Give to Liberalism What Is Liberalism’s, and to God What Is God’s

Patrick Deneen’s new book “Why Liberalism Failed”

Commenting on Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, columnist Ross Douthat once remarked: “Rod is right, even if he’s wrong.” This sentiment works equally well, I think, for Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Deenen’s core argument in his widely discussed book is that classical liberalism, the Enlightenment-spawned, Founding Father-adopted political philosophy of inalienable rights and self-determination, has been destroyed from the inside. The problem for the West is not ultimately that we don’t have enough liberal freedoms; it is that such freedoms have instead enslaved us to the self-destructive march of modernism and economic determinism. “Liberalism has failed,” Deneen writes, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.”

A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. It success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve.

The Case Against Liberalism

Deneen’s case against classical liberalism could be summarized as an appeal to the moral disintegration of 3 “s” words: Self, society, and the state.

Self: Classical liberalism’s emphasis (from John Locke) on the autonomy of the individual and the absolute right to determine oneself through social contract has resulted in an incoherent and immoral worldview of the self. Rather than seeing ourselves as created for a virtuous purpose, and defining the good life in terms of our alignment with that transcendent reason, we define happiness almost exclusively in terms of self-expression. “The most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism,” writes Deneen, “is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism—the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals.”

Society: The cultural effects of this worldview of voluntarism have been widespread inequality and mutual hostilities. Social bonds, once upon a time inexorably tied to one’s geographic place, have been disintegrated through “upward mobility” and the inalienable right of people to change anything they want, whenever they want. Believing in a God-given right to make of one’s life whatever one desires is the same as believing that both parents and unborn descendants don’t really count (unless, of course, you want them to count!). Thus the philosophical link between individuals and groups is destroyed, culture becomes anticulture, and society is fragmented beyond recognition.

The State: Deneen writes that classical liberalism requires an ever-more powerful central state to enforce its “freedoms.” Though conservatives and progressives may argue about words and means, Deneen believes that the modern Right and the modern Left are equally committed to this kind of statism. Each political philosophy “can be counted as liberal because of this fundamental commitment to liberation of the individual and tot he use of natural science, aided by the state, as a primary means for achieving practical liberation from nature’s limitations. Thus statism and individualism grow together while local institutions and respect for natural limits diminish.”

All in all, the portrait Deneen paints is of a sociopolitical worldview that exchanges permanence for libertarian freedom, close community for universal rights, and, ultimately, transcendent meaning for self-authentication.

Regardless of anything else about Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen’s grim diagnosis of Western society seems inarguably true. We don’t need to look very deep or very far to see the evidence. Americans are deeply polarized and alienated from one another, and many of the institutions that served as cultural touchstones in the past—especially religious institutions—are fraying. The horrific opioid epidemic epitomizes the despair and isolation of capitalism’s losers. Economic inequality and resentment are widespread, and both were major factors in the election of Donald Trump and in the resurgence of an angry, nativist populism all around the world. At the same time, government institutions take children away from their parents seemingly at whim, and religious citizens—even nuns!—are taken to court and stripped of their livelihood for their antiquated beliefs. It would be difficult indeed to overstate the dysfunctions facing our country. We can easily say that Deneen is right as to the what, even if he’s wrong as to the how.

Christians and Liberalism

Deneen is a conservative Catholic, and there are unmistakably religious elements to his argument. However, Why Liberalism Failed is a book of political philosophy, not of religion. He does not, for example, ground his case against liberalism in Scripture but in premodern classical thought. While this is an observation and certainly not a criticism, the absence of a robustly theological framework in Deneen’s book leaves much work to evangelical readers in working out the implications of the gospel for anti-liberalism.

One major question that Why Liberalism Failed leaves largely untouched is how we should think of the legacy of religious freedom. It’s only fair to point out that widespread religious liberty, especially for religious minorities, was not a feature of most premodern societies, and certainly was not a feature of the Greco-Roman cultures on which Deneen bases much of his appreciation for pre-modernity. Deneen rightly points out that Christianity exercised a positive influence on Western society in terms of human dignity and the image of God. But this observation doesn’t resolve the tension, since even Christendom eventually expressed itself violently against foreign peoples and beliefs. Deneen’s argument, recall, is not that classic liberalism needs to be more faithfully adhered to or more consistently applied, but that its sins and destructive consequences are endemic to it.

In order to make a case for religious liberty for religious minorities within an anti-liberal framework, Deneen must either a) qualify his argument to say that most, but not all characteristics of liberalism have destructive effects, or b) argue that such religious liberty is not really a feature of liberalism at all, thus we can have it without having liberalism.  The trouble with option B is, as I’ve alluded to, coming up with historical examples of non-liberal societies where religious minorities are safe and protected. The trouble with option A is that this is clearly not what Deneen says.

Is religious liberty really that important for a Christian political philosophy? I would argue it is. For one thing, a healthy separation of church and state (not to be confused with the quarantine of church from state) preserves the possibility of ecclesiological integrity in the church. A state church cannot require evidences of regeneration as a basis for church membership anymore than the US government can require a high IQ for voting rights. Both a state-enforced church and voting rights have the same legal basis: Political citizenship. The problem with a state-enforced church is that the theological basis of membership is not political but spiritual. The church is the community of the people of God, and that identity cannot be mediated through political ends.

The best way to preserve the integrity of the church’s membership is to not tie it to a political system. And the best way to avoid tying it to a political system is through a political culture of religious liberty. What Christian anti-liberal thinkers must articulate is how a pre or anti-liberal society can promote this kind of religious liberty.

Some Christians who are enthusiastically behind the anti-liberal project have suggested that it is (or will be) impossible to be simultaneously for classical liberalism and Christian virtue. While there is some truth in that, I would caution against relocating the source of Christian virtue. Rolling back the nihilism of modernity is a necessary project because Christian faith and practice repudiate it. But sociopolitical structures do not in themselves produce Christian virtue. Not even Christian cultures can by themselves do this, a lesson we’ve learned from watching evangelical “values voters” bend over backwards to dole out indulgences to presidents. The most authentic Christian virtue comes from the regenerated soul, the imagination and heart that are resurrected through faith and empowered by the Spirit. Whether this kind of virtue can live on in a liberal age is a foregone conclusion. It not only can, but it will.

Why Liberalism Failed is a valuable book, eloquently written and thoroughly clearsighted about the way that cultures and traditions can shape us. It is indeed time for Americans to question whether our basic assumptions about rights and community are actually undermining both. And Christians also need to examine ourselves, to see whether we are bringing to the public square a vision for human flourishing that is rooted in an absolute right to self-determination, or in the beauty and harmony of life under our wise Creator, King, and Redeemer, who, unlike liberalism, can never fail us.

Profane Public Squares

The Amazon Top 20 nonfiction lists includes two bestsellers, both from HarperOne, that include the f-word in their title and on their covers. A single asterisk keeps both titles from their honest spellings. My memory will not win any awards, but I simply do not recall ever seeing a trade book in Barnes and Noble with the f-word on the cover like that whilst growing up. One heard swears, of course, but one never read them on window-copy bestsellers. Maybe it’s time to ask our politicians and cultural elites, who go to great lengths to talk about “protecting children,” why they would file a restraining order against me for standing outside Target and yelling profanity at their kids, but seem to think I’ll be inclined to pay $15.99 for them to return the favor.

Meanwhile, literally as I was going to type this, I see that the Cleveland Indians are going to retire their mascot, Chief Wahoo, over concerns about racial stereotypes. I guess offensiveness can lead to change. You just have to be offensive in the right way.

A Brief Word to Book Reviewers

-Sneering dismissal of an author is acceptable to the degree that his book likewise is sneering and dismissive. What works marvelously well in a review of Richard Dawkins doesn’t in a review of Mitch Albom. You might have the same opinion of both writers, and that’s fine! But responding to Mitch Albom as if he’s Richard Dawkins is not only misleading and disingenuous, it’s obnoxious, like the preacher who screams from the pulpit “He leads me beside still waters.” If a meek and mild book is silly and false, then, as meekly and mildly as you can manage, call it silly and false. Don’t use a machine gun to rid the garden of squirrels.

-If you find yourself editing a citation from the book in a way that’s advantageous to your point but that wouldn’t be advantageous if you were to cite it more fully, you are in the process of misrepresenting the book. What you think the author really wants to say is not the same as what s/he said. Acknowledge the words that are really there and then make a case why your interpretation is valid. “Here’s what I think they mean” is perfectly defensible. “Look at what they said” is not.

-Write the review for the benefit of people who don’t necessarily have presuppositions about the author or the subject. Write something that would be helpful for the people who don’t subscribe to your Twitter feed or blog newsletter. If that’s difficult, declare what you’re writing a thinkpiece instead of a review. There’s no shame in it.

-If you can’t think of anything positive to say about the book, look at the cover. In my experience a suspiciously large percentage of the books that I couldn’t think of any redeeming qualities for had excellent outer designs. Work goes into that too, y’know.

Hatmakers and Hot Takers

One thing that concerns me about conservative evangelicalism right now is the inability we often demonstrate to let those who exist and teach outside the boundaries of historic Christianity…just stay there. I often feel like there’s a compulsion in evangelical culture to always be writing and tweeting against “false teachers,” and here I include air-quotes not because false teachers don’t exist, but because not every person who teaches false things actually rises to the level of a “false teacher.”

There is a time when polemics are needed to protect the confessional integrity of a body of believers, either at a small group, congregational, denominational, and, yes, cultural level. But the gospel urgency of such polemics should, I think, decline as we go down that scale. Unorthodoxy in small group and local church teaching should be met with quick and decisive action. Unorthodoxy in denominational teaching should likewise be addressed, but that situation is different and requires a more careful, strategic response, one that must consider how much this denominational position affects the congregation.

The cultural level is the most slippery of all categories. If you want to, you can do polemics full time against all sorts of heresies in American religious culture. But is that really what orthodox evangelicals should aspire to? Or should we practice a sort of polemical triage, keeping close watch over the corporeal bodies around us and a more marginal watch over heresies that exist outside our boundaries? This is not to say that bad teaching in other denominations or in Christian institutions of which I’m not a member are unimportant. It’s just to say that they’re not AS important.

The problem is you wouldn’t know this from reading a lot of evangelical blogs. I honestly don’t know why we’re still writing stuff about Jen Hatmaker. It’s fairly evident that she does not align with historic Christian teaching on sexuality or marriage. Yes, LifeWay has stopped selling her books. But that’s because Lifeway is an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination with specific beliefs about sexuality which is funded by local churches that share those beliefs. Lifeway’s compelling interest to not sell books by Hatmaker or other progressive evangelicals such as Rachel Held Evans is not just a culture war interest, it’s an institutional interest. Lifeway exists because Southern Baptists go to church and give money for the support of institutions that don’t contradict the Baptist Faith and Message.

What I don’t understand is why this test of compelling institutional interest applies to our resources, but not our minds and our time. Yes, there is certainly space to write about people and doctrines “outside our tribe.” That space should be, I would submit, filled first and foremost by pastors, elders, discipleship leaders, and church teachers who have an obligation to their flocks. But blogs, Tweets, videos, and #content that is produced from within clearly defined doctrinal and institutional boundaries, directed toward people and ideas and groups that don’t share any of those boundaries (in fact, they may not posses any real boundaries of their own), feels like a validation wrapped in a rebuke.

Part of the reason for the intra-Christian animosity in the same-sex debate is a bipartisan attempt to maintain an illusion: the illusion that we really are all on the same team, and that some members of the team are just awful members. This is not true. We’re not members of the same team, a fact that would be more self-evident if we took denominational identity and doctrinal coherence seriously. To continue to wring our hands about people like Hatmaker is to continue to give the nebulous, unaccountable, and helplessly du jour concept of “online platform” a spiritual significance that it hasn’t earned. It’s not at all clear to me why Hatmaker’s opinions on same-sex marriage belong in a different category than Bart Ehrman’s opinion on the Scriptures. The latter is utterly false and damnable, but also of no immediate compelling interest to my family, my church, my denomination, or even my subset of evangelicalism. The fact that Hatmaker’s heterodoxy is more in demand than Ehrman’s may mean I should be more ready to give an answer on that issue than I might be otherwise, but it assuredly doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for me to wage an online war against it in a way that implicitly baptizes social media as a valid ecclesial structure, or that extols getting a book deal as just as consequential to ecclesial life as being ordained for ministry.

Some people might read this and think I am calling for people, especially women, to be more marginalized and ignored, while letting the “experts” handle things for us. That’s not what I’m calling for. But I am wondering aloud whether part of our problem as American evangelicals right now is not only that we have too many bad teachers, but that we have too many teachers, period. When a charismatic speaker with a podcast writes a book that is theologically dysfunctional, I simply do not think that it’s in evangelicals’ best interest to always make “correcting” them a full time job. If the theological dysfunction were ignored rather than engaged, might it be possible that the economic incentives for such dysfunction would thin out? And if they did, might it be possible that we’d be left with a better ratio of teachers—who want to think long, slowly, and deeply about Scripture, under authority and accountability of real ecclesiastical structures—to platform builders, who want to become social media famous with the help of their resentments, and whose only accountability is their Google analytics page?

My Year in Books

Let’s get this out of the way: Year-end reading lists are usually more helpful for making us feel guilty about what we didn’t read than making us thankful for what we did.

My own year of reading was certainly no exception; the pile of books that I read this year seems so small compared to that of others. Yet, I think it’s important to actively fight against this feeling. There is probably a place for reading to have read, but it’s a place that is often far more prominent in my ego than it needs to be. Reading at whim and for pleasure is, all variables being equal, vastly superior to reading to keep up. The former can, and often has, turned something in my soul. The latter usually just confirms my preexisting insecurities and arrogances.

With that prologue finished, here are the books I spent the most pleasurable time with this year. This isn’t an exhaustive list of my reading (though I won’t pretend that the exhaustive list would be much bigger), nor is it a definitive breakdown of everything I liked this year. Rather, these are the books that stayed with me the longest after I read them, the books I thought about the most, the books I marinated in the deepest. Most are from 2017, though not all.

 

-Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A LifeA compulsively readable biography. While it doesn’t offer quite the psychological insights I hoped, Lucas’s eclectic, unlikely career is vividly told with lots of fascinating new anecdotes.

-Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. If you haven’t read the book, you don’t quite know the argument.

-Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise. An accessible and unpretentious assessment of a major cultural development. An essential read for anyone trying to understand the impact of the internet on how we think. Speaking of which…

-Alan Jacobs, How To Think. One of my most underlined books of the year. I like to think of it as a long essay about the epistemological consequences of social media. I can hardly think of a more timely work.

-John Stott, The Cross of Christ. This was my first foray in a Christian classic. Stott’s defense of penal substitutionary atonement is beautiful—so much so that it’s odd to even call it a “defense.” Of all the nonfiction I read this year, this one drove me to prayer and worship the most.

-Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter. Greene’s psychological novels dig deep in my soul. This story about a duty-bound English police officer and his crisis of faith and marriage kept me up late hours of the evening. The ending is one of the most spiritually moving pieces of fiction I’ve read.

-Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. An exquisitely written novel about some of the most fundamental human experiences. Aspiring storytellers should know this book.

-Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind. This excellent work is a rare thing: An evangelical treatise on race, white privilege, and community that is both thoroughly Christian and unflaggingly level headed.

-James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love. Probably the second-best book I read this year. On that note,

-Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth. My #1 read of 2017. I will be re-reading this book regularly. It has given me something for which I’ve longed for a while: A theological perspective on enjoying what God gives, and why doing so doesn’t conflict with enjoying who God is.

Something Better Than Friendship

Rereading my way through C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I was struck by Lewis’s blunt words about “wanting friends” and the essence of genuine friendship:

That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,” no Friendship can arise—though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.

For Lewis, the focus on something outside the relationship, something objective whose reality does not depend yet confers meaning on the relationship, is what differentiates Friendship from Eros. In Eros (which does not preclude Friendship but is not synonymous with it), the lovers are bound to each other by their very bonded-ness. The relationship itself is the point. Friendship, on the other hand, is cultivated when two people discover that they are both pursuing a same thing. Friendships are not made from a devotion to the bonded-ness itself, because that comes later. Friendships are made from a commonality that begets an identity.  Thus comes Lewis’s famous line: “Hence we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.”

What would this observation mean in a digital age? For one thing, we should probably admit that the internet has changed, perhaps permanently, how our culture thinks about friendship. Partly this is through the elimination of distance and the flattening of time; friends can be reached instantly (text messaging), no matter where they are (smartphones), even at a sub-literate level (Snapchat and Instagram). Whether this is a good or bad thing probably depends on many other factors, and it would likely be a mistake to either worship or anathematize the raw connective potential of technology.

But then again, Westerners are indeed lonelier than ever before, despite how easy and unobtrusive to daily life the cultivation of “friendships” has become. This is where I think Lewis can help us. Lewis’s argument is not that friendship shouldn’t exist without an objective commonality; his argument is that it cannot exist. It is the nature of friendship to bring two people out of themselves, and out of each other, into something on which their bonded-ness can grow. Without that outside something, the relationship that forms between people is bent back inwardly for each of them. The relationship’s value becomes about how valued each person feels. The friendship exists for the sake of “having friends,” which really means it exists for the satisfaction of being liked.

This is important, because our age of social media is a curated age. Networking technology empowers individual control of the social experience; you can add, delete, mute, or hide at will. Curation is the power to feel like one is among friends even when one isn’t. “Friendship technology” is not about bringing people who both, to use Lewis’s term, see the same truth. If it were, social media would not have any long term appeal over phone calls, book clubs, and church. The reason it does have such appeal is that it offers individuals the psychological experiences of friendship (“My posts are being liked, therefore I am being liked”) without the often difficult work of cultivating one’s own inner life (which is, according to Lewis’s, what is shared by friends).

I suspect that part of the epidemic loneliness in our culture stems from the fact that many of us have very little of our own inner life to truly share with another person. Our hobbies don’t even mean much to us, because if we’re honest, we do them mostly because they’re what the “liked” people on social media do. In many of our hearts, there just isn’t much for friendship to feed on. Because there’s no effort to see truth, or to really love beauty, or to accomplish something meaningful, there’s consequently nothing that another person can come alongside us for. As we age, the stresses and demands of family, and especially work, choke out our inner lives. Life is reduced to doing, and only those who happen to be doing with us in a particular season of life can become our “friends,” even though we know the friendship will dissipate when the doing ceases, as doing always does.

Lewis’s observations are a reminder to me that sharing life with a friend requires treasuring something enough to share in the first place. Loving the wrong things, like the feeling of being “liked” by avatars on a screen, is a pestilence to real friendship. A social media age glorifies non-stop connectedness, but authentic friendship relies more on what happens in the quiet hours of life, as the heart takes shape.

Eluding E-Books

Mark Bauerlein’s observations about the decline of e-reading and the “Persistence of Print” ring very true to my own experience. I have now tried on two separate occasions, and with two separate e-readers, to invest in digital books. Both times I just couldn’t do it. My Kindle Paperwhite is a fine device, elegantly crafted and certainly convenient. It’s not that the technology just isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s that its over-sophistication sours the experience of reading.

There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about e-books, except for the e-reader itself (which never changes and which one dares not mark up). Even the full-color e-books that you get on tablets look more like blog posts than books. That’s probably because, if we’re being honest, there is no meaningful difference between an e-book and a blog post. They both subsist on the same ether. Their ontology is identical, which means the ways I experience them are also identical.

For me, the pleasures of reading go beyond the printed words. A physical book is a physical experience, one that I come back to not just to be reminded of the text but also to be reminded of the pages, the binding, the cover, the underlining, etc. Books are truly owned, whereas e-books are merely “licensed” (if you don’t believe in this distinction, read this). The difference is not just legal, it’s personal. An ebook cannot be “owned” in the same way a physical book can, because its constituent nature is simply not own-able the way a printed book is. This is a big reason why book buying is such a happy event for readers. It’s one thing to know the words that are inside. It’s another thing to know the book as a material whole.

Speaking of book-buying—I suppose someone at some point is going to bring up the fact that ebook prices are just not very competitive? Unless you find one of those flash deals for $2.99, most ebooks I’ve encountered are not that much better off than the Amazon print price. If you live within a reasonable distance of a good used book store, that comparison gets even worse. There is no “secondary market” for ebooks, which means the price that you pay to download something to your Kindle is a fixed fee for licensing, and nothing more.

As tech goes, I actually admire my Kindle a lot. And there are obvious advantages of e-reading when it comes to traveling. But for my money, I prefer to have something to hold onto, something to shelve, and something to rediscover through dust, rather than just a dim backlight and a wifi connection.

A Literary Reading List for Theology Students

One of my regrets from my college years is that I didn’t receive a more literary education. By God’s design I attended a Bible college that at the time had only theological or ministerial degrees (now, they offer a Humanities degree, a Philosophy-Politics-Economics honors program, and more options). So I spent the vast majority of my reading time in college reading nonfiction, usually works of systematic theology or biblical exegesis. I don’t think that time was wasted, but I have often wished I’d cultivated a love of literature during the season of life where I was most able to and most connected with friends who might share my joy in it.

Perhaps some reading this can empathize with my plight. If so, here are a few book recommendations for theology students who want to read more literature. Of course, booklists are subjective, imperfect, and you probably shouldn’t structure all your reading around them. “Read at whim” is crucially important advice for getting the most out of reading. Nevertheless, I can remember feeling like I wanted to read great literature but was swimming in an ocean of propositional theology instead, and had no idea where to go. If you’re nodding along, this list is for you:

  • The Pleasures of Reading In an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs). If you feel like you need to read a book on reading, don’t even consider alternatives. Read this one. It will not only help you read better, it will inflame your desire and free you from ridiculous literary legalism.
  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro). This short novel is one of the most completely entrancing books I’ve read, and its themes are rich for Christian interaction. If you enjoy history, too, you’ll delight in the 20th century geopolitical subtexts throughout this work.
  • The End of the Affair/The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene). Graham Greene is an author any Christian reader needs to know. Even if his meditative prose challenges your patience, the spiritual turmoil of his characters, and the deeply humane way in which he describes them, are almost devotional in insight.
  • Til We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis). Recommending Lewis for theology students is practically a cliche, but this is one of his lesser known works. It might be the most purely literary thing Lewis ever did.
  • The Jeeves & Wooster novels (P.G. Wodehouse). These books are funnier than anything on Netflix.
  • Inferno (Dante). The Divine Comedy as a whole is a masterpiece of literary history, but if you’re looking to dip in the waters first, Inferno is widely considered the most compelling of the books. Don’t get tripped up wondering whether Dante’s descriptions of hell are literally theologically accurate. They weren’t intended to be.
  • Collected Essays (James Baldwin). This isn’t fiction obviously, but it is perhaps one of the finest collections of writing ever assembled. Not everything that Baldwin says or argues is true. Nonetheless, particularly for white evangelicals, encountering Baldwin’s rhetorical power is a shaping experience. When you’re knee deep in academic theology it’s important to remind yourself that writing is a craft. Baldwin will remind you.
  • The Harry Potter series (J.K Rowling). You might have grown up with these books, in which case, good for you. But many evangelical college students waited till adolescence or even adulthood before the scent of homeschool chain emails dissipated from their conscience. I envy any first time-reader of these books. You are in for an indescribable treat. If teenage wizard fiction isn’t your thing, give the first two books a try anyway.
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this book assigned in a Christian “Great Books” course, but it belongs there. Christian students in particular should wrestle with the book’s depiction of European missionaries and questions of cultural integration and colonialism.
  • Night (Ellie Wiesel). A book you’ll want to run from. Don’t. Let history and memory hit you with the force that it hit the biblical prophets.
  • Silence (Shusaku Endo). Sooner or later every obedient Christian will have to ask themselves the questions at the heart of this book. This is a story you won’t forget anytime soon. Don’t resist the impulse to pray after reading this. I hardly think you can really understand it otherwise.
  • Great Expectations (Charles Dickens). At the end of the day, the chief end of literature is to enjoy it. Slink into this novel and drink a little bit of its world every evening. Of all the books on this list, this one might rehabilitate a crippled love of reading the most.

How to Think

My review of Alan Jacobs’s forthcoming book How to Think: A Survival Guide For a World at Odds, is up at the Mere Orthodoxy main page.

Here’s a snippet:

Happily, How To Think is not a Trump-directed polemic or a guidebook for navigating Twitter. Readers familiar with both topics will probably get the maximum satisfaction from Jacobs’s book, but its themes are higher and deeper than that. Building on a recent surge in scholarly and popular level writing on how humans think, Jacobs asks a probing question: Why, at the end of everything, do otherwise intelligent people fail to think well? “For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (17) Jacobs writes that it’s a mistake to assume that human beings are ultimately rational beings whose irrationality cannot be understood. On the contrary, human nature, and therefore human thinking, is inescapably moral. We often think and live poorly because we want to.

Read the whole review. After you do that, preorder the book. Trust me: you’ll want this one.

God Is & God Does

I’ve been reading Joe Rigney’s The Things of Earth: Treasuring God By Enjoying His Gifts, and cannot recommend it too highly. For me Joe’s contemplations have been like cold spring water on a thick August afternoon. For years I have felt like something was missing in my understanding of how to love the things God gives in the context of loving God himself supremely. Well, actually, it would be more accurate to say I’ve felt like everything was missing in my understanding! It’s one thing to hear John Piper say that God himself is the best thing, not his gifts, and to affirm it because of course. But it’s another thing entirely to then turn from that truth and look with love and joy and thankfulness at the universe, rather than with contempt or paralyzing anxiety. Joe’s book is about how to do that.

One thing Joe’s work has illuminated for me is a carelessness in evangelical talk. Growing up I frequently heard Bible teachers say something like the following: “Worship is adoring God for who he is, while praise is adoring God for what he does.” This makes all sorts of sense as long as you don’t go digging in the Bible to find it. It makes sense because it’s our nature to separate who God is from what God does. Part of that I imagine is due to a good desire to avoid idolatry. God gives us the universe but God himself is not one with it. Of course that’s true.

But I suspect something else is going in this way of speaking, and it’s precisely what Joe has in his crosshairs in this book. Separating who God is from what God does can be a lazy way of admitting that we don’t know how the two actually relate to another. It can mask a serious misunderstanding of the things of earth. It’s much easier to say “God is holy and loving” than it is to say, “God has created a physical universe and human beings whose very existence tell us that He is holy and loving.” The first sentence exists in the attic, away from the messy problems of evil and suffering and decay. The second sentence invites uncomfortable further inquiry.

But what if it’s actually not good–what if it’s actually sub-Christian–to think of God’s nature abstracted wholly from the things he has made? What if, as Jonathan Edwards said, God’s “supreme excellencies” are known through His works? What if the things of earth do not, in fact, grow strangely dim in light of his glory and grace? What if they ARE the light of his glory and grace?

Of course none of this means that God IS the Milky Way. In fact, it would be silly to talk about glory and grace if all we mean is pantheism. The universe has no grace. The universe has no begotten Son to send into the world. It has no cross to bear. The important point here is that Jesus of Nazareth was very man of very man, and very God of very God. His incarnated deity is what John calls the “exact representation” of the Father. There is no understanding God that is abstracted from flesh and blood, because whoever denies that God has come in the flesh is the anti-Christ (1 John 4). God’s works are not cordoned off from his glory. God’s glory shines in His works.