Expect Great Things - A Review

Expect Great Things is a spiritual biography of Henry David Thoreau. It provides an in-depth exploration of the nuances of this celebrated individualistic naturalist. Kevin Dann does the dirty work of digging through Thoreau’s various writings, including his copious personal diaries and correspondence, and correlating those informal writings with his published works.

If Dann’s biography of Thoreau is taken seriously, the work that some have done to include Thoreau on the list of vaguely Christian environmentalists should be viewed skeptically. The image Dann presents is of a man who held both strong skepticism of Christian truth with credulous belief in some of the spiritualistic superstitions common in early America. Thoreau certain used language that resonated with Christianity in some of his writings, but his own beliefs were far afield from orthodoxy by any reasonable reading. Dann argues that Thoreau was fascinated with Christ but rejected Christianity. However, to love the man and hate his bride does not show much affection for the loved object.

In addition to presenting the meandering spirituality of Thoreau over the course of his life, Expect Great Things provides a window into the complex and often bizarre spiritual beliefs that were common in ante-bellum America. Dann surveys the rise in popularity of the Freemasons, with their uniquely American adaptations. He spends several pages covering the evolution of the Mormon cult, the various prophetic cults that arose in the early 19th century, and the perversions of Christianity that arose from the Millerites and other pseudo-Christian digressions.

Some of this supernaturalism apparently came from incomplete understanding of natural science. Just as pseudo-Christianity was common, so was pseudo-science. Meteor showers were described in periodicals as divine signs. Accounts of sea serpents were accepted as factual and often embellished. Final conclusions were published about natural phenomena based on partial observations. This led to supernatural explanations for natural events and misinformation about much that would be later clarified. According to Dann, Thoreau’s practice of careful observation was an improvement over many other naturalists of the day.

The structure of this book is weak. The story of Thoreau’s life meanders through chronologically. There are chapter breaks, but there is often little clear reason for the distinction in chapters. The volume has no introduction and thus the reader is left to try to figure out what Dann’s purpose is in writing the book; there is no clear thesis. The aimless wandering of the book may provide a suitable simile for the life of Henry David Thoreau, but that sort of literary experiment is more effective in essays than in book length biographies.

The concluding paragraphs transition with little warning from anecdotes of Thoreau to the moral that Dann appears to want to draw. Based on those few paragraphs, it appears that Thoreau’s life is supposed to reflect the good of radical individualism codified into law based on universally accepted facts that are epistemologically impossible. In short, this account (and perhaps the actual life of Thoreau) represents the impossible tension between the desire to express and the prohibition of contrary expression that we see in modern culture. As such, Dann may have uncovered the patron saint for some in our confused time, but what he highlights in the life of Thoreau provides little worth emulating for those committed to the possibility and importance of pursuing truth.

Despite its weaknesses in form, Expect Great Things has a place within contemporary discourse on Thoreau. Dann sets Thoreau in historical context quite well. He pushes against the idea of a Christian Thoreau and presents more thoroughly the Thoreau that many have seen in the pages of the man's work. Dann adds to the field of study by presenting a nuanced, robust, and realistic portrait of Thoreau's spiritualism. This is also an interesting look into the spiritual climate of the early nineteenth century. For individuals interested in a casual, entertaining read about Henry David Thoreau, this book may be a real treat. 

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

Reclaiming Hope - A Review

Michael Wear’s recent book Reclaiming Hope is a call for Christians to remain hopeful about the future, despite the misuse and abuse of religion in politics in recent years. Although similar messages have been promoted and led to failure, Wear’s message is a worthwhile one: authentic Christian hope should lead to Christians continuing to participate in politics as Christians. This means that we need to seek the good of the city in which God has placed us and remain critical of both political parties.

Wear is one of the many in the millennial generation who believe that greater government participation in redistribution of wealth is a good thing. The front half of the book recounts his alignment with the Obama White House on the good of passing the Affordable Care Act, which has made purchasing medical insurance legally required with financial penalties for those who choose not to participate in the market. Wear recounts Obama’s use of religious language in supporting things as way that faith can influence policy. For those that oppose the seemingly ever increasing growth of the government through programs like the Affordable Care Act, the front end of the book seems like a bit of tedious hero worship of President Obama. Those who find themselves so frustrated should continue on through the volume. Wear is recording the events as he saw them at the time, though he appears to more critically examine those events later in the volume.

Aside from Wear’s bias toward the government as a means for achieving economic justice, a portrait of the President Obama’s faith begins to emerge. Wear, a socially conservative evangelical Christian, participated in both of Obama’s campaigns and in the first term White House Staff as part of the faith outreach. Part of Wear’s job was to counter the attacks on Obama’s faith, which came from more conservative Christians based on Obama’s apparent support of the continued legalization of abortion and other causes supported by the platform of the Democratic National Convention.

The portrait of Obama’s faith that emerges is of an authentically faithful, liberal Christianity. In this sense, I am not using liberal as a dismissive insult, but to qualify the form of Christianity that Obama appears to hold and to have held. That is, a Christianity that truly holds to certain tenets of the orthodox faith, but sees fit to accept other elements that do not accord with biblical Christianity when historical orthodoxy appears to conflict with modern understandings of the world. This is the sort of Christianity that sees the gospel as primarily a call to social justice rather than personal conversion that leads people to pursue true justice in society in response to God’s justice. Wear, whose doctrine appears to be more consistently orthodox than Obama’s, paints a portrait of a President who sees the impetus toward apparent goods from within Christianity and finds motivation from that, but who may not have accepted the authority of Scripture over all areas of life and practice.

The first half of the book recounts the Obama political machine’s pursuit of doctrinally conservative Christians and efforts to enact a unifying vision for politics. The second half of the volume, however, outlines the ways that the Obama White House subverted those processes, discarded efforts to meaningfully work for a common vision of the good. This failure to seek common cause is highlighted by the Obama Administration's refusal to drop the contraceptive mandate despite the large number of Roman Catholic Bishops who would have otherwise have supported the measure. Wear documents his frustration that the White House staffers were unable or unwilling to understand that prohibition of contraception is a longstanding, significant tenet of Roman Catholic doctrine and to unnecessarily impose a violation of conscience on Roman Catholics in the marketplace would result in alienation of a large base. Additionally, Wear recounts the instant amnesia sexual revolutionaries developed in their efforts to excoriate and persecute those who held a vision of marriage that even Obama held until 2011. Wear reveals a political machine that, at least in part, did not (and likely still does not) understand the place and power of faith in the lives of the faithful of many religions.

Later chapters document the anti-religious influences in the White House overcoming the efforts of Wear and other faithful staffers. This was punctuated by the DNC’s overt pushing of social advocate, shock-value entertainer Lena Dunham’s video comparing voting for Obama in 2008 with her first sexual encounter. Also, the Obama campaign in 2012 used profanity laced e-mails to rally support. The shift into a post-religious White House (which is not to say a post-religious Obama) could be seen in the demonization of Louie Giglio prior to the 2013 inauguration, whose 20-year-old sermon expounding traditional sexual morality was sufficient to result in many public attacks and his ouster from praying at the inauguration. As Wear notes, “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel all dissent.” (pg 190) This is the reality that many have experienced, which has alienated many of the faithful from the Democratic National Convention, and has helped to push some to vote against Hillary Clinton in the most recent election.

Wear closes the volume with a constructive appeal to a biblical concept of hope, which Christians alone can bring to politics. Whatever policy disagreements I have with Wear, these chapters are helpful. The loss of real hope is detrimental to politics, it leads to fragmentation, hatefulness, and eventually a politics that must win at all cost for fear or retribution. If nothing else, this last section is worth the price of the book, since it reveals the reality of socially conservative, faithfully living evangelicals who have participated in politics with the Democratic National Convention and don’t hate orthodox Christianity. Wear’s willingness to communicate his basis of support for some of the DNC’s policies while seeking to effect change from within. He should be honored for such efforts.

This is a helpful book in many respects. It undermines the notion that being a faithful, socially conservative Christian prevents engaging in politics with the DNC. It provides a glimpse to some of the machinations of the political machine, which should cause both the right and left to question exactly who wrote and how sincerely are meant statements that seem faithful from politicians. It may be that people like Wear are, in good faith, helping politicians craft statements that allow them to seem rather than be truly faithful. Finally, and perhaps the most important lesson in this bleary eyed post-election season, Wear’s volume reminds the reader that we cannot cease participating in politics even when both parties hold positions repugnant to faithful Christians. We must, necessarily, seek to gracefully engage in politics for the common good as we best understand it. We must also seek to be gracious with those with whom we disagree and seek to critique their policy, not their faith.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume as part of the launch team for this book. There was no expectation of a positive review.

Darwinism as Religion - A Review

Although most of the time I’ve encountered Darwinian evolution as a theory it has been within the context of apologetic debates, I’ve never before heard someone from the other side of the debate admit the truth that is very obvious to many Christians. This truth is, namely, that Darwinism functions much like a religion.

To many, the assertion that Darwinism has religious traits is offensive. After all, the reason some adhere to Darwinism is not because they have rationally examined it and accepted it over alternatives, but because it provides a set of defeater beliefs against traditional religions, especially Christianity. In fairness, some have examined Darwinism in comparison to the creation story in Scripture and believe that atheistic evolution better explains the universe than does the possibility of creation by a deity, no matter how long it may have taken. However someone who affirms a form of Darwinian evolution should recognize there are faith structures at work.

Michael Ruse is no proponent of creationism or Christianity, but his thesis is pretty simple: “I argue that evolutionary thinking generally over the past 300 years of its existence, and Darwinian thinking in particular since the publication of [his] two great works . . ., has taken on the form and role of a religion.”

Ruse is not claiming that evolutionists believe in a supreme being, but rather, “in the way that evolution tries to speak to the nature of humans and their place in the scheme of things, we have a religion, or if you want to speak a little more cautiously a ‘secular religious perspective.’”

What Ruse does argue is that the are ordering principles and moral demands that people have derived from evolutionary thought during its rise and sustenance. Just as deities have inspired beautiful poetry and prose, so, too, have authors used the muse of random chance plus time to serenade the world with their art. Darwinism has become for some a suitable replacement for the Christian God.


This volume is an analysis of pre-Darwinian and Darwinian evolutionary thought. He begins with the rudimentary ideas of evolution that preceded Darwin. He offers a quick summary of Darwin’s theory and its early reception, emphasizing the many of those who heard his theories early on recognized the potential for them to serve in replacement for the creator God. These are the first four chapters. The sub-thesis of these chapters is that Darwin’s most signal contribution was being able to transition evolutionary thought from pseudoscience to popular science.

In Chapter Five, the emphasis shifts. Beginning in this section through the end of the volume, Ruse is demonstrating that through Darwin, evolutionary thought “became a secular religion, in opposition to Christianity.” Ruse recognizes that evolutionary thinking requires faith just as Christianity requires faith; it posits thinking in traditional theological categories just as Christianity does. In fact, because of its competition with Christianity for dominance in the world, Ruse spends the remainder of the volume outlining, to some extent, a systematic theology of evolution.

He begins with God. Ruse argues that evolutionary thinkers like Thomas Huxley active sought to replace God with evolution. Thus, he and others had to deal with topics like suffering and meaning in life. Something had to be used to fill the God shaped vacuum and some evolutionary thinkers sought to do that through Darwinian evolution. Meaning, then, becomes not about glorifying the creator God, but fulfilling your evolutionary destiny. For some that appears to have been enough.

Evolutionary thinking is largely seen by some Christians as a theory of origins. It is, in fact, on these lines that the greatest Christian criticism of non-theistic evolution is levied. Instead of seeing God as the eternal creator, they tended to begin with the material as inexplicable and eternal. This left some, like Thomas Hardy presenting the world in somewhat pagan terms in order to avoid the hopeful message of Christianity.

Ruse traces literary evidences of other doctrines, like humanity, race and class, and ethics. Another sharp critique against evolutionary thought from Christians has been the difficulty in founding morality. Thus, Ruse’s efforts to explain how Darwinian thinkers produced a new formula for ethics. It is basically that morality is founded in the evolution of pro-social behaviors in culture. This explanation worked for the likes of Herbert Spencer, George Eliot, and Thomas Huxley, but it worked in part because of the Christian ethos of the culture. There was division even among evolutionary thinkers on the foundations of morality, as Ruse shows that even Jack London anticipated some source for morality besides a properly evolved human nature. Whether one agrees with the foundations of morality developed by evolutionary thinkers or not, Ruse’s chapter is invaluable in showing how they attempted work it out in their literature.

There are similar formulations for topics such as sex, sin and redemption, and the future in Ruse’s book. His exposition of these themes, which are direct answers to Christian questions, are well done. Ruse effectively shows how evolutionary thought has developed in categories that correspond to most theistic religions. He closes out the book with chapters on Darwinian theory as it developed and is developing and reflects on the continued strife between traditional Christian understandings of the world and Darwinian thought.


The summary above does not do justice to the subtlety and significance of Ruse’s demonstration of the religious aspects of Darwinism. He is working from the works of poets, novelists, and playwrights. While they might not be as ideologically precise as a professional philosopher, artists tend to reflect a more full-bodied, authentic expression of ideas than the careful, precise, sometimes defensive words of those engaged in philosophical fencing. In other words, writers tend to say what they actually think something means, not just the pieces of the puzzle that are defensible. Apologists tend to be more coy and to phrase their counter-arguments less clearly when they are difficult to defend.

As Ruse covers his selected topics through literature, it becomes clear that the sense of religiosity that Christians tend to find in evolutionary thinking is actually there. In other words, Ruse exposes that Darwinism is really a religion, with tenets of faith, concern for orthodoxy and the like.

Demonstrating the religiosity of Darwinism doesn’t automatically discount its credibility, but it does put it on an even footing with Christianity in terms of its content. In other words, instead of being able to claim that evolutionary theory is an impartial, scientific truth, Ruse shows that as it is often proclaimed—by Darwinists, neo-Darwinists, and other evolutionary apologists—evolutionary theory is simply a competitor to other religions.

This is an important step, because if this reality is accepted, it means that Darwinian thinking and its later evolutions should be subjected to the same sorts of rationalist critique as revealed religions such as Christianity. It means that apologists for evolutionary faith over against Christianity must do their leg work to engage the Christian faith and demonstrate the value of their own faith system. Ruse is helping the discussion to be more honest.

Such a calling to honest self-evaluation and openness to legitimate discussion is a good thing for the dialog for evolutionary thinkers and Christians. Recently proponents of unguided evolution have come to ridicule anyone that presupposes a divine being who is engaged in design and creation. They claim this is because of science, but as Ruse shows, the basis of their assertion is really a serious of quasi-religious faith assumptions.  After all, evolutionists must still grapple with where it all came from and why there is something rather than nothing. That isn’t science, it needs religious thinking to explain it. Simply positing that aliens sent life to earth is really just cheating, because it isn’t far from aliens to God in reality—at least not as far as the need for belief. In fact, given the possibility of revelation, there is much less evidence of aliens than there is God.


Darwinism as Religion does not end any discussions. It is a solid literary analysis by a well-read, fair-minded author. Instead of killing discussions or proving anyone’s point absolutely in the whole evolution vs. Christianity debate, it shows that the debate is necessary and that those who dismiss Christianity as irrationally faith based need to pay attention to the faith assumptions that got them where they are.

Ruse has done a great work to produce this volume. It adds to the field of scholarship on the topic and is a great addition to the library of both Christians and atheists seeking to understand the historical and literary presentation of evolutionary thought.

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

Our Focus on the Cross

For Christians, this is one of the most religiously significant weeks of the year. This Sunday we will celebrate the Messiah’s victory over sin, death, and hell. Along with that, we will celebrate our participation in that victory by the grace of God.

The truth and power of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection for the world is the most important reality that Christians have to communicate to the surrounding world. My hope for myself is that I will allow myself to live in this moment of remembrance and demonstrate the truthfulness of the most significant fact of available redemption for all of creation, including those who believe. The challenge is to keep the cares of the world from choking out this all important message at this very focused time.

The Superlative Reality

Doorway to Holy Week, used by CC license, Alves Family. http://ow.ly/ZNSc8 

Doorway to Holy Week, used by CC license, Alves Family. http://ow.ly/ZNSc8 

Many pastors begin their weekly sermon by commenting why this week’s passage is “the most important” or “my favorite” more than occasionally. No doubt after the pastor has labored over the text that week, there is a sense of familiarity and appreciation for it that makes a regular lapse into superlative language forgivable. Likely the label simply means that the pastor is excited by the content or that this is a truth that should press home to the congregation. This is a foible that can be quickly passed over.

However, when the apostle Paul, who was not prone to abuse the superlative, declares something to be of first importance it should cause us to sit up and listen.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. I Cor 15:3-8

Paul’s message that is of first importance is simply that the atonement has come and that due to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection humans can be freed from the penalty of their sin.

The Trap of Complacency

For those of us that have been in church, the Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday (maybe), Good Friday, Easter Sunday pattern can seem mundane and repetitive. In fact, if a congregation is not careful, the celebration of these events can become mundane. Complacency is a real human danger, where we fail to recognize the importance of what we are doing.

In the years that I worked in nuclear power, complacency was a constant enemy and a visible concern. There were signs posted around the training building that declared, “Complacency will kill us.” Working in an industrial environment, and with powerful technology like nuclear power, made that truth especially valid. But everything becomes routine when we become familiar with it.

At times, we have to intentionally focus on the special nature of a particular truth so that its power comes home to us once again. That’s what the week leading to the celebration of Easter is supposed to do.

Making it Special

Leading up to this Easter season, our family has been focusing on the names of Jesus using a series of daily devotionals that my wife wrote. This has helped keep Christology at the heart of our discussions for the past weeks.

We will likely read and watch parts of the Jesus Storybook Bible in the coming days. We will read passages of Scripture from the passion accounts. All this to make the season memorable and worshipful, as much as we are able.

Even these things can become another flourish in an already-too-busy life, though. The challenge for all of us is to find a way to make the celebration significant and focus on the powerful reality of it without making it just another thing to do.

Avoiding Distraction

The world seems to seek ways to distract from the gravity. This week already, we’ve seen a terrorist attack. There is an ongoing political spectacle that has dragged on for eternity and seems like it will go on forever. If history repeats itself, there will be a well-timed controversy over religious revisionism—both through articles rejecting the historicity of Scripture and from voices seeking to protest traditional Christian morality on some hot-button topic.

The pattern of these events is all too regular for them not to be timed, if not by humans, then perhaps by some of the spiritual forces that we forget about sometimes.

Whether these are simply more notable distractions because they occur during a time of more intentional religious devotion or somehow orchestrated is irrelevant. What is significant is their power to pull our gaze away from the cross, its power, its meaning, and its historicity.

The reality of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is of first importance according to Paul. Do not allow anything to tear your focus away from pondering that profound truth this week.