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.

Is Governance Apart from Government Possible?

How much government is sufficient? What sort of governance is appropriate?

Contrary to popular belief, the common view even among free market advocates is that some government is good. Most people argue government is necessary to enforce contracts, ensure market participants act in good faith, maintain law and order in the street, etc.

Edward Stringham’s recent book, Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life, seeks to upend that common view. What he ends with is a thesis that points toward valuing and celebrating private governance, which is an idea vastly different that anarchy.

Summary

The book is divided into three uneven parts. Part One consists of three chapters that explain what private governance is and why it is often preferable to government. Part Two contains eight chapters in which Stringham walks through historical and modern examples of private governance in action. Part Three has three chapters attempting to summarize the lessons learned about private governance from the previous eleven chapters.

As Stringham outlines in his introduction, “Private Governance describes some of the major mechanisms that private parties use to produce social order and highlights how modern markets would not be possible without them.” Basically, he is describing the reality that the government cannot effectively regulate the market, no matter how hard it tries. That, however, is something entirely different than saying the market is unregulated.

The “legal centralist” view, as Stringham calls it posits the law as a sort of Deus ex machina that can step in to settle disputes, enforce contracts, and make everything go just right. Even among free market advocates, there is still a strong acceptance of legal centralism.

Instead, Stringam argues, club rules are both more effective, more fair, and more likely to result in mutually acceptable outcomes. Voluntary associations, which are a bedrock of a free society, are typically more effective in governing because they tend to be interested in overall success, not merely seeking self-justification or simply unconcerned for the outcome as much of the government can be.

This is a bold thesis, so Stringham provides a number of case studies to illustrate when private governance worked well in the absence of legal support. The most startling example is of the world’s first stock market, which was founded in the early 17th century in Amsterdam. The early market had a wide range of securities with contracts that the government expressly refused to enforce. And yet stock in the East India Company and other ventures were traded successfully between willing market participants. New derivative forms of stock were invented and futures contracts arranged, all without legal enforcement.

Similarly, the London Stock Exchange arose as a club designed to self-regulate to ensure fair play among its members. Because access to the market was not guaranteed, it encouraged right dealing. So, Stringham is showing, it isn’t that there was no governance, it is that the governance came from non-legal, club-style regulations.

Self-governance led to the creation of mandatory reporting requirements and audit requirements in some stock exchanges. However, those who were willing to accept more risk could form different privately regulated exchanges that managed risks less rigorously.

Stringham provides several other very interesting examples where, undeniably, private governance worked more effectively that legal structures could have. He recounts how PayPal uses private governance to ensure good faith on the vast majority of transactions; transactions that are too small to make legal recourse worthwhile. He recounts the successful use of private police forces in San Francisco when the government was unable or unwilling to deal with threats. He also spends a chapter talking about self-governance, which can be more successful than we allow often simply because of common grace. Stringham spends a chapter outlining the role and benefits of arbitration. He also helps to explain how private governance actually helped mitigate the 2008 financial crisis and how government action significantly contributed to the problems.

Whether you accept his final thesis or not, the examples he provides all illustrate the possibility of significant, complex forms of private governance that help markets and the people who engage in them flourish.

In the last few chapters, Stringham seeks to show how government strips away agency from the customer by intruding in the relationship between the customer and the company. He argues that more often than most acknowledge, governments cross over the threshold from helping to hurting those in the market. Surprisingly, he applies his thesis to the economic philosophy of Hayek and argues that Hayek was too strongly reliant upon government to regulate the market. Stringham concludes the book with an appeal to continue to value private governance, to argue for it, and to seek to reduce imperial entanglements in the market as much as possible.

Analysis and Conclusion

Stringham’s thesis is thought provoking. He argues it well and provides a number of case studies that illustrate clearly how private governance succeeded when most people would expect it to fail. While he didn’t pull me all the way into his camp in eschewing reliance on government enforcement, he does provide a great deal to reflect upon.

Significantly, it isn’t clear that Stringham adequately considers that lack of parity between customers and many corporations. For example, mandatory arbitration clauses are now included in many contracts as a standard feature. So, for example, customers defrauded by Wells Fargo’s malicious creation of accounts on their behalf were prohibited from legal action because of an arbitration clause. When there are no other legitimate options (most banks use some form of this clause), it creates a situation where the customer gets a far worse deal by some accounts. There is more to deal with on this topic, so I hope to conversation continues in the future.

Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life
$34.48
By Edward Peter Stringham, Edward P. Stringham, Edward Stringham

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

An Awesome Adventure in Science---For Kids

There are few things more endearing to the heart of a homeschooling parent than seeing a child sprawled on the floor, elbows propped, nose in a book. This is especially true when that book was specially selected and secretly planted on the shelf to impart knowledge as well as entertain.

There is nothing wrong with reading many novels and short stories, but talking animals, heroes fighting dragons, and school stories are insufficient fare on their own for the long-term growth of a budding mind. In addition, we have made efforts to sneak in history books with full color illustrations and encyclopedia-style presentations. This is an easy way to get kids up to speed on some of the humanities.

Science, however, is a much more difficult topic to sneak on the shelves and present as interesting. I’m not talking about books that get kids interested in the idea of science—there are plenty of novels that do that. But a book that presents vital scientific concepts in an original, interesting, and attention grabbing way at the level the kids can receive it can be hard to find.

I’ve previously reviewed a fun book, Thing Explainer, that provides an entry point into understanding how things work. That has gotten my son interested in inventing things, but he lacks the fundamental understanding of concepts to begin to understand why his proposed ideas are physically impossible. I’ve struggled to find ways to explain the physical limitations of the universe to him. Somehow teaching adults about nuclear power didn’t equip me to teach a first grader about quantum physics.

One excellent answer to this conundrum is a set of books by physicist Dominic Walliman. One title is Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space that was released in 2013. More recently, Walliman and his illustrator/co-author, Ben Newman, have released Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure. I’ve read both and both are worth your time and money.

Review

Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure is a book about physics. Walliman’s volume explains concepts like gravity, basic material composition, and some of the beginnings of Newtonian physics. This is a book that presents basic topics in physics in terms that my son can understand. It has led to discussions about what “F = ma” means. I’ve needed to provide examples of acceleration.

Some of the concepts presented in the book are clearly beyond what my first grader can grasp at this point. However, that’s ok. Walliman and Newman have conspired to present the basic facts of physics in a way that is graphically appealing and draws a child in. While my son may not grasp why quantum tunneling matters (yes, this is a topic in the book) or how it works, he will at least have in his memory bank a basic understanding of the word and what it means so that in high school he can begin that topic with a baseline. Especially at a young age, comprehension is less a goal that awareness and acceptance of brute facts.

Atomic Adventure has opened up a number of fun conversations. Sometimes I’ll get blindsided by a question about physics and have to ask what my son has been reading. And, sometimes I have to admit that my own knowledge on a particular topic is fairly limited. But that is part of the learning experience and creating a healthy curiosity in kids. I have found the books fun to flip through, even as an adult.

One key to making this presentation of physics accessible and valuable is that the authors regularly point to applications of the physical concepts. For example, buoyancy is explained in clear terms, and then the ballast system of a submarine is used as a practical example. The authors do take a pot shot at nuclear power later in the book, but they explain the concepts remarkably well on a level children can understand.

Along with the books, the publisher has also produced an activity book that encourages children to explore science through a series of games, experiments, and thinking exercises. The activity book is consumable, which makes it somewhat expensive for what it does, but the exercises in the book could expand a science curriculum, fill a long summer afternoon, and encourage exploration by a curious child. Some contact paper could make the activity book reusable or the activities could simply be done on a separate paper so that multiple children can benefit from the resource.

If you are looking to add to your arsenal of stealth educational books, the Professor Astro Cat series is a good way to do that. This is an example of educational science enrichment done well.

Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure
$16.63
By Dominic Walliman

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

Revitalize: A Book for Every Church Leader

While I was working on my MDiv, I was regularly surprised by the lack of men who were eager to become pastors in the local church. Even in my seminary classes, most of my fellow students were more eager to lead worship, work in parachurch ministries, or lead a youth group than to be the senior pastor of a church. Among those that actively desired to be pastors, most either wanted to get called by a healthy, growing church or plant their own.

The one job no one ever expressed any interest in was taking a position at a dying church and attempting to revitalize it. Much better, most argued, to let the sick churches die and plant new ones. This idea was supported by the real statistic that church plants tend to be more effective at reaching the lost. On the other hand, other statistics argue in favor of revitalization: billions of dollars in buildings and other assets simply waiting to be sold off when the last member of a dying church kicks the bucket and millions of people, many spiritually dead, sitting in the pews of those buildings thinking their meager giving and occasional participation in church life count for something with God.

Had it not been for the time I spent at FBC Durham under the supervision of Andy Davis, I might have ended up in the same boat. However, instead of rejecting the idea of church revitalization, I heard his story of God’s renewal of FBC Durham and met many who had walked with Davis through the process. It is that experience and vision for the renewal of a once-healthy local church that invigorates this recent volume from Baker Books.

Summary

Revitalize is divided into seventeen chapters. Each brief chapter focuses on a particular element of a holistic vision of church revitalization with bulleted points of practical advice related to the contents of the chapter. The first chapter emphasizes Christ’s zeal for revitalizing his church; this is not simply a quixotic mission of a man on a reclamation effort. Davis opens up with an overview of the book, which introduces each of the remaining chapters. Chapter Two continues on the introductory vein, outlining the nature of a healthy church, justification for revitalization, and the signs a church needs revitalized.

Chapter Three begins the practical portion of the volume. Davis exhorts his readers to embrace Christ’s ownership of the church; the church does not belong to the pastor or the congregation.  This attitude makes the rest of the volume possible. In the fourth chapter, Davis emphasizes the need for personal holiness and a proper view of the holiness of God. Chapter Five calls the pastor to find strength in God, not to attempt to win a victory through self-effort. The sixth chapter underscores the need to depend on Scripture for church renewal rather than a mysterious cocktail of programs.

In Chapter Seven Davis highlights the centrality of personal and congregational prayer to turn a church around. The eighth chapter explains the need for a clear vision of what a revitalized church should look like. Chapter Nine makes a case for personal humility in dealing with opponents of revitalization; Davis is clear that a proud pastor may win the battle, but miss the point in reclaiming a church. The tenth chapter calls the pastor to be courageous, even as he is humble. Patience is also a necessary virtue, as Davis notes in Chapter Eleven, so that significant capital is not spend making minor changes to the detriment of the greater revitalization project.

In the twelfth chapter Davis provides some advice on how to discern between big issues and little issues, which is essential if patience is to avoid becoming tolerance of evil. Chapter Thirteen exhorts the reader to fight discouragement, which is a real possibility in the face of human and satanic resistance.  The fourteenth chapter surveys the need to raise up additional men as leaders in the church to assist in the revitalization process and move the church forward in the future. Chapter Fifteen encourages the revitalizing pastor to be flexible with worship, but also to help keep the church up to date. In the sixteenth chapter, Davis hits one of his favorite topics, the two infinite journeys, which refers to inward holiness and outward obedience, both being markers of spiritual maturity. Chapter Seventeen is a brief conclusion pointing to the eventual renewal of all things, of which local church revitalization is a part.

Analysis and Conclusion

Every church needs revitalization, so this is a book for every pastor and church leader. The steps Davis outlines to help bring back a church to health are the ones every local congregation needs to do to stay healthy. This is the sort of well-reasoned, thoughtful volume that every aspiring pastor ought to read.

Davis strikes the right balance between recounting his own experience, drawing out important truths from Scripture, and providing practical steps. Church revitalization is not method-driven, it is Scripture driven. However, there are certain methods that will lend themselves to a higher probability of success.

Above all, this volume is an encouragement for the pastor or leadership team of the local church. Over and over Davis reminds his readers that a church that rejects Scripture is not rejecting the pastor, but God himself. None of this work can be done apart from the special work of God. These refrains run through the pages of Revitalize, exhorting the reader to continue striving in Christ and trusting in the work God is doing without becoming discouraged. Davis himself stands as evidence there is hope on the other side.

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

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is

You can’t go far on the internet without bumping into someone talking about social justice. For some, social justice is a positive term that indicates their desire to see the world become better. For others, social justice is an epithet for those who seek absolute domination of private lives through government and personal tyranny.

The trouble is that both definitions are accurate in some circumstances.

A bigger problem is that people nearly always use the term “social justice” without explaining what they mean by it. As a result, the blogger writing about social justice in terms of eliminating overt racism, the anarchist calling for the end of credit ratings, and the socialist calling for massive hikes in personal income taxes to create a utopian nanny state all use the term, but mean radically different things. Social justice with one definition can be a moral imperative that Christians should support. By another definition is may be a debatable concept on which good people can disagree. And, used in another way, it may be a morally reprehensible concept that actually enforces injustice under an Orwellian label.

The ambiguity of the definition of social justice is only enhanced in Christian conversations because the term originated in Catholic social teachings. Due to ignorance about the fundamental lack of authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium and anachronistic readings of contemporary uses of “social justice,” the idea of social justice is often used as a club by Christians who claim that socialism is a necessary corollary to biblical Christianity or that affirming immorality is a moral duty.

In his most recent book, Michael Novak seeks to define social justice, reveal the confusion in the popular use of the term, and show why Catholic social teaching does not actually require supporting socialist economics and whatever the latest version of identity theory happens to be. This book relies on essays Novak had previously written with some additional framing to make it cogent. The book has a co-author, Paul Adams, and an additional contributor, which reflects the efforts to get some of this helpful teaching into the public square by friends of Novak.

Summary

The aptly titled book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, has two distinct parts. Part One was written by Novak and includes seven chapters that define social justice, six chapters on Catholic Social Teaching on social justice, and two chapters that critique the theological difficulties with misapplication of Catholic Social Teaching. Part Two consists of five chapters of practical application by co-author, Paul Adams.

The contributions of this book to the ongoing conversation are significant. Novak’s systematic outline of six common uses of the term “social justice” help reveal and explain the confusion of contemporary public dialog. As a careful thinker, Novak shows why demanding a definition is so very important. Novak also outlines a better and helpful meaning for the term social justice that is consistent with actual Catholic Social Teaching. At the same time, Novak offers a cogent response to socialists that try to claim Catholic Social Teaching as providing authoritative support for their position. There is sometimes resonance, but his exposition reveals that many the claims made by anti-market crusaders are built on misrepresentations of what popes actually wrote.

Paul Adam’s section of this book is helpful, as well, as he shows how social justice, properly defined, can be applied to real situations to bring about real justice. As a professor emeritus of social work, he offers historical case studies and theoretical examples of positive outcomes based on applying a rational concept of social justice to real world problems.

Analysis and Conclusion

This volume offers an important entry in the conversation on social justice. The first chapters are universally applicable and instructive in understanding the contemporary debate. For non-Catholics, the remainder of the Part One is instructive and helpful, but limited since it relies on the assumed authority of the Roman Catholic church. There are, however, valuable principles that can be evaluated against Scripture, many of which are directly applicable beyond the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic denomination. The inclusion of Adams’ applications is helpful, since a common and valid criticism of much of the conservative rebuttal of various versions of social justice is that there is too little evidence of application of conservative principles of social justice.

The most significant benefit of this volume is that it clears the way for legitimate discussions about the nature of social justice. I’m not convinced that attempting to redeem the term that has been so successfully coopted and confused is the best way forward, but Novak and Adams make it at least possible. That is an important contribution that makes this book an important entry into a vital conversation.

Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is
$16.81
By Michael Novak, Paul Adams

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

There Is Life After College - A Review

College is one of the biggest lifetime expenses and longest commitments of dedicated time many people ever make. The cost of college continues to rise and news outlets regularly report the high rates of underemployment and unemployment among recent college graduates. As a result, some families question whether a college education offers sufficient return on investment. Others are plowing ahead without thought and collecting six-digit debt burdens.

Jeffrey Selingo’s recent book, There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know about Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, tackles the topic of the value of college, particularly with respect to employability. Selingo covers a lot of ground in the book, but together he paints a fair picture, warns of some common pitfalls, and offers some recommendations for current and future college students.

Summary

In Chapter One, Selingo describes three categories of young people: Sprinters, Wanderers, and Stragglers. Sprinters are those who have launched careers and have some financial stability by the time they are thirty. Wanderers often graduate but have difficulty finding a career-type job, which retards their progress. Stragglers stumble through their twenties, often failing to finish school or find stable employment with long-term growth potential. Much of the rest of the book is built around helping people find their way into one of the top group.

The second chapter analyzes what employers are looking for. According to Selingo, some of the most common attributes in job descriptions are “baseline skills.” The book lists five of the most significant skills, which are far from academic: (1) Intellectual curiosity; (2) Depth of expertise, even in a non-degree area; (3) Awareness of and adaptability to tech; (4) Dealing with ambiguity; (5) Teachable humility. The careful reader will notice that specific skills in a major are not in this list. In other words, a key way to gain an advantage in the marketplace is by going beyond academic expertise and being a valuable part of the team.

After these important opening chapters, Selingo covers a variety of topics in rapid fire fashion. In Chapter Three, he explains the potential benefits of a gap year—as long as it is purposeful gap. The fourth chapter describes the value of going to a college that is near a center of interest for the student’s proposed first career; internships and other experiences are much more possible. Chapter Five emphasizes the value of internships, co-ops and other hands-on learning; many employers use such opportunities as an extended interview for future employees. In the sixth chapter, Selingo describes habits that are necessary for success after college and some programs that can help enhance them.

Chapter Seven offers some ideas about rethinking the bachelor’s degree, considering the value of two year degrees and other vocational learning. In the eighth chapter, Selingo surveys one potential shift in future education: just in time training, boot camps, and other modular programs. Then, in Chapter Nine, he sketches some of the common hiring practices among firms, which is key information for those seeking jobs. Finally, in the tenth chapter, Selingo highlights the importance of being able to tell your story. It isn’t enough to graduate, but employers want to know why you chose a particular major and what you have done to get there.

Analysis and Conclusion

The most significant value of this volume is that it answers questions vital to student success, efficient investment of tuition money and time, and successful navigation of the sometimes-confusing marketplace of colleges and universities. This is an accessible book that has important information for our time.

Surprisingly, Selingo’s book points to the enduring value of a liberal arts degree. There is certainly a need for technical specialization in certain fields, but being a well-developed human is just as important, and perhaps more so, than purely technical proficiency. At worst, a strong liberal arts core, which is at the heart of a lot of Christian higher education, appears to be an asset rather than a liability in the marketplace.

Certainly, this book is not a guaranteed method to be successful in life. In fact, Selingo simply assumes that success is being well-placed, well-compensated, and reasonably happy in one’s job. Whether the reader agrees with his end or not, he provides some helpful guidelines to get there. Even for those more interested in other careers, Selingo’s assurances of the value of liberal arts and meaningful experiences before and during college make this an engaging and valuable read.

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

A Book for Our Times

Trevin Wax is among the most astute cultural commentators of our day. It is not uncommon for a thorny question to arise in the public square only to find he has dealt with it concisely and clearly on his blog the next day. He reads the culture well, understands a biblical worldview well, and writes very well.

This is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel is no exception to Wax’s normal standard of clarity and excellence. In this volume, Wax considers eight significant myths that are especially significant to the present milieu, unpacks them and their significance in our world, and shows how a biblical worldview undermines them. In each case, Wax seeks to show how authentic Christianity has a better answer to offer than the cultural myth.

SUMMARY

Wax dissects eight myths that are cultural flashpoints. In the first chapter, he shows how the smartphone functions to alter our perception of reality. Smart phones tie us in to the world around us, make us feel smart because we find information quickly, and allow us to expose every moment of our lives (really just the good ones) to the world in an instant. In Chapter Two, Wax tackles the storytelling of power of Hollywood. He avoids the typical moralistic finger-wagging about too much sex and focuses on the power of story and the greater imaginative scope available to those with a regenerate mind.

Next Wax examines the faulty pursuit of happiness, which is often based more clearly on a goal destined to fail us. Instead, Wax notes that the Christian gospel offers us hope apart from the usual trappings of happiness our culture advertises. Chapter Four wrestles with the myth that consumerism will make people happy. This is the cause of so much heartache and misery in our world, but Wax reveals how it pales in comparison to our hope in Christ.

In the fifth chapter, This is Our Time, deals with the sense of dis-ease Christians often have in the world. The myth is that we should feel at home in this present world, but Wax shows how we should always long for a perfect future not to try to make our world like a supposedly great past. Chapter Six tackles the modern myth that marriage is fundamentally about human happiness. Instead, Wax demonstrates that, as God intended it, marriage is about sanctification and giving glory to God.

Chapter Seven offers a reflection on the changing standards for sex in our culture, noting that self-control and chastity have become insults rather than virtues for society. Wax argues that sex cannot be both everything and nothing as culture claims, but that it must serve the purpose ordained by the Creator if it is to satisfy. In the eighth chapter, the author takes on the pervasive myths of eternal progress and constant decline. Both narratives are compelling for different reasons, but they often distract from our true hope in Christ.

ANALYSIS

Books that provide cultural critique are a dime a dozen. They have been standard fare for theologically conservative Christians for decades. When I inherited my grandfather’s library, I got dozens of books that had scathing critiques of the culture of previous decades.

In most cases, those critiques were just and warranted, but This is Our Time does something many cultural critiques fail to do: it explains why the gospel is better. That is what makes Wax’s book so helpful; it exposes the myth as a fraud and tells the true story in a deeper, more powerful way.

By telling the gospel truth instead of simply condemning, Wax equips his reader to share the good news. He fills out the necessary understanding of repentance, which is turning away from wrong doing and pursuing the good.

By writing such pointed cultural commentary, Wax has produced a volume that is a treasure for our time. The downside is that This is Our Time is distinctly time-bound. In twenty years, the volume will provide an excellent example of how to write cultural critique for the benefit of the church, but its shelf life as an antidote for the ills of our age is limited.

Therefore, people should snap up This is Our Time in the near term. Read this book. Talk about it in your small groups and consider not just the content, but the way Wax has put together his critique. This volume is a gift to the church, but it needs to be read in our day if it is to have its best impact.

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

What is an Evangelical?

The furor around Hillbilly Elegy has largely died away. Much to nearly everyone’s surprise, a populist won the election. Many of his votes came from people who claim the title evangelical.

The exit poll results that indicate 81% of so-called evangelicals voted for Trump have been used as a cudgel against theologically conservative Protestants, many of whom identify as evangelical.

As Robert Wuthnow notes in his recent book, Inventing American Religion, however, there are significant differences between theological belief and political identity. The pollsters have tried to cross that boundary, but there are indications that the political label evangelical may not provide a strong theological indicator.

In J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, he demonstrates why using the term "evangelical" as if it means deep conviction and meaningful participation in a certain brand of Protestant religion is faulty:

Despite its reputation, Appalachia—especially northern Alabama and Georgia to southern Ohio—has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.

This pattern of deception has to do with the cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church. (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure. (Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance, 93)

This is one of the reasons Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned his February 2016 Washington Post article arguing this election made him hate the term evangelical.

He notes:

The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of “evangelical,” seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities. That’s especially true when media don’t distinguish in election exit polls between churchgoers and those who merely self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical.”

Many of those who tell pollsters they are “evangelical” may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.
Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Despite the consistently demonstrable unreliability of the label as any serious indicator of religious belief, the word continues to be used without definition and qualification. Careful readers and writers should be aware of this.

Much as when using any term, we must be discerning when we interpret information and express it so that we clearly understand or communicate those who we are speaking to.

Those of who are legitimate Gospel Christians should not stop when someone says they belong to a church or regularly attend. We should seek to know their conversion story and if they don’t have one to help them get one.

It may also be time for us to look for another way to describe ourselves. Since evangelical has become associated with political bloc voting, perhaps we need another term.

At the very least, we need to be careful when we communicate to define our terms. We should also be careful not to allow a bare profession of belief made once upon a time to substitute for authentic, action-inspiring faith.

The Value of Empathy in the Workplace

I’m amazed how many years it took me to become aware of it. Even as a leader, I didn’t recognize the nature and significance of the difficulties in the daily lives of other people at work. Fifteen years into my working career and I think I’m finally starting to figure out what empathy is and why it matters.

I now work for a Christian organization with fewer than a thousand employees. Because we are a distinctively Christian community, our Human Resources department, when requested, shares prayer needs with all the employees through email. I’m amazed because nearly every week we are notified that someone’s family member is seriously ill or dying. These are major life events that sap people’s creative energies, distract from their work, and could even give them a sense of hopelessness.

Even more significantly, I am becoming increasingly aware as I get older of the profound struggles in the lives of many co-workers. When I was younger I assumed everything was alright unless someone told me otherwise. However, as I work in a community of Christians, I find out that apart from the big events that get broadcast through e-mail, there are dozens more “little” crises in people’s lives. For the most part, I was oblivious to these concerns when I worked outside of Christian higher education.

Some people are struggling with anxiety, some with the effects of ongoing cancer treatment, some with children that seem intent on getting into trouble at school. That stress sends ripples through a person’s whole life, including their work. There are a million of needs and struggles. If we’re not careful, we’ll miss them and never take the opportunity to be an encouragement to the people around us.

In organizations with a mission built upon Christian principles, it is easier (sometimes) to stop and pray and to use Scripture to encourage one another. It is also more likely, based on my experience, for people to be willing to discuss their struggles with others at work. However, looking back to the years that I worked in secular environments, I can think of a number of opportunities that I missed to be a better leader and a better friend. In reality, taking a few steps to be more empathetic would have made a big difference in my ability to exemplify the gospel to my coworkers.

Be Aware of the Hurting

The most significant step in becoming a better coworker is to simply be aware of the struggles in people’s lives. This starts by recognizing the humanity of the people that we work with.

Even theologians with a solid understanding of the doctrine of humanity need to be intentional to see the uniqueness of each person at work. My coworker isn’t just a line item on my budget with a productivity quota, she is a human with a family, medical needs, and hopes for the future. If I focus on whether she’s accomplished the proper number of tasks on the to-do list instead of whether she’s flourishing as a human, I’ve missed the mark as a leader.

There were many instances I can recall when I was very critical of peers who didn’t make deadlines or weren’t as successful at their work. I had a critical spirit that exalted myself because I stayed at work late or achieved a better result. Looking back, based on conversations I had at the time, many of those people were struggling with concerns at home with their families. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do well at their work, it was simply that their work wasn’t as important as the other issues they were wrestling with.

I would have been more Christ-like had I been consistently concerned for their wellbeing as a person. Being effective at work is important, but it isn’t the only thing. It also may have helped people to be more productive had they known that others at work cared and were concerned about more than just the bottom line.

Be Compassionate Toward the Hurting

Simply recognizing that the world around is hurting is insufficient. It’s roughly the equivalent of telling the hungry, poorly clothed person and telling them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” (James 2:16).

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

US Government work used by CC License: http://ow.ly/bJWK309wYOv

In the workplace, most often the problem will not be a lack of food or clothing. The contemporary equivalent of brushing off physical needs is to address someone’s medical condition or concerns for their family by saying, “I’m sorry about that. Do you think you can get this report done on time?”

Obviously, sometimes there is work that just needs to get done. However, it may be that sharing another person’s assignment or covering a shift for them is exactly the sort of relief they need. Going beyond acknowledgment that someone has a problem and seeking to relieve it is a step in the right direction. Even if they don’t accept the offer, the willingness to help means more than simply offering your “thoughts and prayers” and “oohing” at the right moments in conversation.

Be Concerned with the Flourishing of Others

There are many people more aware and compassionate that I am. Many of them are not Christians. This is something that I’ve come to expect because common grace is real and, frankly, I’m naturally a selfish person.

However, as a Christian, I bring a vision of holistic flourishing to my workplace that others will lack. If I can beat down my introversion and task-oriented, deadline-focused nature, I can actually apply the knowledge of the good news about a savior who came to redeem and restore all of creation for the good of humankind and for his own glory. There’s a deeper message of hope and wellbeing in the gospel that only Christians can share.

We know the end of the story. We know that creation is groaning with birth pangs in anticipation of being set free from the bondage of sin and decay. (cf. Rom 8:18-23) We have a hope that should enliven us and cause us to desire to meet the needs of those we work in their daily struggles, pointing them toward redemption in Christ.

Conclusion

 Our workplaces are awash with a flood of private distress. As we do our work, we can serve others by doing our jobs excellently. We can also serve those we work with by demonstrating empathy for their concerns. Christians ought to pursue the good of people, not simply the metric that bolsters the bottom line.

As we move from simply recognizing the needs of others to offering to provide help, we open up opportunities for demonstrating what redemption looks like. Many people are carrying the weight of heavy burdens today. They need to know what redemption looks like more than they need a lesson in productivity. Christians can provide that, which is a key part of how we live out our faith through our work.