The Accidental Social Entrepreneur - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creation and New Creation - A Review

The doctrine of creation has largely been swallowed whole in evangelical and fundamentalist circles by questions of the age of the earth. For example, theology texts like, L. S. Chafer’s Systematic Theology, Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology, and Elmer Towns’s Theology for Today deal with the creation as a question of origins. For Chafer, this discussion is embedded in a chapter about the doctrine of man, rather than in a standalone chapter. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has a chapter on the doctrine of creation, but the questions he seeks to answer are, “Why, how, and when did God create the universe?”

These are not unimportant questions or unworthy of discussion. However, the age of the earth and the exact time that it took God to make something from nothing does not exhaust the depth of the doctrine of creation by a longshot.

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In a recent book published by Hendrickson, Sean McDonough does a masterful job highlighting the importance of the doctrine of creation, especially as it relates to the new creation. He rightly recognizes that God’s first creation project was always intended to simply continue into his future creation project, with ongoing creation (or providence) in the middle.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter One shows how closely the new creation is connected to the account of the original creation. The second chapter deals with the nature of God as creator, since it is vital to understand his nature to recognize the distinctions between him and what he has made. In Chapter Three, McDonough presents various theories why God made the world. In the fourth chapter, the topic of the relationship of time to the created order is considered.

Chapter Five considers the nature of creation ex nihilo, in particular evaluating the relationship of God to his creation. In the sixth chapter, McDonough discusses the influence of Plato’s dualism on the Christian tradition’s understanding of creation. In Chapter Seven, the question of how creation was made is considered. This leads McDonough to consider the place of humans within creation in the eighth chapter. And, in Chapter Nine, the beauty of the world and its value for God and as a testament to God’s goodness comes to the fore.

Creation and New Creation: Understanding God’s Creation Project is largely an expository book. McDonough presents a survey of Christian thinking, digesting theological writing from Irenaeus to Karl Barth. The overall position McDonough presents is well within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, and he handles those on the fringes fairly with appropriate criticism.

The most significant aspect of this book is that it serves as a reminder to Christians that creation is not something that happened at some hotly debated point in the past. Rather, creation began when God spoke all things into existence out of nothing, but it is ongoing as he sustains the world by the power of his word, and will eventually be brought to perfection in the new creation when all things are made new. This has been God’s plan from the beginning and it is so much bigger than an argument over the number of hours in a day, the compatibility of scientific theories of origins, and a discussion of human origins.

Connecting creation to new creation emphasizes the telos of this world. God intended his handiwork of a purpose, and it is trending in a particular direction. His will cannot be foiled. This is a liberating reality. It frees us to delight in the goodness he has created while looking forward to the beauty of the renovated creation, once the sin has been purged. This book is an important one, particularly for evangelicals, seeking to remediate the lack of vigorous treatments of creation in our tradition.

Creation and New Creation is a valuable book. McDonough writes well and demonstrates that he has done extensive research. This is a volume that will be best suited to people with theological training or extensive reading in their backgrounds. Those that are equipped to engage with it will find it well worth their while.

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

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.

A Review of a Commentary on Habakkuk

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There are little tapped wells of wisdom in the minor prophets. For many evangelicals, the twelve short books that come between Daniel and Matthew are “lost books” that AWANA kids memorize the order of but may never hear a sermon from.

Treating the minor prophets as flyover country in our annual reading plans is a huge mistake, as is readily apparent in Heath Thomas’ recent commentary on Habakkuk. With only three short chapters, it might seem difficult to fill over two-hundred pages, but this latest entry in the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary Series never lacks with biblical and theological material to enrich the reader.

Thomas is an Old Testament scholar and the Dean of the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry at Oklahoma Baptist University. He has published several books, focusing on biblical interpretation and material in Scripture dealing with lament and suffering. Habakkuk offers fertile ground for discussing lament, suffering, providence, and faith.

This commentary on Habakkuk uses a method of interpretation known as “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” or TIS. The approach is often caricatured and sometimes unclearly explained by its proponents. However, Thomas’ exegesis of Habakkuk shows TIS at its best: he deals with the biblical data and linguistic research while setting the book in the rich theological and historical context of its interpretation as Christian Scripture. This is a volume that both honors the text and reads it in light of the whole canon and the tradition of faith which has preserved it.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One begins with a lengthy introduction, followed by a chapter on each of the chapters in Habakkuk. The exegesis in these chapters is section by section, as with many biblical commentaries. Part Two consists of three chapters that explore Habakkuk theologically. Thomas delves into the major themes in Habakkuk as they relate to biblical theology, the relationship between the minor prophet’s short book, prayer, and shalom, and finally the usefulness of Habakkuk for spiritual formation. The first portion of this commentary is helpful, but the second part is worth the price of the book alone.

Habakkuk is a book that is worthy of deeper study, as Thomas makes plain. God’s sovereign power is evident as he gives Habakkuk the promise that he will use a rogue nation still not yet a major power to bring his judgment on injustice and eventually fulfill his purposes. Habakkuk shows the expected degree of disbelief and shock at God’s promise to use the Chaldeans. And yet, by the end of the three chapters, the reader sees that Habakkuk has come to a sense of hope in God’s coming justice, even if he himself does not witness it firsthand.

This commentary is academic and will best be used for deep study of the book of Habakkuk. It will be fruitful reading for professors and students alike. Educated pastors will also find this a useful resource to include in their library. Though studying the book of Habakkuk would benefit many lay people, this volume is likely to be too dense for the average person in the pew.

Though it is geared toward an academic audience, the theological discussions Thomas includes in the latter portion of the volume will make this a tool for both sermon preparation and spiritual formation by pastors who choose to invest in this book. By interpreting the volume through a theological lens—a lens that has been formed and smoothed by millennia of Christian teaching––Thomas has written a volume that is spiritually enriching as well as exegetically precise. In other words, Thomas helps the reader to see both what the text of Scripture says as well as why it matters.

This is a book that deserves attention. It would be a welcome addition to the library of an institution or those who engaged in exegesis of texts. Heath Thomas’ commentary on Habakkuk will be a useful tool for decades to come.

On Reading Well - A Review

It is a general rule that when Karen Swallow Prior writes something, you should read it. Her latest book, On Reading Well, is no exception.

In this volume, Prior brings her lifelong interest in literature, which has culminated in her work as a professor of English, and an interest in seeing people–particularly Christians–live ethically.

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Her thesis in On Reading Well is that careful reading of literature forms the human soul. Even books that were not written with a specific moral—and perhaps especially those not written with a specific moral—can be morally formative when the story is well-told. In one sense, we borrow the memories of the characters by living their experiences vicariously when we read carefully.

To carry out her mission, Prior selects twelve books that might find their way on the reading list of university syllabus in any setting, then explores their moral terrain. A clear message from Prior’s curated list is that we can learn from the human condition well explored, whether or not we agree with the theology of the author.

The literary discussions are framed in terms of virtues, with four chapters on the cardinal virtue, three on the theological virtues, and another five on what Prior calls the heavenly virtues. When the virtues are discussed as concepts with their substance filled from contemporary sources, such approaches often fall short of the mark. This structure works and is edifying, in part, because the content of these virtues is filled with substance from the Christian tradition, with influence from classical thinkers who have also influenced Christians throughout the centuries.

I have previously read most of the works Prior covers. In some cases, it has been several decades. There were four chapters on material I have never read (I won’t say which, lest some readers get judgmental.), but Prior’s careful discussion enables even an unexposed reader to gain from the chapters.

Readers will benefit more from the book if they have read all of the literature Prior discusses. Perhaps the most beneficial approach would be to read the particular work of literature just prior to reading each chapter. However, for those simply seeking to grow and better understand how humans ought to live, this book can stand on its own.

At one level, this is a book that teaches readers about ethics. At another level, On Reading Well is a warm invitation into the world of literature. This invitation is extended graciously and unpretentiously.

Reading literature is important for those seeking to really know people around them. This is especially true of pastors and theologians. As a theologian, I have found that my ability to empathize with others, to understand, and to explain hard concepts clearly ebbs and flows based on my reading. One might think this would have primarily to do with the theology that I read, but it has more to do with the literature that I am reading. Specifically, when I am reading imaginative stories (not all of which is quality literature), my imagination is invigorated. I am equipped with clearer illustrations of sometimes complex theological or ethical concepts. Often these are not drawn specifically from the book that I am reading, but simply a reflection of the pattern of thought that comes from reading a good story well told.

Prior taps into the link between the moral imagination and reading. We are formed by what we read and how we read. A subtext throughout this volume is the call to read and think carefully about the books we encounter. This is no guide to chugging through an arbitrary list of supposedly important texts, but a demonstration of the sort of thoughtfulness that should characterize the time we spend partaking of good books.

On Reading Well is enjoyable for its quality as a book in itself. For those who enjoy reading literature, it is a treat worthy of a fireside reading. This has a place in the library of homeschool families, where it shows what close reading looks like and may help some families move beyond the list of reading comprehension questions into discussions about the soul of the literature they encounter. Pastors can benefit from this by exploring thought beyond the bounds of commentaries, the latest non-fiction volumes, and even classical theological works. The church will benefit if the men called to preach are reading good books carefully, even if it does not lead directly to sermon references.

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

Patrick's Corner - A Review

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

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

The Silence of the Poor

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

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

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

The Story

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

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

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

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

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

The Goodness of Work

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Patrick's Corner
By Sean Patrick

Knowing and Doing the Will of God - A Review

One of the most common questions that I’ve had to answer as a Sunday School teacher has been, “How can I know God’s will?” This is, after all, one of the central questions of ethics. Christian ethics especially is centered around the idea that some actions glorify God and others dishonor him; some are sinful and others are sanctifying. This includes actions that Scripture clearly authorizes or prohibits (i.e., generosity and worship), but it also includes subjective situations that involve unique and personalized circumstances (i.e., should Sally marry Johnny or should I take this job).

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I’m pleased to say that a new, concise resource to help Christians answer this question has recently been published by David Jones, an ethicist at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This volume is the product of a course he has taught multiple times to a variety of audiences, so it represents thinking that has been stretched, tested, and refined.

His book, Knowing and Doing the Will of God, is a concise, practical introduction to this vital activity by Christians of every age. Though this has come from a seminary course, Jones has written a book that is accessible to the average person in the pew. He manages to provide both a theoretical foundation and practical framework in under 100 pages.

After a brief introduction, this volume contains an additional five chapters. Chapter Two provides examples from God’s word of people discerning God’s will. He also shows how some of the examples in Scripture are not positive and offers background information about pagan practices for knowing the will of the gods, many of which are still with us today.

Chapter Three critiques some of the most prevalent means of attempting to know God’s will that are often advocated among Christians today. Jones writes, “Advocates of the contemporary view teach that since an individual will of God for Christians is presently hidden and unknown, it must be discovered over time by every believer in order to progress in spiritual maturity and to flourish in the Christian life.” (34) In other words, God has a special plan for your life and your task is to decode the secret plan that he’s got in mind for you. Jones debunks this approach, which is liberating as he puts the reader on to the main purpose of the Christian life: to pursue holiness and thereby glorify God.

Chapter Four outlines what Jones calls the Traditional View, which is evidenced throughout most of Christian history, especially in the Protestant tradition: namely, reading Scripture and applying that to life. Recognizing common objections to that view, Chapter Five deals with questions relating to prayer, the Holy Spirit, and Christian liberty in relation to knowing and doing the will of God. The volume concludes in Chapter Six, with encouragement to pursue basic Christian disciplines that will aid believers in knowing God’s will and acting upon it.

David Jones is an exceptionally clear and careful writer. He has published a number of books over the past two decades that are all thoughtful, well-researched, and accessible to modern readers. This volume is no exception. Knowing and Doing the Will of God is a useful volume that will benefit the church.

This is the sort of volume that belongs on a pastor’s shelf for loan to his congregants and on church resource shelves for sale to people who honestly long to serve God faithfully, but aren’t sure how to get from that desire to practical action. Knowing and Doing the Will of God would also make a helpful resource for a small group or Sunday School study. I was pleased to be asked by Jones to endorse this book, and I’m pleased to commend it to you as a resource for your personal or congregational benefit.

NOTE: I received a pre-publication copy of this volume with a request to endorse. I did so because I believe the contents are helpful and sound, not on the basis of the gratis book.

The Unreformed Martin Luther - A Review

There is no time like the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to read up on Martin Luther’s life and legacy. In the midst of the plurality of celebrations and denigrations of Luther, there are dozens of myths, incubated over the past five centuries, that portray the man as much greater or much worse than he actually was. Some of them have even found their way into discussions of Church History through reputable sources.

Andreas Malessa’s book, The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Serious (and Not So Serious) Look at the Man Behind the Myths, is an honest attempt to bust some of the myths that have helped make Luther’s legacy larger than life. Some of them are confirmed while others (some of the most fun ones) must be consigned to the dust heap.

Among the many topics covered in the twenty-five chapters of this volume are Luther’s famous quote about planting an apple tree, even if he knew the end of the world was coming. (Not true.) Or, that Luther was consistently a heavy drinker by his culture’s standards. (Also not true.) Similarly, Malessa takes up the idea that Luther’s best theological thinking came while he was relieving himself. Alas, this, too, must be set aside as a myth that is just true enough to be believable.

The common theme of many of the myths is that they are usually not too far from the truth. Luther did drink beer and sometimes joke about getting drunk. However, in a world where the water was of questionable purity, beer was probably a safer bet. Luther was certainly constipated and wrote to his friends of the miseries caused by a diet with too little fiber, but the idea that his theologizing was tied to his bathroom habits was fomented by his foes to discredit his work.

Malessa also takes on some of the other basic historical misconceptions around Luther. He never wanted to start a new denomination. He did, sadly, fall into putrid anti-Semitism in his later years, though not in quite the way it is sometimes portrayed. He actually wasn’t the first to translate any of the Bible into German. The brief volume does good historical work in setting some of these myths to rights, too.

Christians should be known as people of truth, which makes The Unreformed Martin Luther a welcome addition to the host of volumes on the Reformation. It will certainly not appeal to everyone in every local church, but it has a place in the library of seminaries, Christian schools, and those interested in Church History.

A book like this would make an interesting auxiliary volume in a course focused on the Reformers. It also is an entertaining read for those who enjoy a bit of Church History after a hard day’s work. The chapters are concise, the prose is lucid, and the subject matter is entertaining. Reading this book is a fun way to spend a few hours.

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

Just Capitalism - A Review

A lot of public debate about economics deals in caricature, particularly of capitalism. Critics of markets tend to argue that it is fundamentally unjust and based primarily on greed.

Some beneficiaries of capitalism tend to sheepishly agree with the injustice of the system but either shrug their shoulders because they feel they can’t change it or support it anyway because they like the prosperity that comes through the market system.

Brent Waters takes a significantly different approach. He writes,

My principal contention is that globalization is the only credible means at present for alleviating poverty on a global scale. Consequently, a well-ordered global capitalism is compatible with such core convictions as the preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing. To be naively anticapitalism is thereby to effective opt against the poor and diminish human flourishing. Therefore, an ethic of globalization necessarily entails a defense of capitalism.

This is, in fact, why I am pro-markets and anti-socialism. No economic system is perfect because they all involve imperfect, sinful humans. The free market economic system will not prevent all human suffering; however, it has proven to be a better tool to alleviating human suffering than various attempts at socialism.

Summary

Waters argues his thesis in two parts. The first five chapters of the volume outline the necessity of exchange and the place of Christians to argue for market systems. His first chapter summaries some of the historical arguments about wealth and poverty. Chapter Two defines what Waters means by markets and argues for the good in competition and cooperation that are necessary for a market economic system. In the third chapter, the author addresses the topic of creative destruction, the relationship of markets to governance, and an argument that markets represent the best means for improving human flourishing on a broad scale. Chapter Four makes a case for the good of affluence as a pathway to flourishing. The fifth chapter, which closes out the first part of the book, makes the case that affluence is the best means of eradicating poverty on a wide scale.

Part Two of Just Capitalism builds on the general affirmation of free markets, as offered in the first part, but critiques the failures in most current forms of capitalism.  The upshot of the last five chapters is that free markets without virtuous people engaged in exchange are no less evil than socialism. In Chapter Six, Waters argues that exchange is necessary for human flourishing, but it must be oriented toward that end rather than simply focusing on increasing one’s economic status. The seventh chapter shows that for markets to achieve their purpose, they must function within the context of a civil society with the purpose of sharing the goods of creation. Chapter Eight offers some provisional thoughts on possible relationships between a free, civil society that enables exchange with political orderings that prevent abuse. The ninth chapter fleshes out the concepts of freedom and justice, making an implicit case about the differences between positive and negative rights and their relationship with justice. Chapter Ten functions as a conclusion, where Waters draws together the threads of his earlier arguments to further emphasize the good that global capitalism can do to alleviate poverty.

Analysis and Conclusion

Waters is clearly not arguing that every instance of capitalism is good. Neither is he arguing that the present instantiation of global capitalism has no flaws. Many contemporary critics of global capitalism assume that the abuses that arise within existing markets are necessarily a feature and not a bug of the system. On the other hand, some proponents for markets insufficiently critique the sin that is evidenced in current markets and often make a similar assumption that some of the worst aspects of global capitalism are a necessary evil.

This book challenges assumptions on both sides. Economic systems are not inherently unjust or just. However, Waters carefully argues that free markets have a higher probability in resulting in just outcomes due to the self-corrective nature of the market system. At the same time, simply accepting capitalism without working to morally form the members of the market will lead to exclusion of potential market contributors due to social injustices. Waters’ book explains that markets can be good, but we have to work at keeping them moral.

This is the best moral case for the free market economic system that I have seen. There are points where one can disagree with Waters, but he realistically examines the benefits and risks of capitalism, showing that in the balance global capitalism is the best means of alleviating poverty.

Just Capitalism
$31.70
By Brent Waters

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The above link is an affiliate link.

The Fellowship - A Recent Book for Inklings Fans

For many fans the Inklings, anything about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their assorted friends is welcome. We’ve pored over the literary works of both men and the apologetic contributions of Lewis and still celebrate any tidbit that might help to explain why their stories move us so deeply and inspire us to live more richly.

At this point, decades after the last of the first-generation Inklings have died with only Christopher Tolkien—J. R. R. Tolkien’s son—­­still alive, many books have been written about this literary club and their assorted works. And yet, avid readers still snap up new entries into the discussion. In reality, there are still untapped manuscripts, correspondences, and connections to be made, so many of these works make legitimately original contributions to the field.

The 2015 volume The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is just such a volume. Penned by a husband and wife team who both teach at Smith College, Philip and Carol Zaleski, this book groups Tolkien, Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. Barfield is much less discussed in Inklings studies, in part because his public prominence largely occurred after the Inklings had ceased meeting and in part because of his connection to Tolkien and Lewis. Williams is better known, but less popular than Tolkien and Lewis, in part because of his esoteric version of Christianity.

The Zaleski’s have accomplished a feat in this volume. They have written a scholarly tome that is lucid and engaging. There are places where the tempo drags a bit, but given there are just over five-hundred pages of text, enticing the reader to make it to the finish line is in itself an accomplishment.

Summary

The format of the book is mainly chronological, though in an attempt to weave back and forth between the four figures they are discussing, there are points where the tales get out of order. However, the markers in the text are clear and shift in timeframe does not result in a confused muddle, as it too easily can. Overall, the book emphasizes the literary lives of Tolkien and Lewis more than the other two. This makes sense, since Barfield and Williams are less publicly known, have a less significant body of work, and are interesting in large part because of their influence on Tolkien and Lewis.

The book is a literary biography, which means that it emphasizes the written work of the four men, using biographical data to inform the argument. It shows how their literary works developed and the circumstances under which they evolved.

In our day of electronic communication, one wonders if such a project will be possible for whoever contemporary authors of interest will be. However, the Inklings left behind ample correspondence, diaries, and other artifacts to piece together a reasonable history.

Analysis and Conclusion

The weakness in this volume, as in many literary accounts of the Inklings, is that theology is handled in a confusing and sometimes non-discerning manner. Specifically, the four Inklings discussed in this volume are all discussed as equally Christian. Yet, Williams was syncretistic, bringing elements of the occult and other mystical theories into his Christianity. Similarly, Barfield engaged in downright pagan practices. Both Barfield and Williams were quite far from any orthodox version of Christianity, but those divergences are glossed over in this volume. Additionally, the Zaleski’s—who are Roman Catholics—take great pains to pitch Lewis as on the threshold of Catholicism in several instances. They are also apologetic as times when Lewis makes statements that clearly differentiate Christianity from other religions, particularly Judaism. As intriguing as this volume is, it isn’t clearly a reliable source for the theological lives of the Inklings.

That notwithstanding, this is an excellent book. Others who are interested in the Inklings will find this a rich resource that should influence Inklings studies for years to come. The Zaleski’s should be applauded for their careful research and elegant prose.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume without expectation of a positive review. Also, the above link is an affiliate link.