The Witness of the Cognitively Impaired - A Review of "Living Gently in a Violent World"

All societies struggle with establishing a place for those who live with some form of physical or mental disability. Although we have not arrived, the modern developed world has made great strides in ensuring reasonable accommodations for those with physical disabilities. Despite some accounts of abuses of the ADA, in general, the move toward finding ways to more fully enable the participation of physically disabled persons in society is a good thing. We have struggled to a greater degree with finding a place for those with cognitive disabilities.

(Before moving on, I should note that I am using the word “disability” in a non-pejorative sense. Rather than attempting to establish some euphemism for a physical or cognitive difference from the majority of the population, I am simply indicating that there are individuals who, due to nature or accident, have different capabilities in one particular area that impact their ability to maneuver our society as easily as others. That there are such differences and that they make life more difficult for those who have them is not disputable. Often creative naming conventions appear to hinder rather than help the conversation.)

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It is the cognitively disabled who are often least to be integrated into society, and those with both cognitive and physical disabilities who struggle the most. As a result of these disabilities many of these people are often sidelined, discarded, and viewed as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved.

In this, our modern, civilized, and inclusive culture is very little different than any other, despite our prideful belief in advancement. This was reinforced to me recently at a community event out of doors. People were lining the sidewalk to watch a parade of WWII era vehicles and reenactors. Much of the best space was covered several tiers deep, with people sitting on the curb, and a second or third row seated behind.

My family arrived after the initial rush and found one section of the curb unoccupied. The reason quickly became obvious because seated in their wheelchairs and camping chairs along the back of the sidewalk were the residents of a group home, likely the local ARC (which once stood for the Association of Retarded Citizens until “retarded” became an epithet rather than a euphemism). These adults made gross noises, talked at the wrong times, and were otherwise disruptive of polite norms. This meant that the curb in front of them was empty, until we sat down. For many, to be sure, the space was left out of consideration to not interfere with any care the group might need. For others, I wonder if the unwillingness to sit in front was not due to a certain level of disgust with these people and a sub-conscious discomfort at these “misfits.” This second hypothesis is reflective of the generally lower value society often places on those with disabilities, especially cognitive impairments.

In a recently revised book, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier use the L’Arche communities, founded by Vanier, as an example of honoring the humanity of all persons, including those with cognitive disabilities. The book is worthy of reading, as it is a brief, but potent example of a better way to conceive of care for some of the least valued persons in our society.

Summary

The book is very short. It has only four chapters, book ended by an introduction and conclusion authored by John Swinton. The expanded edition also includes a study guide, with chapter by chapter questions for review.

Two of the chapters were authored by Vanier and two by Hauerwas. Vanier’s chapters deal with practical and personal accounts of life within L’Arche. These accounts, though theologically muddled, demonstrate Vanier’s real and significant concern for the citizens of our world least likely to be valued. The vision he provides of people with cognitive disabilities being treated as humans, with personalities and flaws like the rest of us, is compelling. Instead of hiding the mentally disabled from view and treating them like patients, L’Arche communities involve co-living with “normal” people who interact with them as neighbors rather than as clients. This process both recognizes the unique needs of these individuals and their distinct value as humans.

Hauerwas’s chapters are more theoretical in nature. As is usual for Hauerwas, they are eminently readable, often very pointed, and sometimes powerfully prophetic. The theological vision presented in this book is an application of his broader pacific ethic, an exposition, if you will, on the structure he outlines in books like The Peaceable Kingdom. The degree to which one finds the whole structure of Hauerwas’s ethics convincing will reflect the degree to which one accepts his theological reflections in this volume. He deals with some of the same obvious inconsistencies in this book as in all his works: e.g., writing about ecclesiology while remaining distant from the authority of a church, and, in this book, writing about gentleness with a somewhat aggressive polemic. This is vintage Hauerwas, both prophetic and conflicted in nature, but distinctly worthy of parsing.

The most significant point of this volume, which is a powerful one, is that among its many ethical concerns, the Christian church must remember the cognitively disabled. Caring for them is a reflection of the church’s gospel witness in the world. Because the cognitively disabled can often contribute very little to society in terms of economic productivity, they are often sidelined and hidden from sight. To some degree, this is necessary to shield them from becoming spectacles and ensuring they receive appropriate care. However, the treatment is often as bad as the condition, resulting in ostracization and isolation that denies the imago Dei in the mentally disabled––as if the primary, and perhaps sole, way that we image God is through rational capability (i.e., functional) rather than in our unmeasurable personhood (i.e., ontological). Hauerwas and Vanier draw attention to the insufficiency of this perspective and the need for deeper theological reflection and practical action for the good of Christian communities and the gospel witness of the universal church.

Conclusion

This book is a short, helpful reminder of a potential blind spot in the application of the gospel. Because we have removed the mentally disabled from view, we often forget about them. Organizations like L’Arche and Shepherds ministry are doing good work in seeking to emphasize the humanity of people with cognitive impairments. Not all of us are called to live in those communities, but all of us would do well to ponder how we have unconsciously adopted an instrumental, functional view of the value of humanity, which is reflected by our revulsion at, discomfort with, or simple desire to avoid the presence of those whose minds lack the agility with which we have been unreasonably blessed.

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

Why We Need Religion - A Review

Some atheists move beyond their objections to religion to a form of frothy mouthed rage that anyone dare believe in something beyond what can be measured, analyzed, and peer reviewed. Famously, Richard Dawkins has asserted that parents teaching their children Christian doctrine is a form of child abuse. And, of course, there are meanspirited gadflies like those in the Freedom From Religion organization who like to attack people engaged in public service for having faith that is not hidden from view. Such antipathy is not universal. Some atheists are more benign. However, there is enough anti-religious emotion among the supposed rationalists that the militant fundamentalist accusations about an “atheist agenda,” etc., etc., are not entirely unfounded (just overblown).

In contrast to such overt hostility, Stephen T. Asma, professor of Philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, and confirmed atheist, has written a book to argue that maybe religion isn’t quite so bad and doesn’t deserve violent eradication just yet. Accordingly, he offers an intriguing purpose in his recent volume, Why We Need Religion. He writes, “I will endeavor a charitable interpretation of the believer and religion, one that couches such conviction in the universal emotional life that connects us all.” (14)

Summary

The general point of Asma’s book is that scientism is best, but religion helps people feel good, so it should be tolerated by those who know better. While ensuring the reader never doubts his atheistic bona fides, Asma sorts through sociological data that he argues point to the necessity of some form of religion as a “cultural analgesic.”

Asma finds multiple benefits of religion, which he argues are reasons that society should not seek to destroy religion and ridicule believers. In chapter length treatments, Asma argues that religion in general, especially those with a belief in an afterlife, help people navigate sorrow due to death and even personal fear of death. Such myths keep some people from despair, so there is no reason not to allow that beneficial belief.

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For some, religion enables the ability to forgive. The belief that there will be justice meted out gives people resources not to seek immediate, personal vengeance. Similarly, a belief in a higher power can help people have mental strength leading to internal peace, resilience, and the ability to sacrifice for others.

Religion also enables people to find communal joy, to channel sexual energy, and engage in forms of imaginative play. These aspects of religion, according to Asma, have evolved in ways that differentiate us from some of the lower animals and help us get by as a society. At other points, religion proves useful in helping people control their fear and anger.

Analysis

Given his assumptions, the argument is reasonable throughout, but the general point is that religion—at least some level of religion—is acceptable because it has socially and evolutionarily beneficial fruit. Thus, even if it is not actively encouraged, certain types of religion should be deemed acceptable, as long as it sufficiently agrees with the moral consensus of society and encourages behaviors approved by enough people. For example, religion that fosters contemporary forms of functional egalitarianism, pursuit of approved economic and social outcomes, and controls unsocial emotional outbursts should be accepted.

At a most basic level, it is nice to have an atheist write something that does not curse every believer for their foolishness and vehemently denigrate their existence for not aligning their faith commitments to those of radical empiricism. Asma’s book shows that the conversation between religion and radical empiricism need not be an out and out street fight at all times, especially if one accepts a version of religion that is palatable for skeptics.

Ironically, though he is an atheist, Asma makes many of the same arguments for religion in general that some versions of Christianity (the religion with which I am most familiar) make. Religion can help you live your best life now. Believing can make you a better citizen. Your kids won’t misbehave as much if you keep them in church. You can have inner peace if you will just believe. There’s no need to fear death if you’ll just pray this prayer. The list can go on and on. This observation shows the paucity of much teaching among Christians of varying stripes. I have heard similar pitches presented as “evangelism” before, and sometimes they succeed in getting people to participate in activities with Christians for a while. There is a pointed lesson here, for those whose faith would be acceptable to an atheist.

The acceptable religion Asma hopes for is the one that nods toward doing good deeds from time to time, talks about miracles as fiction that points to a higher moral, and moves aside traditional doctrines that interfere with the current popular polls. In Christian circles, Asma’s preferred forms of religion align very well with the stated doctrines of many mainline Protestant denominations and lived faith of many Evangelical and Roman Catholic adherents. Lukewarm is the hottest the faucet should go, lest it lead to a failure to go with the flow. Coexist bumper stickers are the main sign of approved faith, rather than rosaries, crucifixes, or fish stickers. Bland is the religion that is properly admissible by the Zeitgeist.

Asma’s arguments also reveal there is no point at which the attempt of liberal Christianity to create a truly minimalist faith will ever really be acceptable in society. As the moral winds shift and the polling changes, there will always be a new doctrine considered anti-social and require abandonment. Whatever vestiges of truth and odor of gospel efficacy is left in an acceptable version of Christianity won’t have much power to save, if any at all in a few years. In other words, Asma reveals that seeking praise from atheists isn’t a worthy endeavor because nothing but utter capitulation will ever be applauded, so those who claim to be orthodox and faithful should focus on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God as we believe and proclaim a rigorous, full-throated, gospel-saturated doctrine.

For faithful, orthodox Christian readers, the best use of this book is to see in it an affirmation of some of the things that we know to be true, though Asma denies the basis. Faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can help make us better citizens, to the degree that society maintains a true sense of the common good. Basically, Asma is arguing that we aren’t (always) the moral equivalent of child abusers and sometimes actually do good things, which is better than the alternative.

In the end, this is a book that was not written to people who really believe what they claim to believe, whether they are Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, or whatever. This is a book that, despite claiming to offer an olive branch, oozes condescension on nearly every page. It’s a patronizing pat on the head from the person who pretended to listen while you speak to them and then lets you know he was ignoring everything you said by his smug smile and dismissive comment. Most probably, though, the target audience for this book is not people who actually believe and practice their faith, it is the mushy middle and the militant atheist.

One possible positive outcome is that some from the mushy middle may encounter the gospel if they wander into a faithful Christian church on some Sunday morning to find the inner peace Asma highlights; may Asma’s work bear such fruit.

On the other hand, this is a book that may be helpful if it has the socially beneficial result of tempering the fundamentalist zealotry of a few atheists. On that basis, I think that it makes a valuable contribution to the conversation of the relationship between religion and society.

Why We Need Religion
By Stephen T. Asma

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

Patrick's Corner - A Review

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

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

The Silence of the Poor

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

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

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

The Story

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

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

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

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

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

The Goodness of Work

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Patrick's Corner
By Sean Patrick

Preaching By The Book - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers
By Christopher A. Hall

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

The Morals of the Story - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Jerusalem to Timbuktu - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Banality of Systemic Injustice

People expect evil to come with horns, pitchforks, and an obvious bent toward cruelty. That is, when we meet someone who has done or approved of great evil, we expect them to be obviously angry, psychotic, and express delight in their vileness.

Real evil in our real world is seldom like that. Our villains seldom arrive dressed like Cruella Deville or Sauron. But we still expect those that participate in something really bad to be obviously evil. Wicked people who do wicked things rarely have the flair we expect, which should teach us something about the nature of evil.

Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, helps undermine the expectation of an entertaining bad guy. She does this by presenting a portrait of perhaps the most boring and petty man in the twentieth century who orchestrated some of the most unquestionable evil in the history of humanity.

Who is Arendt?

Others are much better equipped to give a more detailed history of the life and work of Hannah Arendt. This BBC interview of a scholar who has studied Arendt offers a decent overview.

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Arendt was herself born in Germany and was a Jew. She left Germany in 1933 ostensibly to study, but eventually emigrated to the United States, where she remained a citizen until her death in 1975. It is for good reason, then, that Arendt felt a keen interest in the Holocaust.

She is best known as a political theorist, though her work is more broadly philosophical than most political discourse of our day. She was also a journalist for the New Yorker, who happened to fund her trip to Jerusalem to see the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

The book that resulted from her trip to watch the trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem, caused a significant controversy in that day, with apparently coordinated efforts to undermine its spread. The main thrust of the controversy was Arendt’s indelicate handling of the apparent Jewish cooperation with the Holocaust.

That claim, even in this post, is somewhat remarkable and needs some nuancing, but it plays into the general idea of the banality of evil.

Arendt argued that the Jewish community participated in their own extermination because they largely cooperated with the beginning stages of the Holocaust. This sounds like victim blaming—and perhaps it is to a certain degree—but reading the book, that does not seem to be her intention.

What is true is that the Jews in Germany and the other occupied nations rarely resisted the ever-increasing encroachments on their liberty and deprivations of their rights. The community, by virtue of being administratively linked through and led by the synagogue, had recognized structure that often worked with the Germans, always hoping that cooperation at each stage would end the problem.

In some sense the Jews did cooperate in their own demise, though it is not clear whether overt resistance would have been successful. Arendt’s intention does not appear to criticize the Jewish community for their cooperation, but to explain why the mild-mannered Adolf Eichmann was able to help murder millions with little or no violent effort.

I leave final resolution of that controversy to others, but believe Arendt to be helpful on some points even if she is outrageously mistaken on that one.

Eichmann

Adolf Eichmann is the stereotype for the mid-level bureaucrat who is exceedingly efficient at making things move without understanding what exactly what was happening or why it could possibly be bad.

Based on Arendt’s description, which begs to be believed on the grounds of credo quia absurdum if nothing else, Eichmann had little animus toward anyone. He was a boring man, who lived a boring life, and did extraordinary evil because it is what the boring system he participated in required for “success.”

While the world—Arendt included—expected a slavering war criminal spewing anti-Semitic epithets from the witness stand, what they saw was someone who did not believe himself to be a war criminal because he was simply doing his job. Arendt reveals Eichmann to be a splendid manager but a terrible human.

The unthinking reader might succeed in passing over the horror that Arendt depicts, but the observant ones will recognize that Eichmann is frightening because he is so ordinary.

Why does ordinariness frighten? In this case because he managed to participate in such unthinkable evil with such a clear conscience. It is clear from Arendt’s description—which is corroborated by other historical sources—that Eichmann did not consider himself guilty of anything in particular.

In other words, Eichmann’s banality is frightening because we are so susceptible to it.

Systemic Injustice

Eichmann shows us what it is like to participate in systemic injustice with a clear conscience.

I recommend Arendt’s book to readers—particularly contemporary evangelical readers—because it shows without question the power of an unjust system, the difficulty in extricating oneself from it, and the importance of resisting such systems.

Eichmann saw himself as an idealist. According to Arendt, “An ‘idealist’ was a man who lived for his idea—hence he could not be a businessman—and who was prepared to sacrifice for his idea everything and, especially, everybody. . . . The perfect ‘idealist,’ like everybody else had of course his personal feelings and emotions, but he would never permit them to interfere with his actions if they came into conflict with his ‘idea.’” (42)

Though Eichmann was aware of the Final Solution, which he knew included killing the Jews, he had absolutely no sympathy. “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” (49) He was fundamentally a man that saw serving the system as the highest end, regardless of the cost.

The inability to speak Arendt refers to is that Eichmann was unoriginal in his thought patterns. He knew talking points and catch-phrases but was blissfully unaware of the conflicts internally between them and did not understand the enormity indicated by his language. This was facilitated by the Nazi efforts to sanitize language and speak of things bureaucratically—using boring systemic language to mark overt evil.

One might consider examples in U.S. history such as the idea of “Indian removal,” “separate but equal,” and “reproductive rights” to see how terrible evil can be masked by euphemism. This system can roll right over conscience by convincing the actors they are simply scheduling train cars and not facilitating the deaths of millions of innocent people.

Conclusion

Arendt’s account of Eichmann is sobering in our world filled with systems and euphemisms.

While some of the pleas about systemic injustice are little more than complaints that life was not unfair in favor of a particular group, conservative Christians have for too long ignored the reality of systemic injustice and our own participation in it.

In many cases, we unknowingly participate in such systems and in others we lack the requisite compassion to see the impact of our participation. Eichmann in Jerusalem should cause readers to ask what ideals they are pursuing to the detriment of others and recognize that if that ideal cannot be achieved without the injustice it is not a worthy ideal. The ends simply do not justify the means and they never can.