Review: The Myth of the American Dream

The Myth of the American Dream

The Myth of the American DreamD. L. Mayfield. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A collection of Christian reflections chronicling the author’s awakening to the ways the American dream neither works for everyone nor reflects the values of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated.

D. L. Mayfield reminds me of Tara Westover, author of Educated. Both were homeschooled in strongly religious backgrounds, albeit far more healthy and functional in the case of Mayfield. What distinguishes them are their very different awakenings, Westover to a love of learning that led her to Harvard and Cambridge, and Mayfield to an awakening to how the structures of the American Dream neither reflected her Christian commitments nor worked well for many in the north Portland neighborhood where she and her husband lived.

Mayfield describes this “American Dream” in terms of four concrete values: affluence, autonomy, safety and power. She recognizes that the proclamation of Jubilee of Jesus in Luke 4 speaks to people whose lives are characterized by just the opposite: the poor, the captive, the blind, and and the oppressed.

Perhaps the most winsome aspect of these essays is that the author takes us through the deconstructing of these American Dream values in her own life. Teaching English to immigrant women, she learns by the annoying ringing of phones what it means to live from paycheck to paycheck in an affluent society. She watches the struggles of her neighbors to meet rising rents in gentrifying Portland. She finds her autonomy challenged by Maryan, whose “magic pot” gets shared around the community and is preferred by her and all to the Insta-pot Mayfield thought would make her life better and more self-sustaining. Instead of the free range educational experience of her youth, she understands the critical important of her neighborhood public school to her community.

Perhaps at no time in history has a concern for safety been greater. It has led us to close our borders and fear of the other. Yet we have a 1 in 6 chance of dying of heart disease, 1 in 7 of cancer, but 1 in 3.6 million of dying in a terrorist attack. Yet the reality of the refugee experience turned Mayfield’s perspective around as she came to understand the dangers these people had endured. She describes how she and her mother experienced the welcome of Muslim families, and found herself hoping for her children that they would so learn in these experiences the love of Christ: “that they are known and valued and love.”

She speaks trenchantly of the deleterious effects of American power on the evangelical faith of her upbringing:

   Empire focuses on ideological sameness: make the narrative easy, make it clear. Pharaoh will save you. Caesar will put bread in your belly. The president will make our country great again. This leads to small, deformed imaginations–I see it in how White evangelical Christianity has been tangled up in the same pull toward greatness, toward power, toward viewing ourselves as specially anointed by God to rule the world, to hold and be in charge. This leads to a sense of scarcity, a hallmark of pharaohs throughout the centuries: the all consuming fear of losing power. I have seen it in the fights for religious liberty that excludes those who aren’t Christian, in the narrative that says we are losing the culture war and must fight with every tooth and nail to hold our ground…. But most important is the belief that exile is a reality to be ignored and feared at all costs, a strange ideological position for those who claim to follow the God of the Israelites (p. 147).

Mayfield challenges us in another essay in this section to learn from the exiles, including exiles from the American Dream like Ida B. Wells, black anti-lynching crusader who had to flee her business and home in Memphis because of threats on her life. She reminds us that Christians are aliens and exiles in the world enthralled with the vision of our coming King, who look for its coming, not in affluence, autonomy, safety and power, but through the cracks in the sidewalks, the neglected yet joyful schools, poor and yet interdependent neighbors, all anticipating the New City to come.

The phrase that characterizes Mayfield’s writing for me is “raw elegance.” It is raw with the realities of her city and elegant in the depth of reflectiveness that looks beyond failed myths, and the poverty of her community, to glimpse the dream of a greater kingdom. It is a time where the flaws and inadequacies of the American dream have been exposed in its dependence on excessive consumerism built on systemic inequities, and where our impregnable safety and power has been riddled by a microscopic virus.  Voices like Mayfield’s are needed to point us to a better dream–one large enough to encompass the poor, the captive, the blind, and the powerless–all of us really. Will we fight to cling to what we must ultimately lose, or listen to what will save us?


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: 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.


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: Recapturing the Wonder

Recapturing the Wonder

Recapturing the WonderMike Cosper. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores the disenchantment many Christians experience living in a modern secular age and the practices that may “re-enchant” our world with the supernatural presence of God.

Thoughtful commentators from Charles Taylor and Hannah Arendt to James K. A. Smith and David Foster Wallace have observed how we live in a disenchanted, disillusioned secular age. In this work Mike Cosper engages these commentators and how the disenchantment of the modern world affects Christians’ experience of the reality of God. He writes about the contrast between an enchanted world and a disenchanted one:

“Perhaps to best understand disenchantment, we can look at its opposite, the ‘enchanted’ world of a few centuries ago. In that world, men and women saw themselves as spiritual creatures, vulnerable to blessings and curses, to angels and demons, and subject to the god or gods who made and oversaw the world. This enchanted world was part of a Cosmos, an orderly creation full of meaning, a place with a purposeful origin and a clear destination, guaranteed by the god or gods who made it and rule over it. At the same time, this Cosmos is full of mystery, a place where our knowledge has its limits and an unseen spiritual realm is constantly at work, shaping our everyday experience.

In disenchantment, we no longer live in a Cosmos; we live in a universe, a cold, hostile place where existence is a big accident, where humanity is temporarily animated ‘stuff’ that’s ultimately meaningless and destined for the trash heap” (p. 11).

For many Christians, the Word of God becomes an abstraction–concepts rather than the living Word of the Living God, working in the world. What Mike Cosper seeks to do in this book is to explore both the corrosive effects of the secular world on our faith, and the practices through which we might recover a vibrant, transcendent faith whereby we recognize the presence of God in all of life.

Cosper begins with three chapters that chronicle the expressions of disenchantment in contemporary Christian life. After describing the disenchantment, he chronicles our modern efforts to self-justify through constructing a social media persona as our modern religious sacrifices that the God of grace mercifully brings to an end. Likewise, he reminds us of the recent focus of many churches on hype and spectacle instead of the slow, steady rhythms of grace by which we encounter God in the ordinary rhythms of life.

In the next three chapters, he commends several practices that break us out of the self-hype spectacles–solitude and secrecy, abundance and scarcity, and feasts of attention. He commends having a life beyond what we post on social media. He uses Lewis Hyde’s The Gift as a parable of living generously and honoring the gifts we receive as well as those we give. He invites us into a life where we feast on giving our attention to God’s world, and sometimes to feasts themselves.

The seventh chapter was of great interest. He looks at Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I was intrigued, having recently read the later (reviewed here). He suggests both were seeking transcendence, Merton through a rule of life, and Kerouac, through attentiveness in the moment. Recognizing the downsides of each lifestyle (most of us don’t live in the monastery, and Kerouac’s road was tremendously self-destructive), he suggests we need both.

Each of the chapters concludes with spiritual practices connected to the chapter. Cumulatively they help us focus on God in our hours, days, weeks, and years, and special seasons and feasts of the church. We learn examen, Ignatian prayer and praying the Psalms, practices of solitude and silence, fasting and feasting, and how to weave all of these into a rule of life. The author shares his own rule, one that struck me as marvelously do-able.

There are a number of books that have been written about our secular age. Likewise, a number have been written about spiritual practices. The particular gift of this book is the bringing of the two together, pointing to the importance of, and telos of these practices. Cosper helps us see that through them, we recover a sense of the greatness of God in the ordinary of our hours, days, weeks, and years–which make up a life. More than this, he captures something of the deep joy of secrecy, or a long leisurely feast with friends, or seeing an abstract Word come alive to us. One senses that you are walking alongside one who is recapturing the wonder of a transcendent God who is also immanent in our world–and that we may as well.


Review: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age

the image of god in an image driven age

The Image of God in an Image Driven AgeBeth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A collection of papers from the 2015 Wheaton Theology Conference focusing on how our understanding of “the image of God” shapes our understanding of what it means to be human, and how we ought perceive the images that pervade our lives.

The subtitle of this collection of papers from the 2015 Wheaton Theology Conference is “explorations in theological anthropology.” In other words, the thread that unites the essays in this collection is the exploration of what it means to be human, particularly in relationship to God. In particular, this is a wide-ranging, and yet, taken together, coherent collection of papers exploring what it means to say that human beings are made in the image of God. Although called a theology conference, the contributors are drawn from theology, English literature, history, and art.

The papers, grouped in threes are organized around four topics: canon, culture, vision, and witness.

  • Canon particularly explores how biblical themes inform our understanding of imago dei. Catherine McDowell focusing on creation and how we are God’s “kin” or children. William Dyrness on the Fall and the tension that exists between trajectories of life and death. Craig Blomberg considers the New Testament witness and particularly the understanding of the image of God as Christlikeness, reflectors of Christ’s glory.
  • Culture explores the connections between the idea of image, theology, and the arts. Timothy Gaines and Shawna Songer Gaines consider human sexuality, our sexualized culture, and how many works of Renaissance religious art, in portraying the naked human form portrayed human sexuality as a good gift of God. Matthew J. Milliner explores consumerist issues and how artists have often engaged in iconoclasm, in breaking false images, and the unique role Christians in the arts may play. Christina Bieber Lake, in exploring the persistence of the image of God amid the suffer in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–an exploration that left me wanting to read this work.
  • Vision explores the incarnation of Jesus as an icon of God, enabling us to see something of God. Ian McFarland explores the Eastern Orthodox theology of icons. Daniela Augustine discusses the work of the Spirit in transforming those who are in the image of God to grow into the likeness of God. Janet Soskice considers Jesus as the one through whom God spoke the world into existence and that our own capacities for speech image the speaking God.
  • Witness explores how Christians proclaim (or fail to proclaim) the Triune God. Soong-Chan Rah, in a particularly trenchant essay, explores the sad racial history of black and white in the U.S. and how the image of God has been construed in terms of “whiteness.” Beth Felker Jones attests to the power of Christian witness to the image of God to resist the commodification, sexual and otherwise, of human beings. Philip Jenkins reminds us of the global character of Christianity and prepares us for the new cultural expressions of peoples in the image of God.

Some conference proceedings collections seem lacking in cohesion. This collection, while reflecting diverse perspectives, offered, I thought, a coherent, yet multi-faceted exploration of the wonder of what it means to be humans in the image of God. The engagement with the arts, literature, and mass culture fulfills the promise of addressing our image driven age. The recognition of the image of God and the racial blinders that limit our vision of that image is a vital contribution to a broader theological anthropology.

Review: When I Was a Child I Read Books

when I was a child

When I Was a Child I Read BooksMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2013.

Summary: A collection of essays reflecting on the state of the nation and our culture, the values of literacy, liberality, and Christian generosity that have shaped us, and what the loss of these values to austerity, utility, and secularist atheism might mean for us.

As a life-long bibliophile, this book had me at the title. I thought, “you, too?” More than this, I’ve delighted in Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, having read Gilead, Home, and Lila (reviewed here. As an accomplished writer who combines theological acuity with a keen eye to the character of our culture, she has become something of a public intellectual, so much so that she was even interviewed by Barack Obama. And several years ago, I had a chance to hear her speak at Northwestern University, a delightful evening I recounted in this blog post. But I had never read any of her essays.

This is a wide-ranging collection. If I could identify any recurring themes, they would be the current state of the American experiment and a rebuttal of recent writers who seem determined to cast Christian faith and its biblical underpinnings in the worst light to suggest that these ideas might be relegated to the dustbin of history for a new, more enlightened atheist materialism. And then there was one essay (“Who Was Oberlin?”) that sort of fits both and neither, but that as an Ohioan, I enjoyed. It turns out that Oberlin was a social activist pastor from Strasbourg, Germany, who came to the American Midwest and started a college in the marshy lands between Cleveland and Sandusky, fulfilling its activist roots when the abolitionist Lane Rebels from Cincinnati joined with revivalist Charles Finney to make Oberlin a center of activism.

The title essay explores her reading of the writers of the American West and the kind resilient individualism of the homesteaders that is being lost to our detriment, she believes. Yet for her, this individualism is not an “every person for oneself” outlook. She writes trenchantly against the emphasis on austerity, and rational utility, that frames everything these days from social policy to the commodification of higher education that sees little utility in the study of foreign languages or classics. Important for her is the quality of imagination, practiced in her writing that allows characters to take shape and begins to imagine how they might respond to different turns of plot. This quality is important in real human communities, in our understanding of the “other.”

Two of her essays concern Moses: “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism” and “The Fate of Ideas: Moses.” In both, she takes on contemporary writers and scholars who would lay everything wrong in our civilization at the feet of Moses and other monotheists. In particular, the phrase “open wide thy hand” is important as representative of the tenor of Mosaic laws that uphold the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Critical scholars, she argues, overlook these texts, and selectively cherry pick others to fit their constructions. Likewise in her final essay on “Cosmology” she takes on atheists who use science to attack Christians and other theists.

Aside from the polemics, one of the most delightful essays, “Wondrous Love,” (also a favorite American hymn of mine), speaks of the power of many of the old American hymns. I was caught off guard, however, by her comments about one that hasn’t particularly been a favorite because it seemed a bit sentimental, “I Come to the Garden.” She writes:

“The old ballad in the voice of Mary Magdalene, who ‘walked in the garden alone,’ imagines her ‘tarrying’ there with the newly risen Jesus, in the light of a dawn which was certainly the most remarkable daybreak since God said, Let there be light.’ The song acknowledges this with fine understatement: ‘The joy we share as we tarry there/None other has ever known.’ Who can imagine the joy she would have felt? And how lovely it is that the song tells us the joy of this encounter was Jesus’s as well as Mary’s. Epochal as the moment is, and inconceivable as Jesus’s passage from death to life must be, they meet as friends and rejoice together as friends. This seems to me as good a gloss as any on the text that tells us God so loved the world, this world, our world” (p. 125).

I will never think of this gospel passage nor hear this song in quite the same way again! She does turn later in the essay to things political and makes an interesting observation that we often close public messages with “God bless America” but rarely do we affirm how God has blessed America–that we may have far more cause for gratitude than we often acknowledge.

This essay illustrates something that I encountered in a number of these essays. Where Robinson begins, and where she ends, and how she gets there is often a circuitous process. One feels you are on a ramble, perhaps a marvelous and sparkling ramble, and in the end, you can see how the various stages of the journey all connect, but this is often not where one starts, or necessarily where one expected to have gone.

Robinson’s is a distinctive voice. On many things, she sounds a bit the Obama liberal and in fact speaks critically of one of my favorite commentators, David Brooks. And then she writes of Calvin, and Moses, and takes on forces from Freud and Skinner to the new atheists. I suspect just about everyone gets mad at her at points! Perhaps the best explanation, and a good place to end, are her opening words, in the essay “Freedom of Thought”:

“Over the years of writing and teaching, I have tried to free myself of constraints I felt, limits to the range of exploration I could make, to the kind of intuition I could credit. I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt these constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what humans are and how human life should be understood” (p. 3).

Review: Impossible People

impossible people

Impossible People, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Delineating the advance of modernity and its negative consequences, Guinness calls upon Christians to be the “impossible people” who both resist and positively engage the culture to “serve God’s purposes in this generation.”

I’ve been reading the work of Os Guinness since my student days when he wrote The Dust of Death and it is my feeling that his many books are really one extended and developing argument both describing modernity’s impact upon the culture in it’s movement away from God and its exhaustion of its Christian heritage, and the nature of Christian faithfulness in the face of these developments.

What distinguishes this book for me seems to be a certain urgency, captured even in the title Impossible People. He explains his choice of this striking phrase:

“The term impossible man was used to describe the eleventh-century Benedictine reformer Peter Damian (c. 1007-1073). Dante placed Damian in the highest circle of paradise as a saint and the predecessor of Francis of Assisi. A thousand years ago, as in our own time, there was little regard for truth or for the integrity and purity of the Christian faith. Nor was there much sense of the gravity of sin, so the church was easygoing, corruption was rife and the moral and theological rot was as pervasive among the clergy and the leaders of the church as among ordinary people.

. . .

Unquestionably, the term impossible man was ambiguous. It could be taken either as a
compliment or an insult. Doubtless, many of Peter Damian’s generation admired him for his stand, just as many hated him for his fervor, and many were frustrated and made
uncomfortable by what they saw as his intransigence. In other words, the same term could express either admiration or exasperation, as it will again today. But all that was irrelevant to Peter Damian. He spoke, wrote and acted solely with an eye to the audience of One. He could not be deterred by other voices. He was faithful to Jesus alone and above all. His faith had a backbone of steel. He was the impossible man. (pp. 30-31)

Guinness proposes that distinctive witness in our time will be much like that of Damian, and will require of us the qualities of “impossibility” evident in Damian — not only integrity and courage, but spiritual power that apprehends the dynamics of spiritual warfare behind the principalities and powers dominating modern life, and the weapons of such warfare, which is not against other people, whom we are called to love and win.

This incorporation of the spiritual powers behind the cultural forces confronting Christians seemed to me more clearly drawn than in any of Guinness’s other books, which emphasized clear understanding of cultural forces, and our calling to distinctiveness of thought and life in their midst. I cannot recall in other books where Guinness so clearly affirms the reality of the miraculous and works of power as he does here.

There also seemed to be a greater urgency in Guinness in his denunciation of what he sees as the church’s compromises both of integrity and doctrine, including what he sees as the rapid, revisionist shift in the understanding of human sexuality in broad swathes of the church as it embraces the social construction of reality rather than transcendent understandings that have been held through the church’s history. He decries a generationalism within the church which prevents the passing of the baton of faithful witness and presence from elder to rising generations in our present time.

Part of Guinness’s concern is for what he sees to be modernity’s impact on the wider culture as well as upon the church. He sees in such things as the interest in singularity a kind of “tower of Babel” hubris bound to disillusion. Likewise, perhaps in his best chapter, he explores the lingering spiritual memory of modern atheism, that he describes as “life without an amen.”

There is much here I appreciate in his analysis of our present cultural moment. His grasp of the pluralizing, privatizing, and relativizing elements of a modernity rooted in the social construction of reality describes the water we swim in and often have become accustomed to. I wholeheartedly affirm his description of what it means to be “impossible people” and particular the call to a recovery of spiritual power in a materially affluent but spiritually flaccid church.

What I think would have made this case more compelling to me would have been to apply this analysis not merely to the politics of the left, but to our idolizing of politics of all stripes. He takes several swipes at Barack Obama (who was sitting president when he wrote this) but is silent about the politics of the right. I personally believe that one of the things that would make Christians the “impossible people” he would have us be is to forsake all political alliances to left or right to be a prophetic voice toward the versions of idolatry and corruption across the spectrum of our political life.

I also wonder if Guinness’s word about generationalism might have carried more weight were this book to have been co-written with a millenial. My sense is that this is a work that will resonate well with those of Guinness’s own generation, but much less well with many of those he most needs to convince of the case he is making — millenials — if they even pick up this work.

That would be regrettable because the matters Guinness raises are ones of grave concern if true, and ones around which the church needs consensus. We are, sadly as Guinness notes, often divided in the church across the same fault lines as our culture, including those of generation, as well as ethnicity, economic status, and social class. Guinness has been a principled voice for the civil and public engagement of Christians in the wider culture, one respected in many quarters both here and abroad. My hope is that in whatever years remain for him (hopefully many!) he will find more partners across these divides who dialogue, dream, and pray together about what it means to be the “impossible people” he describes. Perhaps that would be something all of us might aspire and pray toward, within our own potential spheres of influence, as well as in our own faith communities.

Review: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

Caring for Words

Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesMarilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Summary: Explores, in a culture of “spin” and poisoned discourse, practices for caring for our use of words, that they may be used well and true.

If you have been following this blog recently, you know how highly I think of this book. Written prior to the latest spate of “alternative facts,” agenda journalism, and the publication of “fake news,” McEntyre’s book explores the abuses of our language, the deadly consequences to which this may lead, and the responsibility of all who preach, teach, and write to care for the language. She summarizes with elegance the theological case for such care:

    “Peter’s admonition to ‘be sober, be watchful’ applies to this enterprise. Noticing how things are put, noticing what is being left out or subverted, takes an active habit of mind. But what is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”

What follows in this book are twelve “stewardship strategies” by which we might care for the words entrusted to us and the wider use of words in our culture. McEntyre, who is a retreat leader as well as English professor, gives us, as it were, formational practices that usher us into the careful use of words. She begins with the simple truth that we must start with loving words. Whether they be single words in themselves or the elegant and arresting expression of words in literature, it makes sense that the care of words begins with loving and delighting in their felicitous expression. She then leans into the challenge of truth-telling, giving the example of asking her students to define terms in common parlance: liberal, conservative, patriotic, terrorist, and Christian. Imprecision and hyperbole make it possible to lie with words, or at least to be obscure in our meaning. This chapter is paired with one on not tolerating lies, in which she shares the questions she teaches her students to ask.

The next chapters (“stewardship strategies”) might come under the heading of cultivating our skillful use of words. She urges us to read well, including the incorporation of the practice of lectio divina into our reading. She writes about the importance and delights of good conversation, cultivating the skills of asking good questions and attentive listening. She explores the richness of story, not only those we read but the life stories of those in our families and communities, that give perspective and offer challenge as they are told.

Two of my favorite chapters followed. One was on loving the long sentence, contrary to what you hear from most writing teachers and editors. She contends that “long sentences ask us to dwell in a thought rather than come to a point.” The other chapter is on practicing poetry, something missing from my life. After reading this, I picked up a collection of Seamus Heaney poetry, having thoroughly delighted in his rendering of Beowulf. She then wrote about a practice I hadn’t given much thought, that of translation. She observes that all of us who use words are translators, conveying a thought (whether our own or another) to a particular audience. Those who have to learn more than one language and translate between languages uniquely appreciate this challenge.

The final three chapters seemed to me to be overarching stewardship strategies to be used in conjunction with the others. One was simply to play with words and ideas and see where they will take you, which is sometimes to unexpected places. I like this because often I discover what I think about something as I write. The second is to pray, both in our own words and those of others and to listen. And this leads to the third, which is to cherish silence where words of clarity and grace and power may come.

What made this work so rich was that one has the sense that McEntyre has lived into the strategies she commends to others. More than this, to read this book is to read words that have been cared for, and chosen for their ability to teach us to love them, and others like them. McEntyre does what she advocates. I found myself wanting to love words more attentively, read better, converse more thoughtfully and write with greater clarity. I found myself wanting to discern with greater acuity the coarse and cavalier ways words are used to poison discourse and spin webs of deceit, and to resist these ways of twisting God’s good gift of words to humanity.

“A book for our times” almost seems too cliché, and yet it is accurate to describe how important this work is for all of us who care for words, care for culture, and long for better conversations about the common good. It is not enough to aspire to such things. McEntyre’s “stewardship strategies” show us how to translate aspiration into action in our care for words.

Previous posts on this book:

Word Care as Culture Care

A Poet in Your Pocket

Review: Gods That Fail

Gods that fail

Gods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Summary: A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross.

This is a book with a global vision. It explores the failure of the gods of both western secularity and materialism and eastern spirituality. The author sees a common element in these–the effort to obtain power through some form of technique, whether of science and technology, or economics, or the techniques of spirituality to manipulate the powers of the spiritual world. Yet these gods invariably disappoint and lead both to personal futility and the dehumanization of others. But the author is not merely setting his sights on the failures of others. He also sees these forms of idolatry as vitiating the mission of the church. He writes:

“The book’s subtitle is deliberately ambiguous. Does Christian mission involve a confrontation with the ‘idols of our time?’ Or does Christian mission, at least in some prominent aspects, unconsciously disseminate forms of idolatry around the globe? Or are large sections of the Christian Church so riddled with idolatry that their missionary vision has been paralysed? The burden of this book can be summed up by saying that all three of these questions require the emphatic answer: ‘Yes’ “(p. 25).

The book both commends the biblical narrative as one that renders a true and compelling alternative to the dehumanizing gods of modern idolatry and serves as a ringing call to Christians east and west to recognize and repent of their own idolatries and captivities to the false gods of their cultures.

The author is uniquely suited to this task. He is a native of Sri Lanka, educated at the University of London. He serves as the international Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a global partnership of over 150 student movements on every continent. His account is a model of fluent, sweeping and yet incisive analysis.

Following an introduction laying out his thesis and plan of argument, Ramachandra turns to the biblical account of creation, taking both scientists and Christians alike to task for the focus on questions of how and when and totally overlooking the narratives assertions of Who the Creator is and his relation to humankind and the rest of creation. This leads to a consideration of evil and suffering in the book of Job, the idolatry implicit in the answers of Job’s comforters, and the reality that God gives no direct answer to Job’s question because evil and suffering are in fact a “monstrous absurdity” in God’s good world.

Chapter 4 turns from biblical narrative to the critiques of religion posed by Marx and Freud, which Ramachandra actually sees as a telling critique on what Christian Smith has called “moral, therapeutic deism”. Just as Israel succumbed to the deities of the surrounding nations that provided fertility and prosperity while allowing them to ignore the poor, Ramachandra sees the critiques of Marx and Freud justly exposing bourgeois religion that domesticates God and is unconcerned about injustice. The god these atheists attack is one Christians have no business defending. Chapter 5 goes on to consider the violence of idols beginning with the mental formations behind things like money in which we embue things and concepts with power that come to dominate us. Ramachandra trenchantly illustrates this in his discussion of “development”, challenging our western notions of unfettered growth and what constitutes “development” which others might consider “regression.” He concludes this chapter with a return to Genesis showing how the chaos of the flood and the confusion and disintegration of Babel are inevitable results.

Chapters 6 and 7 concern science and reason as modernist projects and the assaults of post-modern anti-science and unreason upon these projects. In both chapters, Ramachandra demonstrates the rootedness of objective truth in a Creator and the false dichotomy between reason and revelation that need not set science, reason, and Christian faith against one another.

The concluding chapter considers the stark contrast of the crucified God of Christianity who does not cling to power but dies at the hands of power to give life to a humanity in thrall. It is when Christians renounce nationalisms, and economic and political power, to walk in the way of the cross and the hope of the resurrection that they are most true to their message and are able to speak most compellingly about the true God in a world of idols.

This work is a revision of a work originally published 20 years ago. The author notes that the most significant change is switching chapters 2 and 4 in the original book, which he believed improved the flow of argument. He brings some examples and statistics up to date but has not substantively re-written the book. And it is here where there might be some criticism of the work in that it reflects an engagement with post-modernism and its assault on science and reason that perhaps is far more prevalent in the social sciences and political theory in the years since and receives little treatment here.

One of the challenges for all thoughtful people, and certainly Christians, is to “understand the present time” (Romans 13:11, NIV). Without such reflection, and sometimes, the self-criticism that results, we may easily be swept up in the cultural captivities of the day and unwittingly give our worship to creations of our own hands. This book is a clarion call that can cut through the clouds of our murky thinking and cultural blind spots. I welcome this revised edition, which could not come at a more timely moment, at least for the North American church of which I am a part.


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. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”