Your Future Self Will Thank You - A Review

One of the most challenging questions for Christians to ask themselves is whether they are more Christlike today than they were a year or even a decade ago. Even among those of us active in our local churches on a regular basis, this question can lead to awkward silence and, perhaps, even prevarication. If we are brutally honest, most of us cannot claim to be more Christlike today than we ever have been and that should give us some pause to think.

It’s not that we should be perpetually living on some sort of “mountain top” spiritual experience. Christlikeness has very little to do with how we feel, but it has a whole lot to do with how we live.

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And the question of how we live is not a question of our avoidance of sin. Most of us don’t drink, smoke, chew, or hang with girls that do. This isn’t simply about ethics. The question of spiritual progress has a great deal more to do with the normal advance that takes place as we mature as Christians. Unfortunately, for many of us, that advance looks less like progress and more like a slow slide backward or an attempt to tread water while pretending to be moving ahead.

Every year we make new resolutions. We are going to pray more, lose weight, memorize Scripture, and be more diligent in a hundred different ways. However, it seems that a few weeks later our will-power has failed and we have slid back to where we started.

Drew Dyck’s recent book: Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science, is, despite its clunky title, a very helpful book. It is a quick read, but well-written and robustly researched. This book belongs in a reading list with other books on spiritual disciplines.

The basic topic of this book, as the subtitle indicates, is self-control. This seems to set the volume up for two potential errors: legalism and self-reliance. Dyck is careful to avoid both. He does this by reminding readers that self-control is a biblical virtue (e.g., Prov 25:28, 1 Cor 9:25) and by noting that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (e.g., Gal 5:23). We cannot earn salvation by being more self-controlled, but growth in godliness should result in greater self-restraint.

The Bible points us toward the need for self-control as a sign of and means to pursue spiritually maturity, but that leaves those of us who struggle with the virtue pondering why we can’t just be better. That’s where the science comes in.

As someone who struggles with self-control, Dyck set out on a quest to figure out why. This took him through a year or so of reading the literature available in the field of psychology and brain science. He has helpfully distilled the results in this book and carefully balanced those findings against the wisdom of Scripture. What he finds is much like the argument Christian Miller presents in The Character Gap: human character can be shaped, there are practical ways to do so, and that those practical means of forming our character look a great deal like traditional Christian devotional practices.

Having explained why we so often fall short of our goals of being more self-controlled, Dyck also helps explain how we can get better. He goes well beyond the usual Sunday School response: read the Bible, pray, and attend more church. These are all a part of the formula, but without a little more meat on the bones, such admonitions leave us asking why we haven’t gotten any holier in the past decade.

The basic formula laid out in Your Future Self Will Thank You is that we need to incrementally build new habits. Dyck sifts through research that shows that the problem with most of our self-improvement attempts is that we try to change too much too quickly and without the appropriate incentive structures. Dyck uses recent scientific research to show that will power is a finite resource. It can be developed over time. However, our self-control is subject to fatigue. When we are tired, stressed, or distracted we are much more likely to fail in our attempts at self-control. Not coincidentally, this happens to match what Scripture teaches. This is why Sabbath is built into the pattern of Scripture. This is why Proverbs focuses so much on patterns of life.

Interspersed with the explanations of why we fail, Dyck has included helpful steps to begin to develop better habits. His examples tend to focus on things that should matter to us as Christians: physical health, stronger prayer lives, more consistent Scripture reading. This is a long way from self-help book designed to unlock ten secrets to build a better you. This is a book that can help provide practical mechanisms to get Christians to develop better habits that lead us toward holiness.

Dyck’s book will benefit those who already have a good understanding of spiritual disciplines. For those that don’t, it should be paired with a book like Andy Davis’s, An Infinite Journey: Growing toward Christlikeness or Don Whitney’s, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. In fact, Dyck’s book fills out some of what is absent from traditional books on spiritual growth because it helps explain why we fail and what, practically, we can do to fail less.

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

The Christian Mind - A Review

I picked up Harry Blamires’ 1963 book, The Christian Mind expecting to find an early entry into some of the worldview dialogues that have unhelpfully afflicted certain corners of conservative Christianity. While I still believe the term worldview can be helpful, it has, in certain circles, been coopted by a technique of applying simplistic categories and teaching people to argue against them as a way of apologetic debate. The result of that reductionistic development has been largely unhelpful in developing Christians and evangelizing the lost. However, thankfully, The Christian Mind is a robust appeal to a thick Christianity that resists the corrosive influences of secularism.

Blamires begins the book by diagnosing the problem: there are too few Christians who think distinctly from the secular world. The church, by and large, has a few bastions of thought and topics but no recognizable network of integrated thinking. Thus, the book opens up with a striking declaration: “There is no longer a Christian Mind.”

He explains that there are Christian influences in the world and that there are differences between elements of the Christian life and the world: “There is still, of course, a Christian ethic, a Christian practice, and a Christian spirituality.” As important as these things are, however, they fall short of the all-encompassing, unifying beauty of the Christian mind. On the whole, Christians have been better catechized to think like the modern world than as biblically saturated Christians.

According to Blamires, there are six marks of the Christian mind: (1) Supernatural Orientation; (2) Awareness of Evil; (3) A Unified and Concrete Conception of Truth; (4) Acceptance of Authority; (5) Concern for the Person; and (6) A Sacramental Outlook.

Each of these categories must be expanded and filled with explicitly Christian meaning, but the outline is helpful. Someone who denies the possibility of miracles and the truth of at least the miracle of the resurrection cannot be meaningfully Christian. A person who denies the reality of sin and evil cannot know repentance for their own sin, and thus cannot be a Christian. One who believes truth is subjectively determined and that there is not objective truth cannot be said to be Christian in any serious way. An individual who cannot abide the authority of Scripture and, to some degree, of the traditional theology of the Church, cannot be counted a member of those who think as a Christian. Those who do not value people as individuals and show concern for their spiritual and physical well-being do not show the marks of a Christian mind. And, finally, those that deny the goodness of creation are not thinking like Christians.

To be clear, one can fail at some of these categories and still be in Christ, though there are categories that are necessary for salvation. Blamires’ point is not to figure out who is and who is not a Christian, but rather to point out the characteristics of a mind that is shaped by authentic Christianity.

It would be a mistake to consider these one at a time, as well, since a broader emphasis of the book is the unity of the Christian vision of the world. But it is a unity that has at least these six attributes.

Blamires’ vision of the Christian mind is worth recovering, because he is calling Christians to think more faithfully and consistently. It would be a beautiful thing for Christians to lead the world in promoting beautiful art, thoughtful fiction, and an illuminating critique of the world around us.

An interesting facet of Blamires’ depiction of the Christian mind is that he does not argue for unanimity on prudential arguments. The Christian mind transgresses thought categories that we typically apply, like “liberal” or “conservative,” and individuals who are embodying the Christian mind fully may arrive at entirely different conclusions based on their reasoning.

In fact, the book is highly critical of those who think politically rather than as Christians first, he writes, “They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are wholly determined by political allegiance.” But, he also notes that even in 1963 it was difficult to find a conversation about the issues that matter that was truly Christian. Blamires is highly critical of the supposed virtue of loyalty, as a result of this thought pattern:

Loyalty may be said to be evil in the sense that if any action is defended on the grounds of loyalty alone, it is defended on no rational grounds at all. “I do this out of loyalty to my party” is irrational and amoral unless is it consequent upon, “My party is operating wholly and in every particular for the benefit of the human race.” “I do this out of loyalty to my leader” is irrational and amoral unless it is consequent upon, “My leader’s character, or purpose, or policy, is such that it ought to be supported.” Loyalty is in itself not a moral basis for action. Loyalty to a good man, a good government, a good cause, is of course a different matter. But in these cases, where one stands by a man, or a government, or a cause, because it is good, one is standing by the good. The basis of action in these cases is moral in that one is serving the good; and thus the concept of loyalty is redundant. One can therefore say fairly that whenever the virtue of loyalty is quoted as a prime motive or basis for action, one has the strongest reason for suspecting that support is being sought for a bad cause.

The book is filled with this sort of clear reasoning, which makes it helpful and worthwhile, especially in our turbulent times of constant chatter and questionable allegiances. This is the sort of volume that should remain in print and be read widely and deeply by Christians seeking to live faithfully for Christ in our present world.

For the Life of the World - A Review

Miroslav Volf is a theologian that is always worth reading. Even when his conclusions are disputable, they are typically drawn from careful reason and charitably expressed. His latest book, coauthored with Matthew Croasmun, is no exception.

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For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference takes a critical look at the discipline of theology and how that field of study often misses the mark. In particular, the authors are critiquing the all-too-common reduction of theology to a cloistered, academic exploration. The thesis of this book is that theology ought to be done for the good of the world.

This book uses the term theology to refer to a range of disciplines that includes systematic theology, biblical theology, biblical studies, ethics, and other disciplines that naturally belong in a seminary or a divinity school.

In part, this book is another reflection on the shallow mind of our age. Too many people expend their numbered days chasing after frivolous goals without asking what is worth striving for. Volf and Croasmun argue that there is such a thing as “the good life” and that the function of theology is to explore what that looks like and communicate it to others.

However, theology is in a sort of existential crisis, as are many academic disciplines, because it has become more interested in scholarly navel gazing than fulfilling the purpose for which the theology was originally designed.  For some, theology has become a pure science that is studied for its own sake. Other see theology primarily as a means of gaining power and advocating for their favored groups. When these things become the primary goal of theology, they distort its actual purpose, which is to explore God and discover truth about the world.

The authors explore major themes in theology, including the study of God, redemption, etc. There are many valid themes for theology, but Volf and Croasmun argue that, ultimately, the main theme of theology should be human flourishing and should lead to “robust descriptive work oriented toward an actionable, livable normative vision of human flourishing.” This seems an honest and helpful assessment, since orthodoxy and orthopraxy are both essential attributes of the proper Christian life.

By making claims to truth and particularity, Volf and Croasmun leave the door open for criticism they are insufficiently broadminded. However, they take on this anticipated criticism by noting that pluralism is, to some degree, a desired end, since true faith is not social conformity by a personal response to the goodness of God. In addressing this topic, they open up the most interesting point for debate. They argue that the Christian life is improvised like an ellipse around two foci: Christ and one’s vocation and location. They state that there are multiple different ellipses that can develop that are all “valid” and that flourishing Christians will look differently based on a different vocation and location.

To a certain degree this is unquestionably true. The life of a first century Christian will, without doubt, look radically different from our own in a number of ways. The way faithfulness is demonstrated will vary based on circumstances. Even between contemporaries, there will be differences. For example, my wife’s faithful Christianity will look different than mine due to our different vocations. At the same time, Volf and Croasmun offer an analogy without noting that the goal of the Christian life should be to make our orbit as circular as possible. There may be multiple “valid” options for the Christian life, but not all are necessarily equally good.

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In the same chapter, the authors help explain the why some models of Christianity diverge more significantly from Scripture. They represent the relationship between the Life of Christ, which is the source of Christianity, and Ordinary Christians with a series of circles connected by arrows. The error in their model is found by differentiating the Life of Christ from the Bible and arguing that the Life of Christ influences the Bible, the Church, and Theology in different ways. This is a fundamentally flawed picture of theology, since the Life of Christ can only be mediated to the Church and theologians through the Bible, since the Bible is the only valid record we have of the Life of Christ. Volf is orthodox, and often very helpful, but this distinction helps understand why he and, often to a much greater degree, others find it possible to oppose the “True Jesus” to the rest of Scripture. The model leads to the possibility of prioritizing a part over the unity of the whole of the Bible.

The latter chapters of For the Life of the World offer encouragement for the theologian to live a life that reflects his or her theology and focused on helping others to live rightly before God. They more succinctly define theology here as “a way of life seeking understanding.” Such an approach helpfully breaks down the possibility of theology as pure science.  The authors are also careful to anchor their call to theology in a love of God that perceives truth as something concrete that ought to be presumed. Thus, pursuing love, peace, and joy as ends of theology cannot lead to vice indefinitely because these virtues are normed by truth founded in God.

This volume is a helpful book for amateur and professional theologians. Its value can be seen in their concluding sentences: “But though we are theologians for God’s sake, we are not theologians for God’s benefit. God doesn’t need theology. If anyone needs it, human beings do. Let us be theologians for the sake of the life, the true life, of the world.”

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

The Insanity of God - A Review

“Is Jesus worth it?”

That is the question that Nik Ripken’s book, The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected drives his readers to ask. It’s a story that Christians in a Western context should ask themselves regularly, realizing that the costs of following Jesus are so much lower in our context than in many others around the world. Ripken’s book is a reminder of the huge cost so many believers are paying for their faith, and that, without question, Jesus is worth it.

The book begins by telling part of Ripken’s story. He came to Christ as a teenager from a dysfunctional family and immediately felt called to ministry. After attending a Christian college, where he met his wife, Ruth, he landed in seminary. After getting married and graduating, the Ripkens pastored several churches in the United States until they felt an unmistakable call to cross-cultural missions.

Their story is not atypical among young missionaries. They fell in love with the people at their first assignment, but could not remain there. For the Ripkens the problem was a low resistance to Malaria that threatened the lives of the whole family. After spending some years working in one of the black districts in South Africa (prior to the end of Apartheid), they felt called to go someplace where the gospel had not been or, at least, where it was not readily available.

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So, the Ripkens began to serve as relief workers in Somalia during that bloody civil war. This opened Nik’s eyes to the horrific persecution meted out on Christians in many Muslim nations. When the Ripkens lost a son, in part due to lack of sanitation and adequate medical conditions, it led them to ask that fundamental question: “Is Jesus worth it?” It also led them to begin to ask questions about how to help Christians undergoing persecution thrive.

Approximately half the book is dedicated to the Ripkens, which is a worthy read. The latter portion of the book focuses on what the Ripkens learned from persecuted Christians.

After a furlough, Nik began to journey around the world to places like the former Soviet Union, where the persecution had just recently been lifted. The stories he tells of the cruelty applied to pastors and lay people are agonizing, but there is an unmistakable power in those stories that remind readers that Jesus is worth any price we could possibly pay.

Then, when Ripken spent time in China and in some Central Asian countries where persecution threatens the daily lives of Christians, the stories of courage, faith, and perseverance emerge with breathtaking clarity and compelling power. Jesus is worth it. These people know it. We too often forget it.

The Insanity of God tells important stories about the persecuted church. These stories do not lead to voyeurism, however. Instead they offer a compelling and convicting call to pray for the persecuted church and to use our freedom to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For American Christians caught in the belief that church is a nice extracurricular activity, or a place where they can go to learn some morals, The Insanity of God is a wakeup call that the gospel is worth any cost. Our primary concern in life should not be when our next luxury vacation is, but how we can more effectively live for the name of Christ.

Scientism and Secularism - A Review

Depending on who you talk to, you may find yourself in a conversation with someone who thinks there is a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity. This typically happens on the fringes of both Christianity and the so-called scientific community. If there is a group of Christians who find science antagonistic toward their religion, it is often (but not exclusively) fundamentalists. And, beyond the realm of actual science, there are secularists the suppose that the information of science fundamentally undermines the tenets of religion.

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Secularists who claim that science undermines fundamental religious claims are not, however, actually proclaiming the superiority of science. Instead, they are presenting a case for what is better known as scientism. According to J. P. Moreland, scientism is “the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of religion.”

In his recent book, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, Moreland argues for a distinction between science and scientism. He also argues that scientism is fundamentally corrosive to society and leads people away from truth.

In popular culture, scientism has overtaken other religious systems as a dominant plausibility structure. In other words, it is how many people make sense of the world around them. Not only does this often displace belief in God, but it undermines the ability of those who hold to scientism to accurately evaluate competing, non-scientistic perspectives that might provide better access to truth.

Scientism has influenced several of the shifts our culture has witnessed in recent decades. The first is that it has taught people that science sums up the totality of accessible knowledge, while religion is blind faith divorced from reality. This myth may help people coexist, but it does much less to encourage the pursuit of truths that cannot be known empirically, much less fairly evaluate those that haven’t adopted the current orthodoxy of scientism.

A second shift caused by scientism is the pursuit of immediate gratification instead of honest pursuit of truth. All the truth that can be known is knowable by science. Scientism claims that all there is in this world is material. Therefore, there are no consequences to pursuing whatever comes easiest to hand.

That leads to the third major shift caused by scientism, which is the adoption of a minimalist ethics. This rejects the idea that there is a good or bad, apart from the apparent benefit or harm measured by surveys, metrics, and calculations. This, of course, leads to bad science, where those who expound the conclusions that naturally and obviously arise from their data can be ridiculed, ousted from tenured posts, and assaulted if their conclusions go against the presuppositions of the mob. If scientism is true, and measured harms provide the evidence of actions to avoid, then what is not measured cannot be wrong.

Moreland is right to note that scientism is a significant problem, and that it is pervasive in our culture. His book rightly shows how fake-science, which is what scientism is, leads to militant secularism. Therefor his book serves as a warning for Christians to identify the influences of scientism, particularly in their own homes, and root them out.

Scientism and Secularism is a book for Christians trying to figure out what is wrong with the world. How have we gotten to the place where there are intelligent people who will argue in public that all decisions must be made based on empirical evidence? Moreland traces some of the influences that led to the current situation, but, more significantly, he explains why scientism is wrong and even self-refuting.

At points this book is a little dense for the average reader. Moreland is communicating some complex philosophical ideas as clearly as can be, but there is a level of complexity in his arguments that cannot be reduced without detriment. This book will most benefit those who have some background and interest in philosophy. At the same time, if a reader is willing to plow through the sections where Moreland is a bit more technical, then there is much to be gained for the educated laity. It offers both warning and antidote to a philosophical movement that is growing in strength and is threatening to displace both sound science and well-formed orthodox Christianity in the minds of many both inside and outside the church.

iGen - A Review

Every decade, it seems, we switch which generation we are concerned about. I don’t remember the criticism of my own generation—I came of age in a time without social media and was too busy doing what needed to get done—but the generational analysis around Millennials with criticisms of their work habits, desire for avocado toast, and general narcissism is recent enough and contested enough to be familiar to most people.

Now, Millennials are approaching middle age. One of them got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the generation is rising to leadership in companies and governments throughout the United States. The generation of participation trophies will soon be in charge and the social experiment (without a control group) continues.

The next generation up, those born between about 1995 and 2012-ish are just now graduating college, so the analysis in the recent volume, iGen, by Jean M. Twenge, has potential to be helpful for pastors, parents, employers, and professors. Every generation is shaped by the environment it was raised and it can be helpful to discover both the influences that formed them and, statistically speaking, the tendencies we should expect to see from them.

The generation that is now reaching what used to be known as the age of adulthood is unique because they have been raised in a world where smartphones are prevalent. Thus, in this constantly evolving experiment we are running on our children, they are the first to have been immersed in social media, constant electronic contact, and the unique influences of having a supercomputer in their pockets all the time. This is a generation—even more so than the Millennials—that will likely never remember when books were the predominate means of research and dissemination of knowledge.

Twenge’s book is, on the whole, much more explanatory than argumentative. She is a social scientist attempting to explain trends without drawing judgment about what is good or bad. The only times she is overwhelmingly positive about the generation is when she discusses their narrow belief that absolute sexual libertarianism is a basic human right and that dissent to radical sexual revisionism are bigoted and must be stamped out. She seems delighted that the generation has little grasp of human history and looks forward to their presumed effect in rooting out religious orthodoxy from society. The only times she is negative is when discussing the effects that technology has had on the mental health of these young people.

Beneath the calm exterior of her writing, there are some trends that should concern parents and, hopefully, cause society to begin to question what we are doing to our children and work to ameliorate some of the damage thoughtless use of technology has brought about. The danger in using research like this is that it describes averages and not the individuals before us. However, as we look at a mass of kids in, say, youth group, or a generation being hired into our workplace, it can be helpful. At the same time, we must keep in mind that the average often does not describe the person in front of us.

On the front of good news, iGen or Generation Z appears to have more realistic views of work than Millennials. As I have witnessed for years, the Millennial generation tended to have higher expectations for flexibility from their employer and lower tolerance for expectations of cooperation, adherence to company policy, and production. According to the data, iGen appears to expect work to be hard and make demands that they will sometimes have to adapt to. Accompanying this trend, iGen appears to have better self-control of finances than the previous two named generations, with an emphasis on savings and modest purchases rather than extravagant pursuit of luxury. Those in iGen generally look for purchases by which they can build their identity, that show they are unique, rather than that they have wealth. Also in the way of positives, iGen tends to me more politically independent. Given the cancer that exists in both major parties, this bodes well for a shift in the political ecosystem. It also helps explain why a large number of iGen voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump—a political outsider—in the 2016 election. They supported independent, socialist candidate Bernie Sanders and, when he was out of the running, either stayed home or supported the other disruptor of the political status quo. We can question the results of their independence in that case, but in general it seems positive they aren’t accepting the poor political offerings we have.

There are also some items that are of critical concern for those who like civilization. Whatever the cause, this generation is highly focused on two competing concerns: atomistic individualism and safety. This is a generation that is getting fewer speeding tickets and getting pregnant less. Those things seem good, but the causes should give us cause for concern. According to Twenge’s analysis, iGen tends to get together less in person and be highly focused on minimizing risk. Girls aren’t getting pregnant as much because they aren’t having sex as much. They aren’t having sex as much because the app-dating ritual has reduced sex to an emotionless pleasure seeking ritual (highly attractive to young males) the outcome of which has been distorted by online pornography. In fact, online pornography is killing the “hook-up” culture because there is little need to actually go through the work of “Netflix and chill” when with a few clicks arousal and masturbation can be had without having to talk to anyone.

Less extra-marital and casual sex seems to be a positive, when considering concerns about STDs, single parent families, and cohesion of society. However, that trend is being achieved by a reversion away from human tendencies toward community and relationship. Twenge cites multiple studies and anecdotes that indicate members of iGen are avoiding even dating relationships until they feel they are absolutely secure financially. This is pushing the age of marriage into the 30s.

By pushing marriage later and later, we also see the rise of a generation that sees childhood extending through the 20s. That is a significant trend cultural commentators like Ben Sasse, Jonathan Haidt, and Twenge are all noting. Socialism is considered more favorable by young people in part because they have come to expect their parents to continue to support them well into what was once expected to be adulthood. Some social scientists claim this is a natural reaction to the rise in life-expectancy, but there are likely other contributors, as well.

iGen has been raised with comfort and safety as paramount concerns. We’ve shifted beyond helicopter parents to bulldozer parents. So, in many cases, iGen has been raised with almost no legitimate difficulties in their lives. In the attempt to squash bullying (a good move in general), society has classified every negative interaction as abuse, thus there is a generation that has rarely had to deal with conflict resolution and working with jerks.

One of the areas Twenge raises concern is in the way that iGen tends to deal with things they don’t like. They tend to seek out and expect “safe spaces”—because emotional safety is of significant concern—and believe that the feelings of individuals trump the rights of others. But they tend to rely on third parties to enforce their whims. Thus, many universities have Stasi-like reporting systems where students can anonymously report professors that offend them. And, as with the highly publicized events at the University of Missouri a few years ago, this generation will demand apologies and destruction of people that are not responsible for things they have determined to be offensive. The reality of the president resigning because non-students off-campus yelled racial epithets at students should concern those who like civilization.

One of the results of this Stasi-like mentality of reporting and attempting to destroy anyone and anything they find offensive through mob forces is the call out culture. Twenge does not cover this in detail, but it is one of the ways that social media has damaged this generation. What she does cover is the fact that iGen tends to be highly engaged on social media in harassing those that disagree with them, but does much less to engage in actual solutions to problems. They raise awareness well, but typically rely on others to enforce their demands. This protects them from real conflict, encountering opposing views honestly discussed, and considering compromise.

There are multiple causes for concern from this generation. Twenge tends to stay upbeat and positive, with a conclusion that seems altogether too perky for the book as a whole.

The most significant contribution of this book is to begin to show readers what smartphones and social media are doing to us as a society and begin to ask realistic questions about a) whether those things are good and b) how we can gain some of the benefits of technology without the negatives. Twenge offers some suggestions about limiting access to social media for teens and pre-teens and limiting electronic devices for young children. The majority of the solution, however, is left to the readers to develop.

Twenge’s book shows that, with respect of traditional forms of humanity, iGen has been damaged by smartphones and social media. Just as it was the adults who handed out participation trophies to Millennials, it has been the adults who have overprotected iGen and given them largely unfettered access to the internet. They didn’t start the fire, so we ought to seek to help them mature, not berate them for our failures.

Society, and particularly the church, need to ask how we will help them grow and mature, develop biblical virtue, and prevent future generations from being harmed by thoughtless adoption of technology.

Them - A Review

Every generation has its share of people lamenting the loss of the good old days. Products were better before. Bread was only 5 cents a loaf. The cent symbol was still on a standard keyboard. People used two spaces after periods.

But at the same time, we are told that history is also fairly consistent and people are generally just people. In a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, the author claims that the ongoing Fortnite craze and the concerns of parents about their children’s excesses are no different than concerns about Pinball back in the early days. These are just fads. People that are concerned about the new thing are just clutching at pearls, and so the world spins on.

What if there really are some seismic shifts going on though? What if something is changing our culture and altering the way people view each other? And, what if some of those changes aren’t making things better?

Ben Sasse’s recent book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, asks some of these basic questions about the increasingly divided America. He’s not arguing that America was once great and needs to be made so again. In fact, throughout he notes many of the ways that America has failed to live up to her founding ideals. But without wishing for the restoration of a mythical past, Sasse does note that there have been fundamental changes in what it means—especially in the ideal sense—to be American.

According to Sasse, who is now a politician, the solution is not political. No election or new law will fix what is ailing the United States. Instead, the solution is found primarily through a restoration of a sense of community.

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If we can trust surveys, we know that people are lonelier now than they were previously. Multiple studies, some of which Sasse cites, correlate the loneliness to the rise of social media and even more significantly, the spread of smart phones. These devices that are supposed to keep us connected all the time seem to be making us less content and desperately disconnected. Add to that the shifts in work, not least of which is the increase of automation, which is replacing a lot of low skill labor, and you have a recipe for dislocation, disorientation, and breakdowns in communities. Sasse describes all of this as a break down in tribes.

Political anti-tribes are rising up to replace the geographic and more heterogenous (at least ideologically) tribes of the past, and they are being fertilized by the merging of politics and entertainment. This is the world that Neal Postman predicted in Amusing Ourselves to Death. But the perpetual IV drip of outrage and often misrepresentation is taking a toll on people’s ability to see others with different views as human. Sasse spends a chapter outlining many of the techniques that news organizations and pundits use to create and spread clickbait, fanning a tiny sliver of devoted followers into an addicted frenzy. His argument is both well-supported and frightening.

It’s no surprise, given Ben Sasse’s attitude toward Tocqueville and ideals that the country was supposed to represent, that he points toward building community and regaining a sense of place as solutions to the virulent divisions of our times. He urges readers to remember what the ideas of our liberal democracy were supposed to fulfill: free debate, opportunity, and a sense of the common good. There have certainly been gains in racial equality and equity between genders, but those gains should not require us to remember what it is supposed to mean to be American and teach our kids why that is important. Part of what will enable us to do that practically is limiting our tech exposure. Get off the continue flood of social media and enjoy the people you are around. Don’t click on clickbait headlines and read books, not just short articles. He commends building into communities and buying a cemetery plot. Find someplace to put down roots if possible. And, since many of have to move for one reason or another, look for ways to connect wherever you guy, find communities that you can become part of, and maintain permanent friendships through regular gatherings.

There is no panacea for the widening schism between our anti-tribes, but there are steps that we can take to begin to mend the rift. There are ways that we can begin to regain a sense of common ground, to build toward a common vision, and to seek the welfare of the city even when we disagree with many of the residents.

Sasse’s book is part of a bigger conversation that is happening and needs to happen. His analysis is solid and he makes a number of important points. As a Christian, he could have spent more time talking about the value of local congregations and the importance of the church being a family. However, all in all, this is an enjoyable volume that would make a good place to begin a discussion, especially between people of different ideological persuasions.

Encountering God in the Psalms - A Review

Most books get reviewed when they are first out, generally within two years. Sometimes, there are classics that people will “review” years afterward, but this is generally a way of introducing people to an older book, with little intent to provide feedback to the author for his next work. This review falls more into the latter category than the former, since the author is deceased, but I make no claims that this book is a classic, merely that it is a worthy piece of scholarship that could be helpful to more than have likely encountered it. It is a book that is useful in building up the body of Christ.

Michael Travers’ most important book is a 2003 volume, Encountering God in the Psalms, which he published with Kregel shortly after he arrived at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, though the majority of the volume was authored while he was at Mississippi College. The book is about reading the Psalms. More specifically, it is about reading the Psalms both for their literary quality and their devotional power. It is in this dual purpose, well executed, that gives this book its unique quality and enduring value.

The first part of the book teaches the reader how to read the Psalms. The first three chapter of the book are dedicated to teaching readers about the nature of poetry, the structure of Hebrew poetry, the concepts of theme, genre, and musical quality. While the book is focused on a particular subset of poetry, there is a great deal of general wisdom in these chapters that teach the reader how to read poetry better.

Part Two is longer, consisting of ten chapters that walk the reader through reading select Psalms. The section begins by presenting Moses’ encounter with God as a narrative exemplar that shows the setting that is, to some degree, present for all of the various authors of Psalms. The remaining chapters deal with Psalms that are sorted by theme. Travers moves through Psalms grouped under headings that consider God as creator, covenant maker, Messiah, redeemer, way of wisdom, and other themes. Each chapter shows how the method for reading the Psalms laid out in Part One can be applied to Psalms that fit those themes.

This is a useful book because it is a book that points people toward something beyond itself or the author. In this way, Travers is much like C. S. Lewis. When Lewis wrote he was always trying to get people to see where he was pointing. In this case, Travers is pointing people through his own work toward that Psalms that are, in turn, pointing people toward the Triune God. This is, therefore, just the sort of book that will help people become better Christians.

Michael’s early research was on the devotional poets, especially John Milton. His skill with poetry comes through in this book as he brings readers to a deeper appreciation for the power of language through poetry. This is the sort of book that will shape the mind by equipping it for later study. It is not a flashy volume, but its chapters are filled with solid wisdom.

Encountering God in the Psalms is a book that will most benefit those who love Scripture and want to learn more about God through his word. It is the sort of book that requires diligence and careful reading of the text of Scripture alongside its own pages. However, it is also a book that will sharpen the reader, deepen their love for the Psalms, and likely point them to a deeper understanding of the God who inspired the psalmists. It is, in fact, a book that many pastors should pick up and that lay people should aspire to.

Encountering God in the Psalms
By Michael E. Travers

Note: This volume will be discussed in greater detail in an essay in a forthcoming volume, The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis: Essays in Honor of Michael Travers (Wipf and Stock, 2019).

Ten Significant Books from 2018

Unlike many other recent years, much of my reading this year has been in older books, particularly those of C. S. Lewis because I have been writing on Lewis and editing a volume about him. However, there are still quite a number of recent books that I read in 2018 that are worth recommending. This post is a list (in no particular order) of the ten books that I reviewed that I believe to be the most important and helpful of 2018.

The links in the bullets below go to longer reviews that I wrote for the books.

1.       Disruptive Witness – Alan Noble’s book, which released this spring, is one of the best and most significant books I’ve read in a while. Noble really gets contemporary culture and his diagnosis of the dangers of our consumeristic approach to identity are spot on. If you haven’t read this book, you should consider picking it up.

2.       On Reading Well – If you love reading, you’ll likely enjoy this book. English professor, Karen Swallow Prior, leads her readers through a number of significant works of literature to show how reading carefully and consuming quality literature can morally form us. The book is good on its own, but would make for an excellent introduction and companion through a lot of classic literature.

3.       How to ThinkIt can be hard to navigate the online world with its diversions and distractions. Add to that the contentiousness of so many issues and the supposed anonymity of the internet and you have a recipe for losing one’s Christian character. Alan Jacobs offers a concise guide to thinking well in a crazy age. This is a book that is intended more for general rather than Christian audiences, but could benefit those inside the church a great deal.

4.       Superheroes Can’t Save You – Theology isn’t always fun reading, but Todd Miles proves that it can be in this excellent book on Christology. Miles critiques a variety of Christological heresies by showing how those heresies are like comic book heroes and why those images fall short of the true nature of the Son. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even as someone who isn’t a huge comic fan, and see great potential for its use in training up a segment of the Christian population that can be hard to reach.

5.       The Year of Our Lord 1943 – Alan Jacobs makes a second appearance on this list with a book that examines the work of several Christian humanists in Britain around World War II. This was a pivotal time in Western culture, as the Axis powers threatened the existence of so many. In response to the threat to society, many of the offered solutions—particularly socialism and communism—seemed to be as dangerous. Jacobs follows these thinkers as they explore what it means to be human and how to help others become more human.

6.       They Thought They Were FreeThis is not a new book, but it was republished in late 2017. They Thought They Were Free offers a journalistic approach to the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews in Germany. The story that Mayer unpacks is revealing simply because it shows that the Holocaust was made possible by an incremental drift toward antipathy. Busyness and misinformation also played a significant role. There are too many parallels for our day to pass this book by without giving it a careful read.

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7.       The Character Gap Christian Miller has written an excellent summary of the need for and ability for people to improve their characters. Science is beginning to support the truth Christians have held to for millennia: people can develop character. Miller’s book is intriguing for a number of reasons, but it offers a helpful portal into the discussion of moral character that is increasing in secular circles.

8.       Living Wisely with the Church Fathers – Christopher Hall is an expert on patristics and this book brings his knowledge to bear in an outstanding treatment of early church history, particularly the history of ethics. What Hall shows is that many of the character concerns orthodox Christians have maintained (at least until recently) are consistent with the historic beliefs of the church. In other words, contemporary evangelicals aren’t the first group of Christians to be actively concerned for the life of the unborn.

9.       Faith Among the Faithless – This book is a study of Esther that helps contemporary Christians navigate a world that is hostile to authentic faith. Mike Cosper does a great deal to enhance readers’ understanding of the book, debunking a fair number of myths along the way. This is a helpful companion to a study of Esther because Cosper works to explain the context and translate it to contemporary examples.

10.   Practicing the King’s Economy In a crowded field of “faith and work” books, this volume is the combination of theory and practice that the church needs. Holt, Rhodes, and Fikkert honor the power of the free market to bring about justice, but also point toward the need for more than just a free market. The lessons on why Christians need to be concerned for our neighbors are followed closely by examples of how that concern can be worked out in the context of faithful Christianity.

Whether you are looking for a Christmas gift for someone this year or trying to plan your reading for the year ahead, these are some of the recently published books that I found especially helpful this year.

The Storm-Tossed Family - A Review

Families are under attack and the only hope for them is to be reshaped by the cross of Christ.

That might sound like a reactionary statement, which could be accompanied by a decline narrative and commentary on how much worse things are today. However, as a central idea of Russell Moore’s recent book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, he provides evidence that the family has always been critical and has always been a spiritual battle ground.

Moore writes, “Family can enliven us or crush us because family is about more than the just the life cycle of our genetic material. Family is spiritual warfare.”

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The spiritual importance of the family is made evident in the pages of Scripture. Even before one of the Ten Commandments anchors the family in the very character of God, we read of Satan’s attempt to disrupt the first family by tempting Eve to sin. Shortly after that we read of one brother killing another out of jealousy. The Bible is clear that the family is a focal point for satanic attack and that the disruption of the family is one of the clearest evidences of sin in the world.

Logically, we must ask why that is.

Again, Moore helps to explain, “The family is one of the pictures of the gospel that God has embedded in the world around us. Through a really dark glass, we can see flashes in the family of something at the core of the universe itself, of the Fatherhood of God, of the communion of a people with one another.”

The balance of the volume explores the nature of the family, the corrosive ideas that are negatively impacting our families, and offers a better vision for the good of the family.

The Storm-Tossed Family is reasonably comprehensive. After introducing the concept of family being spiritual warfare Moore begins by identifying points where contemporary culture conflicts with a cross shaped vision of the family, tearing down mistaken ideas and offering a better version of the family.

This process begins with Moore’s affirmation that the Kingdom of God is the primary concern of Christians, not the family. Here he is debunking the dangerous idea that the function of the church is somehow social or political—to preserve the nuclear family—rather than spiritual.

The most important distinction in that important, but secondary, concept of the family is that the family is a picture of the gospel, not the gospel itself. No one comes to Christ because they see a strong nuclear family. They come to Christ because they recognize their need for a savior and the hope that he offers.

Additionally, Moore deconstructs one of the ongoing myths of Christian sub-culture by reminding readers that the church is a family. Thus, the hyper-territorial parenting styles that are a fairly common occurrence in children’s church and the preference of “family time” over church activities in all or most cases represents a deviation from the pattern outlined in Scripture, particularly the New Testament.

Subsequently, the place of singles in the body of Christ becomes less questionable. No longer is the local church projected as a way to support the nuclear family in a hostile world. It does that, to be sure, but the primary purpose is to be a family to exemplify the gospel. Thus, singles are an integral part of the body, not a loosely attached appendage consigned to a class of misfits on a Sunday morning.

The themes that Moore tracks down are plentiful, and the above paragraphs provide just a few examples. He also delves into human sexuality, pointing out where the church has conceded a great dal of ground to the world around—we are, as Moore has argued frequently, often simply slow-moving sexual revolutionaries. As long as we are a few decades behind society, we feel like we are being sufficiently conservative. The point, however, is not to be conservative per se, but to be biblically faithful.

The Storm-Tossed Family is an important book for our age. Moore manages to highlight errors prevalent in even the most theologically orthodox churches while holding firm to the positive patterns of family that are indicated (though rarely exemplified) in Scripture. The connection between the gospel and proper function of the family is, without question, the central theme of this book.

The good news in this book is the good news: Christ came to redeem us from our sin. One of the most affirming and reassuring anecdotes in this book is of a man, realizing he had failed often and significantly as a father, being told that Christ would redeem his failures. The message is not that it is ok to fail, as if all the wrong we do will be undone, but that in Christ all things will work together for good. Repentance is real, powerful, and effective. God doesn’t change the past, but he will redeem it through the blood of Christ. That is the sort of hope that all of us imperfect people need to hear about.

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