The Gardeners' Dirty Hands - A Review

Noah Toly is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations, as well as Director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has previously studied theology academically. His book, The Garderners’ Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, is more political science of environmental concerns than theology, but it written from a distinct theological perspective that sits well within the bounds of orthodoxy. The book seeks to offer an approach to environmental policy that is more helpful than more idealistic perspectives.

The weakness in many approaches to economics and environment is the failure to recognize the need for tradeoffs. Solutions must be either black or white. Businesses must be either evil monstrosities or saviors of society. Either you are for certain environmental policies or you want to pillage the created order.

These sorts of positions on political problems are rewarded by society today. However, they are rarely honest representations of reality. There are always tradeoffs. When we close coal power plants, a number of people lose their jobs, are dislocated from their neighborhoods, and have their lives disrupted. When a new wind farm is put in place, there are going to be birds killed and people unhappy about the noise and sight of the turbines. The funding for the cleanup project may take money from another socially beneficial plan. We can’t have everything.

Most activists and theoreticians retreat from these prickly realities into vague generalities. The easy part of politics is coming up with a goal that sounds good to enough people that you can get elected. The hard part is wrestling with the realistic impact of the steps necessary to achieve that goal.

The chief triumph of The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands is that helps explain there are no perfect solutions and provide some ideas on how to approach the real implications of environmental governance.


The book is brief. It contains only five chapters after a brief preface. In Chapter One, Toly introduces the concept of the tragic, which frames the argument of the book. The tragic is the idea that there is no solution that provides only benefits. Chapter Two builds on the concept of tragedy and adds scarcity and risk as additional forms of the tragic for environmental decisions. In the third chapter Toly provides some examples of the tragic in environmental ethics in the real world, discussing limitations, harm, and the prevalence of economic analysis to ignore instances of abuse and oppression. Chapter Four provides some handholds intended to assist the reader in using the Christian tradition to respond to environmental tradeoffs. In the fifth chapter Toly argues that the ability of humans to impact the global environment is more significant than ever and likely to stay that way. It is imperative that we begin to wrestle with the tradeoffs and not to ignore them for the benefit of or to the detriment of the environment.

The crux of the book, I think, can be summed up by quoting the first sentence of Chapter Four:

“The burden of environmental governance is to weigh competing claims, measuring risk against risk, right against right, confronting moral dilemmas of extraordinary scale and scope in the context of increasing power to shape the future of the planet.” (p. 79)

If this volume begins to shift the balance of arguments about environmental policy toward actually doing these things, it will have accomplished a great deal. This is a worthwhile volume.

The argument made in this volume is limited the repeated reliance on Bonhoeffer’s ethics to show how we should reason through difficult moral decisions. Bonhoeffer is helpful in many regards, but his basic ethical methodology is one of conflicting absolutes. That is, God’s moral law can conflict with itself leaving humans in a situation where all options lead to sin. That position is problematic on several fronts, not least because it raises Christological concerns.

Conflicting absolutes feels right for environmental ethics, but its problems remain. In reality, the majority of the conflicts can be solved by properly defining the summum bonum and what, scripturally speaking, defines sin in a particular instance. This is, of course, much more difficult to do than to say, particularly on a societal level.

Additionally, part of the dirt on the gardeners’ hands is there because many penultimate goods are treated like ultimate things. And proverbial dirt is also generated by the simple inability to know what will come from a given action or even what the real impact a particular environmental policy will have. We are beset by complications on all sides, but we automatically fail by ignoring obvious problems because of complexity.

The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands requires readers to wrestle with the hard questions of environmental policy. Serious thinkers about the relationship between politics and ecology––particularly those working from a Christian worldview––would do well to read this book and begin to recognize both the importance of the questions and their complexity.

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

Addicted to Lust - A Review

If you ask any pastor, they will tell you that pornography is a significant problem in their local congregation among the men. In fact, some surveys indicate there is little to no difference between pornography consumption among self-described Christian men and those outside the church. Many pastors can explain how it is a barrier to having enough men qualified to serve as elders and deacons in the local church.

Additionally, a growing number of people in the U.S. describe themselves as addicted to pornography. There are debates about whether that is possible and whether the changes that some people describe due to pornography have a long term impact, but there is little question that the rise of the internet and especially the smart phone have made pornography much more available and pervasive to people of all ages and walks of life.

Samuel L. Perry’s book, Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants, is a sociological study of the admitted use of pornography by theologically conservative Protestants. His population of interest includes both those that might be described as fundamentalist and as evangelical.

Analysis and Discussion

Perry’s book is revealing in that his data show a huge oversight in many conservative Protestant congregations: specifically, according to his study, women are using pornography nearly as much as men. This is a particularly startling revelation, since most teaching on pornography that occurs within the evangelical church is particularly focused on men. Additionally, given the prevalence of male staff in evangelical churches, this may create situations where a local congregation is ill-equipped to help women struggling with pornography.

Assuming that Perry’s data is correct, his assertions from that data are often unflattering toward theologically conservative Christians. Perry argues that some basic assumptions that evangelical pastors make about pornography contribute to its use among men and the failure to address it among women. For example, the common assertion that men are “turned on” by visual stimulation while other triggers impact women are considered sexist and misogynistic by Perry. The data related to pornography use among women tends to support the argument that visual arousal is not exclusively a male trade, but he fails to adequately support a statement about different in forms of arousal between sexes. This is wound up in a general sub-thesis that Christian understandings of gender differences are incorrect, which is more assumed than argued in this volume.

Significantly, however, Perry notes that identifying pornography as a “men’s issue” is particularly harmful for the women who feel guilty about using it. Their guilt places significant psychological strain on them, which is exacerbated by feeling abnormal to be a female struggling with a “guy thing.” This, I think, is the item that is most significantly illuminating and helpful for pastors reading this volume.

Another significant assertion that is woven through this volume is that evangelicals would be better off to simply embrace and accept pornography usage as normal. He attempts to use data to show that theological conservatives are more likely to face marital difficulties due to pornography usage, not because it is actually akin to or another form of adultery, but simply because it violates the taboos of the evangelical or fundamentalist community. He does this while carefully noting that he is specifically not engaging with the literature that debates the negative sociological impacts on romance, particularly due to heavy pornography usage. Perry’s argument is that the usage rates are identical between conservative Christians and non-Christians, and some progressive Christians feel it enhances their lives, so evangelicals would be better off simply embracing the vice.

A weakness in Perry’s analysis is his engagement with primarily popular-level treatments of pornography. He does a lot of legwork to try to find cringe-worthy exaggerations and inexact statements in books intended for an audience seeking encouragement in their pursuit of holiness, who are already largely convinced of the theological underpinnings of Christian theology. This may illustrate a significant flaw in the body of literature available, since Perry apparently did not come into contact with a robust theology of human sexuality in his research.

Additionally, there are points at which Perry simply misrepresents (I assume because of understanding) the theology of those he describes. For example, by asserting that reformed Christians tend to embody pietistic idealism, which leads them to believe that, “God is chiefly concerned not with a person’s actions but with her motivations. . . . Simply put, for conservative Protestants, the obedience that God demands is not about bodily actions so much as it is about a person’s heart.” (pg 13) This is inconsistent with any reformed thinking I have ever read on sexual ethics. It appears that Perry confuses the emphasis behind motivation in discussions about sexual ethics as reflecting a greater concern (by God!) for motivation. In fact, it is that most conservative Christians already recognize that sinning with their bodies (e.g., consummating adulterous lust) is sin, but often need help recognizing the severity of lust.


As a work of sociology, this is helpful. Perry has done yeoman’s work in interviewing people about a very sensitive subject. Pastors, ethicists, counselors, and lay leaders within local congregations will benefit by reading this book to see what people will tell a sociologist at a state university that they are unlikely to discuss with a representative of the church. This is information worth getting access to and Perry has written a very accessible book.

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

A Very Short Introduction to C. S. Lewis - A Review

One disconcerting trend among conservative Christian readers of C. S. Lewis is how little they know of his work prior to declaring themselves to be Lewis fans. Many of the most ardent college age fans of Lewis have read little more than his Chronicles of Narnia and perhaps a few essays out of God in the Dock before declaring themselves official devotees of the man. Some more fervent readers may have taken in Surprised by Joy and perhaps some of the Space Trilogy.

Having read the majority of Lewis’s published work (I’m not done yet, though I have aspirations), I generally consider it a good thing that people like Lewis. However, the reasons people like Lewis are often less well developed than he or his work deserves. A superficial appreciation of Lewis also enables a simplistic understanding of the man, his context, and the warranted legacy of his work. Lewis deserves much more than deep appreciation for having a gospel-centric storyline in a series of children’s fantasy novels.


Along the way of editing the forthcoming volume, The Christian Mind of C. S. Lewis, I’ve had the opportunity to read a great deal of the scholarship on Lewis. Some of it is more fan-fiction than critical interaction, which is discouraging. There are a handful of people that really dislike Lewis or have a clear disdain for him, both personally and professionally. However, there are some people who carefully engage Lewis critically, as aficionados, but not as hagiographers.

James Como is a contributing author to the volume of essays I am editing (for full disclosure), whose work I have previously reviewed. Hi\s relatively early volume in Lewis studies, Branches to Heaven, is an excellent analysis of Lewis from someone who is both a fan and a critic of Lewis. His most recent critical introduction to C. S. Lewis is, in my mind, the best place for individuals beginning their interest in the study of Lewis beyond The Chronicles to gain a foothold.

C. S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction is a volume in the rapidly growing series of short introductions by Oxford University Press. Every book in the series has several limiting attributes: they are short and they are introductory. For those decades deep into the study of Lewis, Como provides little new data. However, what Como does masterfully well is write a lively text that covers the life and work of Lewis fairly comprehensively. Having read so much in the past year on Lewis, there is no doubt in my mind that this will remain a central volume for those seeking to understand the enduring appeal of Lewis.

Como’s book is a combination biography and critique, so it is organized in a generally chronological fashion. Moving through each of the stages of Lewis’s life and work, the reader gets a good sense of what shaped Lewis, why he was writing on the subjects he did, and how his overall work fits together. Without psychoanalyzing Lewis’s works (which he would have hated), the book makes connections that help the reader understand the context of Lewis. An image of an integrated mind, well-steeped in the historical teaching of Scripture and classical culture emerges. This is, based on my own study, deeply accurate.

In addition to the central content of the book, which is excellent, Como has also provided a topically sorted list of books that influenced Lewis, are significant within Lewis studies, and are helpful to understanding more about the man and his works. With decades of engagement in scholarship related to Lewis and his own understanding of much of the classical literature, that “extra” information alone makes this book worth the price.

Como’s writing is accessible. This is the sort of book that can be read by a teenager studying Lewis to increase their interest, enhance their understanding, and point them deeper into the mind of C. S. Lewis. This is also the perfect book to use in a college-level course on the work of C. S. Lewis. It is reasonably prices, concise, and points the way to Lewis’s work, instead of drawing attention to itself.

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

Why We Need Religion - A Review

Some atheists move beyond their objections to religion to a form of frothy mouthed rage that anyone dare believe in something beyond what can be measured, analyzed, and peer reviewed. Famously, Richard Dawkins has asserted that parents teaching their children Christian doctrine is a form of child abuse. And, of course, there are meanspirited gadflies like those in the Freedom From Religion organization who like to attack people engaged in public service for having faith that is not hidden from view. Such antipathy is not universal. Some atheists are more benign. However, there is enough anti-religious emotion among the supposed rationalists that the militant fundamentalist accusations about an “atheist agenda,” etc., etc., are not entirely unfounded (just overblown).

In contrast to such overt hostility, Stephen T. Asma, professor of Philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, and confirmed atheist, has written a book to argue that maybe religion isn’t quite so bad and doesn’t deserve violent eradication just yet. Accordingly, he offers an intriguing purpose in his recent volume, Why We Need Religion. He writes, “I will endeavor a charitable interpretation of the believer and religion, one that couches such conviction in the universal emotional life that connects us all.” (14)


The general point of Asma’s book is that scientism is best, but religion helps people feel good, so it should be tolerated by those who know better. While ensuring the reader never doubts his atheistic bona fides, Asma sorts through sociological data that he argues point to the necessity of some form of religion as a “cultural analgesic.”

Asma finds multiple benefits of religion, which he argues are reasons that society should not seek to destroy religion and ridicule believers. In chapter length treatments, Asma argues that religion in general, especially those with a belief in an afterlife, help people navigate sorrow due to death and even personal fear of death. Such myths keep some people from despair, so there is no reason not to allow that beneficial belief.


For some, religion enables the ability to forgive. The belief that there will be justice meted out gives people resources not to seek immediate, personal vengeance. Similarly, a belief in a higher power can help people have mental strength leading to internal peace, resilience, and the ability to sacrifice for others.

Religion also enables people to find communal joy, to channel sexual energy, and engage in forms of imaginative play. These aspects of religion, according to Asma, have evolved in ways that differentiate us from some of the lower animals and help us get by as a society. At other points, religion proves useful in helping people control their fear and anger.


Given his assumptions, the argument is reasonable throughout, but the general point is that religion—at least some level of religion—is acceptable because it has socially and evolutionarily beneficial fruit. Thus, even if it is not actively encouraged, certain types of religion should be deemed acceptable, as long as it sufficiently agrees with the moral consensus of society and encourages behaviors approved by enough people. For example, religion that fosters contemporary forms of functional egalitarianism, pursuit of approved economic and social outcomes, and controls unsocial emotional outbursts should be accepted.

At a most basic level, it is nice to have an atheist write something that does not curse every believer for their foolishness and vehemently denigrate their existence for not aligning their faith commitments to those of radical empiricism. Asma’s book shows that the conversation between religion and radical empiricism need not be an out and out street fight at all times, especially if one accepts a version of religion that is palatable for skeptics.

Ironically, though he is an atheist, Asma makes many of the same arguments for religion in general that some versions of Christianity (the religion with which I am most familiar) make. Religion can help you live your best life now. Believing can make you a better citizen. Your kids won’t misbehave as much if you keep them in church. You can have inner peace if you will just believe. There’s no need to fear death if you’ll just pray this prayer. The list can go on and on. This observation shows the paucity of much teaching among Christians of varying stripes. I have heard similar pitches presented as “evangelism” before, and sometimes they succeed in getting people to participate in activities with Christians for a while. There is a pointed lesson here, for those whose faith would be acceptable to an atheist.

The acceptable religion Asma hopes for is the one that nods toward doing good deeds from time to time, talks about miracles as fiction that points to a higher moral, and moves aside traditional doctrines that interfere with the current popular polls. In Christian circles, Asma’s preferred forms of religion align very well with the stated doctrines of many mainline Protestant denominations and lived faith of many Evangelical and Roman Catholic adherents. Lukewarm is the hottest the faucet should go, lest it lead to a failure to go with the flow. Coexist bumper stickers are the main sign of approved faith, rather than rosaries, crucifixes, or fish stickers. Bland is the religion that is properly admissible by the Zeitgeist.

Asma’s arguments also reveal there is no point at which the attempt of liberal Christianity to create a truly minimalist faith will ever really be acceptable in society. As the moral winds shift and the polling changes, there will always be a new doctrine considered anti-social and require abandonment. Whatever vestiges of truth and odor of gospel efficacy is left in an acceptable version of Christianity won’t have much power to save, if any at all in a few years. In other words, Asma reveals that seeking praise from atheists isn’t a worthy endeavor because nothing but utter capitulation will ever be applauded, so those who claim to be orthodox and faithful should focus on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God as we believe and proclaim a rigorous, full-throated, gospel-saturated doctrine.

For faithful, orthodox Christian readers, the best use of this book is to see in it an affirmation of some of the things that we know to be true, though Asma denies the basis. Faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can help make us better citizens, to the degree that society maintains a true sense of the common good. Basically, Asma is arguing that we aren’t (always) the moral equivalent of child abusers and sometimes actually do good things, which is better than the alternative.

In the end, this is a book that was not written to people who really believe what they claim to believe, whether they are Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, or whatever. This is a book that, despite claiming to offer an olive branch, oozes condescension on nearly every page. It’s a patronizing pat on the head from the person who pretended to listen while you speak to them and then lets you know he was ignoring everything you said by his smug smile and dismissive comment. Most probably, though, the target audience for this book is not people who actually believe and practice their faith, it is the mushy middle and the militant atheist.

One possible positive outcome is that some from the mushy middle may encounter the gospel if they wander into a faithful Christian church on some Sunday morning to find the inner peace Asma highlights; may Asma’s work bear such fruit.

On the other hand, this is a book that may be helpful if it has the socially beneficial result of tempering the fundamentalist zealotry of a few atheists. On that basis, I think that it makes a valuable contribution to the conversation of the relationship between religion and society.

Why We Need Religion
By Stephen T. Asma

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

The Character Gap - A Review

Sometimes psychological findings are presented as if they are deterministic: Murderers kill because they have a particular personality. Thieves steal because their minds work a certain way. Mothers love their children because of predetermined evolutionary conditions of our ancestors’ ancestors. Those who are obese have something their chemical makeup that makes them eat too much. Thus it has always been, and thus it shall ever be.


When information is presented this way, it often leaves readers under the impression there is no path toward forming character. Behaviorally, our DNA is our destiny. This puts Christians, among others, in a spot of trying to argue against the trends of science because we believe that people can and do change. Thankfully, there are ongoing discussions in moral psychology and cognate fields that seem to point toward the possibility of real change and not simply coping strategies.

Christian Miller’s recent book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, is a prime example of using the empirical data from psychological research to show how humans can become better people. His presentation indicates that there are certain character traits tied to particular vices and virtues, but he also extends hope that character can be formed through purposeful effort.

The book is broken into three distinct parts. Part One contains two chapters and offers an introduction into the ongoing research on character and its importance. Chapter One deals with a basic overview of character. Chapter Two describes why character is so important.

Part Two consists of five chapters; it describes the shape of character in the modern world. In the third chapter, Miller shows the conditions that encourage people to help others. Chapter Four delves into the character that enables some people to harm others spontaneously and other people to be willing to harm with only minor encouragement. This chapter explains some of the results from the infamous Milgram experiment, and more recent research that continues to support those earlier conclusions. The fifth chapter surveys the psychological roots of lying, especially the motivations that undergird it. Interestingly, people tend to lie more to those to whom they are closer. Chapter Six explores the foundations of cheating. He shows that we are all likely to cheat at times, but rarely cheat as often as we have opportunity. In the seventh chapter Miller ties these elements together. The results of his research indicate that most of us believe we are good and virtuous, but very few of us are. We are not typically as bad or as good as we have the opportunity to be.

Had Miller left the book at that point, it would have been very unsatisfying. However, Part Three of the book is an explanation of how humans can improve their character. Chapter Eight gives several examples of ways that character can be shaped, like doing nothing, labeling people as virtuous, and “nudging.” These techniques have been shown to have some effect in some cases in resulting in better behavior, but they rarely result in exemplary moral character. The ninth chapter offers multiple stronger methods for shaping character. Having (and being) role models, choosing better situations (aka, avoiding temptation, and being self-aware are three of the more promising means of shaping character positively.  Chapter Ten works through character formation in a Christian context, where Miller shows how a healthy Christian community, informed theologically, can engender improved character in people. It is encouraging that he allows space for sanctification through the Spirit, though, understandably, he does not delve into the mechanics of that process.

The Character Gap is an encouraging book in several ways. It takes the evil in the world seriously, recognizes the bentness of humans, and unveils the reality of our own inconsistencies. Thankfully, however, he does not leave the reader in the muck and mire, but offers legitimate ways to improve. For non-religious readers, this will focus on structuring life toward community or self-chosen goals. For religious readers, the norms are already provided, but the empirical data he provides can inform the selection of behaviors. For example, the reluctance to help is often driven by others not helping. The logical response (if we want to be helpers) is to seek to always be the first to offer help or actually help and to surround ourselves with people who are helpers. Miller highlights the importance of creating structures that encourage good behavior, which is why our Bibles should be placed in prominent places: not so that we show off the Word to others, but so that we are more likely to partake of the divine revelation ourselves. There are dozens of other examples of ways that empirical data can shape how we structure our lives to help form us for good in this volume.

One of the more interesting aspects of this volume--which I’ve discovered to be consistent within the fields of organizational, behavioral, and moral psychology--is the promotion of a three-part character. According to Miller, someone who is virtuous, (1) does good actions, (2) does those actions in the right circumstances, and (3) does good actions for the right reason. True virtue is founded on a pattern of behaviors with these three elements. This is particular interesting as this formulation echoes the triperspectivalism of John Frame and the ethical framework of David W. Jones. The names for the aspects are different, but the parts correspond. This may be empirical evidence for the validity of these ethical schemas.

The limitations of this volume are caused by its format. The Character Gap is a popular level book that summarizes and makes accessible some of Miller’s more academic research. As such, there are times where the reader has to take Miller at his word, because the evidence is buried in a source called out in an endnote, and that source is barricaded behind a pricy paywall. However, it seems that Miller is arguing in good faith and so many of his conclusions are so commonsensical that there is little reason to doubt his findings. This is a helpful book that will inform the casual reader and can point the more engaged student toward further study.

Christian Miller has produced an excellent, accessible volume on human character. His arguments are well-supported, lucid, and offer hope for progress in character formation. Miller’s book should inform future discussions in Christian ethics and, perhaps, raise interest in the psychological study of character among moral theologians.

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

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good - A Review

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good is the sort of project that offers hope for interdisciplinary dialogue. The premise of the book is to provide a response to the basic question how social sciences can inform theology. For the most part, the essays are helpful in this regard, especially for those who rely on traditional Catholic Social Teachings as a foundation for their theology.

With a few exceptions, the non-theologians’ explanations of their contribution to theology are helpful. The majority of the authors avoided the assumption that theology should conform to the findings of their discipline; instead they argued that their disciplines could inform the application of theology.

For example, Christian theology makes the moral claim that Christians should be engaged in seeking the welfare of the poor. Economics provides evidence for how best that should take place. Or, to state it differently, theology provides the telos for the method of economics. When political science, public policy, sociology, and economics claim to provide both the definition of the common good and the method for attaining to the common good, they transgress into the area of applied theology, or ethics. When discipline failure like that happen, the result is the current elevation of politics, economics, and sexuality to the status of summum bonum for society. That, as we see around us, is a guarantee of the pursuit of anything but a true common good.

After Daniel Finn’s editorial introduction, the volume contains eight essays by experts in a variety of disciplines, all making arguments about how their particular discipline contributes to theological arguments about the common good. Chapter One is political scientist, Matthew Carnes, showing how his discipline contributes to a cross-disciplinary discussion through four emphases within Political Science. In the second chapter, Andrew Yuengert asserts that economics can help theologians understand the role of individual choice in seeking the common good. Mary Jo Bane, a public policy specialist, argues in Chapter Three for the contribution of her discipline in helping theologians understand trade-offs implicit in pursuing the common good. In the fourth chapter, Douglas Porpora argues that sociologists have little to say about the constitution of the common good, but have a great deal of expertise in showing how to measure and evaluate the pursuit of those theologically identified ends.

Charles Wilber, an economist, echoes Porpora in his essay in Chapter Five. He argues that economics can help measure progress toward human flourishing, while acknowledging the failure of most economists to separate economic metrics from a holistic understanding of the common good. The sixth chapter puts bureaucracy in perspective, as Gerardo Sanchis Muños dissects the failure of public service to serve the common good. Theologian David Cloutier critiques contemporary iterations of Catholic social teaching, pointing to less individualistic emphases in earlier stages of the tradition in Chapter Seven. The eighth and final chapter, theologian-economist Mary Hirschfeld reasserts the importance of theology for the social sciences, so that a proper understanding of the common good may develop.

The clear message of this volume is that theology needs social sciences to understand how to accomplish its moral ends, while the social sciences need theology to inform them of the nature of the common good. In the present fragmented state of academia, there is too much isolation in separate ivory towers. That is unhealthy for students and tragic for the development of robust worldviews that have a defined end and cogent methodology.

Somewhat surprisingly, this volume is favorable toward markets, though critical of market economics untethered to a moral foundation. However, the various authors regularly affirm the improved possibilities for flourishing that come from enabling market economics. Given the use of Catholic Social Teaching by some to argue for forms of economic socialism, this is volume that deserves careful attention. It may be that proponents of various forms of socialism are, in fact, conflating a pursuit of the common good with discredited means to achieve it.

Like other volumes that Finn has edited, this collection of essays reflects careful conversation. The essays refer to one another and show signs of having been shaped by the arguments in various chapters. This makes the volume easier to read and more helpful for classroom instruction or dialog than many edited volumes that appear to be a random collection of voices shouting in the wilderness.

If there are two things clearly explained in this volume it is (1) that we need more interdisciplinary dialogue, else theology and social sciences tend toward tyranny, and (2) we need not abandon the methodology of market economics for central planning to better approximate the common good.

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

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling - A Review

Charles Williams stands in literary history among the group of men called the Inklings.  Most famously, that group includes J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Often Owen Barfield is mentioned along with them, too.  Williams gets discussed but often on the fringes—a much less known person than Lewis or Tolkien. He remains known, in part, because of his association with the other two.

Whereas there are many biographies (authorized and otherwise) on Lewis and Tolkien, there have been few on Williams. Recently Oxford University Press has published a lengthy biography on Williams by poet and literary critic, Grevel Lindop.

Who is Williams?

It is appropriate that OUP publish this biography of the third Inkling because Williams’ biography is as much the history of OUP as it is the story of his own life. He worked for many years as an editor at Amen House, the London office of the Oxford University Press. During World War II, he worked for OUP in Oxford proper.

For the student of English literature, particularly of modern British literature, Williams’ life and work is interesting because of his interactions with the intelligentsia of that era. He corresponded in detail with Dorothy L. Sayers. He was friends with T.S. Eliot. He interacted with Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manly Hopkins and others. Some of these, even more than Tolkien and Lewis, are names that haunt the syllabi in colleges to this day. Williams helped shape the literary history of the English language due to his significant position as an editor of volumes, curator of anthologies, and author of prefaces and introductions. Lindop chronicles the work of Williams quite adeptly along those lines.

Williams was also a creator of literature. He wrote poetry, plays, and novels. Some of them are still in print today. In this endeavor Williams was, perhaps, no less avid than some of his more popular friends. However, he was much less successful.

Although he wrote numerous novels, plays, and poems, he was regularly in financial difficulty. (This stemmed in part due to the low wages paid by OUP.) Yet he, like many other creative people, was frantic to put his vibrant imaginations onto paper and thus bring others into the worlds he was creating. He often published without pay and when he was paid, it was often very little. In that regard little has changed in the literary world.

He was enthralled with the Arthurian legends as well as with mystic and sometimes occult practices. Williams was involved in several secret organizations that incorporated various magical rituals, mystical concepts such as sharing the pain of others, and syncretistic practices that melded Christianity with pagan rites. Most of what Lindop describes is rather benign and not dark magic, as it were, but Williams had shaky theology to say the least.

His Theology and Praxis

Williams was obsessed with his notion of Romantic Theology and wrote a book by that title. The concept is that through romantic love one could have a spiritual experience. Lindop deals with this in some detail, but it is not a fully orthodox conception of worship. However, it points toward some of the disturbing aspects of Williams’ amorous life.

He married a woman for whom he experienced something akin to love at first sight. He and his wife, whom he nicknamed Michal after David’s wife, remained married until his death just before the end of World War II. However, Williams was not faithful to her in any true sense of the word.

According to Lindop, it does not appear that Williams committed physical adultery with any woman. However, he committed many emotional affairs with young women around the office of Oxford University Press. In these relationships Williams often released sexual energy through mildly sadomasochistic practices like light spanking, striking palms with rulers, and other minor forms of “discipline.” Often these encounters occurred in broad daylight in the offices of OUP. In many of these interactions, Williams acted as a spiritual mentor to the young ladies, thus inculcating their devotion and submission to his odd practices.

Williams also developed the idea that the biblical mandate to “bear one another’s burdens” included the ability to suffer by proxy for an individual—to take on the physical and emotional pain of someone, whether known or not, and thus reduce it. He was quite active in organizing these activities among what seems to be a fairly broad group of spiritual followers. 

Relative Obscurity

The unwholesome affections and spiritualism help explain why Williams, even when he is read, does not resonate with as wide an audience as Lewis and Tolkien. Certainly, as Lindop documents, Williams was as innovative as the two more famous Inklings, perhaps even more innovative. But his gospel was tainted by spiritualism and distorted understanding of love. This cannot help but come through in his writing. While Lewis and Tolkien are telling the greatest story ever through their myths, Williams was caught up in spiritualism that effectively drew his mind from the truth.

Also, where Lewis and Tolkien understand joy and hope, Williams led an unhappy and unfulfilled life. He was constantly nervous. He was always something of a social oddity. He withdrew from his family often to be creative and productive. Lindop paints the portrait of one who well knew suffering, but little knew joy. This, too, seasons his writing and helps explain why he continues to be read but rarely devoured by generations of devotees, like those that follow Lewis and Tolkien.

Lindop’s biography of Charles Williams is good. The research is well done, with many footnotes and ample evidence of thorough research into Williams’ extensive correspondence and his voluminous literary estate.  This is a book that needed to be written and has been written well. If it fails to inspire as much as a biography of another Inkling, that is likely because a fair telling of the life of Charles Williams cannot be a happy story if it is to be an honest one.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling
By Grevel Lindop

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

Inventing American Religion - A Review

In our interminable run-up to the next U.S. Presidential election, we are regularly bombarded with information from a variety of sources about how each of the candidates from both parties are doing in the polls. Often these poll results, whether from Pew Research, Gallup, or another organization, include information about how a particular candidate is faring in a particular religious demographic.

There are some who question how those religious profiles are constructed and whether they are, indeed, accurate.

In the newly released book, Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith, Robert Wuthnow outlines the rise of scientific polling, the increasing influence of the religious questions in them, and the more recent decline in support for the published poll results.


Wuthnow’s thesis is “that the polling industry has influenced—and at times distorted—how religion is understood and portrayed, particularly in the media but also to some extent by religious leaders, practitioners, and scholars.” He argues this thesis is eight chapters.

The introduction outlines the early history of public polling and surveys the breadth of the history that Wuthnow goes on to unpack and interpret in the remaining seven chapters. Chapter Two covers the early attempts to do comprehensive surveys to assess public opinion. Such surveys were accurate for local issues, but they were time consuming, expensive, and unable to establish broader public opinion. Still, they were a common tool used by social organizers like Du Bois. In the third chapter, Wuthnow outlines the rise of George Gallup, who pioneered the use of the scientific poll to assay public opinion on a broader scale; since Gallup was a self-professed Christian, he asked religious questions in his polls, which began the process of examining the impact of religion on social and political positions.

Chapter Four highlights the differences between scientific studies, which are usually carried out by scholars, and public opinion polls. Wuthnow explains that polls are designed as quick hit diagnostics, based on an attempt to gain a rough idea of a person's opinion with as few questions as possible. In contrast, scientific studies ask more probing questions. As a result, scientific studies tend to be more narrowly focused, but they also tend to have more precise explanations for the results. Scientific studies go after the “why” not merely the “what.” In the fifth chapter, the evolution of the pollster as pundit is discussed. In 1976, the so-called year of the evangelical, the religion question become more important. Suddenly Gallup’s years of asking about religion began to pay off. Additionally, the people doing the polls began to interpret them for the media audiences. It’s easy to see how possible misinterpretations can result. This trend to question the polls has grown since that point; for some, the promise of punditry undermines the possibility of objectivity in the polls.

In the sixth chapter, Wuthnow describes the falling confidence in polls. This was due to the conflation of pundits and pollsters. It also has to do with the changing demographic of respondents. Initially people would answer the phone and respond to polls, but that began to change. Response rate became an issue and the questions about the demographics of those actually responding to polls arose. Additionally, external observers (though not the pollsters themselves) began to question some of the ways conclusions were drawn. These observers began to notice fluctuations in some of the responses, such that the percentage of church goers varied widely across a six-month span in some cases. Chapter Seven discusses the breaking down of the fourth wall, when pollsters began to take polls about polls. The answers began to show a growing distrust in the accuracy and usefulness of polling. However, Wuthnow argues that the influence of polling is far from gone. He notes, “Polling studies demonstrate that polling rarely has discernible effects on election outcomes, but it offers background information that draws attention to how candidates are doing and reinforces implicit perceptions that some issues are more important than others.”

Wuthnow concludes the book by surveying the state of polling in Chapter Eight. Polls are still important, but they aren’t the trusted sources of information they once were. They are now more likely to be used as sermon illustrations or points for beginning a more in depth process of investigation. Polls continue to suffer due to lowering response rates. People's lives have become saturated with polls, opinion questions, and other calls for feedback. In a world of big data, politicians and corporations are turning away from using polls as ultimate grounds for decisions; better information is available in usage statistics from Facebook, Twitter, and other sources. Additionally, the history of polls continues to show that the categories being used to define religion are no longer adequate (if they ever were). The future of polling, particularly related to religion, is indeterminate. It is unlikely that polls will disappear, but criticisms of polls may continue to reduce their importance. Time will tell.

Analysis and Conclusion

Wuthnow’s book is timely. Polls are regularly published; their results are lauded as sure truths by the 24-hour media cycle by pollsters and the talking heads. Real people, on the other hand, are asking more and more whether the results are trustworthy. After all, we think, when is the last time I was asked to respond to a poll? Most of us don’t even answer the phone when we don’t know the number. Our experience drives us to question the validity of polls, whether that is just or not.

Inventing American Religion is part history and part critique. His history shows what has happened and, it seems to me, explains is very clearly. His critique is a telling warning about how polls have been abused and how to avoid being mislead by them. At least it provides grounds for asking further questions, something that is nearly always a worthwhile endeavor.

The weakness of this volume is that it highlights a problem--the potential unreliability of polls--but it fails to provide a solution. This, of course, was not part of his thesis. However, if Wuthnow had any suggestions about how to improve the use of polls or interpret them better, it would have been good to include them.

In the balance, this is an important book for academics and pastors who want to use polls in their papers, books, and sermons. Wuthnow's point is well made: polls may not be trustworthy and misreading the data may well lead the consumer astray.

Note: Oxford University Press provided a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Part of Our Lives - A Review

What does your public library mean to you?

For many people, having a library card is an essential part of being a citizen. Being able to check out books independently as a child is a rite of passage that marks the coming of age.

Wayne Wiegand, sometimes referred to as the “Dean of library historians,” addresses both the political and social significance of public libraries in his recent book, Part of our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library.

While the subtitle indicates this is a people’s history, this is a volume more suitable for the scholar than the average reader. Wiegand’s prose is clear but dense. At times the pace bogs down in details and dates. This is a history of the people’s use of the public library rather than a history written primarily for the people that use it.


The book moves through the history of public libraries in the United States in ten chapters. Wiegand begins with the various forms of libraries, most of which were not free and available to citizens, during the colonial through early American era. He then transitions through consecutive periods in library history. In 1854 the first public library opened in Boston, then in 1876 the country celebrated its centennial. Wiegand marks the 1893 Chicago World Fair as a significant event, then he identifies the US entry into World War I. These divisions form reasonable points of demarcation for Wiegand’s history, though they are not necessarily intuitive.

Wiegand uses a mixed methods approach to present the history of public libraries. He combines an amazing depth of anecdotal research with seemingly comprehensive statistical data to put forward a detailed picture of who has used the library and for what reason. Wiegand’s purpose in writing the book was to show how the library and social change have been related. The book is thorough and informative; it paints a clear picture of how public libraries have changed with American society throughout history.


Throughout the volume Wiegand is critical of historical librarians for their handling of socially radical issues. It seems that he thinks that public libraries should be leading cultural change instead of responding to it. (Something government entities rarely, if ever, do.) However, at the same time, he critiques librarians for attempting to be cultural leaders through selecting some literature over others. Attempts to encourage higher rates non-fiction reading are frowned on, though Wiegand approves of attempts to liberalize sexual mores. The reluctance to accept the role of a public institution as reactive instead of cutting edge institution is consistent throughout. Wiegand addresses it toward the end of the volume, but his analysis of the reality of a publicly funded institution as lagging culture comes too late and does not reflect a fully-considered analysis of the history he is recounting.

A major theme in this work is the balance between selection and censorship by librarians. Wiegand documents the tension between attempts to meet the demands for decency and the free exploration of ideas. While there were certainly abuses, Wiegand seems to come down to heavily on those that were responding to the (at the time) reasonable demands from library patrons for some items to be kept out of reach of children. Still, his point about the lengths some librarians went to keep the wrong books out of certain hands is well-taken. There is a difference between taking measures to ensure age appropriate materials are available and blocking access to challenging ideas. At the same time, Wiegand seems to accept the restriction of Little Sambo while criticizing the censoring of sexually explicit books; it seems like the definition of censoring depends on whether the content meets contemporary societal standards.

Wiegand’s ideological musings could have been better developed and his perspective reflects a progressive bias. His development, exploration, and explanation of the history itself, however, is phenomenal. This is an outstanding piece of historical writing. Wiegand demonstrates an understanding of the subject matter that is the result of a lifetime of study. From that perspective this is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and should be a landmark work on this subject for years to come. I certainly have a greater appreciation of the public library system as a result of reading the volume.

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

A Defense of Nuclear Power

In the decade or so that I worked in nuclear power, I never found a comprehensive apologetic for nuclear power that was published in the marketplace. All of the arguments were available piecemeal or in a more unified manner from people inside the nuclear power guild, but none from someone who didn’t have a clearly vested interest in keeping nuclear plants running.

 Michael H. Fox is an emeritus professor in the Department of Environmental and Radiological and Health Sciences at Colorado State University. Here is an individual who is outside of the commercial and nuclear power world who has access to the best science about the most concerning aspects of the risk of nuclear––radiation and cancer.

 Fox’s conclusion is that compared to imminent risk of climate changes, the risks of nuclear power are worth it. He spends nearly three hundred pages making his case by considering the basic arguments for and against nuclear power, as well as the case for and against other forms of non-fossil energy.

 The beauty of this volume is that it is written at a level that can serve as an introduction, but it also ramps quickly into the explanations for the more technologically adept. With the clear structure of each chapter, I was able to skim past those explanations that I am familiar with based on my experience as an operator and instructor. By the end of each chapter, however, the progressive development of each explanation had me reading carefully to follow his explanations. Even regarding the topics that I am less familiar with––such as the mechanism of cancer development in cells––Fox’s explanations were sufficient for me to understand the more complex aspects based on his earlier explanations.

 This volume is, therefore, both a suitable introduction and a valuable reference on the topic of nuclear power.


The book is divided into three nearly equal parts. The first part deals with Fox’s explanation of the global warming and the contribution of Carbon Dioxide from coal and natural gas. He also explains the limitations of solar power and wind power. Fox is positive toward the benefits of renewable sources of energy. However, unlike many of the rabid proponents, he is realistic about the limitations in terms of capacity and footprint required, and he recognizes the ongoing need for baseline energy generation that fossil or nuclear will provide. Thus the future is in nuclear power, if real changes are to be made to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

 The second part is a discussion of radiation and its biological effects. This is the section that plays to Fox’s strength, as he explains some basic physics, then digs quickly in to a realistic analysis of the dangers of radiation. He doesn’t hide the real risk, but he also doesn’t overplay it. The reality, as Fox explains, is that any radiation exposure increases the risk of cancer, but the amount of additional exposure due to nuclear power is negligible compared with naturally occurring background.

 This is the most significant argument against nuclear power and Fox handles it well. However, the scientifically ignorant will continue to persist in their argument that any risk is unacceptable. For some reason this argument is powerful against nuclear power when it isn’t for other concerns. The miniscule risk increase of cancer from living near a nuclear plant, even using the conservative (i.e., inflated) estimates required by law, pales in comparison to having a speed limit over 15 MPH.

 The third part focuses on the risks of nuclear power. Fox deals with concerns about nuclear waste, which have been overblown by opponents. He deals with the real and tragic history of the three significant accidents in the history of nuclear power. He is fair about the consequences, but also notes the real learning that has taken place and points toward the attempts by anti-nuclear groups to grossly misrepresent the consequences. Then he deals with the issue of Uranium mining, also dealing with the failings in early nuclear power to deal appropriately with the risks of pollution. That damage was avoidable and is being avoided in properly conducted mining enterprises now. Finally, Fox concludes with a chapter debunking in summary the five most significant myths used to argue against nuclear power. He does this by accepting the truth in the claims and then showing why the arguments aren’t realistic or persuasive.


 Fox writes well and he is honest in his assessment of risks. In other words, he presents the reality of risks on all sides, without overstating his case. I would have thoroughly enjoyed this book simply because of the robust integrity Fox demonstrates, without having to agree with him. As it turns out, I agreed with the substance of Fox’s arguments, as well. He is realistic and helpful in how he argues. He is looking for solutions to problems instead of trying to manipulate emotions and control people’s lives through excessive regulation. There are points that I disagree with Fox, typically on the political implications of his arguments, but overall the case is well made and reasonable.

 If the modus operandi of environmentalists is followed, where only people that have PhD’s in climatology have a right to speak about climate change, then Fox’s  book will have amazing convincing power. Notably, the majority of anti-nuclear advocates speak from outside of the pool of people that have expertise in the area.  Unfortunately, well-reasoned arguments like that of Fox are much less likely to gain headlines than “Fukushima is leaking, we’re all going to die and the government doesn’t care.” Indeed, that is largely the nature of a recent book which includes the Union of Concerned Scientists among its authors.

 If you have questions about nuclear power, buy this book and read it. If you are a proponent of nuclear power, buy this book and cite it in your arguments. This is, hands down, the best one stop reference on the subject I have encountered.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.