Them - A Review

Every generation has its share of people lamenting the loss of the good old days. Products were better before. Bread was only 5 cents a loaf. The cent symbol was still on a standard keyboard. People used two spaces after periods.

But at the same time, we are told that history is also fairly consistent and people are generally just people. In a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, the author claims that the ongoing Fortnite craze and the concerns of parents about their children’s excesses are no different than concerns about Pinball back in the early days. These are just fads. People that are concerned about the new thing are just clutching at pearls, and so the world spins on.

What if there really are some seismic shifts going on though? What if something is changing our culture and altering the way people view each other? And, what if some of those changes aren’t making things better?

Ben Sasse’s recent book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, asks some of these basic questions about the increasingly divided America. He’s not arguing that America was once great and needs to be made so again. In fact, throughout he notes many of the ways that America has failed to live up to her founding ideals. But without wishing for the restoration of a mythical past, Sasse does note that there have been fundamental changes in what it means—especially in the ideal sense—to be American.

According to Sasse, who is now a politician, the solution is not political. No election or new law will fix what is ailing the United States. Instead, the solution is found primarily through a restoration of a sense of community.

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If we can trust surveys, we know that people are lonelier now than they were previously. Multiple studies, some of which Sasse cites, correlate the loneliness to the rise of social media and even more significantly, the spread of smart phones. These devices that are supposed to keep us connected all the time seem to be making us less content and desperately disconnected. Add to that the shifts in work, not least of which is the increase of automation, which is replacing a lot of low skill labor, and you have a recipe for dislocation, disorientation, and breakdowns in communities. Sasse describes all of this as a break down in tribes.

Political anti-tribes are rising up to replace the geographic and more heterogenous (at least ideologically) tribes of the past, and they are being fertilized by the merging of politics and entertainment. This is the world that Neal Postman predicted in Amusing Ourselves to Death. But the perpetual IV drip of outrage and often misrepresentation is taking a toll on people’s ability to see others with different views as human. Sasse spends a chapter outlining many of the techniques that news organizations and pundits use to create and spread clickbait, fanning a tiny sliver of devoted followers into an addicted frenzy. His argument is both well-supported and frightening.

It’s no surprise, given Ben Sasse’s attitude toward Tocqueville and ideals that the country was supposed to represent, that he points toward building community and regaining a sense of place as solutions to the virulent divisions of our times. He urges readers to remember what the ideas of our liberal democracy were supposed to fulfill: free debate, opportunity, and a sense of the common good. There have certainly been gains in racial equality and equity between genders, but those gains should not require us to remember what it is supposed to mean to be American and teach our kids why that is important. Part of what will enable us to do that practically is limiting our tech exposure. Get off the continue flood of social media and enjoy the people you are around. Don’t click on clickbait headlines and read books, not just short articles. He commends building into communities and buying a cemetery plot. Find someplace to put down roots if possible. And, since many of have to move for one reason or another, look for ways to connect wherever you guy, find communities that you can become part of, and maintain permanent friendships through regular gatherings.

There is no panacea for the widening schism between our anti-tribes, but there are steps that we can take to begin to mend the rift. There are ways that we can begin to regain a sense of common ground, to build toward a common vision, and to seek the welfare of the city even when we disagree with many of the residents.

Sasse’s book is part of a bigger conversation that is happening and needs to happen. His analysis is solid and he makes a number of important points. As a Christian, he could have spent more time talking about the value of local congregations and the importance of the church being a family. However, all in all, this is an enjoyable volume that would make a good place to begin a discussion, especially between people of different ideological persuasions.

The Bible is Not Just Another Book

Another year has come. In our culture, that means learning to write a different last two digits when you write checks, sign paperwork, and fill out forms. This is also a time when people set new goals for the year to come, often planning the accomplishments they hope to see complete before we have completed another trip around the sun. Other people, reject the notion and simply continue on as they go.

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What is both most encouraging and disheartening to me is the number of people who commit to reading the Bible through each year and fizzle out long before the end. It’s discouraging to me because often when I talk to the people who have missed their goal, they simply give up when they miss a few days here or there. It’s a hard thing to get into Scripture every day without fail, and even those who regularly finish all 66 books in a year often miss days. At the same time, it is encouraging because people are trying.

There is nothing magical about the New Year. January 1 has no more significance on a cosmic scale than August 15th. But it offers a cultural pattern for new beginnings, for the initiation of attempts at self-improvement or sanctification. Though there is nothing eternally unique about the date, using the culture’s momentum to get moving in the right direction.

This year, if you commit to nothing else, consider committing to reading all of Scripture through.

Why Scripture?

Is the Bible just another book like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Shakespeare’s plays, or a modern novel?

Some would answer yes, but those people are unlikely to be convinced by a blog. And yet, many will respond that the Bible is unlike all other books, but will perhaps be unable to explain why.

The Bible, a volume with 66 books written over thousands of years by dozens of different human authors is a book like no other book because it has one divine author behind every word of every page.

As the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 says,

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

Our only hope for salvation is discussed in its pages. It is God’s revelation of himself to us. It is all a testimony of Christ, our only hope. It is the standard by which all our thoughts, beliefs, and actions should and will be judged.

So many of us will confess something glorious about the Bible on Sunday and live like it is just a bunch of fairy tales when Monday comes. This year, make a commitment to treat Scripture like what it is: the very word of God, revealed through the ages, given to us by God’s divine grace, and intended to point us toward holiness in Christ.


From Early Posts at Ethics and Culture

“A Plea for Reading the Bible”
”Bible Reading Plans for This Year”

Start a Tradition of Giving This Year

Now that the wreckage of Christmas morning is now settled into piles of colored paper, with loose scraps skulking in the corners and under the couch, and the food-induced coma from a hefty lunch is beginning to wane, the children—ever energetic—are beginning to come down off their dopamine high from the frenzy of gift opening this morning. The widget that seemed so enticing at 8AM is now, perhaps, stuck in a couch cushion and the thrill of the hunt—the search for the last present under the tree—has faded.

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Before the boredom of the day sets in and the squabbling over taking turns with the gifts of another, consider taking the time to reinforce the power of giving on Christmas.

Of course, in all likelihood, this was planned before hand with kids picking out trinkets for loved ones in the store or helping to wrap the presents for Mom and Dad. But so many of our gifts are from people with much to people that have much. Though there are certainly exceptions, Christmas tends to be a day of excess, where some of that excess flows over in generosity for those with little real need.

To help combat this, several years ago we started a tradition in our family. It certainly isn’t earth shattering or worthy of high esteem, but it is a method to help all of us, and especially the kids, remember that our abundance is far from universal and, within the broader history of humanity, is an extreme rarity.

Our tradition is to assign a certain amount of money to each child for the purpose of giving through a charitable organization. For consistency and because I believe in their mission, we use the Compassion gift catalog.

For those of you who aren’t already on their mailing list, consider clicking here to go to their online gift catalog. Pass the tablet to your children or bring them alongside you as you look through the options.

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Given that the average American household who gives any gifts on Christmas planned on spending $962 this year, another $50 or even $300  that will help those with legitimate needs is not an overly large gift. One practice that I’ve heard commended is giving the amount of the largest single gift for a person or group to some missions or aid organization.

More significant than the actual gift, however, is the act of giving. I think there is power even in clicking on one’s choice of gift for someone really in need, even while the aroma of ham, turkey, and mashed potatoes permeates the space of you abundance.

NOTE: Images on this page are courtesy of the International Mission Board: https://www.imb.org/photo-library/

Encountering God in the Psalms - A Review

Most books get reviewed when they are first out, generally within two years. Sometimes, there are classics that people will “review” years afterward, but this is generally a way of introducing people to an older book, with little intent to provide feedback to the author for his next work. This review falls more into the latter category than the former, since the author is deceased, but I make no claims that this book is a classic, merely that it is a worthy piece of scholarship that could be helpful to more than have likely encountered it. It is a book that is useful in building up the body of Christ.

Michael Travers’ most important book is a 2003 volume, Encountering God in the Psalms, which he published with Kregel shortly after he arrived at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, though the majority of the volume was authored while he was at Mississippi College. The book is about reading the Psalms. More specifically, it is about reading the Psalms both for their literary quality and their devotional power. It is in this dual purpose, well executed, that gives this book its unique quality and enduring value.

The first part of the book teaches the reader how to read the Psalms. The first three chapter of the book are dedicated to teaching readers about the nature of poetry, the structure of Hebrew poetry, the concepts of theme, genre, and musical quality. While the book is focused on a particular subset of poetry, there is a great deal of general wisdom in these chapters that teach the reader how to read poetry better.

Part Two is longer, consisting of ten chapters that walk the reader through reading select Psalms. The section begins by presenting Moses’ encounter with God as a narrative exemplar that shows the setting that is, to some degree, present for all of the various authors of Psalms. The remaining chapters deal with Psalms that are sorted by theme. Travers moves through Psalms grouped under headings that consider God as creator, covenant maker, Messiah, redeemer, way of wisdom, and other themes. Each chapter shows how the method for reading the Psalms laid out in Part One can be applied to Psalms that fit those themes.

This is a useful book because it is a book that points people toward something beyond itself or the author. In this way, Travers is much like C. S. Lewis. When Lewis wrote he was always trying to get people to see where he was pointing. In this case, Travers is pointing people through his own work toward that Psalms that are, in turn, pointing people toward the Triune God. This is, therefore, just the sort of book that will help people become better Christians.

Michael’s early research was on the devotional poets, especially John Milton. His skill with poetry comes through in this book as he brings readers to a deeper appreciation for the power of language through poetry. This is the sort of book that will shape the mind by equipping it for later study. It is not a flashy volume, but its chapters are filled with solid wisdom.

Encountering God in the Psalms is a book that will most benefit those who love Scripture and want to learn more about God through his word. It is the sort of book that requires diligence and careful reading of the text of Scripture alongside its own pages. However, it is also a book that will sharpen the reader, deepen their love for the Psalms, and likely point them to a deeper understanding of the God who inspired the psalmists. It is, in fact, a book that many pastors should pick up and that lay people should aspire to.

Encountering God in the Psalms
By Michael E. Travers

Note: This volume will be discussed in greater detail in an essay in a forthcoming volume, The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis: Essays in Honor of Michael Travers (Wipf and Stock, 2019).

Ten Significant Books from 2018

Unlike many other recent years, much of my reading this year has been in older books, particularly those of C. S. Lewis because I have been writing on Lewis and editing a volume about him. However, there are still quite a number of recent books that I read in 2018 that are worth recommending. This post is a list (in no particular order) of the ten books that I reviewed that I believe to be the most important and helpful of 2018.

The links in the bullets below go to longer reviews that I wrote for the books.

1.       Disruptive Witness – Alan Noble’s book, which released this spring, is one of the best and most significant books I’ve read in a while. Noble really gets contemporary culture and his diagnosis of the dangers of our consumeristic approach to identity are spot on. If you haven’t read this book, you should consider picking it up.

2.       On Reading Well – If you love reading, you’ll likely enjoy this book. English professor, Karen Swallow Prior, leads her readers through a number of significant works of literature to show how reading carefully and consuming quality literature can morally form us. The book is good on its own, but would make for an excellent introduction and companion through a lot of classic literature.

3.       How to ThinkIt can be hard to navigate the online world with its diversions and distractions. Add to that the contentiousness of so many issues and the supposed anonymity of the internet and you have a recipe for losing one’s Christian character. Alan Jacobs offers a concise guide to thinking well in a crazy age. This is a book that is intended more for general rather than Christian audiences, but could benefit those inside the church a great deal.

4.       Superheroes Can’t Save You – Theology isn’t always fun reading, but Todd Miles proves that it can be in this excellent book on Christology. Miles critiques a variety of Christological heresies by showing how those heresies are like comic book heroes and why those images fall short of the true nature of the Son. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even as someone who isn’t a huge comic fan, and see great potential for its use in training up a segment of the Christian population that can be hard to reach.

5.       The Year of Our Lord 1943 – Alan Jacobs makes a second appearance on this list with a book that examines the work of several Christian humanists in Britain around World War II. This was a pivotal time in Western culture, as the Axis powers threatened the existence of so many. In response to the threat to society, many of the offered solutions—particularly socialism and communism—seemed to be as dangerous. Jacobs follows these thinkers as they explore what it means to be human and how to help others become more human.

6.       They Thought They Were FreeThis is not a new book, but it was republished in late 2017. They Thought They Were Free offers a journalistic approach to the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews in Germany. The story that Mayer unpacks is revealing simply because it shows that the Holocaust was made possible by an incremental drift toward antipathy. Busyness and misinformation also played a significant role. There are too many parallels for our day to pass this book by without giving it a careful read.

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7.       The Character Gap Christian Miller has written an excellent summary of the need for and ability for people to improve their characters. Science is beginning to support the truth Christians have held to for millennia: people can develop character. Miller’s book is intriguing for a number of reasons, but it offers a helpful portal into the discussion of moral character that is increasing in secular circles.

8.       Living Wisely with the Church Fathers – Christopher Hall is an expert on patristics and this book brings his knowledge to bear in an outstanding treatment of early church history, particularly the history of ethics. What Hall shows is that many of the character concerns orthodox Christians have maintained (at least until recently) are consistent with the historic beliefs of the church. In other words, contemporary evangelicals aren’t the first group of Christians to be actively concerned for the life of the unborn.

9.       Faith Among the Faithless – This book is a study of Esther that helps contemporary Christians navigate a world that is hostile to authentic faith. Mike Cosper does a great deal to enhance readers’ understanding of the book, debunking a fair number of myths along the way. This is a helpful companion to a study of Esther because Cosper works to explain the context and translate it to contemporary examples.

10.   Practicing the King’s Economy In a crowded field of “faith and work” books, this volume is the combination of theory and practice that the church needs. Holt, Rhodes, and Fikkert honor the power of the free market to bring about justice, but also point toward the need for more than just a free market. The lessons on why Christians need to be concerned for our neighbors are followed closely by examples of how that concern can be worked out in the context of faithful Christianity.

Whether you are looking for a Christmas gift for someone this year or trying to plan your reading for the year ahead, these are some of the recently published books that I found especially helpful this year.

The Storm-Tossed Family - A Review

Families are under attack and the only hope for them is to be reshaped by the cross of Christ.

That might sound like a reactionary statement, which could be accompanied by a decline narrative and commentary on how much worse things are today. However, as a central idea of Russell Moore’s recent book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, he provides evidence that the family has always been critical and has always been a spiritual battle ground.

Moore writes, “Family can enliven us or crush us because family is about more than the just the life cycle of our genetic material. Family is spiritual warfare.”

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The spiritual importance of the family is made evident in the pages of Scripture. Even before one of the Ten Commandments anchors the family in the very character of God, we read of Satan’s attempt to disrupt the first family by tempting Eve to sin. Shortly after that we read of one brother killing another out of jealousy. The Bible is clear that the family is a focal point for satanic attack and that the disruption of the family is one of the clearest evidences of sin in the world.

Logically, we must ask why that is.

Again, Moore helps to explain, “The family is one of the pictures of the gospel that God has embedded in the world around us. Through a really dark glass, we can see flashes in the family of something at the core of the universe itself, of the Fatherhood of God, of the communion of a people with one another.”

The balance of the volume explores the nature of the family, the corrosive ideas that are negatively impacting our families, and offers a better vision for the good of the family.

The Storm-Tossed Family is reasonably comprehensive. After introducing the concept of family being spiritual warfare Moore begins by identifying points where contemporary culture conflicts with a cross shaped vision of the family, tearing down mistaken ideas and offering a better version of the family.

This process begins with Moore’s affirmation that the Kingdom of God is the primary concern of Christians, not the family. Here he is debunking the dangerous idea that the function of the church is somehow social or political—to preserve the nuclear family—rather than spiritual.

The most important distinction in that important, but secondary, concept of the family is that the family is a picture of the gospel, not the gospel itself. No one comes to Christ because they see a strong nuclear family. They come to Christ because they recognize their need for a savior and the hope that he offers.

Additionally, Moore deconstructs one of the ongoing myths of Christian sub-culture by reminding readers that the church is a family. Thus, the hyper-territorial parenting styles that are a fairly common occurrence in children’s church and the preference of “family time” over church activities in all or most cases represents a deviation from the pattern outlined in Scripture, particularly the New Testament.

Subsequently, the place of singles in the body of Christ becomes less questionable. No longer is the local church projected as a way to support the nuclear family in a hostile world. It does that, to be sure, but the primary purpose is to be a family to exemplify the gospel. Thus, singles are an integral part of the body, not a loosely attached appendage consigned to a class of misfits on a Sunday morning.

The themes that Moore tracks down are plentiful, and the above paragraphs provide just a few examples. He also delves into human sexuality, pointing out where the church has conceded a great dal of ground to the world around—we are, as Moore has argued frequently, often simply slow-moving sexual revolutionaries. As long as we are a few decades behind society, we feel like we are being sufficiently conservative. The point, however, is not to be conservative per se, but to be biblically faithful.

The Storm-Tossed Family is an important book for our age. Moore manages to highlight errors prevalent in even the most theologically orthodox churches while holding firm to the positive patterns of family that are indicated (though rarely exemplified) in Scripture. The connection between the gospel and proper function of the family is, without question, the central theme of this book.

The good news in this book is the good news: Christ came to redeem us from our sin. One of the most affirming and reassuring anecdotes in this book is of a man, realizing he had failed often and significantly as a father, being told that Christ would redeem his failures. The message is not that it is ok to fail, as if all the wrong we do will be undone, but that in Christ all things will work together for good. Repentance is real, powerful, and effective. God doesn’t change the past, but he will redeem it through the blood of Christ. That is the sort of hope that all of us imperfect people need to hear about.

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

A Review of a Commentary on Habakkuk

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There are little tapped wells of wisdom in the minor prophets. For many evangelicals, the twelve short books that come between Daniel and Matthew are “lost books” that AWANA kids memorize the order of but may never hear a sermon from.

Treating the minor prophets as flyover country in our annual reading plans is a huge mistake, as is readily apparent in Heath Thomas’ recent commentary on Habakkuk. With only three short chapters, it might seem difficult to fill over two-hundred pages, but this latest entry in the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary Series never lacks with biblical and theological material to enrich the reader.

Thomas is an Old Testament scholar and the Dean of the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has published several books, focusing on biblical interpretation and material in Scripture dealing with lament and suffering. Habakkuk offers fertile ground for discussing lament, suffering, providence, and faith.

This commentary on Habakkuk uses a method of interpretation known as “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” or TIS. The approach is often caricatured and sometimes unclearly explained by its proponents. However, Thomas’ exegesis of Habakkuk shows TIS at its best: he deals with the biblical data and linguistic research while setting the book in the rich theological and historical context of its interpretation as Christian Scripture. This is a volume that both honors the text and reads it in light of the whole canon and the tradition of faith which has preserved it.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One begins with a lengthy introduction, followed by a chapter on each of the chapters in Habakkuk. The exegesis in these chapters is section by section, as with many biblical commentaries. Part Two consists of three chapters that explore Habakkuk theologically. Thomas delves into the major themes in Habakkuk as they relate to biblical theology, the relationship between the minor prophet’s short book, prayer, and shalom, and finally the usefulness of Habakkuk for spiritual formation. The first portion of this commentary is helpful, but the second part is worth the price of the book alone.

Habakkuk is a book that is worthy of deeper study, as Thomas makes plain. God’s sovereign power is evident as he gives Habakkuk the promise that he will use a rogue nation still not yet a major power to bring his judgment on injustice and eventually fulfill his purposes. Habakkuk shows the expected degree of disbelief and shock at God’s promise to use the Chaldeans. And yet, by the end of the three chapters, the reader sees that Habakkuk has come to a sense of hope in God’s coming justice, even if he himself does not witness it firsthand.

This commentary is academic and will best be used for deep study of the book of Habakkuk. It will be fruitful reading for professors and students alike. Educated pastors will also find this a useful resource to include in their library. Though studying the book of Habakkuk would benefit many lay people, this volume is likely to be too dense for the average person in the pew.

Though it is geared toward an academic audience, the theological discussions Thomas includes in the latter portion of the volume will make this a tool for both sermon preparation and spiritual formation by pastors who choose to invest in this book. By interpreting the volume through a theological lens—a lens that has been formed and smoothed by millennia of Christian teaching––Thomas has written a volume that is spiritually enriching as well as exegetically precise. In other words, Thomas helps the reader to see both what the text of Scripture says as well as why it matters.

This is a book that deserves attention. It would be a welcome addition to the library of an institution or those who engaged in exegesis of texts. Heath Thomas’ commentary on Habakkuk will be a useful tool for decades to come.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 - A Review

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The title of Alan Jacobs’ most recent project, The Year of Our Lord 1943, sets the stage for the book but it does not limit the contents. To many readers, the subtitle offers some clue to the contents, but raises additional questions as well. After all, the word “humanism,” even as it is set in context of the full subtitle—Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis––has competing definitions and in some cases is perceived to be inconsistent with “Christian.”

The crisis of 1943, at least, is obvious to anyone even vaguely aware of World History. This was the year that the Allies became confident that the Axis forces would be defeated. The tenor of the war effort changed, from a hope of survival at great cost, to the expectation of the enemies’ unconditional surrender. It was a time when people began to think beyond the war to what life after the war would look like.

Jacobs focuses on one particular school of thought, which he calls “Christian humanism.” The definition of this movement is complex, but can be summed up as effort to use literature to morally form people into good citizens. This approach to moral formation is built on Christian sentiments, in particular, since Christian humanists saw the Christian faith as the only foundation suitable for a just society.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an ambitious work. It surveys a wide range of sources, but mainly deals with the work of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and W. H. Auden. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and others make appearances, but the first five are the main cast. Not only is this an impressive lineup of writers whose work Jacobs digests and presents, but at many points their vision of the good society is different. They had a common core of ideas, to be sure, but their ideas for what good should look like and how it should be obtained were variegated. The work is also impressive because Jacobs weaves the various streams together rather than using a purely chronological or topical approach.

This book is important because it recounts the debate of that day and documents the thinking of the side whose ideas were generally not implemented. Thus, this book helps tie together what are now prophetic themes about how society could have been better ordered.

In 1941, the great choice would have been whether or not to do what it took to survive. Nearly any means is deemed acceptable when a nation is staring down destruction or enslavement. However, as the tide of World War II was turning, the question of whether the technocratic policies and processes that were used to help organize the war effort would become permanent fixtures of society was a more pertinent one.

The question the thinkers discussed in this book were wrestling is still a pivotal one today: What does it look like to be human in a modern world?

This is what many of Jacobs’ projects have been about, especially in recent years. It also marks a perennial question that humanity has traditionally debated, but has lately seemed to get buried beneath a wave of social media, constant entertainment, and unthinking busyness. If nothing else, this book is a call for people to wake up and begin to question whether they are asking the right questions.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an excellent book. For those that are intrigued by the ferment of thought that comes from Christians exploring the good society in the early- to mid-twentieth century, this book will prove to be a helpful reference. It combines history, literary analysis, and thoughtful critique in a readable text that both enlightens and invites further study. For those who are simply interested in a well-told intellectual history, this volume will provide an enjoyable experience. Those who are trying to figure out how to relate their Christianity to the idea of a good society will find this book useful, as well, as Jacobs helps expose readers to old books by writing a new book about the authors of some of the most important, but often unconsidered, texts of the modern age.

Welcoming Justice - A Review

John Perkins will be remembered as a significant figure in the 20th century, mainly because of his practical work toward racial reconciliation and community development. Perkins is a man who has had every reason to reject the pursuit of reconciliation, and yet has doggedly invested his life in those efforts.

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Charles Marsh is a professor at the University of Virginia, whose book God’s Long Summer offers several biographical accounts of the Civil Rights movement, especially how the faith of its supporters was essential to their motivation and its prosecution.

IVP has recently issued an expanded edition of Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community that combines the practical experience of Perkins with the historiography of Marsh. It is framed in light of ugly rise of white supremacy, especially through the Alt-Right. Marsh’s preface to this new edition specifically frames it in like of the riots and violence at Charlottesville in 2017.

This volume speaks to people in two directions. Marsh, a moderate theological revisionist, speaks to the need of the work of the Civil Rights movement to continue. He notes that faith has been a central part of that movement, and should remain at the center of it. His plea functions most clearly to entice those in the majority—those who are tempted to ignore or minimize to continue pursuing racial justice–to remain engaged and faithful. Perkins, who is theologically evangelical, communicates both the need for patience and continued engagement by the offended, as well as the possibility of work toward racial reconciliation by the theologically orthodox. In other words, Perkins offers a reminder that one does not have to abandon historical doctrines of the faith to pursue justice.

As a textbook for action or a firm theological foundation for a movement toward racial justice, this book falls short. There is evident discontinuity between the theology of Perkins and Marsh, which leads to a somewhat garbled message. However, as an example of the ability to cooperate for a common cause despite theological differences, this is a very helpful book. The succinct volume functions largely as an artifact of collegial co-labor.

Although not earth shattering in its intellectual heft, this brief book fills a distinct need. Given the increasing polarization between racial, political, economic, and religious tribes, the cooperation of these men and the similar message they share is a reminder that a great deal can be done in this world despite our disagreements.

It is certain that there is a great deal left to do with racial reconciliation. I am hopeful that Welcoming Justice falls into the hands of readers that need to hear the message that unity is possible without unanimity, that the pursuit of a just society is a way to honor Christ, and that this issue is altogether too important to be ignored.

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

On Reading Well - A Review

It is a general rule that when Karen Swallow Prior writes something, you should read it. Her latest book, On Reading Well, is no exception.

In this volume, Prior brings her lifelong interest in literature, which has culminated in her work as a professor of English, and an interest in seeing people–particularly Christians–live ethically.

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Her thesis in On Reading Well is that careful reading of literature forms the human soul. Even books that were not written with a specific moral—and perhaps especially those not written with a specific moral—can be morally formative when the story is well-told. In one sense, we borrow the memories of the characters by living their experiences vicariously when we read carefully.

To carry out her mission, Prior selects twelve books that might find their way on the reading list of university syllabus in any setting, then explores their moral terrain. A clear message from Prior’s curated list is that we can learn from the human condition well explored, whether or not we agree with the theology of the author.

The literary discussions are framed in terms of virtues, with four chapters on the cardinal virtue, three on the theological virtues, and another five on what Prior calls the heavenly virtues. When the virtues are discussed as concepts with their substance filled from contemporary sources, such approaches often fall short of the mark. This structure works and is edifying, in part, because the content of these virtues is filled with substance from the Christian tradition, with influence from classical thinkers who have also influenced Christians throughout the centuries.

I have previously read most of the works Prior covers. In some cases, it has been several decades. There were four chapters on material I have never read (I won’t say which, lest some readers get judgmental.), but Prior’s careful discussion enables even an unexposed reader to gain from the chapters.

Readers will benefit more from the book if they have read all of the literature Prior discusses. Perhaps the most beneficial approach would be to read the particular work of literature just prior to reading each chapter. However, for those simply seeking to grow and better understand how humans ought to live, this book can stand on its own.

At one level, this is a book that teaches readers about ethics. At another level, On Reading Well is a warm invitation into the world of literature. This invitation is extended graciously and unpretentiously.

Reading literature is important for those seeking to really know people around them. This is especially true of pastors and theologians. As a theologian, I have found that my ability to empathize with others, to understand, and to explain hard concepts clearly ebbs and flows based on my reading. One might think this would have primarily to do with the theology that I read, but it has more to do with the literature that I am reading. Specifically, when I am reading imaginative stories (not all of which is quality literature), my imagination is invigorated. I am equipped with clearer illustrations of sometimes complex theological or ethical concepts. Often these are not drawn specifically from the book that I am reading, but simply a reflection of the pattern of thought that comes from reading a good story well told.

Prior taps into the link between the moral imagination and reading. We are formed by what we read and how we read. A subtext throughout this volume is the call to read and think carefully about the books we encounter. This is no guide to chugging through an arbitrary list of supposedly important texts, but a demonstration of the sort of thoughtfulness that should characterize the time we spend partaking of good books.

On Reading Well is enjoyable for its quality as a book in itself. For those who enjoy reading literature, it is a treat worthy of a fireside reading. This has a place in the library of homeschool families, where it shows what close reading looks like and may help some families move beyond the list of reading comprehension questions into discussions about the soul of the literature they encounter. Pastors can benefit from this by exploring thought beyond the bounds of commentaries, the latest non-fiction volumes, and even classical theological works. The church will benefit if the men called to preach are reading good books carefully, even if it does not lead directly to sermon references.

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