Rethinking Incarceration - A Review

Mass incarceration is a significant problem in the United States. The sheer number of people who are currently in the custody of the various levels of government is staggering. According to one advocacy group, approximately 2.3 million Americans were in some form of corrective custody in 2017. This is a dramatic burden to the population through expended tax revenue, but has an even greater cost for the families of those behind bars, for the communities decimated by this phenomenon, and the individuals who will be permanently marked with the status of ex-con or felon.

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The problem of mass incarceration is complicated by unequal racial outcomes, which indicate that approximately 1 in 3 ethnic minorities will pass through the judicial system and spend time in some form of corrective custody. This inequity helps continue the perpetuation of negative images of minorities and accelerates what amounts to a downward spiral in some communities. A large number of minorities are imprisoned; therefore, they are perceived to be dangerous, then they are watched more closely and given fewer breaks, which leads to a larger number of incarcerations. This has negative effects of the general population’s perception of minorities and the perception of the judicial system and police force by minorities. Add in some cases of real corruption and legitimate hostility on both sides and you have something like the stand off we find ourselves in now with people arguing about the importance of black lives versus blue lives.

With that background, the recent volume by Dominique Dubois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, is timely and takes on a very important topic. The book consists of two parts.

Part one lays out various aspects that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, with chapters on the war on drugs, a history of racial bias in law enforcement, an overzealous enforcement of law, issues with mental health and immigration, and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This portion of the volume is largely sociological and helpful in highlighting important elements of a significant source of injustice in our nation.

Part two is a theological argument intended to move readers of the volume to a doctrinal foundation that Gilliard believes will undermine mass incarceration. In this section, Gilliard offers chapters on Quaker involvement in American prisons, prison chaplaincy, penal substitutionary atonement, restorative justice, and a concluding plea for activism in dismantling mass incarceration. This section of the volume is less helpful and less well done.

There are two apparent theses in this book. First, that mass incarceration is a problem with underlying systemic injustices in the American legal system. Gilliard handles that element of the book well. He researched that section well and puts together a solid argument that has potential to convince a skeptical reader.

The second thesis of the book is that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the cause of the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, Gilliard’s attempt at supporting this thesis is, at best, poor. By any fair measure, the theological argumentation of this section of the book is anemic and riddled with fundamental methodological errors, many of which should have been corrected prior to this book’s publication. These errors and the nature of Gilliard’s plea for rejecting the substitutionary atonement significantly diminish the value of this volume, in some cases making it more likely to cement bias against judicial reform among some conservative Christians than convince anyone of the issue’s importance.

Rethinking Incarceration is a useful book in that it raises awareness of a significant issue of systemic injustice. The work Gilliard does in highlighting the racial aspects of the history of mass incarceration is helpful. Unfortunately, by introducing a second thesis and calling for a rejection of a common, orthodox theory of the atonement and by doing so very poorly, Gilliard undermines the good work he does in the beginning of the book. My hope is that a better book from a more careful author will follow this book and lead to a continuing and more theologically robust discussion of this vital topic.

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

Celebrating Black History Month

Now that February has kicked off, social media streams are sometimes sprinkled and sometimes filled with celebrations of or objections to Black History month. For many, the celebration of Black History month is warranted and natural, but for others, there are questions why any special celebration is necessary.

History of Black History Month

Though it has its roots in the beginning of the 20th century, the first official celebration of Black History month was in 1976. Every president since that time has renewed that declaration.

The purpose of the first Black History month was to recognize the progress that the United States had made toward the fulfillment of the humanist ideals that framed the American Revolution. As Gerald Ford noted in his declaration:

The last quarter-century has finally witnessed significant strides in the full integration of black people into every area of national life. In celebrating Black History Month, we can take satisfaction from this recent progress in the realization of the ideals envisioned by our Founding Fathers. But, even more than this, we can seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.
I urge my fellow citizens to join me in tribute to Black History Month and to the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.

Forty-two years later, there are some Americans who question the need to continue to celebrate the month, because they believe that the errors of the first two centuries of American history have largely been amended. However, a realistic look at the social and economic realities of our nations shows that even if the legal abuses of the Jim Crow era, post-bellum culture, and legalized slavery have been corrected, the long-term impacts continue.

Why is Black History Month Necessary?

Black History month, therefore, still serves to remind us of what ought to have been, what can be, and the work that is left to be done.

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Additionally, Black History month reminds us that despite the barriers placed in the way of success, progress, and achievement of African-Americans, these Americans still accomplished impressive things. The imago Dei can overcome, no matter how difficult other humans try to suppress its outworking.

Different groups will no doubt draw different themes from the celebration of Black History month. However, one dominant theme Christians—especially white Christians—can draw from the celebration of this month is how a bad doctrine of anthropology taints the water of society.

Consider that at the core of the abuses of Black Americans is and has been the denial of their full humanity. There is a reason civil rights protesters carried placards and wore signs declaring “I am a man.” This was not simply a political statement, but a profoundly theological one. As a nation, the United States neglected to acknowledge the full humanity of African-Americans. This was explicit in some of the early rhetoric supporting chattel slavery, where the ensoulment of dark skinned persons was denied as a way to justify not evangelizing them at first. Blacks were not simply treated like animals, they were described as animals--sometimes from the pulpit.

The celebration of the beauty of blackness, the accomplishments of African-Americans, and the distinct sub-cultures within the tapestry of African-American culture is good and right because it is a celebration of the full humanity of dark skinned humans. Black History month gives people of all skin tones opportunity to celebrate that goodness, even if it different than our own sub-culture's. It is a way to celebrate the common standing with a group whose humanity was previously denied.

Black chattel slavery as it existed in 19th century America was particularly damnable because it actively denied the humanity of the slaves, and of all people of color. This is why the comparison of other ancient slavery (e.g., the objection that all ancient cultures owned slaves) does not diminish the moral blindness and perfidy of slavery as it existed in the pre-Industrial West.

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But still, once the humanity of African-Americans was begrudgingly acknowledged by the abolition of slavery and eventually the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, much of the Land of the Free perpetuated the statutory abuse of humans by creating the Jim Crow laws. These are laws that in retrospect appear to be as preposterous as the school-kid fear of getting cooties. Think about it, whites were so disgusted with African-Americans they created separate water fountains so they wouldn’t get infected with blackness. More likely it was simply a way of showing that despite the legal acknowledgement of the humanity of African-Americans, whites could still deny them recognition of that fact.

The inefficiency and foolishness of these immoral actions will not cease to be an embarrassment to the United States. However, like all errors, it should spur us to do better. We can't overcome the embarrassment by ignoring the failures of the past, but only by doing much better in the present and future.

Black History month forces those of us in the majority to remember the foolishness of our forebears and to work to do something better in the future. Black History month also allows us to remember the amazing work of men and women who resisted injustice to accomplish significant goods, like the women depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, or like George Washington Carver, or like thousands of others who accomplished so much despite being oppressed.

Black History month is, in many regards, a celebration of the greatness of humanity. As often happens, the greatness of humanity is also demonstrated in stark contrast to the depravity of humanity. Don’t let the color of your skin allow you to miss the greatness of one group because your own group happened to be the villains in this story.

How to Celebrate Black History Month

Although there are and always will be ideological abuses within the groups that participate in celebration of any public movement, whether that is the environment, racial pride, or advances in workers protection, we should not fail to legitimately celebrate good things.

Celebrating Black History is celebrating the triumph of humanity. It requires remembering a not-too-distant past that is embarrassing, but which we never want to see again. Thus, a dive into African-American poetry, gospel music, and unique technological inventions of our fellow citizens does not need to fall prey to unhealthy identity politics, but should be a legitimate thankfulness for the persistence of impressive people in the face of significant opposition.

If our African-American neighbors happen to draw especial encouragement from this month, that is good and natural—it is empowering and encouraging to realize that your family has done something good and great, because it teaches you that you can, too. It does whites no harm to have African-Americans built up. There is an infinite supply of happiness in the world, which only grows when we share it.

Just as we celebrate the theological accomplishments of the early Reformers, so we should celebrate the accomplishments of people of color in the United States. Neither group is or was perfect, but the world is better for what they have done.

So, celebrate Black History month no matter the color of your skin, because as African-Americans advance, the whole of society gets stronger. That is a good thing.

Economics of Neighborly Love - A Review

Our economic activity, when done properly, is primarily about loving our neighbors. Neighbor love is not merely a description of so-called spiritual activities, like those done under the umbrella of a local church. Rather, neighbor love should shape everything we do in the home, in the marketplace, and in our neighborhoods.

In a helpful, recent book, Tom Nelson helps bring theology and economics together in a way the average Christian can understand it. His volume, The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity, weaves together many of the themes in the Faith and Work movement in a single, digestible bundle.

Nelson’s basic assumption is that we live in a fundamentally economic world. His is not, however, an attempt to reduce humans to homo economicus. Instead, he argues for understanding humans to have the imago Dei, which leads to a demand to live compassionately among others. His basic argument in the entire book is that the best workers make the best neighbors, as long as they are working for reasons that matter.

Humans are made to flourish. Part of that flourishing is having our material needs met. Another component of flourishing is pursuing a purpose higher than ourselves. Work is a primary means by which humans flourish.

One sign of flourishing (though not the only or even best sign) is material wealth. Such wealth is a resource to be stewarded for the glory of God and the good of neighbors. It is neither the reward for holiness as the prosperity gospel argues, nor is it intrinsically evil. It is a simply one way that God provides for humans to be fruitful.

Lest Nelson be guilty of reducing flourishing to the accrual of wealth, he quickly explains that intimacy with other people, godly character, and productively contributing to the world around are vital ways that humans are fruitful. Being fruitful and productive are ways that we love the world around us by making this world a better place.

All of the productivity in the world does not do any good, however, unless it is directed toward our neighbors. Nelson explains a vision, consistent with Scripture, of how godly people can engage in a relatively free market for the glory of God.

One way humans engage wisely in economic activity is to be generous, using our wealth to provide the means for the church to do good works in the name of Christ. Another way is to actively pursue the good of the materially poor around us. In the process of helping the poor, however, a biblically shaped worldview recognizes there are forms of poverty that no amount of material support will resolve. People are desperately need of the gospel, so we are called to demonstrate it through our actions and verbalize it through our language.

As part of our economic activity, Nelson also urges Christians to fight economic injustice, to show grace to the communities around us. Most of all, people simply need to get moving. It is altogether too easy to stay cooped up in our homes, never meeting our neighbors, and thus never learning how best to meet their needs. By making personal connections and seeking the common good in all of our economic activities—not just the ones where we spend and earn—Christians can demonstrate what hope looks like to the world.

The Economics of Neighborly Love is the sort of volume that makes a great introduction to a biblical view on faith, work, and economics. Nelson shows how the ordinary lives of ordinary Christians can be leveraged to make this world a better place for the love of God and the good of our neighbors. He presents a practical vision for Christians to be salt and light in the world.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this volume is that there is a way for Christians to show neighborly love not despite our economic system, but because of our economic system. Though Nelson recognizes that sometimes sinful people oppress others in a free market economy, he also recognizes that freedom is an important part of allowing people to fulfill their potential as beings imbued with the image of God. The freedom within the market system helps make financial prosperity accessible to many more people, which helps provide the resources for many forms of productive engagement with society.

Nelson’s book, however, will fall short of its final purpose if it fails to encourage Christians to live their lives for the good of the world around them. This is a book that deserves to be read, discussed, and shared widely as the body of Christ seeks to fulfill the greatest commandment by living out the second greatest commandment in a world of people who desperately need to be loved. The Economics of Neighborly Love is a volume that needs to be applied wholeheartedly, too.

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

Letter to a Young Farmer - A Review

I was first exposed to Gene Logsdon in the 1990s when my father brought home a book from the library. It was recommended, I believe, by a columnist in the Buffalo News. In At Nature’s Pace, Logsdon presents his idea for the small family farm as a lifestyle and not merely a career choice. That book talks about the economic viability of small farms—particularly horse farms—arguing that success is, perhaps, more likely on a small scale.

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In his recent, and final, book, Letter to a Young Farmer: How to Live Richly without Wealth on the New Garden Farm, Logsdon further develops some of his elegiac essays on the life of a rural farmer with something like an epistolary exhortation to someone who feels irrepressibly drawn to cultivate the earth. This is a collection of essays, with a conversational tone. Just the sort of tone you would expect if you stopped by to visit your aging curmudgeonly neighbor for a few minutes while leaning on his split rail fence. It is, in fact, the sort of book you would expect someone who claims to be a “contrary farmer” to write as a swan song. Logsdon has recently died and this book represents something of a last will and testament for the folks he’s been writing for during the past half century.

Logsdon’s writing style is comfortable and enjoyable to read. He adds a good dose of facts and figures, with a dash of common sense, and a large dollop of opinions. The mixture that results enables the reader to politely disagree at points while still enjoying the experience and getting some helpful information along the way.

Letter to a Young Farmer is not an extended argument, but a series of discussions that surround a cogent theme. This makes the book an easy one to read piecemeal over the course of several weeks or even months. There are essays about managing the politics and economics of a farmer’s market, about the uses and failures of big data, and about the joy of living in one local area for most of one’s life.

The central topic in all of the essays is how to make a go of it as a small farmer. Thus, the subtitle is more descriptive of the content than the title. Logsdon is not writing to the person who inherited a vast tract of land and is putting thousands of acres under plow. Neither is he writing to someone who is necessarily chronologically young. Instead, Logsdon is writing to someone who has decided to engage in agriculture on a small scale—often for the fulfillment of the act itself—who lacks the benefit of his decades of contrarian experience.

Some of Logsdon’s earlier books make is sound like the small farm is the only way to go. This book, however, is more balanced. Logsdon acknowledges that there are many ways to farm and many reasons to farm. Though he still acts as an apologist for the small, “garden” farm, he does not come of a polemical in this book as before. Just persistently contrarian.

Most of the wisdom in Letters to a Young Farmer represents the sort of common sense that seems so uncommon today. He argues that young farmers should avoid debt, diversify assets and income sources, save for the future, avoid social vices like smoking and drinking (they are exorbitantly expensive), minimize eating out and the purchase of non-essentials, build trustworthy relationships with mechanics and other service providers, live in a reasonable house, and so on. These lessons are essential for someone trying to build up a new garden farm, but they are equally useful for those who live in the suburbs—so much of the angst of the modern worker is due to grasping for a lifestyle that has been advertised on television.

The moral of the book, so to speak, is that life is much better when you live within your means and pursue contentment in the place you are. For Logsdon and many of his readers, this translates to finding satisfaction in farming 10, 50, or 200 acres. Often it means being content to do so while working another job, whether full-time or part-time. This is a book that marries up the idea of a sense of vocation with the sense of place.

Even if you aren’t a garden farmer—as I am not—this is an enjoyable book. Logsdon—a lapsed Roman Catholic—is somewhat caustic about the value and durability of Christianity, but if you filter his occasional snide remarks, what you have is a collection of essays that are a pleasure to read on a cold winter evening. The end result may well be a deeper appreciation for where you are, what you do, and perhaps a growing desire to plant a decent sized vegetable garden in your backyard.

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

Monetary Influences on the Reformation

Last year, 2017, was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of Protestant Reformation. Many of us celebrated the restoration of the gospel as a core concern of Christianity. Others mourned the division of the unified body of Christ, thinking that Luther would have been better to simply let the status quo continue. The debate on the merits and necessity of the Reformation will certainly continue into the future. That debate should also include discussion of the reasons for the Reformation and the history leading up to the Reformation, both of which are often neglected.

According to some critics of the Reformation, it is as if Luther woke up one day in his monastery and decided to pick a fight with the Pope. That perspective is naïve and ignores the many real abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy leading up to the beginning of the German Reformation.

One of the major abuses of the Roman Catholic was the sale of indulgences. The Roman Catholic church still does deal in indulgences, though they have tightened up the rules since Luther’s day.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."

Basically, a Catholic who has been restored to a state of grace (i.e., gone to confession so the priest could forgive their sin) can get time off of their stay in Purgatory—an extrabiblical intermediate state, which souls allegedly experience before making it to heaven with time allocated according to the merits of the individual—by doing certain things. The idea is that beyond being forgiven their sins by Christ’s atonement, people need to pay for them by doing good works to pay off the debt they owe to God.

In Luther’s day, one of the main “good works” someone could do was to give money to the Pope for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther’s initial objections were not to indulgences per se, but to the impoverishment of the German peasants by sending the limited available German resources out of district to the posh palaces of the self-titled Vicar of Christ in Rome. The purchase of indulgences was a ransom of a soul from Purgatory.

Apart from the invention of Purgatory, the question remains how Roman Catholics came to believe that earthly wealth could be used to buy a better condition for souls. This is the question Peter Brown takes up in his 2012 book, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity.

Early Christians, like Tertullian, believed in a bodily resurrection. That is, contrary to accusations that Christians are dualists, the Church has traditionally and consistently believed in a restoration of all creation in the eschaton. However, as they sought to differentiate the really holy people that died as martyrs from the average Christians, one of the myths that began to evolve was that some people got taken directly to heaven to be in God’s presence, while others would have to wait to make it as their soul was perfected. This idea, combined with the biblical image of human works being judged by fire (1 Cor 3:13), contributed to the development of a temporal period spent in a refining fire that would vary according to the earthly merits of a person whose eventual destination was heaven. Such a view enabled Tetzel’s infamous couplet, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”

There was more to the ransom of souls by money than simply the purchase of indulgences, though. As Brown notes, “Throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, the churches increasingly became places where the rich members in the Christian communities of the West were able to flex the muscles of their social power. They did so mainly through donations designed to protect their souls and those of their relatives and loved ones.” Much of this protection came by endowing churches, funding masses to be said in honor of deceased loved ones, and giving money to the church in the name of the poor.

This belief that one could give to the church and receive quantifiable spiritual benefit in the form of time off Purgatory or a more likely entry to Heaven helped make the Roman Catholics one of the largest land owners in the world.

Contributing this belief was the idea that giving alms could atone for sins. According to Brown, “Augustine…insisted that almsgiving was an obligatory pious practice because it had an expiatory function. Alms atoned for sins.” His understanding of the trend in Augustine’s theology, which became more firmly established in later Roman Catholic doctrine, that something other than faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone could lead to salvation. This is profoundly different than the gospel that Paul outlines in his letters, hence the need for the Reformation.

There are certainly a number of factors that added to the evolution of works-based salvation. Much of the earliest extra-biblical literature of the Church, like the Didache, heavily emphasizes legalistic practices necessary for salvation. However, the idea that money could serve as ransom for the soul actually evolved from Jewish teachings drawn from Daniel 4, where some interpretations of the prophecy of Daniel have Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment being lightened by giving to the poor. For exiled Jews, this alleviated the tension of lacking a temple in which to sacrifice, and also, perhaps, contributed to the acceptance of the money changers in the temple that Jesus was obliged to clear out. The net result was the equation of atonement for sin with money, which Brown argues shaped later Roman Catholic doctrines.

Notably, one of the major reasons for Augustine’s emphasis on the necessity of giving alms was competition for the money of the rich Christians. The practice of the day was for the rich to give to enhance their local communities, typically through civic activity. Part of the reason for Augustine’s focus on alms (multiple sermons focused on giving to the poor through the Roman Catholic church) was an attempt to shift the culture away from civic giving to ecclesial giving. That emphasis based on the evolved Roman Catholic doctrines and then later was developed to include the practice of indulgences as was seen in the late Middle Ages.

Brown helpfully shows how Roman Catholic doctrine drifted from Scripture and evolved due to various social pressures and theological turns in Church History. In particular, his survey traces out that evolution from about 250 AD to about 600 AD, which represents the end of the ancient era to the beginning of the Middle Ages. His non-polemical exploration of the development of doctrines has explanatory power as contemporary theologians and religious scholars seek to understand the Roman Catholic understandings of the nature of wealth and the role of wealth in attaining the afterlife.

Thoughts on Contemporary "Conservativism"

I recently witnessed a media “conservative” criticize the San Francisco airport for having a compost receptacle beside their recycle bin and regular trash can. She also noted that she does not go in for sorting trash beyond a simple recycling bin and that her desire to sort trash goes down “exponentially” when there are more options offered. When I asked her why she didn’t like to sort trash, she replied that she shouldn’t need a PhD to separate her trash.

This was a Twitter discussion, so I left it at that point without raising the logical question why one would need an advanced degree to separate trash into a few receptacles. That really wasn’t her point anyway.

If I may be so bold as to read beyond the actual words in this individual’s comments, I might suggest that what she really meant was that she didn’t want to be inconvenienced by having to sort her trash. That answer would have had a bit more validity, but it raises some interesting questions about the nature of popular conservativism.

True Conserativism

The heart of legitimate conservativism is that it takes a long time to build good things and very little time and effort to tear them down. Therefore, we should be careful in making sweeping changes—even when we have good intentions—because we may unwittingly destroy something that is good, true, and beautiful in a hasty attempt to make “progress.”

Photo credit: Mayberry Health and Home Used by CC License.

Photo credit: Mayberry Health and Home Used by CC License.

Based on that definition, which most thoughtful conservatives that I know share, environmental stewardship is a thoroughly conservative ideal. If we presume that the ecosystem is a natural good and that we all benefit from minimizing disturbances to it, then it takes little to jump from the notion that we should value the nuclear family to the idea we should value the created order. Both have their roots in nature, both have observable positive impacts on the world, both are worth conserving.

But preserving the family and conserving the environment take work. It is inconvenient to invest time into raising children. Before conservative became being “anti-progressive” it was supposed to be about conserving that which is good, true, and beautiful. If you’ve ever spent time dealing with historical artifacts, conservation is always exceedingly inconvenient.

In other words, when it is functioning as a distinct approach to life, conservativism is not about convenience, which is typically self-centered. Rather, it is nearly always concerned with something beyond the self, which is typically inconvenient.

Selfish Anti-Progressivism

Progressivism as a political movement often claims the mantle of selflessness. When it comes to economics, they typically favor a large, centralized government, which necessarily restricts individual freedom. They claim that this inconvenience is necessary to do the selfless good of ensuring some other good is provided—the poor are cared for, emissions are regulated, people are paid a particular amount of money per hour. Often these are legitimate goods that are being pursued at the highest level of bureaucracy available.

At its best, conservativism recognizes legitimate public goods, which are often also celebrated by progressives. However, when they are functioning to conserve the good, true, and beautiful, conservatives have a longer timeframe of concern; they look to pursue future good without creating perverse incentives or undermining existing goods unnecessarily. For example, true conservatives see caring for the poor as a good and necessary goal, but recognize the perverse incentives that permanently subsidizing able-bodied people creates; they tend to remain outside of the workforce and can form a permanent lower class, among other dangers. Thus, blind redistribution of funds is viewed by many conservatives as unjust and ultimately unhelpful because of its long term deleterious effects on society, including those who are the target of the assistance.

However, the position that the federal government is not the proper source of support from the poor must be accompanied by localized efforts to do the same if a conservative is to be consistent. That is, conservatives must engage in the inconvenient practice of engaging with the poor to help them. This is, in fact, the most effective means of poverty alleviation, but also the most difficult. It is the most consistent with conservative principles. One reason for conservatives to resist efforts to create a federal universal basic income is that it is primarily a means for progressives to claim to solve the world’s problems as conveniently as possible; give the poor a steady stream of checks so that we can otherwise ignore them. Regulate the companies producing merchandise to the maximum extent possible, because it would require too much work for consumers to make wise spending choices regarding the environment, employment practices, and product quality of companies they buy from. The convenience is found in gaining a clear conscience with as little effort as possible. Progressive political ideas tend to buy personal convenience at a high cost to the public purse.

Anti-Progressive Convenience Seekers

Unfortunately, in reaction to the high cost of progressive political ideas, anti-progressives have begun to label themselves as conservatives, including the person I interacted with about composting her garbage. In this case, at least, she is opposed to something she perceives as progressive simply because it is inconvenient. In fact, observing her public social media presence, she makes her living as a media persona by claiming to be conservative while really simply being anti-progressive.

Anti-progressives are convenience oriented like many progressives, but without the concern for a clear conscience. They argue there should be less federal welfare because of the freeloaders; they ask, “Why should my money be used to support those that didn’t work for it?” The poor are to be despised as inconveniences. The environment is to be used for convenience without concern for the long-term effects. Convenience is the main aim. One shouldn’t be bothered by having to separate leftover food from a plastic bag, that is entirely too inconvenient.

Many of those who brand themselves as conservative these days are really just anti-progressives who are seeking maximum personal convenience. Those who are true conservatives—those of us concerned with conserving and pursuing the true, good, and beautiful—would do well to differentiate ourselves from media personalities whose goal is to maximize liberal tears and garden variety convenience-seekers whose goal is to maximize their bank account balance and minimize their support for their neighbors.

Resist Bad Alliances

True conservatives are not simply anti-progressive. That would be too simple and too convenient. No, true conservatives are pursuing the common good in a decidedly high-effort, inconvenient manner. True conservatives will be willing to entertain an inconvenience such as sorting one’s trash, as long as it contributes to the true, the good, and the beautiful, whether the idea came from a progressive or not.

If we are pursuing the common good, we will likely be confederated with strange co-laborers at times. It is a good thing to link arms with people in a common cause, but we should be careful about becoming too closely associated with people that hold views ultimately contrary to ours. Confederation—a loose association, typically temporary and for a common cause—is a much healthier approach on many issues than formal alliances. We can build a community park with anyone in our community who has a similar vision for a shared public space, regardless of their position on euthanasia, eugenics, or human sexuality.

At the same time, we should be very careful of making close alliances with people who don’t hold the same positions we do for approximately the same reason. That leads to the sort of confusion we have today with self-centered, convenience-seeking, anti-progressives masquerading as conservatives.

Between One Faith and Another - A Review

It is difficult, at times, to understand different perspectives on the compatibility of religions. Or, perhaps to be clearer, I might say that it is hard to understand without caricature other people’s ideas about religions.

For example, for those raised on conservative Christian teaching, there is no question that Christianity is incompatible with dozens of others world religions. We have heard this asserted from pulpit, lectern, and printed page so often that it is clear to us that Buddhism conflicts with orthodox Christianity in ways that are irreconcilable. Truths are black and white. We can be absolutely certain of most things. The law of non-contradiction reigns supreme. This is the perspective on religion known as exclusivism.

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And yet, many hold to the notion that all religions are somehow leading people to climb the same mountain, though via different paths. Though Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, some suggest that his illumination shines through the teachings of other world religions such that all provide a functional path to God. In its most benign forms, this perspective on religion teaches that there is some truth in all religions, and therefore no conflict between them in the absolute core. One might make progress toward salvation (whatever that means) as a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. This view is often called inclusivism.

There is a third perspective on religion, which is called pluralism, that argues we just don’t know which of the religions has the truth (if there is one), but that all may have a piece of the truth. Those that propound this view typically trot out the illustration of blind men feeling different parts of the mountain, an image which Lesslie Newbigin and others have helpfully identified as arrogant presumption of omniscience on the part of the speaker. This perspective often entails a sort of agnosticism, which asks the believer to wait and see before making final commitments.

In didactic texts, whether of the form used for indoctrinating children through Fundamentalist Christian worldview courses or those used to influence college sophomores in a world religions course, these perspectives are often presented triumphalistically. The pastor shows how the god of Mohammed is really vastly different than the God of Paul; the political science professor dons a head scarf and asserts that the two deities are really the same without understanding the basic theological issues; the tired, uninterested arm-chair philosopher argues for pluralism because he really wants people to stop arguing and killing one another over religion. These approaches and their related variants often tend to dismiss alternative perspectives without increasing understanding.

For those interested in understanding better the relationship between inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism, Peter Kreeft has written a new book, Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World’s Great Religions.

Summary

I was initially skeptical of this volume, because it is written in the form of a dialogue (or really a trialogue), which is not my favorite form of philosophy. I am also aware that Kreeft is a committed Roman Catholic who converted from evangelical Christianity, so he has a distinct perspective on the issue; I wondered how well he could represent the perspectives in this format.

My doubt, however, was ill-founded. Kreeft has produced a volume that will help people from all three perspectives to understand the others better. This is because, as Kreeft admits in his introduction, he has sympathies with each of the three characters and their perspective. Kreeft dealt the cards fairly when assigning roles and allowed the dialogue to unfold relatively naturally, without cheating arguments by exposing only flaws or highlighting only strengths.

The volume is a conversation between two students over the content of a world religions course. The atheist/agnostic rationalist is an exclusivist, seeing all the conflicts between different religions. He argues that not only do they conflict with one another irreconcilably, but that they are therefore all wrong; this the is character that sees the fatal flaw in all religions. He is the extremely rational college student who likes to blow the whistle on logical fallacies; sort of like your average Christian homeschooler, but without the background knowledge of Adventures in Odyssey.

The second main character is also a fellow student with the exclusivist, she is the inclusivist who believes that we’re all climbing the same mountain. She rightly notes the moral similarity between most world religions and, sometimes through an act of will, argues that religions have a common center and only conflict (or appear to conflict) in their practice. The rigorous logic of the exclusivist seems over harsh for this theologically liberal Christian.

These two characters engage in a Socratic dialogue after class, since both of them come off with understandable disagreements with the Professor. This is, perhaps, the most unrealistic aspect of the entire book: two people with different worldviews engaging in thoughtful dialogue over a long period of time. However, if the reader suspends disbelief, this is a helpful heuristic tool.

True to reality, Kreeft allows the debate between the inclusivist and exclusivist to wander afield and get mired into the predictable conflict over logic, non-contradiction, and compassion. However, here he inserts a third character, the pluralistic professor who tries not to present his view in class (and perhaps actually lacks a clear view) but simply presents the different religions with their strengths and weaknesses. This professor functions as a plot device to referee the debate when the students get off-track and caught in do loops of circular argument.

Analysis and Conclusion

Overall, the conversation is engaging and informative. There were several points along the way that Kreeft’s dialogue made me laugh out loud because he naturally inserted humor in an otherwise potentially dry discussion. The content of the conversation is relatively natural in its flow, though Kreeft thankfully cleaned up the rhetoric and expression of the speakers to make the debate more precise and linear than would be likely in a real, human conversation.

There are points throughout the volume that the reader is left a bit frustrated, since there is no clear hero, no matter the reader’s perspective. It's a good sort of frustration, though. The inclusivist, exclusivist, and pluralist all score points and all get scored on. At times, each is infuriatingly mired in his or her thought process. However, the characters do develop over the course of the volume, as they each accept the validity of the others’ viewpoints where appropriate. None of the characters “convert” to another perspective, though the rough edges are certainly worn off in several cases.

This is, in short, an example of the sort of conversation that should be happening in society, especially in higher education, but which too rarely occurs. Between One Faith and Another raises more questions than it answers, but that would make this a useful text for multiple audiences.

As a parent of a homeschooler, this is the sort of text that I might consider using in a high school world religions course. It covers many of the basic facts of various world religions, but gets to the more basic (and often ignored) question of how we should deal with the variety of religions.

This volume would be useful in a comparative religions course in a religious or non-religious higher education setting, because Kreeft does well at being even-handed throughout the conversation.

For the casual reader, like me, this volume is truly enjoyable. The conversation moves along, the content is clear and helpful, and the reader’s character is formed by sympathizing with people with whom one would otherwise naturally disagree. This is worth reading, even if simply for the enjoyment of it.

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

The Story of Scripture - A Review

Hershel Hobbs was a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, a faithful pastor, and a theologian for the church. He helped guide the SBC through the doctrinal struggle that is commonly referred to as the Conservative Resurgence, where the theologically orthodox majority of the denomination reclaimed the SBC from the revisionist minority that had gained control of her seminaries, mission boards, and other structures. He was faithful through that work, but importantly, he was deeply concerned about the long-term health and viability of the local church. For Hobbs, the vitality of local churches was dependent upon a reliance and intimacy of the Word of God, which is why many of his 100+ published books are popular-level, verse by verse commentaries on books of the Bible.

With that background, it is a fitting tribute that the first volume in the Hobbs College Library series from Oklahoma Baptist University is an overview of the narrative of Scripture. It is a book designed to introduce the reader to what academics call biblical theology, but which is really just the process of looking at the big picture of Scripture and reading the Bible in light of the common, interwoven, recurring themes.

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Matthew Emerson, associate professor of religion at OBU, was commissioned to write the inaugural volume, The Story of Scripture: An Introduction to Biblical Theology. This little book is targeted at the average Christian who is interested in understanding the Bible better, though it is written by someone who has studied Scripture academically and continues to engage in deep, rigorous scholarship about the Bible. The book is divided into six chapters, including the introduction.

Summary

In Chapter One, Emerson lays the groundwork for the volume. He begins by arguing that Scripture is united in its theme and thrust. Though it was authored by more than forty authors over a period of 1000+ years and consolidated into one volume with 66 books, Scripture has a single main story to tell. In this chapter, Emerson outlines the meaning of and history of the study of Biblical theology, which is essential for those who will do further reading on the topic.

Chapter Two lays out the first three major themes in the story of Scripture: creation, fall, and redemption. As we piece together the overriding message of Scripture, the storyline is clear: God created the earth good, but Adam sinned leading to the curse. This is the story of Genesis 1-3. God didn’t leave it there, though, he began to enact a pattern of redemption that is evident throughout the rest of Scripture and whose seeds were planted along with the curse. Chapter Two takes the reader through the book of Genesis.

In Chapter Three, Emerson continues to trace the theme of redemption through the rest of the Old Testament, as God’s plan and providence are made evident through the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Chapter Four continues to outline redemption as it is accomplished and applied through the life of Christ, and finally described as consummated in the book of Revelation.

Chapter Five explores some of the major topics or keys that are commonly used to frame biblical theology. These include covenant, kingdom, creation, wisdom, God’s servant, mission and other. Emerson does not provide a comprehensive list (if there is such a thing), but does explain some of the most frequent approaches. Finally, in Chapter Six, Emerson succinctly outlines methods for applying biblical theology, including development of doctrine, ethics, counseling, and other suggestions.

Analysis and Conclusion

This book does not add depth or detail to the literature on biblical theology. However, The Story of Scripture does provide a helpful entry point for the study and application of a critical method of handling Scripture. Emerson does well in providing an entry point for students, pastors, or the average layperson who wants to know how to study the Bible better and piece together a big picture understanding of God’s work in redemptive history.

The Story of Scripture would be a useful volume to give to a new believer who is trying to figure out what is going on in the Bible. It would make a helpful text in an introductory course on the Christian faith or an overview of Scripture. This volume would also be useful in a home school setting, as the concise volume could be easily digested and discussed by the average high schooler.

Emerson has kicked off the multi-volume series from the Hobbs College Library well with this volume that should serve as a tool for churches and individual Christians for years to come.

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

Knowing and Doing the Will of God - A Review

One of the most common questions that I’ve had to answer as a Sunday School teacher has been, “How can I know God’s will?” This is, after all, one of the central questions of ethics. Christian ethics especially is centered around the idea that some actions glorify God and others dishonor him; some are sinful and others are sanctifying. This includes actions that Scripture clearly authorizes or prohibits (i.e., generosity and worship), but it also includes subjective situations that involve unique and personalized circumstances (i.e., should Sally marry Johnny or should I take this job).

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I’m pleased to say that a new, concise resource to help Christians answer this question has recently been published by David Jones, an ethicist at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This volume is the product of a course he has taught multiple times to a variety of audiences, so it represents thinking that has been stretched, tested, and refined.

His book, Knowing and Doing the Will of God, is a concise, practical introduction to this vital activity by Christians of every age. Though this has come from a seminary course, Jones has written a book that is accessible to the average person in the pew. He manages to provide both a theoretical foundation and practical framework in under 100 pages.

After a brief introduction, this volume contains an additional five chapters. Chapter Two provides examples from God’s word of people discerning God’s will. He also shows how some of the examples in Scripture are not positive and offers background information about pagan practices for knowing the will of the gods, many of which are still with us today.

Chapter Three critiques some of the most prevalent means of attempting to know God’s will that are often advocated among Christians today. Jones writes, “Advocates of the contemporary view teach that since an individual will of God for Christians is presently hidden and unknown, it must be discovered over time by every believer in order to progress in spiritual maturity and to flourish in the Christian life.” (34) In other words, God has a special plan for your life and your task is to decode the secret plan that he’s got in mind for you. Jones debunks this approach, which is liberating as he puts the reader on to the main purpose of the Christian life: to pursue holiness and thereby glorify God.

Chapter Four outlines what Jones calls the Traditional View, which is evidenced throughout most of Christian history, especially in the Protestant tradition: namely, reading Scripture and applying that to life. Recognizing common objections to that view, Chapter Five deals with questions relating to prayer, the Holy Spirit, and Christian liberty in relation to knowing and doing the will of God. The volume concludes in Chapter Six, with encouragement to pursue basic Christian disciplines that will aid believers in knowing God’s will and acting upon it.

David Jones is an exceptionally clear and careful writer. He has published a number of books over the past two decades that are all thoughtful, well-researched, and accessible to modern readers. This volume is no exception. Knowing and Doing the Will of God is a useful volume that will benefit the church.

This is the sort of volume that belongs on a pastor’s shelf for loan to his congregants and on church resource shelves for sale to people who honestly long to serve God faithfully, but aren’t sure how to get from that desire to practical action. Knowing and Doing the Will of God would also make a helpful resource for a small group or Sunday School study. I was pleased to be asked by Jones to endorse this book, and I’m pleased to commend it to you as a resource for your personal or congregational benefit.

NOTE: I received a pre-publication copy of this volume with a request to endorse. I did so because I believe the contents are helpful and sound, not on the basis of the gratis book.

Theology in Three Dimensions - A Review

The chaotic pace of our neurotic age extends well beyond the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and constant travel. It has crept its way into theological debate, such that volleys of blog posts written hastily with keyboards rattling like machine guns often pass by one another across the mutually desired no-man’s land of truth. There is little time taken for digestion of responses, rumination on intending meaning, and shaping responses that do more than restate earlier arguments to fill the computer screens of supporters and antagonists. When theological discourse takes place online, it is often hurried, truncated, and ill-considered.

We cannot return to earlier days, when messages could take weeks to travel between disputants. However, we can reshape our method of theological discourse by introducing techniques that require us to consider and reconsider a topic before producing a final thought.

Triperspectivalism, a system championed by Vern Poythress and John Frame, requires a measured approach to theologizing, which, though certainly not infallible, can help keep those who use it from engaging in rapid fire debates simply because it requires extended time to measuredly consider an issue from each of the three perspectives. The line on my shelf of thick volumes, which Frame has authored, tends to indicate the sometimes ponderousness of the triperspectival approach.

Though Frame has published prolifically, there has been no concise, single volume introduction to triperspectivalism. That has changed recently with the release of Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and Its Significance. This brief book will serve as the entry point for future readers to begin their journey through John Frame’s works.

Nature of Triperspectivalism

The categories within triperspectival theology sound philosophical, bearing the titles “normative,” “situational,” and “existential,” but the content of those categories is filled with biblical data. As Frame argues in his preface, “Triperspectivalism is, in the main, a pedagogical approach, a way of teaching the Bible, i.e., doing what theology is supposed to do.”

While many theological texts are heavily, often excessively, footnoted, Frame’s books use footnotes primarily for sidebar comments and cross-referencing within his published works. Frame cites appropriately when he directly references the works of others, but the majority of his effort is spent grinding the grist of Scripture to formulate his thoughts beginning with the presupposition that the Bible is a unique form of revelation given by God to his people.

Scriptural data are common within all three perspectives, but those data are the main focus on the normative perspective. Here the study is of God as lawgiver, with supreme authority over creation. The normative perspective encounters the positive and negative commands of Scripture to how God designed this world to be ordered.

The situational perspective recognizes God’s control over the world, with the understanding there are new facts that must be encountered, such that we cannot simply make ethical choices based on one thing appearing to be like another. The situational perspective takes into account the reality of the world as it is when interpreting Scripture into theology. In Framer’s theological method, this is the process of gathering data about this world, which God created, as we seek to understand him better.

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Frame’s third perspective is the existential perspective. The existential perspective concerns what a person knows and feels about an object or idea. Although this somewhat emotive or intuitive perspective will be less pleasing to some strict rationalists, identifying the existential perspective is essential to recognize the subjectivity of our theological processes. That is, that our thinking is always shaped and should be to some degree shaped by who we are.

The caution for applying triperspectivalism, which Frame returns to frequently, is that all three perspectives exist inside of one another. That is, you cannot consider the situational perspective apart from the normative; Scripture is part of the situation. You also cannot consider only the facts of the matter through the situational perspective without asking how you in particular should respond to those facts under the norms of Scripture.

Frame concludes the book, having outlined his three perspectives in brief, with a short chapter on the application of the triperspectival method. As anyone who knows about Frame is aware, he sees triangles everywhere. In other words, as the fourth chapter argues as well, triperspectivalism has applications in all disciplines that are founded on Scripture. As a theological method, triperspectivalism is really a means of understanding an applying Scripture. It necessarily takes time, as the thinker must grind through consideration from multiple vantage points, but that is the beauty of the method.

Analysis and Conclusion

Theology in Three Dimensions is a helpful companion to Frame’s ongoing work. He has been delightful consistent in applying triperspectivalism throughout his career, so that it permeates nearly all of his books. This brief volume, then, is a great starting point to figure out what Frame has done for decades now. It is also a helpful touchpoint to see why Frame has been so consistent in promoting triperspectivalism.

The soundness of theological method is determined over centuries, not decades. I have hope that the careful consideration and rumination on issues from multiple perspectives will grow in popularity. As the pace of our lives shifts from frenetic to ludicrous speed, there is room for theology that makes us slow down and ask better questions more carefully.

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