Review: The Second Mountain

the second mountain

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks. New York: Random House, 2019.

Summary: A book on our life journey, from the first mountain of individual achievement and success to the second mountain of rooted commitment to relationships and service.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has been on a personal journey and this book reflects that journey five years on from his earlier Road to Character (review) in which he describes the movement from resumé virtues to the eulogy virtues that describe a life of character. In this book, Brooks develops a further dimension that his first book did not focus on, perhaps because Brooks himself was not focusing on it–that dimension of our commitments and our relationality. He continues to think about the moral life, and particularly the idea of moral ecologies, a way of being, believing and behaving shaped by our context. What he contends for in this book is a thicker moral ecology shaped by relational commitments rather than what he sees as the hyper-individualism of our contemporary culture.

This is where the two mountains comes in. The first mountain is the individual journey focused on self-realization, personal achievement and success. It operates in a moral ecology of self buffered from others, a focus on one’s own feelings, one’s own god, a privatization of meaning, a dream of freedom and a central focus on personal accomplishment.

Often it takes the experience of the value of failure, suffering, and pain to awaken us to the second mountain. Often the valley is a crisis of meaning, increasingly, it is the experience of intense loneliness. Brooks talks about the valley, and its companion, the wilderness, where we listen to our lives.

He then speaks about the second mountain, which represents the committed life. He focuses on four commitments, giving a section of several chapters to each. The four commitments he writes of are to a vocation or calling, to a marriage, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. For each, he describes, not a moment, but a process of realization and development. He offers help in discerning a vocation, which sometimes comes down to saying “yes to every opportunity.” He gives sound principles for the growth of intimacy, including whether you really enjoy talking to one another, and can envision enjoying that for a life. I love his description of marriage as “the school you build together.”

His discussion of philosophy and faith is the section that seems most personal and occupies the most space. He describes his own spiritual journey both away from the mixed Jewish and Christian influences of his youth and his return, significantly through the influence of his research assistant, Anne. He writes of her:

“Anne answered each question as best she could. She never led me. She never intervened or tried to direct the process. She hung back. If I asked her a question, she would answer it, but she would never get out in front of me. She demonstrated faith by letting God be in charge. And this is a crucial lesson for anybody in the middle of any sort of intellectual or spiritual journey. Don’t try to lead or influence. Let them be led by that which is summoning them” (p. 239).

So where did he end up, for those who wonder? He describes himself as “a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” It also turns out that after several years apart, he and Anne, a Wheaton College graduate and committed Christian, married.

In his final section, he talks about commitment to community, to restoring the kind of communities where people have a sense of belonging to and being responsible to and for each other. He has critical words for programs focused on single problems rather than comprehensive approaches.

He concludes by proposing that the second mountain is the relational mountain, and offers a relationalist manifesto with enumerated points that serve to sum up the book. Everything but the kitchen sink is here, a grand sweeping vision for the second mountain life.

As I read this book, I felt both a deep resonance with much of what Brooks writes and that he was trying to do so much that I found myself wondering at times, “what kind of book is this?” I did not find that it had as coherent a structure as The Road to Character. The lengthy sections on each of the commitments, each engaging, felt like stand alone pieces, each of which could have received book length treatments. I wonder if less could have been written on each commitment and more on how the four commitments cohere, if not in every life, but in healthy societies.

That said, Brooks charts the journey into the second half of life well, of the commitments to be negotiated if one is to enjoy a rich and full, and not merely successful life. That he writes so personally and openly of his own journey into both faith and love is one of the most attractive and winsome elements of this work. The challenge he offers to the hyper-individualism of our culture is one worth considering. Will we recognize that we need one another? That may be one of the critical questions of our time.

Review: Born to Wander

Born to Wander

Born to WanderMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the theme of our pilgrim identity as followers of Christ, and how this makes sense of the seasons of transition and loss, and struggles for control in our lives.

It seems we spend our lives searching and longing for home. We move, we change jobs, churches, and sometimes, relationships. We experience transition and loss. Sometimes the restlessness is an inner one–a longing for God knows what. Michelle Van Loon, a writer who has know seasons of transition, dislocation, and loss in her own life, suggests that instead of efforts to control our lives and settle, these longings point us as Christians to our identity as members of a pilgrim people longing, and wandering toward our true home.

In this book, Van Loon explores three kinds of pilgrimage:

  • Moral pilgrimage focuses on every day obedience to God.
  • Physical pilgrimage emphasizes a bodily journey to a holy site in order to seek God.
  • Interior pilgrimage describes the pursuit of communion with God through prayer, solitude, and contemplation.  (p. 14)

In the eleven chapters that follow this introduction Van Loon explores this idea of pilgrimage through a combination of biblical reflection, personal narrative, and formative insights. Uprootedness is explored through the life of Noah, sentness through Abraham, being waylaid on the journey through Israel’s Egyptian years and displacement through Israel’s wilderness wanderings and grumblings. The warnings Israel is given as they cross Jordan remind us of the two ways we might choose, and the hope of restoration, even when we choose wrongly.

Van Loon speaks tellingly of the subtle ways idolatries divide us from God and others. She observes:

“…I’d like to suggest that most of us have a personalized collection of housebroken idols vying for our love every single day.”

She especially singles out our idolatry of nuclear families, and how difficult this idolatry is for those who are single.

She speaks of the importance of remembering, here as elsewhere using word studies to explore several passages (Josiah’s kingship, Lamentations, Psalm 137) to consider how remembering leads us into pilgrimage. In “Trekked” she explores the value of physical pilgrimages, particularly to “thin” places where we might experience the sacred. “Sojourned” considers the journey of the disciples following Christ. She warns of how reaction to preserve ourselves in a decadent culture might divert us from the pilgrim life:

“A desire for self-preservation is a reaction against a decaying culture. A reaction is not a calling–and it is not an option for a pilgrim. We walk toward God not in reaction, but in response to His invitation to follow, no matter where He leads.”

She concludes in her chapter “Revealed” with the use of the word “Come” –the invitation to follow but also the revelation that the bridegroom is coming for his bride, that becomes the pilgrim’s cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Pilgrimage is not hopeless wandering, but a journey toward the day when we will truly be welcomed home,

What I most appreciated about this work is that it reflects a second half of life spirituality–a spirituality that moves beyond the first flush of life in Christ, new jobs, homes, and marriages. It is a spirituality for those who have lived long enough to get beaten up by life at times and who are wondering how to live when the old answers don’t work as well anymore. Where do we go when we experience disillusionment, when the rising career trajectory crashes and burns, when the group we felt so close with scatters? Van Loon’s openness about her own experiences invites us to explore how these disrupting and displacing experiences may be God’s way of calling us into a deeper journey with him, one that involves leaving the homes of self-protection and control for the uncertainty of trusting to God’s protection and leading on pilgrimage.

The book is designed for personal reflection with questions and writing space at the end of each chapter and a prayer that expresses back to God and personalizes the themes of the chapter. There are so many places where we face the choice of clinging to the safe and familiar, even as circumstances may be wresting these from our arms; or choosing to step into the unknown of a pilgrim journey. This book make a good companion for those considering embarking on that journey.

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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: The Way of Hope

the way of hope

The Way of HopeMelissa Fisher. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Through a narrative of her own experiences, the author proposes ways in which the church might offer hope to LGBT persons without condemning or condoning.

“I used to want to be a boy.

Seriously, literally, have the surgery. Change the name. Live from the new identity. Be a boy, not a girl. That’s what I wanted.

It seemed to make sense with how I felt on the inside. At that point in my life, my feelings had been all over the map. After all, I grew up in the church, left the church, dated boys, then left the guy scene and ended up in the same-sex lifestyle, and a same-sex marriage. Somewhere, in the midst of all of that, I contemplated becoming a boy.”

This is Melissa Fisher’s introduction to her life journey. It is one that begins with a response to shame of perfectionism–“pretty is as pretty does.” She learns to keep secrets, about witnessing her mom’s affair, about sexual abuse both as a child and as an adult, about the pain of her parents divorce, about discovering pornography, and more. She describes the “monster” of dating guys and then falling in live with one of her girlfriends, the struggle to deny her attraction to women, her attempts to medicate herself against her struggles, and her surrender to them. She marries a woman, has what seems an ideal life as an athletic coach, and then comes to an end of herself when she loses it all in an impulsive affair. On a car trip near the Arkansas border, she stops in tears and comes to the realization that even though she doesn’t want God or church in her life, she does.

She describes her struggle to even show up at church, and eventually a small group, which is important for any church to understand that is committed to ministering with LGBT persons. She finds one, Gateway Church in Austin, a church that was committed to a ministry that neither condemned nor condoned around issues of sexuality, but loved people and allowed them the space to struggle and take steps at their own pace toward God. They offered community to the isolated. She narrates her steps to believe that first one woman, Karin, really wanted a friendship with her, and then that she could be part of a community of PBM’s (Pottery Barn Moms).

Later chapters chronicle the further work of coming to terms with her past, her perfectionism, her secrets and shame, and all her strategies of dealing with these, including her drive to perform could be laid aside as she learned to behold and believe in Christ, and allow him to shape the way she lived. She writes, “if I never felt safe enough to be a girl, I would never feel safe enough to do the more work needed to become a healthy woman.” Yet as she did so, she found herself opening up to the possibility of being with a man (although she is careful to not make herself a norm or example for others). Like several other LGBT writers like Greg Cole or Wesley Hill, she talks about all this in day by day terms of trusting God in this day.

The epilogue is fascinating because it includes interviews with her mother, her father, and her former spouse, Kristi. Life isn’t all put together in any of these situations, but there was really healing, and real reconciliation. What is striking throughout the narrative of this book is Melissa’s honesty about herself, whether she was exulting in a same sex marriage with Kristi, or struggling to put life together. Equally striking was the church she found and the loving way they cared for people like Melissa, neither condoning their choices nor condemning them, but loving them, and providing a space where they could encounter and behold Christ, where they could be as honest as they were ready to be, and where change was something that was not enforced from on high or by social pressure, but allowed to occur from within if and when the person was ready.

Others who identify as LGBT may not struggle with their orientation or identity and may be critical of Fisher’s narrative, and may contend that she is self-deceived. Perhaps the practice of a kind of golden rule here may help in honoring the narratives of others as you would have them honor yours. She joins a growing number who tell a similar story, and of churches that have made a safe and good place for them. Perhaps rather than arguing with them, we might learn from them, whether we agree or not.  Perhaps even this may be a first step on the way of hope…

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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: Falling Upward

Falling UpwardFalling Upward, Richard Rohr. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Summary: Richard Rohr focuses on what he sees are the key developmental tasks for each “half” of life, using the image of the container for the first half, and contents for the second.

I’ll be honest. This is not a book I can wholeheartedly recommend. While I found a number of useful insights, I thought the “spirituality” on which Rohr grounded these more reflective of a “blend” of Eastern and Western spirituality rather than the Catholic Christianity with which Father Rohr is most closely identified. For some, that may not be a problem, or even is a plus! If you are looking for a spirituality that roots an understanding of development in classic Christianity, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant/Evangelical, that is not this book.

First for the insights I most appreciated, which I think come out of long pastoral work with people seeking to grow in their faith throughout life. There are two key insights that are important:

First, there is the insight that life can be divided into two halves with the key task of the first being fashioning the “container” of one’s life and that the second half is devoted to the “contents” of that container. The first half is the structures of rules, disciplines, community. This occurs in a healthy way when these things are present in an atmosphere of unconditional love. Where love is lacking or the structures are lacking, the container is inadequate for the second half task. The second half, then focuses on the contents of life, the becoming of a unique person who knows how to draw from all these structures and yet go beyond them.

Second, there is the title idea of “falling upward”. At some point, there is a necessary “fall”–failure, suffering, tragedy. In some sense the first half “container” may have prepared you to face these, and yet is inadequate of itself to do so. It is time, in Rohr’s words to “discharge your loyal soldier.” It is often in the facing of our fallenness and finiteness and imperfection that we become fully human as we stop trying to be what we are not, and begin to pursue a life of grace, of calling, of wholeness, discovering our True Self. Those who resist “falling upwards” go on in life to become cynical, emptily driven, emotionally detached and judgmental individuals. This is the story of the elder son in the story of the Prodigal.

There are several key places where I believe Rohr is articulating a spirituality grounded more in a “new age” spirituality than in Christian orthodoxy, despite his warm avowals of how for him Christ is the center. For one thing, he articulates a new age account of the fall of Adam and Eve as a “necessary fall” for their development of consciousness. I would agree with the formative nature of failure, transgression, and suffering that comes to the foot of the cross and finds grace. That is different from a theology that says the fall was necessary for the evolution of our consciousness. One involves restoration of what was lost through the cross. The other seems to involve evolutionary progress where a cross is superfluous.

A second place is Rohr’s proposal that “heaven” and “hell” have to do with our consciousness, rather than ultimate destinies. Certainly, our consciousness can be “heavenly” or “hellish.” Views like this have become popular of late, perhaps as alternatives to ugly forms of “hell fire preachers”. Yet I wonder if the grace Rohr speaks of can be meaningful without there being a real judgment.

Finally, Rohr seems to propose that our development is really through a transformation of consciousness through the “falling upward” experience, perhaps aided by the Spirit of God, rather true spiritual rebirth. There is language of “union with ourselves and everything else” that seems more the language of pantheistic monism than of being “at-one” with God in Christ. In fact, it seems at times that Rohr is among those who say that all religions are really saying the same thing and that those who say otherwise are guilty of “either-or” thinking. I would contend that the difference between a “both-and” view that wipes out distinctives and the Christian faith is that the Christian faith is a faith of reconciliation–a third way between “either” and “or” that doesn’t wipe out distinctions but reconciles them in Christ.

This is regrettable in my view because his insights into the two halves of life and the transition of what I might call “fall into re-formation” may be grounded far more robustly is what C. S. Lewis would call “mere Christianity.” There are so many things that, for one living in the second half, connected deeply for me. His description of “the second simplicity” and the “bright sadness” ring true. I think part of what so many like in Rohr, and I’ve appreciated in his other writings is his ability to capture the imagination and heart in his word paintings. However, as one who cares about the second half journey and believes it is best grounded in “mere Christianity” I would recommend Hagberg and Guelich’s The Critical Journey as one of the best books I’ve come across on the issues of our life journeys.

 

Review: The Pilgrim’s Regress

The Pilgrim's Regress
The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most don’t consider this one of Lewis’s best, and truthfully, neither did I. But even “inferior” Lewis is better than much that is out there.

The book is a pilgrimage narrative that reflects Lewis’s journey from early religious instruction (humorously portrayed by the Steward who presents the law both seriously behind a mask, and with a wink and a nod). John, the pilgrim in this story subsequently sights a beautiful island, and eventually strikes out in quest of the island moving successively through instances of sensuality portrayed in the southern lands, and arid science and philosophy in the northern lands. He is joined be Virtue, refusing the help of Mother Kirk until they stay in the Valley of Wisdom. What happens then and their further adventures, I will leave to the reader.

The value of the book is the chronicle of the inadequacies of the different places John (and Lewis) explored before coming to faith. Some of the figures he encounters offer pointed commentary on the thin fare of the day (Mr. Sensible and Mr. Halfways in particular). Some of the references are more obscure and assume you are as familiar with theological, literary and philosophical currents of the day as was Lewis. He later admitted in a preface to the third edition of the book that some of this was needless obscure.

The ending after his decisive encounter with Mother Kirk seemed unsatisfying. This book was written shortly after Lewis came to faith and may reflect his own lack of experience in post-conversion pilgrimage. His later works are certainly richer in this regard.

I would not recommend this as the first book of Lewis’s to read. But for those who love Lewis, you will appreciate the light this sheds on his spiritual journey that will sound familiar if you are acquainted with Surprised By Joy. You will also appreciate the survey of the other prevailing thought currents Lewis engaged in his day, and the nascent forms of many ideas that come to fuller expression in later works.

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Passages

We just returned from a family vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, staying in a cabin at a conference center owned by the organization for which I work. The trip itself was kind of a passage, back into winter, or the very beginnings of spring. The bay on which the cabin is located is still completely frozen and snow still covered many areas although we were told that two feet of snow had thawed in the four days before our arrival. If you think we’ve had it bad this winter, folks in the U.P. have most of us beat! And after several warm days, we had one more blast of winter, shared by much of the Midwest as 2-3 inches of new snow fell. Temperatures were at 16 degrees the morning we left!

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This trip was a kind of journey into the past in some ways that reminded us of the passage of time, and the many rich memories that have filled those years. This began when we paged through the guestbook in the cabin, which we have stayed in as a family four other times. One of our entries was from June of 1985, and we remarked on this being our son’s first visit to this conference center at a month and a half old. Now, it is nearly twenty nine years later, and it was fun for his wife for whom this was a first visit, to read this entry and to realize some of the family history wrapped up in this place.

As we showed our daughter-in-law around, memories unbidden returned of programs I had led or participated in, in just about every room. Seeing a recently built lounge area named after the founder of our organization in the US, I was reminded of hearing him speak at this site in 1977 during my Orientation of New Staff. Walking into another room in the same building I remembered a crazy and delightful time of suddenly assuming the direction of a program I was attending for the first time when the director was ill. It was a scramble and yet God met us in wonderful ways as we improvised and stayed maybe a half-step ahead of the students.

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I looked out on the frozen bay from some of the same spots where I sat enjoying the summer sun and spending personal times in prayer, reflection, and reading at a student leadership training program I was attending in July and August of 1974, my first visit to this site. I remembered a TV being brought into the meeting house so we could watch the resignation of President Nixon at the end of Watergate. And I thought, could nearly 40 years have passed so quickly?

Indeed they have, and yet as I thought of all this, my mood was not so much wistful as thankful. I mention in the “About ” page to this blog of how I live at the intersection of the love of learning and the love of God. So much of my passion for these was cultivated in this place. So much of life over the past 40 years has involved sharing with successive generations of students and faculty at a number of universities as well as at programs at this site how these two things walk hand in hand and how loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39) is not only the greatest of the commands but central to a life well-lived.

How well-lived my own life has been is ultimately a matter for God to judge. But as I look at things so far, I have to say that my own sense is one of having no regrets and great thankfulness. We’ve shared as a family in so many of these ventures. It was rich to share our memories together, as well as make new ones, like evenings in the cabin playing hearts or Scrabble and laughing at the turns of the game, usually against me–I didn’t win even once!

As we departed, both we, and our son and daughter-in-law left new entries in the guestbook. While none of us knows what the future holds, perhaps it will be that at some future date, we and/or they will mark yet further passages of time and hopefully have new and rich memories to share.

Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12, NIV)

 

Review: The New Pilgrim’s Progress

The New Pilgrim's Progress
The New Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Bunyan acknowledged in his own day that his friends were mixed on whether he should publish this book. I encountered similar mixed feelings about this work when I mentioned that our reading group was reading this. Even though The Guardian rated this Number One on its list of 100 best novels in the English language, this admiration is not shared by all. For some, it is simply that they don’t like the writing style (Bunyan was not highly educated), the use of allegory, or the Puritan theology.

Bunyan uses the device of a “dream vision” (I’m told he may be the first to have done this) to narrate Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Troubled by his sin, he meets Evangelist who directs him to the Wicket Gate. After adventures in the Slough of Despond and a near fatal distraction by Worldly Wise Man, he makes it to the Wicket Gate through which he is admitted to the straight and narrow King’s Highway. The remainder of the book describes his journey, distractions, trials, rescues, and comforts he experiences along the way, and his final experience of crossing the river to the Celestial City with his companion Hopeful. He also encounters various fellow “pilgrims” along the way who in one way or another turn back, or turn aside to destruction with names like Pliable, Ignorance, and Atheist. Perhaps most terrifying is his battle with Apollyon, a demonic figure who he finally vanquishes with his sword. This edition did not include Part Two, which narrates the same journey by Christian’s wife, sons, and maid Mercy.

What I found most valuable in this reading was the insight into the ways we may be tempted or even self-deceived on our journey. There is also the tremendous encouragement of the divine interventions to rescue Christian when he realizes he has strayed. And we see portrayed the dynamics of spiritual life and spiritual warfare, things that make ever more sense the longer one has been on this journey.

We talked in our group about who would benefit from this book the most. Our sense was that it may actually be of the most benefit for those who have been on the journey for some time and recognize the temptations and spiritual wisdom Bunyan shares. Bunyan also assumes a greater knowledge of the Bible than many have in this biblically illiterate age. This edition includes helpful notes that fill in those gaps. We also recognized that in some cases younger readers may benefit, particularly if the book can be read and discussed in a family setting. Much may not make sense at the time, but may subsequently in life.

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