Squeezed - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

The Damage of Impermanent Marriages

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

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

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

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

Covetousness

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

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

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

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

Positives of the Book

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Transhumanism and the Image of God - A Review

Transhumanism is a term that will be unfamiliar to many Christians, but will become increasingly important in the coming years. Transhumanism, simply defined, is “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.”

For some, this term conjures images of Darth Vader, the Borg from Star Trek, or the dystopian world of The Matrix. However, the reality is that transhumanism is around us, is much more pervasive than we often believe. To some extent, all technological innovation leads to changes in humanity, but that pace appears to be accelerating.

Our smartphones are changing the way that we focus, constantly dragging our attention away from more significant things to the trivial. Social media is functionally altering the way that we socialize with one another. We tend to focus on documentable events rather than companionable experiences. The internet and the availability of search engines are modifying how we value knowledge of facts.

In his recent book, Transhumanism and the Image of God, Jacob Shatzer shows that transhumanism is with us now and, to some degree, inescapable. At the same time, it is our responsibility as Christians to begin to ask questions about to what degree we can accept the changes demanded by technology and to what degree we ought to resist them.

At its most radical level transhumanism includes the intentional tampering with the human genome. The groundwork for a radical reimagining of the possibilities for this sort of tampering is being laid in China, for example, where recently human brain genes were put in rhesus macaque monkeys. Or, pig brains have been kept alive––to some degree––after they have died. These are experiments whose long term goal is to push back death for humans, perhaps even leading to eternal life.

Shatzer rightly unpacks some of the potential ethical questions that are folded in questions like these. For example, the ability to tamper with the human genome and “improve” it might have consequences we have not yet anticipated in terms of mutation. It would be rather cruel to modify particular humans into a form that undergoes excruciating pain beginning at age 30 or has increased opportunities for psychoses. These are the sorts of consequences we might not uncover until we have already cursed a generation to such an unfortunate and unnecessary fate.

Even without unforeseen consequences that impact the modified humans directly, such practices raise ethical concerns about how technological mutation of certain humans might leave those who can’t afford the modifications (or are unwilling to tamper with humanity) as a permanent sub-class to the new generation of Supermen. Thought experiments regarding such modification always begin with the “common good” in mind, but history has shown that concern for genetic improvement tends to end poorly for those perceived as second-class humans. Additionally, he rightly notes that, “We in the West spend on Botox while others throughout the world lack mosquito nets to help protect from malaria.”

But the main point of Shatzer’s book is not to raise alarm about some dystopian future but to point out the many ways even Christians within our culture adopt technology and adapt to its demands without ever considering how we are being changed and whether or not the technology is good. We often never ask the question of purpose and value. Instead, we focus on the marginal benefits or novelty of the given technology. As a result, many of the men in the church are addicted to internet pornography, millions of Christians spent hours on their phone pointlessly scrolling and almost no time in prayer or Scripture reading, and we are damaging our bodies through sedentary lives inspired by technology. These are real consequences, right now. These are realities we need to wrestle with.

Transhumanism and the Image of God is a reminder that we need to reconsider what it means to be human. It is a call to reconsider what this life is about and in what ways technology is distorting the created order or masking its goodness. The book is carefully written and simply explained. Although it was published by IVP Academic, it is well within the difficulty range of laypeople who regularly read.

Shatzer’s book deserves a wide reading. This is the beginning of an important conversation; one that Christians cannot afford to sit out. Pastors and other church leaders should read this as they consider the way they are shaping liturgies and the structures of their church programs. Parents should read this book to begin to evaluate what sort of humans we are raising. We cannot afford to drift with the rapidly shifting technological currents, otherwise we will wake up in a few decades unable to recognize the sorts of humans we are and what we have done to the generations that come behind.

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.

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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.

Branches to Heaven - A Review

In the process of editing a volume of essays on The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis, I’ve had the opportunity to read most of Lewis’s published works in the past year or so. I’ve also needed to read the secondary literature about Lewis to better understand his work and how it has influenced contemporary Christianity and even non-Christian literary interpretation.

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Lewis is so popular among Christians that there are literally dozens of books broadly interacting with his work. This started even during his life and has continued unabated for the fifty years since his death. Many of the books are formulaic to a fault. They tell the story of Lewis’s early life, show how he was converted, then relate how his fiction was a form of apologetic, etc. A lot of these books are critically banal and biographical hagiographic. That works for a handful of introductory volumes, but it gets really boring to read when the differences between one book on Lewis and another are a few nuggets that someone identified along the way.

For those looking for an insightful introduction to the life and work of C. S. Lewis, I heartily commend the 1998 volume, Branches to Heaven: The Genuises of C. S. Lewis, by James Como. (I should note that Como is one of the contributors to the volume of essays I’m editing, but I commend the book on its merits, not based on personal connection.) Como has also published, Remembrances of C. S. Lewis, an early collection of first-person accounts from those who knew Lewis well. Como has stood as a bridge for those of us later scholars interested in Lewis who did not know the man and have not had opportunity to engage with those who met with and lived with a figure who has now risen to be a folk hero.

Como’s Branches to Heaven, manages to critically celebrate the life and work of Lewis. There is no question that Como is a fan, after all, the subtitle includes the word “geniuses.” However, Como critically engages with Lewis to show the strengths and weaknesses of his work, and points to some of the ways that Lewis, particularly in his early life, fell short of the Christian ideal. In particular, Como deals carefully with the obscure relationship between Mrs. Moore and Lewis, in a way that is respectful and simultaneously non-hagiographic. There is little question that Lewis was saved from sin and that his sanctification was progressive.

The most unique aspect of Como’s book is that he approaches Lewis’s work as a rhetorician. Como was professor of rhetoric and public communication. He situates the non-fiction, prose fiction, and poetry of Lewis within the context of classical rhetorical disciplines. This is exceedingly helpful because there is obviously a lot more going on in all of Lewis’s work than modern literary analysis tends to uncover, and that something has a great deal to do with Lewis’s own rootedness in the classical tradition. Como helps to explain the enduring draw of the work of C. S. Lewis because he helps to answer the question why Lewis’s work is so compelling, aside from its general agreement with orthodox Christianity. In other words, many other faithful Christians have done political commentary or fiction, but I can think of none that have been as enduringly effective as C. S. Lewis. Como’s analysis shows why that enduring popularity exists and why it is warranted.

For those casually interested in Lewis, Como’s book will be informative and engaging. For serious students of the legacy of C. S. Lewis, Branches to Heaven is essential reading.

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be - A Review

Sin. It’s one of those topics that we are all skilled in the practice of, but often try not to think about a whole lot. Too often, our concept of sin is narrowed by a set of concerns for personal redemption and our consideration of its devastating power is abbreviated by the belief that our sin has been paid for at the cross by Christ.

This thin conception of sin has devastating effects on Christian engagement in society and the degree of empathy many Christians have for those who commit obvious, flagrant sins. Cheap grace can only abound when the severity and pervasiveness of sin throughout our individual lives and the fabric of society are underappreciated.

The tragedy of much contemporary and theologically orthodox Christianity, particular among evangelical Protestants, is that a faulty definition of sin has led to thin ethics. Sin is sometimes popularly perceived of as something that is paid for by the cross and then entirely behind the Christian. To a degree this is true, Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross provided a path for the elect to be redeemed. Forgiveness for sin is now available for those that repent and put their faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as the hope for eternal life. All of this is true, but it neglects some of the ongoing effects of sin in even the lives of Christians and especially in the world around us.

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Cornelius Plantinga’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, is an important book for understanding the nature and effects of sin. The book was originally published in 1995, and won multiple awards. It is both excellently written and exceedingly positive. This is the sort of book that should remain in print because of its enduring value as an accessible and theologically precise systematization of the doctrine of sin.

The key concept for Plantinga is Shalom. The Hebrew term shalom refers to holistic flourishing of the world across multiple dimensions. From a human perspective, shalom entails right relationship with God, non-human creation, and humanity. This flourishing existed only for a short time in the beginning of creation, which we see described in Genesis 1 and 2. We have the promise that it will exist later in the New Heavens and New Earth, as depicted in prophetic passages like those at the end of Revelation and in several sections of Isaiah. We live in a world right now that has had its shalom disrupted.

With the idea of holistic flourishing in view, the concept of shalom becomes both clearer and more complex. Sin is no longer a transaction between God and humanity alone, but a transaction that has implications for a whole web of relationship. Ultimately, sin’s penalty is due to the offence of God’s character (Ps 51:4), but its substance may be primarily disruption of the human-creation or human-human relationship.

When we begin to understand that sin is a disruption of shalom, the cycles of Judges begin to make sense. The people of Israel were oppressed, the repent, God sets them free, they fall into sin. That sin has both personal implications (separation from God) and social implications (disruption of systems and relationships). Thus, we can see that God might be justified in desiring to begin society all over again if “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. . . . For all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.” (Gen 7:11–13) Sin isn’t just a personal violation of God’s law, it also entails distortions of all of human relationships.

Plantinga’s book begins from unquestionably orthodox foundations in the Reformed tradition. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be explores dimensions of sin as it is seen in both personal and social dimensions. He approaches the topic by describing sin categorically. It is a form of corruption, which requires a concern for spiritual hygiene. Its corruption permeates life and society. Sin is a parasite on the good in this world. It is an attack on God’s Kingdom and his common grace. Sin finds its way into human interactions and life in unbelievably difficult ways through addiction, a little-considered dimension of sin. (Usually addiction is dealt with as a simple failure in will-power.) Sin can also be a form of flight from the responsibility to deal with faults in shalom and neglecting our call to restore it.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be is a Christian classic. It’s taken me years to get around to reading it, but it’s a book that is consistently found in the footnotes of other significant texts. The book was named the Christianity Today book of the year for 1996, because of its theological acumen and its clarity. Plantinga’s book is one that is accessible to any reasonably theologically engaged Church members.

If this book were published today, it would likely be viewed with suspicion because it explores the social implications of sin. This begins to sound a bit too much like social justice for some people. If the fear of considering the impact of sin on holistic flourishing of creation by some Christians will have hugely negative influences on the ability of future generations of Christians to appropriately relate to society. We are already seeing this happen as younger generations, recognizing the implications of Christianity for social ethics, are drawn to non-orthodox versions of Christianity because (despite denying central tenets of the faith) they often have a better (or at least more engaged) attitude toward the social implications of Christianity.

The Crunchy Con Manifesto - A Proposal for Actual Conservation of Something

Conservativism is in crisis in the U.S. The term has become altogether too closely aligned with a form of political populism that has little to do with conserving anything of value. For many people on the political left and the political right, conservativism has become largely about listening to angry men in cowboy hats and pretty women in tight t-shirts rail against immigrants, gender revisionists, and “liberals.” Often there is also implicit support for large businesses which are always good for America (especially when they support grifters on the right), except when they lobby for socially progressive policies and for one of the groups that the cowboy hats and tight shirts are angry at. Other than moving society in the United States back to some apparently great condition that is never defined, only reminisced about, there does not seem to be a coherent theme to what passes for conservativism.

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In truth, both conservativism and liberalism, as they are used (but rarely defined) in popular discourse are forms of social progressivism. “Liberalism” focuses on achieving atomistic individual freedom to enable people to pursue whatever sexual goals they have and free them from the economic need to do work that aids society. This is often, seemingly paradoxically, pitched as part of the goal of economic collectivism (e.g., socialism) and moral totalitarianism (e.g., attempts to outlaw Christian sexual ethics). On the other hand, “conservativism” tends to be focused progress toward individual freedom to pursue economic goals and social structures that more closely relate to some earlier ideal, which are rarely defined beyond a desire for neighborliness. The progress of conservativism is achieved through lack of government regulation on the economy and fighting against social outgroups that themselves feel as if they are fighting for a place to exist.

Of these two forms of progressivism, I have a decided preference for the “conservative” form. There are obviously destructive elements in contemporary political liberalism that only willful ignorance of economics, history, and basic philosophical anthropology can overlook. However, similarly obvious blind spots exist on the political right, as well. My chief grievance against political “conservativism” as it is often presented is that there is nothing that it is trying to conserve. It is just progress in a different direction toward a goal that is just as undefined as the goals of the left.

As I’ve been exploring this dilemma of political homelessness, in part through the work of Patrick Deneen, though there are others, I discovered a book that Rod Dreher wrote in 2006 that presents a better vision of conservativism, in my opinion. At least, it forms a different starting place for dialogue about what conservativism ought to be aiming at. His book, Crunchy Cons, is a valuable book for those dissatisfied with where the GOP has gone, but completely appalled at the corrosive politics of the DNC, as well.

There are ten articles in Dreher’s “Crunchy-Con Manifesto” that I will quote in their entirety here. (After all, Dreher is the king of block-quoting other articles online, so he can’t mind too much if I take a couple of pages from his book.)

A Crunchy–Con Manifesto

1.       We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

2.       We believe that modern conservativism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

3.       We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity’s best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4.       We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America’s wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk identified as “The Permanent Things”––those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world’s great wisdom traditions.

5.       A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

6.       A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract.

7.       Appreciation of aesthetic quality––that is, beauty––is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

8.       The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

9.       We share Kirk’s conviction that “the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. . . . The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

10.   Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve it create anew.

Having sent a salvo against mainstream “conservativism” on the beginning pages of his book, Dreher goes on to journalistically explore people living out particular aspects of this manifesto. They tend to be (but are not exclusively) theologically conservative within their faith tradition, live within a large nuclear family, and community focused. Most significantly, the people Dreher interviews are focused on achieving a positive goal, not simply attempting to escape some negative restriction.

For those seeking an alternative response to contemporary political options, Crunch Cons may be the beginning point for future exploration. This is the book in which Dreher introduces the concept of the Benedict Option (I have not yet read his book), which he explored more fully in the hotly debated volume by that name. Although some of the content is dated, this book remains a good counterpoint for the GOP/DNC binary we seem to be stuck with, and may inspire a positive shift toward a conservative movement seeking to actually conserve something important.

Love Your Enemies - A Review

Publishing tends to go in trends, which is not unexpected since contemporary events tend to drive the topics of discussion and publishers are attempting to gain revenue by producing quality content that deals with the themes everyone is discussing. One of the recent, recurring themes is the divided nature of our political climate. Ben Sasse’s book, Them, is a recent entry on the subject. Arthur Brooks, former president of American Enterprise Institute, has recently published the fruit of some of his research on the topic in a book entitled, Love Your Enemies.

Brooks is an economist who has spent his academic career researching happiness and charitable giving. His recent books have dealt with the idea of compassion and social healing, as in his book, The Conservative Heart. The message that Brooks comes back to is that having an ideological bias does not require despising the other side. In fact, this book highlights the reality that holding others in contempt is a recipe for continued discord and personal unhappiness. Brooks sets out in Love Your Enemies to show the science behind finding common cause and engaging in respectful dialogue. This is needed not just for personal happiness, but to help heal the bleeding wounds in the American civic culture.

The book opens by describing the culture of contempt. Brooks makes the case that this is not just a culture of disagreement, but that an essential characteristic of the political wrangling is that it hopes for the destruction of those who hold opposing views. Our political opponent is not just wrong, but also morally evil. This attitude has taken over the culture because of the popular misconception that seeking the obliteration of those that disagree is the only possible solution. In Chapter Two, Brooks shows that this just isn’t true; nice guys do not finish last necessarily, whether in love or politics.

Our political discord is significant because it largely inhibits any progress toward a common vision of good. This leads people that want action on some front or another to see authoritarian leadership as the only possible way to achieve results. It is no accident that the abuses of power in recent presidents (Bush, Obama, and Trump) are increasing in magnitude and divisiveness.

Finding a way to respect people who disagree ideologically is needed, so Brooks explores some of the concepts of moral structures, drawn from Jonathan Haidt’s remarkable book, The Righteous Mind. This research is invaluable because it helps unlock the reasons why people come at moral questions from diametrically opposed perspectives. While this doesn’t lead to agreement, it at least enhances understanding. This understanding will, in turn, help readers to begin to deconstruct irreconcilable ideas about identity, so that we can recognize the goodness that comes from identity and differentiation, but also avoid the trap of making personal identification the only significant aspect of our interactions.

Brooks also deals with the importance of stories, noting that personal stories help to break down divides, emphasizing the humanity of the individual. As Brooks notes, stories motivate compassion, statistics convince the already converted. He goes on to deal with the popular (particularly on the left) misconception that competition leads to division. Brooks astutely notes that competition nearly always requires cooperation: this is true is sports, where the rules of the game are an essential bedrock that enable the competition to exist. Politics, too, would benefit from more competition. The polarization of the two major US parties is largely due to the fact they do not have to compete for geographical regions, but can head for extremes to please the tail ends of the ideological spectrum. Brooks then concludes the body of the book by arguing that he really wants healthy disagreement in society, because it is the best way to hash out ideas and pursue the common good.

Based on his research, Brooks closes the book by proposing five rules to help undermine the culture of contempt, which I will cite here, because they are so helpful:

Rule 1. Stand up to the Man. Refuse to be used by the powerful.

Rule 2. Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited, and say things people don’t expect.

Rule 3. Say no to contempt. Treat others with love and respect, even when it’s difficult.

Rule 4. Disagree better. Be part of a healthy competition of ideas.

Rule 5. Tune out: Disconnect more from the unproductive debates.

Love Your Enemies is not an epoch shaping book, but it is a timely, important discussion of a major problem of our day. This is a book that should be read by people on both sides of the political spectrum, because no one (besides the cable news networks and our global political adversaries) are really happy with the status quo. The best way out of the eternal cycle of bickering we are presently experiencing is for a critical mass of individuals to begin to adopt some of the principles Brooks outlines in this book.

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

The Power of Christian Contentment - A Review

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Seemingly paradoxically, Western society is both discontent and complacent. We are surrounded by waves of unhappiness and perpetual reminds that we should want something more than what we’ve got, alongside similar messages that some things are better left unchanged or unconsidered. This paradox is exactly the reverse of what the Christian life should look like. We should perpetually be discontent with the presence of sin in our lives and the world, meanwhile we should be supremely satisfied with God’s provision for us.

Andy Davis, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Durham, promotes a positive vision of satisfaction in Christ in his recent book, The Power of Christian Contentment. Davis is a modern-day Puritan, meaning that word in the very best sense possible. He has read deeply in the Puritan tradition, and that influences how he preaches, what he writes about, and how he lives his life. Davis is, personally speaking, one of the more consistently cheerful Christians I have encountered because he generally forces his mind back to a positive focus on finding contentment in God’s goodness.

This book is built on the general ideas presented in the classic Puritan work, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by pastor Jeremiah Burroughs. Davis does a great deal more than simply summarize Burroughs’s sermons, though, he shows the contemporary reader the Scriptural foundations of Christian contentment and points us toward the means to develop a more carefully content disposition in this life.

The Power of Christian Contentment is divided into four parts. Part One points out the general discontentedness of our culture and shows the vision of contentedness that Paul presents as normative for Christians. In Part Two, Davis gives practical instructions for how to attain to Christian contentment. He begins with definitions, presents a vision for its application, and shows how Scripture, especially the life of Christ, reveal contentment. Part Three explains why Christian contentment is terrifically valuable, especially in our culture of wealth that is unlike any culture previously in existence. In the final section, Part Four, Davis shows that contentment is not complacency—it is not simply emptying the mind and heart of desire as some Eastern religions propose—and he also helps show how to protect the disposition of contentment in a world that is perpetually telling us that more, different, better, faster, higher, sexier, and newer is exactly what we need.

All of Davis’s books are helpful, from his book on spiritual disciplines, An Infinite Journey, to his book on church revitalization. He is personally one of the most consistent Christians I have met, which is significant as we read his explanations about how we should live and grow as Christians. The ministry that has been established to collect his teaching, Two Journeys, is a gift for those seeking for consistent expository teaching built on the orthodox Christian tradition.

One of the central elements of The Power of Christian Contentment is that our satisfaction in Christ is a primary tool for evangelism. Everyone is unhappy about something. Our political climate is entirely structured on creating unhappiness that only abolishing the other party can possibly fix. Economically, no matter how much we have, one side reminds us that someone else has more (which is unfair, they say) and the other side reminds us that some people are keeping us from getting more (also inherently unjust, in the eyes of some). Davis’s argument is that when we have Christ, we have everything we need. When we are satisfied in Christ’s provision, that shows and that satisfaction is attractive to the harried masses around us who are convinced that fewer social restrictions or a larger bank balance are the keys to eternal satisfaction.

Davis’s general framework is that there are two infinite journeys toward Christlikeness. One journey is the external journey, which entails the outworkings of the gospel in life. Christians are, without question, called to fight injustice, feed the hungry, and care for the socially downtrodden. The second journey is the internal journey, which focuses on the continual progress in sanctification. Both journeys are essential aspects of the Christian life.

This book unquestionably deals with the internal journey. It is focused on the very big problems that we are each having in our own hearts. Much of the social injustice in this world is, in fact, caused by widespread discontent that leads people to take advantage of others, seek personal gain over the common good, and fight against those that stand in a different place. We must engage in the process of pushing back the effects of the fall in the world around us, but if we do that to the neglect of personal sanctification, we will find that we will fail at both attaining personal holiness and social justice.

The Power of Christian Contentment is an important book for our time, and likely for years to come. This is a volume that is vital for pastors, as they seek to exemplify holiness to their people. It is also a significant book that will benefit the average church-goer as they pursue life in Christ.

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

Why Liberalism Failed - A Review

I think there are probably a half dozen people in the world that think things are about as good as they could be. They are probably either in a coma or eating ice cream at the moment. For the rest of us, it is pretty obvious that something stinks in the kingdom of Denmark.

In the United States and across the Western world, liberal democracies are teetering on the edge of populism. The levels of misery are climbing in areas of the United States as more and more people are dying “deaths of despair,” often by overdosing on opioids in an attempt to dull the ache inside.

Where did we go wrong? What happened to the home of the free and the brave?

For some, the growing sense of dis-ease fuels a call to return to some earlier state of supposed greatness. This is a call to turn back the clock to halcyon days when contentment was higher (in some circles) and the stressful influences of social isolation were much less prevalent. For others, the same conditions are cause for increasing centralized government control, increasing redistribution of wealth, and passing laws to make people conform to the sort of behaviors that are deemed beneficial by the people that really know. Both of these call for variations of a sort of social liberalism (distinct from progressivism). Patrick Deneen argues that the best remedy for what ails us is moving away from liberalism, because the populism and dis-ease we are experiencing is a feature, not a bug, of the liberal political order.

Although the meaning of the term “liberal” or “liberalism” has changed over the years and is often used to denote progressivism, liberalism is a broader political philosophy that includes both classical liberals (i.e., conservatives) and progressive liberals (i.e., progressives). As a definition of the term, Deneen writes, “Liberalism was premised upon the limitation of government and the liberation of the individual from arbitrary political control.” This led, in its early application, to a representative democracy in the United States with assurance of free speech, the freedom of religion, and robust property rights. In its early implementations, liberalism was supported by the premodern political order that still believed in virtue as a necessary and worthy human ideal.

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For all the benefits of liberalism (and there are many), it has within it the seeds of its own demise. Liberalism lacks the ability to reproduce virtue, because its foundation lacks substance. Liberalism is something of a content-free philosophy. It functions more as an organizing framework for other substantive philosophies. However, this contentlessness quickly becomes its own content, much like Seinfeld, a show about nothing, had a strong satirical message that tended to deconstruct social norms. Just as Seinfeld worked because it borrowed the substance from the world and made it appear irrelevant, so liberalism has worked borrowing from the substance of other philosophies.

That’s all fine and well until there are no other philosophies broadly held by a culture that are strong enough to support liberalism. According to Deneen, that is what we are experiencing. Thus, we have an anti-culture that really serves as a reaction to whatever came before. We have a progression toward dis-integration of social structures to the point that even obvious realities like maleness and femaleness are up for debate, or, in truth, considered to be forms of violent oppression by an elite, but culturally powerful minority.

Deneen’s book is a bit jarring in its pessimism, but there were few points that I could find strong counter arguments. If anything, I think he may simply be a bit more negative about our chances of maintaining the goods of liberalism than is really warranted. Time will tell. I still think that Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West may be the better path, where we push toward a more beneficent version of liberalism. It is, as Goldberg argues, very hard work, but I think it may still be the way to go.

Still, Deneen’s proposed path forward, which he does not bring up until the conclusion of the volume, is worth considering. He argues that we need to move away from liberalism to something new. He proposes three initial steps:

1.       First, acknowledge the legitimate achievements of liberalism. There is no question that our material condition has benefited greatly from the advancement of philosophical liberalism, with the ability to move, to innovate, and to retain more of what we produce.

2.       Second, he argues we must “outgrow the age of ideology.” This will require us to “focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture, household economics, and polis life.” I think what this means in context is focus more on people than on big ideas and grand restructuring of the world.

3.       Third, we must implement the first two steps, by building on and not abandoning the good things that have come before. This is the least clear of the three steps, but I think Deneen is calling for progress that does not try to begin de novo, as the Enlightenment project of liberalism. The hope is that we can use the positives of liberalism in combination with the treasures of ancient wisdom to forge a more humane future.

Why Liberalism Failed deserves to be read and the ongoing discussion that has spawned from Deneen’s work is worth the attention it has received. Nearly everyone agrees that something is wrong. The two main answers we have in the US in the DNC and GOP do not seem have anything like a realistic vision for future flourishing. A healthy conversation about what society ought to be and how it ought to be shaped is a necessary and worthy endeavor.

Your Future Self Will Thank You - A Review

One of the most challenging questions for Christians to ask themselves is whether they are more Christlike today than they were a year or even a decade ago. Even among those of us active in our local churches on a regular basis, this question can lead to awkward silence and, perhaps, even prevarication. If we are brutally honest, most of us cannot claim to be more Christlike today than we ever have been and that should give us some pause to think.

It’s not that we should be perpetually living on some sort of “mountain top” spiritual experience. Christlikeness has very little to do with how we feel, but it has a whole lot to do with how we live.

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And the question of how we live is not a question of our avoidance of sin. Most of us don’t drink, smoke, chew, or hang with girls that do. This isn’t simply about ethics. The question of spiritual progress has a great deal more to do with the normal advance that takes place as we mature as Christians. Unfortunately, for many of us, that advance looks less like progress and more like a slow slide backward or an attempt to tread water while pretending to be moving ahead.

Every year we make new resolutions. We are going to pray more, lose weight, memorize Scripture, and be more diligent in a hundred different ways. However, it seems that a few weeks later our will-power has failed and we have slid back to where we started.

Drew Dyck’s recent book: Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible & Brain Science, is, despite its clunky title, a very helpful book. It is a quick read, but well-written and robustly researched. This book belongs in a reading list with other books on spiritual disciplines.

The basic topic of this book, as the subtitle indicates, is self-control. This seems to set the volume up for two potential errors: legalism and self-reliance. Dyck is careful to avoid both. He does this by reminding readers that self-control is a biblical virtue (e.g., Prov 25:28, 1 Cor 9:25) and by noting that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (e.g., Gal 5:23). We cannot earn salvation by being more self-controlled, but growth in godliness should result in greater self-restraint.

The Bible points us toward the need for self-control as a sign of and means to pursue spiritually maturity, but that leaves those of us who struggle with the virtue pondering why we can’t just be better. That’s where the science comes in.

As someone who struggles with self-control, Dyck set out on a quest to figure out why. This took him through a year or so of reading the literature available in the field of psychology and brain science. He has helpfully distilled the results in this book and carefully balanced those findings against the wisdom of Scripture. What he finds is much like the argument Christian Miller presents in The Character Gap: human character can be shaped, there are practical ways to do so, and that those practical means of forming our character look a great deal like traditional Christian devotional practices.

Having explained why we so often fall short of our goals of being more self-controlled, Dyck also helps explain how we can get better. He goes well beyond the usual Sunday School response: read the Bible, pray, and attend more church. These are all a part of the formula, but without a little more meat on the bones, such admonitions leave us asking why we haven’t gotten any holier in the past decade.

The basic formula laid out in Your Future Self Will Thank You is that we need to incrementally build new habits. Dyck sifts through research that shows that the problem with most of our self-improvement attempts is that we try to change too much too quickly and without the appropriate incentive structures. Dyck uses recent scientific research to show that will power is a finite resource. It can be developed over time. However, our self-control is subject to fatigue. When we are tired, stressed, or distracted we are much more likely to fail in our attempts at self-control. Not coincidentally, this happens to match what Scripture teaches. This is why Sabbath is built into the pattern of Scripture. This is why Proverbs focuses so much on patterns of life.

Interspersed with the explanations of why we fail, Dyck has included helpful steps to begin to develop better habits. His examples tend to focus on things that should matter to us as Christians: physical health, stronger prayer lives, more consistent Scripture reading. This is a long way from self-help book designed to unlock ten secrets to build a better you. This is a book that can help provide practical mechanisms to get Christians to develop better habits that lead us toward holiness.

Dyck’s book will benefit those who already have a good understanding of spiritual disciplines. For those that don’t, it should be paired with a book like Andy Davis’s, An Infinite Journey: Growing toward Christlikeness or Don Whitney’s, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. In fact, Dyck’s book fills out some of what is absent from traditional books on spiritual growth because it helps explain why we fail and what, practically, we can do to fail less.

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