Our Deepest Desires - A Review

There are a variety of ways of doing apologetics. For those that are unfamiliar with the term, apologetics is the process of offering a defense for something. In this case, I am using the term to refer to a defense of the Christian faith.

Some rely on evidential apologetics, which certainly have a place. This is the sort of approach that Francis Schaeffer and Lee Strobel are known for. Sometimes this form of apologetics comes in the form of historical analysis, like the process used by people such as Mike Licona. Sometimes it focuses on a forensic examination of biblical texts.

All of these are valid ways of explaining the validity of Christian belief.

In his recent book, Gregory Ganssle makes a case for the Christian faith in a different way, namely by explaining how the Christian helps make sense of the world, and does so better than any other faith system. His title, aptly chosen, summarizes the point of the volume: Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations.

At its heart, Christianity is not simply a mythology tacked on to typical human experience, it is the best explanation for everything that exists. In other words, people should be Christians because Christianity is the most satisfying account of the universe, including human nature and everything that entails.

Ganssle’s volume is brief, and is divided into four parts, with a separate introduction and epilogue. Each of the four parts consists of three chapters.

Summary

Part One deals with persons. The Christian faith entails the belief in persons who are eternally in relationship one with another. This helps to explain why we humans, who are created in the image of God, long for relationships and only flourish within relationships with other persons. It also supports our natural sense of the importance of human persons. We do amazing things for other people, especially people we love. This makes sense if the Christian depiction of the world is true.

Part Two outlines how goodness factors into our desires and how Christianity fulfills our desire for goodness. Everyone wants good things. This, of course, is something of a tautology because we often define what we want as good and good as something we want. There is, however, a great deal of commonality among humans as to what is considered good, setting aside matters of taste. And, if critics are honest, they can often discern that something is good, even if they don’t like it. Consider, for example, classical music. Someone way strongly prefer Jazz but still be able to recognize the excellence of an orchestral performance of a great work of music. Also, consider that as bad as we often feel about the world, it is amazingly good. There is too much goodness in the world for it to be an accident. Ganssle argues that the goodness we desire and often find is best explained by Christianity.

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Part Two outlines how goodness factors into our desires and how Christianity fulfills our desire for goodness. Everyone wants good things. This, of course, is something of a tautology because we often define what we want as good and good as something we want. There is, however, a great deal of commonality among humans as to what is considered good, setting aside matters of taste. And, if critics are honest, they can often discern that something is good, even if they don’t like it. Consider, for example, classical music. Someone way strongly prefer Jazz but still be able to recognize the excellence of an orchestral performance of a great work of music. Also, consider that as bad as we often feel about the world, it is amazingly good. There is too much goodness in the world for it to be an accident. Ganssle argues that the goodness we desire and often find is best explained by Christianity.

The third part discusses beauty. Much like goodness, beauty is commonly sought and found more frequently than we can admit. Christian teaching holds that beauty both honors God and points us toward God. Beauty is superfluous, it is unnecessary, but it is an amazing gift from God. When we yearn for beauty or find it unexpectedly, we should see the reflection of the Christian faith.

Part Four covers the relationship between the desire for freedom to Christianity. Humans, universally, long for freedom. Even advocates of oppressive economic systems like socialism typically claim their desire to force others to live according to certain social dictates is really an attempt to free others from want and desire. Freedom is a universal desire. Often, we find that freedom in knowledge of truth. We want to know what is. We long to understand. That’s the foundation of modern science, of poetry, and of so much that we do. Humans also hope for freedom in the future. That hope is explained by Christianity. Our innate human desire for freedom is best explained and fulfilled by the radical reality of the Christian faith.

Analysis and Conclusion

Certainly, the above four paragraphs fail to do Ganssle’s volume justice. His well-crafted essays build a cogent argument and make a compelling case for believing in Christianity. He shows why it is so satisfying to be a Christian.

This volume is encouraging to those in Christ, who struggle with faith and are sometimes looking for a deeper sense—beyond the evidential proofs—of why Christianity is compelling and true.

Our Deepest Desires may also be a useful volume to put in the hands of someone who does not find the point and counter point of apologetics arguments helpful, but needs to see the grandeur of Christianity.

Ganssle’s volume deserves a place in the library of the Christian. In fact, in some locations, this volume may be best bought in quantities for distributions for those exploring the Christian faith.

The portrait Ganssle paints of Christianity is beautiful and compelling. It is a delight to read and will bear re-reading in the future.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

A Small Book About A Big Problem - A Review

Sometimes short books can be some of the most helpful. Ed Welch recently published a diminutive volume that promises to be instructive for many people.

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The title of Welch’s latest volume is, A Small Book About a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience, and Peace. Really, the title writes a large portion of the review.

This volume consists of fifty brief devotional meditations to help people consider the problem of anger and impatience, and to pursue a godly peace. Welch addresses the topic with his characteristic clarity and biblical insight. He clearly explains the nature and typical underlying causes of anger, with helpful techniques for subverting the attitudes and behaviors that often lead to anger.

Thankfully, Welch does not address the topic of anger as a fundamentally behavioral problem. Certainly, anger has behavioral aspects, but it is actually a spiritually rooted sin. With the obvious (but exceedingly rare) exception of “godly anger,” human anger is sinful. Each of us struggles with it in differing degrees, with different symptoms, and for different reasons. However, the struggle with anger is unavoidable.

The solution to an indwelling sin, like anger, is to change one’s character. That is, anger is not usually simply a knowledge problem. This makes the format of Welch’s book very appropriate. The book has fifty daily readings. Each of them is only a few pages long in this gift-sized book. Many of them have questions for further thought embedded in them.

It would be easy to read this small volume in an hour. But the book is intended to be digested over weeks. Perhaps even repeated several times. The result should be the beginning of the heart change and soul formation that will encourage the gospel to shine through instead of anger.

Although we try to rationalize it away, anger is a denial of the power of the gospel. Anger is nearly always driven by a sense of offended personal dignity: “I wasn’t treated appropriately” or “Did you see what that person did to my child?” These are perfectly understandable responses to inconveniences and even the sin of others, which we are certain to encounter in this fallen world.

However, the gospel tells us the story of the one who was entirely without fault and took the penalty for our sin on our behalf. That story is of one who never sinned and whose anger, when he was anger, was truly righteous. In fact, the center of the gospel is that Christ took the just wrath of God on our behalf; he stood in the way of the ultimately justifiable anger in the universe so that we wouldn’t be destroyed by it.

In light of the gospel, we have no basis for being angry at the sins of others or at the inconveniences of this world. How can we who have been forgiven so much not forgive those who sin against us?

This is the sort of message Ed Welch proclaims over and over again in his little book. It has a mix of theological truth and practical application based on that truth. The result is a helpful little volume that can help to change the reader’s heart and encourage his or her pursuit of holiness. That makes this small book an important one and a resource that pastors and other ministry leaders may find useful to recommend.

Note: I was given a complimentary review copy with no expectation of a positive review.

Irenaeus of Lyons - A Children's Biography

I’ve found biographies to be very important for my own spiritual development. Ideas and lives of people who have lived well before my time often provide the wisdom I need to navigate present difficulties. It’s been important to me to inculcate an appreciation of biographies in the hearts of my children. I do this by reading them YWAM biographies in the evenings to my children and also by sharing the excellent biographies from Reformation Heritage Books in the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series.

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The latest entry into the RHB series is Irenaeus of Lyons. Simonetta Carr authored this significant volume about a lesser known by exceedingly important hero of the Christian tradition.

Irenaeus reads a bit differently than some of the other volumes in this series, seeming to be less narrative and more like the sort of non-fiction informational book that young boys often love. This made sense in light of Carr’s comment in the Acknowledgments, “This was probably the hardest book I have ever written, because we know so little about Irenaeus’s life. His theology is very important, but I had to work hard to ensure this book will be good for more than just putting my young readers to sleep.”

Carr’s efforts have borne fruit for, in fact, this book is just as delightful as her earlier volumes like Martin Luther and Marie Durand. Though there are differences in the manner of carrying out her task; we simply know less about the life of Irenaeus, and much of his life has been passed down in sometimes-questionable stories. However, Carr has done well to the story as we know it.

Irenaeus was a very early figure in Church History. He was a student of Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of John. Irenaeus was, therefore, one of the people trying to sort through Scripture to discern the true nature of Christian doctrine. Among Irenaeus’ most significant works are his Against Heresies, in which he argues in opposition to Marcion’s theological revisionism. Though it is sometimes hard to explain theology to children, Carr does well in bringing the conversation to a level that young children should be able to understand (not to mention their parents).

Irenaeus was not simply a theologian huddled in his ivory tower, however, he was also a pastor engaged in shepherding a congregation in Gaul. This biography relates the story of Irenaeus’ faithful work in an area troubled by persecution and danger from the invasion of the Germanic tribes. The portrait that emerges is of a doctrinally faithful Christian who lived a life devoted to God, which serves as a benchmark for those that come after.

The story is well-told and the book is finely produced. The hardback volumes are durable, which make these books possible to share between generations. The illustrations are colorful, with a mix of photos and paintings. Thus, the reader gets images of how things look now in addition to artistic renditions of the historical scenes. The volumes are really a treasure for the contemporary church.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Celebrating Reformation Day

I’m thankful for the Reformation. When October 31, 2017 comes around, I will be truly grateful that Martin Luther, Uldrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and many others who are less famous, were willing to risk their very lives to bring the Gospel of Christ back to the center of Christian faith and practice. It’s been 500 years since the Reformation started, but it is an important date in the history of the world that should be celebrated.

Taking potshots at the Reformation is relatively easy. There are aspects of contemporary culture that we don’t like: crony capitalism, hyper-sexualization, post-truth epistemology, environmental degradation, theological chaos. Those who dislike the Reformation tend to lay all of the flaws of contemporary society at the feet of the Reformers because Modernity and the Reformation were roughly synchronous developments. Whether the Enlightenment was progeny, parent, sibling, or classmate of the Reformation is far from a settled debate—that is, unless you want to blame a lot of bad stuff on something that you already don’t like.

It many cases, people within the Reformed tradition have latched on to various aspects of Modernity. Often, they have done so to the detriment of the Christianity they sought to reclaim from the hegemony of the Roman Catholic tradition. The unwitting desupernaturalization of Scripture into often bare, mechanical readings of the text by some within the Fundamentalist tradition is an example of the encroachment of modernity. This has led to sometimes culturally biased readings of Scripture being normalized as eternal truths upon which the reliability of the Bible depends. (Ask yourself why the culture in some churches looks like the 1950’s never ended.)

Within the history of ideas, there is no question that many aspects of Protestantism have been influenced by the surrounding culture—including forces of capitalism, (at times) Marxism, nominalism, empiricism, secularism, etc. Such influences are both obvious and, in some ways, unavoidable. The Gospel never changes, but it will always be expressed in different ways based on the cultural context.

To claim that the Reformed tradition in invalid because it has been influenced by the surrounding culture­—as some apologists for Rome sometimes do­—is to ignore the fact that earlier Christian tradition was also influenced in its form by the culture around it. The shape of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and magisterium is driven more by the social structures of ancient cultures than by Scripture. This does not necessarily invalidate that ecclesiology, but it may cause contemporary Christians to question whether having one supreme leader of Christianity making authoritative proclamations that may or may not accord with Scripture is more consistent with late Roman polity than with any framework laid down in the Bible.

The defenses to the above comment are obvious and would be worth noting in a different essay. However, they are built on the assumption that what the Roman Catholic Church says is right and the tradition of the Church is on par with the special revelation given in Scripture. Such debates exceed the bounds of this post, though I recommend Matthew Levering’s book on the doctrine of revelation for a meaningful discussion.

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The point is that culture pretty obviously has influenced all eras of church practice. But the uniting theme for Christianity is not denim skirts or Latin services, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is precisely this Gospel that was greatly obscured prior to the Reformation and was subsequently returned to the focus of Christianity by the Reformers. They did not divide primarily over polity, veneration of non-divine humans, or liturgy. Rather, Luther and the other early Reformers recognized that salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone had been sidelined in favor of dependence of heuristic traditions. As a result, they advocated for the ultimate authority of Scripture as the final arbiter of truth, and sought to lead people to live for the glory of God alone. This, and not the petty squabbles between elder-lead and staff-lead Baptist churches, is the root and legacy of the Reformation.

Despite the failures of many Protestant traditions and even more Protestant people, I still affirm and celebrate the Reformation. It represents division—yes. But it represents a division that was necessary for the recovery of the Gospel of Christ which was, and often remains, obscured by the traditions of Rome. No matter how noble a tradition claims to be or how ancient its origin, if it obscures the Gospel, then stepping away from it to affirm the Gospel is warranted and good.

There are a lot of things to critically evaluate about the Reformation, but its heart—the recovery of the Gospel—is worth celebrating, even after 500 years.

Dream with Me - A Review

John Perkins is a hero of the faith. I have little doubt that within a few decades he will be featured in biographies written for children as an example of someone who did a great work for the glory of God.

His is far from a household name in many circles, unfortunately. In fact, it has only been in recent years that I’ve encountered his story which typically isn’t flashy, but exudes the powerful, life-changing reality of the gospel.

For those new to John Perkins’ story, he is an African American man from Mississippi. If that doesn’t tell you enough, know that his brother was killed by police officers decades ago, he himself was severely beaten while in police custody, and his son suffered mightily as one of the forerunners of the school integration efforts in the ‘60s.

This is a man who has every reason to be bitter, angry, and to despise whites. He’s been given reason upon reason to reject the offers of reconciliation and partnership from the ethnic groups who were responsible for so much of his pain.

He has not reacted that way, though. Perkins came to Christ as the result of his son’s invitation to attend Sunday School. Hearing the gospel turned his heart away from the natural bitterness of his experience and led to the changed heart who has influenced many for Christ. It also set in motion the work Perkins has done in making society more just.

His recent book, Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, is an autobiography. At 86 years old, Perkins offers this book as a self-conscious reflection on how God has worked in and through him for decades. The volume has fourteen chapters, which move in roughly chronological fashion. The chapters are thematic, telling pieces of Perkins’ story, along with a great deal of thoughtful reflection along the way.

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Like most autobiographies, the best parts of this book are not the histories that he recounts, but his explanation of his perspective. Listening to an aging man explain why he did some things and not others, and what he would have done differently is pure gold. This is distilled, bottled wisdom for those who are fortunate and diligent enough to read it.

One of the most powerful aspects of this book is Perkins’ reflection on some of the sources of the vicious discrimination African Americans faced prior to and during the civil rights movement, when public displays of racism were tolerated and encouraged. Perkins notes that some of the worst racial violence came from poor whites in the South—people who were in much the same economic straits that many blacks were in during that time. However, those poor whites had something that the blacks didn’t—white skin.

Instead of commiserating and cooperating with people in similar economic straits, some poor whites cashed in on the only asset they possessed—the cultural cache of being white—using it to gain positions of relative power, like prison guard, deputy sheriff, etc. They also took opportunities to reinforce their “superiority” over people of color, living out the idea that pushing someone else down could lift them up. The reality, of course, is that such actions simply made everything worse for everyone.

Perkins is able to reflect on this condition retrospectively with grace. He’s a better man than I am, I’m sure. Instead of being angry about how poorly he was treated and how much pain many whites caused his family and friends, Perkins demonstrates a gospel-fueled love.

That’s a big piece of Perkins’ life message and the message of this book. Love, the sort of love that comes from the regeneration of hearts by the love of Christ and the power of the gospel, has the power to change things. It’s easy to forget that. Or, perhaps it’s hard to believe that when crowds are shouting at you, death threats are coming, and you simply want the equal justice the law requires. In Dream with Me, Perkins gives an example of what it looks like.

I’m not always a fan of autobiographies, but this is a book that deserves to be read. It will serve as an encouragement and lodestar for many engaged in the slow moving process of gospel reconciliation.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Recapturing the Wonder - A Review

We are lost in a world that has largely lost its wonder. Small rectangles of sand and copper steal our attention from sunsets, changing leaves, and the very image of God that sits before us at the dinner table. The chemical composition of our food, often merely the presence or absence of some ingredient, is more interesting than its savor and preparation. The many little natural spectacles deemed near-miracles by previous generations have been explained scientifically, and are thus bore us. We are jaded and blind to the spectacular in a world filled with wonder.

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This should never be, especially for the Christian, but most of us fall into the malaise of modernity that saps the glamour from the glory-saturated world around us. We succumb to the continual bombardment of media, entertainment, and fragmented attention that reduces our ability to perceive the holistic wonder of creation.

Mike Cosper’s book, Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World points us solidly in the right direction to fix what ails prevailing culture.

Summary

The book is broken down into seven chapters with a distinct introduction and epilogue. Each of the chapters consists of a prose explanation of what the problem is with a paired pathway that provides practical steps to diffuse the damage done by our loss of wonder. Cosper identifies seven problems: (1) disenchantment; (2) religiosity; (3) excessive self-awareness; (4) busyness; (5) unwarranted feelings of scarcity; (6) lack of community; (7) unregulated lifestyles. The pathways offer solutions: (1) re-enchantment; (2) grace; (3) seeing Scripture as alive; (4) withdrawing with God; (5) practicing abundance; (6) holding feasts; (7) creating a rule of life.

The bare lists in the paragraph above do little to convey the helpfulness of Cosper’s book. He really gets the wasting sickness that is modernity and its wayward children. His suggested solutions are not novel or New Age solutions, but delves into historical practices of the church to find solutions that were and are intended to make us more human.

Analysis and Conclusion

Few, if any, will apply Cosper’s program in whole. However, even if a reader gleans one or two selected practices, the benefit is likely to be significant. Re-enchantment has the potential bring joy back into life because trees are beautiful and the sky is alive. Understanding grace renews the sense of hope and lifts the weight of guilt. Experiencing the liveliness of Scripture blesses the reader who encounters a living God. All of these are very helpful.

One of the more intriguing practical suggestions in the volume is to hold a feast. Not a potluck, as most Baptists have experienced in full, but a massive meal with few distractions, bountiful food, and a purposed focus on the goodness of the One who gave it all.

Perhaps the most powerful idea in Cosper’s arsenal is of creating a distinct pattern of life that intends to inculcate godliness and communion with God. Here Cosper relieves the medieval monastic practices of their dutiful obligation and supplants it with the original purpose of the formal structure, which was to form the character of the monks. A rule of life doesn’t earn salvation; it furthers sanctification.

Recapturing the Wonder is a book that warrants reading several times. A first pass, perhaps, to diagnose and gain a sense of the whole. A second, deeper exploration that is supposed to determine which practices will be most helpful and can be best applied in your situation. It may be helpful to digest the book slowly with a spouse or with a group of friends with the intention of implementing practices incrementally that can restore a sense of humanity.

This is an excellent book. It can be read quickly and dismissed, but it has potential for enduring value. This is the sort of book that provides just the sort of remedy our harried society needs.

Note: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

To Be Where You Are - A Review

I’ve wrestled for years with my thoroughgoing enjoyment of Jan Karon’s stories about Mitford, NC and the hijinks of the population of that mythical town. After all, I’ve got an undergraduate degree in English literature and now a Ph.D. Certainly I should prefer cutting edge masterpieces that might someday find their way into the literary canon and are laced with esoteric symbolism. It might be alright if I dip my toes into the mystery stories of someone like Dorothy L. Sayers, who has the academic respectability of an MA from Oxford, but it can’t be ok to enjoy light fiction like Karon’s. Can it?

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I’ve decided there is good reason for all of us to like Karon’s stories, even if they don’t rise to the level of literary sophistication of a postmodern novel. (And, perhaps that is another solid reason for us to enjoy them with integrity.) Karon’s stories tell a beautiful story well, reveal something of what it is to be human, and leave us longing for a better world. She has created a world that struggles with the same sullied circumstances that surround our reality, but she weaves in an ever-present theme of hope. Karon shows us what life with hope looks like.

Her latest book, To Be Where You Are, picks up very shortly after her 2015 novel, Come Rain or Come Shine, which told the story of the wedding of Dooley and Lace. This story seems to focus on Lace and Dooley, too, but it weaves in significant story lines from Father Tim and Cynthia. For those who have followed the series from the beginning, this volume manages to involve most of the major characters and bring memories to surface through brief vignettes and casual comments about their activities. In that sense, this volume is like comfort food that reminds us of home and makes the reader feel warm inside.

Much like In the Company of Others, there is no major movement in the plot of To Be Where You Are. However, unlike the novel set in Ireland, Karon’s latest effort is a page turner. Every chapter leaves the reader wondering what will happen next and earnestly wanting to know. The difference is that To Be Where You Are deeply explores that sense of longing for companionship that unites the human experience. Her exploration of this primal theme through people at many stages of life pulls the reader in and makes this a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Without giving some of the more intriguing plot twists away, the theme of companionship comes through on many levels. We see the struggles of newlyweds, Dooley and Lace, as they try to figure out boundaries, communication, and all the things that tend to lead to tension after weddings. The continue with the process of adopting the young child, Jack, who first appeared in the previous story. J. C. Hogan has to work on his level of romantic effort to avoid losing Adele due to indifference. Father Tim and Cynthia explore their unique roles post-retirement, but continue to grow together. These are just some of the many relationships that continue to highlight the desire of friendship, love, and family.

To Be Where You Are reminds us that it is just about enough in life to have someone that loves us. We need food, clothing, and shelter, of course. But humans are social creatures who continually yearn for a sense of belonging. The message is fairly clearly revealed: company is better than accomplishment and the comfort of love needs to be enjoyed, cultivated, and treasured.

In this volume, Karon again explores some of the difficult life issues many of us face. Money troubles, family tension, professional stress, death, infertility, and longing. Writing as a Christian, Karon could easily give in to the temptation to simply pray the struggles away. But she doesn’t. The gospel is evident, both through explicit statement and repeated examples, but it is seldom presented in a heavy-handed way.

Instead of simply making every hard-hearted character experience salvation by the end of the book, Karon just keeps providing illustrations of what the gospel might look like in life. She keeps pointing toward what it looks like to live with hope. That is true throughout the Mitford novels, but in this volume she shows us how living with a sense of gospel hope can help us to love other people—even the unlovely.

That’s the power of this volume. Karon does a masterful job in showing the readers a small piece of what it might look like to be an authentic gospel-saturated Christian. Not the sort who has his or her likeness enshrined in a cathedral window, but the sort of Christian who lives a regular life and wakes up one day to hear the Master say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” That’s the sort of gospel hope that the world needs to see so much more of.

Note: I was granted a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Economics in One Lesson

If I could recommend one book for everyone to read to grasp the connection between economics and public policy, it would be Henry Hazlitt’s volume, Economics in One Lesson. It offers a basic, accessible explanation of why so many attempts to regulate the economy don’t work. Though laws are certainly necessary, the failure of many laws is due to a focus on the legislature’s immediate intentions rather than the long term impact of the proposed policy.

Though the book is not a theology of economics, its main thrust resonates with scriptural principles. The reader does not have to agree with all of Hazlitt’s policy preferences to recognize the value of his long-term view of the universal good and see how they help fulfill authentic justice.

Hazlitt’s One Lesson goes like this:

“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

Basically, Hazlitt’s lesson boils down to two principles: 1) thinking about the long term good instead of the short term good and 2) taking everyone’s good into consideration. Both of these principles resonate with Scripture.

First, let’s look at taking the long view on economic decisions:

Some advocates of so-called social justice, including some Christians, argue that immediate action to change significant economic policies in order to provide a rapid solution to a perceived economic problem is necessary. In many of these cases, however, the long term impacts of the new policies are not fully considered.

Looking for long term consequences instead of focusing on short term effects is biblical.

For example, Proverbs 21:5 states: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” (ESV)

Interpreting Proverbs is a bit tricky since they are not absolute, universal laws, but general truths that may have apparent exceptions. However, without pushing this text beyond its primary meaning, it is clear that long term planning is being lauded by the author of this proverb.

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For another example, consider Luke 14:28–30: “ For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” (ESV)

The context of these verses is about the cost of discipleship, but Jesus is urging his audience to consider the long term costs of their discipleship, not just the apparent immediate benefit. That Christ uses an economic example to illustrate his spiritual point demonstrates the validity of the economic principle.

Second, the concept of the good of all, not just a favored group, should be considered:

Some Christians try to argue that social structures should be preferential toward the poor or others who have real or perceived disadvantages. For example, in the minds of some activists, social justice requires progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth in order to benefit the poor. The rising tide of socialism among the “young and woke” crowd seeks to confiscate and redistribute wealth according to their desired social order, which is intentionally designed to harm the rich (or those that they choose to label as such).

The Bible, on the other hand, indicates that social structures should be oriented toward even-handed justice. Consider Exodus 23:2–3: “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” (ESV)

The passage then goes on to explain that you can’t passively ignore the good of your enemy by failing to return his lost property (vv. 4–5), that you should not lean toward the benefit of the rich against the poor in seeking justice (v. 6–8), and that the sojourner, the foreigner in your midst, should not be oppressed. Justice is the main theme.

As a second example, consider Proverbs 22:16: “Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.” (ESV)

It is apparent that manipulating social structures for the benefit of a special interest group is not a path for universal justice. This means that creating a system that benefits the rich is bad (and this is a major danger of our current system of crony capitalism), but that attempting to punish the rich through taxation (as socialism tends to do) is also evil.

The basic thrust of these passages is that social systems, including economic systems, should be oriented toward even-handed justice.

Though more could be said about Hazlitt’s One Lesson, I have come to the conclusion that there is warrant for claiming that Hazlitt’s principles resonate with biblical justice. His examples help show why some of the well-intentioned policies proposed by so-called social justice advocates are really detrimental to a holistic system of justice.

It is important, therefore, that we begin to seek a system that does not intentionally harm one group for the benefit of another and that we look at long term consequences, including systemic incentives created by social programs or convoluted tax systems. Only when we begin to ask these important questions will we be able to find legitimate answers to them.

Toxic Inequality - A Review

In the last decade or so, economic discourse on the left has begun to focus on inequality rather than poverty alleviation. Thomas Shapiro’s recent book, Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future, explores that theme. Analysis like that in Shapiro’s volume relies on catching people at the stage after the Great Recession before they had fully recovered and blaming their lot on insufficiency of government regulation. Books like this do well for their cause to claim a crisis for their advantage.

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There are basic ideas that Shapiro relies upon that are flawed. He speaks of “tax expenditures” when dealing with exemptions, cuts, and other deductions in the tax code. This is indicative of an underlying assumption that the state is the primary owner of all property and has the right to determine who should get to keep it or not. He also simply assumes that inequality is fundamentally immoral, which he makes no effort to defend.

Despite these assumptions, the book does highlight problems that deserve common concern, even if the solutions differ from those that are likely to be successful in the long run. The fundamental problem is not that rich people have too much, but that the poor are significantly disadvantaged by their poverty. The poor are, in many cases, cut off from adequate (there will never be equal) opportunity to flourish merely because of their poverty.

That should raise concerns among people across the political spectrum. Some of the case studies that Shapiro highlights reflect the logical outcomes of choices made by the subjects of the study. There are several instances that his subjects made irrational decisions and reaped the whirlwind during the financial crisis. However, there are many more cases where circumstances beyond the control of the individual or family drove negative outcomes or closed doors.

Shapiro’s book emphasizes the ongoing changes in the job market, which should be a significant concern to us all. Upper and lower skill jobs are increasing in number while middle skill jobs are largely being outsourced or automated. This is creating a narrower window for people to climb the social ladder, as the gap between low and high skill often involves a significant capital investment for a college education. This represents a challenge our factory-style schools need to adapt to, but also one which lower income, lower funding districts will increasing have difficulty overcoming.

The data in this book is sound and points toward the need for meaningful action on the part of society to seek to increase opportunities for success for those on the bottom end of the financial spectrum and their children. Some of the means that Shapiro suggests to solve the dilemma are likely to lead to worse conditions and be financially unsustainable. For example, Shapiro argues for the creation of make-work jobs by the government designed to inspire full employment. He also argues for increasing the already often unsustainable defined benefit pension plans, like those offered by many municipalities. Additionally, increasing the ability for unions to force people to join is a proposed solution. This assumes that unions always use their dues well, represent the interests of their members effectively, and facilitate authentic human flourishing. In short, many of Shapiro’s suggestions are more likely to exacerbate the negative attributes of our present economy, though they are well-intentioned.

Although the solutions are questionable, Shapiro reveals are real societal problems that need to be addressed. These are just the sorts of issues Ben Sasse was attempting to address in his recent book, The Vanishing American Adult. This conversation needs to continue as we work together across political lines to address the significant problem of the dissociative impact of poverty in our society.

The Road to Serfdom - A Review

One sign of a classic book is that the critiques it offers remain valid for years after being penned. F. A. Hayek’s famous book, The Road to Serfdom, demonstrates that quality. As the battle continues to rage between advocates of free market systems and various forms of socialism, Hayek’s diagnosis of the likely end of directed economic systems—namely, tyranny—illustrates why advocates of markets have not simply rolled over and played dead, despite the economic and social realities of economic problems.

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Another sign of a classic book is that it has explanatory power and offers brief summaries that could have been expanded to book length treatises. The Road to Serfdom contains dozens of examples of succinct statement of a deep, complex economic and social problems that arise from attempts to plan the economy.

The book, overall, is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and that contemporary supporters of socialism should be forced to reckon with. A few points, however, arise from the wider tapestry of the work that deserve especial note.

First, contrary to popular representations that attempt to associate free markets to National Socialism, Hayek shows that the fascism promoted by the Nazi’s was an exacerbation of the socialist ideals that had been embedded in German society for several generations rather than a market response. This, of course, violates Godwin’s Law by invoking the Nazis. However, to be fair, the volume was written during World War II. However, the close connection between the totalitarianism of Nazism, much like Italian fascism and Stalinist communism, is a significant point of the entire volume. Attempts to plan the economy centrally lead to tyranny of various degrees.

Second, Hayek is careful to differentiate the welfare state from economic socialism. He actually lauds the work of the British safety net in helping to ensure the basic needs of people are met when they are out of work. At the same time, he cautions against welfare efforts that that undermine the market.

An element that is missing from Hayek is a discussion of why liberty is a worthy end. That is, after all, the great advantage he lauds in the market system. Despite its inequities, the market system enables a greater freedom of choice for people. He argues for individualism, which is not quite the bogeyman contemporary opponents of markets make it out to be, but an effort to value the individual and to assert the rights of the individual even amidst the collective. Because of this lack, this work by Hayek is open to criticism that it can result in atomistic selfishness, but there are answers that are implied by the context. Hayek represents there are limits to human freedom, which should be enshrined in law. He is, therefore, not arguing for a Randian version of anarcho-capitalism. Hayek also recognizes there are externalities (like pollution) that may need to be regulated apart from market influences.

In short, despite the lack of explicit reasoning about certain moral assumptions, the market economy that Hayek lauds in this text is a far cry from the strawman constructed by many of capitalism’s critics. It is also quite a distance from the dangerous individualistic vision of market participation that is offered by some of the free markets popular supporters. There is a moral thickness to Hayek that, while still falling short of biblical adequacy, represents a better foundation than many, both supporters and detractors, assume.

A strength of the text is that Hayek shows that good intentions in economic planning do not make up for the inability of humans to adequately plan. The range of social goods that are valued by different people make it impossible for central planners to prioritized the preferred goods of the population, since there will always be competition between those goods. The priority of goods must, therefore, be imposed rather than derived and will thus lead to the constraint of reasonable and warranted freedoms of many to meet the goods of the empowered few planners.

Here again, the lack of an ethical consensus that can drive the social action of the planners reveals that economic reasoning is second order. That is, moral virtue must precede the economic system. Any economic system is doomed to reveal the moral failings of its constituent members. Hayek’s argument and historical economic evidence reveals that markets have the best internal mechanism for mitigating vices apart from centralized planning. Still, a market driven by an immoral people will merely enlarge their immoralities. There is, perhaps, greater danger in enforcing evil as an intended “good” in collectivist economics that makes the ability in a market system of to refuse to participate in immorality preferable.

Hayek also reveals that today’s arguments that “socialism must be implemented because of impending doom” is nothing new. There is nothing new under the sun. Human nature is consistent in any economic system. Our task is to work toward the best possible system of economics that will encourage human flourishing. There are many who believe, as Hayek does, that free markets tend to do that better than various forms of collectivist economics.