Seeing the Propaganda and Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

Most of us spend time with people who think like we do and we read or watch news that affirms our understanding of things.  This is called living in an echo chamber.  It gets to the point that we feel unable to relate to the other side, because the other side is a mystery.  After all, everyone we know thinks like we do (and we know lots of smart people, of course!).  When we encounter people outside our echo chamber we don’t bother with dialogue and debate but go right for power and silencing.  This is dangerous because in a world where everything is a battle and there are only winners or losers, we are on a track to totalitarianism.

Pessimistic? Maybe.  But look at social media.

I don’t have a lot of solutions outside basic things: listen to people with different opinions, be humble and know you have a lot to learn.  One solution is simply reading.  You might start with a recent book called On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.  In this book he talks about tyrannies in the twentieth century and steps to take to avoid and oppose them.  One of the primary steps is to read:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can…

What to read? Any good novel enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being might suit our moment. Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here is perhaps not a great work of art; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is better. One novel known by millions of young Americans that offers an account of tyranny and resistance is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you or your friends or your children did not read it that way the first time, then it bears reading again

I love that Snyder mentions Harry Potter as a book to read.  In essence, you can almost read anything.  But if you want to go a bit deeper than Harry Potter, perhaps try Propaganda by Jacques Ellul.  While I cannot say I’ve read all the best books on propaganda, I can say I’ve read the definitive one (at least, that’s what perusing lists of books on propaganda tells me).  Ellul argues some surprising things, such as that it is the most educated who are most susceptible to propaganda.  Perhaps the best quote in the book (here, I’ll save you a few bucks) is this one:

“Those who read the press of their group and listen to the radio of their group are constantly reinforced in their allegiance. They learn more and more that their group is right, that its actions are justified; thus their beliefs are strengthened. At the same time, such propaganda contains elements of criticism and refutation of other groups, which will never be read or heard by a member of another group…This double foray on the part of propaganda, proving the excellence of one’s own group and the evilness of the others, produces an increasingly stringent partitioning of our society…Thus we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly views his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others – a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks and nobody listens”

If you only watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh or if you only listen to MSNBC and listen to whomever the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh is, you’re in the echo chamber.

Now, I admit I am guilty of this.  It is easier to listen to whatever agrees with you, it is fun to be affirmed.  It takes work.  I get a lot of my news from Twitter and I’ve made an effort to follow people on the Left (Shaun King) and the Right (Ben Shapiro).  I find myself agreeing with all of them at times, and disagreeing.

If you want a simpler book to read, Frank Lunz’s Words that Work talks about the power of words.  He has worked on numerous political campaigns and it is amazing to see how the right catchphrase can drive a movement (Hope and Change, Make America Great Again).  Finally, if you want to learn from history, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  It is LONG but fantastic as you see how Hitler rose to power, legally, and quickly dismantled freedoms.

After that, perhaps join me in the future in reading The Gulag Archipelego which tells the story of the Communist owork camps.  These two stories, of Hitler and Stalin’s tyrannies, must never be far from our mind.

 

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The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma (Review)

Honestly, I did not expect much from The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. I had never heard of the author but I picked it up when I saw a few people recommend it on Twitter…and it was free for a few days. After reading some challenging books this summer, from philosophers who hurt my brain to early church writers who make me feel guilty for being rich (compared to most people in the world) I thought this would be a quick read to squeeze in before summer ended.

As I was reading, I found myself becoming more and more interested. This is not just your typical book on how to live as a Christian by a megachurch evangelical pastor (though I honestly have no idea if this pastor is “evangelical” or if the church he is at is “mega”). There is a lot here about living in the paradoxes, accepting God and the Bible for what it is without trying to iron everything out.

What really got me was when he talked about reading books. I found myself being convicted, even feeling guilty, for how I read. I tend to consume books, at times reading through them too fast so I can log another “read” here on goodreads or at least fit into the identity of people who see me as someone who reads a lot of books. In the past I would read, hoping to find the key that would answer all my questions. If I just read enough, or learned enough, than doubt would be vanquished. There is still a bit of that too, so today I often read to solve everything and to consume. Through this I often do find myself challenged (that last book by David Bentley Hart or those works of the early church fathers…wow, I can’t get that stuff out of my head). But I wonder if at times reading books is my idol.

It is ironic then that I wanted to consume this book quickly before summer ended. I work on a college campus, in campus ministry, so around this time of year my time for reading greatly diminishes. Yet in the past I still managed to read a lot, maybe too much. As I read this book I came to a decision that as the school year commences, I am going to intentionally NOT read as much. Of course, I still need to read to prep for teaching (hence that Jeremiah commentary). And I will read for pleasure, because it is fun. But I am going to lay aside the big heavy theological tomes, not because I do not have more to learn (believe me, I do, and there are some books I really want to read) but because I know enough (head-knowledge that is) to minister on campus. When I read it will be for teaching prep, spiritual development (yeah, I can’t get away from the church fathers) or for fun (hello biography of Napolean!). I also hope this will lead to more time for journaling, meditation and the like.

So overall, I recommend this book. I can see it being greatly helpful for college students so I will recommend it to them. I could see it being helpful to any Christian. Thanks Ken for a great book.

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart (Review)

Reading a David Bentley Hart book is to pull your chair up to the grown-up table and feast on tasty delicacies you had previously not realized existed.  This is especially true of his latest book in which he argues both atheists and many Christians do not speak about God in the right way.  God, argues Hart, is not just the most powerful being in the universe, someone like us only much bigger.  Unfortunately, much debate about God kind of portrays God like this, really as a cosmic demiurge who is incredibly powerful but not infinite.  So atheists ask silly questions like “who made God” and intelligent design advocates rope off a few jobs that God can do after allowing nature to do the rest.

This is not just Hart’s opinion or some new argument, instead he shows that what he is saying is the long traditional way of speaking of God.  Hart draws on the depths of not just Christian tradition, but Jewish and Muslim and Hindu.  Thus this is not a Christian book, though Hart is a Christian.  Hart argues that all these traditions commonly speak of God not as a really powerful being who got things moving, but as Being itself.  In other words, God is not a thing among other things.  Rather, God stands wholly apart.

A large portion of Hart’s work is critiquing naturalism/materialism which he argues is irrational.  Naturalism claims to be an all-encompassing philosophical view, but when challenged it falls far short.  The problem too often is that it is simply assumed, rather than challenged.

Hart tends to come across as arrogant, which may put off some readers.  He also uses many words when he could use few, as well as using words normal people, and even many who read books like this one, have never heard of.  That said, this may be his best book.  Compared to The Beauty of The Infinite, this book is easy.  I highly recommend Hart and I definitely recommend reading this book before that other one (though I’d say The Doors of the Sea and Atheist Delusions could also be read before this one).

Be warned though – this book does not easily fit into a category.  It is kind of apologetics, for Hart is arguing against naturalism and in favor of theism, but it is more than just that.  Hart is not putting forth logical arguments like a Plantinga, for example.  Instead he writes in an engaging style, painting a picture of two types of reality and arguing for why one picture (theism) makes much more sense.  If anything, I would say those who like Christian apologetics should read this because Hart’s style and theology could serve to correct much that is wrong with modern apologetics.

Hart’s book is also for those who appreciate philosophical theology.  He is not arguing for Christian theology and there are very few quotes from the Bible.  Instead he is going big picture, theism as opposed to atheism.  I enjoy such works, though I could see some, especially American evangelicals, who get upset for what Hart does not say.  If you realize his purpose in writing though, it makes sense.

Overall, this is probably a top-five of all time book for me.  Absolutely fantastic.

The Battle for Halcyon by Peter Kazmaier (Review)

In Peter Kazmaier’s fast-paced Halcyon Dislocation we read the story of an island university that disappeared from our world and appeared in a new, mysterious place.  Much of the story introduced us to this new world as university students along with naval officers stationed on the island explored the new world.  We learned that an evil force named Meglir had brought the university to his world and was possessing one of the faculty.  At the end of the book Meglir was defeated, but with him still present a sequel was clearly in the works.

The Battle for Halcyon is that sequel, picking up about a year after the events of the first book.  Dave Shuster, the main character of the first book, remains the main character here.  His exploration of the world leads to encountering a whole new civilization of humans.  But these humans, unlike Dave and the humans of his world, never experienced a fall from grace.  Thus, they possess certain gifts, such as the ability to change their skin color.

The story continues the fast-paced tone of the first, covering lots of ground and culminating in a battle on the island of Halcyon, hence the title.

Overall, I enjoyed this story.  It had everything that made the first one so good.  At the same time, it seemed almost too fast-paced at times.  Peter is a good and engaging writer, but he seemed to struggle under the weight of so telling the story while including so many characters.

For example, two of the best secondary characters from the first book, Floyd and Al, play a minor role in this story.  In the first book they were two of Dave’s closest companions and nearly had as much screen time as he did.  It is fine to focus more on Dave, but what bothered me was that when we got a bit of Floyd and Al they disappeared from the story without much explanation (especially Floyd).

Other characters from the first book pop up to serve a function in moving the story along, but do not do much.  For such characters I wish there had been some sort of recap of the first book with brief bios of each character.  Two guys named Tim and Dwight show up and help Al at a key point but I struggled to remember the role they played in the first book.  If you read the two books back-to-back this would not be an issue, but reading the first one two years ago makes it one.  There is a glossary at the end, but the characters I am thinking of (Tim, Dwight, Commander McDonald) do not appear in there.

Also, while the book is packed with action and lots of drama, the primary enemy, Meglir, barely appears on screen.  He is mentioned quite frequently but his threat seems diminished with his lack of appearance.  There is clearly a lot of plotting going on by him and his evil allies and perhaps the payoff will come in the next book.

All that said, the book is still great.  Dave is a likable character and his love interest, Arlana, who is really the other main character of this book, is quite interesting.  His conversion experience and the change he goes through provide an excellent story.  And as before, Kazmaier weaves thoughtful religious dialogue in that is neither cheesy nor unwelcome.

This is where Kazmaier’s greatest gift lies.  So many Christian books are preachy.  Many secular stories ignore religion.  Kazmaier’s character speak on religious topics, like normal people in the real world.  When you read what they are saying, it makes sense and sounds like what you would hear.

Even Dave’s “conversion”, if you can call it that, fits.  It is not the climax of the book, nor is it shoved in your face.  As Dave’s character has grown, you can see him moving in this direction and this step makes sense for his character.

In the end, I liked this book.  As I said before, if you are a fan of the works of the greats like Tolkien and Lewis, I think you would like the Halcyon series.  This book has more flaws than I recall the first one having and I hope the third book sees more Floyd and Al as well as Meglir being fleshed out more.  Overall though, an entertaining and at times thought provoking read.

Where the Conflict Really Lies – Alvin Plantinga (Review)

You may have heard that there is a conflict between science and religion.  Promoting such a war has enabled many on both sides, fundamentalist creationists and fundamentalist atheists, to sell a lot of books.  Even for those not on the extreme, there is a feeling and a fear that somehow faith in God is at odds with belief in science.

Of course, there is no such conflict.  But philosopher Alvin Plantinga wants to go one step farther then saying there is no conflict between science and religion.  He argues that there truly is a conflict, but it is between science and naturalism.

Before he gets there, he tackles the alleged conflict between faith and science.  This takes two forms, the idea that Darwin’s theory of evolution somehow refutes Christian faith and the idea that it is impossible to believe in miracles in a world of science.  Such conflicts simply do not exist.  Not only do they not exist, but promoting such conflict actually hurts science:

As a result, declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust. Hence these declarations of incompatibility have unhappy consequences for science itself. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 54). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In the second part of the book Plantinga looks at two areas where there appears to be a superficial conflict: evolutionary psychology and scriptural scholarship.  While there may be small conflict, the claims of those two disciplines do not provide a defeater for belief in God.

Speaking of “defeaters”, it is important to grasp the understanding of basic beliefs for Plantinga.  Over and over again he speaks of many beliefs we hold with no evidence, things like perception, memory, and that other people have minds.  When we see a sheep on a hill far ahead we do not form an argument that there is a sheep.  We simply see it and believe it is there.  This belief is justified.  In the same way, believing other people perceive the world how we do and remembering what we had for breakfast do not require arguments and evidence.  A defeater is something that would prove such beliefs wrong.  If someone says of our seeing the sheep, “that’s my dog Skip,” we now have our belief defeated.

Plantinga argues that belief in God is just such a basic belief.  We do not need evidence to prove our belief in God, it is rational to believe in God in a basic way.  But can such a belief be defeated?  No such defeater has been found.  Plantinga argues that evolution is definitely nowhere close and the topics of part two, though there is superficial conflict, are not near being defeaters either.

Then in part three he discusses areas where there is concord between science and faith, making the claim that is extended in part four, that belief in science has much more justification for theism then naturalism.

Finally, part four is the height of the book.  Here Plantinga takes science, the belief in evolution, and naturalism, the belief that there is nothing outside of nature.  For Plantinga, you cannot sensibly believe in both evolution and naturalism.  For if all we are is nature, then our evolution is driven solely by survival.  We desire to feed, survive and reproduce.  Survival, not truth, is what is most important.

We assume that our cognitive faculties are reliable. But what I want to argue is that the naturalist has a powerful reason against this initial assumption, and should give it up. I don’t mean to argue that this natural assumption is false; like everyone else, I believe that our cognitive faculties are, in fact, mostly reliable. What I do mean to argue is that the naturalist—at any rate a naturalist who accepts evolution—is rationally obliged to give up this assumption. – Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 326). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

One objection to Plantinga’s argument is that it seems obvious that true beliefs would ensure survival.  He admits this is true, but says it is irrelevant.  His argument is not about how things are but how we would expect things to be if naturalism and evolution were both true.  We cannot assume naturalism (materialism) is true from the outset.  If we imagine it being true we imagine a world where all that matters is survival and truth is irrelevant.  He says:

It is by virtue of its neurophysiological properties that B causes A; it is by virtue of those properties that B sends a signal along the relevant nerves to the relevant muscles, causing them to contract, and thus causing A. It isn’t by virtue of its having that particular content C that it causes what it does cause. So once again: suppose N&E were true. Then materialism would be true in either its reductive or its nonreductive form. In either case, the underlying neurology is adaptive, and determines belief content. But in either case it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.29

Plantinga, Alvin (2011-11-11). Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (p. 340). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

In a natural world your desire to get a drink of water is driven by your biological need for water.  Any true beliefs you have about water, or false ones, are irrelevant.  Believing in naturalism and evolution thus provides a defeater for naturalism in that you have no good reason to hold it is true.

Plantinga’s argument is long and detailed, so I hope I did a halfway decent job of illustrating it here.  I first encountered some of these ideas of basic beliefs and defeaters in his book Warranted Christian Belief.  I found this book much better, more approachable for a non-specialist in philosophy.  That said, there were parts of it that were definitely a chore.  I am grateful for people like Plantinga who make such arguments, but I am more grateful for those who can distill them down to be made understandable for normal, average people.  I work my way through books like this because I think it truly helps me in ministry, but I can’t say I enjoy reading them as I do some other Christian thinkers like David Bentley Hart or James KA Smith.

Overall, a good and challenging read that has much that can be useful in helping those who have questions about faith and science.

 

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Review)

Do you have a fixed or a growth mindset?  Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success seeks to teach you what the mindsets are and why having a growth one is vital for a good life.

My wife recommended this book to me and I found the ideas within it very helpful.  To have a fixed mindset is to see your talents or character as unchanging; you are born a certain way and that is just how you are.  This leads you to end up hiding your faults and failures in an effort to keep up appearances, or not trying to acquire new tasks since if things do not come easy they are not worth doing.  On the other hand, to have a growth mindset is to recognize that though we all may be born with different talents, we can change and improve through hard work.

Last week we took our kids camping.  I had no one else there who was capable of building a campfire so I had to do it.  My wife had full confidence in me.  But my secret was that I had not built a campfire since I worked at a summer camp in college and even then I only did it a few times.  I have been camping quite a bit since then, but I always let other people – my college students, my family – build the fire.  Yet I carried myself in such a way as to make them think I could build a fire if I needed to.  My fear was that I would be put on the spot and exposed as someone without that skill.

A silly example, I know, but it illustrated a place where I had a fixed mindset.  I struggled to build a good fire on our trip and when I began to fail my ego took a hit.  I stuck with it, trying to have a growth mindset, and I figured it out.

So I have found Dweck’s work helpful as I look at my own life.  The main criticism of the book I would have is that it does become redundant after a while.  Her primary points are surrounded by story after story that are easily skimmed through.  It was also amusing to see how some of her stories are a bit dated (the book was written in 2006).  If she wrote it now, she might use different examples, especially when the stories no longer fit her use of them.

Overall, this is a book with some good points that is not too hard to read.  Further, I imagine it would apply in most walks of life.  I work as a pastor and saw lots of connections to the idea of spiritual growth here.

 

Empire of Liberty – USA from 1789-1815 (Review)

The stories of the Revolutionary War and that of the Civil War are both fascinating to any fan of history.  Last year I enjoyed reading the entries from the Oxford History of the United States on each of those two time periods.  I figured it was about time to read about what happened in the interim, so I read through Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.

It was fantastic.

Here are a few of the things I took away from this great book:

*When people say “the Founding Fathers believed” they either ignore or forget the fact that the founding fathers were diverse and had different views.

*I was surprised that so many in early America expected there to eventually be a king, and that most were okay with that.

*I really liked Alexander Hamilton, he came out of this as my favorite founding father.  On the other hand, Wood made Washington appear kind of as a weak president, being pulled between Hamilton on one side and Jackson on the other.  In other words, I do not feel like I knew Washington better after this book, but you really get to know Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison.

*I already knew I would like the religious history chapter, but I was surprised how interesting I found the chapters on economics and judiciary.  The chapter telling of the growth of the Supreme Court and the story of John Marshall was interesting.

*I also enjoyed learning more about the war of 1812.

*Finally, the existence of slavery in early America continues to blow my mind.  It is depressing how so many who spoke so highly of freedom and liberty did not pass this to the slaves.  Further, it was incredibly sad to learn that right after the revolution most in the south thought slavery would just end but a variety of reasons led to the growth and defense of slavery to new levels.

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (Review)

Rachel Held Evans has been called the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism.  Whether that is true or not, she is certainly one of the most talented writers in evangelicalism today.  Her new book, Searching for Sunday, is a pleasure to read.  At times I was reminded of other great writers, like Frederick Buechner and Anne Lamott.  Evans manages to weave together personal stories with reflections on faith for a successful and engaging book.

What I most appreciated about Evans’ story, as she shared about growing up in conservative evangelicalism to questioning many of the deeply held beliefs leading to her moving away from the church of her youth, was her grace to her past.  In the book she managed to walk a razor’s edge of being critical of her evangelical upbringing while also being very grateful for it.  She is quite critical at times, but it comes across clearly that even as she moves away from the community of her youth she still appreciates the positive impact they had on her life.  Along with that, she is honest that she does not have it all figured out now, either.  Joining an Episcopal church, she shares, was a huge blessing for her but she does not imply that she has arrived or finished the journey.

Many people Evans’ age and younger have experienced similar things and many of them have walked away from church and not gone back.  Evans’ experience echoes that of her (our? I am only a few years older!) peers.  She clearly is desperate for the evangelical gatekeepers to listen to the stories of those who have walked away as she cares deeply for them and sees so many being hurt.

Working with college students, I could see this as a book that many could find very helpful.  I meet student after student who grew up in the church, still has some belief in God, but is not interested in being part of a church.  Perhaps some will drift back after college, but many will not.  I think Evans is a voice, and a good enough writer, to gain a hearing.

There are parts of this book that are controversial.  This is the sort of review I get nervous writing.   My salary does come from generous donations from churches and individuals, after all!  What if someone reads it and does not like what I say, or do not say, about it?

Of course I do not agree with everything she writes, while some things I am not sure about and others I nod in agreement.  All I can say is that I do not agree with everything in any book I read!  But I certainly do not want to just read books that serve as echo chambers so I am constantly affirmed in my current state of mind.  Books where I disagree a bit, or at least ones that make me think, are my favorites.  And learning to appreciate Christians we may disagree with on things is, well it seems like it is kind of the whole point.  That’s what church is – people who disagree on everything else coming together around Jesus.

At least that is what the church ought to be.

The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa (Review)

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the Cappadocian Fathers, three Christian thinkers whose work was tremendous in the solidification of orthodoxy int he late 300s.  But they did not just write heady theological tomes, they also wrote profound works on spiritual life.  One of the best is the Life of Moses by Gregory.

If you want a great example of allegorical interpretation then you have to read this book.  Nearly every event in Moses’ life is shown to point to something deeper and more profound.  For early Christians like Gregory there was a literal sense of scripture, what it said.  But this was just the beginning, the real meat of scripture came in the spiritual sense through allegorical interpretation.  When we learned about this in seminary many seemed to scoff, as if allegorical interpretation meant anything goes.  The fear, or stereotype, was that the only limit here was the author’s imagination.

Truly, some interpretations can be a bit wacky.  But what holds this together is the focus on Jesus Christ.  Down to this day many Christians speak of Jesus on every page of scripture.  Writers like Gregory take the step to show how Jesus is on every page of scripture.  So if you want a glimpse of how this interpretation works, check out Gregory.

The other value of this book is Gregory’s idea of eternal progress.  For Gregory, only God is perfect and infinite  What this means, for us, is that our growth towards perfection – towards being like God, the process of sanctification – lasts forever.  We never arrive.  We are constantly growing for all eternity,  As Gregory puts it:

“The Divine One is himself the Good…whose very nature is goodness….Since, then, it has not been demonstrated that there is any limit to virtue except evil, and since the Divine does not admit of an opposite, we hold the divine nature to be unlimited and infinite. Certainly whoever pursues true virtue participates in nothing other than God, because he is himself absolute virtue. Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless. It is therefore undoubtedly impossible to attain perfection, since as I have said, perfection is not marked off by limits: The one limit of virtue is the absence of a limit”

One of my students stumbled on to this idea years ago, comparing our growth in Christ as to as asymptote in mathematics.  This idea is strongly put forth in one of my all-time favorite books, David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite.  It is moving and challenging.  I find it to be a true account of things, and incredibly encouraging.  It is encouraging because every little baby step we take today puts us further along the path towards God, a path, an adventure, we will be on forever.

Its That Time of Year When I Get Delusions of Being a Philosopher

After passing two relatively aimless years at Penn State I finally got serious about my studies as well as choosing a major.  I had always enjoyed studying religion and history so I decided to major in religion.  This led me to some philosophy of religion classes which gave me an appetite to learn more philosophy.  I ended up taking enough credits to earn a minor in philosophy, though my understanding of the content in those classes was woefully inadequate.

Since then I’ve always liked the idea of reading philosophy.  This idea tends to spike around the month of May.  I work in campus ministry and school has ended.  With the students heading home for the summer, I am much less busy.  I have a bit more time to dive into some heavier reading.  Usually I identify some philosopher whose work I think could be beneficial to read – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – and give it a shot.

Then I fail.  Not always, but with so many other books I would rather read, my infatuation with being an amateur philosopher usually dissipates by Memorial Day.

That said, I do think it can be helpful for pastors, especially those of us who work on college campuses, to have a basic grasp of the big philosophical ideas.  A few books have really helped me here.  What is best about these books is that they present the story of philosophy as a history.  So you are getting in touch with these big ideas, but the feel of reading a book like this is more like reading history (or even a novel, if that’s your cup of tea) then actually reading philosophy.

Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy – I picked this up years ago at a used bookstore and I recall it being a good introduction.

Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy – This is a nine volume series that is fantastic.  I’ve only read the first five volumes, so my May endeavor into philosophy this year will be volume 6 (KAHN…I meant KANT!!!).

Apart from a grasp of the big philosophical ideas from the history of philosophy, there are lots of authors out there who are writing philosophical books with great depth that I believe every pastor should read.  Rather than summarizing ideas that only other philosophers care about, these sorts of books provide a lens for our world that helps us see cultural trends and ideas clearly.  Two of my favorites are Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

Its May, so why not join me in trying your hand at some philosophy?