Empirical Foundations of the Common Good - A Review

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good is the sort of project that offers hope for interdisciplinary dialogue. The premise of the book is to provide a response to the basic question how social sciences can inform theology. For the most part, the essays are helpful in this regard, especially for those who rely on traditional Catholic Social Teachings as a foundation for their theology.

With a few exceptions, the non-theologians’ explanations of their contribution to theology are helpful. The majority of the authors avoided the assumption that theology should conform to the findings of their discipline; instead they argued that their disciplines could inform the application of theology.

For example, Christian theology makes the moral claim that Christians should be engaged in seeking the welfare of the poor. Economics provides evidence for how best that should take place. Or, to state it differently, theology provides the telos for the method of economics. When political science, public policy, sociology, and economics claim to provide both the definition of the common good and the method for attaining to the common good, they transgress into the area of applied theology, or ethics. When discipline failure like that happen, the result is the current elevation of politics, economics, and sexuality to the status of summum bonum for society. That, as we see around us, is a guarantee of the pursuit of anything but a true common good.

After Daniel Finn’s editorial introduction, the volume contains eight essays by experts in a variety of disciplines, all making arguments about how their particular discipline contributes to theological arguments about the common good. Chapter One is political scientist, Matthew Carnes, showing how his discipline contributes to a cross-disciplinary discussion through four emphases within Political Science. In the second chapter, Andrew Yuengert asserts that economics can help theologians understand the role of individual choice in seeking the common good. Mary Jo Bane, a public policy specialist, argues in Chapter Three for the contribution of her discipline in helping theologians understand trade-offs implicit in pursuing the common good. In the fourth chapter, Douglas Porpora argues that sociologists have little to say about the constitution of the common good, but have a great deal of expertise in showing how to measure and evaluate the pursuit of those theologically identified ends.

Charles Wilber, an economist, echoes Porpora in his essay in Chapter Five. He argues that economics can help measure progress toward human flourishing, while acknowledging the failure of most economists to separate economic metrics from a holistic understanding of the common good. The sixth chapter puts bureaucracy in perspective, as Gerardo Sanchis Muños dissects the failure of public service to serve the common good. Theologian David Cloutier critiques contemporary iterations of Catholic social teaching, pointing to less individualistic emphases in earlier stages of the tradition in Chapter Seven. The eighth and final chapter, theologian-economist Mary Hirschfeld reasserts the importance of theology for the social sciences, so that a proper understanding of the common good may develop.

The clear message of this volume is that theology needs social sciences to understand how to accomplish its moral ends, while the social sciences need theology to inform them of the nature of the common good. In the present fragmented state of academia, there is too much isolation in separate ivory towers. That is unhealthy for students and tragic for the development of robust worldviews that have a defined end and cogent methodology.

Somewhat surprisingly, this volume is favorable toward markets, though critical of market economics untethered to a moral foundation. However, the various authors regularly affirm the improved possibilities for flourishing that come from enabling market economics. Given the use of Catholic Social Teaching by some to argue for forms of economic socialism, this is volume that deserves careful attention. It may be that proponents of various forms of socialism are, in fact, conflating a pursuit of the common good with discredited means to achieve it.

Like other volumes that Finn has edited, this collection of essays reflects careful conversation. The essays refer to one another and show signs of having been shaped by the arguments in various chapters. This makes the volume easier to read and more helpful for classroom instruction or dialog than many edited volumes that appear to be a random collection of voices shouting in the wilderness.

If there are two things clearly explained in this volume it is (1) that we need more interdisciplinary dialogue, else theology and social sciences tend toward tyranny, and (2) we need not abandon the methodology of market economics for central planning to better approximate the common good.

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

Church History: A Review of Some Introductions

During my preparation for teaching a four-week Church History survey I read several single volume books on the topic and am here doing brief reviews to highlight the particular emphasis of each.

Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th edition (2013)

Shelley’s book is one of the classic single volume Church Histories. It has weathered well and sold well. The book is very accessible and reads quickly. It is intended to introduce people in the pew to the topic. I’ve heard of it being used as a High School text for homeschoolers, so that is a plus. Shelley focuses on the history of the Western Church, which is the traditional approach, but which is a place where other volumes may have improved since he wrote this book. Still, this is a solid volume that would be a good place to start on the topic. Shelley passed away in 2010, so it unlikely this volume will be updated for too long in the future with other excellent entries into the field.


Gerald Bray, The Church: A Theological and Historical Account (2016)

Bray is an excellent writer and historian. His single volume introduction the Church History is a bit more theological than Shelley’s, which fits because Bray is a Historical Theologian. His interpretations are fair, though Bray’s Anglican bias comes through on multiple occasion when dealing with the issue of baptism. This is an intermediate volume, but could be helpful for pastors and those with some background in Church History to gain a deeper knowledge. One downside on Bray’s writing is that his chapters and sections tend to be excessively long, which makes interrupted reading somewhat more difficult.


Joseph Early, A History of Christianity (2015)

This is a solid volume from B&H, which present Church History in a very traditional framework, like Shelley. He improves on Shelley in two ways: (1) He retells history from a distinctly baptistic perspective, while still maintaining a reasonable balance in critiquing other traditions; (2) His volume is shorter than Shelley’s, with no apparent downside. In all, Early’s volume is an accessible volume should be useful in churches, secondary schools and introductory college courses.


Ian Shaw, Christianity: The Biography: 2000 Years of Global History (2017)

Shaw’s approach is unique. He lines up the various stages of change in the history of the Church in parallel with stages of human life. The analogy works better earlier in the book, but it is entertaining. A major strength of Shaw’s book is his emphasis on global Christianity rather than just the Western tradition. This means that, in the abbreviated format Shaw uses, there is sometimes less information about Western Church History than I would have liked. However, I think the tradeoff was in the whole worth it. I would recommend this one over other volumes because I think it better represents a broad picture of Christianity.

The Conservative Heart - A Review

The term “conservative” has taken significant hits to its credibility in the last few years as it has become identified with many things that, when examined truthfully, are not either not worth conserving or, in fact, romantic idealizations of something that never really existed. It does not help that in the American two party system “liberalism” has been claimed by Democrats on the left, which naturally leaves the opposite of that to become Republican “conservatism.”

Perhaps with a wink and a nod, we can assume that Republicans still represent something akin to fiscal conservatism (though that is highly in doubt given the most recent budget proposal). However, accepting there is a higher likelihood of fiscal conservatism on the right than the left, that leaves Republicans as the killjoys of the welfare state, more often presenting lectures on the economic infeasibility of radical redistributionism than a vision for the good of the nation. It is in the latter that a true conservatism would reside.

Arthur Brooks seeks to recapture and rehabilitate true conservatism in his book, The Conservative Heart. Among thoughtful conservatives, there is a strong desire to pursue human flourishing broadly. In fact, the vision of truth, beauty, and goodness is at the very center of traditional conservatism.

Many contemporary conservatives have lost their way and become drawn into merely not being socially progress and fiscally irresponsible. However, when your greatest argument is an appeal to the cultural sentiments of the 1950s (which were pretty hellish for people of color in these here United States) and a bunch of charts and figures that reveal the inevitable demise of a culture that is rampantly financially irresponsible, you will rapidly lose your audience.

Brooks is arguing that true conservatives need to work to regain a holistic vision of human flourishing that builds on economic reality, but focuses on a virtuous ideal of mutual flourishing of everyone in society. That is, he is arguing that conservatives reveal their heart for the well-being of all citizens our world, especially those who are at the bottom end of the economic scale.

Like most advocates of market economics, Brooks sees individual pursuit of happiness with enrichment of the common good. He addresses the futility of our current spending on welfare, but, to be clear, he favors a robust safety net. However, he argues the conservative vision for a social safety net should emphasize equipping to get out of poverty. Too often, social assistance has been structured in ways that make it difficult. At the same time, some on the political right have begun to see attacking the down and out as a winning strategy (on the left they insult “guns and religions” of the “deplorables”); this needs to be rejected by true conservatives.

Instead, Brooks argues conservatives ought to work to make work meaningful and readily accessible.  We should discuss our vision for easy access to markets, especially for the poorest of the poor. This includes rolling back unnecessary protectionist laws that are designed to disadvantage need entrants into the market; it is the poor who often lack the resources to get licenses required for jobs they often have the skills to perform. Enabling economic participation is a better path to social justice than pure redistribution: it both assists and ennobles; conservatives have that vision in their past and need to make it happen.

Ultimately, Brooks is arguing that conservatives lack vision and spend too little time communicating the bits of vision they actually have. In some ways, self-styled conservatives need to change their positions to be more consistent with their historic roots. In many other way, the same people need to spend more time working and speaking for positive outcomes rather than heaving rocks across the aisle for the people who have often captured the hearts of the needy, but have a deficient plan to assist them.

Brooks is a winsome communicator who consistently believes the very important ideas that there is a true, good, and beautiful that conservatives should be pursuing. He actually wants to see lives improve and the world made a better place, which is different than the common partisan quest for power. In short, the ideas of this book represent some of the best aspects of conservatism and provide some practical steps for real, principled conservatives to step up and begin to make changes for the better.

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

A Recent Book on the Ten Commandments - Review

The Ten Commandments, known among Bible scholars and theologians as the Decalogue (literally, ten words), are a significant focus of the Christian ethical tradition. In popular American culture, they are often seen as the epitome of biblical ethics. Some, misunderstanding the nature of the gospel, will state they are good with God because “they follow the Ten Commandments.” (If you haven’t encountered this, you haven’t shared the gospel in the so-called Bible Belt.) One cannot understand Christian ethics without delving into the text and interpretation of the Decalogue.

As a result of the importance of the Ten Commandments in the Judeo-Christian ethics, the study of the topic continues at a steady pace. David Baker’s recent book, The Decalogue: Living as the People of God, represents one of the more recent entries into the ongoing discussion.

Summary

The structure of The Decalogue is simple and straightforward. Part One has four chapters that survey the background of the Ten Commandments, including their shape, form, origin, and purpose. Part Two has a chapter on each of the first five commandments; this section focuses on loving God properly. Part Three discusses the last five commandments; these chapters emphasize loving neighbor. The fourth part consists of a single chapter that attempts to further develop the idea that the Ten Commandments are applicable to contemporary life.

It should be clear from the outset that this book is a scholarly volume representing a specific approach of the Decalogue. Baker is a good biblical scholar and interacts with key textual resources and commentaries in laying out his argument. He provides some of the background on the textual history of the Ten Commandments, including how different denominations number them and how they divide up the tablets, but it focuses mainly on the text itself and not the traditional ethical interpretations of the Decalogue.

By focusing on the text of the Decalogue, Baker provides a resource that opens up the topic and introduces the Ten Commandments for a contemporary audience. He divides each of his chapters on a commandment into three basic parts: (1) Explaining the Ancient Near Eastern context; (2) Exposition of the commandment in the context of the Bible; (3) Some application of the text.

Analysis and Conclusion

In explaining his structure, Baker notes, “There are a good number of books with valuable insights concerning the relevance of the commandments, but these often lack a firm basis in the study of the text.” (pg. x) His observation is correct and his emphasis on trying to explain the text makes this volume a good addition to ongoing study of the Decalogue.

At the same time, the contemporary ethical application of the Decalogue is often best informed by the historical uses of the text. Baker’s volume lacks this theological history. For example, there is little interaction with the way historic confessions of the Reformation dealt with the Ten Commandments, and very little reference to significant sermons preached by pastor-theologians on the commandments. Baker did not set out to accomplish this is his volume, so this is not a fault, but those considering purchasing it should be aware of the limit of the scope.

Also, the explanation of the purpose of the Decalogue in chapter four is thin in comparison to many texts dealing mainly with the moral theological significance. He summarizes three views on how broadly the commandments were intended to be applied and settles on his preferred interpretation, which is that they apply to all of God’s people. Neglected in this discussion is the nature of the Ten Commandments, which informs their applicability. If, as some argue, the Decalogue reflects the very character of God, then they reflect a moral standard for all people. Baker moves beyond those foundational arguments too quickly, which, again, is largely a result of the scope. However, some of those discussions would have made this volume a more complete treatment of the topic.

Baker accomplishes what he set out to do. He effectively explains the context and text of the Ten Commandments. He also brings these divine directives into our time through contemporary application. His exegesis and synthesis of biblical scholarship on the topic make this a touchstone volume for future Decalogue studies.

This is not a comprehensive treatment, but The Decalogue, will make an excellent addition to a pastor’s library as an aid to sermon preparation. It will also make a strong complimentary volume to a biblical ethics course at the undergraduate or graduate level. Baker has done good work for the Kingdom in researching and writing this book.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. Also, purchasing the book through the above link will direct a small portion of the proceeds to supporting this website.

Just Capitalism - A Review

A lot of public debate about economics deals in caricature, particularly of capitalism. Critics of markets tend to argue that it is fundamentally unjust and based primarily on greed.

Some beneficiaries of capitalism tend to sheepishly agree with the injustice of the system but either shrug their shoulders because they feel they can’t change it or support it anyway because they like the prosperity that comes through the market system.

Brent Waters takes a significantly different approach. He writes,

My principal contention is that globalization is the only credible means at present for alleviating poverty on a global scale. Consequently, a well-ordered global capitalism is compatible with such core convictions as the preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing. To be naively anticapitalism is thereby to effective opt against the poor and diminish human flourishing. Therefore, an ethic of globalization necessarily entails a defense of capitalism.

This is, in fact, why I am pro-markets and anti-socialism. No economic system is perfect because they all involve imperfect, sinful humans. The free market economic system will not prevent all human suffering; however, it has proven to be a better tool to alleviating human suffering than various attempts at socialism.

Summary

Waters argues his thesis in two parts. The first five chapters of the volume outline the necessity of exchange and the place of Christians to argue for market systems. His first chapter summaries some of the historical arguments about wealth and poverty. Chapter Two defines what Waters means by markets and argues for the good in competition and cooperation that are necessary for a market economic system. In the third chapter, the author addresses the topic of creative destruction, the relationship of markets to governance, and an argument that markets represent the best means for improving human flourishing on a broad scale. Chapter Four makes a case for the good of affluence as a pathway to flourishing. The fifth chapter, which closes out the first part of the book, makes the case that affluence is the best means of eradicating poverty on a wide scale.

Part Two of Just Capitalism builds on the general affirmation of free markets, as offered in the first part, but critiques the failures in most current forms of capitalism.  The upshot of the last five chapters is that free markets without virtuous people engaged in exchange are no less evil than socialism. In Chapter Six, Waters argues that exchange is necessary for human flourishing, but it must be oriented toward that end rather than simply focusing on increasing one’s economic status. The seventh chapter shows that for markets to achieve their purpose, they must function within the context of a civil society with the purpose of sharing the goods of creation. Chapter Eight offers some provisional thoughts on possible relationships between a free, civil society that enables exchange with political orderings that prevent abuse. The ninth chapter fleshes out the concepts of freedom and justice, making an implicit case about the differences between positive and negative rights and their relationship with justice. Chapter Ten functions as a conclusion, where Waters draws together the threads of his earlier arguments to further emphasize the good that global capitalism can do to alleviate poverty.

Analysis and Conclusion

Waters is clearly not arguing that every instance of capitalism is good. Neither is he arguing that the present instantiation of global capitalism has no flaws. Many contemporary critics of global capitalism assume that the abuses that arise within existing markets are necessarily a feature and not a bug of the system. On the other hand, some proponents for markets insufficiently critique the sin that is evidenced in current markets and often make a similar assumption that some of the worst aspects of global capitalism are a necessary evil.

This book challenges assumptions on both sides. Economic systems are not inherently unjust or just. However, Waters carefully argues that free markets have a higher probability in resulting in just outcomes due to the self-corrective nature of the market system. At the same time, simply accepting capitalism without working to morally form the members of the market will lead to exclusion of potential market contributors due to social injustices. Waters’ book explains that markets can be good, but we have to work at keeping them moral.

This is the best moral case for the free market economic system that I have seen. There are points where one can disagree with Waters, but he realistically examines the benefits and risks of capitalism, showing that in the balance global capitalism is the best means of alleviating poverty.

Just Capitalism
$31.70
By Brent Waters

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The above link is an affiliate link.

The Fellowship - A Recent Book for Inklings Fans

For many fans the Inklings, anything about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their assorted friends is welcome. We’ve pored over the literary works of both men and the apologetic contributions of Lewis and still celebrate any tidbit that might help to explain why their stories move us so deeply and inspire us to live more richly.

At this point, decades after the last of the first-generation Inklings have died with only Christopher Tolkien—J. R. R. Tolkien’s son—­­still alive, many books have been written about this literary club and their assorted works. And yet, avid readers still snap up new entries into the discussion. In reality, there are still untapped manuscripts, correspondences, and connections to be made, so many of these works make legitimately original contributions to the field.

The 2015 volume The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is just such a volume. Penned by a husband and wife team who both teach at Smith College, Philip and Carol Zaleski, this book groups Tolkien, Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. Barfield is much less discussed in Inklings studies, in part because his public prominence largely occurred after the Inklings had ceased meeting and in part because of his connection to Tolkien and Lewis. Williams is better known, but less popular than Tolkien and Lewis, in part because of his esoteric version of Christianity.

The Zaleski’s have accomplished a feat in this volume. They have written a scholarly tome that is lucid and engaging. There are places where the tempo drags a bit, but given there are just over five-hundred pages of text, enticing the reader to make it to the finish line is in itself an accomplishment.

Summary

The format of the book is mainly chronological, though in an attempt to weave back and forth between the four figures they are discussing, there are points where the tales get out of order. However, the markers in the text are clear and shift in timeframe does not result in a confused muddle, as it too easily can. Overall, the book emphasizes the literary lives of Tolkien and Lewis more than the other two. This makes sense, since Barfield and Williams are less publicly known, have a less significant body of work, and are interesting in large part because of their influence on Tolkien and Lewis.

The book is a literary biography, which means that it emphasizes the written work of the four men, using biographical data to inform the argument. It shows how their literary works developed and the circumstances under which they evolved.

In our day of electronic communication, one wonders if such a project will be possible for whoever contemporary authors of interest will be. However, the Inklings left behind ample correspondence, diaries, and other artifacts to piece together a reasonable history.

Analysis and Conclusion

The weakness in this volume, as in many literary accounts of the Inklings, is that theology is handled in a confusing and sometimes non-discerning manner. Specifically, the four Inklings discussed in this volume are all discussed as equally Christian. Yet, Williams was syncretistic, bringing elements of the occult and other mystical theories into his Christianity. Similarly, Barfield engaged in downright pagan practices. Both Barfield and Williams were quite far from any orthodox version of Christianity, but those divergences are glossed over in this volume. Additionally, the Zaleski’s—who are Roman Catholics—take great pains to pitch Lewis as on the threshold of Catholicism in several instances. They are also apologetic as times when Lewis makes statements that clearly differentiate Christianity from other religions, particularly Judaism. As intriguing as this volume is, it isn’t clearly a reliable source for the theological lives of the Inklings.

That notwithstanding, this is an excellent book. Others who are interested in the Inklings will find this a rich resource that should influence Inklings studies for years to come. The Zaleski’s should be applauded for their careful research and elegant prose.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume without expectation of a positive review. Also, the above link is an affiliate link.

Is the American Adult Vanishing?

It’s hard not to get caught up in bashing earlier generations. Complaining about “kids these days” is standard practice for people, perhaps it is hard wired into the human genome. The young are the most inexperienced at “life,” which leads them to make mistakes that older generations (in their own mind) would never have made. Such complaining is a generational rite of passage.

At the same time, as Ben Sasse points out, the unprecedented, wide-spread material prosperity that is unique to this post-industrial era is having consequences. When you add the lingering effects of the Great Recession on the lower and middle classes to the rapid and ongoing upheaval in technology to our reliance on an educational system that reflects dated methods and structures and you’ve got a recipe for a generational crisis.

The data does show, in fact, that we are having a generational crisis. It’s not just cranky old people. There are huge number of young people worldwide who are experiencing a failure to launch. They graduate high school, go to college, and return home to live in their parent’s basement for an extended period of time. It’s not like they are working on the family farm, instead they are dragging out the experience of adolescence—a recently invented period where basically physically mature humans have diminished responsibilities.

The seemingly permanent delay of adulthood is having and will have significant societal implications for the coming years. Sasse’s book talks about that problem while presenting thoughtful solutions that are worth considering.

Summary

Part One of the volume lays out the problem. He surveys the sociological data, which is abundant, noting that traditional, adult responsibilities are getting pushed later and later in life. A significant contributor to this, he argues, is that society has worked hard to protect children from real citizenship responsibilities, contribution through meaningful work, and prevention of scar tissue. Much of this is well-intentioned, but it has the negative effect of forming people less likely to engage culture. Closing out this section of the book, Sasse grabs onto one of the third-rails of politics: a discussion of education. He challenges the notion that more school is the answer to our growing problem. In part, the problem with the “more school” approach is that it is built on Dewey’s flawed foundation that he intended to replace the nuclear family structure with community schooling. Dewey’s approach, Sasse argues, is exacerbating the problems we are having today.

If Sasse had stopped with his first three chapters, the book would have been interesting, but simply another “you kids get off my lawn book.” Instead, however, Sasse offers some possible solutions for parents and communities in Part Two. First, the Senator from Nebraska recommends generational integration. One of the contributors to the “failure to launch” has been our penchant for keeping people in different decades away from one another. Seeing old people be old and still human helps build compassion, it also helps memory transfer from one generation to another. Sasse also recommends finding ways for kids to work. That is increasingly difficult in our day, which due to some warranted safety concerns and sometimes exaggerated concerns about extending childhood can become a source of political and social tension. He outlines how his family sent his daughter to a ranch to experience hard work and what his daughter learned from it.

The book also recommends toughening ourselves and our kids by simply consuming less. Here Sasse commends teaching kids to value production and not simply consumption. He’s offered it as a solution to prolonged adolescence, but it also serves to benefit people’s financial stability and environmental impact. For those that are able, Sasse recommends traveling far and light with the intention of experiencing other cultures, not just seeing the famous landmarks. In the next chapter, Sasse’s penchant for classical learning comes out as he talks about building a personal library of significant books. He makes some recommendations and discusses his method for building his own list of books. It is worth noting that he intentionally includes volumes that he significantly disagrees with because they challenge and shape his thinking. Finally, the book recommends returning to the idea of America, which was imperfectly implemented, but which has a great deal of power. Mutual respect across ideologies, community built across socioeconomic lines, fervent optimism in the pursuit of happiness are more significant parts of the American dream than a big bank account. We need to remember that.

Analysis and Conclusion

I found Sasse’s book to be refreshing. I’ve got kids that sometimes reflect the malaise of the contemporary culture, despite my best attempts to toughen them. I also see young people around me that don’t have the experiential resources to get out of the nest. Much of Sasse’s book helps deal with that and offers meaningful recommendations.

One criticism of Sasse’s book that has been floated in another review is that it is too work-centric and glorifies the individual excessively. Sasse does talk about work a lot. In part, this is because meaningful work is a key to satisfaction with life. He doesn’t believe in the projections of a workless future, though he believes that workforce disruption is coming and will remain. Helping people become resilient is part of his resistance to that growing problem. Sasse talks about work because our culture thinks improperly about work.

Sasse also talks about individuals becoming more self-reliant. I don’t believe Sasse is arguing for an atomistic individualism, which is an unfortunate ideal in many libertarian circles. The individualism Sasse is arguing for is a communitarian individualism that recognizes the necessity of individuals contributing to society and doesn’t expect the impersonal mass of “community” or “government” to solve problems. In order to have community, there have to be distinct individuals contributing to the common good and not simply living in dependence on someone else to solve the problem. In other words, there have to be people who are willing to jump in to solve the problem and take individual initiative to become part of the community solution.

It is easy to talk about community and interdependence when you are a student living in a largely age-segregated oasis removed from the mass of society. When community consists of playing board games or eating together with few friends who have basically the same needs and concerns you do, it is easy to pontificate against “rugged individualism.” When needs are diverse and resources limited, however, an individualism that consists of someone deciding they will not let the initiative fail or someone in their community starve is necessary. It’s the latter form of individualism—personal determination to make a contribution to the common good—that I believe Sasse is describing. I also think we would benefit from less atomism and more determination to contribute in our American individualism. Sasse could have been more explicit in his definition on this point, but I think his point remains.

This is a book is worth reading. It makes a contribution to the contemporary conversation that is neither shrill nor pat in its complaints and recommendations. This is also a volume that can suffer from being placed in a position of exaggerated significance. The Vanishing American Adult is a piece of the conversation, it is not an epoch defining volume. Like most books, it has a limited purpose. Sasse’s argument is not made to carry the weight of the world and will collapse if people expect it to solve all of America’s problems. It is worth reading and engaging. I think it has explanatory power and some good suggestions. It is, however, simply a tool to point us toward the necessary, deeper conversations we desperately need to have.

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

I Have No Opinion About Whatever Is Making You So Mad

I have no opinion about whatever it is that someone did, said, wrote, or believed that has you so upset.

Even if I had an opinion about it, I might not want to air it publicly.

Simply because I am not speaking out for or against whatever just happened does not mean that I am against or for it. Nor does it mean that I am a co-conspirator in injustice. That isn’t how guilt works. Really.

Opinions

I have strong opinions about many things. Many of them are also deeply researched. I am, academically and vocationally speaking, competent and qualified to speak on a number of issues. I am personally acquainted with some things well enough to comment on them and have reasonable and warranted opinions.

I am not, however, prepared to comment on the latest snippet of news, out of context interview sound bite, or social hoopla that has been uncovered or invented in the last 24 hours. In fact, to speak on this issue would be inappropriate unless I had some unique background in the subject matter, additional context to add, and awareness of more than the drive by commentary that has everyone so upset.

A Historical View

When the historians write the story of our present age, I fully expect them to describe how much disinformation and overreaction there was because people didn’t take time to think and weren’t equipped to do the necessary thinking.

They may call us this the age of the flip out, the knee jerk, and the public flop and twitch.

It’s not like these are different fundamentally than any other generation. Propaganda was alive and well in previous centuries. Wars have been started due to failed romances and jilted lovers.

What is different is that the flop and twitch is constant and ever shifting. We don’t even have the common decency to get upset about one thing and rail against it for several weeks. Instead, we have a new freak out every day.

Also, something different is this foolish idea that not flopping and twitching over everything that makes X upset—which may or may not be true—constitutes material participation in the alleged evil that is being freaked out about.

Just the Facts, Ma'am

In fact, many times, the freak out is not over what someone actually did or said, but what someone thinks they meant based on misreading or misunderstanding what they wrote, said, or did.

Someone sees something and misinterprets it as malicious. Several people blog about the evils of the malevolent action. Suddenly there is a fire storm in which anyone who doesn’t storm the battlements is guilty of hating puppies. Several people blog about the lack of response by “important people” who haven’t spoken out about the issue because they obviously don’t care. Meanwhile, half the people being maligned may actually know something that gives them a different position, not be aware of the situation, or simply not feel that the issue is worth addressing with such vigor. However, they must be burned at the altar of activism for their sin of inactivity.

While all of this is happening, before a response can be ventured and research conducted a new “crisis” has arisen that demands instantaneous, fact-less condemnation. Even if a correction is made, it is rarely read and the “hot take” condemnation of the event and the silent people allegedly condoning the supposed evil remain permanent artifacts on the internet. Rinse and repeat.

False Alarm Fatigue

Do you remember the red cups at Starbucks? I don’t think anyone was actually ever upset about the cups themselves, but there was a veritable cyclone of blame and aspersion flying around the web.

This is creating an environment in which Twitter—a social media platform that could be fun—is dying because smart, thinking people are getting tired of people with too little information demanding absolute agreement with their opinion of everything instantaneously and without qualification.

How many well-wrought books are we going to lose to foolish reactions on the internet? How many reputations are going to be ruined on the altar of condemnation for an improper or insufficient response?

In the meanwhile, I have no opinion about what you are upset about. Or, perhaps I have an opinion, but I don’t think it adds to the conversation.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A Review

Getting into a topic is the hardest part about research. Most people don’t notice this because they stop doing research when their last academic paper is due. However, if you remember trying to get started on the research for your most recent project, you may know what I mean.

Search around on the internet, check the library catalog, or scan the shelves and you may find dozens of sources, but which one is going to be the most helpful to get introduced into the discussion. Recently I began to dig into African American Christian history and was pleased to cut the Gordian knot, as it were, by asking a friend who is an expert in the topic. His recommendation turned out to be so helpful that I am passing it along for you.

Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity is part of the African American History Series from Rowman and Littlefield. He teaches at University of Colorado and has authored a number of volumes on the topic of race and religion in the U.S. He presents an honest account that avoids revision on both ends of the spectrum.

Summary

This brief volume contains six chapters, with a separate introduction and conclusion. The introduction outlines the major themes in African American Religious History, laying the groundwork for the remainder of the volume. Chapter One offers a sweeping overview of African and African American religious experience from the Middle Passage to the Great Awakening; this experience consisted largely of syncretism with a strong dose of opposition of Christianization of slaves by white owners due to concerns it would cause them to desire freedom.

The second chapter documents the early stages of Christianity among slaves, which originated in the urban centers of the North and in the slave quarters. The revival of religious interest among residents of the colonies led to the evangelization of slaves and freemen, and the founding of the earliest traditionally black denominations. Chapter Three surveys the thirty or so years before the Civil War. This period included a high degree of revivalistic evangelism of slaves in the South, and the evolution of a distinct theology among slaves which emphasized liberation with an eye toward dual fulfillment in the present and the future.

In the fourth chapter, Harvey traces the history of African American Christianity from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of the Twentieth Century. It was during this time that blacks began to identify as African Americans as they sought to find their identity amidst their new freedom. This was also a time when whites in the South began to form laws to restrict the freedom of blacks. African Americans also founded a number of new denominations as they sought to live and worship freely. Chapter Five summarizes the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is a period of time when African Americans began to increasingly migrate northward to urban centers and the church became a powerful social center for those displaced communities.

Chapter Six details some of the Civil Rights Movement, shifts toward religious pluralism in some areas, and the continued pursuit of justice in the African American churches. The body of the text concludes with a very brief outline that recaps the volume and makes clear the connection between the prophetic preaching of someone like Jeremiah Wright and the long, dark history of the African American Church. After the epilogue, Harvey provides a number of brief primary source documents that support and illustrate his earlier arguments.

Analysis and Conclusion

Through the Storm, Through the Night is far from an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but it provides an excellent entry point into an interesting and important part of Church History. For those seeking to gain a deeper appreciation for Black History, particularly the history of African American Christianity, this would be an excellent starting point.

Harvey does what is vital for an introductory volume: he tells a good story and makes the reader want to know more. More significantly, he opens up the conversation on a topic that is only becoming increasingly important. The history of the African American portion of the universal church may well, in future, be a model for public engagement, theological fidelity, and social endurance for others.

An Excellent Introduction to Church History

Recently I taught a four-week series on Church History on Wednesday evenings to my local church. My pastor wanted to expose the congregation to some of the sweep of our collective history, particularly in light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

As usual, when I have a teaching opportunity, I over-prepared. I re-read many of my notes from seminary, re-read several surveys of Church History, and read a handful of new books on the subject. Since my preparation time was somewhat limited by ongoing life commitments and I had only four 1-hour sessions to teach in, I spent more time with one volume surveys of Church History than monographs or multi-volume overviews.

The recent volume, A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey, by Joseph Early was one of the most helpful volumes I encountered.

Analysis

Early approaches his survey from a distinctly Baptist position, which is helpful since, as he notes in the Preface, many of the surveys of Church History were written from a distinctly Roman Catholic perspective. For much of Church History, this is fine, except they tend to handle the Reformation as an innovation instead of a return to orthodox roots. In a concise volume like A History of Christianity, there is little room for commentary, but Early is more even-handed in his presentation than some authors.

There are twenty-nine chapters in this volume, which I will not survey in depth in this review. Each chapter is about fifteen pages in length. This arrangement lends itself to easy bedtime reading or reasonable reading assignments for an academic setting. The text is well-provided with headings at reasonable intervals that serve as topic markers for the reader or researcher and opportunities for respite for those reading on a busy schedule. Unlike some of the other volumes on the market, this book uses a humanely large font with sufficient margins for note taking.

While comments about the construction and design of a book may seem like odd fodder for a book review, the quality of publication is part of what sets this volume apart. Each one of the single volume surveys of Church History I read is attempting to approximately the same thing in a few hundred pages. They all have the same facts to present and very little space to arrange them. There is little room for competitive advantage in content, but readability can make a difference. It certainly does in this case.

One place where I will grant Ian Shaw’s Christianity: The Biography a slight edge over Early is that Shaw takes great efforts to highlight the non-Western Church History. Early’s presentation of Church History tends to be a more traditional, bread and butter summary of Christianity in the global North and West. Early acknowledges the ethnic shift in the composition of global Church in the last chapter, but the main thrust of the book focuses on European Christianity.

One of the greatest strengths of the book is that Early engages in his historical task through the eyes of a person of faith discussing the lives and actions of people of faith. Sometimes histories of the Church get bogged down in commentary on power struggles, conflict, and personalities. It is refreshing to see an author simultaneously recognize the reality of power struggles while simultaneously seeing that many of those struggles were driven by faith, not merely political aspirations.

Conclusion

This is a book that I will return to again in the future. I will ensure it is stocked on the resource shelf at my local church. As I ponder how to teach Church History to my children, this book remains a solid option. It is concise, accurate, and well-written. I commend this book to pastors as a reference for weaving history accurately into sermons. This would also make a suitable text for an introductory course at the college level.

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