Review: The Ages of Globalization

ages of globalization

The Ages of GlobalizationJeffrey D. Sachs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Summary: A study of seven ages of globalization, in which geography, technology, and institutions result in scale-enlarging transformations with global impacts.

Jeffrey Sachs is one of those big picture thinkers one needs when tempted to focus in the minutiae of life. I first came across this in The End of Poverty, published in 2005, where Sachs wrestled with the steps needed to eliminate poverty throughout the world.

Here, he enlarges his focus to the whole 70,000 year expanse of human history. He traces seven ages of globalization, contending that the interplay of geography (including climate, natural resources, and biodiversity), technology (from hunting implements and stone tools to steam driven machinery to digital information systems), and institutions (religious, economic, and political) came together in each age to create scale enlarging transformations with global implications.

The seven ages through which he traces these interactions are:

  1. The Paleolithic (70,000-10,000 bce): foragers arising from Africa to adapt to a variety of habitats, using tools to manipulate nature, and formal tribal societies.
  2. The Neolithic ((10,000-3000 bce): The transition to agricultural societies across the temperate zones (“the Lucky Latitudes”) allowing the rise of farming settlements with domesticated animals.
  3. The Equestrian Age (3000-1000 bce): The domestication of the horse facilitating transport and travel, writing systems, accompanied by more sophisticated administrative institutions allowed for the first empires.
  4. The Classical Age (1000 bce-1500 ce): The successive rise and fall of empires in Asia, the Fertile  Crescent and the Mediterranean, all aligned on travel routes and the Lucky Latitudes, including the rise of Islam. This was the period of the rise of  the major religions and the ideas and institutions multiplied the expansion of global reach.
  5. The Ocean Age (1500-1800): The explosion of knowledge disseminated by the printing press, the development of sailing vessels into ocean-going ships led the most effective countries to extend their power into the Americas and East Asia,  resulting in the expansion of capitalism.
  6. The Industrial Age (1800-2000): The steam engine and then the internal combustion engine, the massive growth in food production resulting led to global population growth and increasingly sophisticated financial and political structures and a parade of successive global powers: Great Britain, the United States, China and other East Asian countries.
  7. The Digital Age (Twenty-First Century): The shift to an age of global information systems, highly integrated economies, resulting both in political rivalries and the necessity of global political institutions to address global crises such as climate change.

Sachs combines description with quantitative tables and statistics to illustrate trends. His argument is that we have always been a global family (albeit the Americas and Australia and the Pacific Islands being isolated from Africa and Eurasia until the Ocean Age) and human migrations, technological innovations and ever-more sophisticated institutions facilitated global connections, and increasingly global empires and systems. He argues that all these have brought us to a place where we face three major challenges: rising inequality, massive environmental degradation, risks from major geopolitical changes, including the possibility of devastating conflict. He contends for working toward sustainable development with a dynamic and adaptive process of planning on a global scale. He argues for a social-democratic ethos as has contributed to the success of northern European countries. Most fascinating, and a check on the consolidation of power, is his discussion of the importance of subsidiarity, of moving tasks to the most local level compatible with effective management.

I suspect some version of what Sachs proposes may be right. Yet the rise of authoritarian movements, the denial or overly simple explanations of poverty or environmental issues, and the breakdown of international cooperation seems a cause of great concern for me. Sachs offers us a tour de force treatment of the development of globalization through human history. But it seems idealistic in a way that seems to rely on us heeding the “better angels of our nature” if there is such a thing. I wonder if the failure of such optimism to deliver on its promises contributes to the rise of authoritarianism. I wonder if the only hope is a somewhat pragmatic and proximate politics without grand schemes, tyrants or visionaries, a politics of adults who realize all solutions are proximate.  Yet that doesn’t mean resignation. We can come up with less than perfect political arrangements, less than perfect environmental solutions, and less than perfect economic arrangements. We might do something more sustainable, more just, and more equitable, and probably different than our plans. And reading Sachs, we may have a better sense of the connection of the local and the global, and the ways geography, technology, and our institutions link us together.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Three Pieces of Glass

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Three Pieces of GlassEric O. Jacobsen. Grands Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: Focuses on loneliness and belonging and the influence of cars, television, and smartphones on the experience, and even design of community and the choices we may make to foster belonging.

A recent commercial for a pizza chain reprises a classic TV scene in which a figure of a somewhat heavy set man who walks into an establishment. In the classic version, he is instantly recognized and everyone calls out “Norm.”  In the contemporary version, no one knows his name because he hasn’t created an online profile tracked on his phone. In the old neighborhood bar, “everybody knows your name.” Now belonging is increasingly mediated through a screen.

Eric O. Jacobsen didn’t anticipate the commercial, which underscores the theme of belonging represented by Norm that runs through this book. He contends that three pieces of glass, the windshield of the automobile, the screen of the television, and the screen of our smartphones, tablets, and computers have fundamentally influenced our experience of belonging in society.

Jacobsen begins his discussion by exploring the nature of belonging as having to do with relationship, place and story, and levels of belonging from intimate and personal to social and public and how intimate and personal are not enough. He explores the way in which experiences of social and public, together referred to as civic belonging, offer foretastes of kingdom belonging.

The second part of the book then sketches out the nature of kingdom belonging which he characterizes as unconditional, covenantal, invitational, compassionate, diverse,  transformative, delightful and productive. He contrasts this with worldly belonging and highlights the inclusive (the images of the feast and the table) and the covenantal relationship character of the kingdom.

Part three considers the gospel and belonging and shows how through the gospel, broken relationships are restored and there is healing for the epidemic of loneliness. For people who feel estranged and exiled, there is a promise of homecoming. And for those living in a story of meagre existence, there is a better and grander story.

The fourth part of the books addresses how the “three pieces of glass” have contributed to our crisis of belonging. The automobile has changed how our living spaces have been configured, from the design of our homes, to the walkability of our neighborhoods, and the location of where we shop and work in relation to where we live. Television changes how we view real people versus our “TV friends.” Our smartphones and other devices have led us to substitute virtual for face to face interaction. These have led erosion in the civic realm and an epidemic of “busyness.

The last two parts consider, first, the influence of our choices on our communal life, our public policies, and on our liturgical life and second how we may encourage belonging. The last part reprises ideas elaborated at greater length in Jacobsen’s earlier books, Sidewalks in the Kingdom and The Space Between, both influenced by the new urbanism. He looks at the design of our communities, advocating for walkability, our proximity, which includes a parish vision for the church, the making of meaningful public places, and a local culture reflected in language, shared stories, and events.

Writing this review during the Covid-19 pandemic gives me a different perspective on this book than I might have had during “normal” times. The latter two pieces of glass have taken on critical importance both as sources of information (although we have to watch for media overload), and as the one means of connection, or belonging most of us have when we must practice physical distancing–particularly in connecting with family, friends, our church community, our work colleagues, and even our political leaders. For many of us, we can work from home (and this may not even represent a change for some of us.)

By the same token, people are walking their neighborhoods at safe distances, in some cases meeting neighbors they never knew by name. I know of one neighborhood where a local folk singer set up in his front yard and staged an impromptu singalong. When we can’t go to restaurants, sporting events, and many of the other places our cars take us–we are left with walking and a kind of “neighboring” occurs. By the same token, I wonder if fights would have occurred over essential goods in the neighborhood markets I grew up with that occur in our megastores where people come from miles around and it is rare you meet someone you know. You shopped with people you knew in those neighborhood groceries and, perhaps we would be more considerate of the needs of others and neither hoard nor fight. After all, we lived with those people and we would be publicly shamed if we took more than our fair share!

Jacobsen’s book makes me wonder whether we will be more mindful about this question of belonging, as we realize how dependent we are upon both in our churches, and in the civic sphere. It makes me wonder if we will take a fresh look at our neighborhoods, both what is good about them, as well as what could be better about our places, and how we connect with each other. With internet connected devices, I suspect it is a bit more complicated. It would not surprise me if life becomes more oriented for more people around these devices. We are doing more education through them, more commerce, more business collaboration, and even more religious activity. While we discover that the church is not a building, will we also jettison the physical encounters that are at the heart of Christian community, from the breaking of bread and the cup to all those meals and potlucks that are some of the best part of our lives? Even before this crisis, I was in conversation with those who talked about declines in church attendance, in which someone pointed to their smartphone and said, “that’s because many think they carry church in their pocket.”

Yet Jacobsen reminds us of our epidemic of loneliness. He raises the critical question of whether belonging can be mediated through a smart device, or whether the proximity necessary for social and public belonging can be created in a car culture. We may love our TV friends, but will they love us back? Jacobsen’s book raises a series of inter-related questions for how the church understands its message, how we steward our technology, and how we configure the places where we live. How we answer those might well make the difference between places where nobody or everybody knows our names.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: War in a Time of Peace

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War in a Time of PeaceDavid Halberstam. Touchstone: New York, 2002.

Summary: A history of the post-Cold War conflicts of the first Bush and the Clinton administrations, with extensive coverage of the Balkan conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

David Halberstam wrote one of the first major accounts of how the United States became bogged down in the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest, studying the various persons involved in U.S. decision-making. There, Halberstam offered at once a meticulous and riveting account of the succession of events and decisions that both led into the war, and led to the concealing of the full implications of those decisions from the American public.

Halberstam accomplished a similar feat in this work, nominated for a Pulitzer in 2002. He takes us through the succession of events from fall of Communist rule, the brilliantly executed Gulf War, a triumph of American technology, and the simmering “teacup” wars in Somalia and the Balkans, the human rights implications of which could not be ignored by one administration tired of war, and another administration preferring to focus on domestic issues.

Halberstam gives us an account thick with all the personalities — the presidents, the policy makers, the military leaders. We meet Larry Eagleburger, on the ground as Yugoslavia breaks up into its ethnic components, watching the rise of Milosevic and warning of the trouble to come with an administration fighting to meet an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge from Bill Clinton. There is a new administration, not particularly interested in foreign policy with a competent bureaucrat but not visionary Warren Christopher, the aloof Tony Lake, Richard Holbrooke, facing the diplomatic challenge of a lifetime.

The abject failure of leadership in Somalia leaves the Clinton administration all the more reticent to assert itself in the Balkans, hoping for European leadership instead. Meanwhile the situation degenerates into genocide in Bosnia. We see a military conflicted with the memories of Vietnam, and the accomplishments of its forces in the Gulf War, and its rapidly improving aerial technology. Around them are hawks like Al Gore and Madeleine Albright, deeply disturbed by the human rights violations, while others from Christopher to Clinton struggle to define an American interests, and Colin Powell from another Vietnam. Eventually, the use of American airpower brought Milosevic to Dayton and Holbrooke’s shining hour negotiating the Dayton Peace accords.

Halberstam’s account does not paint a favorable picture of Clinton. He identifies a key concern of the military–a president who will remain loyal to them and give them what they need to do what he has asked of them as commander-in-chief. Perhaps nowhere is this so evident as the case of General Wes Clark, who brilliantly led the subsequent conflict against Milosevic and the Serbs in Kosovo, working with European allies, and cajoling a cautious president into sufficient use of their air and ground forces to give a growing Kosovar resistance a chance. For his successes, he was shunted aside by Defense Secretary Cohen, who never liked him.

The book also raises questions, particularly in its closing epilogue, written after 9/11, of the changes in American society from a resilient and resolute one of the post Depression years to an indulgent society, glutted on entertainment, accustomed to wars without casualties that are over in a matter of weeks. Little did Halberstam envision at the time the conflicts going on two decades in both Afghanistan and Iraq for which the conflicts of the Nineties were just rehearsals. What Halberstam understood is the growing consensus in political circles that these wars are fine as long as the American people could continue to live on an untroubled peacetime footing, apart from the occasionally troubling news of another soldier from one’s local community lost in a distant part of the world in a conflict no one really understood. He also recognizes the short-sightedness of planners who did not see the threat from terrorist in their obsession with great, or even regional power conflicts.

Writing close to the events gave Halberstam access to all the key players. Clinton was one of the few he did not personally interview. Yet closeness to the events did not obscure for Halberstam the big issues. No administration has the luxury to ignore foreign policy–it will seek you out. Political pragmatism without overarching principle will lead to betrayal of loyalties and America’s best interests.

Like every decade, the decisions of the Nineties shaped those that followed. Halberstam gives us a rich and readable account of this important period when some of today’s leaders were coming of age.

Review: Don’t Knock the Hustle

Don't knock the hustle

Don’t Knock the HustleS. Craig Watkins. Boston: Beacon Press, 2019.

Summary: An investigation of the ways young entrepreneurs are combining tech savvy, hard work, and social capital to create the careers, with a special focus on the inclusion of under-represented populations in tech fields including women and people of color.

S. Craig Watkins uses the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives, beating a supposedly unbeatable party insider in the primary election, to illustrate the basic premise of this book. Many younger millenials are using unconventional methods to build their own careers, often on a shoestring using readily available digital technologies, hard work (“hustle”), and social capital–one’s real and virtual network of friends and sympathizers, including the communities of fellow entrepreneurs who help each other

Watkins lead off case study of Ocasio-Cortez sets a pattern for the book, where a particular tech entrepreneur illustrates some aspect of this “hustle” economy. For example, he profiles Prince Harvey, a rapper, who records his first album in an Apple store turning retail space into a studio.

For many, from rappers to game developers, what happens is they seek out cheap warehouse spaces, or at their best, accelerators, that become coworking spaces where resources like printers, wi-fi, phones and furniture are shared, as are ideas in what Watkins calls a “perpetual hackathon.” Some become innovation hubs like Juegos Rancheros, a hub for indie game developers. Other young creatives learn everything they need to innovate in a just-in-time fashion on the internet.

At some point, start-ups, even “side hustles” supported by day jobs, need capital to ramp up. Accelerators can help with connections with investor “angels,” but just as often, these creatives use crowd-sourced funding methods to secure financial capital.

The music industry is a big place for young creatives who have developed alternative models of making and distributing music. Watkins profiles the development of SoundCloud and how it has been adopted by creative podcasters, hip-hop artists, and audio producers. What SoundCloud has been to music, YouTube has been to video, launching the career of Issa Rae, whose videos of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl provided an a young black woman who the traditional video media industry would not give a second look. Justin Simien used Twitter to launch Dear White People.

The latter part of the book focuses on the inclusion in this creative economy of the under-represented: women and people of color. He describes the idea of Debbie Sterling that girls needed opportunities to build things with construction toys, and came up with a side hustle called GoldieBlox. He introduces us to Kimberly Bryant who created a nonprofit called Black Girls Code. He narrates the work of Qeyno Group, a group formed to foster design thinking and hackathons among underserved populations in Oakland. He chronicles the street activism and civic engagement that arose among young creatives following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson including Mapping Police Violence, the first comprehensive database of police-involved shootings, and the development of the Wiki-based Resistance Manual.

He concludes the book in Detroit, discussing how the new creative economy holds promise for the re-building of a rust-belt city. The challenge is moving the creative economy out of the downtown areas into the more ethnically diverse neighborhoods. One answer is Ponyride, combining a high commitment to diversity with a high commitment to education in bringing together young creatives.

This is an inspiring book. While it might be asked how many of these entrepreneurial efforts will be around in a decade, this could be applied to the efforts of previous generations. If anything, the “fail fast” and then build it better attitude suggests a far more resilient approach than the one that believed in jobs that would always be there, even passed along from parents to children. The narrative of innovation not dependent on large amounts of financial capital, but on social capital and ingenuity takes us back to an earlier time, as well as into a new era. I’m also struck by the leveraging of different forms of digital technology and online resources. Part of the “creative” is seeing how innovators combine and adapt technologies not built for what they are trying to do, ending up both changing the technology and creating new products.

I realize that at least part of the pushback against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is ideologically and politically motivated. But I can’t help but wonder if part is that secretly, people are scared by the way she combined social capital, tech savvy, and just plain hustle and changed the rules of a game that other politicians thought they knew how to play. This book suggests that the rules are being re-written by young creatives in a variety of fields. Perhaps it is time to stop knocking the hustle and realize that this may be a new way of getting things done.

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

 

Review: The Way Home

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The Way Home: Tales of a Life Without Technology, Mark Boyle. London: Oneworld Publications, (Forthcoming in the US, June 11) 2019.

Summary: A narrative of a year without modern technology, and what it is like to live more directly and in rhythm with the immediate world of the author’s smallholding and community.

“It was 11pm when I checked my email for the last time and turned off my phone for what I hoped would be forever strong. No running water, no car, no electricity or any of the things it powers: the internet, phone, washing machine, radio or light bulb. Just a wooden cabin, on a smallholding, by the edge of a stand of spruce.”

In 1925, only half the homes in the United States had electricity, which first was delivered to the public by Thomas Edison in 1882 in New York City. It is now hard for us to imagine a world whose technology is not powered by this source, or by carbon-based fuels. Most fundamentally, we relied mostly on the sun for light, with fires, oil lamps, and candles running a poor second. Mostly, when it got dark, people went to bed. Heat came from wood. Water came from springs or wells, was hand-pumped or carried. We wrote with pen or pencil and ink and communicated either face to face or by letter carried by the postal service. Most homes did not have indoor plumbing and provision had to be made for the disposal of waste. Much of one’s food was grown or raised either on one’s own property or locally or secured by hunting and fishing and preserved without refrigerators. Significant labor was involved in washing one’s clothes or one’s self. One’s community was those in walking distance or within a reasonable ride on horseback.

It was to this kind of existence that Mark Boyle decided to return and this book, the narrative of his first year living that kind of existence with his partner, Kirsty. Boyle doesn’t abandon all technology, but rather technology powered by anything other than his own energy, or the heat of a wood fire. What one is struck with on immediate reading is that this is hard, sometimes back-breaking and slow work that often takes up most of the author’s days. It often involves re-learning skills that were once common knowledge, but that have been all but loss, whether that be starting a fire by hand or fishing for pike in a local lake or preserving venison. It gets into the nitty-gritty of our existence, such as turning one’s own waste safely into compost.

Why does he do this? He recites a number of ecological and socio-cultural reasons, but the most critical reasons are ones of existential meaning:

“…I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of life again. I wanted to feel the elements in their enormity, to strip away the nonsense and lick the bare bones of existence clean. I wanted to know intimacy, friendship and community, and not just the things that pass for them. I wanted to search for truth to see if it existed and, if it didn’t, to at least find something closer to my own. I wanted to feel cold and hunger and fear. I wanted to live, and not merely exhibit the signs of life…”

One has the sense in reading this work that the author does find many of these things, most essentially how his life is intimately connected with the world around him, whether it is the stand of spruce nearby, or the pike he holds in his hand after catching it, that gives up its life to sustain his. He eyes his growing woodpile and food put up for the winter and realizes that these things represent his ability to live into another growing season. He explores the complexities of simplicity, and the complexities we avoid in our technologically simplified lives.

Boyle previously lived for a year without cash, and the cashless life figures significantly here as well. It is not a barter economy but rather communal exchanges: berries for wine, labor for food. Often it is not reciprocal, but rather a community where people help each other, and often “pay it forward.” One senses in the course of the year that his virtual community withers away, as few take the time to put pen to paper, but that he builds bonds with neighbors like Packie, musicians at the local pub, his mail carrier, and others in nearby communities. Even while the experiment goes on, the encroachments of technology continue: local post offices and pubs close, and land is cleared for agro-businesses.

Interspersed in his own narrative of the practicalities of his life and his reflections upon it is a narrative of Great Blasket Island, once a self-sufficient island but now deserted with the advent of modern technology. The island stands as a mute symbol of a former way of life.

I did not find this modern-day Thoreau so much making a statement as holding up a mirror to a world where the boundaries of human and electrically-driven technology are becoming increasingly porous, and asking, is this really a life well-lived? While I suspect that most who read his book won’t embrace the same life he did (in the end, even Kirsty does not), his narrative invites us to ask what kind of life we are embracing, and is it truly life-giving? How are our minds and bodies and communities being shaped by our advancing technology? How in touch are we with our elemental connection with the earth from which we come and to which we will return? It seems that for each of us, asking these questions are important for finding “the way home.”

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

 

Review: Transhumanism and the Image of God

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Transhumanism and the Image of GodJacob Shatzer. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An exploration of how developing technologies raise questions of what it will mean to be human as we are formed by, or even integrated more closely into our technological devices, along lines some have envisioned as a transhumanist or even post-humanist future.

A basic axiom of this book is that we shape our technology, and then our technology shapes us. There is a constant tendency once we fashion a technology to optimize its use. In introducing this subject, Jacob Shatzer considers the ways we have kept time, with ever more precise devices. Shatzer argues that the shaping quality of our technological devices has implications for our moral formation. These shape how we relate to other people and to our physical environment. They shape our sense of control over our world, our perception of our capacities.

The rise of transhumanism takes this further as we think about using devices to enhance our intelligence, physical strength, and sensory inputs. Going further, transhumanism leads to posthumanism, where our technological developments hold out the hope of transcending the limitations of our physical bodies, including the ultimate limitation of death. He traces the steps in the unfolding of a transhumanist future. First there is the idea of morphological freedom–that we have a right to alter our physical form to enhance our ability to achieve our potential. On the face of it, this seems unobjectionable, except that it may be premised on faulty notions of freedom and what it means to be human. Second, there is the idea of becoming “hybronauts,” in which we utilize technology to augment our perception of reality, whether through wearable technology, or even some of the functions of our smartphones. Where all this is going is a fusion of human and artificial intelligence, with everything from a host of robots attending to different functions of our lives to the copying or uploading of our brains, predicated on the idea that our minds are simply a complex network of data, that may be stored biologically, or digitally. Are such assumptions reductive of what it means to be humans in the image of God? Yet we must face the fact that the directions in which we have shaped our technology are shaping us toward such a life, that we have technological liturgies, as it were, that condition us toward such a future in how we think or act.

Shatzer does not suggest a Luddite approach. He sees technology as double-edged, offering both aspects that enhance human flourishing, and aspects that dehumanize. He believes the Christian faith offers practices and images that enable to resist the dehumanizing aspects of our technology. He explores the question of “what is real?”, and contends that the incarnation, and our embodied existence must be robustly maintained, and that the storyteller may play a pivotal role in delivering us from the virtual reality world detaching us from the body. He explores the question of “where is real?” in a virtual world where one loses place. He describes placemaking practices from gardening, homemaking, and hospitality, and the importance of the love of real neighbors. He asks, “who is real?” and notes our increasing attachments to virtual and robotic technology (think Pokemon and Tamagotchis) and our virtual communities of “friends.” He stresses the importance of the practice of the Lord’s supper, and the figure of the real friend. Finally, he considers the question, “am I real” and the ways we construct, project, and manage our online selves. Shatzer contrasts our efforts at self-construction with the humility of entering the kingdom as children, entrusting our identity to Christ.

One of the important aspects of this book is that Shatzer seeks to help us identify the technological “liturgies” that are shaping us toward a transhuman future. These are liturgies that propose an expansion of our control, a transcendence of limits of knowledge and existence, and control over our identify. What is most troubling though, and also something our social media prepares us for, is the sharing of everything. What happens when networking extends to our thoughts, when nothing is private for us and nothing is concealed from us? Shatzer helps us recognize how our technological liturgies, far from leading to flourishing, threaten to change in dehumanizing ways, what it means to be human.

Any of us who has acquired a smartphone has experienced the formative power of this technology, which we may be tempted to check hundreds of times a day. Shatzer’s final chapters explore the questions we must ask, the small steps we can take, the practices we can embrace beginning with sharing meals together that remind us of our embodied nature, our relationships with neighbors and friends, and create places for remembering our story.

Setting limits, setting tables, saying prayers, cultivating friendships, telling stores. I found myself asking, “Are these enough?” Perhaps the issue is, how many of us will just focus on what our technology will do, and how many of us will keep asking and prioritizing in our practice the question of “what kind of humans we are making.” Shatzer’s book helps us ask these important questions.

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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: Modern Technology and the Human Future

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Modern Technology and the Human FutureCraig M. Gay. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the factors shaping modern technology and how a mechanical view that fails to acknowledge embodiment has diminished human flourishing.

Unplugging retreats. Technology sabbaths. Concerns about technology addictions. These are all symptoms of a growing unease with how technology, rather than serving and enhancing human existence, is shaping and controlling and diminishing our lives. Craig M. Gay digs into the factors that have shaped our technological world, and how we might think Christianly about technology. He contends that what we need are not practical, technological fixes but a different philosophical and theological perspective to shape our development of and engagement with technology.

Gay begins by describing some of the ways that technology, far from enhancing human existence has diminished us, particularly in de-skilling us in both mechanical skills and cognitive function, and through invading our private lives. He traces much of this to the development of a mechanical view of the world coupled with an economic logic driving increasing efficiency, and assembly and bureaucratic control systems that have shaped the development of a technological worldview. Gay summarizes a discussion drawing on the work of theorists ranging from Charles Taylor to Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul as follows:

“As we have now seen, this mechanical world picture has deep and extensive roots within the Western tradition. To use Charles Taylor’s terms, modern culture is characterized by an ‘instrumental stance’ toward life, a stance that is ‘overdetermined’ in the sense that it has arisen from a number of different sources and is even now buttressed by compelling convictions concerning the meaning and purpose of human life. Not only is the instrumental stance supported by modern science, Taylor observes, but it has also become, largely by way of religious convictions, central within the modern ethical outlook. That outlook continues to place a high value upon taking rational and efficacious control of all things by way of methods, procedures, techniques, and technologies” (p. 129).

Gay contends that, for Christians, we must return to a Christian narrative of “where we are and who we are.” A mechanical/technological worldview loses sight of a creation brought into existence as a loving work of God and our own embodied existence. Far from a gnostic, “virtual reality,” God considers our embodied existence good. Instead of facing our fallenness, humans often have resorted to technology to evade and transcend the vulnerabilities of our bodies, and the reality of death. The redemptive work of Christ delivers us from our own technological attempts to save or extend our lives with the hope of resurrection. He contends for an approach to technology that “practices resurrection” in it valuing of human embodied existence, and adopts a non-mechanical way of relating to the world as a creation to be loved rather than stuff to be manipulated.

This is not a “how to” book on managing your technology. Gay does something far more challenging. He teases out the way of thinking that has become our “default mode” for engaging our world, even for those of us who claim to embrace a “Christian worldview.” His insights on how the logic of money is connected to technological development is worthy of reflection for those who claim to worship God rather than Mammon. It is rare, for example, to hear Christians reflect on how the logic of money has destroyed local “Main Streets” in our preference for big box and online vendors that enable us to buy more stuff for less, while destroying vibrant local economies and personal connection with vendors. Gay is also one of a growing number of prophetic voices awakening us to the dignity of our embodied life and future destiny. He invites us to recover a relationship of love and care for a creation that drives us to careful, even scientific study, but not mechanical exploitation, of God’s good creation.

Technology will not go away. Gay helps us see we have a choice between depersonalizing technological thinking, and a creational, incarnational, and embodied engagement with technology that pursues the flourishing of people and creation. The quality of future human existence may well depend not only on what we do, but how we think.

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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.

 

Books For Independence Day

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Benjamin Franklin from a painting by David Martin (1835)

“A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.” Benjamin Franklin

Today is Independence Day in the United States, the birthday of our country. What was born on that day was not only a nation but an idea eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence in these opening words:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In these words are an assertion of the equality and human rights inherent in being a human being created by God. Government does not confer these but rather exist to secure these pre-existing rights, and properly derives its power to govern from these rights-bearers. Finally, there is the opening of an argument for the revolt the Founders led.

Along with a military revolution was an intellectual revolution led by some of the most brilliant political thinkers of the day. Franklin was wise enough to recognize that a thoughtful and well-informed citizenry was crucial in every generation if what was gained and established in our nation’s birth not be lost to anarchy or tyranny.

Might it not be appropriate amid our celebrations to resolve to enhance our understanding of the history, ideas, and challenges that have shaped the American experiment? One could conceive many lists to do this. One work not appearing in the list below that may be essential as any would be The Debates on the ConstitutionThis is not a single work but a series of letters and articles capturing the arguments about the shape our constitution would take.

Here are ten others, most of which have been reviewed at Bob on Books:

  1. The Glorious CauseRobert Middlekauf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Perhaps the definitive account of the Revolutionary War, part of the Oxford History of the United States.
  2. John AdamsDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. There are many full-length biographies of the founders. Adams is lesser known than some, but worthy of attention for his intellect, his courage, his efforts on both sides of the Atlantic for American freedom, and the incredible correspondence between him and his equally brilliant Abigail.
  3. The Return of George WashingtonEdward J. Larson. New York: Morrow, 2014. This narrative not only offers one more reason why Washington was the indispensable man, but also shows the difficulties of governance under the Articles of Confederation that led to the U.S. Constitution, and recounts the debates that gave us that Constitution. Review
  4. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates the Defined AmericaAllen C. Guelzo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. These debates in 1858 when these two were running for Senate (Lincoln lost) define the discussion around slavery. Guelzo helps us understand the extraordinary phenomenon of these hours long open air debates, the substance of each debate, and their significance in the lead up to the Civil War.
  5. America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. The thesis of this book is: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” The author raises the question of whether we will face that history, understand the deeply engrained character of racism in our society, and begin a walk toward freedom from racism’s burden. Review
  6. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011. The story of the black migration to the north and west following the failure of Reconstruction, and how it changed the lives of families who made that migration and the cities to which they moved. Review
  7. The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. A wonderful collection of addresses by the author, mostly at college commencements, articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best. Review
  8. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018. Just recently published, it narrates the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul. Meacham gives examples of leaders of both parties who led with hope, even when challenged by a politics of fear. Review
  9. The Global Public SquareOs Guiness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Guinness argues for the critical importance of the human right of the freedom of conscience that undergirds our freedom of speech. Most societies through most of history have ruled by power and violence. The first amendment protections of our country are exceptional and worth not only protecting but extending to other countries, reflecting the equality of all human beings. Review
  10. Confident PluralismJohn D. Inazu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.  Recognizing the deep fissures in American society and the necessity of maintaining some kind of civil union in the face of the scary alternatives, this book explores the constitutional commitments and civic practices that make that possible. Review

There are hundreds of others, of course, that might be included. I suggest these because they help us understand ourselves at our best and less than our best. They help us understand the ideals that have shaped us, and the compromises we have made with those ideals. They explore what hope there may be for an America that is plural in character–a people of many nations and beliefs–yet dedicated to the idea of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

So, amid the fireworks and picnics and family gatherings, I hope you will find a moment to reflect on the ideas as a nation that make us what we are, and perhaps to grow in your understanding of our rights, leaving no room for the ignorance that is the seedbed of tyranny. Perhaps a book from this list might help!

Reading or Listening?

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Photo by Photorama -CC0 via Pixabay

A while back, when I asked some friends on Facebook about why men read less, on average, than women, one responded, “I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.” I started to explore and found that this is true for many people. I had been living in a kind of bubble, thinking books were things that you read.

Audiobooks have been around for a long time. At one times, they were on cassette tapes. Later they were burned onto CDs. My first exposure to audiobooks was on a trip between Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio listening with my driving friend to a James Patterson thriller, feeding another CD into the player every hour or so. Only problem was that we got home before we got to the end of the book.

This trend has accelerated in the era of podcasts and digital downloads. Sales revenues of audiobooks have doubled between 2009 and 2015, and the number of titles published increased from 4,600 to 35,500 during the same period (Source: Statista). By 2017 the latter total reached 79,000 titles (Source: Good E-Reader). Library Journal reports that 86 percent of libraries reported increases in audiobook circulation in 2016. Audible (Amazon’s audiobook company) has reported membership growth of 40% a year for its $14.95 per month subscription service.

What’s behind all this growth? A Quartz article proposes that it is a relentless drive to greater productivity. Audiobooks and podcasts allow us to fill the downtime, or even the time spent doing something else that doesn’t demand all of our attention–driving, exercising, or commuting on public transportation. While sometimes we may just listen to a book, in most cases we are listening while we are doing something else–multitasking. Some tasks, like riding public transportation don’t take a great deal of attention as long as we notice when its time to disembark and this might be one of the best ways to use the time, particularly if all of the other riders are in their own media bubbles.

The question could be asked of the impact on our lives of this relentless drive to be doing something “productive” and the effects of multitasking, which research has shown makes us less effective in whatever tasks we are engaging. I know that I cannot listen to much more than the news while driving, and if I try to listen to an interview or lecture while engaged in a task like writing, I can remember almost nothing of what I was listening to. Research suggests it isn’t just me, but if you think you can pull this off, I won’t argue.

I’m also intrigued by the kinds of books that are most popular in terms of audiobook sales. As you might expect, fiction and literature, followed by mystery, thriller and suspense, science fiction and fantasy, and romance top the list of sales. Business books, children’s books, and biography and memoir are much further down. I can particularly understand why children’s books aren’t as popular in this format. The artwork is as important as the words, something that cannot be reproduced in audio format. Serious forms of non-fiction (a good part of my reading) don’t make the list, and from what I’ve observed, few of these titles are even published in audiobook format. That makes total sense to me, because close reading, reviewing arguments, and footnotes are a part of such texts. (Source: Statista).

It is probably not fair for me to make comments about using audiobooks to read. I don’t do it, but I can see for the genres that are most popular, listening can make as much sense as reading. I did enjoy listening to a James Patterson audiobook with others in the car over 500 miles of basically the same scenery.

I do wonder about the feeling that we have to fill every second with some form of input. Are we so afraid to be left alone with our own thoughts? I wonder if we go through life thinking that many of the things we do aren’t worth our full attention, including our books. We think they are insufficiently productive unless accompanied by some other activity (which we also are judging insufficiently productive in and of itself).

The ubiquity of our digital devices tempts us to this. I couldn’t even sit through the intermission of Phantom when it was in town without pulling out my phone, answering a few emails, approving an expense report, and checking Twitter. And here I was sitting in this gorgeous old theater having just enjoyed some glorious music performed magnificently. I wonder if I were to get into audiobooks whether this will tempt me even further to surrender life in the real world to a digital one.

Mostly, I find myself wondering about this phenomenon and whether this represents a temporary fad (e-books spiked and then faded) or whether this is something different. I suspect like many things, it is double-edged, with upsides and downsides. As you can tell, I really have little experience with this stuff. I’d love to know what others think who listen to their books.

Review: Still Evangelical?

4537Still Evangelical? Mark Labberton ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Ten ethnically diverse evangelical “insiders” explore whether to still identify as “evangelical” and what that means in light of the 2016 election.

Still evangelical? This is a question I’ve wrestled with and written on. What seems clear, and perhaps even more after reading this book, is that 2016 is a watershed moment in the evangelical movement in the U.S.

The book brings together a collection of evangelical insiders, albeit not those in the news for their associations with the president. This alone is telling because one often has the sense that the only ones speaking for evangelicalism are those (mostly white and male) figures surrounding the president.

The work is edited by Mark Labberton, whose introductory essay explores how an understanding of the varying “social locations” of evangelicals helps account for the deep divides in the movement. The contributions that follow are by an ethnically diverse group of leaders who identify as evangelical (itself a startling fact when evangelical is equated in polls and the media with whiteness).

  • Lisa Sharon Harper, a black evangelical discusses how evangelicalism was both where she found faith, and found her passion for justice betrayed. Her essay raises the question of what justice will require and whether evangelicalism will step up to this.
  • Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, explores why she has remained evangelical–it reflects her convictions, it speaks powerfully to our modern age, there is a beauty in its witness, a history of advocacy for justice and equality, and it is her own family’s tradition.
  • Mark Young discusses evangelicalism as an alternative to fundamentalism and the critical challenge of recovering and refocusing on identity and mission–an ecclesial missiology across the church lines that make up the evangelical movement.
  • Robert Chao Romero represents the Latinx community and speaks both of the powerful evangelical movement within while challenging the broader movement to step beyond fear in engaging issues of immigration and the Dreamers.
  • Soong-Chan Rah challenges the American Christian exceptionalism of a white evangelicalism with no room for lament faced with a growing multi-ethnic movement both in America and globally.
  • Sandra Van Opstal, a Latinx woman engaged in mobilizing multi-ethnic worship expresses the sense of betrayal many felt on election night coupled with a commitment to reform from within, being situated in an evangelical denomination in a multi-ethnic congregation.
  • Allen Yeh contrasts the theological orthodoxy of Euro-American evangelicalism with the emphasis on orthopraxy in the developing global movement of evangelicals and that we need a theology that incorporates these voices.
  • Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today writes of his realization of being part of an evangelical “elite” that often criticized the fearfulness of the “81 percent” while being blind to their own fears. He recognizes the messiness of our scene and the need to recovery a unity not around our politics but around Christ and our love for each other in him.
  • Shane Claiborne believes evangelicalism needs to be born again along the lines of his “red letter Christian” movement.
  • Jim Daly, James Dobson’s successor at Focus on the Family speaks to the critical need for threefold listening at this time: to God, to each other, and to the world.
  • Tom Lin, president of InterVarsity, wraps up the collection with the reminder that evangelicalism is far more than its American expression. It is a global movement and the embrace of that movement as well as a re-affirmation of the distinctives often referred to as Bebbington’s Quadrilateral may be critical in our day. He is heartened by what he sees in the next generation in the movement he leads (in which I am also employed)–conversions, collaboration, the embrace of people of color (53 percent of InterVarsity), and faithfulness to doctrine.

At first glance, this might be another version of the old saw about lining up economists end to end and having them point every direction. Yet I also found several threads running through these contributions:

  1. Evangelicalism in American life is just as messy as American life. Part of the reason for this is the success of evangelicalism in saturating so many of the “social locations” in our national life. Our failure is one of not being able to transcend those locations with a stronger identification with each other through and in Christ. What could happen if we awake to that, lament our mess, and allow Christ to do a fresh work?
  2. A part of our needed awakening is to the people of color who share with those of us who are white a love for the Savior and for his scriptures, and a recovery of an evangelical passion for justice for all who are image bearers of God.
  3. Our awakening also needs to be to a movement that is global in character, one in which we are a minority, and from whom we have much to learn, even as we repent from Christian versions of American exceptionalism. How might our vision of every tribe and nation, and people worshiping God in the age to come shape how we view those peoples in the present time? A departure from evangelicalism that doesn’t reckon with our global identity risks simply falling into a different variant of American exceptionalism.
  4. There is much that remains that is good and beautiful and true, from our history, from our bedrock convictions, and from how the Spirit of God is moving amid our messy national life.

Finally, the existence of leaders like those in this book, the wider movements they represent, and the relative lack of notice they receive in the broader media reminds us that it is worth questioning the media accounts of evangelicals. I do not consider these “fake news.” I  believe they are giving us true accounts, but not full accounts of a complex and messy movement. I also believe that we cannot let these accounts define our self-understanding of what it means to be evangelical, or to determine whether we are still evangelical. For me, the contributions in this book much more closely reflect the lived reality of my faith than the media accounts. Hence, I would be one who says he is “still evangelical.”

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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.