Review: Charitable Writing

Charitable Writing, Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, Foreword by Anne Ruggles Gere, Afterword by Alan Jacobs. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Two writing professors explore how Christian faith ought shape both how one writes and how one teaches students to write, shaped by the virtues of humility, love, and hope.

When many of us think of writing in our present time, we think of contentious writing, angry writing, divisive writing. Whether in academic discourse of a scroll through your social media feed, one doesn’t have to go far to find examples of a “scorched earth” approach to writing. Charitable writing? Not so much.

Actually, the authors of this work only have this indirectly in mind. As writing professors at a Christian college, they realized that their approach to writing wasn’t any different than when they had taught in secular settings. If as Christians your aspiration is “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17), then what might this look like in both the practice of writing, and the teaching of students to write? It is a question about which I think. This is the question out of which this book arose.

The authors propose that virtuous actions manifesting charity ought to shape our writing. They organize the book around three threshold virtues or concepts: humble listening, loving argument and hopeful time keeping. They devote several chapters to each of these ideas. One of the striking features of this book is that they explore these ideas through visual art as well as their own writing.

Humility begins in humbling oneself before God in prayer as one enters one’s study or workspace to write. Humility is the openness to God and denial of self of Mary at the annunciation. Other images point toward humility as an abiding virtue of writing. The authors go on to discuss humility in writing communities, including writing classes, and in discourse communities, where humility means careful listening to the community and attentive use of that community’s language as one communicates.

They turn to loving argument, beginning with a painting of Augustine symbolizing the triangle of head, heart, and tradition or logos, pathos, and ethos in writing. They explore our metaphors for argument, mostly warlike, explaining both our aversion to argument and why they often end badly. They propose different metaphors. One metaphor is the table, a place of hospitality, a feast together. We can share the meal with generous care for each other or we can feast in a “beastly” fashion, where we seek to get ours at the expense of others. Do we make space for the writing of others at our table?

Finally Gibson and Beitler talk about keeping time hopefully. One aspect of this is writing slowly. As others have observed, there is no good writing, only good re-writing. They walk us through pre-writing, drafting, and revising. Writing is an exercise in hope as one engages the slow, patient work involved. Slow writing allows others to join in, helping with revisions and edits, making our ideas better. But writing in hope also incorporates “liturgies” that invite God in, to inform our writing and to point it toward his telos for life.

As they draw to conclusion, we are reminded that these virtues are social virtues. Writing is social and not solitary. Charitable writing reaches out, it converses and disputes, it holds, embraces and releases. Writing in this way reminds us of our call as disciples to love God and each other, even when we argue. As bonuses this book offers an afterword by Alan Jacobs, a guide to discussion with writing prompts, an essay on teaching charitable writing, and one on the spiritual discipline of writing.

I deeply appreciated this book. For someone who never thought of himself as a writer, I’ve done quite a bit of it in the past decade. It can be hard and humbling and drive you to prayer as you look for the words to get past a block. To send one’s ideas out to others invites both community and criticism. Most of the time I’ve written with great love, and sometimes unlovingly. One writes with hope that your words will connect with others, that long deliberated ideas will give encouragement and light to others. If nothing else, writing changes us, and hopefully for the better. Gibson and Beitler show us how that may be so, to the end of loving God and others.


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: Why Science and Faith Need Each Other

why science and faith

Why Science and Faith Need Each OtherElaine Howard Ecklund. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: A sociologist who has researched the relationship between science and faith proposes that there are eight shared values that make it possible to move beyond a relationship of fear or conflict between religious and scientific communities.

Most of the books I have read about science and faith have come from either theological perspectives or those of physical science. What marks out this book as different is that it is written by a sociologist as a distillation of her research about attitudes of scientists toward faith, and those of believing people toward scientists. Her thesis is that there are shared values in both communities that make it possible to move from fear and conflict into constructive and appreciative dialogue with each other.

The first part of this book deals with preliminary considerations. She observes how fear often dominates the conversation within churches, that science is out to disprove God. Either we don’t talk about science, or we create binary choices–either faith in God or godless science. She observes that this doesn’t consider the reality of many Christians working in science and many scientists in the church, and that we might do well to listen to them. She also tackles the big elephant on the table in this discussion–evolution. She describes how in her research that she allows people to choose among six options in describing their beliefs about creation and evolution, rather than a binary choice. When this is the case, many Christians acknowledge the possibility of some form of evolution, along with the important conviction of God’s creative involvement, and the importance of the image of God, belying the science-faith binary.

She then explores eight shared virtues of people of faith and scientists. She divides these in two parts. The first are those of process, crucial in scientific research processes but also in vibrant Christian communities. These are curiosity, doubt, humility, and creativity. The second concern how science and faith might come together in redemptive practices, including healing, awe, shalom, and gratitude.

Her chapter on doubt is an example of the surprising concurrence of these values. Scientific research is rooted in doubt–either questioning an existing theory about a phenomena as an inadequate explanation of the data, or some question that hasn’t been explored that the scientist does not understand. In the church, doubt is often discouraged, yet everyone wrestles with questions while believing. Perhaps Christians may even learn from scientists, who believe in their process, even while “doubting.” Acknowledging together that we have honest questions builds bridges of understanding and can allow for real growth. Scientists can show how faith doesn’t require certainty.

Another example was the chapter on awe, something bringing atheist scientists and Christians together as they explore the wonders of the world at every level from the smallest components of life to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course for the Christian, this awe points us to a more profound awe, that of God.

Ecklund concludes the book talking about the virtue of gratitude. She speaks of gratitude in the practice of science, gratitude for science and the scientists in our midst, and gratitude for our faith. She concludes by illustrating this with a personal statement–what she would now say to her grandfather who asked her why she pursued a graduate degree in sociology when it might not result in greater pay. She writes:

I am devoting my life to sociology, and to the sociological study of religion, because of gratitude. I am grateful for my Christian faith and the role it plays in my life. I am grateful for my church community. I am also grateful for the advances that science and social science have made in helping us better understand and navigate our world. I am grateful for the scientific tools and concepts that allow us to better get along and work together. Indeed my gratitude for both faith and science has compelled me to study faith communities and scientific communities and to endeavor to give back to both of those communities. And because of this gratitude I can say that my work is part of my worship.

I’m grateful for this approach! I didn’t discuss humility, but my experience is that humility often seems in short supply in science-faith discussions. Yet both Christians and scientists have ample grounds for humility. We each are profoundly blessed in our lives beyond what we deserve–whether enjoying generous grants to build expensive apparatuses for our investigations, or exploring the infinite wonders of a generous God.

There is one other virtue Ecklund doesn’t mention that also seems a part of process. It is that of rigor or discipline. Scientists ruthlessly critique each other’s research in the pursuit of truth and often expend years on a research problem, running numerous experiments or simulations, crunching massive amounts of data. Sometimes this is also true in the church, whether in the care of framing our theology of the atonement, or the rigor shown in developing a program that serves one’s community. But we might also have much to learn from scientists in the rigor of our thinking and the testing of our ideas.

This is not so much criticism as evidence of how much fun it can be to consider what we share in common, and how we might learn from each other about living more virtuously. This provides a far better ground for good conversations that offer the hope of making us both better Christians and better scientists.


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

Review: Mathematics for Human Flourishing

0569e4e1b4786e93a5b457eb58f2bb99 (1)

Mathematics for Human FlourishingFrancis Su, with reflections by Christopher Jackson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Summary: An argument for the value of mathematics in all of our lives through meeting our deep desires and cultivating virtues helping us and others to flourish.

I have to admit approaching this book with both fascination, and a bit of trepidation. I was curious for how the author would demonstrate that math fosters human flourishing. And I was afraid that the book would reveal the deficit in my rusty math skills, that it would be a discussion of inside baseball, with me on the outside, as it were.

Francis Su sets us at ease from the earliest pages. He introduces us to a correspondent friend, Christopher Jackson and to Simone Weil. Jackson is in prison for armed robbery, connected with drug addiction, who won’t be released until 2033 at the earliest. Simone Weil was the younger sister of famed number theorist, André Weil. Simone Weil once said “Every being cries out to be read differently.” As it turns out, Jackson runs circles around most of us in his knowledge of advanced subjects in mathematics, and Weil loved mathematics, and more than held her own with her brother’s circle of friends.

Su’s appeal in this book is that we read others, and perhaps ourselves differently when we think of mathematics. For too long, he contends, we have left math to the whiz kids who can solve problems quickly and the eccentrics. For many of us, math is either irrelevant or a memory of shame. He contends we are all mathematicians, and all teachers of math and invites us to read ourselves, others, and the practice of mathematics differently.

His contention is that mathematics fosters human flourishing. We flourish as we develop certain virtues, and our pursuit of virtues is aroused by basic desires or longings. Longings like that of exploration, such as how to explain the gaps in the rings of Saturn. Or the longing for meaning, such as the stories we may use to make sense of the Pythagorean theorem. There is play, particularly as we explore the interesting patterns we find in math, engaging in inductive inquiry, and deductive reasoning to explain what we find. We come up with shortcuts, and try to figure out why they work. We long for beauty, and discover it in the sensory beauty of a fractal, the wondrous beauty of an elegant equation, the insightful beauty of the dualities in math (multiplication and division, sine and cosine), and the transcendent beauty when we realize that math can explain the world. We long for permanence and truth and find these in mathematical ideas that do not change.

Math cultivates virtue as we struggle. Su gives the lie to the whiz kid who comes up with the quick solution. Real creativity in math involves struggle, the failed solutions that lead to a novel way of seeing the problem that yields the solution. Math’s power may be coercive or creative. The creative use of power multiplies math’s power in the lives of others rather than showing oneself to be powerful. Math can be used to include or exclude and may be a source of either justice or injustice. Math can be a source of freedom–particularly if it is coupled with justice and extend welcome to all. When this happens, mathematics creates good communities, not ones that exclude those who don’t “measure up.” Math sees everyone as capable of discovery in math. Suddenly, you have a group of people engaged in joyous discovery.

Above all, Su believes that love is the ultimate virtue in math as in all things. This is not merely the love of math, but the love of people that believes “that you and every person in your life can flourish in mathematics.” One of the beauties of this book is that Su models this in the respectful way he engages Christopher’s questions and desire to learn math. It is evident that he sought Christopher’s advice on the book, and includes in each chapter one of Christopher’s reflections. At the end of the epilogue, an interaction between the author and Christopher, Su mentions that Christopher will share in the book’s royalties.

When you read this book, I suspect you will agree that Francis Su is the math teacher we all wish we had. He reminded me of one high school teacher, Mr. Erickson, who made math fun, and was not above engaging in dialogues with his invisible friend Harvey during class. Su helps us to discover the fun in math by including math puzzles in each chapter. He offers hints or solutions to each in the back, but I was reminded of the math puzzles I used to delight solving in Mr. Erickson’s class, and as a kid. I found myself wanting to find some math books and brush up my math. He got me curious about the mathematical realities I could do well to pay more attention to, like trying to make sense out of the analytics on a website and what the patterns mean, or the correlation between voting percentages and incarceration patterns.

I wonder if others will have this reaction and if in fact that is the author’s intent. Even teachers can lose their “first love” of math, and lose touch with the desires that math aroused in their lives. Might renewal come with remembering, remembering ourselves as we consider the student before us,  allowing that remembering to shape how we teach? Su does us a valuable service in awakening us to the ways we flourish through math, motivating us to share with others the abundance we have discovered, even as Christopher now teaches other inmates the math he has learned, flourishing even more as he does so.


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

Interview: Matthew Levering, Part One

Levering-003-ARTMatthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He has authored or co-authored over twenty books, including the recently published Dying and the Virtues, reviewed yesterday on this blog. I had the privilege of sitting down with him for a conversation while at a conference on the Mundelein Seminary campus. We discussed his personal journey to faith, his decision to enter the Catholic church, his scholarship, his latest work, and his thoughts on the work of a theologian and the state of theology. It was a rich and long conversation. Today’s post will include his thoughts about his scholarship and his book, Dying and the Virtues. Tomorrow, I will include his take on the work of a theologian and the state of the theological enterprise. Both are lightly edited transcripts of our conversation.

Bob on Books:  You’ve written a lot of books and I wonder if you could talk about whether there is any thread or trajectory that ties together your scholarship?

Matthew Levering:  Certainly there is a desire to be touched by Jesus, to learn about Jesus from all angles,  and to learn about Jesus in his divine sonship and his relationship with the Father, his love for us, and to reach out to him through writing and thinking. That’s the motivating thing. There’s also a strong thing that moves me very deeply of bridging the elements of the Christian past with the Christian present.  I’m very interested in scriptural reading. I read historical critical biblical scholarship. A fun day is if I’m reading something from Augustine and then I read something from Richard Hayes and I make a connection between the two because there’s a sense of the fullness of Christianity, the wholeness, that I’m not getting stuck in any one century where I’m bringing together past and present. To me that’s the biblical office of a scribe. You bring old things and new. You offer them to fellow Christians as essentially a bringing together, a meditating on the scriptural word, but with all the centuries involved or as many as possible.

And it is bringing that word of God, that Living Word which is always new, always fresh, that has all the centuries and also an insistence that the passage of time has not distanced us from the actual gospel.  I’m very concerned that people say “well it was medieval or it was patristic, it was Reformation, it was this or that, it’s been distanced, it’s been separated from the Biblical word.” That would mean for me that God was not being faithful to his people during those time periods. In other words, to each generation, God is faithful to his people in giving the gospel to his people. So therefore, there must be a way to bring together all these diverse voices, to show their deep unity in Christ. You see what I mean?

Bob on Books: it sounds to me what you’re trying to do is to help people to see how this long tradition of scholarship hangs together.   That it is Christ who makes it hang together and reconciles all things. It seems like you’ve moved from your own encounter with Christ to helping others encounter Christ in this long tradition of people who have contemplated…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s exactly the goal but also with contemporary questions, with questions that we have today, whether it’s from Richard Dawkins who is so influential– all sorts of questions that we have today. I don’t really do what’s called historical theology, I did one book of historical theology but it was the most boring book I ever wrote!  For me, all theology is caught up with the now, because it’s the day of Christ, because he’s present, he’s living. We need to draw upon all the centuries, all the wisdom, that Christ has been giving his people. We need to hear those voices, and those voices are going to be able to help us as we speak today to answer and to proclaim Jesus.

Bob on Books: You’ve mentioned the questions that we ask today. Your most recent book Dying  and the Virtues seems to address a very important question about  death and about how death shapes how we live. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what you were trying to do in that book.

Matthew  Levering:  That’s wonderful, because I wrote that book after the book on creation which was about God the Life Giver and the pouring out of life. As I pondered on this, I thought I needed to write a book on dying. Included in dying I also included the fall of Adam and Eve. That was a topic in my creation book and so I had already in mind the question of death. In my creation book I include a chapter on the fall and on Christ’s atonement. These things are already somewhat present  in the creation book. But the main point I want to get across is that for me, I can’t think of death as an academic topic. Nor can I think of any topic as a merely academic topic. It’s always deeply personal for me. When people say the word “death,” when I say the word death, I think it’s very concrete for me in the sense death isn’t an abstraction, a concept. Neither is creation, the Trinity, or anything. When I think of death, when I think about the experience of the last moments, the last days, that feels very concrete. I feel very contingent even if I were to live 50 more years.  Death doesn’t seem a distant thing from me but a very present neighbor.

Bob on Books:  It’s the same transience you were talking about in your personal experience…

Matthew Levering: Yes that’s it, the sense of transience.  I feel very strongly calling out to Christ Our Lord who dies on the cross for us.  I feel very strongly calling out to him saying “Lord, Lord is this really good? How could you leave me here to go through this threatening, this entering into darkness, a complete destruction of my bodily frame? How could this possibly be your will?” Calling out to Jesus and saying it’s good for you Lord, to be on the cross, and maybe we can build some booths around you like Peter and we can Rejoice that you have saved us Lord but now you’re surely not calling us to go through this Darkness, this sense of Destruction? My answer is surely not Lord! Surely not! Just like Peter saying by no means would the cross be good for the Lord.  

Bob on Books:  Connect up for me the idea of dying and the virtues–the two parts of your title.

Matthew Levering:  To give away the idea of the book,  it’s that God permits us to go through dying  because we need certain virtues. In other words dying is a crucial part of living and the process of dying begins everyday.  We need a set of virtues given our fallen condition. Even though we are redeemed we need to beg, we need to plead for these virtues. Dying is an instruction manual that teaches us to beg for what we actually need in order to flourish, what we need in order to be Christ-like.

Bob on Books:  I would assume that it has to do with faith, hope, and love?

Matthew Levering:  Yes it begins with faith hope and love. The first chapter is on the threat of annihilation. The first chapter is on love. I begin with the Book of Job where Job questions. I assemble a bunch of texts from The Book of Job where he questions whether God truly loves him. He remembers that one time that he and God were really close and that God seem to love him then. In fact God made him in the womb.  God knew him and crafted him. God built his flesh and bones. God loves him and put him in the community of people and God blessed him. Job cries out, “You’re not a lover, you’re a destroyer!” Job says that to God. I’m not quoting directly but he says “you’re there to destroy my flesh.”

This raises the question of love.  Does God love us? Do we love him? And can we love him given that our bodily frame is going to be destroyed. Do we love this God? Can we love him given that he seems to be threatening us? What kind of lover would allow us to go through this horrible misery and be destroyed? Does God really love us? Do we really love God? My main point is that we often don’t love God. We sort of fear God because we think he really doesn’t love us. He really doesn’t quite love us because he’s going to allow us to die. He’s going to humiliate us. In the end we’re going to be stripped and humiliated. So we love the God who sets us up on a pedestal and gives us a nice book by Eerdmans and stuff! We love that God but the God who sets us down and says you’re going to be stripped and humiliated– that God we don’t love. We don’t love the God of the cross. So we have to be turned around , we have to allow God’s voice to come through. Remember how God speaks to Job in the end. God says, “you don’t know my plan. You weren’t there. Were you there when the angels sang for joy at the dawn of creation? Do you know the power of the different created things?“

So God tells Job, “you just don’t know my ways.” And ultimately God’s point is that you don’t know the plan. The point that God has made to Job that Job understands is that God loves Job. God comes out and cares for Job and speaks to Joe.   God assures Job that his power to love is not going to be stopped by Death. The end of Job is like a blessing of resurrection, of communion in a certain way. It’s all really pointing to Christ where God shows who God is in the midst of death and resurrection in his perfect love. Since we’ve got to live it through Job, we’ve got to realize that we tend not to love God. We tend to love the God who is giving us blessings. But we tend to think that there’s this other God who is a humiliator, who is essentially going to abandon us.

Part two of this interview will appear tomorrow.

Review: Play the Man

play the man

Play the Man, Mark Batterson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: Discusses seven virtues that distinguishes men from boys, and how Christian fathers can help sons navigate the passage from youth to manhood.

“He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” –Malachi 4:6

Mark Batterson believes we are facing a crisis of manhood in our culture. We neither know how to “play the man” nor how to “make the man” and these two phrases become kind of a mantra for Batterson’s vision of recovering a truly Christian manhood, and particularly, the crucial work of helping boys make the passage to manhood. Citing the verse above, Batterson lays the major responsibility for this latter task not on teachers, or youth workers, or pastors, but on fathers. But in order to “make the man,” one must “play the man.”

Batterson draws this phrase from the words Polycarp heard facing martyrdom in the Colosseum: “Be strong, Polycarp. Play the man.”  Batterson believes one “plays the man” when one embraces and lives out seven virtues:

  • Tough Love: a love willing to go to the cross for one they love, to forgive the offender, and to weep when faced with brokenness.
  • Childlike Wonder: the sense of adventure and child-like curiosity typified by Teddy Roosevelt who read voraciously and explored just as voraciously, and whose wonder translates into humble worship.
  • Will Power: the ability to defer gratification, to say “no” to desire to say “yes” to a life of integrity.
  • Raw Passion: “An insatiable energy that motivates you to live each day like it’s the first day and last day of your life.” He believes this comes as one defeats the three-headed dragon of doubt, apathy, and lust.
  • True Grit: Commending the example of the one-armed explorer of the American West, John Wesley Powell, he talks about the physical and mental toughness that is characterized as resilience.
  • Clear Vision: Real men live out of a vision of a life well-lived, shaped by the mission of Jesus and they give themselves to instilling that vision in their families.
  • Moral Courage: He argues that Jesus didn’t die to keep us safe but to make us dangerous, which begins by choosing to wash feet and taking responsibility to serve rather than washing our hands of responsibility.

Batterson takes a chapter to explore each of these virtues, illustrating them from historical figures. One of the things I appreciated was that he incorporates honesty about where we fall short into discussions of each of these virtues, as well as illustrations from his own life. He also stresses that while he is speaking to men, by no means does he limit these virtues to men. I appreciated the fact that he seeks to encourage his daughter as well as his two sons in developing these qualities and a physical, mental and spiritual fiber, that included preparing to do the Alcatraz swim with his daughter.

The second part of the book focuses on “making the man”–how fathers may help their sons make this passage to virtuous manhood. Mostly, what he does is share what he did with his two sons in developing a discipleship covenant that included physical, mental, and spiritual challenges and that culminates in a rite of passage which included both an ordeal (a rafting trip down the Colorado River with one son, and a rim to rim hike of the Grand Canyon with the other) and a ceremony marking the passage with a blessing.

I suspect some women reading this may be uneasy about a book like this. Is this yet another assertion of male power over women? I don’t see evidence of this. I would like to have seen him add a virtue of respectful partnership with women to make this more explicit. What I see him addressing is the phenomenon of boys running around in men’s bodies, either passive or playing macho games of sexual conquest. His book is a call to character, and to the critical role fathers, or significant male mentors, can play in helping boys become men of character, of virtue.

I do hear overtones of John Eldridge and the “wild at heart” phenomenon. The question I would press with Batterson is whether this is simply a male need, or rather that all of us, both men and women are meant to live “dangerously” in Christ. I’ve had the privilege to work alongside women who are strong leaders equally ready to take God-sized risks. I actually think one of the most exhilarating experiences a leader can have is to work within teams with strong leaders of both genders who see leadership as not about power but partnership in serving the people of God in pursuit of the kingdom of God. Equally, I’m convinced that the best marriages are marked by two mature people mutually serving each other and pursuing God’s call together. While I would have liked Batterson to make that more explicit as something critical to the discipleship of our sons, his call to men to “play the man” and to fathers to “make the man” is one that I think is desperately needed in our day.


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: The Vanishing American Adult

vanishing american adult

The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Summary: Concerned about the passivity he observes among many emerging adults, the author proposes five character building habits to foster resilient, responsible adults and wisely engaged citizens.

As a college president, Ben Sasse quickly became acquainted with the passivity, fragility and a sense of entitlement in his student body. As a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, he is deeply disturbed at the implications this has for our republic. As a parent, he writes about the steps he thinks he (and we) need to take, beginning in our own families to reverse this trend.

His first three chapters chronicle the problem of endless adolescence, using the story of Peter Pan in Neverland as a metaphor. He describes a generation on more medications, addicted to screens, and for many pornography, as well as living at home longer and marrying later if at all, and intellectually fragile, wanting “safe zones” instead of fighting for free speech. He is not at all convinced that the answer lies with our schools and writes critically of the role John Dewey played in a public school movement that relegated parents and other mediating structures to inferior and subsidiary role in the development of children. He contends most crucially that schools are failing to teach children how to learn, harking back to Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning, and particularly the lost focus on the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Sasse then proposes five habits that he believes may begin to address the deficits he observes:

  1. Fleeing Age Segregation. He believes our society has become highly age segregated, isolating generations from each other, giving emerging adults no contact with life in its different stages, the changes that occur in body and mind, and the realities of death and birth, which he believes it important to witness.
  2. Embrace Work Pain. He observes that many youth never have experiences where they have to persist through pain or struggle to complete a hard task and encourages various volunteer and work experiences from childhood on.
  3. Consume Less. He observes the paradox of material affluence and the stress and lack of happiness that walk hand in hand and proposes steps to defer material gratification to focus on more significant life priorities.
  4. Travel To See. He argues that traveling early and often and learning to travel light exposes one to the world beyond one’s own enclave that helps one define more deeply the values one wants to embrace.
  5. Build a Bookshelf. He argues that America is fundamentally an idea, and that the stock of ideas we accrue from our reading is critical not only to the richness of our own lives but to our citizenship. He describes his process of developing both his own and his children’s “bookshelves” and gives us some interesting reading suggestions.

Sasse makes it clear that this is not a book about policy. But neither is it simply about parenting our children. It is about the polis. He believes what makes America exceptional is its ideas. It is critical to develop a rising generation of people who assume personal responsibility, who can face challenges with resilience, and know how to think rigorously and to engage others ideas with both civility and tenacity. He then concludes the book with imagining what Teddy Roosevelt would say to a high school graduating class.

This is both an engaging and demanding book. Sasse tells stories about his own upbringing, some of the stretching things he did with his friends that shaped him, and about how he and his wife Melissa are raising their children (including experiences one daughter had castrating bulls on a ranch where she worked). With each of his five “habits” he concludes the chapter with practical “stepping stones.”

He is also a person who believes ideas have consequences and devotes significant space in each chapter to the intellectual history of the things he is talking about. This could be off-putting for some, and yet it illustrates his conviction that the ideas we embrace, and that in turn, shape us both individually and collectively, matter. Reading Sasse, you will encounter Augustine, Rousseau, Dewey and Tocqueville, among others.

Sasse is a conservative and has the third most conservative voting record in the Senate. He clearly is one who believes in limited federal government and the importance of local “mediating institutions” and in the critical importance of a virtuous, informed citizenry.  He shares the Republican Party’s suspicion of public education (but advocates for public education may want to listen to his concerns that the role of parents is often usurped by education “experts,” and that more money and more technology often is not translating into better education). But he addresses a phenomenon that has to be of concern to every public official–the character of the rising generation, and how they are being prepared for responsible adulthood.

I don’t think Ben Sasse would mind if you disagree with him. He strikes me as someone who values a good argument. His internal argument, weighing Augustine and Rousseau against each other, suggests that all he would ask is that you give him a good argument in return. That, he would think, is what adults do.

Review: Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development
Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development by Philip E. Dow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last fifteen years there has been a focus in education circles on character education, focusing around moral virtues like respect and responsibility. This is sometimes controversial because moral values are not neutral but always grounded in some worldview. Philip Dow contends that equally important in the educational context are intellectual virtues, and these may be less controversial, although no less important.

Dow is not just spouting theory here. He has had numerous experiences in implementing intellectual virtue education in the school context and the last third of the book consists of appendices of curriculum plans, assessment tools, and learning objectives for several of the different settings with which he has worked.

The first part of the book expands on seven virtues that are at the core of this approach: courage, carefulness, tenacity, fairmindedness, curiosity, honesty, and humility. Each are defined and good examples are provided of what this might look like in the educational context. I particularly appreciated what he did with fairmindedness in emphasizing the importance of carefully and openly listening to those who differ with us without relativizing truth (“you have your truth and I have mine”). Fairmindedness means an openness to realize that we may be wrong and seeking truth is more important than being right or being “affirmed”.

The second part of the book explores the fruits of the intellectual virtues: knowing more about more, better thinking, growing in love for God, and growing in love for neighbor. These last two set this apart as a “Christian work” but much of what is written here may be helpful even if you do not share this author’s religious views.

It seems to me that these virtues or dispositions are vital not only for the richness of our personal interior lives, but also for the good of our wider society. Seems like we might be able to use some fairmindedness and humility in our national discourse around what makes for a good society. Seems like we could use some carefulness in developing everything from good social policy to the systems to implement that. Seems like tenacity might be a virtue in danger in a world of distractions. Seems like curiosity is a wonderful antidote to “whatever”. And courage, intellectual and otherwise, seems crucial in facing some of the hard realities of our national life that everyone seems to be trying to avoid.

View all my reviews

Spiritual Formation and the Life of the Mind

Recently, I posted a list of spiritual formation books I’ve read over the last couple years. Working in an academic setting, I’ve come more to believe that spiritual formation and the life of the mind are closely connected–much as our secular culture tries to divorce reason and spirituality.

virtuous minds


A new book I’ve been reading, Virtuous Minds develops this idea. The author, Philip Dow, talks about seven “virtues” of worthy of cultivating in our intellectual formation: courage, carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, curiosity, honesty, and humility. What strikes me in this list is the connection of character and intellect. We’ve all known very bright people who have employed their gifts very badly–falsifying data, cleverly manipulating balance sheets, and more. Intellectual giftedness, without intellectual integrity is a dangerous thing.

Courage, it seems to me begins with a love of truth–indeed, it seems that all of these virtues are rooted in this. Of course, this in turn is rooted in the premise that “the truth is out there”. Truth is not something simply to manipulated for our own power trips and personal prosperity. In fact, these virtues seem to assume that truth matters more than ourselves, even our lives. Courage means being willing to put myself at risk for truth. Humility, on the other hand, means being willing to admit when I am wrong and someone else better grasps the truth than do I.

I’m only part way through this book so I am ‘curious’ to see how the author will help us in the matter of cultivating these virtues. Stay tuned!




Is Humility a Virtue?

There is the old saw about the person who won an award for humility and had it withdrawn when the person attempted to accept it. Humility is a strange virtue. Some would not even consider it a virtue but rather a weakness–this was true in Greco-Roman culture. And, the truth is, the people I would consider most ‘humble’ probably wouldn’t consider themselves so, if they even give a thought to themselves.



I am currently reading The Rule of St Benedict and came across this chapter on “Humility”. He elaborates twelve steps toward humility–an interesting list to say the least:

1. Keep the fear of the Lord always before oneself.

2. Love not your own will nor the satisfaction of your own desires.

3. Submit to your superior (in the monastery) with all obedience.

4. Obey in difficult circumstances and embrace hardship or even unjust conditions.

5. Don’t conceal from your abbot the sinful thoughts that come into your heart!

6. Be content with the lowest and most menial condition.

7. Not only admit with your tongue but believe in your heart that you are inferior to all others.

8. Do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the monastery and follow the example of your superiors.

9. Control your tongue and do not speak unless asked a question.

10. Do not be given to ready laughter.

11. When you speak, do so briefly, without laughter, with modesty, brevity and reason.

12. Manifest humility in your bearing as well as your heart.

Some of these certainly reflect the context of the monastery, such as the rule of confessing sins, silence, following the common rules of the monastery. Yet even here I see some sense and am challenged–to whom do I admit my less commendable, yes even sinful, thoughts? How often have “too many words” gotten me into trouble (or at least bored my listeners!)? Haven’t some problems in organizational life simply come because I am too proud to submit to the direction of another–even though I do not mind giving direction?

There are some of these that do make sense–foremost, the fear of the Lord. Knowing that one is living one’s life before the God definitely keeps me honest about myself–I have no room for boasting. Obeying in difficult circumstances and being content with even what seems a menial place are actually freeing–freeing from the grasping and grumbling that come when I want to be somewhere else or don’t want to do what is required of me in a given place.

Perhaps the one on which I am most “stuck” is the considering of myself inferior to all others. I actually wonder if Benedict may have gotten this wrong. I actually wonder whether any comparisons to others are beside the point–even though we frequently do this. We are each unique creations of God and uniquely accountable to Him for our lives. How can I appraise the gifts of God “inferior”? Many times, such comparisons just come off to me as false humility. Yet I am also reminded of how St Paul spoke of himself as the “chief of sinners” and he really did mean it as far as I can tell.

Benedict’s words come from another time–and seem like it! I remember the acronym IALAC from my son’s elementary school years–“I am lovable and capable”. What Benedict says seems to be miles away from the culture of affirmation. Yet what I wonder, and I want to read Benedict more closely for this, is whether in fact knowing that one is deeply loved by God, not for what we have done, but “just because” is the most humbling thing of all and if in fact this releases us to embrace at least some of Benedict’s steps, not as rules, but as the joyful practices of God’s beloved.

What are your thoughts on Benedict’s list and on the virtue of humility?

Review: A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Guinness contends that great powers basically destroy themselves from within before they ever fall to external enemies. I write this on the day our government has shut down because our leaders cannot even agree to fund the obligations into which they’ve entered. Guinness’s book seems prophetic and especially relevant today.

He argues that freedom has been the fundamental and driving idea of the American experiment. But freedom has two aspects, freedom from and freedom for. His concern is that our understanding of freedom has been pervaded by the former to the neglect of the latter. He argues this was not always so and that we can learn from the framers the positive virtues necessary for sustaining freedom. He believes we can use history to defy history. A repeated refrain in the book is, “For Americans must never forget: all who aspire to be like Rome in their beginnings must avoid being like Rome at their ending. Rome and its republic fell, and so too will the American republic–unless…”

He argues that what is essential is observance of what he calls “The Golden Triangle of Freedom” He argues that freedom requires virtue which requires faith which requires freedom. By this, he means freedom only flourishes in the presence of moral excellence and the cultivation of civic virtue. Virtue in turn must be rooted in some sense of the ultimate–the fear of the Lord, as it were. And faith in turn must be sustained by freedom–free speech, free exercise, freedom of conscience.

He speaks trenchantly about the dangers of overreach which have brought down many of the great powers and it is plain that he sees this as a form of hubris of which we are enamored. He concludes the book with a call not to return to some golden age of American life but nevertheless to return to the American virtues framed by our founders who drew on both biblical and classical sources. He references the beautiful metaphor of the eagle and the sun–the mighty bird whose flight is illumined by something greater and higher.

While this book is published by a religious publisher, Guinness frames his argument in the language of the cultural public square. Whether one is a person of faith or not is beside the point in engaging this book. What is striking to me is that this Irish ex-pat (connected with the Guinness family of brewing fame) seems to love the United States and care deeply for her future. I would encourage others who love this country to consider his argument for sustaining our freedom.

View all my reviews