Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality - A Review

When someone refers to something as “spiritual” it often conjures the image of something ascetic, disembodied, or concerned with something other than the physical world. That impulse is a result of gnostic impulses that are foreign to biblical Christianity. In truth, while there is certainly division between body and soul in the human, our earthly life is a significant part of our spirituality.

C. S. Lewis’s writing is powerful on many levels, which is part of the reason he remains popular today. One of the themes that makes Lewis so helpful is idea that joy is attainable on this earth as embodied beings. That is, Lewis teaches his readers that our bodily lives have value, can bring glory to God, and can be a source of delightful worship as we live, eat, and love.

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Gary Selby traces the theme of embodied worship in his book, Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C. S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith. Selby contrasts an earthy spirituality to a “negative spirituality,” which emphasizes solely spiritual goods.

After a brief introduction, the book is divided into eight chapters with a short conclusion. Chapter One begins, not surprisingly, by analyzing what Lewis meant when he wrote of Joy. The second chapter considers the nature of God as a good creator who wants his creatures to delight in him through creation. Chapter Three explores the negative spirituality Lewis grew up with, which still plagues so many Christians. In the fourth chapter Selby considers a Lewisian spirituality, which calls believers to be both conscious of good things and to choose the good over the lesser. Chapter Five delves into the formation of character through a Lewisian spirituality. The sixth chapter applies the positive spirituality found in Lewis to the physical life, especially to eating, which is a significant topic in Lewis’s fiction. Chapter Seven deals with seeking out community with those whom we might otherwise avoid. In the eighth chapter, Selby explains an earthy spirituality can positively impact our hope of heaven. The conclusion ties the book together by revisiting the topic of joy.

More than five decades after Lewis’s untimely death, many of the possible topics about Lewis’s life and work have been written. There have been favorable biographies, critical ones. Dissertations of varying content and quality have been composed. For the most part, books about what Lewis said about particular topics have been written. There is, within the field of Lewisiana, a growing danger of repetitiveness or digression into meditations about “what Lewis means to me.”

Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality manages to avoid the status of retread. There is a great deal in this volume that overlaps other treatments of Lewis, but Selby writes well, thinks clearly, and presents Lewis in a way that is both helpful and interesting.

This is a book that does well by pointing the reader back to Lewis. It should be read after one has already read a great deal of C. S. Lewis, since Selby is integrating themes from across Lewis’s canon. Readers who have read The Chronicles of Narnia and a few of Lewis’s shorter non-fiction works will probably feel a little lost in this book. Those who have feasted on the Space Trilogy and many more of Lewis’s essays and non-fiction books will find Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality very engaging and delightful.

As such, this is a volume that belongs on the shelves of those who enjoy and have deeply read the work of C. S. Lewis. I expect to find myself referencing this volume in years to come as I continue to think and write about Lewis’s work.

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

The Great Risk Shift - A Review

There has been a shift in recent decades in the United States on several fronts. The rise of the internet has both fragmented local communities and allowed cliques to form over great distances around a common (and sometimes really weird) interest. Politically, the two dominant parties in the United States have become more polarized than in the middle of the 20th century. And, according to Jacob Hacker, there has been an invidious shift in risk from broad risk pools to individuals.

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Hacker’s book, The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream, is meant to show that injustice perpetrated by Republicans and other economic and social conservatives that tend to lean that direction (particularly given the options) is keeping the little guy down. The nation has seen continued attacks on the policies of redistribution imposed by FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society movements. Defined benefit corporate pensions have been replaced by 401k plans, which force individuals to take responsibility for their own saving.

In The Great Risk Shift, Hacker presents a declinist narrative with a call to make America great again by expanding government programs, moving back toward pensions in corporate jobs, and generally trying to spread out risk to the entire nation. He begins by painting an apocalyptic picture of economic insecurity, focusing particularly on the financial crisis of the last decade. That shows, according to Hacker, how precarious life must be. In the second chapter he puts a line in the sand between those who feel that there should be a measure of accountability in risky decisions to those who believe risk should be shared equally. In the remaining four content chapters Hacker presents some data that illustrates his point about the risk to jobs, families, retirement, and due to the rising costs of health care based on a refusal to nationalize all risk. He concludes the book by a call to create new government programs, expand the ones we have nearly indefinitely, increases taxes dramatically, and hopefully get a robust economy that makes everyone reasonably wealthy simultaneously.

Hacker teaches at Yale, so he likely has done careful, well-reasoned scholarship to ascend to that level. This book is not that, but is a call to action intended to mobilize the already outraged. The argument, such as it is, in The Great Risk Shift is likely to galvanize the convinced, but has little power to convince those (like me, for example) who might agree with a number of his premises, but want an approach that takes reality into account. After the first couple of chapters, the book is a tedious tirade that is likely to ensure Hacker gets to speak on cable news, but does little to expand the range of human knowledge.

At the same time, Hacker has some worthwhile observations. There has been a significant shift in the last few decades toward a more individualized burden of risk. The shift away from the life-long, supposedly guaranteed, defined benefit corporate pension has changed the landscape of employment. To Hacker’s mind, that has been entirely to the negative. This example is perhaps the best way to show the major flaws in Hacker’s argument.

Based on Hacker’s argument, corporate pensions have been replaced by the 401k. That is entirely bad because fewer people have access to permanent security that gets funded on their behalf. All people had to do back in the good old days of pensions (when America was great?) is work at the same job for a few decades and, if they made it to 20, 30, 35 years, or whatever, they would walk away with a gold watch and a steady stream of replacement income for life.

Missing from Hacker’s account, however, is that when you get a jerk boss and you are five years from retirement, you are now forced to sit and take it or lose your permanent financial security. Also missing from the rosy story is that if both spouses work (something he laments and celebrates at the same time) and one gets the opportunity for a relocation, you now have a much bigger decision to make. Finally, Hacker ignores the accounts of the pension plans that have gone bankrupt or been significantly reduced because they were underfunded (in part due to changing assumptions for longevity, but also due to bad actuarial assumptions). In Hacker’s paradise, the risk seems reduced, but it merely makes the fall so much more stunning when the collapse cuts your supposedly guaranteed pension in half.

We can have a meaningful debate about the duties of a company (which may not exist by the time you retire) to permanently fund your future life, but the data to have that debate is missing from this book. Additionally, Hacker ignores the real benefits of individual retirement accounts, because of the mobility they provide. As someone who has changed careers several times, I appreciate having a retirement account that follows me rather than having wasted those years of accrued service.

For Hacker, people like me are waging a war against the rights of the poor to be protected because we see the benefits of portable retirement accounts, the ability to purchase insurance plans that cover the most likely risks for me and my family, and who see the benefit in allowing workers at all levels to keep more of their earnings. There are certainly those among fiscal conservatives who embody a more Randian individualism and think all risk should be individual. However, there are others (like myself) who think there is a place for pooling of risk, but that it need not be at the level envisioned by communism, democratic socialism, or lighter variations like those proposed in the so-called Great Society, New Deal, or the (not very green) Green New Deal.

What Hacker and others that urge greater government intrusion in life through more expansive redistribution programs is that a reduction in risk is typically coupled with a significant loss of potential. So, for example, a minimum of 15% of my lifetime earnings have already been assigned to the government’s preferred vision of a retirement plan through social security and FICA taxes (both my share and that deducted before my salary is offered by the company). If 15% of my productivity isn’t enough to satisfy Hacker, then how much of the reward of my labor should be dedicated to satisfying his need to avoid economic difficulty? Is 50% enough, or 75%? Or, should we shift to simply pooling our goods and then distributing the results according to government’s needs? Never mind that the progressive tax system already discourages me from being more productive because having the top end of my wages reduced by 50% through various state and federal taxes makes it not worth earning more. (Never mind the realization that for the first $388k a person earns, they make out like a bandit from Social security, but it becomes a rip off after that point.)

All of this is to say that a safety net a real need, especially in an industrial economy that draws people away from their families and has, as a discernable downside, the disruption of lifelong communities. However, some thought might go into being more efficient with the large portion of people’s wealth that is already taken for redistribution and reducing risk before we plan on taking a bigger chunk of the available resources to use according to the planners’ desires. Additionally, if books on important topics like The Great Risk Shift are to be taken seriously, then they ought to consider the existence of real arguments against their positions and the fact that there is no proposed solution that does not have obvious and likely downsides.

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

Between Life and Death - A Review

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Every birthday I have to remind myself there are only two options: Getting old or dying. Each year my mortality becomes a little more real as the physical symptoms of age and decay overtake me and as more people that I know experience medical treatments for major trauma or age-related organ failure.

Other than the drama of television and movies, my first glimpse into the world of the ICU came as a young naval officer, when one of my sailors died due to complications from a surgery. He was in one of the top hospitals in the nation and they couldn’t prevent the problem. That forced me to realize there are limits to the ability of medical professions and available technology to preserve or repair life.

Seeing that formerly jovial, proud sailor wired and tubed in the hospital bed was jarring. I was certainly not prepared to see a 34-year-old (which seemed old at the time) inert and unconscious. Thankfully, I was not part of the decision about future medical intervention, because I was entirely unprepared.

I was, however, in the room when the ventilator was removed at the doctor’s recommendation and at the families’ request, which was supported by the documents he had left behind. He was functionally brain dead, so the only thing keeping him alive were the machines forcing his body to keep working. Once the ventilator was removed, the end came peacefully and swiftly. It seemed merciful, but at the same time left me with questions about whether removing organ supporting medical interventions was, indeed, moral.

Such end of life decisions are difficult for several reasons. First, we do not always understand what the function of specific medical interventions are. Which ones offer remedial help and which ones simply sustain animal functions so the body’s other processes can continue? Second, non-medical personnel have little frame of reference for whether a particular condition is likely to be recoverable. What are the odds that any intervention, no matter how expensive and traumatic, are going to be successful? Third, we often have little idea how damaging the attempt to fix one problem will be and what the likelihood of complications will be. Will a heroic attempt to fix one problem likely doom the patient to major problems later? Fourth, too often we have failed to consider end of life care, even for those who are reasonably approaching the end of life. It is understandable for a family to have no guidance for end of life medical care for a teen or someone in their twenties or thirties. However, by the eighth or ninth decade of life, there is little reason for the individual and their family not to have already discussed options and made some decisions.

Summary

Kathryn Butler’s book, Between Life and Death: A Gospel-Centered Guide to End-Of-Life Medical Care, is an extremely helpful volume in learning about various critical medical treatments, which can help make the cost/benefit analysis for choosing to continue with interventions. She also carefully sorts through the biblical data to consider whether an ethic of life, which is demanded by Scripture, entails pursuing every medical treatment possible no matter the cost, the low likelihood of success, or the trauma to the patient. Butler, a trauma and critical-care surgeon, has worked at several significant medical facilities and brings her experience and expertise to bear in a compassionate manner in this book.

The book begins by considering the place of death in the human experience. It is unnatural, in that it is a result of the fall, but it is a normal expectation for humans that walk the earth. She also roots her ethic in the authority of Scripture, which reassures the reader that she is beginning from Scripture and interpreting medical technology through that lens, rather than the reverse.

In the second section of the book, Butler offers chapters on resuscitation for cardiac arrest, and intensive care treatments such as mechanical ventilation, cardiovascular support, artificially administered nutrition, dialysis, and brain injury support. The key message here is that whether one of these treatments is warranted is really based on whether it is likely to be a temporary support while the body recuperates or whether it is merely prolonging the inevitable. The medically accurate data in these chapters helps inform the conversations that Butler outlines in the third section of the book.

In part three of the volume, Butler provides an outline of what is constituted by palliative care and hospice, how that is different from physician-assisted suicide, the importance of advance care planning, and the role of individuals designated to make proxy decisions. After the conclusion, Butler offers several appendices that include summaries of organ supporting measures, a sample advance directive, and some Scripture passages that offer comfort for those making these decisions.

Analysis

Between Life and Death is an important book. It was written at an accessible level both theologically and medically. It helpful translates some difficult medical terminology and sometimes confusing ethical language that can make an otherwise painful decision unbearable.

Butler does very well dealing with the difference between killing and letting die. There is a pervasive myth among many American Christians that unless we are doing absolutely everything to sustain life for as long as possible, we are “giving up on” or “killing” the patient. Butler shows that many of these support measures are bringing their own additional trauma, prolonging the inevitable for a short time, and actually increasing suffering. Ceasing supposedly heroic medical interventions is not killing an individual, it is merely allowing the process of dying to take its course. Butler’s book helps readers develop the wisdom to understand the counsel of physicians and make compassionate, Christ-honoring choices.

If this book is revised in the future, it would benefit from a deeper discussion on the nature of and purpose of suffering. The topic is explored somewhat, but Butler’s expertise is really on the technical side of the discussion, so the development of a theology of suffering (which is very important in making these decisions) is a bit thin.

Conclusion

Between Life and Death is the single best book on this topic that I have encountered. It is pastoral, technically accurate, and scripturally framed.

This is a book that belongs in the library of every pastor. Not only that, but it should be read, underlined, and outlined by elders and deacons as they prepare for making hospital visits, offering counsel, and seeking to comfort the sorrowful. This is the sort of book that a senior’s group at the local church would greatly benefit from discussing as they prepare for inevitable decisions. The time to read Butler’s book is not when the beeps and whistles of the ICU are surrounding a patient, but rather months or even years before any such condition is highly likely.

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

The Accidental Social Entrepreneur - A Review

Social entrepreneurship is the pursuit of business with social benefit as a primary concern rather than simply profit. In some cases, social entrepreneurship relies upon the intended social benefit as the chief marketing point. In the best cases, the entrepreneurs provide a good, needed service at a competitive price, but distribute profits with something other than the bottom line or shareholder value as the primary concern.

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A reasonable profit is a good thing and necessary for a humane economy. Entrepreneurs generally risk their livelihood for their business. Profits allow business to continue, entrepreneurs to feed their families, companies to expand, and more people get jobs that support their families. Poverty will not be ended without business.

In The Accidental Social Entrepreneur, Grant Smith outlines his own life experience as a social entrepreneur. In a memoir-style book, he covers the successes, challenges, and failures he has experienced while running his Hand In Hand company with several faces and outlets. In one of its most significant aspects, Smith’s company became one of the largest home construction entities in Kenya.

Smith recognizes that business is a good thing. When run justly, companies provide opportunities for employees to feed their families. In Smith’s accounting, justice includes remunerating workers in proportion to the value they add to the company rather than as little as the market will allow. So, for example, although unskilled labor is paid near-starvation wages in Kenya, Smith’s construction company chooses to pay a significantly higher wage that ensures greater financial stability for those laborers. It works in this particular application because the profit margins for home construction in Kenya are very high. The difference between the market rate and the rate his company pays is found in the profit taken by the company itself.

For Smith, social entrepreneurship means building businesses that meet legitimate needs at a competitive price, providing a decent (though by no means extravagant) living for workers in proportion to the value they add (he is very big on merit based pay), and using a fair portion of remaining profits to invest in other charitable activities. Investors in Smith’s various schemes get a benefit, but that benefit is limited by other goals that the investors agree to in advance. Smith runs companies, but they are companies that take all stakeholders into account.

The Accidental Social Entrepreneur is an encouraging volume. It celebrates the good of business for creating wealth and freeing people from poverty. It also introduces a paradigm of valuing something besides maximizing profits to the discussion. Smith’s book strikes a healthy balance between recognizing the good of markets and considering the potential harms of markets.

Although he does not state it directly, Smith does seem to lean toward the moral superiority of his company’s practice of redistributing up to 85% of profits to more direct charitable causes. It is commendable that Smith decided to do so, but by no means morally obligatory. In some cases, by choosing to distribute profit rather than reinvest in other ventures, Smith may have made his company’s endeavors more difficult. This is by no means the major emphasis of the book, but more discussion would have been beneficial.

Another helpful aspect of this book is Smith’s honesty about times that his endeavors failed. In some cases, he even admits the mistakes that prevented entrepreneurial efforts from being successful. This adds value to the book, because it shows that the life of the entrepreneur is not necessarily a straight line toward success or failure. Rather, the entrepreneurs should expect ups and downs, successes and failures that hopefully contribute to the general good of society.

Hopefully, The Accidental Social Entrepreneur inspires some readers to take a step toward building a business with society in mind. Even if they take a more profit-oriented approach than Smith, the world will be a better place. Pastors and lay leaders in church would benefit from reading the book. It could shape social endeavors facilitated through the local church.

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

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 Gardeners' Dirty Hands - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tech Wise Family - A Review

There are twin dangers in dealing with contemporary problems. The first is to assume that the world has seen nothing like a given issue and that wise solutions must be manufactured anew, independent of historical sources of wisdom. The second danger is to assume that there is nothing new about a given problem and that the solution is to go on about our normal course of business.

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In his 2017 book, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, Andy Crouch avoids both dangers. He recognizes that current technologies threaten the to exploit human vulnerabilities in new ways, but that wisdom to navigate the threat can be found in historical explanations of human nature and the purpose of the family.

There is an abundance of data that shows that the new attention economy is straining the social-fabric of our world. The prevalence of social media has enabled hyper-individualistic communities to arise that are sometime relatively harmless, but sometimes allow socially caustic influences like racism, sexual revisionism, and collectivism to coalesce in unhelpful ways. Similarly, the constant pull to look away from others and toward our phones is damaging our families and our local communities. The social experiment of putting a supercomputer in our pockets and allowing constant access to limitless entertainment is a little over a decade old, and the early results seem to be far from positive.

Without wading too far into the argument of the potential benefits of technology versus its drawbacks, Andy Crouch proposes that families need to take steps to use technology appropriately. We need not avoid it altogether, but we need to ask the fundamental question, “What is this good for?” Then we need to adapt our usage of technology to get the best out of it.

Crouch’s approach assumes the value of the nuclear family, but also takes into account the broader value of the extended family and community, including the nature of the family as the church. The main purpose of community and family is not merely to continue existence and ensure entertainment, but to form people into responsible humans. He offers ten “Tech-Wise Commitments” to frame a balanced use of technology.

1.       “We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.” –– He recognizes the central purpose of families is to form humans.

2.       “We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.” –– Notably, many homes are oriented around the television or computer, which often encourage passive entertainment. He offers practical suggestions to instill a culture within the home that encourages creativity and activity.

3.       “We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devises and worship, feast, play, and rest together.” –– This is the concept of Sabbath woven into the fabric of the family. It recognizes that while often being passive forms of entertainment, electronics are often drains on vital energies. Turning them off helps facilitate true rest and recreation.

4.       “We wake up before our devices do, and they ‘go to bed’ before we do.” –– For many, the last and first thing they see each day is the blue light of their phones. There are studies that show teens being deprived of sleep (and brain development time) by the interruptions and temptations of their phones. Crouch recommends charging phones away from the bedside table.

5.       “We aim for ‘no screens before double digits’ at school and at home.” –– The Crouch family had no television in the home until their youngest was 10. They worked with their local school system to minimize the dominance of “learning technology” in the curriculum. This comes from the realization that much less learning than often promised usually comes from various techno-centric approaches to instruction.

6.       “We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.” –– Again, the purpose of life is to grow toward something. The purpose of the family is to make better people. Therefore, isolation and idle entertainment are barriers to those goals.

7.       “Car time is conversation time.” –– As a public-school family, the Crouches use their car time to communicate with their children and each other in a focused environment. This may be less applicable to families that spend more time together.

8.       “Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.” –– Open access to each other’s browser history is often a means to prevent sliding into unhealthy habits. This approach recognizes the importance of trust and honesty. It also recommends the unique dangers that electronics offer to young people.

9.       “We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.” –– There is something quite powerful about unamplified human voices raised in songs of praise. This is something that has been minimized by the presence of easy everywhere music of unlimited quantity and variety.

10.   “We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.” –– Technology has an amazing power to build community and minimize the impact of distance. It has tended toward isolation. This is, perhaps, the most important of the ten commitments, because it recognizes the need for real, personal contact that cannot be replaced by digital connections.

One need not agree with everything Crouch proposes to find benefit from this book. Some of his proposals would be much easier to implement in a family that is not already techno-centric (so young parents take heed). However, even beginning to consider the place that technology should have in our families is a step in the right direction.

Even more than his practical suggestions for making a better use of technology, Crouch’s discussion of the purpose of the family is important for our consideration. We would do better to consider the reason why God formed families and what their function is. That would help us to value it, put it in its proper place, and enhance the flourishing of our communities one family at a time.

Radical Help - A Review

Marvin Olasky’s 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, reframed the way many Americans thought about welfare and compassion. Toward the end of the century that promised to bring utopia to the shores of North America through the New Deal and the Great Society, poverty continued to persist and, at times, threatened to upend society. Throughout the twentieth century, the United States invested billions of dollars in government programs, especially those at the federal level, designed to bring an end to poverty for good.

Looking around, many people recognized that the ever-growing network of programs and promises were not having the desired effect. Olasky’s book proved to be a catalyst for many to rethink their expectations for government poverty relief. The basic thesis of his book is that community solutions have been much more effective at poverty alleviation than impersonal government programs. His theory has largely been met with antipathy from progressives, affirmation from many conservatives, and skepticism by many between.

To some, the problem of poverty is too widespread and too significant for local solutions. Person-to-person charitable efforts are well-intentioned and often beneficial, but cannot hope to solve the needs of the poor. That is the argument made by many proponents of the growth of centralized welfare programs. However, it is less clear to many people that expanding existing programs or creating new offerings with the same bureaucratic model can achieve a better outcome.

In her recent book, Radical Help, Hilary Cottam challenges the expansion of centrally planned model of government poverty alleviation. Writing from progressive perspective, Cottam makes an argument that will sound familiar and welcome to conservative ears: The most effective means of poverty alleviation is the development of community.

Determined to do something practical about the problem of poverty, Cottam set to work redesigning portions of the welfare system in the United Kingdom. She challenged the status quo by asking a profound question of workers within a number of social programs: Who has been helped by your social program so that they are no longer enmeshed in the welfare system?

The inability of any program to show a single family that had been freed from the shackles of poverty through the work of the state led Cottam to conclude, “We had hoped for safety nets that would give us the weft and propulsion of a trampoline but instead we are woven into a tight trap.”

Radical Help documents five experiments that Cottam conducted in an attempt to uncover alternative solutions to poverty alleviation. Four of the five have been deemed successes. All five have in common that they rely on the individuals receiving help to drive the change, that the solutions are locally centered, and that they leverage technology as a means to coordinate human connection rather than as a replacement for it.

The first experiment allowed particular families to coordinate the host of poverty alleviation services they required to chart a course out of poverty. Instead of working with a wide range of social workers from a dozen different government programs, the Family Life experiment allowed a family to pick what help they would get, chart their own course, and get the help they needed to actually make it out of poverty. While this program was expensive in the short term, it reduced the long-term costs by getting multiple families in the experiment off the welfare rolls.

The second experiment helped teens find meaning and purpose by putting them into short-term internships in local businesses. These voluntary programs were coordinated using social technologies and gave teens a glimpse of a world outside the local recreation center. Although the program was scuttled due to the perceived risk of coordinating contact between minors and adults, it illustrates the power of a social network.

Experiment #3 replaced the queues of the unemployment office with a small support group filled with employed, underemployed, and unemployed individuals. Rather than seeking the first possible placement, the Good Work program looked for ways to motivate the unmotivated, focus the undirected, and assist the willing to make personal connections to make progress toward a vocation, not merely a job. Cottam notes that the idea of work as merely a means of earning bread is insufficient, which leads many of the unemployed to bounce from one dead end job to another.

The fourth experiment challenged the idea that the best solution to the stress on the National Health Service (NHS) is simply to dump in more money. Cottam rightly notes that the majority of medical spending is used treat chronic diseases like diabetes, which are often caused and exacerbated by lifestyle choices. The bureaucratic systems of the NHS was designed in industrial fashion to deal with punctiliar events like providing pregnancy services, solving medical emergencies, and performing needed surgeries. Cottam created the Wellogram project, which put healthcare professionals in direct and durable contact with people. By listening to people, asking follow up questions, and getting to know them, the healthcare professionals were able to help people improve their overall health, which in turn reduced their need for expensive medical interventions over a sustained period.

Cottam’s final experiment was designed to serve the aged. Her team created the Circle program, which she describes as “part social club, part concierge service, and part cooperative self-help group.” The basic function of the program was to break down the isolation in communities by putting people, particularly the elderly, in contact with others with similar interests. It also enabled willing volunteers to help their hidden neighbors by doing small things, like picking up groceries; there are many willing people who simply lacked the personal connections to perform these simple services for others. The Circle program used a basic technological platform to help people to help other people––technology was a means to the desired end, not the solution to the problem.

Each of the programs listed above used grants from the government, but relied on localized implementations to create contextual solutions to pervasive dehumanization caused by relational poverty. Cottam’s approach reminds us that we were designed for community, and those programs that encourage personal relationships tend to enhance flourishing in ways that a blank check never will. The goal was not to eliminate all government action for the poor, but to leverage government resources efficiently to accomplish the intended purpose.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that America’s welfare system is ineffective in winning the war on poverty, Cottam’s approach of innovating local solutions with a relational focus may provide a way forward for those who genuinely desire to help the poor, but recognize the devastating social impact of impersonal bureaucratic poverty alleviation strategies.

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

Becoming Whole - A Review

A decade ago, When Helping Hurts released and began a paradigm shift in how evangelicals viewed poverty alleviation. So much of our vision of missions previously included doing work for the poor, especially in the developing world, and sending money and goods to developing nations.

The outcome of that vision, long term, has been less than helpful. In some cases, foreign aid has pushed out local commerce. The excess rice shipped from nations (like the US) with bumper crops (and often as a means for the government to prop up prices in the US market) were given or sold at a low price, often undercutting the markets for local grains. This means that aid has pushed local farmers in some developing nations out of the market and prevented them from being able to support themselves and uproots local markets that support dozens of people. The same story is true for textile donations (think the Super Bowl loser’s shirts), which have damaged the economy in several developing nations.

On balance, many of the ways that we’ve believed we were helping people through charity have been hurting them. This revelation shocked many faithful Christians who, with the best intentions, were harming more than hurting. Brian Fikkert, along with other people associated with the Chalmers Center at Covenant College, have since been trying to show how real help can be offered. Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream is a recent entry in the conversation of how to help people in meaningful ways.

As the authors note in this preface, “This book provides a more systematic treatment of the underlying concepts and principles foundational to W[hen] H[elping] H[urts].” (pg 15) That is exactly the tone and content of the volume. If When Helping Hurts is the wake-up call to stop doing charity wrong, Becoming Whole is the theological basis that explains why aid does not work as a long-term response to poverty and the framework for a more positive vision for actually helping those in poverty. This is a volume that does a great deal more for building a foundation of ideas, but always with the view that the reader can take many of the ideas explained in the book and begin to apply them carefully on their own.

Summary

The bulk of this book is a plea for readers to understand an communicate a better story. The opposite of poverty is not consumption. The opposite of poverty is flourishing in a biblical framework. There is no question that having money and other resources are essential in alleviating the worst symptoms of human suffering, but an excess of such resources do not ensure a greater degree of happiness. For Fikkert and Kapic, true flourishing is found in living out the storyline of the gospel. As they summarize the message of the book: “there is a better life than the one you are currently living, a life of greater flourishing for both you and for people who are materially poor.” (pg. 15)

Part One of this volume calls readers to seek a new, better story; one framed around the gospel of Christ. It then argues for the primacy of human relationships, particularly loving ones, in human flourishing, and laying out a picture of how the focus of individuals and cultures shapes them.

In Part Two, the authors take on two false stories that continue to dog the steps of many Christians (even theologically conservative ones) in the majority world: (1) The trap of consumption and viewing consumption as a pathway to flourishing, and (2) the gnostic and pseudo-gnostic worldviews that undermine the value of the body and the eternal significance of physical aid. These errors drive a lot of the dis-ease in the pews of American evangelical churches and also frame much of the errant attempts at charity in and around the local church.

Part Three offers unpacks a biblical theology of human flourishing, which is mixed with insights about common American attitudes to poverty. This section is relevant to the conversations that go on in many of our Sunday Schools, around our potlucks, and in our homes. There is nothing new theologically in this section, but Kapic and Fikkert have presented it in a way that makes biblical theology obviously valuable to the reader.

Conclusion

Becoming Whole is an excellent tool to get people inside the local church to rethink poverty alleviation and, en route to that reconsideration, to think about the value structures in their own lives. I have read dozens of books on poverty and the American dream in my studies of wealth and poverty, environmental ethics, and the like. I did not want to put this book down. Each page offered new ways of explaining Christian theology in a way that is relevant to people in a dominant culture that is both gnostic and excessively materialistic.

This is volume that, along with When Helping Hearts and Practicing the King’s Economy, ministry leaders should read as they seek to form people and outline a vision for human flourishing among their own congregants and in the world around them.

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