Review: Wilson


Wilson, A. Scott Berg. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.

Summary: A definitive biography of Woodrow Wilson, that traces the arc of his life from boyhood to professor to college president to U.S. president in biblical terms fitting for this deeply religious man.

For many of us, Woodrow Wilson is the somewhat tragic figure associated with the cruel peace of Versailles that sowed the seeds of World War II, the unwillingness of Congress to embrace U.S. entry into the League of Nations, and the secrets of his final year as president, severely impaired by a stroke, protected by his wife and doctor. That is only a small part of the story of this deeply religious man who combined a progressive vision for the nation with great integrity, and, for over six years of his presidency, masterful leadership. It is this fuller story that A. Scott Berg renders in what may be, for our generation, the definitive biography of Wilson.

As befits the staunchly Presbyterian Thomas Woodrow Wilson (he dropped the Thomas in college), Berg uses a biblical narrative arc to trace his life. Berg’s opening chapters capture the pinnacle of Wilson’s “Ascension” as he arrives to acclaim in Europe for peace talks after the Armistice and the “Providence” of his boyhood as a Presbyterian minister’s son.

We then begin with the Eden of college years at Princeton, where he would spend much of his life. There were the Sinai years of wilderness wandering in law school and then graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, followed by several professorship, culminating in his appointment at Princeton, where he and first wife Ellen would spend much of adult life, first as a remarkably popular professor and scholar, and later as an ambitious reforming president. “Advent” covers the politics of the latter part of his presidency, the first signs of arteriosclerosis that would play a significant role latter, and his (likely non-sexual) dalliance with Mrs. Peck.

“Paul” covers his brief tenure as New Jersey governor and presidential campaign. It was striking to me that one of the things that won people to Wilson was that he never “talked down” to people but rather his elevated speech lifted them up. “Disciples” discusses the people Wilson surrounded himself as he prepared for his first term and the reforms he hoped to introduce. We meet Colonel House, who holds no office but was perhaps his most intimate adviser and emissary until their falling out after the peace talks at the end of the war. There is William McAdoo, who will later become his son-in-law. We are also introduced to Dr. Cary Grayson, the military doctor who oversaw the president’s health. “Baptism” covers the beginning of the first term and “Ecclesiastes” the death of Ellen from Bright’s disease and the subsequent courtship and marriage to Edith, who would play such a critical role at the end of his presidency.

“Deliverance” describes his election to a second term on the slogan “he kept us out of the war” and the increasing awareness that it would not be possible for the U.S. to remain neutral. “Armageddon” chronicles the entrance into the war, and how Wilson masterfully mobilizes the nation to move onto a war footing. “Isaiah”and “Gethsemane” give an account of the peace talks and the maneuvering of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and others to undermine Wilson’s lofty ideals about both the League of Nations and the terms imposed upon Germany. “Passion” tells the tale of Congress’s rejection of his treaty efforts, and the punishing cross-country journey to try to sell the treaty to the people that led to a series of small strokes, culminating into a major one that left Wilson paralyzed on his left side. “Pieta” describes the efforts of Edith, Grayson, and others close to Wilson to sustain his presidency when he was greatly disabled, and the passing of the presidency to the antithesis of Wilson, Warren Harding. The final chapter, “Resurrection” tells the story of his final years, the rise of his reputation in the nation including outliving Harding, and his passing and burial in the National Cathedral.

We have a portrait of a great and tragic figure. He wasn’t perfect. He was a man of integrity who could be unforgiving when trust was betrayed, as he was with some of his closest advisers at the end of his presidency. He was that rare occurrence, an effective scholar-politician. His record on race was spotty, but he advocated for women’s suffrage. He fought big business and pressed tariff reforms that helped many in the country. He resisted the drumbeat of war, and when it could be resisted no longer, led the nation into a disinterested effort to fight a “war to end all wars.” He saw further than others, and fought in vain for the settlement and the institutions that would forestall a renewal of war. His sense of duty, and obligation to the fighting men, led him to efforts that nearly killed him, and did break his health irreparably.

Reading the biography reminded me that the struggle between American self-interest and an expansive view of our role in the world has run throughout our history. It portrayed how much we ask of our presidents, and the wonder that any of them survive their terms in office. A. Scott Berg’s biography of Wilson is a fascinating exploration of what makes for presidential greatness, the shaping of presidential leadership and the perennial conflicts that seem inherent in the American experiment.


Word Care as Culture Care

Caring for WordsAs a reader, a singer, and a writer I love words. I love that moment when I find just the right word or sequence of words to convey a thought. I love when we find the right words to give a name to something a group I’m a part of is trying to express. I delight in the varieties of expression I find in great writing. There is the spartan economy of a Hemingway, the rich description of a Tolkien, and the evocative writing of Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country that makes you realize how much he loved South Africa, and grieved for her. Last year I found myself moved to tears at the sheer beauty of words set to music in Ola Gjeilo’s setting of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.

I’ve written recently about the idea of culture care instead of culture war and Makoto Fujimura’s fine book on Culture Care. I am in the midst of another book that explores this theme, Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesSome might think that the book was just published in a political season where accusations of lying seems rampant. Rather, it came out of the Stone Lectures at Princeton in 2004. McEntyre covers the range of ways we might care for words in conversation, in long sentences(!), in poetry and story, in reading and writing well, and in resisting lies and telling truth. I’m finding every page a rich reflection on the use and power and wonder of words, and the necessity of using them well. She speaks to me, and for me when she writes in the beginning:

“If you’ve ever loved and learned a poem by heart, or underlined sentences just because they were beautiful, or labored over a speech about something that mattered, I know we share the concerns and the pleasures of stewards who recognize that we hold a great treasure in trust. It is my hope that a sentence here and there will start a conversation or encourage some of you to speak the truth that is in you, to find a sentence that suffices in a hard time, or simply listen into the silences where the best words begin.”

Word care is indeed an important part of culture care. To care for words, to expose their deceitful use, and to strive in our own use to speak truly and well is the work of those who realize the stewardship of a “great treasure in trust.” Words can be used to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” or to our basest instincts. Words can commend what is most noble in thought and character and deed, or they can be used to pollute our minds, debase our character, and bid us to sordid acts. Words can edify or tear down. How we use words can strengthen the warp and woof of a culture or rend the garment of our life together.

Words matter.

For those who claim to follow Christ, we claim to follow one spoken of by John as “the Word.” He is the one who equated contemptuous words with murder. His brother James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26, ESV). Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36, ESV).

This gives me pause. I speak and converse and write a good bit. It is all an open book to God. Whether it is “petty” deception or cutting speech, it will be accounted for. By the same token, I take great encouragement that gracious words, or maybe even the restraint from the gratuitous cheap shot will receive God’s “well done.” Proverbs 16: 24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Words well-spoken contribute to the health of a culture and enjoy the approbation of God.

I hope I can live up to this at Bob on Books. When I write about books, I want to portray them accurately so that the prospective reader is not misled, and the author can say I understood what he or she was trying to say, whether I agree with that or not. I aspire to use words with care, both in the art and the intent of the writing. I hope I can inspire those who read me to the love of words, both in books and life, and to a better conversation about all the things that make up our life and culture. And I long that my words might at least dimly reflect the beauty of the God I love and the unspeakable grandeur of the future hope that grounds my life, that others might long with me for these things.

This to me is to care for words.



Review: American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion

American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism and Civil ReligionJohn D. Wilsey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: Explores the history of American exceptionalism, distinguishing two kinds of exceptionalism and considers them under five theological themes.

Most discussions of American exceptionalism that I’ve seen either embrace this idea more or less uncritically, arguing that America is God’s “city on a hill,” or they utterly reject the idea as a form of egregious cultural imperialism and a Christian heresy. John D. Wilsey offers us a history of this idea, and suggests a more nuanced view that allows a place for a certain kind of American exceptionalism while rejecting other forms of it.

Specifically, Wilsey proposes that there are two kinds of American exceptionalism. In an interview with the publisher, he differentiated these as follows:

“As a civil religious concept, exceptionalism has historically been articulated in one of two ways: One form of exceptionalism is imperialistic, exclusivist and justified in theological terms. Another is informed by the liberal ideals of natural rights, individual freedom, and human dignity and equality. I call the former closed exceptionalism and the latter open exceptionalism. Open exceptionalism forms the basis for faithful and biblical citizenship.” (IVP Academic Press Kit)

In the first two chapters, Wilsey traces the history of American exceptionalism, beginning in the first chapter with our national origins and then in the second with our national expansion, including the challenge of slavery. We learn that the ideas came from our English antecedents and that the term was probably coined first by de Tocqueville. He considers what would be closed expressions of exceptionalism in the expansion of slavery and the idea of “manifest destiny” in contrasts with Lincoln’s emancipating vision of extending American ideals of equality and justice under the providence of God to all peoples, black and white.

The next five chapters consider five theological themes of “closed” exceptionalism:

  1. Chosen nation: That America has been divinely chosen or elected by God in a special way as a kind of new Israel (excluding Native peoples and Blacks) even though the scriptures speak of the kingdom of God as comprised of the inclusion of peoples of many nations with none preferred.
  2. Divine Commission: That America has been uniquely commissioned to “save the world.” Wilsey looks in detail at the tenure of John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and America’s role in saving the world from communism.
  3. Innocence: The articulation of America as a pure and upright nation. The chapter focuses on the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. This innocence ignores past and present injustices or takes an “America right or wrong approach.”
  4. Sacred Land: A Chosen Nation occupies a Promised Land. Wilsey surveys the history of this idea from the Puritans through America’s landscape artists, and the struggle between those who would conserve the nation’s resources and beauty and those believing it was given for dominion.
  5. Glory: The author examines this idea through the lens of the three most popular homeschooling history texts used over the last twenty years. All three emphasize Christian origins, downplay slavery, and portray America as divinely privileged vis à vis other nations. They argue contemporary America is in serious decline from these origins.

Wilsey would see these ideas as an appropriation of theological ideas into an idolatrous civil religion, often endorsed by wide segments of the American church.

Unlike some, he makes the case for an alternative, open form of exceptionalism that may serve as the basis of Christian civic engagement and he addresses this in his final chapter. He argues that America’s liberal ideals at their best are indeed worth cultivating, preserving, and commending: liberty, democracy, world peace, and cultural tolerance. Open exceptionalism seeks these for all of our own people and believes they are worthy ideals for the world, cultural riches to be added to the riches of other nations. He commends two unusual models of engagement: Justin Martyr and W.E.B. DuBois.

What I appreciate in this treatment is the articulation of a form of patriotism that is appropriate to a person whose first loyalties are to the kingdom of God, as well as a clear repudiation as idolatry of closed forms of exceptionalism. It is not a claim to chosenness as a nation or hypocritical innocence that ignores the times we have failed to live up to our own ideals.Rather, open exceptionalism is a love of country that that faces and addresses injustices and seeks to preserve and freely include others in the cultural goods of liberty, justice, and democracy we have enjoyed. It lovingly cares for and carefully stewards our land, not as some special sacred ground, but as part of God’s global creation for us and our children’s children.

I do wrestle however with the embrace in any form of the term “exceptionalism,” other than to acknowledge the history of this idea in our national history. It is one thing to recognize some of the particular gifts that have been part of the American experience, and to want to include others in the goods we have enjoyed. But the very term “exceptional” may quickly morph into forms of national superiority that smack of arrogance and hubris, or may still be culturally imperialistic, even if not idolatrous or ill-intentioned. I’m not certain what to replace the term with except for some form of “generous care” for the institutions, the values, and even the place, that have defined us at our best. I think of the generous care that rebuilt much of Europe and Japan after World War II under the Marshall Plan that allowed for the establishing or re-establishing of democratic institutions. Rather than “exceptional” or “great,” I long for an America that is just and generous, both at home and abroad. That would be good enough.


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The View From Home


“The Morning Drive,” Christopher Leeper, 2017. Image used by permission of the artist.

A relative recently posted the above image on Facebook and tagged me, asking if I recognized the location. When I saw this, I gasped, because I realized that this was the view of Youngstown I had grown up with. The painting portrays the view down Mahoning Avenue toward downtown, with the east and northeast sides of the city in the distance, from a point just west of the intersection of North and South Portland Avenues. I lived two houses in, on North Portland. The view is from almost exactly the place where I waited for the 9 Mahoning bus to go downtown to work, or to walk up to Youngstown State.

The image is reproduced from a 26 x 39 watercolor painting (available for sale!) by Christopher Leeper, a fine Youngstown area artist living in Canfield. It is one of several recent works portraying West Side scenes. Leeper is a 1988 BFA graduate from Youngstown State, an adjunct faculty at Youngstown State, and past president of the Ohio Watercolor Society. We have seen him on public television in Columbus, where his works have been shown. You may view his work, learn more about him, or even contact him via his website:

Some details caught my eye. One is the car toward the left turning into a side street. That would be my street. On the left side of Mahoning, behind the car is the building that used to be Dave’s Appliance store. Obviously, you are seeing the city on one of those cold, probably single digit days (vapor coming from the chimneys) that often follow snowfalls. I will have you notice that the streets are clear. Those of us who don’t live in snow belt areas like Youngstown just can’t understand why it takes days to plow the streets.

Our street was also off a hill. It was a good thing they were so good about clearing the snow. I remember blizzards where we would listen to the tractor trailer rigs hauling steel from the mills struggling up the hill.  You will notice that the businesses (or at least the buildings where there used to be businesses) are all right next to the sidewalks. Some had parking lots on the side but many were meant to be walked to, or you would just park on the street.

The Youngstown area is often referred to as the Mahoning Valley. The painting gives one a sense of this with rising hills above the flood plains on each side of the Mahoning River. We were west and south of the river, which runs from northwest to southeast through the city. The faint hills in the distance were north and east of the river. This was more or less the view out my back window as a young boy, where I could look across and up and down the valley from our house.

The Beatles song, “In My Life” begins with these lines:

“There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain.”

This painting so caught my attention because the views, the vistas we grew up with are always there with us, always a part of us. True, some has changed, some not for the better, some gone, and some remaining. But the Valley is still there, the major downtown buildings, and even the utility poles lining the streets. The memories of cold, crisp sunny winter days come rushing back, with the vapor of a thousand chimneys rising across the Valley. May I never forget the view from home!

Review: Across A Billion Years

Across a Billion Years

Across a Billion Years, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013 (originally published in 1969).

Summary: A group of space archaeologists from different planets make a discovery that puts them on the trail of an ancient, highly advanced race that disappeared nearly a billion years ago.

Tom Rice is a graduate archaeology researcher part of a team drawn from several different races from different planets on an expedition excavating a site on one of the planets occupied by an incredibly advanced and ancient civilization, The High Ones. Tom, in his youthful enthusiasm, is the narrator of this story. The chapters are recorded messages to his telepath sister, Lorie, whose mind can communicate across the galaxy while her invalid body is confined to a hospital bed.

The dig, like most, is tediously routine at first, allowing us to get to know the expedition’s characters–the android Kelly, the rhino-like Mirrick, Dr. Horkk from Thhh, Steen Steen, a hermaphroditic creature, Saul the stamp collector, Leroy Chang, who turns out to be kind of creepy, Pilazinool, who loves to remove and replace his robotic limbs, Dr Shein, who heads the expedition, 408b, an octopoid creature, and Tom’s love interest, Jan, who at first is more interested in the stamp collector.

The expedition shifts from tedium to intrigue when Tom discovers a sphere that is kind of a projector, that plays back scenes from The High One’s civilization. Nothing like this has ever been discovered. More than that, it puts them on a trail of discovery leading first to an asteroid where a robot has been entombed in a cave, it turns out over 800 years ago. They find the asteroid, and the robot intact, who conveniently is a universal translator. The robot in turn takes them to a home planet, abandoned “just” 275 million year ago by the Mirt Korp Ahm, as the High Ones call themselves. The planet continues to be inhabited by a fantastic assemblage of self-maintaining robots, much like Dihn Ruu, their interpreter.

It is here that Dihn Ruu learns why the aging home star of the Mirt Korp Ahm cannot any longer be seen. The planetary system has been enclosed by a Dyson sphere to conserve energy. And with this news, the explorers lay plans to head there, only to face arrest from Galaxy Central!

Will they make it to the home planet of the Mirt Korp Ahm? If they do, what will they find? Will they be received or destroyed? And how will these discoveries change them? These are interesting questions that I cannot answer without spoiling the conclusion.

Perhaps as interesting as this adventure from planet to asteroid to planet are the relationships between the members of the team. Silverberg explores the human-android relationship–are humans from a vat really different from those conceived the old-fashioned way? And why do humans inherently suspect other species?

Equally intriguing is Tom’s perception of his sister. He pities her physical disabilities and “guards” her from aspects of his life that highlight her disabilities. Silverberg gives us an interesting portrayal of how the “abled” view those “differently abled” and how the “differently abled” see things.

Oddly, it seemed to me that what Silverberg considers the least is the encounter between species, and how such contact, particularly if one is far advanced, would change the explorers civilization. Nor does there seem to be much interest in the highly advanced robotic civilization, other than as stepping stones to learn what has become of the Mirt Korp Ahm.

Nevertheless, he raises the interesting question of what a race a billion years old might be like, for humans who reckon the advance of modern civilization over less than 50,000 years. Silverberg presents us with this interesting thought experiment clothed in a chase across a galaxy.

Reflections on “The Future of Work”


Derek Thompson (far right) and panelists at “Future of Work” Photo (c) 2017, Robert C Trube

The other day, I ordered food at my favorite Panera without talking to a person. A kiosk allowed my to swipe “My Panera” card, greeted me by name on screen, displayed the menu by categories, allowed me to select items, check out and make a payment with my credit card. A receipt was emailed to me. It took people to prepare my food, but only one person was working checkout. Most people were using kiosks.

A few years ago, three or four people would have been doing what the kiosks did. My experience illustrated what several speakers at an event I helped host Tuesday evening were exploring. Work is changing, and automation in various forms is either changing our work, or requiring that we change jobs, if we can.

The event was called “The Future of Work.” Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic moderated a discussion with three academics, a development economist, a labor economist, and a marketing and information technology professor. It was a rich conversation that opened my eyes to some vitally important issues.

Thompson came to my attention a year ago when he wrote an article titled “A World Without Work.” It explored what happens when technology change and market forces put people out of work. And significantly for me, the article centered around time he spent in my home town of Youngstown, Ohio, a city that knows all too well the dislocations of the loss of jobs, shrinking from a high of 170,000 people when I was young to just over 60,000 at present. Talking personally with Derek, we talked about the “Youngstown diaspora” in my own city of Columbus, Ohio, which has a growing rather than shrinking population. We noted how so many who could leave Youngstown, because of education and other factors, did so, and how this changed the fabric of the city, and so many others like it.

Thompson, both in his talk, and in the article made the observation that “many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.” One of our panelists, reflecting his Christian beliefs (it was a religiously diverse group) noted that work came before the fall in Genesis. It reflects something of what humans made in the image of God are like. God worked, and it seems work, as well as rest, is important to being human. It was after the fall that work got laborious and frustrating, hence the tension we live in between not always liking our work, but hating not working more.

The panel explored the implications this raises in a world where technology might both put people out of work, and possibly mean others will work less. What will we do with the disparities of income between those who profit tremendously from either making the technology or using it to entertain–and the others who don’t? They explored the idea of the “universal basic income”– a guaranteed level of income for all whether they have employment or not. Most were pretty ambivalent or even opposed to this idea–kind of like society rather than parents supporting us while we live in our basement playing video games.

Another question that was discussed was what will we do should we need to work less to earn sufficient income on which to live? Will we just consume? Or will we find other ways to work, perhaps to create things, or to serve others? Or will we work and earn more than we need, simply because work is what we do? There is a question of what a life well-lived looks like should remunerative work be less of a necessity.

One of the clearest things to come out of the night is that many jobs face automation. Thompson had us consider clerical workers, for example the grocery clerk who grabs an item, scans an item, bags an item, and repeats. There might be some good that comes out of eliminating hard, repetitive, and tedious work. But automation is spreading far beyond this. We are talking about computers driving cars and trucks on one hand, and computers doing radiological diagnostics on the other. It is either people in the service economy doing very relational things with other humans, or people in the knowledge industry, those who create, maintain, or utilize the technology, who will be the last to be automated. Computers do not compose great music or write great books–or invent iPads!

Even if new technology creates as many jobs as it eliminates (about which I am uncertain), the people who lose a livelihood are in great pain. Such things raise questions about what kinds of inner resources do we cultivate against such possibilities, and also what kind of society will we be when change causes such dislocation and pain. Will we be a zero sum society with winners and losers, or will we find ways to stand with those who suffer–to make our neighbor’s pain our own and get through it together?

It seems to me that we cannot afford either a mentality of entitlement for ourselves or indifference to our neighbors. Our families, our schools and our religious institutions alike need to form people to embrace change rather than to hate it or cling to the familiar past. Perhaps it is the bedrock of belief that enables us to cope with the changes in our environment. It is a danger that some of our panelists discussed, that we make work, especially in a particular career, that bedrock. Yet, in a time of great change, this is shaky ground at best. Do we not need something else that gives us the wherewithal to grow and change, grieve and embrace, and discover an abiding joy that sustains us through the changes of life, including changes in how we work? The truth is, none of us knows what the future holds. For some, the answer is in the cliche’ of “knowing Who holds the future.” Whether you buy that or not, the changing world of work poses the question of “what grounds my life?”

[Derek Thompson, in addition to his editorial post at The Atlantic, is the author of the recently published Hit Makers, reviewed here.]

Black Blocs and Free Speech


Ben Schumin, Own Work – March on Crystal City CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the more disturbing trends coming to university campuses as well as other public settings is the rise of the “black bloc.” Black blocs first came into being in Germany in the 1980’s in Autonomists movement protest against squatter evictions. These spread to the U.S. in 1990 and became prominent in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.

What is a “black bloc?” Wikipedia gives the following description:

“A black bloc is a name given to groups of protesters who wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items. The clothing is used to conceal marchers’ identities, and hinder criminal prosecution, by making it difficult to distinguish between participants. It is also used to protect their faces and eyes from items such as pepper-spray which law enforcement often uses. The tactic allows the group to appear as one large unified mass.”

It should be noted that the term “black bloc” refers to the clothing worn by the groups and not the racial identity of the participants. 

Recently, black blocs have come into the public awareness during the Trump inauguration, when they smashed windows and destroyed property in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the country.

More troubling yet were the riots that broke out in Berkeley when controversial conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to speak. About 1500 Berkeley students gathered to peacefully protest, something quite appropriate under their First Amendment rights. This protest was broken up and turned into mayhem by a group of 150 using black bloc tactics. According to an Inside Higher Ed article, they came:

“…to start fires, break windows and hurl rocks at police officers — and who accomplished all of those things. They wore black and concealed their faces with masks. They brought — and used — bats, metal rods, fireworks and Molotov cocktails to get their message across, in the process undermining ‘the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence,’ a spokesperson for Berkeley said in a statement.”

Perhaps the most troubling incident took place recently at idyllic Middlebury College. Charles Murray, author of the controversial The Bell Curve was slated to speak there. A political science professor, Allison Stanger, would be moderating a question and answer session afterwards. In this case a group of students and faculty shouted and chanted so long that Murray could not speak. Then Stanger was attacked by protesters afterwards who yanked her hair so violently she needed to wear a neck brace. Then about 6 to 12 who may not have been students and using black bloc tactics attacked her car until police were summoned when they fled.

Many of those who have engaged in black bloc actions have been described as anarchists, and indeed, it seems that the effects of their actions are the destruction of civil order. In most cases there is a protest against something, and often the destructive acts have been against symbols that represent what they are protesting (e.g. smashing the windows of a Starbucks).

One of the troubling aspects of black blocs is how they undermine legitimate but peaceful protest. It is likely for example that all those at Berkeley were tarred with the same brush as a result of the black bloc tactics. Yet there were two different groups present, one acting legitimately and one illegally.

The Middlebury incident tells a more nuanced tale. It would suggest that black blocs represent an extreme of what has become acceptable in many public fora–to simply shout down and suppress speech we do not like or disagree with. It is troubling to me that faculty, those who should represent reasoned discourse and collegiality joined in these protests, even against one of their own colleagues.

Most faculty I know would repudiate such things, yet it is troubling that some will join in. It suggests how deeply the disease of poisoned discourse has penetrated not only our social and news media, but even the halls of education.

I wonder if some of it comes down to our loss of a capacity to have a good argument. I speak of good in two senses: both in being able to support a contention with cogent reasons and in being able to do so with charity toward the person with whom we differ. When all we speak in are soundbites, we may lose the capacity and intellectual heft for substance.

I also wonder if it arises from a belief that there is a “right not to be offended.” That has always puzzled me. I have always believed that being offended was not something others could do to me but a choice I made, which means I have other options when I hear something to which I could take offense. I could be curious to know why someone would hold such an idea. Or I might simply decide that they are acting the fool–someone impervious to reason, in which case I might change the subject or just walk away.

While I never approve of such violence or anarchy, I do wonder if sometimes it arises from a perceived or real sense that speech is being ignored, or even suppressed. Nihilism and anarchy seem to be close cousins. Do people turn to anarchy when they become convinced that reasoned discourse and civil protest are meaningless? Do people act in these ways when they see others doing immoral but legal things because it is within their power to do so? Only those with a very different outlook can take the long view of a Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In the wake of police violence and efforts to suppress basic human rights, King chose the way of love and non-violent resistance.

This leads me to ask whether our present inability to foster civil discourse, and the increasing incidents of the suppression of free speech reveal the paucity of the spiritual resources in our lives. Do we feed our lives on anger and outrage because we have no reason for hope? Do our tantrums reveal that we have given up on truth? Have we give up on the faith of a King, a Desmond Tutu, a Karol Wojtyla to embrace the blackness of nothing? These are the questions the rise of black blocs, and other forms of suppressing free speech and civil discourse raise for me. What about you?

Review: Biblical Authority After Babel

Biblical Authority After Babel

Biblical Authority After BabelKevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: A proposal that the five Solas of “mere Protestant Christianity” provide a framework to check the interpretive anarchy for which Protestant Christianity is criticized.

One of the most serious criticisms of post-Reformation Protestant Christianity is that it unleashed a kind of interpretive anarchy, a confusing of the languages similar to what happened after the tower of Babel incident in scripture. In fact, one of the major appeals of Roman Catholic Christianity is that in the Pope and the Magisterium, the church speaks with one voice on issues of doctrine over which many Protestants differ. It is a criticism made trenchantly in recent works by Brad Gregory and by sociologist Christian Smith, who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism over what he calls the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that characterizes what he calls the “biblicism” of Protestant Christianity.

Kevin Vanhoozer, a theologian who has written extensively about biblical interpretation addresses this criticism in his newest book. He argues that the five solas of the Reformation so shape and inform our reading of scripture as to preclude the kind of anarchy of which Protestantism is accused.

The book is arranged around the traditional five solas of Reformed tradition: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. I will try to summarize the major contours of a careful argument he makes that eventuates instead in what he would call a “unitive interpretive plurality.”

First of all, he contends that sola gratia means that we understand scripture as as a gracious initiative of the triune God to communicate his gracious work in Christ to us and that the Bible, its interpreters, and interpretation are all caught up in this gracious initiative. This seems quite important in addressing what kind of book scripture is and the origin of its communication and our capacity to discern its meaning.

Second, sola fide recognizes God’s trustworthy authority in creation and salvation and in attesting to this work through human testimony and the appropriate response of faith. Faith alone is not faith isolated from listening to others and the epistemic humility of faith avoids the extremes of certainty and relativity.

Third, sola scriptura is not solo scriptura. While scripture is the final authority it is not the only authority. Our reading of scripture is informed by the other solas and the insights of the church as a whole. Vanhoozer affirms the biblicism of his position but calls for a catholic biblicism that listens to the testimony of the church about the scriptures.

Fourth, solus Christus implies the priesthood of all believers, and it is to this priesthood that Christ has entrusted the keys to the kingdom household, which Vanhoozer sees as the local congregation. We do not interpret scripture individually but as part of interpretive communities in local congregations who interpret in communion with other local congregations.

Finally, soli Deo gloria means that local churches are “holy nations” whose uniqueness and communion glorifies God as these nations “conference” with each other around their understanding of holy scripture, experiencing continuing renewal as they read scripture together. Rather than mere uniformity, the church manifests a robust unity within diversity that makes it hardier and more able to adapt to the different settings in which it finds itself.

Each of the chapters develops these ideas and then summarizes them in a final section. Then, in his conclusion Vanhoozer summarizes his argument and concludes that this is a better form of catholicity than Roman Catholicity.

As I worked through this argument, I found much that I could affirm wholeheartedly. He begins, not with scripture but with God’s gracious initiative. I heartily affirm his call to a humble faith that refuses to idolize certainty but equally steers clear of skepticism and relativity. He steers clear of the caricatures of biblicism that are rightly criticized. And I found his vision for unity that is not uniformity bracing.

I do think the most difficult part of his argument for the contention he would make is the part about local churches as interpretive communities. I think it a healthier thing that local churches function as interpretive communities than individuals in isolation. What counters the danger of pervasive interpretive pluralism for him is this idea of conference–churches in a gospel-shaped conversation with each other. This sounds nice in theory, but through the 500 years of Reformation history, where has this been practiced, and is there some reason that it might be practiced in our present day when it has not been for all this time? Where are there vibrant examples of congregations, particularly from different theological streams within Protestantism, in conversation with each other? Where are there examples of irenic efforts to listen to one another and address contradictory understandings of scripture around matters like political engagement, gender roles in home and church, the weight we give to dominion and to creation care, and more?

It is striking to me that one of the few examples of such “conference” that I can think of was the initial statement in 1994 and subsequent conversations of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. This was not a conversation between Protestants about a “mere Protestant Christianity” as Vanhoozer calls it but rather one between a subgroup of Protestants and Catholics. With the deaths of Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, who provided much of the impetus of these conversations, they seem to have waned. The conversations did not downplay difference but also emphasized common ground and the work of listening to each other, for often differences arise from misunderstanding. Might these be a model for the kind of “conference” that might be possible?

I don’t think there is a structured way in which the kinds of “conference” Vanhoozer describes can occur for the whole global church. But might his framework begin to inform the practice of local congregations more, around a disposition to commune and confer with fellow believers across denominational, cultural, and other differences, and to read scripture together in ways that enrich and renew each other, as an expression of our shared convictions around the grace and gospel of God? Might it also inform our disposition toward one another, where we determine not to suspect and criticize each other but to confer with and learn from each other, and seek to hear together what the Spirit is saying to the churches? While it might not rectify all the problems critics see in Protestant Christianity, it might be a start toward a catholicity that begins to prepare us for the coming of the Bridegroom.


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: Culture Care


Culture CareMakoto Fujimura. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A call for a different kind of engagement with culture, one of care, of becoming generative, rather than engaging in war or battle, to foster beauty in our common life.

To read this book was a moving experience for me, one about which I wrote (“Culture Care Instead of Culture War“) while reading the book. I found a voice that resonated deeply with my longing for alternatives to the banal, rancorous and ugly expressions of culture around us. Fujimura invites us to care for our culture rather than engage in war over it, to give our selves to a common pursuit of beauty to sustain and renew our common life.

He invites all who are creative in some way to exercise their creativity generatively.  Often this involves “genesis moments” where failure and tragedy gives way to something new. It is generous in a world that often just thinks of survival. Becoming generative means thinking across generations, observing the work of those who have gone before us, working for a generation at our own creative work, and passing this along to future generations.

The rest of the book elaborates what a generative care of culture looks like. He begins by paralleling culture care with the creation care movement. He invites us to look at similar fragmentation in our communal life and the divide between technological efficiency and the love of beauty and art, or the divides between groups contending for their vision of culture, the culture wars. He proposes instead that, “Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care.” Such care may begin with care for our own souls, as we face our own brokenness and understand we are wounded healers. We then begin caring for culture by our efforts to bring forth beauty out of brokenness.

He proposes the idea of artists as mearcstapas or “border stalkers.” Artists are often those at the boundaries of society, the liminal spaces between groups, an often uncomfortable place to be. They are like Aragorn, “Strider,” in The Lord of the Rings, and capable of great leadership in reconciliation across the divides between groups. He shares the example of Mahalia Jackson, an artist sitting behind Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 as he gave a somewhat “set” speech until she called out to him, “Tell ’em about the dream!” Artists can call forth the “dreams” toward which we long and live, and which we sometimes suppress. He writes of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh, both at the margins of the church, who in their art challenged the rigidities that drove them to the margins where they struggled with faith.

This leads to a striking declaration of Fujimura’s own calling that left me both breathless and saying “Yes! Yes!” He writes,

    “I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being. Vincent van Gogh was not a Christian artist either, but in Christ he painted the heavens declaring the glory of GodEmily Dickinson was not a Christian poet, and yet through her honest wrestling, given wings in words, her works, like Vincent’s, like Harper Lee’s, like Mahalia Jackson’s–speak to all the world as integrated visions of beauty against injustice.

    “It is time for followers of Christ to let Christ be the noun in our lives, to let our whole being ooze out like a painter’s colors with the splendor and the mystery of Christ, the inexhaustible beauty that draws people in. It is time to follow the Spirit into the margins and outside the doors of the church” (pp. 84-85).

The last chapters of the book suggest some helpful images and practical considerations of culture care that seemed to me a generative gift to young artists. Fujimura speaks of soil care, that art is nourished in the rich soil of the whole, expansive gospel of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. He writes of estuaries, transitional habitats for apprentice artists. He commends business practices and gives practical advice for young artists, including his own example of “raising support” even while in art training. He then concludes with a vision that transcends the fear that drives culture war and asks “what if” a paradigm of culture care were to replace this.

At least part of why I resonate so deeply with what Fujimura writes is that I feel I’ve become increasingly uneasy hiding behind the evangelical culture war walls and have been drawn more to the boundaries as a “border-stalker” or mearcstapa. Like Fujimura, I haven’t abandoned evangelical faith, but I find myself increasingly drawn to care for the culture (as well as the creation) rather than war on either. Perhaps it has been the discovery that I live with two artists.

A number of years ago, I woke up to the reality that one of my wife’s deepest longings was to give herself to painting, and began to ask what it means to “husband” such a longing. The greater surprise was to discover that the other artist with whom I was living was myself as I found culture caring joy as a choral singer and a writer. I even joined my wife’s artist friends in picking up sketchpad and paint brushes and entered into their world. Instead of polemical conflict I find myself increasingly exploring the common ground of beauty which seems one of the most conducive atmospheres to conversations about the “beautiful Savior.”

My apologies for the biographical digression. What I hope this conveys is that Fujimura gave language and a clearer vision to my inchoate thoughts and images about a different engagement with culture. If that is where you find yourself, you might find this book as helpful as I did. At very least, you will know what is a mearcstapa!


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.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Iconic Places of the Past


“IdoraDanceHall1920” by Youngstown News Agency, Youngstown, Ohio – Public domain

Last week I wrote about iconic places in Youngstown today. Doing so brought to mind many of the other iconic places of the past, places we re-visit in our memories. Some reflected a period, but many reflect what a different city the Youngstown of the past was from the Youngstown of today.

  1. Idora Park. Actually, this was the home to a number of iconic spots in our memories from the Merry-go-round to the Wildcat to the midway to the ballroom to the French Fry stand. Cotton candy, delight and a bit of terror, dates and dances. So much history. 


    Palace Theater. Photo by Steveovig

  2. The Palace Theater. This was an absolutely gorgeous place just off Central Square. It was replaced by a parking lot. The Paramount hung on longer but it also is no more.
  3. Downtown department stores. McKelvey’s and Strouss’ were incredible old stores. As kids, we would dress up to shop there. Strouss’ building is still there.


    Point Market –Source unknown

  4. The Point Market. Remember the big red revolving apple on this local grocery at the corner of South Avenue and Midlothian? Until I-680 was completed, I’d drive past there every time I visited my girl friend (now wife).
  5. The Newport Theater. One of the early suburban theaters where I first saw The Sound of Music.
  6. Uptown. The place to be on date nights–everything from the Pizza Oven to fine restaurants and the Uptown Theater.


    20th Century Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Morris Levy, used with permission

  7. The 20th Century Restaurant. Spinning bowl salads, rolls, and great desserts served in an Art Deco style building.


    Youngstown Masonic Temple, Nyttend – Own Work, Public Domain

  8. Masonic Temple. The building may still be standing but the last lodge of Masons could no longer afford the upkeep and gave up the building in 2016. Dad was a Mason, and I remember some really fun family events there as a kid.
  9. The Brown Derby. Another popular restaurant on the South Side of Youngstown. A favorite for family gatherings and date nights. I asked my wife to marry me there. Obviously she said “yes”.

  10. Steel mills. Of course the steel mills lining the Mahoning River are perhaps the iconic places of the past for Youngstown.

All cities change over time. Business owners die or competition drives places out of business. Industries change. Once popular institutions fade. It’s good to remember icons. And it is good for a new generation to create new ones. Let’s hope that happens for Youngstown.

What would you add to this list?