Amusing Ourselves to Death - A Review

Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, is an assessment of the shifts in Western culture since the advent of modern communication technologies. This is the sort of book that was prophetic in its day and, although somewhat dated, still communicates significant warnings to readers now.

Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985, during the Reagan presidency. It certainly does not escape Postman’s notice that the ascendency of an actor to the highest political office supports his point that entertainment has become the central purpose of American culture, though that fact is more a capstone illustration of the book’s greater point than the central argument of concern.

What Postman notes, however, is worth paying attention to. His central premise is that the medium is the metaphor. This is an intentional deviation from Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan that the medium is the message.

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Postman’s clarification is helpful, since it separates the content of the message from vehicle that carries the message. In other words, the facts of the news are the same (if written well), but the secondary signals created by the means that the news is transmitted also shape the reception of the news.

For example, Postman notes that prior to the invention of the telegraph, most newspapers focused almost exclusively on local news. The telegraph sped up the spread of national and international news, so that information could be had within minutes rather than days or weeks. The change was not wrought overnight, but the shift of concern from local issues to global ones has completely overtaken us today. Notably, it is much easier for me to find out about the personal lives of political leaders across the globe than to find out what the local city council is talking about.

Not only has news changed, but education has changed. Instead of doing the long, hard work of training minds, much of our educational methodology has shifted to entertainment. Postman notes that Sesame Street is a prime example of this, though certainly neither the worst nor the only platform that does this. According to Postman, whatever good is done by teaching through entertainment is undermined as it forms the learning human to expect education to be exciting. Thus, the endurance to learn and slog through difficult tasks has been diminished by the medium that is very effective in achieving short term gains.

It would be easy to claim that Postman was merely clutching at pearls, if the evidence did not point overwhelmingly toward the aggravation of the problems he identifies.

The point is not that technology is bad, but that technology is most effective if it is used in a particular manner. As a result, it is most commonly used in its most suitable manner, which shapes the media consumer in powerful ways. The efficacy of each medium to convey certain parallel signals effortlessly alters people’s epistemologies.

(Epistemology is the study of the way that people know things. Whether or not we know how to spell it, everyone has an epistemology.)

Not only how we acquire information but how we know is shaped by how information is received. Media is forming our minds to perceive in particular manners.

We need look no farther than click-bait internet articles to see that Postman is correct. There are entire companies that feed off of deceptive headlines that declare one thing in their headline and argue something entirely different in the body of the article. Even news sources that are still considered credible have recognized that few people read beyond the headlines and those who do are unlikely to get past the perspective that the headline has already presented, whatever the evidence is that runs to the contrary.

The reshaping of epistemology is radically important, even more so now than it was in 1985. Our elections have been tampered with by agents from other nations who spread misinformation with just enough truth to cast doubt. Our news sources have recognized this, along with the inability to discern opinion from fact in most of the population, and thus they have largely abandoned anything like an attempt at objective reporting because getting their constructed truth out is more important the facts. Additionally, with the wide array of “news” shows of varying degree of accuracy and political leanings available all 168 hours each week, the presentation of information has to be even more entertaining than before. In our current milieu, there appear to be a fair number of people that get their news through comments on social media rather than any legitimate news source (regardless of its bias). So, the cycle continues and the hole gets deeper.

Postman’s warning is an important one. It may even be easier to accept now that a quarter of a century has passed and the challenges have morphed.

Lacking from Postman’s analysis is an answer the for the disease that ails us. He’s standing athwart history yelling “STOP,” but does not provide a solution.

The truth is that there is no easy solution, and that the simplest solution (i.e., turning everything off completely), is unworkable because we and our children would be functionally disconnected from so much of society. However, we have to figure out a way to throttle the flow, learn how to think and exist without electronic devices, and recover some of the humanity that is being eroded with every flicker of our many screens.

Patrick's Corner - A Review

Poverty today is something like leprosy in the Middle Ages. Most of us are aware of it, but we’re uncertain how it is contracted, terrified to come in contact with it, and hope it stays quarantined geographically so that it doesn’t spread.

For many, the concept of deprivation at any level causes them to lobby against “income inequality,” without acknowledging that the removal of natural incentives for productivity that enforcing income equality would need might well destroy the goods of society they wish were shared more equally.

The Silence of the Poor

To many on the political and economic right, poverty is the divine punishment of losers and lazy people. To many on the left, it is the result of defenseless people being taken advantage of (consider that the most common epithet for those in poverty from the left is “the oppressed”). Both are, at various times. Both positions, when seen in the extreme, are also exceedingly condescending. Seeing poor as perpetrator and poor as victim both do a great deal to undermine the fundamental humanness of those in poverty.

One reason why the poor are often dehumanized is that their voices are seldom heard. Unlike those of us with extra resources and time to host blogs, often the poor are more concerned with hustling to survive. When we hear from them, it is often after they have arisen from poverty. In those cases, they have often been assimilated into the political patterns of the right or the left. It is often hard to hear the real human stories of the poor, unless you are in regular contact with people in poverty.

As a result, balanced memoirs like that of Sean Patrick are helpful. In his book, Patrick’s Corner, he documents the humanity of his large family in Cleveland. It’s the story of the survival and flourishing of six boys and their widowed mother in an ethnically Irish neighborhood. It’s a collection of tales that offer a vision into the real poverty of a real family. While it is certain we don’t get the full weight of the struggles of poverty in this memoir, the overall thread is realistic, hopeful, and compelling.

The Story

The story, which is well told in a journalistic style, is a fundamentally human one about a family’s pursuit of survival, goodness, and joy:

The Patricks, left by God as a family with one parent––a matriarch, at that––shortly after the birth of the youngest child, existed in material poverty. They inhabited for many years, a small, two-bedroom apartment in the tenement district of a major northeastern city on the shores of one of the Great Lakes. Their neighborhood, like most neighborhoods of such cities, was identified by nationalities. (11)

Neighborliness and a sense of place is an essential element in this story. Sean Patrick, as we see in the chapters of this volume, benefited from the geographic limitations of his world. He knew and was known by those in his neighborhood, which enhanced the richness and moral formation of his childhood. This sort of limitedness is, in our world, something foreign, and this is much to our detriment:

The compressed neighborhood of Sean’s childhood has given way, through the miracle of modern transportation and technology, to the expanded world of the shopping mall, the computer, and the television set. Sean’s world was bounded by the distance one could comfortably travel on foot or on the city streetcar. (11)

Because the Patrick’s were limited in their travels, the cast of characters in this volume is rich. There are intergenerational connections that can only form through casual sidewalk contact over time. Poor men who invested a dime into the Patricks each week by getting a shoeshine they couldn’t entirely afford. Old men who needed a bit of help from time to time from the Patricks, but in return who gave them love and spiritual concern. This sort of community would be a miracle in our day.

The Goodness of Work

One of the significant themes in these stories is the goodness of work. The Patrick boys were all pressed into work of necessity, because of their economic station. However, that work was not pure drudgery. It was an opportunity for marketplace engagement with the surrounding world. It provided a chance for entrepreneurial growth and imagination. In short, the work the Patricks did enhanced their humanity, it did not detract from it, as some so often depict.

All of us worked almost as soon as we were able. The positions we held were not exactly what one would consider real jobs by today’s standards. But, for us, it was work and we did it with a vengeance. … As each of us reached our two-digit birthdays, we became Associate Breadwinners. We had to if we wanted a little money to jingle in our pocket or to spend at the neighborhood movie theater on Saturday. (13)
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From shoe shiner to newspaper boy to working in the poultry shop, the Patrick boys progressed through various jobs. These jobs were managed around their studies and their sports. It did not crush their childlike spirits or diminish the goodness of their waking hours.

Unfortunately, so many of these opportunities have been legislated out of existence. For fear of bringing back the oppressive child labor of the early Industrial Revolution, we have largely made it illegal or financially impossible to allow kids to do the sorts of work they are able to meaningfully do. There are many fewer opportunities to be delivery boy or shop assistance because well-meaning laws have prevented the good in attempt to weed out the evil. It has made the path to adulthood much more difficult for children to follow.

One thing is clear, though the author does not state it overtly, and that is the Patrick boy all benefited from the work they did. Not just financially, but also personally.

Conclusion

This is not an academic treatise, but a book that tells stories about poverty, family, faith, and hope through all of the above. The stories are beautifully written, but more importantly, they expose a beauty of experience even amid the struggles of poverty. This book is valuable (certainly much more than its sales numbers likely allowed) because it humanizes poverty, showing that the best forms of poverty alleviation involve personal contact rather than simply writing a check.

Patrick's Corner
By Sean Patrick

Preaching By The Book - A Review

I was impressed with the first volume in the Hobbs College Library from Oklahoma Baptist University when it was published last year. It’s taken me until this Spring to get to the most recent volume in the series, Preaching by the Book: Developing and Delivering Text-Driven Sermons, by R. Scott Pace. The book deserved to be read sooner and deserves to be read widely.

In general, the Hobbs College Library is intended to provide basic resources for students preparing for ministry or men whose entry into ministry preceded their opportunity to get formal education or training. The books are written by highly qualified authors who have spent years teaching university level students; they balance scholarly acumen with a pastoral heart to create helpful resources for the growth and health of the church.

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Pace’s volume is a little over one hundred pages in eight chapters. In Part One, he lays the groundwork for the preaching event, focusing on the nature of Scripture and the importance of properly approaching the text on its own terms. Rather than hunting for a specific text to preach (which often results in sermons that mangle the meaning of the text), Pace urges preachers to survey the text prayerfully in preparation for the study process that comes later.

In Part Two, Pace constructs the framework for the sermon with a chapter on study and interpretation of the text and another of construction of the body of the sermon. Notably, Pace emphasizes that preaching arises out of diligent, joyful study of God’s Word; study is not an onerous duty that must be accomplished because one must preach. This approach to sermon preparation is encouraging. Additionally, the emphasis on using the structure of the passage to drive the construction of the sermon helps keep Scripture at the heart of a given sermon.

In the final section, Part Three, Pace picks up the garnishes to sermons: introductions, illustrations, and invitations. He offers balanced perspectives on both introductions and illustrations, which offer helpful reminders of both the importance of the elements as well as warnings for their potential to overtake the sermon. Pace offers a perspective on invitations consistent with many evangelical Bible belt churches that will work well in that context, avoiding the ditches on that culturally appropriate practice. This chapter will be less helpful for those in other contexts (e.g., many congregations in the Northern half of the US) who would find the practice unduly awkward and disconcerting.

This is a book that puts the cookies down on the bottom shelf. It is concise, clear, and well balanced. The Hobbs Library continues a positive trajectory with this book. I look forward to many further entries into the series of ministry-minded books that are intended to serve the church.

Preaching by the Book should not be the final stop in someone’s preparation for preaching. However, this is the sort of book that would be especially useful in a mentorship program with young men considering vocational or bi-vocational ministry. It would be useful as a text at the undergraduate level in a practical ministry or preaching course. It might even serve as one of several texts in a seminary course. This is the sort of book that is worth reading and sharing with those seeking to improve their skills in the pulpit or determine whether they might be gifted for pulpit ministry.

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

Five Attributes of a Good Book

I read and review a lot of books. My pace has slowed down in the past few months as I have been busy with some other projects. When I’m in my groove, I read 3-4 books every week, depending on their complexity, length, and relation to my areas of particular interest.

Most of the books that I read are generally pretty good. A very few are really excellent. There are also some that are really terrible—not as few as should be.

 Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/YX3230kFaXR

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/YX3230kFaXR

There is often little correlation between the excellence of a book and the amount it is discussed in the media—that is, in print, newspapers, on television, and in various internet formats. In fact, the “buzz” surrounding a book has as much to do with the relative heft of the publisher, especially their publicity budget. Or, perhaps as significant, it may have a great deal to do with the influence of the person who wrote a book. This is, incidentally, why national politicians who can hardly think linearly or reason effectively can get multi-million dollar book deals, while professional writers and researchers struggle to find a home for their tightly reasoned texts.

These comments about the relative public interest in particular books explains why some books are best sellers and then flood the bargain racks of bookstores and choke out the shelves (and online listings) of used book sellers. In many cases, after a few months, some books have more economic value as toilet paper than as contributions to the good of society. Many of these books often end up in library book sales within a year or two of publication because they simply don’t get used, or their value is so short lived as to not be worth the time once whatever crisis has been overcome or once all the ideas have been spilled out in podcasts, interviews, and reviews.

Time has a way of sifting through the wheat and the chaff so that the best books often end up on the shelves of libraries for decades instead of months and additional printings are demanded. The list of books that actually warrant this sort of attention is relatively small and doesn’t necessary coincide with a place on the best seller lists.

Here are some common threads among books that I’ve reviewed that I think make them high quality with potential to endure:

1.       Well-written with engaging prose: Some might think this goes without saying, but not all books that are published are written well. Even after the editorial process, there are often books that seem to have been written with little energy invested in engaging the reader. The copy may be clean—meaning that there are few grammatical inconsistencies—but the writing is dry.

 There are some writers who make even otherwise boring topics interesting by writing well. There are other writers who make topics that should be engaging boring, often, I think, because the author has become bored with the topic.

 2.       Focused toward a particular thesis: Even memoirs should have a point. One of my chief frustrations when reading books is having to ask why a particular portion of the book was included in the final manuscript. I’ve been disappointed to find myself wondering what I was supposed to learn about a particular topic after I’ve finished a several hundred-page book. Even novels should have a point. Sometimes books have multiple points, but those points should be clear. If I wanted to solve a mystery, I’d be a detective.

 3.       Honest about their position: Some books are lauded as good books by people who know little about the topic at hand. This is often true about popular-level biographies that “revolutionize” the study of a certain person. Often, those books are written by non-experts. When people who have spent their life researching a person or an era read the book, however, they often find the reason this book offers a radically new perspective is because it ignores obvious data that point a different direction or misinterprets information in a way that a non-expert is likely to do. There are occasions where new evidence is uncovered that undermines standing positions, but most of the time when a book claims a new perspective, it is really just a bad perspective.

 4.       Represents other positions fairly: I have yet to come across a position that I hold or that anyone else holds that does not have reasonable arguments and counter-arguments. However, as with one book that I reviewed recently, sometimes authors are (a) ignorant, (b) lazy, or (c) dishonest enough that they are not able to accurately represent the position they are opposing. These books are useful for my collection when they hold views I disagree with because they provide me examples of the position that are easy to illuminate and disassemble—though they often represent the fringe and not the center of opposing positions, so this must be done illustratively. They do little for real progress in human knowledge because the author hasn’t taken the time (let’s be generous) to understand the viewpoint he or she is supposedly dismantling. When books that hack opposing viewpoints agree with me, they are often quick reads, but they are actually useless to me because they often fail to make a helpful argument for the absence of a real opponent. In fact, I dislike poorly argued books that I agree with more than nearly any other category.

 5.       Argue their position tightly: Even when I disagree with an author’s conclusions, I benefit from his or her argument when it is well made. In fact, I spend a great deal more time reading theologians with whom I disagree because the friction of their arguments—when they argue well—shapes my arguments and helps me make my case better. If we are arguing toward truth, and not simply for the sake of victory, this is the sort of conversation we should want to have.

There are certainly other attributes of a book that make them valuable. However, these five items are really the characteristics that I look for primarily as I review books on any topic.

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers - A Review

Often, when reading Church History, I get the impression that things are pretty much the same as they ever were. This idea was brought to a head recently, when I read Christopher Hall’s book, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Hall is an expert in Patristics. This is the fourth in a series of volumes that synthesize the thought of Church Fathers on particular aspects of Christian thought. The present volume is a book about ethics. Although technology has changed, the topics of concern for the early church often have close analogies to the topics of our day.

In this volume, Hall summarizes, compares, and contrasts the teachings of various early Christian authors on martyrdom, wealth and poverty, war, sex and lust, marriage, entertainment, and the development of character. There is little doubt that Hall has chosen his topics wisely, which saves us the work of weeding through contextually dependent passages, but it is also clear that the wisdom of the ancient has a great deal of benefit for contemporary readers.

In C. S. Lewis’ preface to On the Incarnation by Athanasius, he commends his readers to read old books to help break through the blind spots of our time. On the Incarnation is an excellent book for that introduction because it is a timeless work that both helps undermine the arguments about doctrinal innovation (at least with respect to core doctrines like the incarnation), but also because that particular volume is lucid and, in a good translation, exceedingly easy to read. There are, however, some Patristics works that are not as clear, no matter what the translation says. Also, as Phillip Schaff’s monumental set of the collected works of the early church shows, the volume of writings is more than most of us mere mortals can manage in one lifetime. Hall’s synthesis helps break through that feeling of being overwhelmed.

At the same time, Lewis also warns of reading books about ancient authors. On the surface, it seems like he is warning us against book like Living Wisely with the Church Fathers, but on further consideration that is not clear. First, Lewis did not argue against reading new books, but merely against not reading old books. Given that wrote a few new books himself and a masterful book about old books (his contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature), that cannot have been his intent. Rather, he is arguing against reading new books about old books as the only point of contact with those earlier works. It is clear from Hall’s interaction with the Church Fathers that his desire is for his readers to go beyond his own works and to return to the sources. At the same time, he is offering helpful pointers to lead readers through the sometimes-tangled forest of antiquity.

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 In this volume, Hall serves as an advocate for the blessings of reading our theological predecessors. He does not gloss over the inconsistencies between authors and eras, but highlights the difference, showing, in part, how they arrived at opposite conclusions. By doing so Hall defeats the often triumphalistic proof-texting that goes one when someone finds an early author who agrees with them. One would think that tendency would have been defeated by Peter Lombard’s Sentences, but pacifists, abortion advocates, economic socialists, and their opponents still find pleasure in vindication when someone ancient says (or appears to say) exactly what their side is thinking. That becomes harder when one encounters opposing perspectives from eras adjacent or contemporary to those of the ancient author--clearly, there was more debate than many of allow. Hall points toward the consensus that arises at times and the need to read the full context to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the earlier reasoning when disagreement exists.

What is clear, however, is that the most enduring writings from Church History pull people outside themselves and cause them to look for the common good. The value in reading Church Fathers is not to find the killer proof-text, but to figure out how someone with vastly different cultural blind spots arrived at the conclusion they did and how that can inform our own thinking. This book is helpful because it leads us to do just that.

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers
By Christopher A. Hall

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

A Sense of Satisfaction: A Book Rediscovered

I’ve just completed a quest I started nearly two decades ago. I’m worried that once the elation of unlikely success fades I’m going to feel as sense of loss and possible purposeless. Probably not, since the quest itself hardly consumed my mind and is unlikely to result in my shifting to pursuit of life as the next Dread Pirate Roberts. (It’s the name that counts, not the person, you know.)

Let me start at the beginning of the story.

It was probably 1992 or 1993 when I first read the book. I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember reading it. It came from the library. I believe Dad had picked it up on the recommendation from the reviewer in the Buffalo News—the sort of city paper book reviews that are uncommon now.

Like most books I read, a lot of did not stick with me. Unlike most books that I have read, this book inspired a sense of longing, comfort, and a desire to read it again. It’s not that the book deserved a stack of literary rewards, but it had expanded my experience in unexpected ways and it made me want to go back to that place again.

The trouble is I couldn’t remember the author, the title, or many details about the book. I read the book long before the name of the publisher would have registered with me as a fact remotely worth knowing. I didn’t know what the cover looked like. I couldn’t remember where we got the book from.

In fact, about all I could remember about the book was that it was about an Irish family in the 20th century who lived in a poor neighborhood. I knew there was a story about a sweater, about a brother who was a boxer, an egg that was mailed to starving children because it was a despised food, and a family who overcame adversity. Oh, and something about the name Patrick, which doesn’t help very much when dealing with stories about the Irish.

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My quest for this vaguely remembered book began as an idle curiosity, but it has continued since I was in college. I’ve looked in every used bookstore I’ve ever been in. I used to scour the memoir section of my favorite used bookstore ever, The Book Barn, in Niantic, CT. I’ve come up empty every time I tried.

As the internet has grown and search functions have expanded, I’ve occasionally searched on different key terms. However, as readers will recognize by the paucity of my descriptions above, I really didn’t have much to go on. Add that to the fickleness of search engines that tend to reward readers looking for something on the road well-traveled, and you’ve got a recipe for a quixotic effort.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

I’m not sure why, but about a week ago, nearly twenty years after beginning my search, I typed the right combination of words in in the right order and Google Books rewarded my search with the text I’ve been looking for. It was the second option down.

Being an addict, I immediately found the book on an electronic marketplace and got it on its merry way. It’s now safely in my possession, an ex-library copy that shows too little wear to have been honestly used. Frankly, I may be the first to crack this copy of the book since the checkout pocket was pasted in.

However, I’m reading it now. I have to say that I’ve not been disappointed. Sometimes you come back to a childhood memory and are saddened to find that the initial experience was valued more than its due because of a lack of discernment or the varnish of a hazy memory. I’ve been pleased to find, on this reading, that the book in question, Patrick’s Corner by Sean Patrick, is perhaps better than I remember it.

Sometime in the future I’ll review the book, but today I just want to share my experience. It offers hope to many who continue search for that one book they vaguely remember. Ultimately, success is possible and the reading of the long-sought-for book is all the more pleasing for the long search for it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have a few chapters left to savor.

Patrick's Corner
By Sean Patrick

The Morals of the Story - A Review

The focus of apologetics as it is presented in evangelical contexts tends to be on evidential arguments like the historicity of the Bible and the credibility of the resurrection of Christ. These sorts of arguments are helpful when someone finds themselves somewhat attracted to Christianity but incredulous to its supernatural claims. Such apologetic arguments are important, but a different approach is warranted in a culture that no longer views Christianity as plausible.

The recent book, The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God, presents a traditional but less common apologetic approach designed to demonstrate the plausibility of Christianity. The argument of this volume is abductive—that is, the Baggetts make the case that the Christian God is the best explanation for the moral consistency of the world and the latent human awareness of moral demands. This approach, known as moral apologetics, essentially points to our shared sense of morality and expectation of justice and argues Christianity offers the best hope of making sense of it.

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The book is intriguing, not least because it was written by a husband and wife team. David Baggett is professor of philosophy at Liberty University. Marybeth Baggett is a professor of English at Liberty University. Their combined expertise helps make this a philosophically sound volume rich with literary illustrations that augment the basic argument that humans have a latent sense of the moral that needs explaining.

In a literary twist, the Baggetts constructed the book in three acts. The first act introduces the basic outline of moral apologetic arguments and the history of moral apologetics as a valid approach. Between the first and second act, there is an excursus, which the Baggetts call an intermission, that deals with the Euthyphro dilemma in technical detail. In some sense, the handling of resolution of that famous philosophic dilemma (or trilemma) is the ground on which all moral apologetics—indeed, a robust Christian ethics—is founded.

Act two engages arguments for and against a moral apologetic on the topics of goodness, obligations, knowledge, transformation, and providence. These are common points of friction between moral apologists and their critics. Act three functions as a thrilling conclusion, wherein the Baggetts tie their arguments together to present one brief, cogent case. The book closes with two brief recaps, which the Baggetts call an encore and curtain call.

The Morals of the Story is an important volume in our time because of the shift of the main points of contention against Christianity. No longer is it sufficient to establish basic facts—the resurrection, the possibility of miracles, the historicity of the narrative accounts—we are in an era where the plausibility of a source of moral authority outside of ourselves is not a shared assumption. It is exactly this barrier that moral apologetics seeks to break down. The Baggetts have presented a clear case, which does not prove conclusively (by their own admission) the reality of the Triune God, but it makes a strong case that the common experience of a moral conscience among all humans points to a central reality and source of moral authority beyond humans, which they hold to be the God of Christianity.

There are various points at which many readers will disagree with the Baggetts, but the book is constructed in a manner that disagreement at points does not undermine the integrity of the overall arguments. With few and minor exceptions, the Baggetts have argued cautiously, which makes their case worth engaging even if it the reader does not fully agree by the end of the volume. The Baggetts acknowledge the room for disagreement with their argument, which makes the whole of the case more convincing and the reader-author debate much more congenial throughout.

This book is written at a level that anticipates some familiarity with basic philosophical arguments. The Morals of the Story would be useful in an upper level undergraduate course or in graduate studies, or for individuals with some background in philosophy. For that audience, it is an entertaining read with a mix of humor, anecdote, and illustration. The text is seamlessly edited so it is not evident if there were different authors for different chapters, though the richness of the literary references would seem to reveal the handiwork of Marybeth Baggett, with her background in English literature. This is a solid and enjoyable team effort.

The Morals of the Story represents a significant and winsome entry in the field of apologetic literature. This book should prove useful for years to come in equipping the Church to engage a sometimes apathetic world with the truth of the gospel and the reality of a morally consistent, holy God.

The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God
By David Baggett, Marybeth Baggett

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

Financial Contentment in an Age of Wealth

I recently read a book about the financial habits of a sampling of American families. In a year-long study, a research team followed the economic lives of real families through a series of interviews and financial diaries.

The book exposes the reality of the income instability many households face. Even families with incomes in the mid- to upper-five figures expressed concerns about their financial security due to fluctuations in their income and expenditures.

The case study that struck me as most illustrative of the behaviorally driven portion of the problem was the story of a couple names Sarah and Sam. They had a combined income of about $65,000 in the year of the study, both had regular jobs, but still struggled to make ends meet and failed to pay many of their bills on time. There was no huge crisis that could explain their difficulties.

The authors of the book were careful not to express judgment, but it is clear from the case study that the problem in this situation is not the economy, the employer, or the system. It is with the people making the day-to-day decisions.

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Before going on, let me offer the qualifier that there are many circumstances in which poverty or financial insecurity are driven by injustice or simply by events outside of the individual’s control. Financial struggles are not always the result of moral failure of those struggling.

Those that are truly poor often lack the social network and other resources to improve their situation without external intervention. I’m not kicking the lame person and telling them to walk.

However, in the case of Sarah and Sam, they were dragging their own cloud. They earned $65,000 but had convinced themselves that life would be better if they only spent a few thousand more each year. That is the case for a lot of people.

Poverty vs. Insecurity

The reality is that a lot of people suffer from financial duress unnecessarily because they lack the discipline and/or knowledge to make better choices.

For example, I knew of a couple with two incomes that were somewhere near the six-figure mark (one above and one, I think, slightly below) who spent more each month than they made and had marital strain because of it. There was definite insecurity in this situation, but it was entirely self-induced.

The couple from Financial Diaries with a $65,000 in income, no savings, and overdue bills had dug their own hole and were suffering because of it. They didn’t need a government program as much as a lifestyle change that involved making better decisions.

Poverty is almost always accompanied by insecurity. However, insecurity can come at any income level.

The First Step

One of the biggest problems in our consumeristic society is that people want to be rich. In reality, by historic and global standards, the vast majority of Americans are already rich. But many people want to live like the uber-rich. They want luxury upon luxury in a never-ending stream of comfort.

Unfortunately, luxuries don’t feel like luxuries once you get used to them.

If you had lived in the Southern U.S. in the nineteenth century, you would have suffered through oppressive heat in the summers. Luxury was having ice available and the ability to sit in the shade on a porch designed for cross breezes. Now we’ve got air conditioning, which is wonderful. However, it isn’t enough to knock the temperature down to 78F, there are people who want their house at 65F in the summer when it is 90F outside. If it gets above 70F, then people act like it’s a hardship. If the AC breaks, then it is an emergency. In reality, any artificial cooling is a luxury, but it doesn’t feel that way once you get used to it.

The first step in fixing a lot of personal financial problems is for people to learn to be content.

In his letter to the young pastor, Paul warns Timothy about the dangers of loving money and continually desiring to have more:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. (1 Tim 6:6-11, ESV)

If you are reading this blog post on your tablet, smartphone, or desktop computer, you have likely already far exceeded the basic standard of living commended by Paul. In fact, if you are like most of us in the developed world, you’ve got a closet full of clothes and a week’s worth of groceries in the kitchen.

That should be enough.

But for most of us it isn’t.

In reality, most of us live lives of abundant resources, but we always want more. Like the family making $65,000 each year, we think that if we could spend like we make $72,000 it would be just a little better. And the credit card companies allow us to do that. Then we end up behind and stressed.

What we need to do is learn to be content on a fraction of what we make, to enjoy the luxuries that we have, and to celebrate God’s secure provision for us in this life. After all, Paul’s bar for contentment is low.

The consequences of our quest for more are real and often readily apparent. For Sarah and Sam, they had to play a complex juggling game to keep the lights on and keep up appearances. Because they wanted more than what they had they “pierced themselves with many pangs.” The wounds were largely self-inflicted. Let us avoid that trap.

More Gospel, Please

“A little more gospel, please, sir.”

That’s what we should say all day, every day. But we don’t.

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We sometimes forget that the gospel is not the beginning of the Christian journey, but the sum of the Christian journey.

My tendency—which is one that I observe among other believers, too—is to simplify the gospel to a transactional event where I was gloriously converted from sinner to saint by divine grace through personal faith in the finished, atoning work of Jesus Christ. This is a true account of a portion of the gospel, but it is not the whole of the good news.

An individual’s experience of the gospel begins with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but it ends…well, it never ends. That last bit is as much a part of the good news—the gospel—as the original forgiveness of sins. Both are vital to experiencing a joyful Christian life.

We tend to remember the initial transaction and forget our need for a solid dose of the gospel each and every day. Those who know Christ personally have been saved (Eph 2:8-9), are being saved (1 Cor 1:18), and also will be saved (Rom 5:9).

What exactly does that mean?

It is clear from Scripture that the ongoing and future nature of salvation is not dependent upon our works—whether good, mediocre, or bad.

Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul makes it clear that our works do not contribute to our salvation (Eph 2:8-9) even though we are called to good works because of our salvation (Eph 2:10). This is why James wrote that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-20) The two authors are not disagreeing, but they are making it clear that the gospel seed planted into our souls when we were saved will produce good fruit if it really took root.

Lest I be accused of commending salvation by works, we should note that this helps explain why Jesus seems particularly concerned with the fruit of religious belief. John records Christ’s teaching on this in the 15th chapter of his Gospel, where Christ explains that the sign of conversion—the evidence of the work of the gospel in the lives of the converted—is bearing good fruit abundantly.

It’s that same passage that reminds us that we need more gospel. Jesus reminds his listeners, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear the fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15:3-4)

We need more gospel. We need to abide in Christ. We need to be transformed by the ongoing renewal of our minds, which occurs through intake of God’s special revelation in Scripture and a continual mindfulness of our dependence upon the gospel.

We are priests and kings in God’s kingdom. Because we have been undeservedly granted that status, we should be willing to stand as beggars before him to plead, “Please sir, may I have some more.”

From Jerusalem to Timbuktu - A Review

If you read the right commentary on the state of Christianity, it will seem like doom is coming and we are well into the waning days of the faith, well past the point of no return. Those discussions of the present and future of Christianity tend to rely on data from the developed world, particularly the Northern Hemisphere that has been strongly influenced by the European colonialism.

In From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, Brian Stiller offers a much different picture. Stiller words as global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance and has previously served as president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. The reality he describes is generally more reassuring than the darkest of predictions, but disconcerting to those who have concerns about recent innovations in Christian doctrine. There is much to celebrate about the spread of the gospel, but much work to do, as well.

Stiller offers a number of reasons for the spread of Christianity. He cites the spread of Charismatic theology as a contributor to the spread of Christianity. (More on that later.) He also notes that the increase in the number of Bible translations in the heart languages of more people have advanced the cause of Christ. There is little doubt that the proliferation of God’s word has done a great deal to advance the spread of Christianity as a local movement.

Another reason for the spread of the gospel is the willingness of missionaries, particularly those from the West, to allow Christianity to take local forms by not constraining converts by Western clothing and music. This conversation is helpful, though Stiller seems to be uncritical of some forms of contextualization that appear to be closer to syncretism than authentic Christianity. Additionally, Stiller cites the efforts of Christians to engage in the public square for the common good as Christians. Corollary to engagement in the public square is the recovery of an emphasis on the implications of the gospel—in other words, seeking reconciliation in more than just the spiritual dimension—among Christians.

There is a great deal to celebrate about the growth of Christianity and Stiller’s book is encouraging in that general sense. On the whole, however, Stiller spends too much time arguing for recent theological innovations instead of simply reporting the facts. In particular, Stiller attempts to justify the rise of female pastors and Charismatic theology as normative and consistent with Christian tradition. It is clear from his argument that he believes these movements, largely unknown in the Christian church until the 19th century, are causes to be celebrated regardless of their differences with the historical practices of the church. It would have been a better book if Stiller had reported the facts instead of trying to push a theological agenda. His arguments on this front rely on pragmatic justification: these recent theological developments appear to be working, therefore they must be good.

Both with the rise of Charismatic versions of Christianity and excessive contextualization, the book fails to consider sufficiently the detrimental nature of the syncretism of pagan spirit worship with Christianity that he notes on several occasions. Similarly, he is insufficiently critical of the Prosperity Gospel movement, focusing on the abuses of its leaders rather than the theological poverty of the entire system. That critique is necessarily buried, since the Prosperity Gospel movement is a direct theological child of the revisionist Charismatic and Pentecostal movements—the Prosperity Gospel spreads most rapidly among those who seek ongoing special revelation as a special gift from God.

It is exciting that the gospel is spreading, but not all movements that claim to be gospel may accurately reflect authentic Christianity. In that sense, Stiller’s book should raise concern among orthodox believers.

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Setting aside those critiques, this is a largely encouraging volume. Although there is much handwringing in the West about the rise of Nones and the secularization of our Christian heritage, the Gospel of Christ is on the move. Stiller’s book pulls the reader’s focus from cable news stories about US Supreme Court cases, concerns over student aid for those who choose to attend a Christian university, and the minor persecutions that seem to highlight some media channels.

Most importantly, and the thing that makes this book worth reading, is that it offers reassurance that in Christ we are more than conquerors. It calls the reader to recognize the great need for evangelization, the opportunities for evangelism, and the possibility that each of us can participate in the spread of the gospel if we simply obey the command to do so.

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