Above a lot of other things, read some books.
Why Liberals Win The Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): A History of the Religious Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage Today by Stephen Prothero
As if that title is not a mouthful. Upon finishing Boston Professor Stephen Prothero’s “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars”, a huge part of me wondered how he would have written this book if it had come out after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 as opposed to the book being released in January 2016.
That being said, this still is a fascinating read as Prothero goes back to the disputes between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams around 1800 and gives us a proverbial highlight reel of religious cultural conflict between liberals and conservatives. Although many people (especially in 2018) consider politics and utterly nasty business, they would do well to read up on the presidential mud slinging between Jefferson and Adams.
Prothero highlights the 19th century anti-Catholic agitation, he dives deep into anti-Mormonism that highlighted much of the mid to late 1800s, runs through the prohibition debates and conservative Christians’ role in that fiasco (including Billy Sunday), and then moves to more modern debates on sex, education and art.
His main thesis is that liberals shift culture in significant ways (think gay marriage) and conservatives often react and fight against the new shifting. Eventually, the way that liberals move the culture becomes the accepted norm among most and then the cycle renews with another issue. While liberals move cultural change forward, conservatives win elections by appealing to fear and a negative reaction to the change.
There is probably a lot of truth to this very generalized approach although the jury is still out on who will win some of the issues of contemporary times including gun rights/control and abortion. Abortion may actually be an example of a cultural stalemate of sorts. Most Americans would proclaim to be “pro-life” but most Americans would also not want the government to make abortion illegal.
A complexity to consider while reading this book: how are we defining who is conservative and who is liberal when examining a historical context? For instance, Abraham Lincoln (a republican) issued the emancipation proclamation and freed the slaves. Prothero seems to suggest that both the Republican party and the Democrat party have been liberal or conservative depending upon the issues of the time.
Obviously, a book like this cannot really be exhaustive but as I mentioned, Prothero does a decent job of episodically walking us through major religious and cultural clashes and giving us enough history to make his point. I especially found fascinating some of the religious history of Mormonism that Prothero brought out including persecution of Mormons but also the Mormons acquiescing to the state (for example on the polygamy issue).
In our scorched earth, partisan times which have begun to resemble a re-run of “The Jerry Springer Show”, it is important to get historical context on our most fundamental disputes. Down in the trenches of heated warfare between liberals and conservatives in 2018, we are in need of studying history and learning about our nation’s unique past in regard to these battles.
Lester Lauding Level: 4 (Out of 5)
Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan For Leading the Church by Gene Getz
A book that I read for my elder candidacy at Seed Church, “Elders and Leaders” is about as “exciting” a work that one could read on eldership. More to the point, this isn’t pleasure reading. The marketing tagline suggests that this is a Biblical, historical and cultural examination of the role of elder and other leaders in a New Testament church. The book indeed does an examination of those roles.
Getz’s work argues for an elder team of equals and in the beginning has an analogy of a flock of birds. There may be one bird leading the rest of the flock but sometimes that bird will fall back and need other members to help restore the tired member and another bird would need to take the lead. According to Getz, so it goes with an elder board.
As I already mentioned, the book examines eldership in Scripture. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 serve as Biblical qualifications for character and traits that should be exhibited. There is also an examination of the historical development of leadership in the New Testament church.
Getz gives practical advice on selecting leaders and the reasons why church leaders should resign or step down from their role. Indeed, the second part of the book is basically how Getz applied the principles of eldership in his own ministry. He respectfully admits that he became more pragmatic as situations that come up with elder boards can certainly be full of nuance.
One area that I firmly disagree with Getz on is that his church did not allow female eldership. He doesn’t delve into this debate very much at all but his focus is on male candidates only. Being that men and women are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27-28) and that the Apostle Paul suggested that males and females are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28), there is no reason to exclude females from the highest leadership posts in a church. The church has hurt itself by not giving women a seat at the table of power and making decisions for service to the Body of Christ and beyond. This isn’t a main focus of the book but I stand in contention against him on this point.
If someone is interested in exploring what the Bible has to say about eldership and a little about how church history has treated the office, they can certainly pick this up and receive information on those topics.
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (out of 5)
Between the World and Me By Ta-Nehisi Coates
From my standpoint, one of the great writers of our time is Ta-Nehisi Coates who was a long time columnist for The Atlantic, a book author and now a comic book writer (“Black Panther” and “Captain America”). “Between the World and Me” is worthy of the awards and acclaim. The book is a letter from Coates to his then 15 year old son that is somewhat autobiographical but also about race relations in American history through contemporary times. “Between the World and Me” is raw, uncompromising, poetic and brilliant. Coates pulls no punches in what is both a rational and emotional telling of the world his son, Samori, faces as Coates faces it himself.
The beginning of the book finds Coates discussing his childhood growing up in West Baltimore and how he was afraid. Walking home from school, he feared certain streets and had to plot in his mind how to make it home. Guns were pulled on him. His dad was a member of the Black Panthers and their home was filled with books. Upon making it through youth, Coates attended Howard University (which he calls Mecca) and recounts his formative years.
One of the more intriguing parts of the book to me was his discussion of his friend, Prince Jones, who was killed by a police officer while unarmed. Describing this event and the subsequent impact on his life, Coates discusses Jones’ commitment to Christianity and juxtaposes that faith with his own atheism.
Godless is how Coates describes himself as he believes in chaos rather then any grand order. While reading “Between the World and Me”, his worldview becomes sad and tragic if not, sympathetically, understandable from his own experiences. This isn’t discussed per se in the book but Coates would look at the teaching of Martin Luther King Jr as probably being naïve in parts. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Coates would say that there is no moral arc or bend and justice is never guaranteed, not even in the end. All is chaos.
If there is any hope to the book, it is perhaps the experiences and lifestyles observed by Coates while visiting Paris, France. I would argue though that this hope (at least to me) doesn’t seem fulfilling. It would be interesting to press Coates more on hope: what is hope? Is hope even possible? Are we condemned to a monstrous randomness or is a sense of hope attainable somehow perhaps by means of something outside of ourselves and transcendent? Even with remaining questions, this is quite an achievement. A book that takes a lot of us outside our own experiences and vividly shows the living reality of fellow citizens and image bearers of God.
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
“The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
“But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.”
“The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the (American) Dream.”
“So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”
“And they are torturing Muslims, and their drones are bombing wedding parties (by accident!), and the Dreamers are quoting Martin Luther King and exulting nonviolence for the weak and the biggest guns for the strong.”
“The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”
“You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
“America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”
The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey
My second time reading “The Jesus I Never Knew” was just as illuminating to me as the first time I read the work as a high schooler. More then any other book in my life (with the exception of the Bible), Philip Yancey’s fine book offers probing insights into who Jesus was as well as His enigmatic mysteries.
Yancey felt frustrated by portrayals of Jesus in many churches. Jesus was held up as safe, a simplistic best friend buddy, or at worst a religious figurehead of American nationalism. In the gospels, Yancey (who is trained as a journalist) found a Jesus quite different then these portrayals. He examines Jesus’ Jewish as well as the culture that the Son of God lived in. Whenever someone learns about 1st century history in the Palestine area as well as the cultural customs, we see just how incredible, fascinating and complex a figure that Jesus was.
Discussions of the Jewish conception of Messiah are included as well as the crushing reality of Jesus’ dying and how His disciples would have seen that as a failure. Yancey handles the resurrection with a poetry presenting the world as it is and Jesus’ vision to turn the world upside down. A theme that carries over into a discussion of God’s Kingdom and the meaningful, life changing values that are carried under that flag.
Rather then being safe, Jesus becomes a dangerous character. Criticizing the religious elites (Pharisees and Sadducees) and having a profound grace on prostitutes, tax collectors and the poor, Jesus inaugurated a new covenant for those who want to follow Him. Yancey brilliantly discusses law and grace in the Sermon on the Mount and uses Fyodar Dostoevsky (grace) and Leo Tolstoy (law) as analogies which illustrate the concepts very well.
Jesus was mysterious, bold, uncompromising but filled with love and grace. He was God in human flesh who rose from the grave and conquered humanity’s greatest foes. Yancey upholds all of these things by diving into the most significant human life ever lived. Highly recommended reading.
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
“Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.”
“Jesus never met a disease he could not cure, a birth defect he could not reverse, a demon he could not exorcise. But he did meet skeptics he could not convince and sinners he could not convert. Forgiveness of sins requires an act of will on the receiver’s part, and some who heard Jesus’ strongest words about grace and forgiveness turned away unrepentant.”
“We dare not invest so much in the kingdom of this world that we neglect our main task of introducing people to a different kind of kingdom, one based solely on God’s grace and forgiveness. Passing laws to enforce morality serves a necessary function, to dam up evil, but it never solves human problems.”
“The poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the oppressed truly are blessed. Not because of their miserable states, of course—Jesus spent much of his life trying to remedy those miseries. Rather, they are blessed because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient. People who are rich, successful, and beautiful may well go through life relying on their natural gifts. People who lack such natural advantages, hence underqualified for success in the kingdom of this world, just might turn to God in their time of need. Human beings do not readily admit desperation. When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near.”
“Whatever you may believe about it, the birth of Jesus was so important that it split history into two parts. Everything that has ever happened on this planet falls into a category of before Christ or after Christ.”
‘Projecting myself back into Jesus’ time, I try to picture the scene. The poor, the sick, the tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes crowd around Jesus, stirred by His message of healing and forgiveness. The rich and powerful stand on the sidelines, testing Him, spying, trying to entrap Him. I know these facts about Jesus’ time, and yet, from the comfort of a middle-class church in a wealthy country like the U.S., I easily lose sight of the radical core of Jesus’ message.’
‘To its shame, Christian history reveals unrelieved attempts to improve on the way of Christ. Sometimes the church joins hands with a government that offers a shortcut path to power. ‘The worship of success is generally the form of idol worship which the devil cultivates most assiduously,’ wrote Helmut Thielicke about the German church’s early infatuation with Adolf Hitler. ‘We could observe in the first years after 1933 the almost suggestive compulsion that emanates from great successes and how, under the influence of these successes, men, even Christians, stopped asking in whose name and at what price…’
‘The cross redefined God as One who was willing to relinquish power for the sake of love. Jesus became, in Dorothy Solle’s phrase, ‘God’s unilateral disarmament.’ Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other.’
‘There are two ways to look at human history, I have concluded. One way is to focus on the wars and violence, the squalor, the pain and tragedy and death. From such a point of view, Easter seems like a fairy tale exception, a stunning contradiction in the name of God. That gives some solace, although I confess that when my friends died, grief was so overpowering that any hope in an afterlife seemed somehow thin and insubstantial. There is another way to look at the world. If I take Easter as the starting point, the one incontrovertible fact about how God treats those whom He loves, then human history becomes the contradiction and Easter a preview of ultimate reality. Hope then flows like lava beneath the crust of life. This, perhaps, describes the change in the disciples perspective as they sat in locked rooms discussing the incomprehensible events of Easter Sunday. In one sense nothing had changed: Rome still occupied Palestine, religious authorities still had a bounty on their heads, death and evil still reigned outside. Gradually, however, the shock of recognition gave way to a long slow undertow of joy. If God could do that…’