Category : Books

(CT) Warren Smith–David Foster Wallace Broke My Heart

While a graduate student at the University of Arizona, he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and that brought him face-to-face with religion and religious people. AA’s 12-Step program is a far cry from a systematic and biblical theology, but for someone like Wallace—brilliant, arrogant, skeptical—its principles were humbling and eye-opening, especially the admonition to “surrender to a power higher than ourselves.”

Recovery ultimately took several years and involved multiple relapses, time in a residential rehab facility (brilliantly fictionalized in Infinite Jest), and at least one suicide attempt. But when Wallace came out the other end, he was a different, humbler man. As Max puts it,

To do well in recovery required modesty rather than brilliance. It was not easy for him to accept humbling adages like “Your best thinking got you here.” How smart could he be, the other program members would remind him, if here he was in a room in the basement of a church with a dozen other people talking about how he couldn’t stop drinking?

If these experiences did not lead Wallace to religion, or Christianity in particular, they did lead him to admire and respect Christians, many of them “ordinary Joes” he met in these church basements. In 1999, to one of his writer friends, he wrote, “You’re special—it’s OK—but so’s the guy across the table who’s raising two kids sober and rebuilding a ’73 Mustang.”

That respect showed up in his work, and despite his background and education, he became something of a “blue-collar intellectual.” He often wore jeans, flannel shirts, and unlaced Timberland boots. In the heat of Arizona, he would pull his long hair back with a bandana, and the look became his trademark. Wallace would skewer the pompous and the hypocritical without a trace of pity, but he developed a quiet and profound respect for the humble and sincere Christians who often led these AA meetings and served as his sponsors—people who desperately, unironically talked about a God he wanted to but could not quite embrace….

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Religion & Culture, Theology

(Economist) Francis Fukuyama and Kwame Anthony Appiah take on identity politics

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 240 pages; $26. To be published in Britain by Profile Books in October; £16.99.

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Liveright; 256 pages; $27.95. Profile Books; £14.99.

One of the most remarkable recent developments in Anglo-American politics is the reification of the white working class. Google Trends, a website that tracks how often particular words or phrases are typed into the search engine, shows a huge spike in interest in that group when Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. Interest has never quite subsided since. What is more, the white working class has gone from being mostly ignored to being assumed to have a consistent set of views, even a political agenda.

Many of the books published after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Mr Trump’s election tried to explain why this group in particular had turned on the political establishment. For example, “Us vs Them” by Ian Bremmer and “WTF” by Robert Peston found the answer in the travails of former industrial towns and the arrogance and selfishness of elites. Now come two more reflective takes. “Identity” and “The Lies That Bind” suggest that Western countries not only have deep economic and social problems, but philosophical ones too. People are looking at themselves and others in the wrong ways.

Read it all.

Posted in * Economics, Politics, Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Philosophy, Politics in General, Theology

(CT) John Inazu: Why I’m Still Confident About ‘Confident Pluralism’

The premise of confident pluralism is that we can make room for our differences even as we maintain our own beliefs and practices. Doing so requires both legal and personal commitments. When it comes to the law, we must insist that those in power protect our ability to disagree. We must have a shared commitment to allowing for dissent, difference, and divergent beliefs. That means strengthening First Amendment freedoms for everyone.

The personal argument focuses on civic practices rooted in three aspirations: tolerance, humility, and patience. Tolerance acknowledges that people should generally be free to pursue their own beliefs and practices. This is not the same as approval; it is much closer to endurance. We can usually respect people even if we don’t respect their ideas. Humilityrecognizes that we will sometimes be unable to prove to others why we believe we are right and they are wrong. Patience asks us to listen, understand, and empathize with those who see the world differently.

The American experiment in pluralism depends upon legal commitments and civic practices. And we have usually found ways to maintain a modest unity against great odds. We have always done so imperfectly, and too often our political stability has been purchased at the cost of suppressing or silencing those with less power. But in acknowledging our country’s shortcomings, we can also remember some of its successes. The disagreements between white Protestant men at the founding of our country may seem trivial today, but those differences meant widespread killing in other parts of the world. Our debased and dehumanizing political rhetoric leaves much to be desired, but unlike many other societies, we usually stop short of actual violence. In the midst of deep disagreements with our neighbors, we still find creative partnerships in unexpected places. These examples of our modest unity are important reminders that we can live together across deep differences. On the other hand, they do not suggest that we have or will overcome our differences. As I write in the book’s conclusion, confident pluralism will not give us the American dream, but it might help avoid the American nightmare.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Apologetics, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Religion & Culture, Theology

Wednesday food for Thought from Max Lucado

Heroes in the Bible came from all walks of life—rulers, servants, teachers, doctors—male, female, single, and married. Yet one common denominator united them. They built their lives on the promises of God. Noah believed in rain before rain was a word. Joshua led two million people into enemy territory. One writer went so far as to call such saints “heirs of the promise” (Hebrews 6:17).

As God prepared the Israelites to face a new land, he made a promise to them, “Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the LORD, will do for you” (Exodus 34:10). God’s promises are unbreakable. Our hope is unshakable!

–Max Lucado Unshakable Hope

Posted in Books, Eschatology

The Joy of Reading

Posted in * By Kendall, Animals, Books, Harmon Family

Kate Bowler–“I am preparing for death and everyone else is on Instagram”

Posted in Books, Death / Burial / Funerals

Wednesday Food for Thought from Michael Anton

From here:

The sexual revolution, universally assumed to be a boon for randy men, has turned out to be in at least one respect much more conducive to satisfying women’s preferences than men’s. Men may have started it, or at least egged it on, hoping that with the old restraints gone, they would be free to indulge. But they forgot or never understood a fundamental law of nature: throughout the animal kingdom—up to and including Homo sapiens—males merely display; females choose. When a woman’s choice is completely free of all social, legal, familial, and religious boundaries, she prefers to hold out for “the best.” Hence a constrained-supply problem arises.

Four years ago, a University of North Carolina co-ed lamented to the New York Times that the sex imbalance on college campuses (nationally, 43% male, 57% female as of fall 2014) is even worse for girls than it looks. “Out of that 40 percent, there are maybe 20 percent that we would consider, and out of those 20, 10 have girlfriends, so all the girls are fighting over that other 10 percent.”

(Hat tip:AR)

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Marriage & Family, Men, Sexuality, Women, Young Adults

More Food for Thought from GK Chesterton–Everything will be denied until even the obvious will need to be defended

From there:

Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them their limits and their plain and defiant shape. We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism. Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith. We who believe in patriotism once thought patriotism to be reasonable, and thought little more about it. Now we know it to be unreasonable, and know it to be right. We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti-Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.

–Gilbert K. Chesterton, Heretics (London and New York:John Lane[The Bodley Head], 1905), pp. 304-305, my emphasis

Posted in Anthropology, Apologetics, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Philosophy, Theology

(New Atlantis) Doug Sikkema–Taking a Careful look at the Modern disenchantment myth

That magic, religion, and superstition have all persisted up to the modern day does not quite demonstrate his claim that “we have never been disenchanted” — or, put another way, that “modernity signals a societal fissure” between religion and reason “that never occurred.” In his keenness to show that the idea of disenchantment is undermined by the persistence of both sides of the binary, he fails to examine a more interesting and arguably much more important line of inquiry: how this myth has altered the conditions in which both religion and science are now practiced. When we consider this, we see that despite the continued prevalence of enchanting beliefs and practices, we are indeed disenchanted in a more fundamental and pervasive way than Josephson-Storm recognizes.

Just recall his origin story for a moment and his blind spot becomes apparent. He deems pre-Revolutionary Europe to be merely a “historical moment” the Romantics were reacting against in their writings. In doing so “they were making grand themes out of the specifics of their local history.” But this reading fails to take seriously the broader cultural conditions in which such a political and philosophical climate even became possible. Might it have something to do with a broader notion of disenchantment, or “dis-God-ing” (to translate from Schiller’s “entgötterte Natur”), that transcended this particular place and time? If so, the German Romantics may have had real reason for concern, as may have the thinkers who built on their insights. Perhaps their understanding of history’s pattern as a linear alienation from God and nature was questionable, but the idea of a dis-godded condition becoming solidified in a theory of progress and in revolutionary politics, and of it manifesting in physical form in the new industrial world, was so terrifying to them precisely because they knew these things were greater than their particular historical moment.

The only way for the book’s argument to work, then, is to accept at face value the idea of disenchantment as the simple absence of religion and magic. But we are actually disenchanted in a much more profound way. Yes, religion and magic remain ubiquitous; but they are now performed against a backdrop in which disenchantment is regarded, in ways conscious and unconscious, as true. Disenchantment is the default position in the social imaginary, encoded in our language and in all manner of habits and practices that carry as if we inhabit a mechanistic world. It has become one of the myths we live by, even as we resist it.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Other Faiths, Philosophy, Religion & Culture

John Mark Reynolds–Wrong, Not Just Because We Think So

Graduation time brings out the inspirational quote. One quotation keeps showing up, disasterous advice and a misquotation. Before getting to the ethics problem, as a public service, let me suggest three truths about citing famous people:

First, relying on quotation sites on the ‘Net is dangerous. Check the original text. 

Once while reading Sarah Palin, I discovered she had at least three quotations (including one from Plato) that were wrong. A quick Google showed a quote site that had all the errors.

Second, if the citation does not include a text reference and Google does not show the text it is from, assume it is spurious. 

Everyone gets something wrong, sometime. I relied on a book that said Alfred Wallace was a Lord: wrong. If you cite badly, just be sorry, correct, and hope your critic can let it go!

Third, Shakespeare and Plato are very dangerous to cite as they don’t always agree with their characters. 

Read it all.

Posted in Blogging & the Internet, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Theatre/Drama/Plays

(CT) Philip Jenkins reviews Professor Brian Stanley’s new book on Christianity in the 20th Century

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of trends in modern Christianity will have opinions about what Stanley’s 15 key themes should be. We might disagree with the exact contents of his list, but few would question the reasonableness of including, for instance, “uneasy marriages between Christianity and nationalism”; the persecution of churches in different societies; ecumenism; the dilemmas of living as a Christian under Islamic rule; human rights, gender, and sexuality; the role of migrant churches; or the relationship between Christianity, ethnic hatred, and genocide.

But if the topics to some extent select themselves, Stanley then startles with his choice of specific examples. Yes, we know that Christians in different eras have exalted the notion of “Holy Nations,” but how many authors would think to examine this approach with a comparative study of Protestant nationalism in South Korea and Marian Catholic nationalism in Poland? Or to compare the churches’ response to genocide in Nazi Germany and Rwanda? One might easily point to the fundamental cultural differences between the nations placed under the microscope, especially when Catholic and Protestant traditions are juxtaposed. But overriding those forms of diversity is one key question. Each of these churches, sects, or movements claims to be Christian, regardless of its location and historical circumstances. So what exactly is the identifiable core of that Christian belief or understanding? How malleable is it?

Another strength of Stanley’s book is the serious attention paid to a wide diversity of traditions and denominations. A generation or so ago, a book giving adequate and fair coverage to both Catholics and (mainline) Protestants was laudable. Stanley certainly treats those two fully, but over and above that he offers a chapter on the Orthodox tradition, as viewed in the cases of Greece, Turkey, and even East Africa. Given his interest in Global South religion, he is very informative on Pentecostal worlds, as well as the African independent traditions represented by the Aladura and other healing churches.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church History, Globalization

(Washington Post) Bernard Lewis, eminent historian of the Middle East, dies at 101

Bernard Lewis, a preeminent scholar of Middle Eastern history whose work profoundly shaped Western views of the region — including fears of a “clash of civilizations” — but also brought scorn from critics who considered his views elitist and favoring Western intervention, died May 19 at an assisted-living facility in Voorhees, N.J. He was 101.

The death was confirmed by his romantic partner and co-author, Buntzie Churchill, who did not cite a specific cause.

Dr. Lewis’s prolific scholarship — including more than 30 books, hundreds of articles and competence in at least a dozen languages — traced fault lines that define the modern Middle East, such as sectarian divisions, the rise of radical Islamists and entrenched dictatorships, some backed by the West.

Along the way, Dr. Lewis often gained a privileged vantage point for events in the region during a life that spanned the era of T.E. Lawrence, oil discoveries in Arabia and showdowns against the Islamic State.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Death / Burial / Funerals, Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, History, Middle East, Religion & Culture

(CC) Jason Byassee reviews the new book ‘Preaching Radical and Orthodox’ (SCM Press)

Books of sermons can be hit or miss, but there is not a clunker in this volume. They can also be theologically diffuse, but there is remarkable synchronicity here: not uniformity, but coherence. Thomas Aquinas appears as a theologian whose work was for the training of social radicals, doing ministry with the poor. A theology of Mary appears regularly, as does an enormously high doctrine of the Eucharist, celebrated and contemplated and made deeply invitational. One might be forgiven for thinking the sermons Catholic. Fully one third of them—and many of the most memorable ones—are by women.

Alison Milbank is the preacher who appears most often, and Arabella Milbank—a priest in training who is the daughter of Alison and John—appears both as preacher and as an addressee of a wedding homily. Yet, unlike some settings, there is no bashing of tradition here, no apologies for previous misogyny, no special pleading that the church can be nearly as “woke” as the world. Rather, the sermons have a regular and pointed critique of the world, confidently offering the church as a viable alternative.

Most pleasingly to my mind, the sermons engage in an unapologetic reclamation of the legends of the saints…

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Preaching / Homiletics

(Patheos) Philip Jenkins–Making Monks, Forming Souls

I have been reading an important new book called Monasteries and the Care of Souls in Late Antique Christianity: Cognition and Discipline (Cambridge University Press, 2017). This is by my former colleague Paul Dilley, an excellent scholar whose work I have discussed in the past. The book is important because of its Egyptian setting, using many texts that are only available to those scholars with a knowledge of Coptic, besides the familiar Greek. Egypt is so critical to the making of early Christianity, right up through the sixth and seventh centuries and beyond, but our standard Western emphasis often means that this is underplayed. Also, given the central importance of monasticism through much of Christian history, Dilley’s book addresses a central if under-explored question: just how did people become monks? Not just how did they sign on to the profession, but how did they discover and absorb the lifestyle, its particular ways, assumptions and ideologies? How did they learn to live its world?

This would be a fine book if it just offered a straightforward historical analysis, but it is much more daring that that, and approaches its subject from the field of cognitive studies. Dilley describes such key cognitive disciplines as “meditation on scripture, the fear of God, and prayer.” He also discusses  “various rituals distinctive to communal monasticism, including entrance procedures, the commemoration of founders, and collective repentance.” That emphasis on ritual behavior fits so well with what we know about religious practices across the faith spectrum.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church History

(America) David Michael–Alan Jacobs: a Christian intellectual for the internet age

In a post in late 2015, he wrote about curbing the distractions of the internet. He had deleted his Tumblr and Instagram accounts and had returned to older technologies: paper, CDs and even a “dumb phone”—though he had returned to his iPhone when I visited him.

Lately, he has started taking notes on multicolored index cards. He spends less time writing on a computer and more time writing in a notebook, using a practice called bullet journaling. He jots ideas down as they come to him, and reads over the notes when he has time. “It’s always like putting stuff in the compost pile and stirring it around and then putting more stuff in the compost pile and stirring it around. And then I take it out and move it to the place where something needs to grow.”

If an idea is still gnawing at him, he will work the idea into a more developed sketch. When he gets on a roll, he grabs his computer, sometimes writing four or five thousand words at a time. “That doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to be good words,” he told me. “But it’s this kind of desperate let me get it all out while I still can.” When I visited him, he was in the midst of six different essays and a new book.

He calls his new book a theological anthropology for the Anthropocene Age, an account of what it means to be human in an era that seems radically empowering but also leaves the individual feeling helpless before technocratic powers. Theologians have not risen to the task, but Jacobs thinks that novelists like Thomas Pynchon can offer clarity.

“I have lots of ideas,” he told me shortly before I left. “I always have more ideas than I can possibly write about.” So he prays for discernment about what ideas to pursue and what ideas to let die. “And increasingly, over the last three or four years, I pray more and more that God would teach me when it’s time to shut up. That’s the thing that I’m least good at. Just shutting up.”

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Religion & Culture, Science & Technology, Theology, Theology: Scripture