Recent Reading

The Pursuit of God (A.W. Tozer). This was a clarifying read about the need to seek God personally rather than coast along being a good soldier in church. Tozer argues that evangelicalism promulgates a myth that once you “accept Christ” (an expression not found in the Bible, he points out), you have nothing more to do other than put in time waiting for Heaven. It has been several weeks since I read it, but I enjoyed the astringent quality of Tozer’s writing. He is very clear, and many of the things that bothered him about Christian culture in the 60’s turn out to have been as atrophying to faith as he suspected.

A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman). Ove is a 59-year-old widower in a carefully regulated housing development in Sweden. He is the quintessential curmudgeon who, when the story opens, feels he has nothing to live for, but he is surrounded by a diverse crew of neighbors who won’t leave him alone. That’s about all I’ll say in the plot summary department, but suffice it to say the book is often called “heartwarming.” I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thoroughly didn’t believe it. That is, Backman’s characterization is wonderfully truthful in its rendering of details about Ove; but in the real world, I find it hard to believe that others would see through an old grump of his caliber to the heart of gold beneath. It would be nice if it happened, nice enough that the novel brought me to tears at times. But because I’m skeptical that such a thing would really happen, I find myself filing it under “inspiring but improbable fiction.”

The Wednesday Wars (Gary D. Schmidt). Yes, I’ve never read this modern YA classic before. It gives a detailed look at junior high life in a 1967 NYC suburb. The narrator, Holling Hoodhood, is convinced that his teacher hates him, and despite his misadventures under her supervision — escaped rats, chalk-covered cream puffs, various social entanglements, wearing yellow tights and performing in a Shakespeare play — Mrs. Baker actually comes to his rescue in several hugely important ways throughout the story. His parents are dreadful — as self-absorbed and indifferent to Holling as can be imagined — but I really liked the picture of the era this tale gives. I also enjoyed Holling and felt Schmidt depicted a growing, changing 7th grader realistically.

Mere Christianity

Somehow, I’ve never been able to read this book before. I’ve tried a few times but never gotten beyond the first few pages.

Recently I tried again with the help of an audiobook version from the library. It worked, helping me to gain some momentum and push through the spot where I’ve run aground in the past.

I found Mere Christianity to be a timely, clarifying, and inspiring read. It was timely, because I need reminding of the big picture of the Christian faith and what this life is supposed to be working toward. I enjoyed listening with my daughters, too, so we could discuss some of the concepts and the strategies Lewis uses to explain them. The book is a treasure chest for anyone with questions about the Christian faith.

The illustrations Lewis uses to demonstrate theological ideas are unfailingly clear, narrated in accessible language. And no wonder. The original audience (from 1942-44) was the British public, to whom Lewis had been invited to address a series of radio talks on the Christian faith. (Think of it: an era when Christianity would be recognized as a topic worth hearing about by mainstream westerners. Can you imagine it? Neither can I.) Without dumbing it down, Lewis manages to tackle such subjects as the Trinity, moral law, the Incarnation, Redemption, time and eternity, free will, prayer, and the transformative process by which God takes fallen humanity and offers holiness.

With his characteristic wit to keep his listeners engaged, Lewis takes the stance of a friend walking alongside rather than one speaking from on high, systematically and thoroughly peeling away misunderstandings and revealing the shining heart. Here, for instance, is a passage I have heard snippets from but enjoyed hearing in context. It uses banking and war imagery and establishes Lewis’s solidarity with the audience with its reference to “you and I”:

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

Lewis is not perfect, of course. Gifted thinker though he is, he is also a product of his time. I noticed this in his attitude toward women. For instance,

There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it… The relations of a family to the outer world — what might be called its foreign policy — must depend, in the last resort, on the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders.

This is basically Alexander Pope’s line of reasoning when he says, “Whatever is, is right.” Did the fact that many Christian slaveholders did not feel shame mean that slavery was right? Is a man “ruling over” his wife any better than the reverse, given Jesus’s model of servant leadership? Is either party a subject to be ruled over by the other in Christian marriage? Lewis looks at his neighbors and assumes that at that time, in that place, in that social configuration, what he sees reflects the universal ideal for the sexes.  He paints men and women with an embarrassingly broad brush, stereotyping women as irrational protectors and men as the judicious and reasonable sex. I see no such generalities; men can be irrational protectors, women can be judicious and reasonable. These are individual personality traits, not gender traits. No wonder Dorothy Sayers, a friend of Lewis and fellow author, commented that where women were concerned he had “a complete blank in his mind.”

But this is a tiny morsel of an otherwise highly nourishing book. I would add that more than once I was struck not by Lewis’s insensitivity, but his compassion, for readers of all kinds. Here is an example from a discussion on the difference between “niceness” and God’s ultimate goals for Christian personality:

There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person — if virtue comes easily to you — beware! Much is expected from those to whom much has been given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.

But if you are a poor creature — poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in a house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels — saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion — nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends — do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all — not least yourself; for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)

I think it’s the steady undercurrent of confidence in God’s meaningful and loving work in the Christian, however difficult life may be, that did me the most good. The logic and clarity are wonderful, and the pictures of eternal realities are worth remembering. But sometimes it’s simply the experience of being steeped in an author’s faith that can buoy us up by the time we reach the last page.

God is making us into something — something other, something grander, than we would be in our flesh. This is the point made over and over in Mere Christianity. God’s purpose is not to clear away difficulty, but to forge new creations. I’m left wondering: what is he making me into? Am I cooperating?

A Life Observed

In A Life Observed, author Devin Brown offers a biography of C.S. Lewis for a new audience: “a generation who may know him only through the Narnia films.” Though I don’t fit into this category, I’ve enjoyed this retracing of Lewis’s spiritual development for several reasons.

First, Lewis is one of my spiritual mentors. His books have influenced my thinking and my faith in far reaching ways — quite possibly more than any other writer. His ways of imagining spiritual truths are often the first to come to mind, perhaps because they have moved me as much at the emotional and spiritual levels as at the intellectual level. I’ve read several biographies of him, and it’s always like returning for a visit with an old friend.

In the case of this one, it was like visiting two old friends. Its author was a colleague of mine during my first year as a full-time English teacher, and during that busy and eventful year when I taught new courses, revised a dissertation, and got married, Dr. Brown was always a source of encouragement and friendship. It was good to hear his voice in these pages.

One distinctive of this particular biography is its limited focus on Lewis’s spiritual development. Drawing primarily from Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy, and supplementing with letters, remembrances, and passages in Lewis’s other books that mirror or further develop some of its ideas, A Life Observed traces Lewis’s journey from unbelief to an astonishingly fruitful Christian life. Brown works to break down and make relatable some of the more abstruse allusions and experiences in Lewis’s book: what Lewis meant by the elusive “Joy” that drew him, ultimately, toward God; some of the esthetic “triggers” of this longing in Lewis; and even the sources for chapter epigraphs. There are still aspects of Lewis’s experience that escape me. But though I don’t react to the “idea of autumn” in Squirrel Nutkin, the “holiness” of Phantastes, or the “idea of Northernness” the way Lewis did, I still liked revisiting these touchstones of his journey. One of the marks of legitimacy in anyone’s spiritual testimony is its personalness — the experiences that move us the most may not be ones that touch others at all. Yet God knows these secret springs within us, and knows how to ripple those waters — a further evidence of his reality, and of the kind of intimate relationship he wants to have with each of us.

I really liked the ways Brown brought scenes from the Narnia stories into his discussion of these movements in Lewis’s deeper life. It gives us a picture of a writer working out his ideas through different forms and over long periods of time. I found myself pleased many times to be reminded of a favorite scene in Narnia as it was set beside one of the themes Lewis was developing in other ways in his own life.

At several points, this biography consciously defers to Lewis’s authority in his interpretation of his own life. It may seem odd that this would be mentioned as noteworthy, but it’s true that biographers often allow their own assumptions and skepticism to override their subject. If this bothers you, you will probably appreciate passages like this one. It appears after noting the contrast between Lewis’s comments that he learned the doctrines of Christianity in his time at Wynyard, and Michael White’s assertion that the sermons there were “largely meaningless”:

There is a kind of biography that looks at what Lewis tells us in his autobiography and, following the biographer’s own set of presuppositions, claims to understand Lewis’s life in ways that Lewis himself could not.

This is not that kind of biography.

If you’re looking for exhaustive detail about Lewis’s life, or speculation about some of the more mysterious areas and relationships, this book doesn’t go into those things (though you’ll glean some other titles Brown recommends). But if you seek an introduction to the man behind Narnia, or a return to some familiar facts from a refreshing perspective,  A Life Observed offers a satisfying discussion of the process of personal transformation that gave Lewis such a compassionate and meaningful understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Here is a link to other posts about Lewis on this blog, including reviews of several other biographies.

She Can Teach

Part of the reason I wanted to read this book is that the author is from my hometown. Jackie Roese was a year ahead of me in high school. I didn’t know her personally, but I knew who she was. It was a surprise to me when I learned that after high school, she became a Christian and married the son of my 6th grade Sunday school teacher.

She Can Teach tells some of her story, including how in the years since then she attended seminary, became a teaching pastor to women, became a writer, and earned her doctorate. I heard her speak once at a women’s breakfast at my home church, and she was dynamic and engaging. She Can Teach is, among other things, a well-told story about how God turned her life around, and at times it made me laugh out loud.

But it is also a direct, practical challenge to the notion common in evangelicalism that women should not be in church leadership or teach the Bible. Tracing a brief history of the church’s views of women, starting with Tertullian and extending into present day spokesmen like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and her peers in seminary, Roese concludes,

The message that I was receiving was the same one that women continue to receive and embrace, softer though it may be: “Woman, you are inherently less capable of handling the serious issues of theology and the Bible.” In whatever way that message is phrased, whether it’s spoken or unspoken, whether we realize it or not (and most of us don’t), the result is a perception of ourselves as “less than.” The theological ghost attacks our motivation to acquire the skills we need to handle God’s Word well.

That last sentence captures Roese’s motivation in writing. Her purpose is not to get locked into the debate about gender roles, but to encourage women to learn how to study and teach/preach the Bible, and then to equip them to do it well. Research indicates that in the evangelical tradition, which grants such primacy to the preaching of the Word,  women are the least likely to acquire skills in teaching the Bible.

I liked the historical documenting of attitudes and teachings about women.  This aspect of the book encourages us to think about our experiences and level of belonging in the church. It has taken me many years to realize there are limitations; it can be very hard to see “atmosphere.” In addition to the discussion of attitudes, the chapter “Know Your Audience” offered some interesting statistics about women — both in and out of the church — that really intrigued me. It’s an information-rich book that expanded my awareness in several ways.

But ultimately what I appreciated most was the book’s case for women teachers, and its second half, which offers a very thorough and specific series of “how-to” chapters in studying and preaching. I’m a teacher by trade, but it was refreshing to read the many useful pointers here — kind of like attending a conference or seminar.  Roese covers everything, from identifying a main idea, constructing an outline and developing illustrations; to how to dress and use your vocal range; to the necessity of waiting on the Holy Spirit. Probably my favorite section was about building a preaching team, particularly the creative team (the “creatives,” as Roese calls them). She describes a typical meeting involving large sheets of paper taped to the walls for notes, craft and art supplies scattered over the tables for participants to work and play with, and a level of creative interaction and energy that simply sounded like a ball. I read that section to my artistic daughter, and her reaction was, “I’m in!”

If we feel “less than” or disqualified from some part of God’s kingdom, it isn’t him who’s doing it. I’ve noticed that in the Bible, God is generally much more egalitarian in his treatment of women than the culture at large. (I wrote about one example in this post. There are plenty of others.) But humans are a different story, bound as we are to traditions and, as Roese calls them, “theological ghosts.” Ranging through Scripture as well as church history and more recent scholarship, She Can Teach reminds us that women too can be gifted and called to preach, and her book’s treatment of the why and how makes for lively, informative reading.

Life Reimagined

I discovered Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife in this article about how our experience of our faith changes as we mature. The book explores that long stretch of years we call middle age — from around 45-65 — and the perspective shifts, professional landscape, brain chemistry, and changing values associated with it.

I really enjoyed the book, despite a few aspects that bothered me. Do you want the good news, or the bad news, first? Since my overall experience was good, I’m going to get the complaints out of the way first, and save the best for last.

  • Though it’s possibly a minor point, Hagerty gets Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers totally wrong. She makes mention of it when discussing Eric Ericsson’s research about the importance of practice. In a note, she adds this qualifier: “See Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which argued that talent is unnecessary as long as you practice ten years or ten thousand hours.” Sorry, but I’ve read Gladwell’s book twice. It doesn’t say that at all. It simply explores the factors in addition to talent that pertain to highly successful people. Her erroneous summary made me wonder how many other things she may have gotten wrong that I wouldn’t happen to know about.
  • The book never confronts the dilemma of causation vs. correlation. It points to many factors relevant to aging well, and the implication seems to be, “Do these things to achieve the same result as these people.” But do the habits — exercise, ongoing learning, novelty in marriage — cause the experience, or are they results in the life of someone who’s already aging well? Ultimately one’s quality of life boils down to our choices, and here we are in the realm of mystery. The title points to “science,” but while brain chemistry is an interesting factor, will may be the true rudder.

So much for criticism. What I liked far outweighed these niggling negatives.

For one thing, the book affirms common experiences, alleviating potential isolation. Age discrimination and financial struggle seem to be common experiences for those in mid-life, for example. Hagerty reports on an informal study conducted through the NPR website, one in which she simply asked, “How’s midlife treating you?” Many, many of the responses, even from the educated professional class that makes up NPR’s audience, testified to huge financial losses and job losses. Our tiresomely unanimous, uncritical news media keep insisting that this is a strong economy, the best we’ve had in years. But this is not borne out in the experience of many actual people.

For another thing, I enjoyed reading about the many factors that relate positively to aging: exercise, new learning, incorporating new experiences in marriage, volunteering, attitude, social life, purpose. The midlife crisis, it seems, is more myth than reality, and not necessarily a common experience for the majority. It was inspiring to read about the people Hagerty interviews as well as the ways she participates in her own research. In the course of the book, Hagerty

  • becomes an avid cyclist and enters the Senior Olympics (exercise/purpose);
  • participates in a brain study that involves working on particular mental tasks for a period of time and demonstrates measurable growth (neuroplasticity and memory);
  • rents an RV and goes on an extended camping trip with her husband (marital exploration) and another couple (social life);
  • and, ultimately, takes an NPR buyout and switches careers from reporter to author (finding purpose/meaningful work).

Structurally the book intersperses research, interviews, and personal experience in an engaging way. Hagerty is an entertaining writer who can explain technical material in clear and interesting prose.

As someone with Alzheimers firmly established in my genetic inheritance, I was delighted to learn that there exist people whose brains have the “plaques and tangles” of the disease, but none of the symptoms. I had no idea! What better testimony that it isn’t exclusively an issue of genetic determinism, but of lifestyle choices as well, whether a person falls victim to this tragic disease.

While I was glad to discover that I’m already incorporating a number of the “good habits” of productive midlife, there is one glaring weakness: friendships. I have a healthy marriage and family life, but when it comes to friends, well…. I would say I have many acquaintances, but few real friends at this point in my life. Much of this has to do with time and energy, most of which is focused on my family. But as my children grow older and more independent, this book reminds me that it’s important to look for opportunities to develop friendships. This isn’t what I’d call an area of natural strength for me; I’m definitely an introvert, which doesn’t mean I’m antisocial, but does mean I’m comfortable alone. Yet interestingly, Hagerty’s discussion reminds us that cultivating friendships is a major factor in physical and mental well-being — one worth the risk and effort necessary.

Finally, the book inspires me to “reimagine” a professional direction for my own life. Hagerty focuses on the professional class: those who climb the ladder of success in their careers and then change course in mid-life. I’ve been outside of any professional structure for some time now; I didn’t get very far up the ladder before changing course 15 years ago, leaving a tenure track teaching position at the beginning of my academic life to marry, then become a parent, then home educate my kids. I reach mid-life with education, experience and skills, yet when it comes to any clout in my professional sphere, well… I’m not sure how to make it translate. I was just starting out in academia when family rose to prominence. I have loved the transitions:

  • from academic publication to blogging;
  • from college level instruction to  educational jack-of-all-trades with pre-college-aged students;
  • from a teacher:student ratio of 1:25 or 1:50 to 1:1;
  • from uncovering themes in American and British lit to reading all kinds of books together with my kids, noticing and thinking about literary elements together in the process;
  • from an “expertise” to omnivorous reading.

But none of this has occurred in a professional sphere with LinkedIn contacts and professional evaluations or promotions. As the end of my homeschooling era comes into view a few years down the road, I find myself mulling how to identify and channel the strengths I’ve developed in new directions.

If you’re somewhere on the long road of midlife, I recommend Life Reimagined. It’s a source of enjoyment, information, and enlarged perspective that I savored. It provides its target audience with some useful materials to think about quality of life, goals, and dreams, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty makes a great guide along the way.

The Listening Life

There are several great reviews of this book around, including this one that convinced me I wanted to read it. Ironically, I believe it was the idea of a listening God that interested me. Finishing the book, it’s the idea of a listening Janet that inspires me.

How many of us listen well? Recently I commended someone for being a good listener, mainly because the person keeps quiet while others talk. This is one attribute of a good listener, but not the only one. It’s even possible to keep quiet while others talk and not be a good listener at all. You may be judging them, or internally rephrasing everything they say in terms of your own personal grid of meaning, or simply waiting for them to finish so you can wrench the conversation down a completely different path, or — perhaps — not even listening to them at all.

The Listening Life helps to guide its readers into a fuller imagining of what it means to listen well. The first five chapters explore the way God listens, and how we can listen in return — for instance, through prayer, scripture, and creation. These chapters are illuminating, but the ones I liked best came when author Adam McHugh turned to how we listen to others, to people in pain, to our own lives, and to our culture. I had two favorite chapters. The first, “Listening to Others,” offers some fine insight into the ways we might be listening less well than we think we are, and what we may be missing. “Character building is always expensive to the ego,” writes McHugh, just before offering some questions to help us evaluate our motivations in conversation. He points out, “The opposite of a listening heart is not a talking heart but a selfish heart.” I have grown stingy about book purchases, relying on the library whenever possible, and often reselling books I am forced to buy. In this chapter, I gave up and started underlining and bracketing passages I wanted to remember. This book is a keeper.

My other favorite chapter is “A Society of Reverse Listening.” To give you a whiff of what it’s about, it begins this way:

Our church signs lay out the usual pattern. Come this Sunday for our message: “Where Is God When It Hurts?” This week’s sermon: “Abraham and Isaac: The Untold Story.” Sunday morning at 9 and 11: “Your One True Love.” The expectation is clear: if you come to church, you are going to listen. The church’s job is to preach, to teach the Bible and to share God’s opinions on the issues of the day, and your job is to listen to our message. We have a pulpit, and you have ears.

Imagine if the pattern was reversed. What if, instead of coming to church to be preached to, people came to church to be heard? What if the body of believers was known less as a preaching community and more as a listening community?

This struck a chord with me. No matter how good the preaching, the Sunday service is largely an exercise in being a passive audience. Of course, McHugh is talking not just about worship services, but about Christian culture at large, which is often perceived to have much to say, but not much time or interest in listening. It’s not built into our structures because, perhaps, it’s not built into our values. But this last chapter offers an inspiring vision of how we could become better at listening instead of talking.

I recommend The Listening Life. Reading is, after all, an experience of extended listening, and this book offers any number of insights that are both deep and useful, related with gentleness and wit. It has already had an impact on my responses to the small circle of people who share my life, and it is inspiring despite McHugh’s acknowledgement that

The honest truth is that there is no glory in listening. There is more glory in talking about listening than there is in actually doing it. It is the New Year’s resolution of relationship disciplines. It is not glamorous, charismatic or dynamic. People who have been heard well aren’t even aware of it half the time.

Yet when you commit to go deep into listening, you will find that listening “speaks” in ways far more powerful than talking ever could.

Utopia Drive

utopiadriveIn Utopia Drive, the road weaves between times as its author searches the past for present answers. Though we may not be aware of the many utopian communes that have existed at one time or another on American soil, Erik Reece has compiled an introduction to several of them in this record of his summer travels in 2015. Setting out from his home state of Kentucky, Reece explores a number of experimental communities that tried out alternatives to the vision the rest of America was following.

Most of them eventually petered out, though some made a good run. The Shakers of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, for example, lasted a hundred years despite their ban on marriage and marital relations. The perfectionists of Oneida, New York, lasted as a cooperative for 30 years. And a few still exist, such as the Twin Oaks and Acorn communes in Louisa County, Virginia.

It interested me to see how many attempts have been made at essentially communist living within this capitalist nation. Years ago, on a news program, I heard a British man explain that the British had always looked at America and felt that the real conflict was not between democracy and communism, but democracy and capitalism. Apparently many others have shared the sentiment when they see the darker underside of a capitalistic system operating without shared moral guard rails. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and it’s every man for himself.

The two utopias that interested me most were Shakertown and the Oneida perfectionists. Both pictured themselves living out the kingdom of God on earth, a fulfillment of Christian teaching that repeats the pattern set by the first century church in the book of Acts. In the same way these early believers “had everything in common,” the head of each respective commune envisioned a cooperative system that involved shared labor and shared reaping of the results. But where the early Christians’ behavior grew spontaneously from their devotion to a supremely generous God, the Shakers and the perfectionists developed a system. Though Christianity should express itself in generosity, compassion, and good stewardship of the creation, I am always ambivalent about systematizing those fruits of genuine faith. Christianity’s most unfortunate legacies grow from attempts to impose it on people as part of a political system.

At times, though there are admirable qualities in the utopias, I found them… creepy. I admire the integrity of people who define success differently and live it out; I admire the skills and work ethic the groups brought to bear; I admire the simple bravery of their small-scale revolutions. But alongside the successes were costs that seemed to rival those of the larger society they rejected. Restrictions on the most private of behaviors, curtailing of natural motivations and drives like sexual intimacy and maternal attachment, and even the rejection of private property counterbalance the gains in community life. And alongside the incredibly practical outworking of community vision were sometimes strange psychological effects, like the Shakers’ many spiritual visions and the perfectionists’ willing submission of young girls to their leader, John Henry Noyes, for “initiation” to the world of intimacy.

Perhaps because of this uneasiness with some of the content, I really appreciated the accessibility of Reece’s scholarship. A readable and entertaining research project, Utopia Drive blends factual reports about each place with the writer’s reflections and experiences as a literary traveler as well as a geographical one. Musings on theology, politics, nature and literature alternate with driving narratives about the author locking his keys in his truck, interacting with tollbooth personnel, or facing the unexpected challenge of a full parking lot at Walden Pond. The reassuringly human voice of the narrative balances the strangeness of immersion in counter cultures.

The last chapter synthesizes the author’s experiences and steps firmly into the present day by looking at some examples of businesses that alter the typical model to give their workers greater ownership and reflect different values from much of America’s corporate culture. I was fascinated to read about Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, formed because some nonprofit “eds and meds” (educational and medical institutions) got together to develop and support local business in poorer communities around them. The resulting laundry, solar power, and gardening companies supply the needs of these “anchor institutions” and give their workers shares in the company. All kinds of positive benefits arise.

It got me thinking about my own (depressed) region, and the ways a similar operation would help. Ultimately, this is the effect of the book: it encourages its readers to think about what matters, what disturbs and distresses, and what steps one can imagine to enact change. Some of these past communities have posed solutions to these problems, and it was encouraging to read of some present day models that bring “utopian” thinking to bear on important questions: what constitutes true wealth? What does a healthy work culture look like? How can you do business intelligently, without violence against people or the natural world? For those who see big problems and no solutions, Utopia Drive offers a dose of possibility that will restore some hope.

Hillbilly Elegy

hillbillyJ.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Google the title, or the author’s name, and you’ll discover that it is making news as a treatise on the white working class. Some call it “an explanation of Trump voters.” But I doubt that Mr. Vance would feel comfortable with the title of “explainer.” (There is also no mention of Trump in the book, though in interviews the author is asked about him.) I got the sense that he, too, is asking questions, mulling experience, and trying to understand. His perspective carries weight because it has all the authenticity of lived experience.

A native of Middletown, Ohio, Vance comes from a family of Appalachian “hillbillies.” His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, moved from a cripplingly poor county in Kentucky to central Ohio in an effort to improve their chances and those of their children. They largely succeeded, arriving well before the factories closed. But for complex reasons, including an uneasy match between the hillbilly culture they brought with them and their Ohio community, their early financial success not only didn’t last, but was accompanied by a level of personal struggle and family dysfunction that made this author the most unlikely candidate in the world for the life he has attained: a graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law School, a happily married man, and a financially successful member of the professional class.

I admire the way Mr. Vance has been willing to speak for his community before a wider audience. He writes with great honesty, and great love, about the mixed bag of his cultural inheritance: deep devotion to family, yet a broken home and an unstable mother struggling with various addictions and a string of stepfathers; a volatile family life, yet a Scots-Irish honor code that insists on revenge for any perceived slight to you or your family member; a willingness to work hard and a love for country, yet a profound hopelessness in “the system” to ever guarantee success. The picture that emerges is a complex one, and though it brought tears to my eyes at times as I read, the author’s love and concern infused the telling and rendered both reflexive elitism and unfeeling judgment equally impossible. I respect Vance’s clear-eyed refusal to simplify, stereotype, or dismiss his subjects. In no way does he disown his heritage, however many of its hurdles he has cleared.

By far the heroes of the story are Mamaw and Papaw Vance, the author’s grandparents. They became Vance’s unofficial guardians and provided the stability, or as he calls it, the “safety valve,” in an otherwise chaotic and sometimes dangerous personal world. Though they have plenty of rough edges and failures, Vance sees his upward trajectory as directly attributable to them. After his grandfather dies, Vance lives with his grandmother for several years, and her steady encouragement and love enables him to begin redeeming himself as a high school student. He joins the Marines, where he learns discipline as well as a number of greatly needed life skills, and from there he is on his way up.

So why aren’t more from the white working class experiencing the kind of upward mobility Vance is? He offers no all-encompassing answer, but he does point to both systemic problems working on the community from without, and personal agency of those within the community. His discussion includes, among other things, the influence of Christianity, class, family, and politics both left and right. While the book is inspiring and gives me lots to think about, it does nothing to abate the concern I feel for our country or for my own family. On the contrary, it acknowledges some of the great divides among us. But it does so in a way that opens dialogue and advances the discussion in a disarmingly personal, civil way. Hillbilly Elegy does what all the best books do: it unsettles me, it brings others into sharper focus, and it makes me think about how similar and how connected we really are. These days, we can’t hear enough of such reminders.

Recent Reads

booksmI’ve had different degrees of success in my reading this summer. For example, though their premises were interesting and they were in general pretty good, I fell by the wayside and failed to finish Simplicity Parenting and Sarum. After waiting weeks for The Nest to become available at the library, the opening pages turned me off quickly by presenting me with a sordid encounter.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some success. It’s a Beautiful Day, by Renee and Philip Murdoch, details its author’s healing from traumatic brain injury. An American missionary in Rio, Renee Murdoch was attacked by a homeless man who fractured her skull so violently that no one could have predicted she would survive, much less recover without any brain damage. It’s an inspiring story full of encouragement, gripping description, and quirky humor. It challenged me to persist in prayer, no matter how many times the same prayer may be required or how long it takes to reach complete — not partial — fulfillment.

The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson, is a book of essays of which I read a few. One modern trend Robinson explores in her searching, densely packed way is the loss of theological distinction and tradition in modern Protestantism. A Calvinist herself, she seeks to connect our public discourse and sense of politics to what she sees as a lack of depth in our churches. She is politically liberal and a proud proponent of “civil religion,” neither of which persuasions found a sympathetic chord in me. Yet she makes some good points that require a thoughtful consideration. For example:

The word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic… This drift is the American version of a phenomenon that is clearly widespread throughout old Christendom. A ferocious secularism can carry on its internecine wars under the names Catholic and Protestant. Notional Christians can align themselves against actual Muslims in defense of European culture and civilization, which are based on a system of belief that is no longer believed, and are therefore under a severer threat than any they could face from a competing religion…

Who can fail to think of our current election season? Robinson reminds us that this is nothing new, but only “old humankind going about its mad business as if it simply cannot remember the harm it did itself yesterday.” But the fact that it’s not new doesn’t make it less serious. And perhaps, she writes, part of it is new: “There appears to me to be a dynamic at work that is new for us, a polarization of the good on one side and the religious on the other, which will be a catastrophe for American Christianity.”

Seeing the performance of Christians throughout this campaign, and seeing the apparent faith that salvation can be found in the political process, there can be little doubt that there has been a catastrophe for American Christianity. I don’t know if Robinson’s take explains it fully, but there is surely something very wrong.

I’ve enjoyed Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place, a book of essays that take up literary topics. He has essays presenting his perspective on several authors that I like (such as James Still and Wallace Stegner), as well as those who have been among his longest writerly friends (James Baker Hall and Gurney Norman). As always, I enjoy making my way through these thoughtful essays on art and artists. One of my classmates in graduate school remarked that Wendell Berry’s prose literally slows you down as you read, and in our hectic age this is a gift that grows steadily more valuable.

While I’m sure I read Elizabeth George Speare’s Witch of Blackbird Pond many years ago, I remembered none of it. Rereading it in advance of this year’s American history study, I felt it to be a pitch-perfect YA novel, well paced, sympathetic, and rich in detail of the period. Though the depiction of the Puritans is weighted toward the stern and curmudgeonly, there are a few scenes that show them simply merry and enjoying the life of the community and the beautiful natural setting in Connecticut. The “witch” of the story, a Quaker woman, is somewhat idealized, but ultimately the story shows the faith community growing and learning.

Finally, I revisited Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. My original, more complete review of the book is here. While I feel this book stops short of taking a Marxist view of people, it does offer a critical examination of America’s version of the rugged individualist success story. Taking selected “outliers” who perform with an extraordinary degree of success — in the IT industry, the practice of law, hockey players, pilots, and math students, for instance — Gladwell makes a convincing case for external factors like the 10,000 hour rule, family and wealth, and the occasional once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity that only comes to some. It’s a fascinating book that will make any parent consider how to help their children succeed — and encourage any individual to take a look around and see what opportunities may be quietly at hand.

One phenomenon Gladwell discusses is the importance of cultural heritage. He begins with a discussion of the Scots-Irish honor culture, and this is part of the subject matter of a book I expect to read soon: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. (You can read an interview with the author here.) The only catch is that the book needs to arrive — and just this morning I received a notice that it will be delayed. Oh well. I expect it to offer some needed insight into the surrealism of this election season, among other things.

 

WWJD and the Myth of a Christian Nation

A thoughtful reader emailed me recently regarding my post entitled “Quandary.” The reader brought up the question of what Jesus would do in the present election. As it was already a subject revolving in my mind, I decided to get some thoughts down here.

The problem with “WWJD” thinking is that it often simply evolves into what a person thinks anyway. Once I heard my two daughters surveying their extremely messy playroom, and one said, “I wonder what Jesus would do with this room.”

“He’d tell us to clean it up,” advised my responsible older daughter.

“Or, maybe he’d ask an angel to do it!” replied my more carefree younger daughter.

Render Unto Caesar (Rubens)
Render Unto Caesar (Rubens)

What would he do in a democratic republic? No idea. God chose a different age as the “fullness of time” for the Messiah to come, an age of emperors that demanded to be worshiped as gods, an age in which church and state were not separated. The more salient question is what Jesus actually did do about political involvement. The answer is, not much — at least, not much that was recorded. His disciples reflected different political points of view, and he didn’t sanction any of them or allow himself to be identified with any specific political movement. The only expressly political statement I can think of that Jesus made was, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to him.” (He said this because political groups were trying to trap him into defining himself in their terms.) He didn’t make any effort at all to help the Jews overthrow their oppressive Roman overlords. He did claim to be himself the King of kings — a political statement if ever there was one! But he said his kingdom was “not of this world.” Mostly, he seems to have had the kind of long view we would expect a Creator to have toward human establishments. He wasn’t a political activist in the sphere of human government.

This article is an interesting summary of Jesus’ politics. It concludes,

As the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus was political, though of an order that transcends this world and intersects this world all at the same time and calls it to account at every turn. As Jesus intersects our paths during this election season and beyond, do we realize that our ultimate allegiance must be to him?

How is this “ultimate allegiance” expressed? The New Testament gives us the general exhortation to live with integrity, in a manner worthy of our calling. This amounts to much the same thing any democratic republic tells its citizens to do: vote your conscience. For starters, Philippians 4:8 lays out some standards for a Christian conscience. Galatians 5:22-23 does too. 1 Timothy 3 lays out some standards for church leaders, and although a president is not a church leader, these standards define the kind of good character that marks a trustworthy leader.

As I said in my previous post, voting my conscience does not mean I’ll be “sitting out the election.” It means I’ll be voting for someone I can support. That means neither of the two major party candidates. I have watched every debate since last summer, read avidly the candidates’ positions on issues, and followed their public statements in an effort to be informed. I don’t see how either one is worthy of public office. Neither even amounts to a lesser evil. There is a slight difference in the party platforms, but in practice these platforms don’t seem to mean anything. In terms of moral outlook and political philosophy, a Clinton or a Trump presidency would look about the same. In terms of personal character, both are demonstrably dishonest, both are long-time political insiders who have played the system for years, and neither has any intention of reforming the excesses and corruptions of government. I’ve held my nose and voted for candidates in the past who may not match my criteria in every respect, but who meet at least some of them and are in the main decent people. This year, both parties are offering people below that threshold. I will have to find some other alternative to vote for, even if it means writing someone in, and in this way exercise the privilege of having a vote.

77832Some would argue that voting in this way is somehow disloyal to, as one person calls it, “our nation of Christians.” A nation of Christians would not have chosen these two candidates. The astonishing voting performance of self-proclaimed evangelicals and prominent church figures in the primaries reveals (among other things) a chasm between true Christianity and what Greg Boyd calls “civil religion” in his excellent book The Myth of a Christian Nation.

Christianity is based on a relationship practiced by individuals. It’s not a set of political positions or, as Dallas Willard called them, “boundary markers.” Christians in any nation retain (or lose) their identity and integrity independently of who’s in office, or what laws are on the books, or what party keeps its majority. Christians have thrived the most when politics have not gone their way, as the church’s vitality in ancient Rome, or modern day China, show. From that standpoint, perhaps the best thing that could happen in America is for us to stand with some courage against the moral tide now flowing against Christians, rather than rushing like lemmings to a figure whose only virtue is the promise of political control.

In this passage from The Myth of a Christian Nation, Greg Boyd describes the contrast between Christianity and civil religion:

A second thing that happens when we fail to distinguish the civil religion of America from the kingdom of God is that we end up wasting precious time and resources defending and tweaking the civil religion — as though doing so had some kingdom value. We strive to keep prayer in the schools, fight for the right to have public prayer before football games, lobby to preserve the phrases “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and “in God we trust” on our coins, battle to hold the traditional civil meaning of marriage, and things of the sort — as though winning these fights somehow brings America closer to the kingdom of God. This, we think, is part of what it means to “take America back for God.”

Now, you may or may not agree that preserving the civil religion in this way is good for the culture. Vote your conscience. But can we really believe that tweaking civil religion in these ways actually brings people closer to the kingdom of God, that it helps them become more like Jesus? For example, does anyone really think that allowing for a prayer before social functions is going to help students become kingdom people? Might not such prayer — and the political efforts to defend such prayer — actually be harmful to the kingdom inasmuch as it reinforces the shallow civil religious mindset that sees prayer primarily as a perfunctory religious activity? Might it not be better to teach our kids that true kingdom prayer has nothing to do with perfunctory social functions, that true kingdom prayer cannot be demanded or retracted by social laws and that their job as kingdom warriors is to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17) whether the law allows for it to be publicly expressed or not?

In other words, rather than spending time and energy defending and tweaking the civil religion, might it not be in the best interest of the kingdom of God to distance ourselves from the civil religion? Couldn’t one even go so far as to argue that it would be good for the kingdom of God if this civic brand of pseudo-Christianity died altogether? Isn’t one of the primary problems we’re up against in this nation the fact that Christianity has been trivialized by being associated with civic functions? And aren’t we actually reinforcing this trivialization by fighting so vigorously to preserve this pseudo-Christian veneer? Maybe Kierkegaard was right when he stated that the worst form of apostasy the Christian faith can undergo is to have it become simply an aspect of culture. Perhaps it would be a benefit to the advancement of this kingdom if America looked as pagan as it actually is, if the word God wasn’t so trivially sprinkled on our coins, our Pledge of Allegiance, our civic functions, and elsewhere. Then perhaps the word might come to mean something significant to people who genuinely hunger and thirst for the real thing!

Ancient Israel was a theocracy, not a democratic republic. But their history shows some of the same dynamic we see today in America. Just this morning, I read about the era just after King Solomon, when the kingdom split in two. Jereboam wanted to maintain control of his ten tribes by preventing them from having to travel to Jerusalem, where all the true Levite priests had fled. So he made a couple of idols and proclaimed, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” Those who “set their hearts on seeking the Lord, the God of Israel” fled to Jerusalem. But the rest obediently stayed home and worshiped the idols.

It’s a chilling picture, all too similar to what is happening today in America. Those people had to make a choice. Would they follow a political personality who seemed sympathetic to their needs, but who wanted to use their religion, changing it in the process, to consolidate his own power? Or would they turn away and hold firm to the faithful God who had taken care of them so far? Rather than selling our souls at the altar of a political party or a personality, let’s hold firm to the One we know is true and real.