Review: Thank You For Being Late

Thank you for being late

Thank You For Being LateThomas L. Friedman. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.

Summary: Discusses three “accelerations (computer-related technology, globalization, and climate change), how these might re-shape our world for ill or good, and the case for pausing, reflecting, and creating communities of trust working for the common good.

Whether you agree with him or not, an interview with Tom Friedman is always a fascinating conversation, at least for some of us. It was on Charlie Rose, my wife was watching while I had dropped off to sleep, and the next day, she told me, “we have to get Thank You For Being Late.” It didn’t stop there. After my wife started reading this, she said, “you have to read this and write one of your reviews on it.” So dear, I have, and I am, and let’s see what you think.

Friedman starts by explaining his title, which is his response to those who are late for meetings with him. In our accelerating world, time to pause, to reflect on our moment in history, and our lives, is an increasingly precious opportunity. Put away the smartphone and just be. Then, in the remainder of the chapter he recounts his encounter with an Ethiopian parking attendant who asks Friedman’s help with his blog. It turns out that he hosts a site devoted to a pro-democracy take on the politics and economics of his home country. Friedman contends that his columns mix his own values, priorities and aspirations, his analysis of the big forces, “the Machine” that are shaping events, and the impacts on peoples and cultures. And as he does this with Bojia, his new Ethiopian friend, he begins to reflect on these.

Part two of this book is concerned with three big forces he believes are impacting people and cultures. He looks at 2007 as a critical year–the debut of the first iPhone, the launch of the Android, Qualcomm’s 3G technology enabling book downloads on Kindles, IBM’s Watson, non-silicon based processors, the beginning of an accelerating curve of solar power usage. He sees this as an inflection point where technological innovation exceeds human adaptability, requiring new ways of learning and governing. This opens a several-chapter discussion of the first key force, technology, whose acceleration is reflected in Moore’s law on the doubling of processor speeds every 18-24 months, at decreasing costs, that has made for a tremendous explosions because of software, networking, the convergence of smartphones and computers, and what Friedman calls the “supernova” of “flow” that makes possible massive amounts of storage in “the cloud”, all kinds of ways to utilize that data (including nefarious, as the Equifax hack, and others underscore), with incredible implications for commerce globally.

This leads to his discussion of the second force, the global market, where being in “the flow” makes unprecedented collaboration and crowd-sourced innovation possible, but also increasingly automated financial flows that under some circumstances might lead to drastic computer-initiated market swings. At the same time, this can lead to incredible knowledge flows, such as MOOCs, making courses on nearly every subject available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and also the export of the propaganda of terror, linking isolated individuals in developed countries with terror cells.

The third force is climate change and species loss, environmental changes that are sweeping the globe. He notes a series of boundaries we are breaching or in danger of breaching–climate change, biodiversity, deforestation, bio-geochemical flows, ocean acidification, freshwater use, atmospheric aerosols, and introduction of novel entities from chemicals we’ve invented to nuclear waste.

Friedman is ever the optimist and the third part of this book explores both technological and political innovations on the global scale that channel these forces for good, and in the chapter on “Control vs. Kaos” for ill. He has a chapter on “Mother Nature as Political Mentor” where he has Mother Nature making a laundry list of policy recommendations to delight the heart of anyone on the center-left of American politics, and will be dismissed by the right.

What was most fascinating for me amid this ramble through technology, globalization, and climate science, ground Friedman has traveled in other books is where he ends up in his last chapters. He essentially commends whatever our religion’s version is of Sunday school to teach us the Golden Rule and its application in life, and a return to “politics as local” revisiting his childhood days in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, and the continuing heritage of a politics beyond partisanship that forges relationships of trust with business and civic leaders, and presses into seeking the common good of a community.

When Friedman finishes, you feel he has touched everything including the kitchen sink. All of it is quite fascinating, and yet hard to hold together. Perhaps that is his point. Technology, globalization, changes in the environment are all accelerating–change is happening fast. We can run frantically to keep up. Or perhaps we would do better to pause. It is particularly intriguing that his most profound recommendations do not have to do with big government, even more technology or sweeping global environmental agreements, as much as I think he would be in sympathy with all of these. It is that we need to change in our own behavior, and in our habits of community. We need to return to real communities rather than virtual echo chambers and move from national posturing to local governing.

What begins as a survey of science, business, and technology ends in a kind of quest for God and a well-ordered society. An exploration of the accelerating future ends in a reflective search for spiritual and community roots. It feels to me that Friedman is searching for God knows what, and I find my self thinking, “indeed, God knows, but will we listen?”

 

Review: Just Capitalism

just-capitalism

Just Capitalism Brent Waters. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

Summary: A theological defense of capitalism and particularly economic globalization as the best means, through exchange, of providing an preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing, albeit shaped by different goals for exchange, and the promotion of human community.

It is not uncommon in theological discussions of capitalism to be intensely critical of capitalist economics as exploitative of the poor, the environment, and perpetuating and intensifying economic inequities in the world. Brent Waters has witnessed this trend, and without denying excesses, mounts a defense of capitalism theologically as promoting economic exchanges that foster economic growth for the poor, and thus their flourishing as human beings. Far from considering globalization a negative force, he defends it. In his Preface, he writes:

“Why I am defending globalization, then, is based primarily on two arguments. First, the world is part of God’s good creation and as such is the source of abundant material goods that may be enjoyed by humans as God’s creatures. These goods, however, are not at hand but are latent and must be developed. Humans must develop the potential not only to meet their most basic needs and wants but also to more fully enjoy and share the goods of creation as part of their calling to exercise God’s mandate of limited dominion and stewardship. At present, global marketbased exchange offers the best means for both developing and distributing these material goods.

“Second, at present, globalization offers the most realistic and promising way of exercising a preferential option for the poor. The liberalization of trade and capital investment over the past two decades has helped lift around a billion people out of dire poverty and has created a fledgling global middle class. With increased globalization these trends cannot only be sustained but also enlarged and strengthened. In short, the best way to help the poor, to love them, in part, as neighbors, is to enable them to participate more fully in new and expanding global markets.”

This quote is a précis of the argument the author makes in the first half of the book for exchange being foundational to economic growth and human flourishing, and that the creative destruction and market state conditions fostered by globalization actually serve to advance overall economic growth, and indeed provide ways for the Holy Spirit to work in the world in new ways as new economic relationships are established.

The second half of the book addresses some of the critiques of capitalism. For one thing, exchange alone cannot make us happy, but is crucial at some level to provide the conditions wherein humans can consider the sources of happiness. Human exchange best occurs not in depersonalized, detached situations but in exchange that recognizes our relatedness as human beings. This influences the role we give to political orders within the fabric of civil society. Most significantly, the political order should provide and protect the freedoms of exchange, expression, and conscience fundamental to our human dignity.

There was much here that I could affirm. I think for example of the ways that relief efforts often undermine local economies when purchasing services from local concerns could strengthen the economy in many instances. Exchange, not just redistribution of resources fosters development. So many aid programs have been depersonalizing and ignored the fundamental importance of productive work as an expression of human dignity and as a means of obtaining a living.

There were two areas where I found myself taking issue with the author. One was in the final chapter on stewardship, where he makes a case for putting environmental concerns in abeyance so that economic development can continue to occur among the developing nations. I question the bifurcation of economic and environmental concerns, particularly because the changes already occurring most dramatically affect the poorest peoples of the world disproportionately. Here, I would commend Pope Francis’s Laudato Si because it unites under an ethic of care, our concern for both the poor and the creation, rather than choosing one or the other. It is significant that Waters, in making his case downplays the evidence of climate change and plays up the threat of economic reverses with efforts to address climate change.

What troubles me is why these two must be set at odds with each other. Waters may have a point in not burdening the poorest countries with addressing climate change. But I would have liked to see him further pursue the responsibility of wealthy countries to use their greater affluence to shift to cleaner forms of energy and more efficient patterns of consumption. This could foster “greener technologies” by bearing the upfront costs so that all humanity may eventually utilize these more cheaply. This would seem to be the kind of koinonia that he advocates on a global scale.

I also saw little here of a discussion of capital accumulation that Thomas Piketty argues in Capital has increased the wealth and poverty disparities in the world. This disparity results from accumulation of wealth not from exchange of goods and services but non-labor income sources like stocks, bonds, real estate, and the like. Beyond acknowledging the importance of capital investment, he does not discuss the problem of disparities threatening the development of a middle class which he contends to be important.

Still, I value the contribution Waters makes to the discussion of a theology of economics. Many discussions I see either simply commend an “opting out” of creating local economies while the world goes its merry way, or schemes that argue for aid and redistribution in ways that undercut healthy mechanisms of exchange. Also, his argument for globalization as providing a preferential option for the poor challenges the protectionist tendencies of the affluent countries, whose “poor” are better off than much of the world. Free trade rather than aid may be a better option, despite the displacements it may cause for some, painful as these are.

I hope Waters will continue to work on this theology of economics. His dissent from the prevailing consensus is important and needs to be developed more than this moderate length work permits.

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

Review: Flourishing

Flourishing

Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Summary: Volf argues that the twin globalizing forces of international economics and world religions, problematic as they may be, may also be the source of rich and holistic flourishing for the human community.

There has been a compelling argument by Thomas Friedman and others that the global forces of economic development actually create significant incentives for international co-operation, which facilitates economic development for all concerned. At the same time, others have argued that the major global religions may undermine international co-operation and mutual efforts toward human flourishing because of their exclusivistic truth claims. In this book, which Miroslav Volf describes as a “programmatic essay”, the contention is advanced that there is a way to conceive of the intersection of these often overlapping or competing visions, that may more profoundly promote human flourishing in all its dimensions.

Volf’s argument proceeds as follows (corresponding to the chapters in the book):

  1. Economic globalization alone often reduces human beings to their material concerns alone whereas the world religions bring to bear a “transcendent” focus that provides purpose, moral underpinnings, and cultural richness to the idea of human flourishing, that are lost in purely economic accounts of globalization.
  2. At the same time, economic globalization challenges religious communities to transcend violence, which often arises from particular political identifications, and helps make possible efforts at uniting humanity and addressing global goals (health, education, meaningful work) that promote values consonant with religious ideas of human flourishing.
  3. The most deeply held principles of each religious system uphold freedom of conscience, tolerance, and genuine respect for people of other faiths or no faith at all. Between the privileging of one religion in public life, and the barring of all religious discussion from the public square, Volf, like Os Guinness, argues for a “principled pluralism” that protects religious freedom, recognizes equally the moral value and moral arguments of all its citizens, separates religion and rule, and maintains an impartial state.
  4. On the basis of these ideas, Volf argues, against the contentions of many, that it is possible to be religiously exclusivistic (and he would argue that each of the major faiths, when true to their core ideas are in fact so), and yet politically pluralistic, and that this pluralism is in fact may be informed by the highest principles of each faith.
  5. Lastly, he deals with why religions become violent, which has less to do with core religious teachings and more as a result of the consequences of close entanglement with political identities, which actually is contrary both to the global convictions of each faith (which denies us vs. them), and the fundamental commitment of each to freedom of conscience–that belief may not be compelled by others.

Volf concludes the book with a discussion of the dichotomy of meaning and pleasure and argues that the religious perspective (and Volf’s Christian perspective shows through here), when most true to itself, unites these two in the God who is love and provides a compelling account of human flourishing that unites desire and purpose.

I find Volf’s program both elegantly stated and quite persuasive. His argument protects both private and public religious expression for all faiths while rendering an account of how both economic forces and interreligious understanding may circumvent the “clash of civilizations” Samuel Huntington and others have predicted. It seems to me that two crucial questions raised by Volf’s “program” are:

  1. What process does Volf envision for gaining a sufficient global consensus on these principles to allow them to be enacted in international public and economic life? Or does he believe such consensus already exists, which seems disputable?
  2. If there is a sufficient global consensus, what process does Volf envision for dealing with outliers, those instances where political and religious identities have coalesced around violence?

It also seemed to me that the focus of the book shifted from economic to political concerns. Granted, a regime for how different religious influences engage in public life is necessary for economic flourishing, but how differing global religions engage with the global economic marketplace seems to me to need further treatment.

That said, such an undertaking is probably far beyond the scope of a “programmatic essay” of 206 pages and may require the expertise of others. I hope Volf and those he is engaged with will press forward this project in a global context where it seems we are on the razor’s edge between great danger and great opportunity.

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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. 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.”

Review: Global Evangelicalism

Global EvangelicalismGlobal Evangelicalism, Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, eds. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This collection surveys the global growth of evangelicalism from historical and theological perspectives, including case studies of growth in each region of the world, and special concerns of ecumenism and gender issues.

One of the most surprising things for readers not familiar with the global growth of evangelicalism is that it is indeed a global phenomenon and not confined to Europe and North America. Indeed, the populations of those who would identify with evangelical Christianity outside these two areas actually exceeds that of those in the West.

This work explores this growth from a historical, theological and regional perspective. Part One of the book includes an essay defining evangelicalism by Mark Noll, where he surveys our understanding of evangelicalism in its global manifestation, centered around four hallmarks of conversion, The Bible, activism, and crucicentrism. Beyond this there are wide variations in terms of fundamentalists, the pentecostal movement and various cultural expressions. William Shenk then considers the theological factors behind the expansion of evangelicalism including pietism, personal renewal, voluntary societies and theologies of mission. Finally Donald M. Lewis looks at the relationship of globalization, religion in general and evangelicalism. One of the themes that comes up here that recurs in the regional studies is the indigenous character of many evangelical movements. Given their origins in non-state-sponsored voluntary associations in many cases, these have succeeded, especially in places like Korea and China in establishing powerful indigenous movements where Catholicism and other mainline churches have not.

Part II then includes regional case studies of Europe and North America, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Australasia and the Pacific Islands. Each explores the history of the growth of evangelical movements in these regions, the challenges faced, and particularly the challenge of indigenization, and the current situation throughout these regions. I would say these treatments, while including some self-critical material, tend to make the “best case” for evangelicalism–which perhaps may make up for its under-representation in religious scholarship.

Finally, Part III considers two issues. David Thompson explores ecumenism and interdenominationalism in the evangelical movement. The picture broadly speaking is the grow of organizations like the Evangelical Alliance within evangelicalism that spans evangelically rooted denominations while, until recently, eschewing broader ties, the recent exceptions including the work of Billy Graham, John Stott, and the Lausanne movement. Sarah C. Williams then addresses the record of evangelicals around gender issues. The stereotype is one of conservative patriarchy, but while acknowledging the presence of this, Williams presents a much more nuanced picture ranging from the initiative and leadership of women in the Sunday School movements of the nineteenth century, and more interactive ways in which men’s and women’s identities have been constructed.

I found this a highly readable collection of essays that spoke with a consistent voice. It was illuminating to see how often there was an early emphasis not only on Bible translation, but on translation of major cultural works into English. Likewise, the development of Christianity in each of these parts of the world that is culturally distinctive and indigenous, paints a picture of a global Christianity that is not a western export but many faceted mosaic of distinctive expressions of commonly held truths. Some scholars might find this overly sympathetic, or perhaps even biased by the scholars’ evangelical convictions. But perhaps this is necessary to balanced scholarly approaches that read into the history things like cultural imperialism even where the praxis has been otherwise.

The work is a great resource for anyone wanting to survey the growth of evangelical Christianity throughout the world. It includes a glossary of terminology that might be unfamiliar (I think this is a must in this kind of work) and helpful bibliography after each chapter for further study.