Christianity or Nationalism

In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote a significant and influential book, Christianity and Liberalism. In the midst of a knockdown, drag-out fight between modernist revisionists and orthodox Christians, Machen was a persistent and often forceful voice arguing, among other things, that the revisionists of his day were actually creating a new religion that could not properly be called Christianity. Not surprisingly, the revisionist did not agree and continue to claim to be Christians despite often having little association with traditional Christian belief.

Setting that debate aside for the moment, there is another assault on orthodox Christianity underway. In this case, rather than being an assault from the left, it is an assault from the right. In this case, instead of directly modifying Christian doctrines to make them more palatable, there is a move to substitute the good of the nation. The question is now whether the church will be most attracted by authentic Christianity or nationalism.

Nationalism Defined

As with any critical debate, definitions are important.

Nationalism is the preference of one’s country above all others and the belief that the nation’s interest is (if not ultimate) among the highest goods available to motivate political action. In the most extreme cases, nationalism espouses the idea that what is beneficial (typically economically) for the nation is good without exception. Such nationalism can justify taking over neighboring countries by force, barring refugees, and making policies that recklessly harm minority communities that are not properly considered part of the national identity.

The specter of nationalism is typically a politically right magnet. It often is accompanied by enthocentrism and identity politics. It is on the rise in the United States and throughout Europe especially. Presently, it is being demonstrated by animus toward people of color, especially refugees and immigrants.

Even among non-racist strains of nationalism, there are problematic elements. Nationalism is often summarized in the U.S. by the slogan “America First.” Notably, the government of a territory exists primarily to serve the interests of its people. This is not really debatable. What is often neglected by nationalists is that some actions or policies that privilege American people and businesses may, in fact, unjustly harm people in other nations. For example, protectionist economic policies are often supported by “America First” rhetoric. In some cases, they can be extremely harmful businesses and workers in other nations. When that is deemed either a good thing or simply a consequence not worth considering, a government and a people may well have crossed from healthy self-interest to nationalism.

To be clear, there is a love for country that is healthy and good. This would better be called patriotism. It is a good thing to cherish the positive events in our nation’s history. It is a good thing to feel a desire to defend our nation against harm. It is reasonable to expect that the government will enact economic policies that serve to correct injustices in another nation’s trade policies.

The difference between patriotism and nationalism is often presented as one of degree. However, it is better understood as one of ends. In other words, for nationalism the primary goal is the good of the nation, for a healthy patriotism, the primary goal is the good, with the expectation that one’s nation will pursue that both internally and externally.

Nationalism and Christianity

There is room for a healthy level of patriotism and Christianity to coexist. Though we are ultimately sojourners in every nation, state, and town we inhabit, Christians are also residents charged with seeking the good of the city. (Jer 29:7)

However, when the good of the nation becomes the summum bonum, it usurps the place of God in the heart of Christians. Nationalism, as I have defined it, is not compatible with orthodox Christianity, it is a replacement for orthodox Christianity.

Evidence for this abounds in our present political context. A few particularly egregious examples will be sufficient to demonstrate the nature of the problem.

One clear example is in the continued defense of sexual immorality by many nationalists. Any stream of political thought that seeks to justify supporting politicians like Roy Moore, who was credibly accused by a number of women (including those politically aligned to him), as necessary for the good of the nation has missed the point. Not only was he politically unsavory in other areas, but there were people (some who identify as Christians) who claimed that his behavior simply didn’t matter. Or, in the accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, those who argue that a sexual assault simply doesn’t matter have supplanted an ideological support for their preferred politics for good. (This is not to say that he did it, or that any accusations should disqualify a person, but there are people arguing that if the alleged assault happened, it simply does not matter.) In other case, President Trump is a known adulterer, has paid hush money to a porn star for an affair while married, and was caught on tape admitting to something that sounds an awful lot like sexual assault. It is one thing to hold one’s nose and vote for such a candidate, but there are Christians arguing that such rank immorality simply does not matter because the good of the nation is at stake, so they continue to vocally support him on that front.

In all of these cases, there is a demonstrated ethical relativism that has evolved. Previously, the sexual exploits of politicians were considered disqualifying for office, often by some of those now vocally supporting sexually immoral politicians. Now, there are people arguing that since David sinned and was used by God, so the most heinous immorality of a politician may be excused because it benefits the nation.

What is clear in these circumstances is that the ultimate good of these vocal supporters has shifted, or, perhaps, the ultimate good has been revealed. Instead of the ultimate good being God’s moral law, which is universally revealed, the ultimate good is whatever is supposed to best serves the nation.

Nationalism is a form of idolatry.

A Christian Nation?

A significant contributor to the subversion of orthodox Christianity and its replacement with nationalism tinged with Christian belief is the perpetuation of the myth that America is or was a fundamentally Christian nation.

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Clearly, the United States was not founded as a secular nation in the same sense that the French Revolution of the Soviet Union was. In both those cases, there is a virulent strain of anti-religious sentiment that led to unhealthy attacks against religious beliefs of various types. The ongoing harassment of Muslims by the French government is one symptom of that bigoted bias.

However, organizations like David Barton’s Wall Builders that attempt to argue that the founders were largely orthodox Christians with a view for an abashedly Judeo-Christian nation are unhelpfully imposing their desires onto the historical record. Though Barton, who has no academic credentials in history, claims to have rediscovered historical truths that others have failed to understand for centuries, the reality is that he is doing hack history that distorts the reality of the history of the United States. Inadvertently, such romanticizing about a supposedly Christian United States significantly contributes to the problem of the conflation of Christianity and nationalism, with the usual result of a nationalism that trumps Christian ethics.

When one believes that Christianity is the only fully true religion-- a reasonable belief for any orthodox Christian--and combines that with the mistaken idea that one nation in particular is a distinctly Christian nation, it can easily lead to switching the order of the old slogan “God and country” to “country and god.” Few would articulate it that way, but in light of the present secularism and cultural hostility to Christian ethics, it can be tempting to do whatever is necessary to “return” to a previous state of “greatness” in which a presumed Christian consensus existed. Though “God and country” might remain the order of the slogan, the closer one views a particular view of “country” to embody God’s own ideal for country, the more likely it is for nationalism to become the functional idol.

The Idolatry of Civil Religion

There is a popular song that embodies some of the most sentimental, but potentially dangerous attraction of the idolatry of nationalism.

Lee Greenwood’s song is played at many civic ceremonies as a tear jerker that is meant to inspire patriotism. But the lyrics of the song reflect a tendency to misunderstand the purpose of Christianity lived out in the public square. The most egregious of the saccharine lines is, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”

Human freedom is a good thing, in general. It is frequently misunderstood in our contemporary context as a freedom from all restraint rather than a freedom to do that which is good and right. However, that is an argument for another post.

However, a Christian should carefully consider what that line means. Is freedom the ultimate good? Is that, then, the main purpose of the nation? Is the United States primarily a vehicle for guaranteeing that good? And, if so, for whom?

Believers are called to seek the good of the city, even when we are not free. That is the message of Jeremiah 29. On the balance, it is better to have freedom to seek the good of the city in the way that is most consistent with one’s religiously formed conscience. However, it would be better to pursue justice and virtue as a prisoner than to promote an idolatrous quest for power in the name of Christianity, even if that power promised to promote a version of Christianity in the culture.

Civil religion is attractive, because it can be useful for generating cohesion and, especially in the West, often has a strong connection to the language of historical Christianity. The difficulty here is that civil religion in the United States often sounds an awful lot like Christianity. Like theological liberalism, such terminological similarity is simply a means of hiding doctrinal revision under the cloak of traditionalism.

However, civil religion is often merely the ideology that enables nationalism.

When one views one’s nation as divinely ordained, then the defense of that nation becomes an ultimate good. The logic runs something like this: America is a Christian nation. God has particularly blessed the United States to be a testimony of his goodness in the world. Therefore, whatever is good for the nation is glorifying for God. This is idolatry, even when it is pursued in more oblique language.

Christianity or Nationalism

American Christians, particularly those on the political right, are faced with a pretty clear decision: Will be put our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ or in our nation?

In Machen’s day the split occurred on the left, with the revisionist Christians attempting to make the United States into the Kingdom of God through comprehensive welfare policies. There was often an unnecessary conflation between a view of a welfare state as the Christian ideal and a Christianity that had little connection to the orthodox faith.

Now, the decision is on the political right, with people that go to congregations with orthodox faith statements needing to decide whether the ultimate good of the nation is synonymous with the goodness and justice intrinsic to God’s nature. In other words, will we be American Christians or Christians who reside in America? There is a fundamental difference that cannot be overlooked.

For those who desire to remain authentically Christian, we must remember that our allegiance is ultimately to the King of Kings and not to a political party. Good should be judged not by an upward trend in GDP or the number of cabinet members who attend evangelical churches, but by the unchanging Word of God.

The choice is clear, and our decision should be reflected in how we live our lives. Will we pursue holiness in the Christian tradition or a form of nationalistic idolatry?

Numerical Statistics and the Path to Liberalism

There is no question that mainline Protestant denominations are in numerical decline in the United States. Year by year, those denominations that have affirmed the tenets of theological liberalism are dying off.

Many theologically conservative Protestants tend to highlight the numerical decline of liberal denominations as proof of their rightness in standing for truth. Some of the less combative theological conservatives occasionally use the decline narrative as a basis for not being combative: let it go, the false religion will die out one day.

The argument that numerical decline is a necessary result of bad doctrine is, however, a bad one. In fact, it is one that has tended to enable doctrinal distortions and sociological abuses among some of those most active in theologically conservative circles.

Explaining the Decline

There is little doubt that the lack of vitality in theological liberalism is a part of reason for the decline of denominations characterized by it. In simplistic terms, the main project of theological liberalism is to strip away objectional parts of Christian orthodoxy until the end result can be accepted by someone without abandoning any important cultural beliefs.

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This has been the project from the beginning. Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the father of theological liberalism, was earnest in his desire to remove barriers to modern humans to convert to Christianity. As a result, he engaged in the process of redefinition of difficult ideas and excision of theological truths that conflicted with naturalistic, minimally supernatural worldview.

His project has continued, with scholars and pastors in the liberal tradition arguing against central Christian truths, like the resurrection of Christ, his divinity, and the possibility of his miracles. In the end, there are some members and leaders in mainline Protestant denominations who believe so little that is vital to orthodox Christian doctrine, they have no business calling themselves Christians.

Theological liberalism is, when it is lived authentically, an entirely different religion than Christianity. It may use some of the symbols and share some vocabulary, but when the core meaning of these signs is stripped away, it is hard to say that they are the same things.

When one takes away the power of the cross to bring about redemption, for example, then the entire power of the gospel has been denied. It is the gospel that makes the Church and not the Church that makes the gospel.

Historically, the Christian churches around the world have been animated by the power of the gospel. It is what enables Christians to not simply endure persecutions, but to thrive in hostile environments. It is the power of the gospel that has grown the church throughout history.

When theological liberalism is sufficiently advanced (which is not in all cases), it alienates itself from the very thing that makes the Church a coherent and vital reality. At that point, especially when everything that is uniquely Christian and differentiates believers from the culture around them has been stripped away, there is little reason to remain in a church. In fact, there are many more reasons not to abandon the hassle of the local congregation when the gospel is absent.

Consider this: the local church should be a collection of people that have no business being socially united. It should be ethnically heterogenous (or open to it, since some communities are essentially homogenous). It should represent people from various economic classes, educational backgrounds, political interests, etc. The Church is a messy community. That takes hard work, and it is only possible when the strong nuclear force of the gospel holds the nucleus together.

When you strip Christianity of the very thing that makes it distinct from culture, there is no reason to meet anymore. If the essence of Christianity becomes simply doing “good” things for the community, then that can be much more easily accomplished by joining an association with fewer social entailments. In other words, why bind yourself in community with a bunch of weirdos when you can just casually and conveniently work at the soup kitchen on occasion. You get the benefits without the inconvenience.

The power of the gospel is what animates Christian congregations and denominations. When that is stripped away, then it makes sense for the numbers to decline. The weirdness of a community with the entailments of a church is not worth it without the gospel.

Resisting the Opposite

Our desire to be justified in our own eyes often tempts us to crow over the decline of theologically liberal denominations. Often theological conservatives will try to argue that their own stagnant or rising numbers are a sign of God’s blessing on their continued faithfulness to the gospel.

Sometimes faithfulness to the gospel and to the central truths of historic Christianity is a sign of God’s blessing. Passages like Acts 2:41 are exciting. The gospel is preached and three thousand people are converted. Clearly, we might think, God is blessing the faithful preaching of his word. The numerical growth is an indicator of (1) truth and (2) faithfulness.

As exciting as Acts 2:41 is, how many of us would see the rapid shrinking of the local gathering of believers in Jerusalem, described in Acts 8, as a sign of their unfaithfulness or abandonment of the truth? To the contrary, had Stephen abandoned the truth in Acts 7, he probably would have lived, and the persecution of the church might have been forestalled at least for a while. The denial of the gospel might have extended the period of numerical growth.

In our contemporary contexts we need only look at the rapid growth of the Prosperity Gospel movement to see that abandoning the real gospel can lead to an increase in numbers. In other words, numbers don’t tell the whole story and they often don’t tell much of a story at all. Or, they don’t tell a story about the things that matter most.

All Growth is Not Healthy

Every numerical increase is not a sign of God’s blessing. It is exceedingly dangerous to use numerical growth (or stagnation) as an indicator of either truth or faithfulness.

Consider that the Church is a body. This is not a hard leap, since the Apostle Paul used the analogy in 1 Cor 12:12-31. All growth in a body is not healthy.

Ask the morbidly obese individual whether an increase in size is a healthy thing. Or, perhaps more tellingly, ask someone with cancer whether all growth is healthy. Both will tell you that size and growth is not directly tied to health.

Although there is good evidence that the abandonment of the gospel by many theologically liberal denominations and congregations has contributed to their decline, it does not follow that growth among theological conservative denominations has been healthy.

In fact, when we consider the number of people who identify in public polls as “evangelical” and yet fail to demonstrate any meaningful signs of conversion in their own lives, we begin to recognize a symptom of a deadly problem.

I have a working theory that while many theologically liberal denominations have abandoned the gospel in pursuit of cultural acceptability, many supposedly theologically conservative denominations have abandoned the entailments of the gospel in pursuit of numerical growth. I think this is an outworking of the bad logic that comes from seeing that numerical decline is often the result of the deletion of the gospel.

Numerical Growth as the Source of Liberalism

I am concerned about theological liberalism because it represents an anti-gospel masquerading as truth. I am more concerned about a conflation of gospel power with numerical expansion because (a) it is happening in my own theological tribe and (b) it is the first stage of theological liberalism.

The original intent of theological liberalism was not to abandon every truth that matters. Nor was it to reject the gospel. Rather, theological liberalism began with a belief that (1) the gospel matters a great deal, (2) that some things make the gospel harder for people to believe because it is so different than modern beliefs about the world, and (3) we can help more people get the gospel by stripping away the extras around the gospel that are holding people back. Though they typically lacked the elaborate head counts and well-analyzed statistics that we have today, liberalism began over a concern for numerical growth.

The main issue with liberalism is that when the truthfulness of Scripture is denied, or at least the truth about the hard parts of Scripture, then it really does create a slippery slope. A low point in theological liberalism was when a bunch of non-believers sitting in a room in Berkeley, California using colored beads to decide which parts of the gospels represented things the real Jesus would say. One need merely look around to see how individuals, congregations, and denominations are all finding ways to affirm and celebrate immorality in contrast to Scripture and in the name of numerical growth or cultural cache. One need also not look far to see cases where the pursuit of numbers and cultural cache have encouraged a minimization of the gospel, “unhitching” one’s faith from the documents of the faith, and the diminution of orthopraxy as a central aspect of the Christian life. All of these are ways that Scripture is diminished for a non-gospel purpose, even when they occur under the banner of a robust doctrinal statement.

To draw a general conclusion, which deserves a lengthier investigation some other time, it seems that the beginning of doctrinal decline is found when making something other than worship in spirit and truth becomes the purpose of a group of Christians. An advanced symptom of doctrinal decline is the redaction of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. The beginning of the decline, however, is when something other than the gospel of Christ becomes the animating force of a group of Christians.

Historically, it seems that the decline of doctrine often begins when numerical growth and the social clout that goes along with it become the focus.

Judge Not, But Look for Fruit

Matthew’s Gospel offers some insight that may be helpful in drawing some conclusions to this already lengthy discussion.

Within a single chapter, which by all accounts represents the core of Jesus teaching, Matthew provides two passages that are sometimes held to be contradictory, such that often only one is acknowledge at a time or by a given group. One is the key passage of much of socially progressive Christianity: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.” (Mt. 7:1) The other is the key passage of many combative theologically conservative Christians, “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit.” (Mt 7:15-16b).

If we are to take Scripture seriously, then we have to recognize both simultaneously and seek to obey them both. On the surface (and I have heard this argument made against the coherence of Christianity), this appears contradictory. However, it is not.

We are clearly called to be on our guard against false prophets. There are a lot of people who spew a lot of words that aren’t gospel. Sometimes they sound a lot like gospel, but they really aren’t. Jesus uses the image of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As a theological conservative, I’ve got that down. I see how theological liberals torture the historical doctrines of the faith, how they encourage their parishioners to live debauched lives, and I recognize the bad fruit.

At the same time, I have to be cautious that I am judging others by a metric that I can withstand. Therefore, I cannot judge the spiritual health of others by their numerical growth. As the tide of culture continues to reject the need for religion and see Christianity as backward and anti-social, the number of casual adherents to theologically conservative churches will decline or stagnate. The size of the Church won’t change, but the size of the congregation will change.

Therefore, we ought not to use numerical decline as the ultimate arbiter of the truthfulness of a group’s theology. Bigger or growing does not necessarily mean truer or better. Membership is a metric that can be quickly used to argue that the truth of the gospel, when it becomes socially unpopular, is not in fact true.

Work Toward Authentic Christian Character

When we shift our mission from being a true representation of Christ on earth as his body to meeting numerical statistics, we have begun the shift away from sound doctrine. It happens slowly at the beginning and ends in a crashing avalanche.

This happens when we tolerate sexual abuse in our ranks or cover it up because a leader is effective and we don’t want to ruin the brand. This happens when we accept unholy bullying in our organizational structures because someone is good at packing the house or strategic planning. This happens when we build the life of our congregations around entertaining and pacifying rather than really discipling.

Make no mistake, all of those decisions are just as doctrinal as the nature of the Trinity. None of them will make it into a confessional statement, but they reflect the deepest values of the individual or group making the decisions.

In the end, the calling of the individual Christian and the body of Christ as a whole is terribly difficult. As Jesus notes, “How narrow is the gate and difficult is the road that leads to life and few find it.” (Mt 7:14)

The best we can do is consider the nature of good works. They require us to do the right thing, in the right circumstances, and for the right reasons. It is out of the pattern of our choices that the character of the believer, the congregation, and the worldwide Church is both formed and revealed.

Ethics and the Young Believer

Evangelical churches, in general, are failing to adequately equip young Christians to live the Christian life because we do not offer them a robust ethical framework to understand the moral situations they encounter in this world. Instead, we allow culture to teach them ethics or assume that they will pick up the right moral lessons from Scripture without explicit instruction. We, as the church, need to reconsider how we disciple young believers to live ethically in the world.

For some people, thinking about ethics seems to mean pondering the difficult questions on the margins of life. For example, the trolley problem is a popular exercise in moral reasoning. It is supposed to have deep significance in understanding the meaning of human life and our duty to one another. Another common moral dilemma is whether one should lie if Nazis come to the door asking if one has Jews hiding under the kitchen table. This is supposed to be a test to show how one values truth against human life.

There is meaningful discussion to be had behind these sorts of problems. However, they are far from useful in generating truly helpful thought about ethics when the are presented before real ethical structure is offered.

Lack of an Ethical Framework

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Most people lack a coherent ethical framework, and that is a problem. Some might argue that my perspective on this is driven by my training as an ethicist. This is, in part, true. It is my training as an ethicist that helps me to recognize the need for a coherent framework and the problems with a lack of a coherent framework for ethical thinking.

Consider, for example, the question of lying to the Nazis from above. When this is presented to most people, it is pitched as a choice between (1) valuing truth telling over human life or (2) seeing the immeasurable value of humans. The right answer for most people is to lie to the Nazis.

What happens, though, when one reasons from dilemmas to an ethical structure is that the odd, unlikely cases begin to define the norms in an unhealthy way. Once the idea that human life is more valuable than truth is established for the case of the Nazis, then it does not take much to argue that human flourishing (often undefined) should champion over supposed truths. The structure has been set by the dilemma, so that a slight shift in meaning can make worlds of justification possible.

We need better ethical thinking before we run into life’s dilemmas.

The Problem with Dilemmas

The problem is not the outcome of the case, but the situation of the case itself. These dilemmas are typically set up to produce a particular response or push people into a specific train of thinking. In the case of the trolley problem, it is nearly always some smart, innovative person tied to one set of tracks with a large group of commoners tied to the other. The dilemma ignores the facts that (1) our choices are rarely so clear, (2) there is no right choice, (3) there are alternative options. The trolley problem is set up to enforce consequentialist ethics, by evaluating whether the genius saving many lives is more worthy than the commoners living their own lives. What shall we do in the face of such conundrums?

Most of the time, the best answer is to ignore these unhelpful problems or, better yet, to look for an option nor offered in the setup. The trolley problem has been refined to ensure there is no other option, because for every possible alternate solution a defeater has been established. For example, no heroism is possible in dashing out to untie the genius because you are locked in the control house. The setup of the problem is a setup. Additionally, the scenarios are usually presented in unrealistically: we are told that the genius will invent some drug that will save the lives of millions. No one knows these things, so the case is fraudulent.

When it comes to the case of lying to the Nazis, the problem is also in the setup. First, the setup relies on the assumption that any untruth is a lie. For those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is often pitched as a violation of the Ten Commandments. However, the Ten Commandments actually mandate not bearing false witness against our neighbors. There is more than untruth happening here: it is untruth combined with an authority that deserves truth (the court) and a bad motive (to damage the neighbor). Without discarding the norm of communicating truth, the complexity of the ethical action (saying an untruth) helps to simplify the problem.

One solution to the question of lying to the Nazis relies on my understanding of the complexity of moral actions. In this case, I believe it to be just to tell an untruth to the Nazis because, as an unjust government they do not warrant a truthful response, and my motivation (I hope) is to glorify God by preserving the life of the innocents hiding under my table. This resolves the question, but, it really creates more problems than it solves if presented in the wrong circumstances.

Even in this case with a more complex ethical structure, if the situation and solution is presented to immature hearers (for example, children), then marginal case is often interpreted as having a much broader application. Often children’s literature tends to make such marginal cases the norm. For example, one of the major premises of Harry Potter is that the adults are idiots and that only the kids can save the world. The plot of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets depends on him willfully withholding key truths from Dumbledore. While at the end of the book, Harry, Hermione, and Ron save the day, what we really have is a case where their immaturity put everyone’s life at risk unnecessarily. It makes for fun reading, but bad ethics.

The problem is that we rarely offer a better alternative from within the church.

Some Thoughts on Ethical Education

Rarely to we invest the time with young Christians helping them work through the ethical framework they need for life.

Instead, we often attempt to do moral reasoning as a drive by to exegesis and we wonder why people in the church come up with the wrong ethical conclusions.

To be clear, exegesis is important and we cannot do without it. In some cases, Scripture is so abundantly clear in particular passages that trying to avoid the truths presented requires all sorts of mental gymnastics—much like the approach commonly demonstrated by those lobbying for a revisionist sexual ethics. However, we cannot always jump from a passage of Scripture to a moral principle without passing it through the whole of counsel of God, because our circumstances are analogous not identical to those in Scripture.

Part of the discipleship process ought to be discussions about ethics. All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for edification, but Scripture is not an instruction book. Rather, it is a complex tapestry of genres of material that requires a lifetime of dedicated study and appreciation to begin to understand.

When we send young Christians out into the world with a fideistic ethics (God said it, I believe it, that settles it) then it is not surprise when alternative interpretations of Scripture or the silliness of the application of some supposed ethical norms (e.g., not wearing mixed fabrics) leads to abandonment of any vestige of Christian ethics and, often, Christianity.

Even the most biblicist of fundamentalist preachers has a more robust ethical schema than the literal application of the whole Mosaic law. The problem is that we too rarely talk about those things in our Sunday School classes, from our pulpits, and as we disciple one another. So, the result is that we send young Christians out into the world with a handful of inconsistent principles and a methodology that is incoherent, and we wonder why they don’t flourish in the Christian life.

As Christians, we need to reconsider how we teach ethics during the discipleship process.

Suggestions on Where to Start

A good place to start in gaining an understanding of a robustly orthodox Christian ethics is David Jones’ book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. He provides a framework for Christian ethics that begins and ends with Scripture. It is robust and clear. The paradigm is sufficiently complex to handle ethical questions both simple and complex.

I am also partial to John Frame’s work. For a brief introduction, his volume Perspectives on the Word of God offers a primer to his triperspectival theology and ethics. Additionally, his much longer volume Doctrine of the Christian Life offers a more thorough explanation of his ethical methodology with application to a large number of moral issues.

For pastors and educated lay people, the gold standard for Evangelical ethics is Oliver O’Donovan’s seminal book, Resurrection and the Moral Order. This is a very important book, too rarely read, but it is also very difficult reading.

A Community Environmental Project

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing with my son, thigh deep in the River Raisin. I had given up keeping my feet dry when the water had gushed over the top of my rubber boot during my struggle to get the used tire out of the muck of the river bed. I held my phone and wallet above my head to ensure a sudden dip beneath my feet did not entail a premature replacement of my iPhone 5. It was a fun day, a productive day, and a day that is symbolically more significant than the moderate sized pile of trash the group piled onto the bank.

The River Raisin runs through the small city of Monroe, MI, where I live. In the mania of damming during the Works Progress Administration’s existence, a number of small dams were put up across it. Throughout the years of growth of population and industry along the river’s banks, the waterway has been polluted by PCBs and other harmful chemicals. In human memory, the pristine, healthy condition of this river is a vague memory.

As prosperity increases, though, people begin to pay more attention to the flourishing of the world around them. Residents whose property borders the river become more vocal about the woeful condition of the natural resource we all share. This has led to the River Raisin Legacy Project and an annual cleanup day.

Environmentalism and Localism

At its worst, environmentalism leads to the centralization of government authority. To solve localized problems, sweeping national regulations are enforced that can unnecessarily harm property owners and even lead to environmentally negative outcomes. Some level of regulation is necessary so that polluting corporations cannot raise to the poorest locality, desperate to have any industry, to spew poison into the water and air. The destruction of acid rain and its eventual abatement in the past century is a test case for the benefits and necessity of regulation. In some cases, that success and the simplicity of imposing regulations at the highest level, have led to attempts to nationalize more environmental rule making.

At its best, environmentalism is a local endeavor. Cities with polluted waterways work to eliminate the hazards. Zoning ordinances require that corporations replace wetlands they pave over. Communities gather on a Saturday morning to fish tires, cups, and chunks of metal out of the river.

The River Raisin Cleanup Project is just that sort of local effort. Though it boasted a relatively small contingent––just 60 people from a population of over 20,000––it is the sort of project that is necessary if we are to see real change in our communities and the environment.

Community Catechesis

Several hours into picking up other people’s trash, one begins to wonder what sort of person throws a Styrofoam cup out their car window. This is the first step in teaching our children that the world is not simply a giant landfill ready to receive their waste.

The reporter from the local newspaper chats with people, joking about the various items recovered from the shallow river bed. She congratulates me on winning my battle with the truck tire, which left me wet and muddy, but triumphant.

People from around the community gather together to hear the instructions about what to pick up and where to put it. We divide into groups with complete strangers, transient teams thrown together with a common purpose. A local man––a stranger––asks about my shirt, which bears the word “Shawnee.” A city of my former residence was named after a tribe of Native Americans. They were residents of this region of the world until they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. These conversations chisel away at the barriers we build between ourselves and the community.

After a few hours of wading in the water, a delightful way to spend a warm, cloudy morning, we gather again to share pizza under a picnic shelter. Eating together is a humanizing activity.

With a common focus, there are no arguments about red or blue politics. Unlike the awkward avoidance of a large family gathering there were no sidelong glances or barbered side comments. Instead, since everyone had the common goal of doing discernible good in our community, we were able to do a great deal in a short time and make a visible, positive impact.

Localism Against Tribalism

National political debates have consequences, but they are not everything. By allowing the vitriol of the life and death struggle for power in Washington, DC to take over our lives, we have abandoned the real power of American society.

Over pizza from a local restaurant, we are unlikely to solve the opioid crisis in West Virginia, but a handful of teens that wandered in from the rundown neighborhood next to the park, looking for something to do on a Saturday morning, may make a connection that provides a future opportunity. In a smallish city, it is likely the people gathered on the river bank will see one another at the YMCA, in the store, or at a local festival. Even small connections increase the humanization of the world.

Getting wet and dirty for the local river is much more powerful in teaching the importance of recycling and reducing consumption than a thousand public service commercials. It also costs a whole lot less.

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Although some problems require national solutions, much of what ails our nation will not be solved by a federal election. The ability to live and let live, or, better yet, to live and help flourish, can only be nourished through close personal contact. This is the very sort of contact that my introversion, contemporary media, and our community planning are designed to eliminate.

The River Raisin cleanup project happened. It will likely happen again next year. It alone won’t solve the larger problems of climate destabilization or world hunger, but it points us in the right direction and helps to strengthen the fabric of community needed for authentic human flourishing.

On a Vacation Rest

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I was on vacation with my family recently and I witnessed the amazing inefficiency of a state park in New York. Sitting on 65,000 acres in Western New York, Allegany State Park has a lot of standing timber that could be cut for building and rich soil in valleys that could be put to work growing crops. All of that land sitting idle, with only a few cabins and camping sites for the odd tourist.

It was beautiful to see that inefficiency. The politicians who set aside a large swath of land did a good thing.

There’s nothing wrong with putting land to work for the benefit of humans. God gave us the right to use the land, but at the same time we were given the responsibility to care for it well (Gen 2:15). Sometimes, however, the purpose of the created order is to point our minds toward the Creator (Psalm 19:1-4).

There is something majestic about a seeing hillsides covered with trees in an unbroken field of green. It reminded me that the world isn’t all about sidewalks and subdivisions.

Parks are a reminder of the principle of Sabbath. Rest. Beauty. Delight. These are the sorts of things that land set aside for recreation or simply for preservation can remind us of.

In the end, our lives are not ultimately measured by our productivity, but by how we delight God.

Is the Sabbath Normative?

This post is the second part of a discussion on whether Jesus actually broke the Old Testament Law by healing on the Sabbath. This question was raised in an online argument, which is largely irrelevant to history, but which gives opportunity for worthwhile consideration of the nature of Law, the person of Christ, and, in particular, the place of Sabbath in the life of the contemporary believer.

To recap, the previous post argues that Jesus did not sin, that he did heal on the Sabbath, that this was disliked by religious leaders of his day, and that the OT Law has three divisions: civil, ceremonial, and moral.

Is the Sabbath in Play?

If the Decalogue is still morally normative, then the practice of Sabbath is still in play. The question, then, is how to practice the Sabbath in our contemporary context.

One school of thought believes that Sabbath is still necessary, but that the principle was fulfilled in Christ, so that Sabbath for Christians is a spiritual rest in Christ. This is a biblical concept, seen clearly in Hebrews 4. In particular, verses 9 and 10 declare, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Some who hold this view believe that the day of rest in the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ, and therefore spiritualize present application. Although he does not argue for only a spiritualization of the Sabbath, J. D. Greear provides a helpful explanation of the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ in this blog.

There are some people, like Seventh Day Adventists, who take a literalist approach to Sabbath and have their worship services on Saturday. This is a consistent application, but it isn’t clear that such a literal approach is necessary. In fact, if we accept the tripartite division of the law described above, then it would seem that some of the particulars of the practice of Sabbath fall into the categories of civil and ceremonial, instead of moral law.

A third category, including much of the Reformed tradition, believe that the Sabbath is still in play and that we fulfill it largely through rest on Sunday, as a Christianized analogy of the Old Testament practices. This is witnessed in the history of the United States through the various Blue Laws. A famous example of this method of practicing Sabbath is found in Eric Liddell’s refusal to run a race on Sunday.

Synthesis

All of these three methods of applying the Sabbath have something to contribute to a robust practice of Sabbath for contemporary Christians. The literalist approach affirms the truthfulness of God’s word. Though we may argue about the actual practice, which deviates from traditional Christian practice and misses the significance of the Sunday resurrection, we can respect the importance of following God’s law.

The spiritual fulfillment is a valuable perspective for Christians because it is true. The practice of Sabbath was intended, in part, to point forward to the future rest that we will enter into by Christ’s blood, when the whole cosmos is redeemed and the toil from the curse (Gen 3:17-19) has been removed. At that time, though we will still work, we will have been glorified, creation will have been renewed, (Romans 8:18-25) and we will enter into the ultimate Sabbath rest. It remains to see whether that spiritual fulfillment eliminates any present practice of the principle of Sabbath.

The third approach, which entails the rigorous of customs adapted to contemporary contexts is good because it highlights the importance of rest, encourages corporate worship, and is an earnest attempt to honor God. At the same time, such an approach runs afoul of Christ’s own interpretation and risks becoming a burden to the people it is intended to help.

A fourth approach to the Sabbath argues, which I have not introduced before, treats the whole of the Old Testament as edifying, but believes that all forms of the Law were fulfilled by Christ (Matt 5:17). That argument is worth carrying, but would push this post beyond the current length. I will, however, offer a few simple objectives: first, those who hold this position generally create their own laws (no movies, no pants for women, ties on Sunday) to substitute for the Old Testament Laws, which put them in a worse position; second, this approach has to deal with the odd fact that most of the Decalogue is reaffirmed explicitly in the New Testament; third, this view raises significant questions about the nature of revelation in the Old Testament, specifically with the close connection between Jesus and the Old Testament (Luke 24:27).

A fifth approach to Sabbath argues that the Decalogue is the moral law and is in play, but that the fourth commandment no longer applies because Jesus didn’t practice it in the passages discussed above. This is consistent with how most contemporary Evangelicals treat the Decalogue, whether or not they can formulate that perspective fully. Not lying is good, but Sabbath is unnecessary. This approach is exegetically inconsistent and seems to be argued more for convenience than otherwise.

Practicing Sabbath

Each of the first three interpretations is helpful, but I believe they each fall short for one reason or another. The fourth and fifth interpretations are less helpful, and I believe create more exegetical problems than they solve.

If we accept that the Decalogue is the moral law, and it reflects the immutable character of our Holy God, then we should see that it is still in play. The question is how to apply it.

In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus shows that practicing Sabbath was not fundamentally about inactivity. Rather, he argues that doing good work is explicitly lawful (v. 12). Note that he does not argue that the law does not apply, but that doing God honoring work on the Sabbath is a moral positive. There is no category for moral neutrality, either an action is sinful or morally praiseworthy.

Instead, the Sabbath is intended to provide a rest from economic activity during the week, which helps to show our trust in God’s goodness and provision. This is consistent with the statement in the Exodus 20:8-11. Jesus’ own interpretation undermines a strictly literalistic understanding of these verses. Also, considering the expositions of the Sabbath, which focus on giving the land a rest in an agrarian context, it seems that the emphasis is more on stopping ceaseless striving than on a particular form of inactivity. For example, in Exodus 23:10-12, Moses specifically records the purpose of Sabbath being for the provision of the poor and the wild beasts, as well as the refreshment of economic actors.

It is no accident that immediately preceding Jesus’ Sabbath healing in Matthew 12, he calls his hearers into his rest:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Note that the rest Jesus proposes entails work—the image of a yoke could mean little else. This is not the absence of activity, but the redirection of activity to restorative purposes. This often includes working at rest, but not a legalistic rest, the fulfillment of which entails greater effort than simply continuing to work for economic gain. In one sense, Jesus is calling people into a spiritual Sabbath, since they can rest in the fulfillment of the ceremonial law through his future propitiation. However, it is not clear that Jesus is alleviating any regular practice of literal rest as an expectation of a holy life.

Mark’s Gospel provides a slightly different telling of the Matthew 12 account in the second chapter. In Jesus’ explanation of David and his men eating the showbread, contrary to the ceremonial law, Jesus illuminates that the purpose of Sabbath, when he says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)

In one sense this is entirely true in a spiritual sense. The spiritual rest of Hebrews 4 is a great blessing for humans. In another sense, however, a non-legalistic practice of Sabbath is needed now more than ever.

Jesus’ explanation of the blessing of Sabbath for humans ties closely to the ideas in Exodus 23:12, which is a refreshing rest from economic activity. If anything, Christ’s fulfillment of the law was designed to bring a greater blessing to the elect. He fulfilled the ceremonial law so that we can trust in his once and for all sacrifice for sin (Cf. Heb 10:1-18). This is a great blessing. But if the practice of Sabbath rest, particularly in the form of resting from economic activity, is intended as a blessing, then we would expect this to be amplified rather than diminished. Therefore, while the civil and ceremonial trappings of the Sabbath may no longer apply, with their limitations to a single day of rest each week, we should look for our rest to be more varied and greater.

A full consideration of the application of Sabbath would take much more space (and would reveal how terrible I am at this myself), but likely it includes a regular pattern of participation in worship, taking vacations, not being perpetually online, carving out time for physical fitness, prioritizing family activity over work, and other active, but redemptive practices. It is still likely to include simply resting and doing quiet activities, or at least activities that are refreshing to our bodies and our souls, and that differ from our daily economic toil.

Did Jesus Violate the OT Law?

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A recent argument online has raised an important question about the relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament Law, and in particular the Sabbath. I’ll leave the background for interested readers to discover, but the main point that piqued my interest was the argument by some that Jesus violated the Old Testament Law when he healed on the Sabbath. (The whole argument is such a mishmash of bad exegesis, heresy, and improper inference from both sides that it isn’t worth diving into.)

The simple answer is “no.” If Jesus had violated the Old Testament Law, then he would have sinned and would not have been our Messiah. We needed a blemishless sacrifice for our own sin, which only Jesus—who is very God and very man—could provide.

Those who are arguing that Jesus violated the Moral Law of the Old Testament are implicitly arguing that Jesus sinned against God. If we accept the account of the author of Hebrews, then we know that Jesus did not sin (Heb 4:15). Or, perhaps, the Paul’s argument toward that same end might encourage us to accept that point (1 Cor 5:21). If one disagrees with the testimony of Scripture and argues that Jesus did, in fact, sin, then the rest of this argument doesn’t matter because the only real authority for theology is that person’s opinion (or whatever other source he/she deems to be, in his/her opinion worthy of the highest authority).

For those of you with me, we’ve established that Jesus did not sin.

However, Jesus did not follow the customs of the people of his day relating to the observation of Sabbath. This was a major point of contention between the religious authorities of the day and him.

Jesus on the Sabbath

For example, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in Matt 12:8-14 right after he explains why his disciples’ eating of gleaned grain was not a violation of the Sabbath (vv. 1-8). This made the Pharisees pretty mad, likely because he both undermined their legalistic hegemony (vv. 11-12) and because he implies that he is Messiah (v. 8).

There are other examples, as well.

Significantly, in John 5, Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda on a Saturday. This leads to a full-scale decision to kill him. John is much more explicit about the complaint of the Pharisees: “This is why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making him equal to God.” (v. 18)

This passage is important because it states explicitly that Jesus broke the Sabbath.

At this point, some might think my argument scuttled. If we read absolutely literally, then John says that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Some infer that a) some portions of the OT Law are more important than others, so Jesus didn’t sin by violating a portion of the Law; b) Jesus sinned (see above); c) the Sabbath Law was not in play for Jesus.

Options a) and c) are in play for orthodox Christians, but I don’t think either one is correct.

Although John 5:18 states that Jesus was “breaking the Sabbath,” we can recognize that John is describing the perspective of the Pharisees. When John is speaking from his own perspective he writes that Jesus “was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 17). In contrast, the Pharisees see Jesus’ good works as breaking the Sabbath and “making himself equal with God.” (v. 18) Of the four gospel writers, John is the clearest about announcing Jesus’ deity, so there is little question that he is not actually accusing Jesus of violating the Old Testament Law. He was violating the imposed, unbiblical norms of his day, which had been imposed on the Jews by their religious leaders in order to ensure they didn’t violate the real Law.

The Nature of the Law

There is a solid rabbinic tradition of a tripartite division of the Law in the Old Testament. This division has been largely recognized through Church History, though it is certainly not a universally held view.

Generally, the Old Testament Laws tend to be divided into the Civil, the Ceremonial, and the Moral Law. Civil laws tend to be those laws of the Old Testament that focus on the political and social administration of the people of Israel. These include the casuistic limitations on punishments for idolaters, adulterers, slavers, etc. Such laws, like the various property laws, are helpful in understanding the principles of justice, but our building codes do not require a parapet around the roof because it is no longer technologically or culturally necessary and because the nation of Israel, as a theocracy constituted in the Old Testament is no longer extant. Occasionally, actual theonomists arise (not just faithful people seeking justice in society that doesn’t match the worldview of the vogue “secular” culture) that try to enforce parts of the civil law, but it rarely goes far and is inconsistent with the way Christianity has interpreted the use of the OT Law.

The second category of Old Testament Law is the ceremonial law. These are laws related to the worship of the Israelites, including the various offerings, sacrifices, cleansings, and festivals. Even orthodox Jews do not practice this portion of the Law fully, because they have no temple in which to conduct the various sacrifices. For Christians, it is this portion of the Law that we generally understand to have been fulfilled by Christ (cf. Matt 5:17).

The third category of the Law is the moral law. These are contained in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. According to the Reformed tradition, this portion of the Law is still in play for several reasons. First, it is the only portion of the Law that was actually written by God himself. (Ex 31:18) Second, the Decalogue is considered to reflect the character of God. This is the resolution to the famous Euthyphro dilemma of philosophy. God’s Law is good not by declaration of God or by pre-existence morally prior to God, but because it reflects the character of a good God. Third, most of the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament explicitly, and the entirety of them seem to be reaffirmed to Christ when he summarizes them in the first and second greatest commandments. (cf. Matt 22:34-40) The first greatest commandment is generally considered to summarize the first tablet of the Decalogue, with the second summarizing the latter portion of the Decalogue. Those who hold this position generally argue that the civil and ceremonial law are temporal and geographically bound applications of the moral law.

There are certainly objections to this approach to the Law, but that is a topic for another day.

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

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.

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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.