Them - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.