Squeezed - A Review

Even before the Great Recession and the slow climb out of it, many people expressed angst over their economic situation. As long as I can remember, and likely for all of human history, most people have expressed a sense that they can’t get ahead and that true financial stability is just out of reach. One thing that has shifted in the last few generations, however, is that people have argued that having a family is financially out of reach because of their current economic situation.

A desire for economic stability is leading many young people to delay marriage until their late 20s or early 30s. Then, once couples do get married, they often decide to wait to have children “until they can afford it.” The frequent, repeated news articles that tell people it costs a quarter million dollars or more to raise a child tend to entrench such arguments.

In her recent book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, Alissa Quart attempts to make these arguments in a book length format. She uses a journalistic-style, with supporting statistics interwoven with sympathetic anecdotes to make her case. The style itself is useful for convincing either (a) non-critical readers or (b) those already convinced. For those skeptical that centralized government solutions like UBI are the best solution for people’s feelings of dis-ease, the content of Quart’s book tends to make quite the opposite case that Quart intends.

There are certainly problems within our current economic system. Some of the cases that Quart outlines help to show what those problems are. For example, the injustice of our broken immigration system is evident in Chapter 5 of Squeezed and, in some ways, represents reality. However, what Quart actually shows is that consumerism is a miserable disease and that, in general, life would get a whole lot better for people if they turned off their televisions, got off the internet, and focused on living the life they can afford and loving the people around them.

A couple of the stories Quart highlights show the main problems with Americans that keep them from feeling they can afford a family are (a) a lack of permanent commitment in marriage and (b) covetousness.

The Damage of Impermanent Marriages

Quart begins the book with her own story. She and her husband were freelance writers living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City when they had their first child. She describes the burden of paying $1,500 for the medical care she and her daughter incurred during delivery. Subsequently, they experienced “financial vertigo” because, “We first hired a nearly full-time sitter and most of my own take-home earnings as an editor went directly to her. Eventually, my earnings also flowed to my daughter’s cheerfully boho day care . . .” (pg. 3). The financial pressure they felt was primarily self-induced fear of “tumbling out of [their] class position.” (pg. 4) Contributing to this is the apparent sense that one must maintain one’s career even if it is financially unwise to do so.

Though it is not clearly defined, “middle class” in this book appears to be defined as living above your means without fear of financial repercussions. So, for Quart, it was essential for her to be able to fund a nanny so she could retain professional pride and independence from her husband, no matter what the financial burden or social cost to her offspring.

There are several cases throughout this volume that illustrate that fear of being left or getting divorced is what drives a lot of the financial pressure on her subjects. In other words, when a spouse fears that his or her marriage is impermanent and the spouse and their income may disappear at any moment, then there is terrific pressure to maintain a career at any and all costs. Quart does not identify this fear explicitly, but it is an obvious undercurrent throughout the book for those with eyes to see it. This is why the supposed 70% gender pay gap is so insidious in the eyes of many progressives.

If couples both valued and were committed to the permanence of marriage, much of the angst that Quart describes about finding suitable and cost-effective child care would diminish.

Covetousness

The other major problem illustrated by this book is not injustice, but covetousness. This is apparent in Quart’s story again, as she requires a personal baby sitter and then “boho daycare” for her child.

A more striking example of the problem of economic myopia and covetousness is documented in Chapter 2. Quart describes a case of “modest oppression” of a couple who made a combined household income of “around $160,000” as the department chair at a college (wife) and a part-time music composer, director of a music organization, and church organist (husband). Even given the high cost of living in New York City, it is hard to describe a couple making north of $150K as being oppressed in meaningful sense. Apparent in Quart’s description is that their unhappiness was largely due to the existence of people that appeared to be more comfortable and have fewer financial worries. Absent from Quart’s telling of their story is the idea that they might consider making different decisions (e.g., having the husband stay at home with the kids) that might alleviate the problem and result in better outcomes for everyone.

Similarly, in the same chapter Quart tells the story of an adjunct professor whose PhD was in avant garde poetry. She has a disabled son, conceived in a fling with a member of an indie rock group. There are multiple commendable aspects of the story: the adjunct was willing to work hard and she was committed first to not killing her child in utero and then to seeking proper care for him. The covetousness in this story is apparent because the adjunct believed herself to be entitled to the career of her choice––that is to be fully supported through adjuncting––because she had chosen to get an advanced degree in a particular field. There is some hope in this story because the chapter closes noting that Bolin had decided to pursue more regular employment.

Quart’s telling of these stories is intended to illicit the response that there is obvious injustice in the struggle of both of these families. However, it is clear to the casual reader that the greater portion of the financial distress in both these situations is a desire for something that is just out of reach: the idealized existence as a career advancing professional in the exact job one desires. The underlying assumption is that the world owes everyone their personally preferred lifestyle and existence. As long as people base their happiness on hanging on to social positions that are just above their income level or seeking the perfect working situation, their covetousness is destined to enhance their unhappiness.

Positives of the Book

The general premise of Squeezed is flawed, but there is value in the book.

First, there are multiple anecdotes that illustrate how significant the family and community are for financial stability. Though Quart does not draw the conclusion (instead calling for government intervention at nearly every level), it is apparent that stronger nuclear families and mediating institutions like the local church are essential to the flourishing of society. In many of the examples Quart provides, the reader can see how a strong connection to a local congregation that is functioning as the body of Christ could alleviate a great deal of stress.

Second, as noted above, the permanence of marriage tends to alleviate a lot of cost and stress. Both spouses need not pursue their careers full-bore if they trust each other to remain around. Additionally, the cost of living can be substantially reduced when both parents and children live together in the same house.

Third, in Chapter Ten, Quart highlights the work that television (or other versions of video entertainment) does in making people believe they are not well-off. Supposed “middle-class” families in SitComs are really incredibly rich. Everything on the set is in perfect condition, no one is really struggling for money, etc. The old puzzle about how the characters in Friends were able to live such apparently lavish lives in New York City is still a real phenomenon. Part of the work of the Church, then, should be to disabuse people of the fantasies of contemporary entertainment.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this is a popular-level book that will tend to convince the already convinced that a bigger government is needed to fix supposed injustices in the economy. What it really highlights is that much of our ongoing social misery is self-induced. If we readjust our expectations toward reality and focus on enjoying the relative wonders most of us experience on a daily basis, our satisfaction in life is bound to be enhanced.

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

There Is Life After College - A Review

College is one of the biggest lifetime expenses and longest commitments of dedicated time many people ever make. The cost of college continues to rise and news outlets regularly report the high rates of underemployment and unemployment among recent college graduates. As a result, some families question whether a college education offers sufficient return on investment. Others are plowing ahead without thought and collecting six-digit debt burdens.

Jeffrey Selingo’s recent book, There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know about Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow, tackles the topic of the value of college, particularly with respect to employability. Selingo covers a lot of ground in the book, but together he paints a fair picture, warns of some common pitfalls, and offers some recommendations for current and future college students.

Summary

In Chapter One, Selingo describes three categories of young people: Sprinters, Wanderers, and Stragglers. Sprinters are those who have launched careers and have some financial stability by the time they are thirty. Wanderers often graduate but have difficulty finding a career-type job, which retards their progress. Stragglers stumble through their twenties, often failing to finish school or find stable employment with long-term growth potential. Much of the rest of the book is built around helping people find their way into one of the top group.

The second chapter analyzes what employers are looking for. According to Selingo, some of the most common attributes in job descriptions are “baseline skills.” The book lists five of the most significant skills, which are far from academic: (1) Intellectual curiosity; (2) Depth of expertise, even in a non-degree area; (3) Awareness of and adaptability to tech; (4) Dealing with ambiguity; (5) Teachable humility. The careful reader will notice that specific skills in a major are not in this list. In other words, a key way to gain an advantage in the marketplace is by going beyond academic expertise and being a valuable part of the team.

After these important opening chapters, Selingo covers a variety of topics in rapid fire fashion. In Chapter Three, he explains the potential benefits of a gap year—as long as it is purposeful gap. The fourth chapter describes the value of going to a college that is near a center of interest for the student’s proposed first career; internships and other experiences are much more possible. Chapter Five emphasizes the value of internships, co-ops and other hands-on learning; many employers use such opportunities as an extended interview for future employees. In the sixth chapter, Selingo describes habits that are necessary for success after college and some programs that can help enhance them.

Chapter Seven offers some ideas about rethinking the bachelor’s degree, considering the value of two year degrees and other vocational learning. In the eighth chapter, Selingo surveys one potential shift in future education: just in time training, boot camps, and other modular programs. Then, in Chapter Nine, he sketches some of the common hiring practices among firms, which is key information for those seeking jobs. Finally, in the tenth chapter, Selingo highlights the importance of being able to tell your story. It isn’t enough to graduate, but employers want to know why you chose a particular major and what you have done to get there.

Analysis and Conclusion

The most significant value of this volume is that it answers questions vital to student success, efficient investment of tuition money and time, and successful navigation of the sometimes-confusing marketplace of colleges and universities. This is an accessible book that has important information for our time.

Surprisingly, Selingo’s book points to the enduring value of a liberal arts degree. There is certainly a need for technical specialization in certain fields, but being a well-developed human is just as important, and perhaps more so, than purely technical proficiency. At worst, a strong liberal arts core, which is at the heart of a lot of Christian higher education, appears to be an asset rather than a liability in the marketplace.

Certainly, this book is not a guaranteed method to be successful in life. In fact, Selingo simply assumes that success is being well-placed, well-compensated, and reasonably happy in one’s job. Whether the reader agrees with his end or not, he provides some helpful guidelines to get there. Even for those more interested in other careers, Selingo’s assurances of the value of liberal arts and meaningful experiences before and during college make this an engaging and valuable read.

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

Hillbilly Elegy - A Review

I’ve now read the much discussed book by J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It was promised to be a gritty read, revealing the reality of poverty in the Appalachian region that is often overlooked. The book largely lives up to its reputation.

Vance notes early on that it seems odd for someone his age—he’s in his early thirties—to write a memoir.  Unlike the biographies of young Christian athletes that seem to lurk on the shelves of Christian bookstores, Vance’s memoir is not presumptuous but worth the time it takes to read it.

So much time and effort is spent in explaining urban poverty. The breakdown of the urban family. The overloading of the urban school systems. Often the term “urban” is a code word for racial minorities.

While cyclic poverty is an issue in cities, Vance exposes the reality of rural poverty and shows that in many ways it may just as severe a problem as the urban variety. In fact, for some, rural poverty has a strong potential to be more severe. One reason for this is that many of the resources the urban poor rely upon are simply unavailable for the rural poor, or they are located too far away to be useful.

Vance succeeds in painting an accurate picture of some of the worst off among the so-called hillbillies. Having grown up in the foothills of the Appalachians, surrounded by people that fit the description of Vance’s hillbillies, I’ve heard some of the stories, seen some of the stress on kids, and smelled some of the misery he’s talking about. Thankfully I’ve never lived it, but it was close by. (I’m thinking about, for example, my friend whose dad was in jail for killing his mom with a hammer while high on some form of drugs.) Reading Vance describe what he went through gives me a bit more empathy for some of my acquaintances who were surviving bad situations.

If there is one key takeaway from reading this book, it should be empathy. It is likely that Vance’s story represents both the low end of hillbilly culture with the drug addicted mother, revolving door father-figures, and unawareness of the outside world. At the same time, it also represents an atypical result where someone was able to overcome the difficult start and had the talent to make it to and graduate from Yale’s law school. However, reading about the domestic abuse and social stigma Vance dealt with should work to kill some of the unforgiving dismissal of hicks, bumpkins, and swamp people that is common in suburban and urban culture. (I state that it is common based on anecdotal data, rather than empirical evidence)

Just as telling the stories of ethnic minorities suffering simply because of their ethnicity are part of the narrative of identity politics on the left, so might listening to stories of legitimate hardship among the many white, rural poor are a necessary part of understanding the perspective of a large swath of the nation.

Vance’s story helps explain why it took me years to be able to understand the racially stilted form of identity politics common among some of my more liberal and well to do friends at the Naval Academy. I knew that poverty, broken families, and systemic disadvantages were not solely owned by today’s preferred protected classes. Thankfully, I’ve had good people patiently explain why systemic injustice is still largely a racial issue instead of screaming at me. I’ve also known enough ethnic minorities to hear their stories to understand the biases against them and lived in the South long enough to recognize the historical proximity of Jim Crow to today.

At the same time, many more cosmopolitan Americans still fail to recognize that being among the rural poor can be nearly as socially damning as being an ethnic minority, but without the protection of the media, the judicial system, and the cultural left. Hillbilly Elegy helps explain why some people don’t believe in “White Privilege” and think that affirmative action is a form of vile racism. They feel feel like they are on the bottom of the social ladder and the zero-sum game policies of the political left keep them down. In some cases, that’s likely the case. As Vance explains, being white doesn’t grant as much social capital as those who equate whiteness with established families and well-positioned social networks seem to believe. It’s not that there is no benefit in some segments of society to being white, but that it isn’t quite the pass to an easy life that some seem to describe.

Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t answer every question about the white working class and its struggles. It doesn’t offer a master theory that will unite the nation politically after a turbulent election year. The book is not an academic treatise that considers all potential historical causes, nor does it reconcile all of the possible sociological implications of rural poverty. However, this memoir of a kid who lived rough but is doing pretty well so far helps to give a view into a world that many people never see from the interstates. It challenges racial narratives and, if read for empathy’s sake, could break down some of the bubble many appear to live in.

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

How to Read the Bible - A Review

I often read books that I disagree with. It is necessary to read the intellectually challenging disagreement with scholars who oppose my view. This drives me to question whether my answer, their answer, or another might be right.

Recognizing that Harvey Cox is, at least from my conservative Evangelical position, a liberal scholar, I picked up his recent volume, How to Read the Bible with some interest and hope for a fruitful conversation.

This is a popular level book, written with few footnotes and more as a summary of Cox’s religious experience than as a means of engaging in serious debate. 

As such, Cox’s audience appears to be Christians who have not engaged with Scripture seriously and wonder what method the wise sage who has spent a long career proclaiming a version of progressive Christian theology from the respected halls of Harvard Divinity School might encourage them to use. It is, in reality, an apologetic for a liberal approach to Scripture from a post-modern liberal Christian. This statement is not meant in the pejorative (as the label liberal often is) but to clarify my understanding of the author’s actual intent, which is distinct from what he may have actually accomplished; according to his own hermeneutic, his accomplishment will be evaluated as something distinctly different based on the one who actually reads the volume.

Summary

How to Read the Bible is a layman’s book on hermeneutics. It has assumptions (often exposed, but seldom stated) and shows how to apply them to the text of the Bible.

After a personal introduction, which places the book in the context of Cox’s faith journey, there are ten chapters in the text. In them Cox walks through his method of reading of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Job, the prophets, two chapters on the Gospels (though one ignores John entirely), the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. The tenth chapter is a summary of Cox’s hermeneutic, which is focused on a contemporary reading of the text. The book has a conclusion in which Cox answers the logical question that arises from his deconstruction of Scripture, namely, “Why should we read the Bible at all?”

Qualification

For Cox, this book is no doubt a very personal book; in fact, the first person pronoun and his own anecdotes prevent reading it any other way. He is explaining how he reads the Bible and gains some spiritual value from it. As such, it would be easy to turn these critiques into accusations against Cox’s faithfulness. That is not my goal. Cox no doubt holds the faith commitments that he has, which have some ties to historic Christianity, sincerely. This book helps to reveal what shape they have and why, but the book does not lead me to question the fact that he believes something about God that approximates a form of historic Christianity and is very personal to him.

Despite this personal nature of the book, he did publish it publicly, which means that it is fair game for analysis and critique. This is not a private expression of faith that, like a discovered diary, should be left alone until the author is deceased.

Assumptions

The logical question that arises from this text on how to read the Bible is why it should be read at all. This is a serious accusation that Cox seems to recognize at the end of the volume and begin to address, but, to my mind he fails.

Cox begins with the assumption that the Bible is solely a human book. In fact, given the option, it seems fairly clear that Cox recommends discarding the notion that any biblical data is factual. He allows that Jesus and Paul did exist, but nearly every other apparent factual claim in Scripture is best rejected at first blush. If some things in the Bible actually happen to correspond to historical truth, this is coincidental to the spiritual truth of Scripture and largely irrelevant.

Additionally, biblical scholarship that rejects traditional understandings of the text or modifies what the text seems to say about history are to be preferred over other scholarships. Throughout the volume, Cox consistently refers to his preferred group of scholars as “the best scholars” or “most scholars.”

In fact, one of the prevailing assumptions that seems to drive Cox’s hermeneutic and general approach to biblical studies is that anyone who accepts the prima facie reading of the Bible is intellectually deficient or ignorant.

For example, the hypothesis that has recently been published that presents a late domestication of camels is valuable explicitly because it undermines the historicity of Scripture and because “it require[s] one to move beyond a literalistic view of the Bible to a more mature comprehension.” (pg. 44) In other words, if only those that believe the Bible to be factually accurate would read the New York Times, which popularized the recent archaeological theory, they wouldn’t be so immature as to believe that Scripture was true. The problem is that the archaeologists conclusions were drawn from a limited data sample and appears to have been interpreted by the New York Times to maximize circulation with a controversial headline rather than critically interact with the study.

Similarly, just a few pages later, Cox discards the notion of the miracle of manna in Exodus by arguing, “The meaning of the ‘miracles’ of Exodus is that these people [i.e., the Israelites of the 7th century B.C.E who he believes wrote the Pentateuch] believe that it was through God’s grace and justice that they were escaping from slavery, and they told their story in their own idiom. Mature and imaginative students of the Bible try to get inside that worldview. They do not simply reject it as superstitious or recast it in terms of modern, if often improbable, scientific rationalizations.” (pg.47)

In other words, speaking from the enlightened cultural perspective of the 21st century, we can know with certainty that these miracles did not happen. This solves two problems simultaneously: (1) It eliminates the weird pseudo-scientific theories about how pre-scientific people may have misinterpreted natural phenomena; (2) It eliminates the need for believing in a God who can do miracles.

While I am thankful for the first result, the second result seems unnecessary unless one has accepted the reigning paradigm of naturalism, which allows for only regularity in the natural world. In other words, it requires that God, whatever that being is, does not interfere in history.

From the Pen of Skeptic

At times, Cox seems to be reading the text as a scoffer. He describes the account of the spies of Israel and Rahab as a “dinner-theater fluff piece” (pg. 69) Thus we should read the accounts of the conquest of Canaan much like school boys read Virgil’s Aeneid (pg 76); they're interesting and have some literary value, but certainly aren't true because, after all, a recent book argues that the entire Israelite history may be incorrect, since the Israelites were likely just Canaanites who banded together against their neighbors and created an elaborate nation-myth to justify their actions (pg 76). Since the Pentateuch is just political propaganda, Cox writes, “I do not believe it is necessary for current readers of the Bible to slog through all these grisly verses [about the reasons given by God for destroying the Canaanites.]” (pg. 74)

This brings back that pertinent question that came to my mind while I was reading this volume, why would you read it anyway? I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Cox continues his way through various representative genre’s of Scripture. Job is “explicitly ‘fictional’" (pg. 79); the prophets have meaning according to how modern revolutionaries decide to use them (though not in an absolutely unconditional sense) (pg. 105); the canonical gospels are merely a result of the winning political faction; the synoptic Gospels are a composite of factually erroneous interpretations of history written too far after the events they depict to be remotely accurate; Paul likely didn’t write most of the letters attributed to him and things we find ethically objectionable are either his misunderstandings or later textual additions; and Revelation can be nothing more than an inspiring poem by a political revolutionary.

It is fair to note that few of these assertions are supported in the text; but it is also important to realize that this is not a scholarly volume. Cox merely assumes the validity of scholarship built on the so-called Higher Critical methods and ignores conservative scholarship as immature or poor. This is an evidence of his bias, but should not be counted as a criticism against his method in this volume.

Again, I wonder, why bother reading it if nearly everything that it reports is questionable?

Spiritual Benefit

Cox believes that there is spiritual benefit in reading Scripture. He intimates this throughout. It can inspire the contemporary reader to pursue justice. This he makes clear in the Introduction, where he recounts the inspiration that African American civil rights activists found in the Exodus stories. While he sat bored in his cell (having been arrested during the same demonstration), the segregated African American detainees preached to each other from the account of Moses.

This reading and contemporary application, he notes, is in accordance with the “full-orbed holistic way I have termed ‘spiritual.’” (pg. 8) But it isn’t clear that such a reading is possible once the reader has rejected the factual content of Scripture as mere political fiction.

In other words, if the Bible is just a human book, with a great percentage of it written for political purposes, then why should it be trustworthy for spiritual readings? Why would one trust Scripture more than a contemporary novel for spiritual information?

Cox wrestles with this in part toward the end of the volume, “Why should I spend any time writing yet another book about this strange old collection? One answer is that the Bible helps us to know who God is, and for many people, perhaps most, that is enough. But there is another reason. The Bible also helps us heed the counsel of Socrates to ‘know thyself,’ and the wisdom of all the religious traditions teaches that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are inseparable.” (pg. 230)

Of these two reasons that Cox offers, it isn’t clear how the shreds of Scripture are helpful any longer in knowing God. He has taken pains to debunk the supernaturalness of God throughout the volume. Gone is the miracle-working God. Gone is the redemptive God that chose a people. Gone is the God that is holy and worthy of judging sin.

The second reason Cox presents is more true to what the tattered text of the Bible can do once it has been explained away by Cox’s “mature” hermeneutic. Once all of the parts of Scripture that conflict with the contemporary reader’s worldview are eliminate, what is left is a reflection of the individual from the ancient text. It isn’t clear why it would take over two hundred pages to explain this fact.

Conclusion

Cox’s book is an excellent example of the reader-response hermeneutic at work. He combines this post-modern approach that rejects a desire for objectivity with an acceptance of the validity of modernistic biblical scholarship to work his way through many genre’s of Scripture.

This is a helpful book because Cox explains what many Christians do on a regular basis. What is masked in the liberal pulpit is made clear in this volume.

In the end, the deconstruction of Scripture and rejection of the supernatural reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ description of creating “men without chests.” They are bidden to be moral, but the means for their morality has been removed. Though this is not Cox’s purpose in writing the book, his demonstration of the failure of the liberal theological method has explanatory power for the slow death of many liberal churches.

How to Read the Bible
$18.71
By Harvey Cox

NOTE: A complimentary copy of this volume was provided by the publisher for review with no expectation of a positive outcome.