The Accidental Social Entrepreneur - A Review

Social entrepreneurship is the pursuit of business with social benefit as a primary concern rather than simply profit. In some cases, social entrepreneurship relies upon the intended social benefit as the chief marketing point. In the best cases, the entrepreneurs provide a good, needed service at a competitive price, but distribute profits with something other than the bottom line or shareholder value as the primary concern.

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A reasonable profit is a good thing and necessary for a humane economy. Entrepreneurs generally risk their livelihood for their business. Profits allow business to continue, entrepreneurs to feed their families, companies to expand, and more people get jobs that support their families. Poverty will not be ended without business.

In The Accidental Social Entrepreneur, Grant Smith outlines his own life experience as a social entrepreneur. In a memoir-style book, he covers the successes, challenges, and failures he has experienced while running his Hand In Hand company with several faces and outlets. In one of its most significant aspects, Smith’s company became one of the largest home construction entities in Kenya.

Smith recognizes that business is a good thing. When run justly, companies provide opportunities for employees to feed their families. In Smith’s accounting, justice includes remunerating workers in proportion to the value they add to the company rather than as little as the market will allow. So, for example, although unskilled labor is paid near-starvation wages in Kenya, Smith’s construction company chooses to pay a significantly higher wage that ensures greater financial stability for those laborers. It works in this particular application because the profit margins for home construction in Kenya are very high. The difference between the market rate and the rate his company pays is found in the profit taken by the company itself.

For Smith, social entrepreneurship means building businesses that meet legitimate needs at a competitive price, providing a decent (though by no means extravagant) living for workers in proportion to the value they add (he is very big on merit based pay), and using a fair portion of remaining profits to invest in other charitable activities. Investors in Smith’s various schemes get a benefit, but that benefit is limited by other goals that the investors agree to in advance. Smith runs companies, but they are companies that take all stakeholders into account.

The Accidental Social Entrepreneur is an encouraging volume. It celebrates the good of business for creating wealth and freeing people from poverty. It also introduces a paradigm of valuing something besides maximizing profits to the discussion. Smith’s book strikes a healthy balance between recognizing the good of markets and considering the potential harms of markets.

Although he does not state it directly, Smith does seem to lean toward the moral superiority of his company’s practice of redistributing up to 85% of profits to more direct charitable causes. It is commendable that Smith decided to do so, but by no means morally obligatory. In some cases, by choosing to distribute profit rather than reinvest in other ventures, Smith may have made his company’s endeavors more difficult. This is by no means the major emphasis of the book, but more discussion would have been beneficial.

Another helpful aspect of this book is Smith’s honesty about times that his endeavors failed. In some cases, he even admits the mistakes that prevented entrepreneurial efforts from being successful. This adds value to the book, because it shows that the life of the entrepreneur is not necessarily a straight line toward success or failure. Rather, the entrepreneurs should expect ups and downs, successes and failures that hopefully contribute to the general good of society.

Hopefully, The Accidental Social Entrepreneur inspires some readers to take a step toward building a business with society in mind. Even if they take a more profit-oriented approach than Smith, the world will be a better place. Pastors and lay leaders in church would benefit from reading the book. It could shape social endeavors facilitated through the local church.

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

The Shallows - A Review

Recently several news outlets have reported that humans have begun to have skeletal adaptions based on our modern lives. Although the exact cause may not be clear, it appears the people that use smartphones and other digital devices regularly may begin to see biological changes due to looking down more than any previous generation. A humoristic vision of the human future might have people with extremely well-developed thumbs and hunched shoulders several hundred years in the future.

Whether our physical bodies are indeed changing will likely be explored more fully in the years to come, but it appears that the internet is indeed changing how people think, reason, and learn. That thesis is the subject of Nicholas Carr’s seminal book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Published in 2010, Carr’s book has been oft cited, including in more recent books like Andy Crouch’s Techwise Family and Jacob Shatzer’s Transhumanism and the Image of God. At the time, Carr’s book sounded an alarm about the changes to the human mind caused by the easy access to information that was always available.

Though it has been nearly a decade since Carr wrote, his ideas have been proven to be more correct than he likely could have imagined. When his book was published, the iPhone was only a few years old and smartphones were just beginning to exist at the price point where the majority of the population in the developed world could have access to them. Now it is only the rare individual that does not have a smartphone.

As internet memes remind us, the smartphone would have ruined a large number of movie plots recorded through history. Is there a bomb in the building? No need to rush through traffic to warn those inside, simply text, call, or instant message those threatened by disaster. This wonder of technology in the form of a quarter pound of silicon and heavy metals promises a world where communication is easy and instantaneous. That sounded like a promise of lower stress and a simpler life.

The reality has not lived up to the promise. Surveys continue to indicate that people are more stressed now than in decades past. There seems to be good evidence that the internet, and particularly constant access to it, are increasing the feelings of stress and disconnection.

Additionally, human learning habits have changed. While I served on the administration of Oklahoma Baptist University, I would overhear students complaining about closed book exams. Their reasoning was that “in the real world” they would be able to do an internet search for all of the answers. They could see no need to know historical facts or even how to do mathematics. When the information or process was really needed, it would only be few keystrokes away. This was not a particular trait of students at my university, but a general trend in how the population values knowledge and skill. The pervasiveness of this attitude has been reinforced by the recent graduates that I have worked with who have little cultural awareness (outside of the memes and hot-button issues they have been inundated with) and lack the ability to learn.

One of the key changes Carr highlights is the shift from deep reading to skimming. The internet fuels this, as people spend less and less time on a given website. Our brains reward us for changing the source and nature of the stimulation we receive with a little hit of dopamine. This is why many kids’ shows and even recent, popular movies change camera angles at a nausea-inducing rate. This is why when I see people outside at a scenic destination, they are less overwhelmed with the grandeur of the sights and more concerned with posting their selfies and checking to see who has affirmed them for sharing.

The change in the ability to read has become apparent in my own life. Since I have adopted a smartphone and the internet is only a click away wherever I am I have a harder time focusing on deep reading. Even when my phone is across the room, my eyes wander off the page periodically as I begin to wonder what is going on outside of my immediate vicinity. There is a constant pull to be stimulated that I was less subject to before I spent my day at an internet-connected computer with a supercomputer in my pocket.

It is not clear what changes will evolve in humans and in society in the coming years, but there is a case to be made that many of them will be a net negative. As Christians we need to think carefully about what technology is doing to us and, more significantly, what technology is for. It seems as if easy access to the internet is making us shallower as individuals. If that is the case, then we must find ways to resist the deleterious effects that may limit our ability to meditate on Christ and become more like him.

The Gardeners' Dirty Hands - A Review

Noah Toly is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations, as well as Director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has previously studied theology academically. His book, The Garderners’ Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, is more political science of environmental concerns than theology, but it written from a distinct theological perspective that sits well within the bounds of orthodoxy. The book seeks to offer an approach to environmental policy that is more helpful than more idealistic perspectives.

The weakness in many approaches to economics and environment is the failure to recognize the need for tradeoffs. Solutions must be either black or white. Businesses must be either evil monstrosities or saviors of society. Either you are for certain environmental policies or you want to pillage the created order.

These sorts of positions on political problems are rewarded by society today. However, they are rarely honest representations of reality. There are always tradeoffs. When we close coal power plants, a number of people lose their jobs, are dislocated from their neighborhoods, and have their lives disrupted. When a new wind farm is put in place, there are going to be birds killed and people unhappy about the noise and sight of the turbines. The funding for the cleanup project may take money from another socially beneficial plan. We can’t have everything.

Most activists and theoreticians retreat from these prickly realities into vague generalities. The easy part of politics is coming up with a goal that sounds good to enough people that you can get elected. The hard part is wrestling with the realistic impact of the steps necessary to achieve that goal.

The chief triumph of The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands is that helps explain there are no perfect solutions and provide some ideas on how to approach the real implications of environmental governance.

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The book is brief. It contains only five chapters after a brief preface. In Chapter One, Toly introduces the concept of the tragic, which frames the argument of the book. The tragic is the idea that there is no solution that provides only benefits. Chapter Two builds on the concept of tragedy and adds scarcity and risk as additional forms of the tragic for environmental decisions. In the third chapter Toly provides some examples of the tragic in environmental ethics in the real world, discussing limitations, harm, and the prevalence of economic analysis to ignore instances of abuse and oppression. Chapter Four provides some handholds intended to assist the reader in using the Christian tradition to respond to environmental tradeoffs. In the fifth chapter Toly argues that the ability of humans to impact the global environment is more significant than ever and likely to stay that way. It is imperative that we begin to wrestle with the tradeoffs and not to ignore them for the benefit of or to the detriment of the environment.

The crux of the book, I think, can be summed up by quoting the first sentence of Chapter Four:

“The burden of environmental governance is to weigh competing claims, measuring risk against risk, right against right, confronting moral dilemmas of extraordinary scale and scope in the context of increasing power to shape the future of the planet.” (p. 79)

If this volume begins to shift the balance of arguments about environmental policy toward actually doing these things, it will have accomplished a great deal. This is a worthwhile volume.

The argument made in this volume is limited the repeated reliance on Bonhoeffer’s ethics to show how we should reason through difficult moral decisions. Bonhoeffer is helpful in many regards, but his basic ethical methodology is one of conflicting absolutes. That is, God’s moral law can conflict with itself leaving humans in a situation where all options lead to sin. That position is problematic on several fronts, not least because it raises Christological concerns.

Conflicting absolutes feels right for environmental ethics, but its problems remain. In reality, the majority of the conflicts can be solved by properly defining the summum bonum and what, scripturally speaking, defines sin in a particular instance. This is, of course, much more difficult to do than to say, particularly on a societal level.

Additionally, part of the dirt on the gardeners’ hands is there because many penultimate goods are treated like ultimate things. And proverbial dirt is also generated by the simple inability to know what will come from a given action or even what the real impact a particular environmental policy will have. We are beset by complications on all sides, but we automatically fail by ignoring obvious problems because of complexity.

The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands requires readers to wrestle with the hard questions of environmental policy. Serious thinkers about the relationship between politics and ecology––particularly those working from a Christian worldview––would do well to read this book and begin to recognize both the importance of the questions and their complexity.

NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Making of Christian Morality - A Review

There is a common approach to Christian ethics, especially among revisionists, that views the development of Christian thought as a synthetic process rather than an organic one. That view is on display in David Horrell’s recent book, The Making of Christian Morality: Reading Paul in Ancient and Modern Contexts.

Horrell is professor of New Testament studies at the University of Exeter. I was introduced to him through his work in ecotheology, particularly in his attempt to re-read Paul’s letter through an environmentally friendly lens in Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, and his plea for revising Christian hermeneutics in light of environmental concerns in The Bible and the Environment.

Although Horrell’s title includes the entire New Testament, the bulk of his career has been invested in Pauline studies. For Horrell, the study of Paul is distinct from the study of Christian thought, since he views Paul’s writings and those he believes to be incorrectly attributed to Paul to be radically different from the rest of the Christian tradition. This sort of approach, which is fairly typical in critical approaches to Christian scholarship, makes reshaping Scripture for his desired purposes much easier.

The Making of Christian Morality is a collection of essays, all of which were published elsewhere and/or delivered as conference papers. The result is a somewhat loose connection of individual entries in topics that interest Horrell rather than a cogent argument about a particular topic.

The book contains three parts, with each section focusing on a particular subject of concern. Part One deals with Horrell’s interest in the sociohistorical context of Paul’s writings. His first essay begins by ignoring the possibility of continuity between the authors of Scripture, but goes on to argue against distinct “Pauline” churches, which are a central plank in the arguments of some revisionists. In Chapter Two, Horrell debunks some popular constructs about early church architecture largely by revealing the slim evidence that some conclusions (which have and will likely make their way into commentaries and sermons) were based on. This is the most useful essay in the volume and relies on interdisciplinary research that basically calls for Christian scholars to hold their opinions until further evidence can be uncovered. The third essay largely argues from silence and conjecture that Philemon may have been a middle-class Christian instead of a major patron of the church. This apparently is a significant topic of concern in Pauline studies. The most significant contribution of this essay is Horrell’s astute observation that the supposed household baptism that forms the strongest biblical evidence for paedobaptism was not evidenced in Philemon’s household, where Onesimus was converted well after his master. Chapter Four explores the way the language of family was used in the Pauline corpus. The argument of this chapter functions best alongside Horrell’s assumptions about what is authentic and inauthentic, which, to little surprise is partially a function of the conclusions he and others draw about the use of language in the letters attributed to Paul.

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Part Two shifts to the topic of Pauline ethics. The fifth essay begins with the assertion that “in the study of Pauline ethics the contours of current debate are still shaped by the early contributions of Rudolf Bultmann.” This helps explain the limited value of Horrell’s work and other works on “Pauline ethics” for Christians and those who study Christian ethics. This essay emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection in Pauline ethics, but resolves with a whimper as Horrell considers how that vision can help lead toward a Rawlsian consensus ethics, which is an essential part of the liberal order as Horrell sees it. In Chapter Six, Horrell uses Pauline ethics to argue that ethics ought to be culturally determined. That is, that a Pauline ethics is best evidenced by agreement with and enforcement of norms that are generally socially acceptable. To oversimplify the case (but still to give a sense of the argument), a Pauline ethics is one that rejects Christians as a contrast community and develops a community of people that affirm the values of the culture better than the culture. The seventh chapter explores the concept of humility as a central part of a Pauline ethics (though largely consistent with and perhaps drawn from other non-Christian sources.).

In Part Three Horrell shifts to a discussion of contemporary application of Pauline ethics. The first essay, which deals with various models of ethics, is largely a call to see Scripture as an insufficient basis for ethics. Horrell writes, “So, while reading Paul in the context of our contemporary debates can be suggestive and fruitful, using Paul’s texts to ‘think with’ does not by any means suffice for the task of thinking about adequate models for Christian ethics, but only marks the beginning of the work.” In a different context that statement could be taken as hopeful, but Horrell’s intent is to reject the sufficiency and authority of Scripture and encourage his readers to rely on other (and perhaps contradictory) sources for moral authority. Chapter Nine is something of an abbreviated version of Horrell’s book, Greening Paul, and is another entry into the genre of revisionist scholarship that tries to recover themes from Scripture that reinforce a particular desired outcome. This essay highlights the central emphasis of Horrell’s project as he writes, “reconfiguring our religious and cultural traditions in light of the new challenges that face us is a crucial task.” Pauline studies are useful inasmuch as they power activism in that matches societies demands on the topics of particular concern. The book concludes with the tenth essay, which outlines some contributions that Horrell feels Paul can make to ecojustice, but ends with a fizzle when Horrell can be helpful to “reconfigure our vision of the world around us, and to ground a revised theology that (re)integrates humanity into solidarity with the whole community of creation––critical tasks indeed––but neither he nor any of the biblical writers can give us substantive answer to the question as to what, in concrete terms, we then should do.” According to Horrell’s own writing, then, the best thing for people to do may be to put the Bible down and start looking for answers in the ever-evolving pool of scientific research shaped by a never-static summum bonum.

Horrell’s work is excellent by the measures of critical biblical scholarship. His writing is lucid and clear. Those that accept his assumptions will likely find this book illuminating and thought provoking. Christian scholars that accept the integrity of Scripture will continually find themselves started by the overwhelming number of basic assumptions that rest on “scholarly consensus,” which in turn is often founded on wishful thinking and obtuse readings of Scripture.

This book illustrates the need for Christian ethicists to continue thinking about Scripture, orthodox Christian theology, and how to apply the vision inspired by those sources to contemporary issues like creation care. When the standard of scholarly excellence is supposedly set by those that deny the basic character and sufficiency of Scripture, there is a need for resources that interact with those sources and aid authentic, well-reasoned faith to the discussion.

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

Tech Wise Family - A Review

There are twin dangers in dealing with contemporary problems. The first is to assume that the world has seen nothing like a given issue and that wise solutions must be manufactured anew, independent of historical sources of wisdom. The second danger is to assume that there is nothing new about a given problem and that the solution is to go on about our normal course of business.

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In his 2017 book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, Andy Crouch avoids both dangers. He recognizes that current technologies threaten the to exploit human vulnerabilities in new ways, but that wisdom to navigate the threat can be found in historical explanations of human nature and the purpose of the family.

There is an abundance of data that shows that the new attention economy is straining the social-fabric of our world. The prevalence of social media has enabled hyper-individualistic communities to arise that are sometime relatively harmless, but sometimes allow socially caustic influences like racism, sexual revisionism, and collectivism to coalesce in unhelpful ways. Similarly, the constant pull to look away from others and toward our phones is damaging our families and our local communities. The social experiment of putting a supercomputer in our pockets and allowing constant access to limitless entertainment is a little over a decade old, and the early results seem to be far from positive.

Without wading too far into the argument of the potential benefits of technology versus its drawbacks, Andy Crouch proposes that families need to take steps to use technology appropriately. We need not avoid it altogether, but we need to ask the fundamental question, “What is this good for?” Then we need to adapt our usage of technology to get the best out of it.

Crouch’s approach assumes the value of the nuclear family, but also takes into account the broader value of the extended family and community, including the nature of the family as the church. The main purpose of community and family is not merely to continue existence and ensure entertainment, but to form people into responsible humans. He offers ten “Tech-Wise Commitments” to frame a balanced use of technology.

1.       “We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.” –– He recognizes the central purpose of families is to form humans.

2.       “We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.” –– Notably, many homes are oriented around the television or computer, which often encourage passive entertainment. He offers practical suggestions to instill a culture within the home that encourages creativity and activity.

3.       “We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devises and worship, feast, play, and rest together.” –– This is the concept of Sabbath woven into the fabric of the family. It recognizes that while often being passive forms of entertainment, electronics are often drains on vital energies. Turning them off helps facilitate true rest and recreation.

4.       “We wake up before our devices do, and they ‘go to bed’ before we do.” –– For many, the last and first thing they see each day is the blue light of their phones. There are studies that show teens being deprived of sleep (and brain development time) by the interruptions and temptations of their phones. Crouch recommends charging phones away from the bedside table.

5.       “We aim for ‘no screens before double digits’ at school and at home.” –– The Crouch family had no television in the home until their youngest was 10. They worked with their local school system to minimize the dominance of “learning technology” in the curriculum. This comes from the realization that much less learning than often promised usually comes from various techno-centric approaches to instruction.

6.       “We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.” –– Again, the purpose of life is to grow toward something. The purpose of the family is to make better people. Therefore, isolation and idle entertainment are barriers to those goals.

7.       “Car time is conversation time.” –– As a public-school family, the Crouches use their car time to communicate with their children and each other in a focused environment. This may be less applicable to families that spend more time together.

8.       “Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.” –– Open access to each other’s browser history is often a means to prevent sliding into unhealthy habits. This approach recognizes the importance of trust and honesty. It also recommends the unique dangers that electronics offer to young people.

9.       “We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.” –– There is something quite powerful about unamplified human voices raised in songs of praise. This is something that has been minimized by the presence of easy everywhere music of unlimited quantity and variety.

10.   “We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.” –– Technology has an amazing power to build community and minimize the impact of distance. It has tended toward isolation. This is, perhaps, the most important of the ten commitments, because it recognizes the need for real, personal contact that cannot be replaced by digital connections.

One need not agree with everything Crouch proposes to find benefit from this book. Some of his proposals would be much easier to implement in a family that is not already techno-centric (so young parents take heed). However, even beginning to consider the place that technology should have in our families is a step in the right direction.

Even more than his practical suggestions for making a better use of technology, Crouch’s discussion of the purpose of the family is important for our consideration. We would do better to consider the reason why God formed families and what their function is. That would help us to value it, put it in its proper place, and enhance the flourishing of our communities one family at a time.

Can We Trust the Gospels? - A Review

Are the gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ reliable?

That, perhaps, is the central question that every Christian must ask. The accounts in the Gospels are, after all, accounts of the most important events in the Christian faith. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 15, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then we have no hope beyond this life. If that is true, he argues, then we are most to be pitied. The truthfulness of the Gospels is a question that every Christian must consider, which has implications for the validity of faith itself.

Peter Williams of Tyndale House in Cambridge asks this all-important question in his book, Can We Trust the Gospels? His answer is accessible, informative, and helpful to those that are willing to take up and read this concise book.

Given the number of apologetics books on the market that deal with the reliability of Scripture it might seem that Williams’ book would be simply another entry into a crowded field. However, Can We Trust the Gospels? is offers a fresh approach to an enduring question. It is one of those rare popular-level books that caused me not simply to nod along in agreement but to look up and wonder why I had never thought of that before. It is, in short, an important book that will remain useful for decades.

The reliability of Scripture is a well-worn topic, especially in evangelical circles, so many of the chapter topics will appear familiar to the experienced readers. Williams begins the book by asking what non-Christian sources from around the time the Gospels were set say. The basic concern is to see whether historical accounts corroborate the information in the Gospels. As many other writers have noted, there are a number of non-Christian writers whose work supports the historicity of the gospel accounts.

Williams also highlights an argument that is less common among defenders of Christianity: The historical accounts support the rapid spread and increasing popularity of Christianity (with all of its supernatural beliefs). Approximately 30 years after the death of Christ there was a reasonably large population of Christians in Rome, as well as throughout much of the Roman empire. All of them attest to believe similar supernatural ideas about Jesus Christ, which undermines the argument made by some critics of Scripture that ascribing miracles to Jesus and affirming his deity were late revisions of Christianity. That idea simply does not match the historical truths surrounding the spread of Christianity, as attested in hostile, non-Christian witnesses.

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In the second chapter, Williams provides evidence that the four Gospels were likely historical documents, written by people close to Jesus. These records were widely disseminated throughout the known world within a century or two of Christ’s death, which is record time for ancient manuscripts. Significantly, this mass distribution and frequent translation occurred before there was a central authority within Christendom to manipulate the message of Scripture, which undermines one of the most common attacks against the historicity of the Gospels.

Further attesting to the truthfulness of the Gospel accounts is the minor details embedded within the books. Williams illuminates many examples in his third chapter. Historical books, especially in the ancient world, that were written by people unfamiliar with the actual places, typical names, and unusual customs of that place and time. The Gospels validate each other by their particularity in geography, which often overlaps, but their differences also support their validity as independent witnesses. The pattern of knowledge and included details supports the authenticity of the Gospels.

In Chapter Four, the book discusses the undesigned coincidences in the Gospels. The books will include the same characters in different scenes, but with the same characteristics. This also includes overlap with non-Christian sources. Williams here provides evidence that either the Gospel authors were corroborating to write realistic fiction or they were telling stories they believed were true from different perspectives. They may have known of each other’s writings, but even if they did, the unity in the diversity is uncanny given the literary genres of the day.

The fifth chapter asks whether the Gospels record Jesus’ actual words. Williams argues that there is good reason to believe that what we have in Scripture is a faithful presentation of Jesus’ actual teaching, not ideas put into his mouth centuries after. They may not be the exact words, since direct quotation was not considered necessary for accuracy in ancient records. However, there are clear signs in the language recorded by the Gospel authors of the authenticity of their recorded speeches.

Chapter Six explores the question of the quality of the manuscripts. Here Williams documents the massive number of available manuscripts and, amazingly, their consistency across languages, regions, and time. Significantly, these factors make the hypothesis that there were major theological changes imposed on the texts highly unlikely.

The seventh chapter is very brief, arguing that there are formal contradictions within the work of Gospel writers. These were often designed, according to Williams, to cause readers to think more deeply about the potential meanings of the words involved. He writes, “These formal contradictions do show that the author is more interested in encouraging people to read deeply than in satisfying those who want to find a fault.”

Chapter Eight is a brief conclusion that sums up the broader arguments. Basically, Williams has been making the argument that it is much more likely that the Gospel accounts are trustworthy accounts of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of a man named Jesus from Nazareth. The logical contortions one must go through to believe that all of the Gospel-stories are just made up to gain control is much more difficult that simply taking the four Gospels, with their miracles and all, at face value.

Williams sets out to show that there are good reasons to believe in the authenticity of the Gospels. He is careful not to claim a cast-iron case. Instead, he shows the credibility of the texts we have today, which is a strong argument for the day.

This book is a welcome addition to the large field of textual apologetics volumes on the market. Can We Trust the Gospels? stands out because it presents different, more nuanced arguments than many other similar texts make. The book is remarkably accessible, carefully nuanced, and well-researched. This should be a vital resource in the libraries of pastors, scholars, and lay-people for generations.

Can We Trust the Gospels?
By Peter J. Williams

Radical Help - A Review

Marvin Olasky’s 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, reframed the way many Americans thought about welfare and compassion. Toward the end of the century that promised to bring utopia to the shores of North America through the New Deal and the Great Society, poverty continued to persist and, at times, threatened to upend society. Throughout the twentieth century, the United States invested billions of dollars in government programs, especially those at the federal level, designed to bring an end to poverty for good.

Looking around, many people recognized that the ever-growing network of programs and promises were not having the desired effect. Olasky’s book proved to be a catalyst for many to rethink their expectations for government poverty relief. The basic thesis of his book is that community solutions have been much more effective at poverty alleviation than impersonal government programs. His theory has largely been met with antipathy from progressives, affirmation from many conservatives, and skepticism by many between.

To some, the problem of poverty is too widespread and too significant for local solutions. Person-to-person charitable efforts are well-intentioned and often beneficial, but cannot hope to solve the needs of the poor. That is the argument made by many proponents of the growth of centralized welfare programs. However, it is less clear to many people that expanding existing programs or creating new offerings with the same bureaucratic model can achieve a better outcome.

In her recent book, Radical Help, Hilary Cottam challenges the expansion of centrally planned model of government poverty alleviation. Writing from progressive perspective, Cottam makes an argument that will sound familiar and welcome to conservative ears: The most effective means of poverty alleviation is the development of community.

Determined to do something practical about the problem of poverty, Cottam set to work redesigning portions of the welfare system in the United Kingdom. She challenged the status quo by asking a profound question of workers within a number of social programs: Who has been helped by your social program so that they are no longer enmeshed in the welfare system?

The inability of any program to show a single family that had been freed from the shackles of poverty through the work of the state led Cottam to conclude, “We had hoped for safety nets that would give us the weft and propulsion of a trampoline but instead we are woven into a tight trap.”

Radical Help documents five experiments that Cottam conducted in an attempt to uncover alternative solutions to poverty alleviation. Four of the five have been deemed successes. All five have in common that they rely on the individuals receiving help to drive the change, that the solutions are locally centered, and that they leverage technology as a means to coordinate human connection rather than as a replacement for it.

The first experiment allowed particular families to coordinate the host of poverty alleviation services they required to chart a course out of poverty. Instead of working with a wide range of social workers from a dozen different government programs, the Family Life experiment allowed a family to pick what help they would get, chart their own course, and get the help they needed to actually make it out of poverty. While this program was expensive in the short term, it reduced the long-term costs by getting multiple families in the experiment off the welfare rolls.

The second experiment helped teens find meaning and purpose by putting them into short-term internships in local businesses. These voluntary programs were coordinated using social technologies and gave teens a glimpse of a world outside the local recreation center. Although the program was scuttled due to the perceived risk of coordinating contact between minors and adults, it illustrates the power of a social network.

Experiment #3 replaced the queues of the unemployment office with a small support group filled with employed, underemployed, and unemployed individuals. Rather than seeking the first possible placement, the Good Work program looked for ways to motivate the unmotivated, focus the undirected, and assist the willing to make personal connections to make progress toward a vocation, not merely a job. Cottam notes that the idea of work as merely a means of earning bread is insufficient, which leads many of the unemployed to bounce from one dead end job to another.

The fourth experiment challenged the idea that the best solution to the stress on the National Health Service (NHS) is simply to dump in more money. Cottam rightly notes that the majority of medical spending is used treat chronic diseases like diabetes, which are often caused and exacerbated by lifestyle choices. The bureaucratic systems of the NHS was designed in industrial fashion to deal with punctiliar events like providing pregnancy services, solving medical emergencies, and performing needed surgeries. Cottam created the Wellogram project, which put healthcare professionals in direct and durable contact with people. By listening to people, asking follow up questions, and getting to know them, the healthcare professionals were able to help people improve their overall health, which in turn reduced their need for expensive medical interventions over a sustained period.

Cottam’s final experiment was designed to serve the aged. Her team created the Circle program, which she describes as “part social club, part concierge service, and part cooperative self-help group.” The basic function of the program was to break down the isolation in communities by putting people, particularly the elderly, in contact with others with similar interests. It also enabled willing volunteers to help their hidden neighbors by doing small things, like picking up groceries; there are many willing people who simply lacked the personal connections to perform these simple services for others. The Circle program used a basic technological platform to help people to help other people––technology was a means to the desired end, not the solution to the problem.

Each of the programs listed above used grants from the government, but relied on localized implementations to create contextual solutions to pervasive dehumanization caused by relational poverty. Cottam’s approach reminds us that we were designed for community, and those programs that encourage personal relationships tend to enhance flourishing in ways that a blank check never will. The goal was not to eliminate all government action for the poor, but to leverage government resources efficiently to accomplish the intended purpose.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that America’s welfare system is ineffective in winning the war on poverty, Cottam’s approach of innovating local solutions with a relational focus may provide a way forward for those who genuinely desire to help the poor, but recognize the devastating social impact of impersonal bureaucratic poverty alleviation strategies.

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

Becoming Whole - A Review

A decade ago, When Helping Hurts released and began a paradigm shift in how evangelicals viewed poverty alleviation. So much of our vision of missions previously included doing work for the poor, especially in the developing world, and sending money and goods to developing nations.

The outcome of that vision, long term, has been less than helpful. In some cases, foreign aid has pushed out local commerce. The excess rice shipped from nations (like the US) with bumper crops (and often as a means for the government to prop up prices in the US market) were given or sold at a low price, often undercutting the markets for local grains. This means that aid has pushed local farmers in some developing nations out of the market and prevented them from being able to support themselves and uproots local markets that support dozens of people. The same story is true for textile donations (think the Super Bowl loser’s shirts), which have damaged the economy in several developing nations.

On balance, many of the ways that we’ve believed we were helping people through charity have been hurting them. This revelation shocked many faithful Christians who, with the best intentions, were harming more than hurting. Brian Fikkert, along with other people associated with the Chalmers Center at Covenant College, have since been trying to show how real help can be offered. Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream is a recent entry in the conversation of how to help people in meaningful ways.

As the authors note in this preface, “This book provides a more systematic treatment of the underlying concepts and principles foundational to W[hen] H[elping] H[urts].” (pg 15) That is exactly the tone and content of the volume. If When Helping Hurts is the wake-up call to stop doing charity wrong, Becoming Whole is the theological basis that explains why aid does not work as a long-term response to poverty and the framework for a more positive vision for actually helping those in poverty. This is a volume that does a great deal more for building a foundation of ideas, but always with the view that the reader can take many of the ideas explained in the book and begin to apply them carefully on their own.

Summary

The bulk of this book is a plea for readers to understand an communicate a better story. The opposite of poverty is not consumption. The opposite of poverty is flourishing in a biblical framework. There is no question that having money and other resources are essential in alleviating the worst symptoms of human suffering, but an excess of such resources do not ensure a greater degree of happiness. For Fikkert and Kapic, true flourishing is found in living out the storyline of the gospel. As they summarize the message of the book: “there is a better life than the one you are currently living, a life of greater flourishing for both you and for people who are materially poor.” (pg. 15)

Part One of this volume calls readers to seek a new, better story; one framed around the gospel of Christ. It then argues for the primacy of human relationships, particularly loving ones, in human flourishing, and laying out a picture of how the focus of individuals and cultures shapes them.

In Part Two, the authors take on two false stories that continue to dog the steps of many Christians (even theologically conservative ones) in the majority world: (1) The trap of consumption and viewing consumption as a pathway to flourishing, and (2) the gnostic and pseudo-gnostic worldviews that undermine the value of the body and the eternal significance of physical aid. These errors drive a lot of the dis-ease in the pews of American evangelical churches and also frame much of the errant attempts at charity in and around the local church.

Part Three offers unpacks a biblical theology of human flourishing, which is mixed with insights about common American attitudes to poverty. This section is relevant to the conversations that go on in many of our Sunday Schools, around our potlucks, and in our homes. There is nothing new theologically in this section, but Kapic and Fikkert have presented it in a way that makes biblical theology obviously valuable to the reader.

Conclusion

Becoming Whole is an excellent tool to get people inside the local church to rethink poverty alleviation and, en route to that reconsideration, to think about the value structures in their own lives. I have read dozens of books on poverty and the American dream in my studies of wealth and poverty, environmental ethics, and the like. I did not want to put this book down. Each page offered new ways of explaining Christian theology in a way that is relevant to people in a dominant culture that is both gnostic and excessively materialistic.

This is volume that, along with When Helping Hearts and Practicing the King’s Economy, ministry leaders should read as they seek to form people and outline a vision for human flourishing among their own congregants and in the world around them.

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

Old Testament Ethics - A Review

One of the exciting aspects of Christian ethics as a discipline is the opportunity to bring careful biblical exegesis, historical theology, systematic theology, and contemporary sources of data like sociology, economics, and science together. There are always new challenges on the horizon, so the discipline never becomes stagnant.

Often for those interested in ethics finding a topical guide to passages in Scripture that deal with a particular issue or sub-discipline can be a challenge. John Goldingay’s Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour offers a helpful index of passages by topic, which makes this a useful resource for pastors and academics alike.

The chapters are very short. Each one has a brief introduction, with multiple passages printed and other passages referenced with light commentary. Goldingay has a particular social bent, which comes through more in some chapters than others, but does not shy from pointing readers toward a variety of passages.

Summary

Part One deals with virtues, which Goldingay categorizes as qualities. In eight chapters, he provides concise information about godlikeness, compassion, honor, anger, trust, truthfulness, forthrightness, and contentment. In Part Two, the topics of concern are the mind and heart, wealth, violence, shalom, justice, reparation, Sabbath, animals, and work. Similarly, in the third part, Goldingay covers relationships including friends, neighbors, women, marital relationships, sexual prohibitions, “people who can’t undertake regular marriage”, and a handful of other categories.

In Part Four we see exegesis of several different passages, which helps to show Goldingay’s ethical methodology. Finally, Part Five offers some commentary on the actions of particular people who are discussed in Scripture.

Discussion and Analysis

The book is most useful as a source book and not for careful commentary. Goldingay is an excellent scholar who has written some very popular commentaries. Old Testament Ethics may be an overambitious as a title. Goldingay does very little to discuss ethical methodology, other than to explain that drawing implications for ethics from the Old Testament is tricky.

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At one point, the weakness in this ethical methodology becomes obvious as Goldingay notes that he put the question of whether his church would host same-sex weddings to a vote instead of studying the text of Scripture. Then he goes on to explain that same-sex marriage, in his view, falls short of the vision presented in Scripture, but so do other relationships. This is inarguably true. What could have been a profound opportunity to critique the failings of even theologically conservative Christians to properly digest God’s vision for human flourishing resolves into a shoulder shrug, as if it does not really matter.

Overall, the general tone of the volume does not take holiness and sin particularly seriously. There appears to be no clear vision for the holiness of God in this book. Part of that can be witnessed by the odd vision of God Goldingay advertises in a discussion of God’s judgment:

“Oddly, therefore, being Godlike means speaking in fiery terms about judgment in order to seek to draw people back to God, in the manner of Jonah, and not worrying about God failing to implement the judgment he threatens. Because it’s foreign to him, even though from time to time he will screw himself up to it.” (pg. 14)

The vision of God Goldingay presents is too small to hold both a righteous concern for justice and his own holiness together with a gracious and merciful God who forestalls many of the consequences of our sins during this life. The first part is not “foreign” to the second part and an ethics that lacks both elements will be more likely to put righteousness up to a congregational vote than to carefully teach the message of Scripture.

What does it mean to “Be holy as I [God] am holy” (Lev 19:2) when conformity to God’s ideal (e.g., his law) is met with apathy most of the time? A single page later he lists as a character of Godlikeness, “Not treating people as free of guilt,” as “you refuse to let mercy triumph over justice in a way that treats right and wrong as things that don’t matter.” (pg. 10) And yet, that is exactly what Goldingay seems to pave the way for.

There is certainly a more winsome way to write about sin than many people do. That statement is true of both progressive and orthodox Christians, though the sins they are often most concerned about are different. However, throughout the volume, Goldingay seems to muddy places where the thrust of Scripture is particularly clear and clarify places with suggested contemporary application that do not seem so self-evident.

Conclusion

This is a helpful book in many respects. Goldingay’s catalog of Old Testament references make this a useful book for students, pastors, and academics. The methodological weaknesses of the volume dim its prospects for being very helpful for those seeking to understand Christian ethics better. In the end, this is a valuable resource, but not an essential book to own.

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

Addicted to Lust - A Review

If you ask any pastor, they will tell you that pornography is a significant problem in their local congregation among the men. In fact, some surveys indicate there is little to no difference between pornography consumption among self-described Christian men and those outside the church. Many pastors can explain how it is a barrier to having enough men qualified to serve as elders and deacons in the local church.

Additionally, a growing number of people in the U.S. describe themselves as addicted to pornography. There are debates about whether that is possible and whether the changes that some people describe due to pornography have a long term impact, but there is little question that the rise of the internet and especially the smart phone have made pornography much more available and pervasive to people of all ages and walks of life.

Samuel L. Perry’s book, Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants, is a sociological study of the admitted use of pornography by theologically conservative Protestants. His population of interest includes both those that might be described as fundamentalist and as evangelical.

Analysis and Discussion

Perry’s book is revealing in that his data show a huge oversight in many conservative Protestant congregations: specifically, according to his study, women are using pornography nearly as much as men. This is a particularly startling revelation, since most teaching on pornography that occurs within the evangelical church is particularly focused on men. Additionally, given the prevalence of male staff in evangelical churches, this may create situations where a local congregation is ill-equipped to help women struggling with pornography.

Assuming that Perry’s data is correct, his assertions from that data are often unflattering toward theologically conservative Christians. Perry argues that some basic assumptions that evangelical pastors make about pornography contribute to its use among men and the failure to address it among women. For example, the common assertion that men are “turned on” by visual stimulation while other triggers impact women are considered sexist and misogynistic by Perry. The data related to pornography use among women tends to support the argument that visual arousal is not exclusively a male trade, but he fails to adequately support a statement about different in forms of arousal between sexes. This is wound up in a general sub-thesis that Christian understandings of gender differences are incorrect, which is more assumed than argued in this volume.

Significantly, however, Perry notes that identifying pornography as a “men’s issue” is particularly harmful for the women who feel guilty about using it. Their guilt places significant psychological strain on them, which is exacerbated by feeling abnormal to be a female struggling with a “guy thing.” This, I think, is the item that is most significantly illuminating and helpful for pastors reading this volume.

Another significant assertion that is woven through this volume is that evangelicals would be better off to simply embrace and accept pornography usage as normal. He attempts to use data to show that theological conservatives are more likely to face marital difficulties due to pornography usage, not because it is actually akin to or another form of adultery, but simply because it violates the taboos of the evangelical or fundamentalist community. He does this while carefully noting that he is specifically not engaging with the literature that debates the negative sociological impacts on romance, particularly due to heavy pornography usage. Perry’s argument is that the usage rates are identical between conservative Christians and non-Christians, and some progressive Christians feel it enhances their lives, so evangelicals would be better off simply embracing the vice.

A weakness in Perry’s analysis is his engagement with primarily popular-level treatments of pornography. He does a lot of legwork to try to find cringe-worthy exaggerations and inexact statements in books intended for an audience seeking encouragement in their pursuit of holiness, who are already largely convinced of the theological underpinnings of Christian theology. This may illustrate a significant flaw in the body of literature available, since Perry apparently did not come into contact with a robust theology of human sexuality in his research.

Additionally, there are points at which Perry simply misrepresents (I assume because of understanding) the theology of those he describes. For example, by asserting that reformed Christians tend to embody pietistic idealism, which leads them to believe that, “God is chiefly concerned not with a person’s actions but with her motivations. . . . Simply put, for conservative Protestants, the obedience that God demands is not about bodily actions so much as it is about a person’s heart.” (pg 13) This is inconsistent with any reformed thinking I have ever read on sexual ethics. It appears that Perry confuses the emphasis behind motivation in discussions about sexual ethics as reflecting a greater concern (by God!) for motivation. In fact, it is that most conservative Christians already recognize that sinning with their bodies (e.g., consummating adulterous lust) is sin, but often need help recognizing the severity of lust.

Conclusion

As a work of sociology, this is helpful. Perry has done yeoman’s work in interviewing people about a very sensitive subject. Pastors, ethicists, counselors, and lay leaders within local congregations will benefit by reading this book to see what people will tell a sociologist at a state university that they are unlikely to discuss with a representative of the church. This is information worth getting access to and Perry has written a very accessible book.

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