Review: Conscience

Conscience

Conscience: The Origins of Moral IntuitionPatricia S. Churchland. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. (Forthcoming June 4) 2019.

Summary: Exploring the neuroscience of our sense of right and wrong, integrating our knowledge of neurophysical causation, social factors, and philosophy, arguing that moral norms are based in our brain functions, interacting with our social world.

Conscience. Unless one is significantly cognitively impaired, there is this inner sense we have about what is morally right or wrong, or sometimes this place where we determine right or wrong. Where does this come from? Theists will claim a transcendent basis for this, something written on the heart. Yet, what is written on one heart often varies from another’s. Often we experience uncertainty about these things in our own hearts. Furthermore, those “cognitive impairments” and advancing neuroscience are demonstrating that many aspects of human moral behavior from social bonding and care for others to where one may fall on the political spectrum with regard to moral issues is rooted in the neurophysiology of the brain. Are we conscious actors, or is our moral sense and moral behavior in some way determined by our brain chemistry?

Patricia S. Churchland is one of the pioneers in the field of neurophilosophy–exploring this intersection of neuroscience research and philosophical discussion of questions like ethics and free will. This work is an engaging introduction to her work that moves between discussions of neurotransmitters and a philosophical survey of theories of moral behavior and the question of free will.

She looks at the role of oxytocin in human attachment (“The Snuggle to Survive”), how we are wired for sociality, and how behavior is shaped by the reward system in our brains, and the physiology of empathy. We learn what the brain response to a person eating worms may indicate about political attitudes. Churchland explores the bewildering field of psychopathology–those whose anti-social behavior reflects a lack of moral compass, guilt or remorse–and thus far, our futile efforts to arrive at remedies.

The last two chapters of the book focus on the philosophical questions, and here is where it got really interesting for me. Churchland considers “rule based” moral behavior from the ten commandments to Kant’s categorical imperative to utilitarian-based systems. The flaw, she argues, is that human behavior endlessly deviates from these rules, and there is even significant disagreement on the rules. She argues for a socio-biological basis for moral behavior in which the evolution of our neurophysiology is such that we are well-equipped to engage in social life and behavior that sustains the bonds between us. This leads her to a definition of morality as “the set of shared attitudes and practices that regulate individual behavior to facilitate cohesion and well-being among individuals in the group.”  She seems sympathetic to forms of virtue ethics in which habits of behaving may be modified by particular case constraints.

The final chapter explores free will, and here, Churchland seems to be trying to navigate between those who would fully advocate for free will, and even argue moral certainties, and those who would argue that what we have learned about causation in neuroscience undermines free will, and exonerates criminals from guilt. She argues for the distinction between causes beyond our control and causes under our control, using the example of Bernie Madoff, who was under no compulsion, but knew exactly what he was doing.

Churchland’s discussion in these two chapters also indicated to me some of the concerns that underlie this book. She is deeply concerned about those who tout moral certitudes and also authoritarian approaches that may lead to morally justified abuses of others. She believes that an understanding of how we are “wired” for morally decent behavior shaped by social norms to be superior to such approaches.

As a Christian theist with a deep respect for scientists, and one who shares a sense of being humbled before the realities of our existence, I wonder whether there is a third way between a pure naturalism of “morally decent humans” and a rule-based authoritarianism, whether rooted in ideology or theology. Might we not allow for the possibility that we are indeed “wired” for moral behavior in social contexts that reflect transcendent concerns expressed in the great commands, which are really broad moral statements of principle, to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself? It seems we often get caught in binary discussions of either science or the transcendent. Might there be an approach of both-and that both celebrates the wonderful mechanisms that bond parents and children, or larger social groups, the mechanisms by which we learn what it is to be moral, in all its societal variants; and recognizes the possibility that at least some communal norms might be grounded in transcendent realities that are not occasions for arrogance or authoritarianism, but humility and grace and empathy, and are consonant with the ways we are wired?

I could be wrong, but it was not evident that Churchland has engaged with neurotheologians like Andrew Newberg, (see my review of his book Neurotheology) who covers similar ground. There are many others interested in a conversation rather than a war between science and religious belief, and see the possibility of a kind of consilience that mutes the voice of neither. When I consider Churchland’s account, I find myself marveling anew at the marvels hidden within my own body and am grateful for her exposition of these. I hope going forward, there might be a growing appreciation on the part of neurophilosophers like Churchland, not merely of problematic aspects of rule-based ethics in philosophy or religious teaching (which I will admit exist, just as there are problematic questions in neuroscience), but also the ways religious frameworks of moral teachings have profoundly shaped many communities for good (for example Andre’ Trocme’ and his community of Le Chambon, which hid Jewish refugees during the Holocaust), and helped individuals lead morally worthy lives as people of conscience.

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

 

 

 

Review: New Creation

New Creation

New CreationRodney Clapp. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of how the end of the Christian story, or eschatology, ought shape the life of the church in this time between the comings of Christ.

“We are storied creatures, and everything happens because we lean toward endings. These endings are the goals, the pursuits, the destinies, the termination points that mark and animate our lives. Without endings we could never begin anything. We would lack plots and our lives would be without purpose, devoid of meaning” (p. 1).

This statement from the Introduction captured my attention. I’ve long felt that the Christian faith is not merely beliefs to embrace, or precepts to practice, but a story in which we find ourselves. It has seemed to me that one of the great needs of the church, and individuals within her, to understand is the story within which we live. Often, I believe that we are living in other stories, perhaps familial, or cultural, rather than the story of the kingdom.

Rodney Clapp begins this work with a summary of our story of creation, fall, the mission of Israel, the coming of the kingdom in the person of Jesus, and the kingdom yet to come. He crucially observes that the idea of kingdom implies a politics for the church–not that we so much have a politics, but that we are a politics as the people of God.

Clapp then explores a number of topics in light of “the end of the story.” He begins with a discussion of heaven, and the Christian teaching of our ultimate destiny as resurrected people caring for the new creation with heaven as a way station. He discusses our identity as a royal priesthood, that are also the temple of the living God. Every other allegiance is secondary, and releases us to identify with the powerless, those on the margins. The day will come when the lion will lay down with the lamb when the rule of the Prince of Peace is established. For now we follow Jesus by turning from violence to bear the cross of peace, even while we engage in warfare, not with people, but with the Principalities and Powers, the structures of life that oppress. We name them and refuse them our allegiance.

He moves on to prayer, reflecting on the Lord’s prayer, how prayer is the watchful waiting of the pilgrim, and how the lament and theodicies of scripture give us language to face the disjunct between our broken world and the new creation we await. He considers what our hope for the new creation means for our care for the present creation, one whose creatures God knows and provides for. He even includes a poem on “Lessons in Prayer, from a Dog,” inspired by his own dog, Merle. For many, the most interesting will be his discussion of sex in the eschaton. He proposes, in the language of the Song of Solomon, that love is indeed stronger than death, and that although the scriptures are not definitive on this, there is reason to hope for sex in the new creation, even if there is no marriage or giving in marriage. If we are resurrected bodies, he proposes that our genitalia will not be mere ornamentation!

Finally, Clapp explores the question of the last judgment, offering an interesting discussion in which he argues against eternal conscious torment as inconsistent with God’s reconciling work through the cross of Christ. He explores both the idea of conditional mortality, that the unrepentant simply cease to exist, fading to “nothingness,” and hopeful universalism, in which, after suffering judgment that purifies and redeems, all will be saved. Clapp does not commit to either of these positions, which he shows have been embraced by various parts of the church, and argues that ours is not to judge but to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. He concludes that our view of eschatology enables us to deal with the tragedies and ironies of our current existence and to live with both calmness and joy in the present time.

The book includes appendices in reading the Bible for the first time, and also some suggestions for reading Karl Barth, whose influences are evident through the book. What is so good about this book is how it deals with the misapprehensions so many have about the last things. For many, a destiny of only being ethereal spirits strumming harps is far less attractive than embodied, and perhaps sexual, creatures working in the new creation. He speaks of an end of the story that answers to our deepest longings for peace and healing the rifts within humanity and the rest of creation. His account gives us hope to face the hardships of life, and a call to a higher allegiance that transcends all earthly political engagements. Twice during the book, he makes this assertion:

“If the Republicans are the last ones caring for the unborn, the Christian will be among them. If the Greens are the last fighting for a caring stewardship of creation, the Christian will be among them. If the Democratic Socialists are the last ones fighting for the poor and the working class, the Christian will be among them. If Black Lives Matter are the last ones believing that black lives do matter, the Christians will be among them. If the relief agencies are the last ones caring for refugees, the Christian will be among them. If the pacifist anarchists are the last ones standing for peaceable alternatives to war, the Christian will be among them” (pp 45, 113).

If nothing else, Clapp is an equal opportunity offender! Readers will doubtless find something to take issue with in this brief and forthright account. Some might disagree with Clapp’s take on the last judgement. But if he provokes us to think about what the end of our story is as the people of the kingdom, in all its glory, and challenges us to shape our lives, in these tumultuous times, by this story rather than other cultural stories, then this book will have accomplished its purpose.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Perfectly Human

perfectly human

Perfectly HumanSarah C. Williams. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: A personal narrative of a couple facing a pre-natal diagnosis of fatal birth defects, their decision to carry their daughter to term, their process with family and friends, and the larger issues their own decision raised for them.

Sarah Williams had struggled through a horrendous pregnancy of nausea, even as her children anticipated a younger sibling. A routine, twenty-week pre-natal screening turns suddenly serious. A specialist diagnoses thanatophoric dysplasia, a skeletal deformity resulting in a chest that is too small to sustain proper lung development, and a baby unable to breathe upon birth. The expectation of the medical professionals is that they would terminate the pregnancy, and this is Sarah, and her husband Paul’s, first instinct as well. Except that she felt God speak to her that May evening: “Here is a sick and dying child. Will you love this child for me?” Subsequently she reflects: “…it became less a question of my loving the baby as me watching God love and then following him in his love.

Close friends and their pastor rally around them. Others respond less helpfully, from insistent faith that God would cure the defects to criticism from academic colleagues for even thinking of carrying such a “sub-optimal” life to term. We also see things from Paul’s perspective, and how men are often closed out of this process, when they also love and grieve their child.

Most touching are the ways they deal with this as a family. They talk honestly with the children, who each respond in different ways as they love and grieve their baby sister. The family names her Cerian, a Welsh name that means “loved.” One of the children records her heartbeat. The family goes camping, and then stays with Sarah’s mother Wren, who provides a place of spiritual retreat as Sarah approaches delivery, complicated by hydramnios, a buildup of amniotic fluid because the baby is not swallowing enough.

The narrative of her induced birth is powerful. Sarah had nearly died as the baby pressed against a major blood vessel. The time has come to let go of the baby but she fights against her body until she “sees” a horse and rider, who she understands to be Jesus, come for her baby.

She deals with the rawness of her grief and that of her family. No effort is made to spiritualize it but we see grieving people helping each other to figure out how to remember Cerian, and to learn from the love they were called into. Sarah writes:

“During the nine months I carried Cerian, God had come close to me again unexpectedly, wild and beautiful, good and gracious. I touched his presence as I carried Cerian, and as a result I realized that underneath all my other longings lay an aching desire for God himself and for his love. Cerian shamed my strength and in her weakness she showed me a way of intimacy.”

The book is pro-life without pitting mothers against babies, without judging or advocating. The author acknowledges that others facing the same situation might choose differently and she refuses to judge those choices. An epilogue does wrestle with these issues, more with questions about the choices we have taken upon ourselves because of our technology that suggest that our humanness, and sometimes that of others, reflects our own self-definitions and self-creations. Cerian showed her a different way:

“Limitations, finitude, suffering, weakness, disability, and frailty can be gifts. Far from robbing us of our humanity, without a place for these things we are less than human. Ultimately, personhood is not a work of self-definition and self-creation. Instead, it is a gift.”

This is a work of exquisite, intimate, and aching beauty that also raises profound questions without becoming preachy or censorious. It also reflects the power of a community of family and friends. The inclusion of Paul and his own struggles and growth in the process reminds us that pregnancy is also about men, not imposing their will upon a woman, but through conception, stepping into the joys, the griefs, and the sacrificial love of being a husband and father. Paul rails against the ways he is institutionally excluded, and chooses not to remain aloof but as deeply involved as a man can be in these things, allowing both love and loss to touch his own heart. Williams shows care with words, using them well to articulate self-understanding and insight. To read this narrative is alternately to wonder and to weep, in our own longings for we know not what, at the perfectly human gift of Cerian.

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

Review: Living Wisely with the Church Fathers

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers

Living Wisely with the Church FathersChristopher A. Hall. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of what we might learn from the church fathers about lives well lived, touching on everything from martyrdom to entertainment.

We turn to a variety of sources to figure out how to live well, sources ranging from lists on websites, to self-help books, to mentors and “life coaches,” to the scriptures. Christopher Hall, in the concluding volume of a four volume series, explores what the early fathers of the church, speaking out of a very different context than ours, can teach us about living wisely. Summarizing this four-part project and the focus of this final volume, Hall writes:

“What did these ancient Christians–whose thoughts and practices continue to be read, pondered, discussed, debated, and embraced today–think about the Bible, God, worship, and prayer? More importantly for this book, how did the fathers answer a very specific question: How can God’s image bearer learn to live a good life, a life nourished by the values of the kingdom of God, a life of deep and lasting human flourishing, a life filled with love for God and neighbor? If, as Athanasius puts it, transgression has ‘taken hold’ of human beings, and ‘natural corruption’ now characterizes the human condition, how can God’s image bearers be made right again–made right not only in our relationship to God but in relationship to one another and to the entire created order?” (p. 2)

An introduction explores the context of the fathers and the kinds of issues they confront, particularly our moral disposition and passion, concluding with the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves in the course of this study. Hall then addresses seven topics on which the fathers taught and their relevance to us:

  • Martyrdom
  • Wealth and Poverty
  • War and Military Service
  • Sex and the Dynamics of Desire
  • Life as Male and Female, and the Goodness and Beauty of Marriage
  • Life and Death
  • Entertainment

What Hall helps us appreciate is the distinctive message of the fathers, who speak the counsels of God from a very different cultural context than our own. For example, martyrdom was an ever present threat, one that could be avoided by an offering to the emperor, an easy ritual. Many refused, and died, even as is occurring in many parts of the world. A life of peace for Christians, assumed in the West, has often not been our lot and raises the question of whether there is any cost to our discipleship and where we might place our ultimate allegiance.

On wealth and poverty, Hall recounts a sermon of Chrysostom on Lazarus and the rich man and the issue of whether we live with discretion with our wealth, using it to bless and thus fulfilling the purpose of wealth in our lives and others. Hall helps us understand the pacifism of the early church, the uneasy change to more of a “just war” perspective post-Constantine, and challenges us to wrestle with the sometimes unequivocal refusal of the church to kill.

The following two chapters focus on sexuality, gender, and marriage. We often consider the ancients terribly repressed. Hall observes that contrary to the body-denying nature of gnosticism, the fathers recognized the realities of sexual desire, both how this might harm, and the goodness of marriage and marital sexuality. He deals honestly with the problems of linking celibacy and the priesthood in the west. He also reminds us of the significant roles of women, including Macrina, who might be numbered the “Fourth Cappadocian.” Hill also points out the uncompromising opposition of the fathers to any form of homosexual intimacy.

One of the briefest, yet most pointed chapters lays out the strongly affirmative life ethic from cradle to grave in a society where abortion was commonly practiced, children abandoned, as well as the sick and dying in times of plague. The church adamantly refused to abort, rescued abandoned children and nursed the sick, at risk to themselves. Finally, in a challenge to our modern entertainment culture, often fascinated with gore, we learn of the refusal of the church to join the celebration of the violent gladiatorial games, recognizing how such things might create “dead zones” in our own lives.

The last chapter is truly a capstone, returning to the fundamental questions of how we live well. We learn of how the fathers diagnosed our problem of disordered loves and the disciplines of askesis that allow the rhythms of grace to reorder our affections in love for God and neighbor.

This work plainly whets our appetites for the fathers, and their counter-cultural message that may re-orient our perspectives and affections. Perhaps this was a part of earlier volumes, but I would have welcomed an appendix or suggested readings at the end of each chapter to go deeper with the fathers. One might track down ideas from the notes but recommendations of good editions and starting points could be helpful.

Hall has done us a great service in helping us to hear the distinctive voices of the fathers — their writings and sermons. Not all the good books have been written in the last ten years! There is a durable heritage of wise thought rooted in scripture directed toward a concern good pastors down the ages have always had–how to help God’s people enjoy God, love their neighbors and live well.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Ethics at Work

ethics at work

Ethics at WorkTheology of Work Project. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017.

Summary: A discussion guide outlining a Christian approach to ethical decision-making in the workplace based on three principles: commands, consequences, and character.

What does Sunday morning have to do with 8 to 5 Monday through Friday (or whatever our working hours may be)? For many Christians that lack of connection between our worship and our work eventually leads to questions either about the truth and reality of our faith, or the possibility of living Christianly in the workplace.

The Theology of Work Project, the developers of this discussion guide and numerous other related resources, are thoroughly committed to the idea that our faith and our work life may be seamlessly connected. On their “about” page, they describe the vision of the Project in these terms:

“The vision of the Theology of Work Project is that every Christian be equipped and committed for work as God intends. A Christian approach makes work more meaningful and productive, benefits society and the people we work with and for, gets us through the challenges we face on the job, draws people to Jesus, and brings glory to God.”

This guide is designed for Christians in the workplace interested in developing a Christian framework of ethical decision-making. It consists of 21 half-hour lessons grouped into seven sections. Each lesson provides short readings (one page or less) with a few biblical texts, interspersed with “Food for Thought” sections, and a concluding prayer. One thing I like is the “less is more” approach that seems to me realistic to accomplish in a half hour discussion over a lunch break or before work.

After exploring some different popular proposals on ethical decision-making, the guide develops a “three-legged” stool approach around the following:

  1. Commands: is there a relevant biblical command to obey or something to avoid.
  2. Consequences: how will the various parties involved be affected by the possible choices?
  3. Character: What kind of person do I want to be or become?

Under this last “leg”, the writers adopt three key aspects of the character of God which scripture calls us to live by, first proposed in Alexander Hill’s Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace (Hill was the former president of InterVarsity/USA). These are holiness, justice, and love, and need to balance each other.

The guide also introduces a case study developed through the different lessons. A Christian auto dealer (“Wayne”) sells a used car that is in good operating condition with no know defects. Just over a year and over 13,000 miles later, the owner contacts him about transmission problems and asks what he will do to fix it. Subsequent lessons apply the different principles and trace out “Wayne’s” process in reaching a decision about how he will deal with this customer.

While written specifically for use with workplace groups (there is even a section on “Wisdom for Using this Study in the Workplace”), I also think this could be highly useful in adult education courses in churches and with Christian groups in business schools, particularly for those who have already had work experience. I would also highly recommend supplementing the material in this book with resources from the Theology of Work Project website, which includes commentaries related to a theology of work from every book of scripture and a number of other articles on related topics.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends

letter-to-anxious-christian-friends

A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, David P. Gushee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Summary: Written as a series of letters, this is an exploration of what it means as a Christian to both love and be anxious for one’s country as people of faith committed to the global kingdom of God.

David P. Gushee thinks there are good warrants for American Christians who love their country to be anxious–the erosion of a Christian consensus, the economic jolts we have faced as a country, the deep fractures along lines of race and values that we have experienced, the violence of our streets, and the instances where police have also exercised force unjustly. Written in the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Gushee explores what it means both to face the issues that arouse such fear, and step back from the fractured political discourse to try to think as Christians about what it means to live into our faith instead of being governed by our fears (and perhaps those who play upon them).

He writes:

“…the assumption lying behind this book is that it is okay for Christians to care enough about the country they live in to be anxious about it. It is, indeed, perfectly acceptable for Christians to be patriots, to love their country with a robust and full heart. Many of my fellow Christian leaders do not agree with me on this, and they have good reasons for their views. Mainly their worry is that American Christians, in particular, have a hard time distinguishing between God and country when they attempt to love and serve both. I think that I can point to a path of critical, informed patriotism through the various reflections offered here. But I acknowledge that I do love this country, and precisely because I do, I want it to be the best country it can be. If you agree, read on.”

The rest of the book consists of twenty reflections (letters) divided into two parts. The first eight are an exploration of who we are as a country of Americans, the place of Christians within that, how we understand our form of government and the development of political parties, the state of our civic character, and how Christians might think about patriotism. He helps his readers understand the changing place of the church in this country and how we might think about that. What I appreciated best were some of his reflections on how we are and are not a Christian nation–both the Christian influences upon our institutions and the fact that no nation can be a “Christian nation” as Israel was the people of God. Gushee is able to speak honestly both about our flaws and injustices as a nation, as well as commend the cultural goods that might be observed and built upon. He commends a kind of patriotism that is not an “America first” mentality but rather a wanting what is best of this country for all of its people while being mindful of our place in the world.

The second part of the book then considers how we might move from fear to faith in addressing some of the fearsome challenges we face:

  • Race: a call for white majority Christians to listen.
  • Police: while commending most law enforcement personnel, pressing for greater oversight and rooting out of unjust policing practices.
  • Sex: as one who has previously endorsed gay marriage in the civil sphere, he argues that our focus is better spent on the more casual and thoughtless expressions of sexuality and its heart-wrenching consequences.
  • Abortion: while deeply troubled by a casual approach to abortion, especially late-term abortions,  and favoring some legal restrictions on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the life of a mother, he argues for greater focus on preventing pregnancies that would lead to abortion.
  • Aliens: here, he would like to see reforms proposed before our recent election cycle for comprehensive immigration reform that both secures borders while providing some path for undocumented persons who have not broken other laws to gain some kind of legal status.
  • Guns: this is one he speaks deeply and passionately about, questioning whether the founders had in mind the proliferation of weaponry we see.
  • Money: he calls us beyond competitive greed to a generosity with our resources.
  • Climate: he decries that denial of climate change and the partisan impasse that leads to doing nothing while creation suffers, and with it many of the most vulnerable.
  • War: we have been at war for most of the last century. While nations must protect themselves, he argues there are many tools and Christian should press for the nonviolent ones to be used insofar as possible and for constitutional processes to be protected.
  • Executions: the death penalty is an anomaly, the consequence for only a handful of murders, and often inequitably applied at great cost to our system.
  • Education: a call to pursue the best possible education for all our people. Surprisingly, he calls for removing tenure and union protections of incompetence while saying students, teachers, and parents all are required to make this work.
  • Health-care: all of God’s children should have access to affordable and adequate care. A generous patriotism doesn’t want any to fall through the cracks.

The strength of this book is that it articulates an ethic that is broadly pro-life, and expands upon what would be a generous and faith-informed vision of patriotism. Obviously, not all will agree with all he commends. I personally took issue with what I thought a cavalier treatment of Romans 13 about authority that imputed Paul’s statements to his privileged status as a Roman citizen. I thought this was biblical eisegesis and unnecessary to make his case against unlawful use of police force.

Because Gushee tries to cover so much ground, especially in the second part of the book, in a series of short reflections, many of his recommendations, which tend to echo more progressive positions in most cases, come with relatively little biblical or theological argument, nor is there much of an effort to address opposing views. As a result, my sense is that the book will be re-assuring to those of Gushee’s “anxious friends” from a more progressive outlook, but dismissed by his conservative “anxious friends.” Nor do I feel it will promote dialogue between these factions within the Christian community who are anxious for very different reasons (it’s telling to me for example that he is silent about issues of religious liberty). I found Russell Moore’s Onward (reviewed here) a far more helpful resource for promoting this kind of engagement.

Perhaps the two might better be read together. Perhaps the places they differ might open up the safe space for Christians to wrestle toward an ethic of societal engagement that is neither left nor right but distinctively Christian. I think that is what both authors would want. And for Gushee, an ethic of faith working through love is much preferable to one that resides and responds in fear.

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

Of Sockpuppets and Fake Reviews

AmazonI had one of those “it’s about time” moments recently when I learned that Amazon is suing 1,114 people who have posted false reviews on its site. In most cases the review is provided by the purveyor of the product. The “reviewers” created a false online identity (a “sockpuppet”) and fake IP address. They worked through a site called Fiverr, where every service is offered for the price of $5 and agreed to post the fake review on the Amazon site for the particular product.

Despite Amazon’s stated terms, it has been know that Amazon is a kind of wild west (as are other sites like Yelp) where people get friends to write glowing reviews of whatever they are selling. Authors have even been known to create sockpuppet accounts to promote their own books. Likewise, there is the phenomenon of the malicious review, often from other authors trying to self-publish. This is a good article from Forbes published back in 2012 describing this phenomenon.

I suspect most of us have read Amazon product reviews and even weighed them in considering purchase of a product. I certainly have. Most of us probably intuit when a review seems fake or too good to be true. For those who struggle with this, I found this article on “How to Spot a Fake Review on Amazon.”

I would also confess that I have written a few Amazon reviews but I do not routinely re-post reviews from my blog on Amazon. I do this under two circumstances. One is when I have received a review copy of a book and the publisher explicitly requests an Amazon review. In this case, I disclose the relationship. The other instance has been a couple of instances when I’ve written a review on my blog and they’ve subsequently asked me if I would post it on Amazon. In the couple instances where I did this, I bought the book, my friends did not know in advance that I was reviewing it, and they did not have other reviews of the work on Amazon. In all cases the review is posted first to my blog, sometimes in more extended form.

My hunch is that many reviews posted on Amazon are honest reviews. Often the ones that are neither 5 star nor 1 star seem to have a balance to them, both what is good and what is not. So it is gratifying to see Amazon trying to clean up its act. However, what will really persuade me is when Amazon goes after the product sellers who are paying for these fake reviews. Banning them permanently from Amazon, and if they can get away with it legally, publishing the names of all those who pay for reviews would prove to be a significant disincentive. If Amazon doesn’t ban a product seller who they know engages in this fraudulent practice, then they are complicit in this.

What puzzles me is that people are posting fake reviews for $5. Now I suspect that if they do it numerous times, it can pay off. But to make $2500 a month, they have to do this 500 times, every month! One wonders how smart these people are. It reminds me of the person who must have purchased a skimmed credit card number of ours and made a $1.92 purchase that got flagged by our credit card issuer who froze the card immediately. Dumb. And, with Amazon’s suit, this just got dumber.

Using Amazon product reviews is probably the lazy person’s approach, one I’d admit to taking. On consumer goods, a consumer review publication is probably both more rigorous and reliable and you can access this at your library. For books and other media there are also reputable review publications, plus a whole cloud of us independent-minded bloggers. Find those whose judgments about things you’ve already purchased agree with yours or whose recommendations you’ve tried to your benefit.

Ethical reviewers neither conceal their identities nor any connection with the product they are reviewing. Better yet, they keep an arm’s length relationship if possible. For more thoughts on this, I wrote last year on Ethics for Reviewers.

Several posts I read including this one dealt with the contention that “everyone is doing it.” Truth is, a number of us write reviews for our own sheer interest in discussing the things we read or watch or use. And a number of writers, publishers and other product manufacturers do want their work to stand on its own merit. Everyone is not doing it.

We really have to ask ourselves whether we want to live in a culture of lies. If we tolerate a culture of deceit, what will we do when we really want someone to believe us? Peter can cry “wolf” too many times.

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

ThumperThumper’s words from Bambi still rattle around my brain whenever I write reviews. As I’ve commented elsewhere, I choose what I review and generally choose what I think I will like to read and am usually a pretty good judge. The one book I can think of for which this was not true was one for which I was asked to write an anonymous review before publication. Despite the thrashing I and two other anonymous reviewers gave the book, it saw the light of day.

I’m also conscious of the work it took to produce the book I’m reading — work I’ve not done — and want to recognize this effort. So, most of the reviews I post on this blog tend to be fairly positive about the book in question. i will admit that I have to overcome Thumper’s counsel when I write something critical.

So it was with interest that I read an article forwarded by a friend titled “Book Reviewing’s Grunt Squads” that describe’s the writer’s time as a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and some of the negative reviews he wrote and the comments he made about books. At the time he was doing this, Kirkus employed a team of freelance reviewers paid by the review (he made $50 to $70 a review) to produce 325 word reviews of any book they were sent. Kirkus at this time published reviews of all newly published works. The article was occasioned by a negative review he received via the reorganized Kirkus Media. In addition to exposing the “grunt work” of the reviewing world where most reviewers would struggle to even pay the rent on what they write, he also teases out the fundamental challenge of reviewing–the challenge of fairly representing a work and one’s own reaction to that work without engaging in excessive self-indulgence or sterile (and impossible) objectivity.

He particularly explores the challenge authors face in receiving negative, and particularly unfair reviews that do not represent the book they actually wrote. He observes that authors who try to rebut such reviews almost invariably come off badly. And the truth is that there are a lot of bad books out there (even more with self-publishing) and reviewers who are assigned such books probably are doing a public service to expose them. The only authors, he observes, who come off at all well are those who have powerful friends.

So, what is the bearing of all this on a blogger who reviews mostly to remember what he read, and to share his love of good books with others? Reviewing as a volunteer activity means I have choice, which paid reviewers often don’t have. Since I am not getting paid, apart from the occasional free book, for what I do, I’m less likely to end up reading books that I’d give a scathingly negative review. Will I ever do it? Yes, perhaps in the case of a book that I think is being misrepresented as the greatest thing since sliced bread, when it is moldy bread at best — particularly if the book was misrepresented to me.

The article talks mostly of authors and reviewers. There is another group I have to consider as well. That is readers who might borrow or buy the book. For one thing, I will sometimes engage points of disagreement between myself and the author so that readers, particularly those who might know me, will not be misled as to the point of view of a book which I’ve reviewed. I read things I disagree with but not all people like to do this. This is a place where who I am as a reader and reviewer intrudes, but I hope it does so helpfully for my reader. Blog reviewing is an interactive media and so discussion and even pushback seem to be part of the nature of this media.

I probably have two main things I will criticize, beyond writing that is simply bad or excessively violent or sexual. One is when an author is unnecessarily obscure, or writes over the heads of his or her intended audience. I realize I have to be careful with this when reviewing academic books. If it is written strictly for an academic audience, I will accept a denser style and more “in group” language than I would for a book by an academic intended for a broader audience. The other thing, and I admit this is more subjective, that I will critique is when authors pursue implausible plot turns, which I consider those that are inauthentic to the development of the characters and story line.

All this said, there are still Thumper’s words rattling about in my head. “If you can’t say something nice…” For me, this means in my reading and reviewing that I want to read sympathetically, to meet authors on their own terms, to recognize what is of value, and what I think will be helpful to my readers.

Review: Slow Church

slow churchSlow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Slow church. That’s not what I wanted when I was growing up. I wanted to get my weekly dose of church and get on to more interesting things. If the authors are to believed, the church growth specialists gave my generation what we wanted–fast church. Messages that cut to the chase, efficient, homogeneous organization that led to big box churches that provided a great show. For a time, I was part of such a church in another city, typically driving 10 miles to attend. But it seemed totally unconnected to the place where we lived and so when we moved to our current home town, we found a church in the neighborhood, which in recent years has come to embody many of the things the authors of this book describe as part of the “slow church” movement.

The authors describe an approach to thinking of the church that gives words to much of what we were looking for. They believe that God’s redemptive work is slow and values the unique qualities of people and place and gifting that our particular places of worship reflect. They organize their approach around three categories.

First they think in terms of ethics. What is the good to be pursued in the life of a local congregation? It begins with a sense of place that takes time to become a community that shares life together and learns how to serve the mix of people in a real neighborhood rather than efficiently reaching a “market segment.” It encourages stability that takes time to understand a place rather than our restless mobility. It values patience that is willing to suffer alongside others and walk alongside the people of one’s community through the seasons and changes of life as Christ is formed in us.

A second emphasis is on ecology. It focuses on the connectedness of all things and all of life as opposed to fragmenting life, and groups of people into segments, often with the result of dividing them against each other–young and old, liberal and conservative, poor and affluent, and even humans versus the rest of creation. It cares about the dehumanization of work and fosters good work based in our neighborhoods. It celebrates sabbath where God provides enough in six days for us to live seven.

A third focus is on economy. Will we join the culture’s economics of scarcity or the kingdom economy of abundance? This means noticing all the abundance God has placed in the people and physical resources of a church and a community and responding with gratitude and hospitality. And in a wonderful connection with the slow food movement, it means reveling in the fellowship of the table, having rich conversation over good food.

This book is particularly important for churches that take seriously the work of “re-neighboring” and community development in transitional or struggling communities. It is also important for churches in more suburban “communities” that often don’t have a real sense of community and place, and are at great peril over the long haul.

The authors challenged me to consider how, even though I am in a church that is seeking to become these things, I am embedded in a “fast church” life and way of thinking that is formed more by my culture than the church community with which I identify. I work in a ministry that is not located in the community where I live, where I travel extensively, and work with colleagues in a tri-state area, and more widely with individuals throughout the country as well as an extensive virtual community. As I write today, I don’t have good answers to resolve this tension. But this book serves as impetus for a conversation, maybe a slow conversation, but one that I recognize needs to begin in my life.

How about you?

Ethics For Bloggers?

A while back I did a post on Ethics for Reviewers. An incident the other day provoked me to think more broadly about ethics for bloggers. I used a photo in a post for which I did not find attribution. Unexpectedly, the post went viral to a degree I never expected and ended up on the screen of the person who took that picture. Via Facebook, I received a request to either give proper attribution or take it down. It was a great photo so I gladly did so and that was the end of the matter. But this prompted me, perhaps as a matter of penance (!) to reflect on the ethics of the wider practice of blogging. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Give proper attribution to all sources and don’t use sources you don’t have permission to use.  It’s actually stealing and a violation of copyright. Verbatim or substantive quoting of material without proper attribution is plagiarism. Provide source information for quotes or statistics, and attribution information for media you are sure you can use. I am not a copyright lawyer but it seems that the rule of thumb is that you can use it if: you created it and have not surrendered rights to it, it is public domain, or media in Wikimedia Commons (include all attribution info). If you err, correct it immediately if the correction is demonstrable.  Better yet, if in doubt, either ask or don’t do it.  That was my mistake the other day. Attribution in web-based media can include links back to the source, which also makes your blog of greater interest because it is a portal that takes people elsewhere.

Forgive the length of this–the rest will be briefer:

2. Do not intentionally deceive! None of us knows all there is to know about the things we write about, nor even about ourselves. But the internet is an uncurated place where a lie in digital print or image will become truth for many. Of course the danger of lying about yourself is that there are people who know better! The quality of the our blogging world and its contribution to our world’s health depends on telling the truth as we have light to see it.

3. Do not attack the character of people. Bloggers are generally better at this than media pundits or Facebookers, but ad hominem  attacks on people as opposed to discussion of disagreements about ideas, policies, takes on life degrades the blogging world.

4. Don’t write to chase an audience. It’s really tempting to tailor your writing to what gets views. It’s one thing if you’ve agreed to write pieces on a certain topic for pay. Most of us aren’t there, but views can become a kind of “pay” that shapes us if not careful. Write about what you know about and care about and views will take care of themselves.

5. Become a good citizen of the blogging community. Visit and comment on other blogs. This just makes good sense to get better at your craft. But it is also a real service to other bloggers who have bared their souls, raised an important question, or written something they hope will be helpful or funny. We all write to be read by others and those of us who do this are probably the best attuned to others. Just avoid something I saw the other day, a commenter who turned their comment into a blog post. Brief, complimentary, with maybe a genuine question or insight the blog raised for you is best.

Generally I’ve found the blogging world far more thoughtful, ethical, and sensitive than the Facebook world which can be incredibly mean and snarky and seems to just reinforce the fault lines of our society. I hope we can keep it that way. We are all “tenders of the commons”.