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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A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd (Review)

For me, as for many Christians in America, it has often been difficult to separate our commitments to Jesus and our patriotism as Americans.  I remember singing songs to the greatness of America at church around national holidays.  More recently, I remember being at a Christian conference that recognized a national holiday with a powerpoint presentation that seemed to praise American warplanes.

Brian Zahnd seems to have a similar history.  In his book A Farewell to Mars, he tells much of his story.  Once upon a time he was the patriotic pastor, preaching nationalistic sermons, praying war prayers and basically seeing part of his job as a Christian pastor to call for God’s blessing to the American military machine.  Over time he came to see the idolatry in this and moved to a nonviolent position.

When I first noticed this book, I expected it to be the story of how a pastor moved from seeing Jesus as sanctioning American wars to sanctioning nonviolence along with a good bit of argument that Jesus teaches nonviolence.  There is a lot of the former, but it was the latter that was pleasantly surprising.  Zahnd does not tread the usual ground that people do when arguing for or against nonviolence.  His book is not about proving, from the sermon on the mount and elsewhere, that Jesus’ followers ought to be nonviolent.  Instead he paints a picture of who Jesus Christ is and was and reasons from that into nonviolence.

This makes the book both readable and fresh.  If you’re new to the whole idea of a nonviolent Jesus, this book opens the door for you.  And if you’ve read books on this subject before, this book is unique enough to deserve a reading.  At the same time, if you have the usual questions about nonviolence, Zahnd’s book does not give answers.  For example, he makes the claim that God never commands the killing of anyone, drawing a line from Abraham to Jesus.  What about all the stories in the Bible where God does appear to command such killing?  Zahnd does not go there.  Also, many people bring up how the picture of Jesus in Revelation fits in, will Jesus leave behind nonviolence to take on the war-like qualities of Mars at the second coming?  Again, Zahnd does not go there.

So do not read this book expecting a full-proof argument for nonviolence that answers all questions.  Read it more as a testimony of how one pastor changed his thinking.  Zahnd is one of many who is moving towards such conclusions, coming out of an evangelical, God bless American and her wars, background.  It’d be interesting to know why so many of us (I suppose I’d fit in this group too) are making this change.  Are we just doing a better job studying the Bible?  Something to do with the end of Christendom?  Some other sociological reason?  Questions for another day, I guess.  All in all, a great book to read!

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How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith (Review)

A few years ago I worked my way through Charles Taylor’s magnificent A Secular Age.  That book was one of the most challenging and rewarding books I’ve ever read.  It is definitely in my top five of all time, that despite me knowing I need to re-read it sometime to fully get what Taylor is saying.  The basic question Taylor asked is why it was so easy to believe in God in 1500 and so difficult in the year 2000.  What has changed?

The common secularization thesis is that as people learned science and became modern they left behind religion.  Taylor’s book shows that this substraction story is simply not how it happened.  He seeks to tell a different story.

It is a fascinating book and certainly changes the way you look at our world once you read it.  That said, I found myself wishing there was some sort of summary book out there.  First, such a short book would help those of us crazy enough to read Taylor’s tome.  Second, it would be a valuable resource for pastors and others who don’t have the desire to plod through 800 pages of narrative philosophy.

James K.A. Smith has provided us with such a book, How (Not) to be Secular.  Smith has become one of my favorite writers recently and this book just adds to my admiration.  He distills Taylor’s great work.  This will be one of the books I will recommend most to my pastor friends, even my college students.

The only part I found odd, out of place even, was near the end.  Smith was talking about how Taylor argues that much modern Christian consciousness has removed the wrath of God, leaving only love.  Smith mentions Rob Bell in passing as an example of this.  It seemed like a cheap shot.  Bell’s musings on hell, punishment (or lackthereof) and universalism aside, there are real biblical questions about what the future judgment entails.  Taylor may be on to something, perhaps God’s wrath is more distasteful to Christians today then in other eras.  But maybe this distaste has driven Christians to a renewed study of the topic in scripture, just as Luther’s distaste for indulgences led to his study.  And there are much better people pursuing this study then Rob Bell, I think of the likes of John Stott who rejected the traditional eternal conscious torment view.  It seems a valid question to be decided in Biblical exegesis, regardless of how tasteful or distasteful we moderns find the idea.

That aside, the other 99.5% of the book is fantastic!  Highly, highly recommended.

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After Virtue by Alasdair Macintyre (Review)

In my twenties I read a lot of books.  I was in seminary, reading assigned readings, and then I was starting out in ministry reading books on leadership and spiritual formation and the like.  Over time I began to notice some authors were referenced in numerous books I was reading.  Now in my thirties, it seems as if I am reading the authors who were often being quoted in books I read in my twenties.  Alasdair Macintyre is one such author.  I’d heard of his books numerous times but it wasn’t until a friend told me I seriously should read him that I finally did.

It feels odd to call this a “review” of After Virtue, just as I always feel weird reviewing any book that could be considered a classic.  This may not be a classic, but it has been incredibly influential in moral philosophy and I am nowhere near a philosopher.  That said, this is the sort of book that I love reading.  It stretches me.  It is not as easy to read as those spiritual formation books of a few years back for it is the deep well which those authors were drawing on.  But there is tremendous benefit in going to the well yourself rather then letting someone else get the water.  I think a lot of my pastor and ministry friends would not only benefit from this book, but would receive great intellectual stimulation in reading it.

Macintyre asks early on, why is it so difficult to have a debate over morals in our society?  People on both sides of the argument can give solid, cogent cases for their points but there never seems to be any headway made.  Right there I was hooked.  Whether it is gun rights, gay marriage, abortion, foreign affairs, or economics, this problem is clearly apparent.  We argue and argue and argue.  More often then not our arguments devolve into simple assertions, saying more about how we feel then anything else.  That is because there is little common ground to gain headway in the “anything else”.

What I loved about this book, and what makes it readable, is Macintyre makes his case through looking at history, telling a story.  He argues that the division between history and philosophy is artificial and unhelpful.  The historical situation in which a philosopher lived was always very important.  So instead of dry, difficult philosophy, Macintyre gives us a narrative.

His argument is that we have lost teleology, the sense of where a human life ought to be going.  In the past moral decisions fit into a life lived towards a clear goal.  It was akin to playing a game of chess – some moves are better then others and all moves are oriented towards a clear goal.  Once this was removed it became impossible to present a rational moral system.  Macintyre argues that all who have tried in the last three centuries, from Kant’s categorical imperative to Mill’s Utilitarianism, have failed.  Our morals may be similar to those of before, but we’ve lost the ground for them.  All we’re left with is preferences, some prefer one thing and some another.  Macintyre’s solution is a call for a return to Aristotle’s virtues that would lead us to our life’s best ends.

Overall, a fantastic book.  I will definitely be reading more Macintyre in the future.

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