Maps of Meaning by Jordan Peterson (Review)

A few weeks ago my three year old daughter and I went to the library to check out some books.  Usually she heads right to the section with Curious George while I peruse the kids books, looking for new and fun stories.  Lately she’s been randomly grabbing books off the shelf and declaring she wants them.  Surprisingly they are usually quite good.  I don’t recall if she grabbed it or if I did, but we ended up with Scaredy Squirrel.

We took it home and read it.  It was hilarious.  Poor Scaredy Squirrel is terrified to leave his safe tree and journey into the unknown.  He has all sorts of contingency plans for when and if he is threatened.  Of course, when a bee flies by he forgets all his plans and dives out of his tree for safety.

A funny kids book and nothing more, right?  Well, at the same time we got this book, I was working on Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning.  A good chunk of his book is about how humans live in the midst of two worlds – the known and the unknown.  We learn and grow by encountering the unknown, as scary as it is.  The story of Scaredy Squirrel is a fun illustration of what Peterson was talking about, I actually flipped to the front to see if he had authored it.

I first heard of Peterson’s book from a friend.  My friend reads a ton of books and has introduced me to many great writers.  On Facebook a while back he shared the ten most influential books he had read and this was one of them.  I added it to my list.  When I finally got a copy and set out to read it was a challenging and delightful feast.  Peterson draws on various fields, from science to religion.  He brings them all to bear on his field, psychology, in a discussion of how mythology, the stories we tell, influence how we view the world.  To put it another way, none of us sees the world objectively, as if the world is just objects out there which we all perceive.  Instead we inherit maps of meaning from our ancestors which shape how we see the world.

There is a lot of good in this book.  The only drawback is that it could have been more concise as Peterson tends to repeat himself and ramble at times.  Overall though, this is a fantastic book.

 

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The River of Life by Lee Harmon (Review)

In his first two books, Lee Harmon took a creative approach to biblical interpretation.  Rather than a usual commentary, he wrote stories set in the days of the beginning of Christianity.  Through these stories, he illustrated how the gospel of John and the book of Revelation may have come to be written.  Both books are enjoyable as stories and provide historical context.  They also hint at (sometimes more than hint at) Lee’s form of liberal Christianity.

Lee has a new book, The River of Life, in which he seeks to better explain what liberal Christians, such as himself, believe about the Bible and Jesus.  This book is short and personal.  It is also engaging and a good read.

The first chapter is a discussion of heaven and hell.  This chapter is strong, but also points to the problems and challenges of such a book.  As I read I found myself in agreement with much of it, as Lee sought to show that the common conservative, and traditional, view of eternal conscious torment is not the best supported view in the Bible.  Yet many non-liberals would agree with Lee’s case here.  Certainly the traditional view still holds sway in much of “conservative” Christianity but there is much more diversity then Lee seems to allow.

This is even more apparent which begins with a paragraph describing “conservative” Christianity as holding to dispensational theology (think Left Behind).  While holding a non-traditional view of hell may lead to ostracism in many conservative circles, there is much more diversity on the topic of Jesus’ return.  You can find conservatives all over the spectrum.  The seminary I attended was very conservative but few professors (perhaps none) had time for rapture nonsense.  You can find conservatives who hold to all sorts of views from preterism to amillennialism.

Lee clearly paints with a broad brush, a necessity of a book under 100 pages.  And Lee is very hopeful, looking for people on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide to reach across and join hands for the greater good.  Yet if Lee is looking for fundamentalists of the variety he often targets (those who hold to Left Behind theology, for example) to embrace him, he is destined for disappointment.  If he hopes to find friends among other conservatives, perhaps there is more cause for hope.

When I read what Lee writes about the Good News, the Historical Jesus and other topics, I find a lot to applaud.  I also find things to disagree with.  For example, Lee talks about the gospel emphasis on making life better on this side of the grave.  I agree wholeheartedly with this.  While Lee does not deny that the Bible speaks about an afterlife, he is skeptical about the existence of such.  I would respond that it is both – for as much as salvation is about this world, there is great hope for the next world too.  And while Lee is right in being critical of Christians who solely wish to be whisked away to heaven, I’d bet it is Christians with a strong view in an afterlife who have done the most good in this world.  It makes me think of a CS Lewis quote, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

For me, the hope and trust that God will complete our work, that the breaking in of the kingdom of God is not solely based on human effort, is motivation to work for it all the more.  Perhaps this is another place where Lee and I would differ – we both want to work for the kingdom of God in this life, but I have faith that this work will be completed whether we fail to reach the goal in our lives or not.  Of course, at the end of the book Lee speaks about God helping us in our work.  So maybe even here there is hope for agreement, enough agreement to get to work, that is!

Like I said above, there is a lot to agree with and disagree with in this book, as well as a lot to think about.  Many conservative Christians will throw this book out the window, deeming it as errant theology and liberal drivel.  If that is all you get from it though, that is unfortunate.  I hope you see a good book written by a man with a heart to bring Jesus’ vision to fruition in this world.  Heart is the right word, in this book we see Lee’s heart.  So maybe we disagree on theology and doctrine; we disagree on things in our head.  But if we can agree on our heart, that is a step in the right direction.

 

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Undiluted by Benjamin Corey (Review)

Over the past year or so I’ve enjoyed reading Ben Corey’s blog. He seemingly burst onto the Christian blog scene, going from not having a blog to having tremendous readership. This shows that he is striking a nerve, whether that nerve is one of people who agree with him and eagerly share his posts on social media, or those who disagree and see him as someone doing harm to the Christian faith.

He is not doing harm to the Christian faith. What he is doing harm to is the Americanized version of the Christian faith that transforms Jesus into a flag waving general leading troops onto literal battlefields to kill the bad guys or metaphorical battlefields to take back America for Jesus. Many of Corey’s blog posts point out the flaws in such Americanized Christianity. For example, he recently had a post about taking down American flags in churches.

His book Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, serves as a testimony from Corey of how he got to where he is today and a foundation for the sort of Christianity he promotes on his blog. Basically, this book seeks to return us to the Jesus we find in scripture who preached a radical message which confronts any and all peoples. Corey shares how this message confronted him, getting quite personal in his stories about adopting his kids.

As I read I found myself wanting to follow the Jesus that Corey was writing about. You could say that Corey accomplishes what he set out to do as the reader will certainly rediscover Jesus. I highly recommend this book to any Christians. I could especially see this book being read and discussed by college students. It is the sort of book that Christians could read and be challenged by, but that their friends who are skeptical about faith could also read. Such books that appeal to both groups are few and far between, and are also a blessing.

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Mississippi Praying by Carolynn Renee Dupont (Review)

Were Christians in Mississippi opposed to integration in the 1950s and 1960s merely due to their cultural influences? No, argues Carolynn Renee Dupont in this fantastic piece of history.  Against the common assumption that religious beliefs were incidental and mostly unrelated to their racism, Dupont shows that it was the religious beliefs of these people that fueled their fight for segregation.  They believed God blessed segregation and opposition to the institution was something only liberal types would pursue.

This is a tremendously important book, on the level of Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  These historical debates inform the debates we are having today, because though the issues have changed the hermeneutics of the two sides have not.  As Noll showed in his book, it was conservative religious people who wanted just a plain reading, a literal reading, of scripture who supported slavery.  Abolitionists, for the most part, were seen as on a slippery slope away from orthodoxy.

One hundred years later and the echoes are obvious.  Those who supported segregation read the Bible in the same way as those who supported slavery.  Orthodox conservative Christians had a tradition and felt it was liberals who were straying from orthodox belief who opposed God’s desire for races to be separate.

Perhaps most disturbing is how Dupont points to the roots of contemporary conservative religious politics.  Those who supported segregation continued reading the Bible in the same way, even after segregation was off the table.  They found new battles to fight, though their weapons were the same.  Which leads me to wonder, if this way of reading the Bible has been on the wrong side twice in the last 150 years, in two of the most major moral debates in our nations history, perhaps that ought to be a bigger strike against it today then it often is.

I suspect we simply don’t know our history.  Saying we believe the Bible is literal and the truth is plainly there in the proof-texts is much easier.  It is important to know this past, to know that how we interpret the Bible is not neutral or new but has hurt people and simply been wrong in the past.  Which then leads to the question, how do we read and interpret the Bible today?

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Beloit College Mindset List Class of 2018

Every year I enjoy the Beloit College Mindset List.  

Of course, every year it makes me feel older and older.  The first one on the list notes that this year’s freshmen were in kindergarten when the planes hit the World Trade Center 13 years ago.  Wow.

Here are some highlights from this year’s list.

1. During their initial weeks of kindergarten, they were upset by endlessly repeated images of planes blasting into the World Trade Center.

4. When they see wire-rimmed glasses, they think Harry Potter, not John Lennon.

5. “Press pound” on the phone is now translated as “hit hashtag.”

6. Celebrity “selfies” are far cooler than autographs.

7. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has always been the only news program that really “gets it right.”

14. FOX News and MSNBC have always been duking it out for the hearts and minds of American viewers.

17. Courts have always been overturning bans on same-sex marriages.

18. Joe Camel has never introduced one of them to smoking.

20. Citizens have always had a constitutional right to a “dignified and humane death.”

21. Nicotine has always been recognized as an addictive drug requiring FDA oversight.

23. Hello Dolly…cloning has always been a fact, not science fiction.

24. Women have always been dribbling, and occasionally dunking, in the WNBA.

28. Parents have always been able to rely on a ratings system to judge violence on TV.

33. There has always been a national database of sex offenders.

35. Yet another blessing of digital technology: They have never had to hide their dirty magazines under the bed.

37. Bill Gates has always been the richest man in the U.S.

38. Attending schools outside their neighborhoods, they gather with friends on Skype, not in their local park.

39. While the number of Americans living with HIV has always been going up, American deaths from AIDS have always been going down.

40. They have no memory of George Stephanopoulos as a senior White House advisor.

43. Two-term presidents are routine, but none of them ever won in a landslide.

45. One route to pregnancy has always been through frozen eggs.

46. They have probably never used Netscape as their web browser.

47. Everybody has always Loved Raymond.

48. “Salon” has always been an online magazine.

52. U.S. soldiers have always been vaccinated against anthrax.

53. “Good feedback” means getting 30 likes on your last Facebook post in a single afternoon.

54. Their collection of U.S. quarters has always celebrated the individual states.

55. Since Toys R Us created a toy registry for kids, visits to Santa are just a formality.

 

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Contemplations from the Heart by Grace Ji-Sun Kim

This book is aptly titled; as you read it you can see Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s heart pouring through.  It is a series of reflections broken into three headings: family, environment and church.  Each chapter is very short, only about two pages, which makes this book ideal for any Christian as a sort of daily devotional.  In a world where we are all busy, this is the sort of book people probably want, and could actually take the time to, read.  Each chapter will give you some things to cheer about as well as much to think about.

As I read there were times when I found myself thinking that I can’t relate to this, that this is a book written by an Asian woman and thus not targeted at me, a white man.  But then I realized that this is why people like me ought to read such a book.  My experience of feeling that this book is not for me is a reflection of my own white, male privilege.  I can go into any bookstore and find loads of books written by people who look like me, filled with illustrations I can relate to.  I take the availability of such books for granted.  At worst, I assume such books are neutral, written to all Christians while books like this one by Dr. Kim target a more specific (other Asian women, for example) audience.  But the books I am naturally drawn to are not neutral, they are written by white men, and, whether the authors or readers realize it or not, with white men in mind.  Thus it is a blessing to hear diverse voices from the church, such as Dr. Kim’s.  So while I would recommend this book to those persons from a similar context to Dr. Kim’s, I would also recommend more white guys like me read and listen to voices such as hers.  It can only benefit the church when we break out of our comfortable privileges and listen to the Spirit speak in diverse voices.

The primary negative I found was that there were a few editing issues in the book.  In one chapter she mentions something that happened in a certain month in 2013, but in another chapter she speaks of something that happened in a month without a note of the year.  And in another chapter she speaks of something in the future tense that already happened – so future from when she wrote it, but past from when the book was published.  Such things are minor but do stick out and are a bit jarring.  I also think the book could have benefited from more Bible readings or quotes from other Christians.  Of course, that is the evangelical in me speaking.  The title is “contemplations” from the heart, not “Bible studies” from the heart!  And we are all blessed that Dr. Kim has given us a window into her heart.

Full disclosure – I am friends with the author and received a free copy for purpose of review.

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Know the Creeds, Councils and Heretics by Justin Holcomb

Justin Holcomb has done the Church a favor in publishing two books: Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils.  Both can serve as great introductions to the history of Christian theology, including both what Christians believe and why they believe it.  I could see these books both being used in small group studies or read by lay Christians seeking to learn more about Christian belief.

First, Know the Heretics.  This book begins with a discussion of what a “heresy” is.  Such a discussion is important, as it often seems the only heresy nowadays is to call someone else a heretic.  But if on one extreme there are those who would call nothing heresy, on the other are those who call everything heresy.  Holcomb focuses in on only issues discussed in the great Christian creeds, such as the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the Trinity and so on.  Thus, differing views on hell or on evolution or other secondary issues are not heresies.

From this he covers pretty much all the major heresies in the early church.  Most of these arose from people trying to figure out and explain who Jesus was.  So you have the heresy that Jesus was only human, as well as the heresy that Jesus was not human at all (Docetism).  The most odd thing in this book is that it follows in chronological order until you get near the end.  Holcomb covers the heresy of Eutychus (Monophystism) before covering that of Nestorius (Nestorianism), even though Nestorius’ controversy came first in history.  So in the chapter on Eutychus, Holcomb has to allude to the story of Nestorius, which the reader has not come to yet.  It reads a bit awkwardly and begs the question, Why not cover them in order?

The other book, Know the Creeds and Councils, is also good, though I found one flaw that bothered me.  This book moves more beyond the early church, not just covering the early creeds but moving into councils from the Reformation era and even a few in the 20th century.  Thus it is more broad, covering Catholic councils (Trent in the 1500s, Vatican II in the 1900s) and Reformed confessions (Westminster, Heidelberg Catechism).  It is the absences in this broadness that makes me pause though.  Why favor just these two traditions?  During the Reformation era we are missing both Lutheran and Anabaptist writings.  Or even move beyond mere belief and mention the Barmen Declaration that spoke out against Hitler in WWII.

Related to this, is what I see as perhaps an unavoidable problem in a book like this.  In discussing the anathemas connected to one of the creeds, Holcomb reflects on whether one can be condemned for simply believing the wrong thing about God, as the creed states.  Such a discussion is probably too deep for a book as brief as this and leads to more questions then answers.  Are those who assent to the correct beliefs saved even if they commit horrific evils?  Are some with questionable beliefs condemned to judgment even if they live as true disciples of Jesus?  This is why I think something from Anabaptists (such as the Schleitheim Confession) and the Confessing Church in Germany would have filled out this book nicely.

That said, overall, these books are greatly helpful for any Christian.

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