The Shallows - A Review

Recently several news outlets have reported that humans have begun to have skeletal adaptions based on our modern lives. Although the exact cause may not be clear, it appears the people that use smartphones and other digital devices regularly may begin to see biological changes due to looking down more than any previous generation. A humoristic vision of the human future might have people with extremely well-developed thumbs and hunched shoulders several hundred years in the future.

Whether our physical bodies are indeed changing will likely be explored more fully in the years to come, but it appears that the internet is indeed changing how people think, reason, and learn. That thesis is the subject of Nicholas Carr’s seminal book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Published in 2010, Carr’s book has been oft cited, including in more recent books like Andy Crouch’s Techwise Family and Jacob Shatzer’s Transhumanism and the Image of God. At the time, Carr’s book sounded an alarm about the changes to the human mind caused by the easy access to information that was always available.

Though it has been nearly a decade since Carr wrote, his ideas have been proven to be more correct than he likely could have imagined. When his book was published, the iPhone was only a few years old and smartphones were just beginning to exist at the price point where the majority of the population in the developed world could have access to them. Now it is only the rare individual that does not have a smartphone.

As internet memes remind us, the smartphone would have ruined a large number of movie plots recorded through history. Is there a bomb in the building? No need to rush through traffic to warn those inside, simply text, call, or instant message those threatened by disaster. This wonder of technology in the form of a quarter pound of silicon and heavy metals promises a world where communication is easy and instantaneous. That sounded like a promise of lower stress and a simpler life.

The reality has not lived up to the promise. Surveys continue to indicate that people are more stressed now than in decades past. There seems to be good evidence that the internet, and particularly constant access to it, are increasing the feelings of stress and disconnection.

Additionally, human learning habits have changed. While I served on the administration of Oklahoma Baptist University, I would overhear students complaining about closed book exams. Their reasoning was that “in the real world” they would be able to do an internet search for all of the answers. They could see no need to know historical facts or even how to do mathematics. When the information or process was really needed, it would only be few keystrokes away. This was not a particular trait of students at my university, but a general trend in how the population values knowledge and skill. The pervasiveness of this attitude has been reinforced by the recent graduates that I have worked with who have little cultural awareness (outside of the memes and hot-button issues they have been inundated with) and lack the ability to learn.

One of the key changes Carr highlights is the shift from deep reading to skimming. The internet fuels this, as people spend less and less time on a given website. Our brains reward us for changing the source and nature of the stimulation we receive with a little hit of dopamine. This is why many kids’ shows and even recent, popular movies change camera angles at a nausea-inducing rate. This is why when I see people outside at a scenic destination, they are less overwhelmed with the grandeur of the sights and more concerned with posting their selfies and checking to see who has affirmed them for sharing.

The change in the ability to read has become apparent in my own life. Since I have adopted a smartphone and the internet is only a click away wherever I am I have a harder time focusing on deep reading. Even when my phone is across the room, my eyes wander off the page periodically as I begin to wonder what is going on outside of my immediate vicinity. There is a constant pull to be stimulated that I was less subject to before I spent my day at an internet-connected computer with a supercomputer in my pocket.

It is not clear what changes will evolve in humans and in society in the coming years, but there is a case to be made that many of them will be a net negative. As Christians we need to think carefully about what technology is doing to us and, more significantly, what technology is for. It seems as if easy access to the internet is making us shallower as individuals. If that is the case, then we must find ways to resist the deleterious effects that may limit our ability to meditate on Christ and become more like him.

The Making of Christian Morality - A Review

There is a common approach to Christian ethics, especially among revisionists, that views the development of Christian thought as a synthetic process rather than an organic one. That view is on display in David Horrell’s recent book, The Making of Christian Morality: Reading Paul in Ancient and Modern Contexts.

Horrell is professor of New Testament studies at the University of Exeter. I was introduced to him through his work in ecotheology, particularly in his attempt to re-read Paul’s letter through an environmentally friendly lens in Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, and his plea for revising Christian hermeneutics in light of environmental concerns in The Bible and the Environment.

Although Horrell’s title includes the entire New Testament, the bulk of his career has been invested in Pauline studies. For Horrell, the study of Paul is distinct from the study of Christian thought, since he views Paul’s writings and those he believes to be incorrectly attributed to Paul to be radically different from the rest of the Christian tradition. This sort of approach, which is fairly typical in critical approaches to Christian scholarship, makes reshaping Scripture for his desired purposes much easier.

The Making of Christian Morality is a collection of essays, all of which were published elsewhere and/or delivered as conference papers. The result is a somewhat loose connection of individual entries in topics that interest Horrell rather than a cogent argument about a particular topic.

The book contains three parts, with each section focusing on a particular subject of concern. Part One deals with Horrell’s interest in the sociohistorical context of Paul’s writings. His first essay begins by ignoring the possibility of continuity between the authors of Scripture, but goes on to argue against distinct “Pauline” churches, which are a central plank in the arguments of some revisionists. In Chapter Two, Horrell debunks some popular constructs about early church architecture largely by revealing the slim evidence that some conclusions (which have and will likely make their way into commentaries and sermons) were based on. This is the most useful essay in the volume and relies on interdisciplinary research that basically calls for Christian scholars to hold their opinions until further evidence can be uncovered. The third essay largely argues from silence and conjecture that Philemon may have been a middle-class Christian instead of a major patron of the church. This apparently is a significant topic of concern in Pauline studies. The most significant contribution of this essay is Horrell’s astute observation that the supposed household baptism that forms the strongest biblical evidence for paedobaptism was not evidenced in Philemon’s household, where Onesimus was converted well after his master. Chapter Four explores the way the language of family was used in the Pauline corpus. The argument of this chapter functions best alongside Horrell’s assumptions about what is authentic and inauthentic, which, to little surprise is partially a function of the conclusions he and others draw about the use of language in the letters attributed to Paul.

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Part Two shifts to the topic of Pauline ethics. The fifth essay begins with the assertion that “in the study of Pauline ethics the contours of current debate are still shaped by the early contributions of Rudolf Bultmann.” This helps explain the limited value of Horrell’s work and other works on “Pauline ethics” for Christians and those who study Christian ethics. This essay emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection in Pauline ethics, but resolves with a whimper as Horrell considers how that vision can help lead toward a Rawlsian consensus ethics, which is an essential part of the liberal order as Horrell sees it. In Chapter Six, Horrell uses Pauline ethics to argue that ethics ought to be culturally determined. That is, that a Pauline ethics is best evidenced by agreement with and enforcement of norms that are generally socially acceptable. To oversimplify the case (but still to give a sense of the argument), a Pauline ethics is one that rejects Christians as a contrast community and develops a community of people that affirm the values of the culture better than the culture. The seventh chapter explores the concept of humility as a central part of a Pauline ethics (though largely consistent with and perhaps drawn from other non-Christian sources.).

In Part Three Horrell shifts to a discussion of contemporary application of Pauline ethics. The first essay, which deals with various models of ethics, is largely a call to see Scripture as an insufficient basis for ethics. Horrell writes, “So, while reading Paul in the context of our contemporary debates can be suggestive and fruitful, using Paul’s texts to ‘think with’ does not by any means suffice for the task of thinking about adequate models for Christian ethics, but only marks the beginning of the work.” In a different context that statement could be taken as hopeful, but Horrell’s intent is to reject the sufficiency and authority of Scripture and encourage his readers to rely on other (and perhaps contradictory) sources for moral authority. Chapter Nine is something of an abbreviated version of Horrell’s book, Greening Paul, and is another entry into the genre of revisionist scholarship that tries to recover themes from Scripture that reinforce a particular desired outcome. This essay highlights the central emphasis of Horrell’s project as he writes, “reconfiguring our religious and cultural traditions in light of the new challenges that face us is a crucial task.” Pauline studies are useful inasmuch as they power activism in that matches societies demands on the topics of particular concern. The book concludes with the tenth essay, which outlines some contributions that Horrell feels Paul can make to ecojustice, but ends with a fizzle when Horrell can be helpful to “reconfigure our vision of the world around us, and to ground a revised theology that (re)integrates humanity into solidarity with the whole community of creation––critical tasks indeed––but neither he nor any of the biblical writers can give us substantive answer to the question as to what, in concrete terms, we then should do.” According to Horrell’s own writing, then, the best thing for people to do may be to put the Bible down and start looking for answers in the ever-evolving pool of scientific research shaped by a never-static summum bonum.

Horrell’s work is excellent by the measures of critical biblical scholarship. His writing is lucid and clear. Those that accept his assumptions will likely find this book illuminating and thought provoking. Christian scholars that accept the integrity of Scripture will continually find themselves started by the overwhelming number of basic assumptions that rest on “scholarly consensus,” which in turn is often founded on wishful thinking and obtuse readings of Scripture.

This book illustrates the need for Christian ethicists to continue thinking about Scripture, orthodox Christian theology, and how to apply the vision inspired by those sources to contemporary issues like creation care. When the standard of scholarly excellence is supposedly set by those that deny the basic character and sufficiency of Scripture, there is a need for resources that interact with those sources and aid authentic, well-reasoned faith to the discussion.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume 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.

Conclusion

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.

The Christian Mind - A Review

I picked up Harry Blamires’ 1963 book, The Christian Mind expecting to find an early entry into some of the worldview dialogues that have unhelpfully afflicted certain corners of conservative Christianity. While I still believe the term worldview can be helpful, it has, in certain circles, been coopted by a technique of applying simplistic categories and teaching people to argue against them as a way of apologetic debate. The result of that reductionistic development has been largely unhelpful in developing Christians and evangelizing the lost. However, thankfully, The Christian Mind is a robust appeal to a thick Christianity that resists the corrosive influences of secularism.

Blamires begins the book by diagnosing the problem: there are too few Christians who think distinctly from the secular world. The church, by and large, has a few bastions of thought and topics but no recognizable network of integrated thinking. Thus, the book opens up with a striking declaration: “There is no longer a Christian Mind.”

He explains that there are Christian influences in the world and that there are differences between elements of the Christian life and the world: “There is still, of course, a Christian ethic, a Christian practice, and a Christian spirituality.” As important as these things are, however, they fall short of the all-encompassing, unifying beauty of the Christian mind. On the whole, Christians have been better catechized to think like the modern world than as biblically saturated Christians.

According to Blamires, there are six marks of the Christian mind: (1) Supernatural Orientation; (2) Awareness of Evil; (3) A Unified and Concrete Conception of Truth; (4) Acceptance of Authority; (5) Concern for the Person; and (6) A Sacramental Outlook.

Each of these categories must be expanded and filled with explicitly Christian meaning, but the outline is helpful. Someone who denies the possibility of miracles and the truth of at least the miracle of the resurrection cannot be meaningfully Christian. A person who denies the reality of sin and evil cannot know repentance for their own sin, and thus cannot be a Christian. One who believes truth is subjectively determined and that there is not objective truth cannot be said to be Christian in any serious way. An individual who cannot abide the authority of Scripture and, to some degree, of the traditional theology of the Church, cannot be counted a member of those who think as a Christian. Those who do not value people as individuals and show concern for their spiritual and physical well-being do not show the marks of a Christian mind. And, finally, those that deny the goodness of creation are not thinking like Christians.

To be clear, one can fail at some of these categories and still be in Christ, though there are categories that are necessary for salvation. Blamires’ point is not to figure out who is and who is not a Christian, but rather to point out the characteristics of a mind that is shaped by authentic Christianity.

It would be a mistake to consider these one at a time, as well, since a broader emphasis of the book is the unity of the Christian vision of the world. But it is a unity that has at least these six attributes.

Blamires’ vision of the Christian mind is worth recovering, because he is calling Christians to think more faithfully and consistently. It would be a beautiful thing for Christians to lead the world in promoting beautiful art, thoughtful fiction, and an illuminating critique of the world around us.

An interesting facet of Blamires’ depiction of the Christian mind is that he does not argue for unanimity on prudential arguments. The Christian mind transgresses thought categories that we typically apply, like “liberal” or “conservative,” and individuals who are embodying the Christian mind fully may arrive at entirely different conclusions based on their reasoning.

In fact, the book is highly critical of those who think politically rather than as Christians first, he writes, “They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are wholly determined by political allegiance.” But, he also notes that even in 1963 it was difficult to find a conversation about the issues that matter that was truly Christian. Blamires is highly critical of the supposed virtue of loyalty, as a result of this thought pattern:

Loyalty may be said to be evil in the sense that if any action is defended on the grounds of loyalty alone, it is defended on no rational grounds at all. “I do this out of loyalty to my party” is irrational and amoral unless is it consequent upon, “My party is operating wholly and in every particular for the benefit of the human race.” “I do this out of loyalty to my leader” is irrational and amoral unless it is consequent upon, “My leader’s character, or purpose, or policy, is such that it ought to be supported.” Loyalty is in itself not a moral basis for action. Loyalty to a good man, a good government, a good cause, is of course a different matter. But in these cases, where one stands by a man, or a government, or a cause, because it is good, one is standing by the good. The basis of action in these cases is moral in that one is serving the good; and thus the concept of loyalty is redundant. One can therefore say fairly that whenever the virtue of loyalty is quoted as a prime motive or basis for action, one has the strongest reason for suspecting that support is being sought for a bad cause.

The book is filled with this sort of clear reasoning, which makes it helpful and worthwhile, especially in our turbulent times of constant chatter and questionable allegiances. This is the sort of volume that should remain in print and be read widely and deeply by Christians seeking to live faithfully for Christ in our present world.

For the Life of the World - A Review

Miroslav Volf is a theologian that is always worth reading. Even when his conclusions are disputable, they are typically drawn from careful reason and charitably expressed. His latest book, coauthored with Matthew Croasmun, is no exception.

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For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference takes a critical look at the discipline of theology and how that field of study often misses the mark. In particular, the authors are critiquing the all-too-common reduction of theology to a cloistered, academic exploration. The thesis of this book is that theology ought to be done for the good of the world.

This book uses the term theology to refer to a range of disciplines that includes systematic theology, biblical theology, biblical studies, ethics, and other disciplines that naturally belong in a seminary or a divinity school.

In part, this book is another reflection on the shallow mind of our age. Too many people expend their numbered days chasing after frivolous goals without asking what is worth striving for. Volf and Croasmun argue that there is such a thing as “the good life” and that the function of theology is to explore what that looks like and communicate it to others.

However, theology is in a sort of existential crisis, as are many academic disciplines, because it has become more interested in scholarly navel gazing than fulfilling the purpose for which the theology was originally designed.  For some, theology has become a pure science that is studied for its own sake. Other see theology primarily as a means of gaining power and advocating for their favored groups. When these things become the primary goal of theology, they distort its actual purpose, which is to explore God and discover truth about the world.

The authors explore major themes in theology, including the study of God, redemption, etc. There are many valid themes for theology, but Volf and Croasmun argue that, ultimately, the main theme of theology should be human flourishing and should lead to “robust descriptive work oriented toward an actionable, livable normative vision of human flourishing.” This seems an honest and helpful assessment, since orthodoxy and orthopraxy are both essential attributes of the proper Christian life.

By making claims to truth and particularity, Volf and Croasmun leave the door open for criticism they are insufficiently broadminded. However, they take on this anticipated criticism by noting that pluralism is, to some degree, a desired end, since true faith is not social conformity by a personal response to the goodness of God. In addressing this topic, they open up the most interesting point for debate. They argue that the Christian life is improvised like an ellipse around two foci: Christ and one’s vocation and location. They state that there are multiple different ellipses that can develop that are all “valid” and that flourishing Christians will look differently based on a different vocation and location.

To a certain degree this is unquestionably true. The life of a first century Christian will, without doubt, look radically different from our own in a number of ways. The way faithfulness is demonstrated will vary based on circumstances. Even between contemporaries, there will be differences. For example, my wife’s faithful Christianity will look different than mine due to our different vocations. At the same time, Volf and Croasmun offer an analogy without noting that the goal of the Christian life should be to make our orbit as circular as possible. There may be multiple “valid” options for the Christian life, but not all are necessarily equally good.

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In the same chapter, the authors help explain the why some models of Christianity diverge more significantly from Scripture. They represent the relationship between the Life of Christ, which is the source of Christianity, and Ordinary Christians with a series of circles connected by arrows. The error in their model is found by differentiating the Life of Christ from the Bible and arguing that the Life of Christ influences the Bible, the Church, and Theology in different ways. This is a fundamentally flawed picture of theology, since the Life of Christ can only be mediated to the Church and theologians through the Bible, since the Bible is the only valid record we have of the Life of Christ. Volf is orthodox, and often very helpful, but this distinction helps understand why he and, often to a much greater degree, others find it possible to oppose the “True Jesus” to the rest of Scripture. The model leads to the possibility of prioritizing a part over the unity of the whole of the Bible.

The latter chapters of For the Life of the World offer encouragement for the theologian to live a life that reflects his or her theology and focused on helping others to live rightly before God. They more succinctly define theology here as “a way of life seeking understanding.” Such an approach helpfully breaks down the possibility of theology as pure science.  The authors are also careful to anchor their call to theology in a love of God that perceives truth as something concrete that ought to be presumed. Thus, pursuing love, peace, and joy as ends of theology cannot lead to vice indefinitely because these virtues are normed by truth founded in God.

This volume is a helpful book for amateur and professional theologians. Its value can be seen in their concluding sentences: “But though we are theologians for God’s sake, we are not theologians for God’s benefit. God doesn’t need theology. If anyone needs it, human beings do. Let us be theologians for the sake of the life, the true life, of the world.”

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

Scientism and Secularism - A Review

Depending on who you talk to, you may find yourself in a conversation with someone who thinks there is a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity. This typically happens on the fringes of both Christianity and the so-called scientific community. If there is a group of Christians who find science antagonistic toward their religion, it is often (but not exclusively) fundamentalists. And, beyond the realm of actual science, there are secularists the suppose that the information of science fundamentally undermines the tenets of religion.

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Secularists who claim that science undermines fundamental religious claims are not, however, actually proclaiming the superiority of science. Instead, they are presenting a case for what is better known as scientism. According to J. P. Moreland, scientism is “the view that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of religion.”

In his recent book, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, Moreland argues for a distinction between science and scientism. He also argues that scientism is fundamentally corrosive to society and leads people away from truth.

In popular culture, scientism has overtaken other religious systems as a dominant plausibility structure. In other words, it is how many people make sense of the world around them. Not only does this often displace belief in God, but it undermines the ability of those who hold to scientism to accurately evaluate competing, non-scientistic perspectives that might provide better access to truth.

Scientism has influenced several of the shifts our culture has witnessed in recent decades. The first is that it has taught people that science sums up the totality of accessible knowledge, while religion is blind faith divorced from reality. This myth may help people coexist, but it does much less to encourage the pursuit of truths that cannot be known empirically, much less fairly evaluate those that haven’t adopted the current orthodoxy of scientism.

A second shift caused by scientism is the pursuit of immediate gratification instead of honest pursuit of truth. All the truth that can be known is knowable by science. Scientism claims that all there is in this world is material. Therefore, there are no consequences to pursuing whatever comes easiest to hand.

That leads to the third major shift caused by scientism, which is the adoption of a minimalist ethics. This rejects the idea that there is a good or bad, apart from the apparent benefit or harm measured by surveys, metrics, and calculations. This, of course, leads to bad science, where those who expound the conclusions that naturally and obviously arise from their data can be ridiculed, ousted from tenured posts, and assaulted if their conclusions go against the presuppositions of the mob. If scientism is true, and measured harms provide the evidence of actions to avoid, then what is not measured cannot be wrong.

Moreland is right to note that scientism is a significant problem, and that it is pervasive in our culture. His book rightly shows how fake-science, which is what scientism is, leads to militant secularism. Therefor his book serves as a warning for Christians to identify the influences of scientism, particularly in their own homes, and root them out.

Scientism and Secularism is a book for Christians trying to figure out what is wrong with the world. How have we gotten to the place where there are intelligent people who will argue in public that all decisions must be made based on empirical evidence? Moreland traces some of the influences that led to the current situation, but, more significantly, he explains why scientism is wrong and even self-refuting.

At points this book is a little dense for the average reader. Moreland is communicating some complex philosophical ideas as clearly as can be, but there is a level of complexity in his arguments that cannot be reduced without detriment. This book will most benefit those who have some background and interest in philosophy. At the same time, if a reader is willing to plow through the sections where Moreland is a bit more technical, then there is much to be gained for the educated laity. It offers both warning and antidote to a philosophical movement that is growing in strength and is threatening to displace both sound science and well-formed orthodox Christianity in the minds of many both inside and outside the church.

iGen - A Review

Every decade, it seems, we switch which generation we are concerned about. I don’t remember the criticism of my own generation—I came of age in a time without social media and was too busy doing what needed to get done—but the generational analysis around Millennials with criticisms of their work habits, desire for avocado toast, and general narcissism is recent enough and contested enough to be familiar to most people.

Now, Millennials are approaching middle age. One of them got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the generation is rising to leadership in companies and governments throughout the United States. The generation of participation trophies will soon be in charge and the social experiment (without a control group) continues.

The next generation up, those born between about 1995 and 2012-ish are just now graduating college, so the analysis in the recent volume, iGen, by Jean M. Twenge, has potential to be helpful for pastors, parents, employers, and professors. Every generation is shaped by the environment it was raised and it can be helpful to discover both the influences that formed them and, statistically speaking, the tendencies we should expect to see from them.

The generation that is now reaching what used to be known as the age of adulthood is unique because they have been raised in a world where smartphones are prevalent. Thus, in this constantly evolving experiment we are running on our children, they are the first to have been immersed in social media, constant electronic contact, and the unique influences of having a supercomputer in their pockets all the time. This is a generation—even more so than the Millennials—that will likely never remember when books were the predominate means of research and dissemination of knowledge.

Twenge’s book is, on the whole, much more explanatory than argumentative. She is a social scientist attempting to explain trends without drawing judgment about what is good or bad. The only times she is overwhelmingly positive about the generation is when she discusses their narrow belief that absolute sexual libertarianism is a basic human right and that dissent to radical sexual revisionism are bigoted and must be stamped out. She seems delighted that the generation has little grasp of human history and looks forward to their presumed effect in rooting out religious orthodoxy from society. The only times she is negative is when discussing the effects that technology has had on the mental health of these young people.

Beneath the calm exterior of her writing, there are some trends that should concern parents and, hopefully, cause society to begin to question what we are doing to our children and work to ameliorate some of the damage thoughtless use of technology has brought about. The danger in using research like this is that it describes averages and not the individuals before us. However, as we look at a mass of kids in, say, youth group, or a generation being hired into our workplace, it can be helpful. At the same time, we must keep in mind that the average often does not describe the person in front of us.

On the front of good news, iGen or Generation Z appears to have more realistic views of work than Millennials. As I have witnessed for years, the Millennial generation tended to have higher expectations for flexibility from their employer and lower tolerance for expectations of cooperation, adherence to company policy, and production. According to the data, iGen appears to expect work to be hard and make demands that they will sometimes have to adapt to. Accompanying this trend, iGen appears to have better self-control of finances than the previous two named generations, with an emphasis on savings and modest purchases rather than extravagant pursuit of luxury. Those in iGen generally look for purchases by which they can build their identity, that show they are unique, rather than that they have wealth. Also in the way of positives, iGen tends to me more politically independent. Given the cancer that exists in both major parties, this bodes well for a shift in the political ecosystem. It also helps explain why a large number of iGen voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump—a political outsider—in the 2016 election. They supported independent, socialist candidate Bernie Sanders and, when he was out of the running, either stayed home or supported the other disruptor of the political status quo. We can question the results of their independence in that case, but in general it seems positive they aren’t accepting the poor political offerings we have.

There are also some items that are of critical concern for those who like civilization. Whatever the cause, this generation is highly focused on two competing concerns: atomistic individualism and safety. This is a generation that is getting fewer speeding tickets and getting pregnant less. Those things seem good, but the causes should give us cause for concern. According to Twenge’s analysis, iGen tends to get together less in person and be highly focused on minimizing risk. Girls aren’t getting pregnant as much because they aren’t having sex as much. They aren’t having sex as much because the app-dating ritual has reduced sex to an emotionless pleasure seeking ritual (highly attractive to young males) the outcome of which has been distorted by online pornography. In fact, online pornography is killing the “hook-up” culture because there is little need to actually go through the work of “Netflix and chill” when with a few clicks arousal and masturbation can be had without having to talk to anyone.

Less extra-marital and casual sex seems to be a positive, when considering concerns about STDs, single parent families, and cohesion of society. However, that trend is being achieved by a reversion away from human tendencies toward community and relationship. Twenge cites multiple studies and anecdotes that indicate members of iGen are avoiding even dating relationships until they feel they are absolutely secure financially. This is pushing the age of marriage into the 30s.

By pushing marriage later and later, we also see the rise of a generation that sees childhood extending through the 20s. That is a significant trend cultural commentators like Ben Sasse, Jonathan Haidt, and Twenge are all noting. Socialism is considered more favorable by young people in part because they have come to expect their parents to continue to support them well into what was once expected to be adulthood. Some social scientists claim this is a natural reaction to the rise in life-expectancy, but there are likely other contributors, as well.

iGen has been raised with comfort and safety as paramount concerns. We’ve shifted beyond helicopter parents to bulldozer parents. So, in many cases, iGen has been raised with almost no legitimate difficulties in their lives. In the attempt to squash bullying (a good move in general), society has classified every negative interaction as abuse, thus there is a generation that has rarely had to deal with conflict resolution and working with jerks.

One of the areas Twenge raises concern is in the way that iGen tends to deal with things they don’t like. They tend to seek out and expect “safe spaces”—because emotional safety is of significant concern—and believe that the feelings of individuals trump the rights of others. But they tend to rely on third parties to enforce their whims. Thus, many universities have Stasi-like reporting systems where students can anonymously report professors that offend them. And, as with the highly publicized events at the University of Missouri a few years ago, this generation will demand apologies and destruction of people that are not responsible for things they have determined to be offensive. The reality of the president resigning because non-students off-campus yelled racial epithets at students should concern those who like civilization.

One of the results of this Stasi-like mentality of reporting and attempting to destroy anyone and anything they find offensive through mob forces is the call out culture. Twenge does not cover this in detail, but it is one of the ways that social media has damaged this generation. What she does cover is the fact that iGen tends to be highly engaged on social media in harassing those that disagree with them, but does much less to engage in actual solutions to problems. They raise awareness well, but typically rely on others to enforce their demands. This protects them from real conflict, encountering opposing views honestly discussed, and considering compromise.

There are multiple causes for concern from this generation. Twenge tends to stay upbeat and positive, with a conclusion that seems altogether too perky for the book as a whole.

The most significant contribution of this book is to begin to show readers what smartphones and social media are doing to us as a society and begin to ask realistic questions about a) whether those things are good and b) how we can gain some of the benefits of technology without the negatives. Twenge offers some suggestions about limiting access to social media for teens and pre-teens and limiting electronic devices for young children. The majority of the solution, however, is left to the readers to develop.

Twenge’s book shows that, with respect of traditional forms of humanity, iGen has been damaged by smartphones and social media. Just as it was the adults who handed out participation trophies to Millennials, it has been the adults who have overprotected iGen and given them largely unfettered access to the internet. They didn’t start the fire, so we ought to seek to help them mature, not berate them for our failures.

Society, and particularly the church, need to ask how we will help them grow and mature, develop biblical virtue, and prevent future generations from being harmed by thoughtless adoption of technology.

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.

A Review of a Commentary on Habakkuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Reading Well - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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