Amusing Ourselves to Death - A Review

Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, is an assessment of the shifts in Western culture since the advent of modern communication technologies. This is the sort of book that was prophetic in its day and, although somewhat dated, still communicates significant warnings to readers now.

Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985, during the Reagan presidency. It certainly does not escape Postman’s notice that the ascendency of an actor to the highest political office supports his point that entertainment has become the central purpose of American culture, though that fact is more a capstone illustration of the book’s greater point than the central argument of concern.

What Postman notes, however, is worth paying attention to. His central premise is that the medium is the metaphor. This is an intentional deviation from Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan that the medium is the message.

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Postman’s clarification is helpful, since it separates the content of the message from vehicle that carries the message. In other words, the facts of the news are the same (if written well), but the secondary signals created by the means that the news is transmitted also shape the reception of the news.

For example, Postman notes that prior to the invention of the telegraph, most newspapers focused almost exclusively on local news. The telegraph sped up the spread of national and international news, so that information could be had within minutes rather than days or weeks. The change was not wrought overnight, but the shift of concern from local issues to global ones has completely overtaken us today. Notably, it is much easier for me to find out about the personal lives of political leaders across the globe than to find out what the local city council is talking about.

Not only has news changed, but education has changed. Instead of doing the long, hard work of training minds, much of our educational methodology has shifted to entertainment. Postman notes that Sesame Street is a prime example of this, though certainly neither the worst nor the only platform that does this. According to Postman, whatever good is done by teaching through entertainment is undermined as it forms the learning human to expect education to be exciting. Thus, the endurance to learn and slog through difficult tasks has been diminished by the medium that is very effective in achieving short term gains.

It would be easy to claim that Postman was merely clutching at pearls, if the evidence did not point overwhelmingly toward the aggravation of the problems he identifies.

The point is not that technology is bad, but that technology is most effective if it is used in a particular manner. As a result, it is most commonly used in its most suitable manner, which shapes the media consumer in powerful ways. The efficacy of each medium to convey certain parallel signals effortlessly alters people’s epistemologies.

(Epistemology is the study of the way that people know things. Whether or not we know how to spell it, everyone has an epistemology.)

Not only how we acquire information but how we know is shaped by how information is received. Media is forming our minds to perceive in particular manners.

We need look no farther than click-bait internet articles to see that Postman is correct. There are entire companies that feed off of deceptive headlines that declare one thing in their headline and argue something entirely different in the body of the article. Even news sources that are still considered credible have recognized that few people read beyond the headlines and those who do are unlikely to get past the perspective that the headline has already presented, whatever the evidence is that runs to the contrary.

The reshaping of epistemology is radically important, even more so now than it was in 1985. Our elections have been tampered with by agents from other nations who spread misinformation with just enough truth to cast doubt. Our news sources have recognized this, along with the inability to discern opinion from fact in most of the population, and thus they have largely abandoned anything like an attempt at objective reporting because getting their constructed truth out is more important the facts. Additionally, with the wide array of “news” shows of varying degree of accuracy and political leanings available all 168 hours each week, the presentation of information has to be even more entertaining than before. In our current milieu, there appear to be a fair number of people that get their news through comments on social media rather than any legitimate news source (regardless of its bias). So, the cycle continues and the hole gets deeper.

Postman’s warning is an important one. It may even be easier to accept now that a quarter of a century has passed and the challenges have morphed.

Lacking from Postman’s analysis is an answer the for the disease that ails us. He’s standing athwart history yelling “STOP,” but does not provide a solution.

The truth is that there is no easy solution, and that the simplest solution (i.e., turning everything off completely), is unworkable because we and our children would be functionally disconnected from so much of society. However, we have to figure out a way to throttle the flow, learn how to think and exist without electronic devices, and recover some of the humanity that is being eroded with every flicker of our many screens.

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Wisely with the Church Fathers
By Christopher A. Hall

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

The Morals of the Story - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Financial Contentment in an Age of Wealth

I recently read a book about the financial habits of a sampling of American families. In a year-long study, a research team followed the economic lives of real families through a series of interviews and financial diaries.

The book exposes the reality of the income instability many households face. Even families with incomes in the mid- to upper-five figures expressed concerns about their financial security due to fluctuations in their income and expenditures.

The case study that struck me as most illustrative of the behaviorally driven portion of the problem was the story of a couple names Sarah and Sam. They had a combined income of about $65,000 in the year of the study, both had regular jobs, but still struggled to make ends meet and failed to pay many of their bills on time. There was no huge crisis that could explain their difficulties.

The authors of the book were careful not to express judgment, but it is clear from the case study that the problem in this situation is not the economy, the employer, or the system. It is with the people making the day-to-day decisions.

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Before going on, let me offer the qualifier that there are many circumstances in which poverty or financial insecurity are driven by injustice or simply by events outside of the individual’s control. Financial struggles are not always the result of moral failure of those struggling.

Those that are truly poor often lack the social network and other resources to improve their situation without external intervention. I’m not kicking the lame person and telling them to walk.

However, in the case of Sarah and Sam, they were dragging their own cloud. They earned $65,000 but had convinced themselves that life would be better if they only spent a few thousand more each year. That is the case for a lot of people.

Poverty vs. Insecurity

The reality is that a lot of people suffer from financial duress unnecessarily because they lack the discipline and/or knowledge to make better choices.

For example, I knew of a couple with two incomes that were somewhere near the six-figure mark (one above and one, I think, slightly below) who spent more each month than they made and had marital strain because of it. There was definite insecurity in this situation, but it was entirely self-induced.

The couple from Financial Diaries with a $65,000 in income, no savings, and overdue bills had dug their own hole and were suffering because of it. They didn’t need a government program as much as a lifestyle change that involved making better decisions.

Poverty is almost always accompanied by insecurity. However, insecurity can come at any income level.

The First Step

One of the biggest problems in our consumeristic society is that people want to be rich. In reality, by historic and global standards, the vast majority of Americans are already rich. But many people want to live like the uber-rich. They want luxury upon luxury in a never-ending stream of comfort.

Unfortunately, luxuries don’t feel like luxuries once you get used to them.

If you had lived in the Southern U.S. in the nineteenth century, you would have suffered through oppressive heat in the summers. Luxury was having ice available and the ability to sit in the shade on a porch designed for cross breezes. Now we’ve got air conditioning, which is wonderful. However, it isn’t enough to knock the temperature down to 78F, there are people who want their house at 65F in the summer when it is 90F outside. If it gets above 70F, then people act like it’s a hardship. If the AC breaks, then it is an emergency. In reality, any artificial cooling is a luxury, but it doesn’t feel that way once you get used to it.

The first step in fixing a lot of personal financial problems is for people to learn to be content.

In his letter to the young pastor, Paul warns Timothy about the dangers of loving money and continually desiring to have more:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. (1 Tim 6:6-11, ESV)

If you are reading this blog post on your tablet, smartphone, or desktop computer, you have likely already far exceeded the basic standard of living commended by Paul. In fact, if you are like most of us in the developed world, you’ve got a closet full of clothes and a week’s worth of groceries in the kitchen.

That should be enough.

But for most of us it isn’t.

In reality, most of us live lives of abundant resources, but we always want more. Like the family making $65,000 each year, we think that if we could spend like we make $72,000 it would be just a little better. And the credit card companies allow us to do that. Then we end up behind and stressed.

What we need to do is learn to be content on a fraction of what we make, to enjoy the luxuries that we have, and to celebrate God’s secure provision for us in this life. After all, Paul’s bar for contentment is low.

The consequences of our quest for more are real and often readily apparent. For Sarah and Sam, they had to play a complex juggling game to keep the lights on and keep up appearances. Because they wanted more than what they had they “pierced themselves with many pangs.” The wounds were largely self-inflicted. Let us avoid that trap.

More Gospel, Please

“A little more gospel, please, sir.”

That’s what we should say all day, every day. But we don’t.

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We sometimes forget that the gospel is not the beginning of the Christian journey, but the sum of the Christian journey.

My tendency—which is one that I observe among other believers, too—is to simplify the gospel to a transactional event where I was gloriously converted from sinner to saint by divine grace through personal faith in the finished, atoning work of Jesus Christ. This is a true account of a portion of the gospel, but it is not the whole of the good news.

An individual’s experience of the gospel begins with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but it ends…well, it never ends. That last bit is as much a part of the good news—the gospel—as the original forgiveness of sins. Both are vital to experiencing a joyful Christian life.

We tend to remember the initial transaction and forget our need for a solid dose of the gospel each and every day. Those who know Christ personally have been saved (Eph 2:8-9), are being saved (1 Cor 1:18), and also will be saved (Rom 5:9).

What exactly does that mean?

It is clear from Scripture that the ongoing and future nature of salvation is not dependent upon our works—whether good, mediocre, or bad.

Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul makes it clear that our works do not contribute to our salvation (Eph 2:8-9) even though we are called to good works because of our salvation (Eph 2:10). This is why James wrote that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-20) The two authors are not disagreeing, but they are making it clear that the gospel seed planted into our souls when we were saved will produce good fruit if it really took root.

Lest I be accused of commending salvation by works, we should note that this helps explain why Jesus seems particularly concerned with the fruit of religious belief. John records Christ’s teaching on this in the 15th chapter of his Gospel, where Christ explains that the sign of conversion—the evidence of the work of the gospel in the lives of the converted—is bearing good fruit abundantly.

It’s that same passage that reminds us that we need more gospel. Jesus reminds his listeners, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear the fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15:3-4)

We need more gospel. We need to abide in Christ. We need to be transformed by the ongoing renewal of our minds, which occurs through intake of God’s special revelation in Scripture and a continual mindfulness of our dependence upon the gospel.

We are priests and kings in God’s kingdom. Because we have been undeservedly granted that status, we should be willing to stand as beggars before him to plead, “Please sir, may I have some more.”

Counter-Consumeristic Christianity

If you’ve been paying attention to the online arguments in the past few years, you’ve probably seen Christians arguing about how we should relate to the world around us. (If you haven’t, it’s okay, but I’m going to write about it anyway.)

Some argue for a form of withdrawal from society to catechize, where we function in distinct communities but still seek to serve the world around us. Others argue we should continue to go about our business on a daily basis and not differentiate ourselves overtly from the world; our presence in society as believers should serve to draw evangelistic interest. Still others have a more overt interest in Christianizing enterprises and doing them openly and overtly for Christ.

All of these are variations on a common theme. All of them are trying to answer a very important question:

“How do we serve Christ faithfully in a world that often actively and passively dishonors him?”

That question is a vital one, but it is too big for a single blog post. However, I argue that a significant part of honoring Christ in our daily lives, no matter our overarching understanding of the place of Christianity in the public square, is becoming Counter-Consumeristic.

What is Consumerism?

Definitions of consumerism vary depending on where you look and who you are asking.

For the sake of simplicity, I will define consumerism as an inappropriate concern for material comfort especially through the pursuit of material goods.

Consumerism is all about the buyer. The goal of consumerism is to buy whatever you need to make you happy.

 Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/Ex0a30jLu5b

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/Ex0a30jLu5b

In its best forms, consumerism leads to a focus on purchasing benefiting the needs of the customer.

However, consumerism is most often evidenced in Western society by acquisitiveness. Particularly in the United States, consumerism tends to be about getting more stuff or having better experiences.

Advertisers spend billions of dollars each year trying to explain why their product will make you happier, thinner, better, taller, prettier, or whatever.

Sometimes advertisers are marketing legitimate products that do offer real benefits. However, often, if someone has to advertise their product heavily, they are selling something you don’t really need.

Consumerism is a mindset that falls into the advertiser’s trap by believing that getting that new thing—whatever it is—will make life just a little bit better. Consumerism is a way of falling into the trap of believing that anything besides Christ is truly fulfilling.

Counter-Consumeristic Christianity

Given my definition, with which you are free to disagree, you can see why I believe consumerism might be something to be resisted.

Others on the world wide web agree with me, and some of those others call for Christians to become minimalists. Minimalists are people who try to own only those items they need right now.

Minimalism is great if you are wealthy and can purchase multipurpose devices and be sure you will have resources to replace broken objects without digging a previous model out of the closet. (This is, incidentally, one of the reasons why hoarders tend to be poor people.)

However, Christian resistance to consumerism is less about not owning objects but examining the reason why we own them.

As Christians, we are called to do everything for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31) This is a truism and often over-quoted (perhaps even here), but in this context, it means that what we purchase and own should be done for the glory of God.

Therefore, owning a car is fine if we do it for the glory of God. Now, the task for the Christian is to explain why purchasing a shiny new sports car with heated seats, built in massagers, and a microwave to replace the serviceable family sedan glorifies God. Or, for another example, to explain why buying a semi masquerading as a pickup truck to haul the boat you use three weekends of the year glorifies God.

Counter-Consumeristic Christianity entails resisting the myth that more is better and that the next purchase will unlock your best life now. It doesn’t mean you can’t purchase objects that you enjoy or that make life easier, but it does cause us to evaluate our priorities. If you can find a way to justify how the sports car glorifies God, then go ahead.

The essence of becoming Counter-Consumeristic is creating an internal filter before spending money that asks, “How will this item, service, or experience glorify God in my life?”

If you don’t have a good answer for that, don’t spend the money. It’s that simple.

Conclusion

There are a couple of practical reasons to become Counter-Consumeristic Christians. First, consumerism often leads to unsustainable spending habits. Second, consumerism often leads to improper environmental stewardship and wastefulness. Third, consumerism often increases the work required to take care of our stuff; it makes life harder instead of easier. These are all good reasons to avoid consumerism.

More significantly, however, I believe that when Christians become consumeristic it sends a clear message that our hope is in something other than Christ.

When the only differences between our lifestyle and the world around us are that we go to a special building on Sunday and don’t swear, it really leaves us with very little real witness.

There’s more to a sanctified Christian life than being Counter-Consumeristic, but it is certainly part of the mix.

The Banality of Systemic Injustice

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

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

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

Who is Arendt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eichmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

Systemic Injustice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

They Thought They Were Free - A Review

Godwin’s law is that the longer an online debate gets, the more likely it is that someone will make an analogy to Hitler. One corollary to the law is that the person who makes the comparison loses the argument.

A reductio ad Hitlerum is a rhetorical device altogether common in internet dialogue used to show someone how they are evil just like Hitler. Adolf Hitler is, of course, one of the few human beings that people can nearly universally agree is the embodiment of pure evil.

But if Hitler was the embodiment of pure evil and the German people put him into power, how did he either trick them or force them to make him the supreme ruler of their nature? Or, more sinisterly, was it that the German people were somehow an evil people themselves who saw Hitler as the embodiment of their nation.

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The third option is helpful wartime propaganda, but unlikely to be convincing in the presence of real, live Germans who may think differently, but who are pretty clearly not the embodiment of evil. This leaves the first two as possible options.

In the late 50’s, journalist Milton Mayer set out to figure out how Germany was led to elect Hitler—even to cheer him on—despite the evil that he embodied. Mayer, an American of German descent and a Jew, went to Germany to spend time with common men in a small town in Germany to figure out how they were duped.

The result of Mayer’s journalistic efforts is contained in the book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. The book was originally published in 1955 but was republished in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press. The volume’s republication is timely as Europe and the U.S. wrestle with the rise of populism in the face of economic difficulty and political destabilization. In some ways, we are living in a period very similar, which means that if we are to avoid (or overcome) the great evil of our age, we must be prepared to learn the lessons from history.

The book is a collection of interviews. They have obviously been edited to focus the reader on what Mayer himself saw, but the portraits he paints of the ten Nazi men that he befriended and interview do not bear the marks of caricature. Though he had every reason to be repulsed by these people who had supported the regime whose crimes are now the most readily useful hyperbole, Mayer presents his subjects sympathetically and, we may presume, fairly. If what he depicts is really true, then we have good cause for concern.

It becomes clear throughout the book that none of the people being interviewed consider themselves bad people—their loss in World War II was an unfortunate reality they were coping with, but even the public discovery of the mass murders in the concentration camps did not convince these men they were culpable for such great evil. Though the world may have viewed Germany broadly as somehow complicit in the extermination of the Jews, homosexuals, and other “unfit” populations, these men clearly do not believe they are criminals.

As the interviews explore the mindset of these Germans leading up to and during WWII, it becomes clear that these people—not to say all Germans—actively supported Hitler’s social program. Hitler solved unemployment, bringing relatively prosperity to a large portion of the population. He helped bring them out of the depths of depression and give them a sense of national pride, even after the stinging defeat and economic reprisals of the Great War. A rising stock market, so to speak, was a bigger concern than the dispossession of a small minority of the population.

The Nazis were unquestionably anti-Semitic. That was in the DNA of the National Socialist party, very clearly written in Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. At first, when the vitriol in Hitler’s book might have been more striking, it was apparently not commonly read. To be fair, how many Americans have really read The Art of the Deal or The Audacity of Hope? Even if those books had alarming theories in them, it would be altogether easy to minimize their implications or ignore their severity, trusting the sluggishness of bureaucratic government to minimize the impact of any excesses of thought.

As it turns out, the people Mayer interviewed were largely indifferent to anti-Semitism or actually anti-Semitic. The culture shaped them to be so, with frequent political rhetoric designed to show them how unjust the economic systems were and how the Jews had taken advantage of the rest of the population. Eventually people started to believe that, so that when the synagogue was torched it did not seem to great a travesty and when the local policeman was given the order to collect his neighbor for relocation and forfeit of his property, it seemed simply logical given. The program of anti-Semitic action was introduced slowly and incrementally so the German people had little sense of outrage at the next “little” encroachment on the lives of their Jewish neighbors, though all the while the kettle was getting hotter.

One of the key elements of the Nazi program was about distracting people from thinking about fundamental concepts like truth, justice, and holiness. As this conversation between a German academic and Mayer illustrate, distraction was part of the program of social change:

You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.

‘Those,’ I said, ‘are the words of my friend the baker. “One had no time to think. There was so much going on.”’

‘Your friend the baker was right,’ said my colleague. ‘The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your “little men,” your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism have us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and “crises” and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the “national enemies,” without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?’ (167-168)

Though the Third Reich replaced Christian belief with a pagan-infused religion with Christian trappings, the religiously devout were led to abandon their faith for German unity. Though their neighbors were displaced and abused, they assented or failed to resist. The intelligentsia and the common man were played by Hitler and his administration—made ineffective—and they allowed it to happen.

This book is powerful. Not primarily because I believe the present administration to be equivalent to Hitler’s, but the social climate seems to be laying the groundwork for a similar horrible power in the U.S. or even in Europe.

We are not to the stage of Germany in the 1920’s, but it is as if we are being groomed for that condition. Our call should be to resist. Not merely to resist the politics of the “other side,” whichever side that might be, but to resist the moral formation that will enable us to countenance the grave, overt, and unforgivable injustices that the Nazis were able to perpetuate. This may require us to put down our phones, read fewer blogs, and contemplate more fundamental things, like hope, love, truth, and faith.

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

12 Rules For Life - A Review

Depending on who you read, Jordan Peterson is either the scourge of the hour or the timely herald of reason crying in the wilderness. Relatively unknown until the last few years, he now has millions of followers on YouTube, more speaking engagements than he can handle, television interviews, and has reached a level of notoriety that only our wired world can manufacture.

His latest book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson offers some self-improvement tips for his readers, but has stirred up controversy with a variegated mess of adulation and castigation from critics.

Peterson as a Cultural Phenomenon

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The reaction to Peterson has been polarized both from Christians and non-Christians. He seems to a sort of Rorschach Test that draws predictable reactions from the same old crowds.

Peterson’s rise to public notoriety came when his resistance to a speech control law in Canada hit the news. He indicated that he would resist the law requiring him to use sexually dysphoric people’s preferred pronouns. This resistance was widely publicized even though Peterson made it clear that his opposition is to the legal mandate of a certain accepted civility rather than a disapproval of transgenderism or even a desire to offed—in fact, he indicated he would use people’s preferred pronouns when they requested.

Normally this sort of resistance to the Zeitgeist comes from people that are quickly exposed as “uncultured,” “boorish,” or “ignorant” by the media. This sort of rejoinder tends to result in being celebrated by one cable news channel, ridiculed by another, and disappearance after a week or so. Even tenured professors like Peterson are usually subdued, squashed, and even fired after expressing cultural opinions like the ones he has offered.

That has not happened with Peterson. Instead, his appeal has broadened, he has weathered the storm, and he continues to have a voice in the public square.

A significant reason Peterson has been able to maintain his position is that he seems uniquely equipped to handle the rhetoric and bustle of our knuckle dragging media culture. In an extremely hostile BBC4 interview, where the interviewer intentionally misrepresents his position repeatedly, he remains calm, corrects her, and even manages to get her to stop and think. Most cultural rebels spontaneously combust in confrontation because they lack the self-control and reasoned care that Peterson demonstrates.

If there is only one thing Christians can learn from Peterson, it is how to manage controversy in this age of garbled communication and bloviating. He manages to hold well-reasoned views publicly and generally not get drawn into shouting matches or bluffed into silence. He communicates clearly and his words are carefully chosen and well-considered.

Of course, his resistance to the identity politics of the left, including his open scorn of some of the pseudo-disciplines in academia like feminist studies and its variants, has made him a darling of a growing, vocal, and toxic group of people on the political right. Some like Peterson because he delivers what they most want—liberal tears.

One danger for Peterson and his fans is getting sucked into the vortex of sewage in the nationalist right and alt-right. These groups are cheering Peterson as a long-awaited hero. This increases the left’s hatred for him and may draw some well-meaning Peterson fans beyond what he seems to intend.

To be clear, based on my reading of Peterson and what I’ve seen of his videos, he does not support the ideologies of nationalists, overt racists, and conspiracy theorists. In fact, he is careful to set limits on what he is and is not saying. However, we’ve so deeply drunk from the well of belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and the friend of my enemy is my enemy that Peterson serves as a scapegoat or talisman for groups that haven’t really considered what his message is.

Peterson and Christianity

The reception of Peterson among Christians has been similarly mixed. Among revisionist Christians who generally accept and promote whatever counter-Christian social mores the culture adopts as a matter of course, Peterson is anathema for not agreeing with them. However, among orthodox Christians, the opinion of Peterson is widely varying.

There is good reason for both positive and negative reception of Peterson’s message. It depends on why Peterson’s message is received and what the recipient is intending to glean.

For example, Peterson’s resistance to the cultural tide of the domination of supposedly oppressed ideologies is helpful. He has showed that it is possible to resist the current manias of our day and yet survive. Also, Peterson seems to be honestly seeking the good of his audience, particularly young men who have been told they are oppressive and evil simply for being men. He speaks with a sort of compassion and in that way represents a good and helpful voice for our time.

On the other hand, Peterson represents a dangerous temptation to some Christians who are more interested in a certain place in society than truly orthodox belief. Peterson is well-versed in Western culture and has a good grasp on the Bible as literature. He interprets the Bible using the methods common among theological liberals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In other words, there is a strong Judeo-Christian ethic and an invigorating call to arms based on the canon in Peterson’s message, but it denies essential elements of Scripture, like miracles, the resurrection, and the supernatural in general. Some Christians may follow Peterson and pick up well-reasoned resistance to cultural tides in some areas while imbibing unhealthy theology in the other—and that error may cause confusion in the pews.

The task for the discerning Christian is to learn what can be learned from Peterson, while resisting the error. This means that pastors and leaders within orthodox congregations should not rush to recommend Peterson’s work to immature believers, because it may be caustic to their faith.

A Review of 12 Rules for Life

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is Peterson’s second book. His first, book Maps of Meaning is a much more academic volume that was released in 1999. Peterson is both a professor and a practicing clinical psychologist, which seems to have previously directed his efforts toward the counseling room rather than the written word.

According to the introduction, this volume sprang out of a post Peterson wrote on a website called Quora, where anyone can pose a question, anyone can answer, and the crowd votes to approve or disapprove the answer. He provided a lengthy list, some serious, some humorous, of responses to the question, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” Peterson’s answer went viral and, after Peterson himself went viral over the political correctness law, he got a book deal that resulted in this volume.

There is nothing earth shattering about his rules, but the reception of this advice indicates he has struck a nerve with people that want to live well, but don’t know how. As a general rule, the advice is pretty good, too.

Most of the “rules” are just good advice: Present yourself well, because you’ll be treated better and have more opportunities. Don’t hang out with people that will harm you and drag you down. Discipline your children appropriately, using the means with the lowest force possible. Stop worrying about everyone else and their problems if your life is in shambles. Tell the truth and do not lie for any reason. Celebrate the joy of life in others, especially kids, as they explore the world around.

Although I would qualify some of the rules Peterson offers, they are generally pretty good advice. For example, one thing I would qualify is that Peterson advocates staying away from people that will harm you. This is good advice to a certain extent, because it keeps people out of trouble. However, it may cause some readers to avoid the sorts of people that most need help and lash out in their confusion. There is plenty of meat in the rules, but the reader must be prepared to spit out a few bones.

I won’t take the time to summarize each of the rules and critique them, since the list from the table of contents fairly indicates the content of each. It is worth discussing the general framework behind the rules.

Peterson’s Philosophical Foundations

Peterson is a Jungian Existentialist. Jung was a contemporary of Freud and generally friendly, but Jung’s philosophy (the underpinnings of his psychology) took a different turn. Instead of focusing on repressed sexual urges and presuming an Oedipus complex in everyone, Jung built on the evolutionary thinking of his day to build a theory of collective human consciousness arising from our ancestral heritage.

The key to understanding both the benefits and dangers of Peterson rest in knowing a bit about Jung. I am certainly no expert, but a quick bout of internet research shows that Peterson has done little more than modernize and popularize some of the core tenets of Jung’s thinking.

Much of the argument in Peterson’s book assumes that proper human behavior is based on a collective consciousness from evolutionary theory. Thus, Peterson defends hierarchy by noting that even relatively simple creatures like lobsters have a hierarchy, therefore humans should anticipate hierarchy in their social orders and reject the notion that there can be a perfectly egalitarian society.

This sort of argument is what angers Peterson’s critics on the left, because to their ears, Peterson affirms the evils of the patriarchy, inequality, and everything they dislike about our current social order. Since Peterson actively rejects the notion that patriarchy, sex difference, and white power are solely responsible for all the ills of this contemporary age, his critics on the left equate his arguments with the Alt-Right, Fascism, and whatever else they happen to hate that day.

It is pretty clear from reading him that Peterson is not arguing for anything like an Alt-Right position, despite attempts to paint him in that corner. His position is much more reasoned and more nuanced. Privilege exists, but this is majority privilege, not specifically white privilege. Therefore, the response should not be to shame white people for their genetic makeup, but to teach people to navigate the power structures to overcome privilege.

On this point, Peterson’s common-sense approach with a hefty dose of personal accountability will be attractive to many conservatives—both Christian and non-Christian. Yet, this is also the point at which Christians need to be the most careful in imbibing or spreading his message because it is entangled in a form of the naturalistic fallacy. Peterson assumes that what is in evolutionary history helps reveal what ought to be, as if humans have reached a sort of pinnacle of development based on everything that has gone before. If absorbed without due caution, such belief can justify a lack of compassion for the poor and the weak who “deserved it” or were simply bound by genetic misfortune to be at the bottom of the heap.

A second point of caution, which also arises from his Jungian foundation, is on the use and truthfulness of myths. In concert with many scholars, particularly German scholars that were his contemporaries, Jung taught that religions were explanatory myths that developed from the collective human experience. Christianity was a more advanced religion, but that is not because it is true, simply because it has more truth encoded in its scriptures and practices than earlier religions.

Such an approach enables Peterson to decode the Bible and other ancient texts to reveal psychological truths that can be applicable today. Christians should be careful embracing Peterson on this count, because he is teaching Enlightenment hermeneutics with an evolutionary twist that ascribe value to the text but deny its supernatural power.

Peterson’s overt and public use of Scripture, however, does show that preachers that believe they need to pull the Bible out of their sermons and not refer to it as authoritative to communicate to people in this day and age are sorely mistaken. It is worth watching some of Peterson’s talks to see how he uses Scripture to make a compelling case for his positions. Teachers should be careful not to adopt the bad hermeneutic, but his method of communication is helpful.

A third cause for caution is the existentialist framework that Peterson brings to the table from his Jungian base. In brief, existentialism relies on the idea that we are making meaning and that our essence is formed by our choices. This is a much better philosophical position than nihilism, which presumes there is no meaning or truth in life, but it is dangerously anthropocentric.

Many of the critiques of Peterson from the left are attacks on his existentialism from nihilists. They have reduced life to a meaningless pursuit of individual power and autonomous individualistic freedom. Therefore, Peterson’s more optimistic—or perhaps stoic—existentialism creates difficulties for them, particularly since Peterson points to meaning not in creating hegemonies to subjugate the presumed powerful under the whims of the self-identified oppressed. Rejecting the oppressive force of the supposedly downtrodden, which Peterson does often, makes him persona non grata in the world of identity politics.

This is exactly the place where Peterson is both most attractive to conservative Christians and the most risky. He is effective at resisting the progressive movement, but he does it for the wrong reasons. Christians can learn from Peterson, but have to be careful to not swallow the existentialism he is teaching. Though there have been Christian existentialists (e.g., Kierkegaard) who are helpful, that epistemology does not entirely line up with Scripture. We are not meaning makers, we discover the meaning that God has already woven into the universe, revealed in creation and, more clearly, in Scripture.

Peterson seems like a hero to many on the right because he is effective in frustrating the bullying of the progressive left. He may be an ally in that cause, and his methodology may be informative, but we should be careful of adopting his whole worldview because it is not one that has been well-formed and seasoned by God.

Conclusion

Church leaders should consider reading this volume and watching some of Peterson’s videos for several reasons.

First, Peterson has obviously struck a nerve with a broad swath of people. Though we should not run after every earthly trend to copycat it, he’s found an audience hungry for meaning and is giving it to them. We should consider how the church can offer true meaning rooted in the cross of Christ.

Second, Peterson is an example of communicating counter-cultural ideals carefully, clearly, and well. His rhetoric—especially his ability to maintain his poise when attacked—is something pastors, teachers, and average Christians will only need more skill at in the future.

Third, Peterson reveals that teaching the Bible in public to non-Christian audiences is not off-limits. He teaches his version of theology with boldness and clarity. We have the better message, let’s see what can be gleaned from his tools.

Fourth, the Peterson phenomenon is fairly well recognized. This book could be the contact point in a deeper conversation leading to evangelism. There will be young men in your church reading and watching Peterson, leaders need to be aware of him to help the flock sort out the good and the bad.

At the same time, Christians should be cautious in rushing to celebrate Peterson too fully. There is a lot of good, but it is wrapped in old time theological liberalism. We can do better. But we have to do better, and Peterson’s advice would be for us to continue to do better. So, let’s do that as we find meaning in the good news of Jesus Christ.

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