob Jones University remained rigorously fundamentalist, separatist, and segregationist. Liberty University also trumpeted the fundamentals, but was on the vanguard of conservative political engagement. Schools like Moody wrestled with their original purpose of simply training Christian workers, offering certificates of completion rather than degrees. Wheaton, Gordon, and Biola had more interesting journeys, trying to satisfy both more fundamentalist and more evangelical constituencies, often being attacked as “soft” by their peers, and more importantly, by an onlooking religious community obsessed with signs of “softness.” There was less said about Dallas and Westminster, although the portrait of J. G. Machen as both sympathetic with fundamentalist concerns, and yet distinctive in his Calvinist confessional stance makes him an intriguing outlier in his time.

Meanwhile cultural forces like the G.I. Bill and accrediting agencies were imposing pressures. Schools had to raise curricular standards so that their degrees were competitive with those of other institutions. Yet they had to do so while maintaining theological purity, particularly on the litmus test issue of their stance on evolution. Some doubled-down on young earth, six day creation stances. Others endorsed creationist stances while conceding the growing evidence for evolution in some form, what was called “progressive creation.”

On race, schools like Wheaton had begun as radically abolitionist, only to adopt a de facto segregationism. Others like Bob Jones, were belligerently segregationist and anti-miscegenationist. With the rise of the civil rights movements and student activism schools had to face their complicity with racist practices while facing pressures not to change.

These pressures extended to the social revolution of the Sixties. Students had always to some extent pressed against behavior codes and the legalism around practices like smoking, dress, and movies that reigned on these campuses. Laats does a good job showing how administrators successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated these pressures and the tug of war between students, funders, and parents.

Not all was controversy. Laats recounts the narratives of students like Betty Howard who met Jim Eliot at Wheaton, and found the ideals of evangelical romantic love “nothing short of a ‘revelation!’ ” Eliot and many did not rebel against but embraced the behavioral strictures of their schools and found them freeing in the formation of their character and faith and missionary calling.

Two things struck me about this account. One is the incredible “fishbowl” within which these institutions have operated. Laats chronicles how various groups thought of these schools as “our” schools and looked for signs of “softness” — deviations from their particular groups definition of orthodox belief and practice. This not only reveals the faultlines of varying and conflicting interpretations of what was “biblical” but what has always felt to me gossip run rampant. I cancelled my subscription to Christianity Today for many years because of what I sensed was an over-preoccupation with this “sanctified” form of gossip (you can see that I’m probably far less dispassionate about this than the author!). Administrators at these schools had an unenviable task in this regard.

The other is the incredible staying power that the creation-evolution struggle has had in its sway over these institutions. Even as science faculty have sought ways to affirm the findings of science and not present them at war with faith, external pressures often have required them to confess adherence to particular creationist interpretations on threat of termination. Laats seems to intimate that there often is a kind of double-speak going on, where what is discussed in the classroom may be at variance with what is promoted among certain constituencies. It raises the question of what academic freedom means on these campuses, a question Laats observed when doing research at Wheaton during the controversy that resulted in the termination of Larycia Hawkins, a tenured faculty member.

These schools and others like them that have emerged in more recent years have had an out-sized influence on the American landscape–in politics, in the media, and other areas. It is fascinating to see how despite the various pressures these schools have faced, the excellent and passionate graduates they have produced. It might be tempting to marginalize these schools on the higher ed landscape. Adam Laats helps us understand both their distinctive history, the subculture within which they have operated, and their significance within our wider culture.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: The Reluctant Witness

reluctant witness

The Reluctant WitnessDon Everts. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: One reluctant witness shares personal narrative, helpful principles, and survey data that indicate that spiritual conversations may be delightful rather than dreadful.

Most Christians are reluctant to bear witness to their faith. The idea of this raises images of street preachers, intolerance, arguments, and offended friends. Most of us don’t want to be those kind of persons. We love people too much, and frankly want to be loved by them as well. Don Everts was like so many of us, except for a small problem. He was a campus minister, part of whose job was to witness to his faith, and help others learn to do this.

In this book, Everts shares his own journey of discovery that spiritual conversations can be delightful, not just for the believing person, but also for the other person in the conversation. He also shares Barna research that both offers support for his contention, and a bleak picture that indicates that if anything, there is far more reluctance on the part of Christians to engage in spiritual conversations, even with each other, than a couple decades ago.

First the bad news. We are having fewer spiritual conversations, our level of discomfort in having these conversations has risen, we mention Jesus and the Bible less, even though we know we should have these conversations. Furthermore, these practices find parallels in the general culture. The main reason for our silence is fear, particularly the fear of offense. We also feel far less prepared by our churches. In 1993, 77% felt their churches prepare them well to speak of their faith. Today it is only 57%.

Through various conversations–on a long bus ride, with a neighbor, and others, Everts discovered that these conversations could be delightful, and that some of those he conversed with became friends, and some even changed their beliefs. He describes five myths and how these conversations gave the lie to them for him:

  1. Spiritual conversations take place in special places, at special moments, by special people. The reality is that most belief-changing conversations took place with friends in everyday settings.
  2. Spiritual conversations are serious and sober events. The reality is that laughter and joy are actually a significant part of conversations for both parties.
  3. In a spiritual conversation I need to be able to give the right answer. Actually, what is more important is having the chance to ask one’s questions and responses that are humble and honest, which sometimes means, “I don’t know.”
  4. Most spiritual conversations involve conflict, which ruins everything.  Actually, this turns out not to be a significant factor in the data, and most people expect some disagreement and even think it is healthy.
  5. Spiritual conversations are burdensome duties that are, in the end, painful and regrettable.  Actually, 35 percent of Americans report making a change in their lives because of a spiritual conversation. Among Christians, 38 percent report that someone has come to faith after a spiritual conversation. And only 14 percent of those who would identify as non-Christians said “no” to the statement “I’m glad about my latest spiritual conversation.”

This doesn’t mean that negative conversations never occur. Rather, all this suggests they are far less frequent than imagined, and especially as we grow in our conversation skills. Everts goes into the factors that turn reluctant conversationalists like him into eager conversationalists. He discovered that the difference was that eager conversationalists look for spiritual conversations in everyday life, they pursue and initiate conversations, they are open to share their faith in a wide variety of ways that are sensitive to those with whom they speak, and they gently push through awkward moments.

One thing Everts doesn’t name, although I think it is assumed in his account, is that Christians are genuinely persuaded of the goodness of what they have believed. I can’t help believe that for some, they have at least in part believed a mythical cultural narrative of Christian faith as naive, narrow-minded and intolerant. Sometimes, this is the case despite the transforming work that has taken place in their lives. One of the delightful moments in the book was when Everts admitted in a class where a professor belittled the idea of a chaste lifestyle, both the problems he faced when he previously had embraced the morality his professor commended, and how trusting Christ in the area of his sexuality had made a huge positive difference in his dating relationships.

Beyond all the interesting statistics, the most winsome part of this book was Everts’ own modest example. His story, and the principles he offers are so helpful for those who have a sense that their faith is too good to keep to themselves and want to break through their reluctance. He helps us see that much of it comes down to having good conversations with people, where we welcome questions, listen with respect, and share what we’ve found with honesty and humility. If Everts is right, we might even find ourselves laughing together with our friends. That would be delightful, wouldn’t it?

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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: Walking with Jesus on Campus

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Walking with Jesus on CampusStephen Kellough. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019.

Summary: A former college chaplain reflects on ten key issues students face.

Stephen Kellough is Chaplain Emeritus for Wheaton College. At twenty-five years, his was the longest tenure of any chaplain at Wheaton. In this book, he reflects on what he believes are the ten most important issues facing Christian college students today.

I love where he begins. He starts with what he thinks the most significant challenge, which he believes is that students know that they are loved by God and invites them into a relationship of growing in love for God, in discovering the love that casts out fear and that dispels false guilt and deals with true guilt.

Other chapters deal with weakness, perfectionism, doubt and depression, sabbath, sexuality and singleness, servanthood, safety in community, revival, and living as an apprentice to Jesus. Each chapter includes reflections on one key biblical passage. For example, the chapter on doubt and depression begins by frankly discussing symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. He explains why he discusses doubt and depression together, because these are often connected at an emotional level, he considers David’s lament in Psalm 13 and how it reflects the dilemmas of doubt (being in two minds) and depression and its debilitating character. He helpfully encourages seeking care and also talks about how doubt actually is a form of faith, indeed that we cannot know what faith is without having doubted at some point.

One of the most fascinating chapters is that on revival in which Kellough narrates the unfolding of the 1995 revival at Wheaton. It began when a student leader of the World Christian Fellowship confessed openly, calmly, and briefly his sin of pride as a leader. Here is what followed:

After a pause, another brave student came forward to a microphone and confessed his own sin of pride. Others came forward; and lines grew on each side of Pierce Chapel. After someone would honestly and vulnerably share a public confession, friends would huddle around and pray over that person while another student began speaking from the other side of the chapel.

What was confessed? There were confessions of pride, hatred, lust, sexual immorality, cheating, dishonesty, materialism, addictions, and self-destructive behavior. There were tears, and there were smiles. There was crying and singing. People confessed their sins to God and to each other, and there was healing. It was biblical. It was orderly. It was sincere. And it honored our Lord.

This went on nightly Sunday through Thursday of one week, involving as many as 1500 people a night. He describes powerful and ongoing racial reconciliation and forgiveness.

His concluding chapter is on being apprentices of Jesus–for life. He quotes Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, who said, “Don’t take care. Take risks.” He proposes that this is the life of faithful and obedient stewards of God’s gifts.

I recognized that Kellough is writing from a place of wisdom and yet there was nothing stuffy or stodgy about his writing. He speaks with deep compassion for students and admiration of students he knows. He freely quotes younger writers like Rosaria Butterfield and Wesley Hill in his chapter on sexuality. His work combines grace and biblical truth.

I’m not sure this is the book for the “churched” student who has never personally embraced the faith for him/herself and wants to get as far away from it as possible during college. I think this makes a good book for the committed Christian student who wants to live for Christ in college to understand some of the practical issues this involves. It could be a book first year students might discuss together and the reflection questions at the end of each chapter lend themselves to this. It’s a good book for parents of students as well, and it raises the question of whether we want our students just to be successful, or do we want them to whole-heartedly, and sometimes riskily following Jesus. It will certainly give parents ideas of how they might pray for their students.

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

Review: In Search of the Common Good

In search of the common good

In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured WorldJake Meador. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Observing the breakdown in community in both church and society, the author traces the root causes, and the practices of Christian community that can lead to recovery of community and a church that seeks the common good in society.

Many attentive culture watchers have noted the parallel declines of both church and wider American culture. Attendance is dropping in many churches even as churches are rocked with scandals of sexual abuse and financial mismanagement. The seduction of the church to corrupt political alliances, whether of the left or the right, in the author’s view, is only the final step in a church that has given itself to power instead of the doing of “small things with great love.” While all this goes on, America is “bowling alone” to even a greater extend than when Robert Putnam first published his study of the decline of social capital and community in America. Suicide rates are up, life expectancy is dropping, and the professionalized care industry is booming, even as local community and a sense of cohesion and pursuit of common good is vanishing in a land of toxic discourse.

Jake Meador chronicles these parallel declines and traces them to three factors. One is a loss of meaning, a pervasive existentialism that pretends to meaning in choices of radical freedom, yet without hope. A second is a loss of wonder, a dis-enchantment with the world as the buffered self cuts us off from both danger and wonder, resulting pervasive boredom. A third is the hollowing out of work, where efficiency and profitability is the sum total of work’s meaning, where we are alienated both from our work, and by our work from home, family, and religious life, as work becomes all-consuming.

Meador proposes three practices that may play a crucial role in restoring Christian communities to health, enabling them to exercise a societal presence that fosters a wider common good. He begins with the surprising proposal of keeping sabbath, as a tangible way of underscoring that human beings were made, not for work, but for God, that we are human beings, not human doings. One of the things Meador argues for is corporate worship, as one tangible way of keeping sabbath that begins to restore a sense of our being part of some “common good.” He adopts Wendell Berry’s idea of “membership” in which we recognize that we are embedded in both a human and wider biological community.  He advocates for work that is sacramental–that work is good and offers ways to bless others, that produces wealth, and is attentive to the membership.

His final section consists of two parts. The latter grounds the former, and really all that he has written, in the new heaven and new earth, a hope that is even more real than life in the present age. The former talks about what it means for the community of God’s people to be citizens in earthly societies. It is here perhaps that he makes one of his most trenchant observations:

   Put another way, the political priorities of many American Christians in recent years have been precisely backward. We ought to have begun with doctrine because doctrine defines the good life as it relates to political systems and societies. Then we ought to have turned to the formation of citizens. We should have asked what kind of virtues are necessary to live well in community with one another and what particular virtues are necessary for responsible political action. Then we should have asked how to cultivate those virtues within our people. Finally, only after attending to these issues, we should have moved on to debating policy….American Christians, and evangelicals especially, have done the exact opposite. (p. 161).

He argues for a political doctrine shaped by the Kuyperian ideas of solidarity and sphere sovereignty, and the practice of subsidiarity–that government should only do those things it is large enough to do, leaving other matters to other spheres of life.

Reading Jake Meador as a sixty-something took me back to what it was like to read as a college student a young Os Guinness in The Dust of Death, with his sweeping discussion of culture, and what it meant for Christians to live as a third wayThere is the same scope of considering cultural forces, the intellectual ideas behind them, and a fresh vision of what Christian faithfulness might look like in the present time. Sadly, a boomer generation fascinated with “fast-everything” circumvented doctrine and virtue and communal practices in pursuit of policy influence, power, or a personal prosperity without a sense of our membership and solidarity with others and all living things.

This leaves me reflecting. Os Guinness is still speaking and writing. Jake Meador has written for a number of publications. But who is reading? And who is heeding? I hope someone is and that the American church wakes up to how far it has declined over forty years, before all we can do is cry “Ichabod. The glory has departed!” (1 Samuel 4:21). Meador’s ideas and commended practices offer light for those tired of groping in the darkness.

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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.