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Category Archives: Book Reviews, Audio & Video

The Sparrow

Our book club read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell this past month. We had quite a range of responses to the book. Some folks liked it; others struggled with it, but that’s true for most of the books we read.

There is a great hook at the beginning of the book that draws the reader in, but at the same time, as one of our group observed, “It’s like reading about the Titanic; you know what’s going to happen and you’re reading to understand how the tragedy came about.” There definitely is that element to it, and the reader is left wondering about the tragedy until nearly the very end of the book (about 90% or more into it).

What I liked about the book was the serious exploration of theodicy or a theology of evil and suffering. This is the area of theology that explores how a good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God exists alongside evil. If God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, how does that work in a world in which we come face to face with evil and suffering? The author doesn’t settle for easy answers either. I think that’s what I liked best about the book. However, some in our group felt the author stacked the deck against the main character (essentially every awful thing that could happen to him did happen to him) and so the deck is in that sense stacked against God. Yet we all knew of people whose lives reflected that kind of suffering, almost a Job-like encounter that leaves a person of faith quite uncomfortable. So, yes, the deck was stacked, but the fact that we knew of stories was interesting and the question of theodicy is not only limited to the degree or extent of suffering, so I was inclined to give the author slack in that regard.

The reader comes to care about many of the characters, and the story arc was interesting and well-paced, with difficult questions arising about how good intentions can have disastrous consequences. I really didn’t mind that so many questions were left unanswered until nearly the very end.

I ended up reading the sequel, too, which is called The Children of God. It picks up with where The Sparrow left off and explores the consequences for the main character and for the world and species featured in the first book. I liked the sequel but am still processing some of the ways the author dealt with matters of faith. But, again, the author never takes the easy way out, and as someone who sits with people who are working through pain and suffering, I found that emotionally compelling.

 

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Marin’s Our Last Option

The new book by Andrew Marin is out. It’s titled Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility Can Save the Public Square. It is published as an e-book and is a straightforward and accessible read.

imageAs someone who spends a lot of time promoting (and participating in) dialogue among people who view the topics of sexual orientation and identity differently, I found the book extremely interesting. Marin has lived in Boystown (a predominantly gay neighborhood in Chicago) for years and launched The Marin Foundation to promote dialogue between the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and the evangelical Christian community. It has been noted that the strengths of Marin’s first book, Love Is An Orientation, were his ideas for how to build interpersonal bridges and enter into more more constructive and meaningful discussions.

So when Marin offers ideas for promoting civic engagement, I think it’s important to read what he has to say. Given the context in which Marin cultivated and practiced his commitment to relationship-building, it comes as no surprise that LGBT issues play a central role in the book. But that topic is illustrative. It would be a mistake to limit the book to that topic. There are many applications and a much larger vision on display throughout.

Marin introduces the reader to his model for civic engagement in a pluralistic culture. He refers to it as the Composite Engagement Model (CEM). It has four principles: 1) A Proper Implementation of Reconciliation; 2) Practice the Countercultural Act of In-Person Interaction; 3) Build Bridges Instead of Armies; and 4) Fidelity Leads to Sustainability.

His opening chapters set the stage. Most of the book is dedicated to unpacking and illustrating each of these principles. The remaining chapters cover models of civic engagement and the application of CEM and religion and CEM and politics.

I hope people will read Marin’s book and consider his thesis, as well as other perspectives that may be a part of moving forward in a diverse and pluralistic culture. After all, many Christians have expressed concern that recent and pending rulings may restrict religious liberties in the U.S. in the years to come. Some conservative religious readers may question if Marin concedes too much in the culture wars. I can hear that concern, but the concern is often expressed by those who believe Christians should oppose each and every instance of divergence (away from a Christian ethic). Marin is at the very least asking Christians to think that through in light of a culture that has changed dramatically.

I believe Christians could benefit from thinking outside the box of the current models of cultural engagement. I was recently listening to Doug Laycock, a respected religious liberty attorney discuss some of the differences in the role of religion and the public perception of religion in the French Revolution and in the U.S. I will not be able to do the argument justice here, but let me say this: In part because religion does not have a positive cultural association in French history (as contrasted with the positive cultural associations in the U.S.), we see a very different contemporary relationship with organized religion in France. If Christians continue to engage in the culture wars as they presently do, will we be at risk of losing positive cultural associations and good will that have long been a part of our history?

If this thesis is right, would Christians benefit from thoughtful reflection on alternative models of engagement? I think it is worth careful analysis, and Marin places a model on the table for our consideration, and it’s one he has tried to live out and apply to a particularly divisive topic.

 

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An Exercise in the Removal of Saccharine

more-reflections-smallI love the exchange between Melinda Selmys and her husband recounted in the opening pages of Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections. They are discussing her earlier book, Sexual Authenticity, and he says of it: “It’s shit. It’s fake. It’s saccharine. It’s not honest. It’s not you. Write it again.”

That is part of the backdrop for the book Sexual Authenticity: More Reflections.

Another part of her motivation to offer further reflections was the way in which she and her book had been surreptitiously brought into a larger culture war. Reflecting on one of her first public interviews in which she shared the spotlight with a reparative therapist, she writes, “I felt like a fraud. I’d written a book about how the Culture Wars mentality was wrong, and suddenly I was in the thick of that war, an artillery piece in the battle against the Gay Agenda.”

But Selmys has another personal reaction I have not known:

Moreover, I knew that the politicization of my sexuality was an obstacle to the work that I actually wanted to be doing. I was producing the kind of ex-gay narrative that appeals to good Catholic mothers and father and sisters and brothers who dearly want their loved one’s to be able to achieve a full, vibrant, healthy, happy heterosexuality – the kind of ex-gay narrative that has failed the LGBTQ community so badly because it falls afoul of the real experience of many people with SSA [same-sex attraction]. (p. 37)

selmysI haven’t had this reaction because I do not personally experience my sexuality in this way. As an academic who conducts research on sexual identity, however, I have seen my research used toward political ends in ways that I, too, believe have not been helpful to sexual minorities who are navigating this terrain. I am thinking primarily of the Ex-Gays? study. The reality is that 90% of my research is actually on sexual identity development and the experiences of sexual minorities of faith in Christian colleges and universities, in mixed orientation marriages, and in navigating family relationships. So I appreciated her transparency in sharing this motivation to offer more reflections.

The sections that were particularly compelling to me were her personal accounts of how trying to follow the expectations of others (and their related narratives) did great damage to her and her marriage. It gets into the whole area of what to do with one’s same-sex sexuality. Celebrate it? Keep it at arm’s length? Vilify it? Selmys comes to the conclusion that her same-sex sexuality is not “accidental” to her sense of self or her marriage. That doesn’t mean that her same-sex sexuality is central either. She is committed to naming false dichotomies:

Nor is [my homosexuality] accidental to my marriage. I did a lot of damage, both to my identity and to my relationship with my husband, by trying to conform to some sort of one-size-fits all narrative of sexual complementarity. Because I could not acknowledge the part of me that is “queer” in the early years of our relationship, I withheld that part of me from our marriage and tried to replace it with a simulacrum of “authentic femininity” which was not in any way authentic to me. This was a significant omission in my gift of self. (p. 67)

Readers of her blog will recognize many section of the book. She will offer a post and then reflect on it as she has clearly interacted with readers around significant themes that have shaped her thinking in an area. That may sound like it would be somewhat disjointed, but the book does not read that way at all. It is well-written and flows from reflection to reflection in ways that readers will appreciate. The two things that stand out to me as possibly “difficult” about her book are that (1) Selmys, as a Catholic, engages with Catholic theology and philosophy in ways that may not be as familiar to evangelical Protestants, and (2) she pulls no punches. I found the connections to Catholic theology interesting and helpful. Too often evangelicals limit their connections to what John Piper or Tim Keller have said. It’s not that these pastors and theologians are the concerns–it’s that evangelicals can forget the broader theological landscape that is in front of them.

As for the punches not being pulled, let me offer this as an aside: Melinda helped me with a writing project on gender dysphoria (a workbook soon to be available through the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity), and she has no qualms about telling a writer what she thinks about his/her work. Within a matter of weeks, I was fully aware of the sections of my writing that she did not like. It was refreshing and humbling. Well, More Reflections is kind of like that. Her writing is refreshing and honest in ways that are just not that comfortable for the existing narratives for faithful sexual minorities in the church today. Those narratives, of course, are largely “ex-gay”, reflecting a clean transformation into a pure heterosexuality, which has not been her experience (she names and challenges an array of narratives on pp. 56ff). And I don’t think it is most people’s experience, and it is THAT narrative (not any one narrative but dozens and dozens of comparable narratives) that needs to be told for the church to come to a more realistic understanding of what pastoral care to sexual minorities can look like.

When I first started conducting research on sexual identity, I participated in a think tank with many folks on the topic of sexuality and marriage. (Let me say outright that I love think tanks. This one met in Lourdes, France, and…well…we were there to think. Not a bad arrangement in my view.) One of the other participants was the late Fr. John Harvey, the founder of Courage, a ministry to homosexuals in the Catholic Church. I enjoyed Fr. Harvey as a faithful man with a gentle spirit. I would have loved to have had a “beer summit” with he and Melinda to discuss pastoral care to the sexual minority. In fact, these two would not have needed me; I’d be there for the beer. But to have them engage in a thoughtful, honest discussion about the lives of Christian sexual minorities is the kind of exchange that is needed with many Christian leaders to move the church away from the culture wars and toward genuine pastoral care. I did not experience Fr. Harvey as interested in the culture wars, either, but so many Christian leaders today are–and there is an important shift that simply needs to take place.

Pastoral care based on a saccharine-based sexual identity narrative will only offer peace to those of us who do not experience sexual identity conflicts. That’s not pastoral care at all. It’s stress management for the majority while our brothers and sisters suffer in the trenches of a battle they should never have had to face on their own.

I have been encouraged lately by the voices of many Christians who are engaging this topic from the standpoint of their own lived reality. People like Melinda Selmys. People like Wesley Hill, Ron Belgau and Julie Rodgers. Others who write alongside them at Spiritual Friendship. This is a book that will stand alongside others like it and alongside the thoughtful wave of younger, devout Christians who are engaging this topic and the church in a more public and honest way.

 

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Deep Faith

in-search-of-deep-faith_jim-belcherJim Belcher, author of Deep Church, has a new book out titled, In Search of Deep Faith. The book was sent to me from the publisher, InterVarsity Press, as a gesture of goodwill at Christmas. These are always nice gifts, but I tend not to read them. This one caught my eye, however.

I think there are a few reasons why I cracked this book open. The main one was that we were just on sabbatical in Cambridge last year, and the setting for In Search of a Deep Faith has Jim Belcher and his family on sabbatical in Oxford. He had taken his family there for his sabbatical, which is actually a year-long time of rest and spiritual pilgrimage.

The fact that Belcher is there with his family also was a hook. Our children were not exactly keen on Cambridge. They missed their friends, their sports events, their devices… You get where I’m going. Well, Jim faces similar challenges–only for a longer period of time.

Many of Belcher’s  heroes are actually Christians who are heroes to many believers. There is William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Corrie ten Boom, and many more. I had actually read a biography about Wilberforce when I was on sabbatical. I had previously read a bibliography on Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas – and then out book club read it again this year. All that to say: a number of these folks were already on my mind because of the depth of their faith and the life lessons they teach us as Christians.

The reader will find those familiar accounts, but Belcher writes in a way that points out some interesting sights along what may be familiar terrain. I appreciated reading his accounts of Bonhoeffer’s last days and what it means to die well; of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom’s experiences and what it means to find peace in the midst of suffering.

I was encouraged (as a father who is raising three children) to read another father’s account of how these stories serve as life lessons for Christian faithfulness, lessons you want to pass along to your kids. So there is this interesting mix throughout the book of historical accounts, spiritual reflections, and stories of family treks to historic locations and lessons he and his wife wish to teach their children. He summarizes what he hoped the pilgrimage would be for his family and for the reader:

–that the stories and myths and metaphors we were experiencing, the places and people we were encountering, would activate our imaginations and illuminate for us the different realities competing for our affections; that through these stories and encounters we would learn about our roots, understand the journey we are on and recognize the importance of knowing our destination. (pp. 258-259)

Belcher is a good writer. It is an easy book to read, and the whole thesis is one that challenges all of us to live our lives with a greater appreciation for the trajectory we are on, with a greater sense for the end toward which we are all moving.

 

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Liberal Democracy & The Christian Citizen

We are up to Chapter 2 of the book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft by Francis J. Beckwith. I thought I had missed a couple of chapters due to my travel schedule; however, it turns out we did some other readings and held discussions of various presentations in the interim.

politicsChristiansChapter 2 is titled, “Liberal Democracy and the Christian Citizen.” Beckwith wants to answer the opening question: “What does it mean to be a Christian citizen in a liberal democracy in the early twenty-first century?” He begins by explaining a liberal democracy. The liberal aspect is with reference to “the liberties or freedoms” guaranteed by government, including the freedom of speech, assembly, press, religion, and the right to own property (p. 59). The democracy part is about self-governance (representative government) and equality before the law (treating citizens similarly).

Beckwith goes into some background about the importance of a civil society, the U.S. as a constitutional republic, separation of powers, and other way in which liberal democracies can function (as in the case of our friends across the pond).

Now we get to the Christian citizen. Beckwith draws from and discusses principles he sees in Scripture: (1) Caesar’s coin, (2) doing justice, (3) knowing government, and (4) voting for/supporting non-Christian candidates.

The Caesar’s coin part is interesting, as Beckwith observes that most teaching on this is about the different spheres of authority: the church and the government. The church is to be concerned with the things of God, the things God cares about, especially those things (i.e., people) who bear the image of God. The question is not whether we should care for the poor, clothe the naked, etc., but “What is the best way to achieve success in these endeavors?” (p. 64) In his conclusion to this section, he writes: “So Christians in a liberal democracy, because they have the means to effect change, should be concerned about whether the wider culture and/or their government agencies and institutions (such as public schools) are properly shaping, or at least not corrupting, the character of its young people” (p. 67).

In the section on doing justice, Beckwith discusses how liberal democracies afford Christians an opportunity to elect leaders who will do justice on a larger scale–just as we are to do justice as individuals. There is a fascinating discussion over the range of opinions in our society and among Christians in how “doing justice” is applied to debates on gay rights, including how defending one set of rights may foster a kind of hostility toward another group (e.g., members of religious communities whose moral theology may be intruded upon by the state), citing the example of Catholic Charities not offering children for adoption in Massachusetts because they excluded same-sex couples.

The section on knowing your government reflects on the apostle Paul’s use of his own status as a Roman citizen to “ensure that the gospel could be preached freely” (p. 74). It ends with another fascinating discussion–this time of debates about stem-cell research and philosophical anthropology.

The last section has to do with supporting non-Christian candidates. Part of the discussion here is that “non-Christian candidates may have at their disposal theological resources that, although not shared by Chrstians, may help Christians and other non-Christian citizens see that the principles of liberal democracy are integral to the candidate’s worldview and undersatnding of a just society” (p. 86). The other part of the discussion was about whether Christian or non-Christian candidates view their own theology as knowledge (see The Kennedy Mistake on pages 84-86). Is the religion believed and lived by a candidate really to be made private such that worldview considerations shaped by meaningful theological commitments are held at bay? Or do they inform substantive public dialogue and related policies? Great discussion.

We are reading this book to take us outside of our discipline (psychology and counseling) and to look at how integration is done in another discipline (political science). I think Beckwith does a nice job modeling a balanced perspective in his work here. He wants to avoid the two extremes of (1) arguing for and with reference to any one political group (e.g., Republican or Democratic platforms), and (2) arguing for any kind of theocratic state. He is looking for thoughtful, Christian engagement with politics.

In the end, he wants the Christian to think about which policies best support the common good. He draws on biblical principles to facilitate that kind of reflection–considers what it means to love one’s neighbor; to help those who are on the margins; to pursue justice and condemn injustice; and to foster a “rightly-ordered social fabric” (p. 88). He believes both special and general revelation speak to these kinds of concerns–that there is natural reason for caring about these common goods that can be discussed apart from simply citing Scripture.

I don’t have the time to unpack all of the points of discussion and implications, but I will say this: It is interesting to think about current and future debates about religious liberty. There are a number of arguments being made today that threaten or appear to threaten religious liberty. As one person pointed out, it is ironic that some of the very groups behind these arguments owe their movement to the kind of social context that protected the freedom to express dissenting points of view in the first place. Will those groups likewise protect religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and the right to hold dissenting views? There is a broader need here that has to do with accommodating freedom of conscience, that recognizes that thoughtful people will disagree on matters of conscience, and that society is better when it recognizes and protects the right to do so.

 

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Book Club: The Devil in the White City

Last night was Book Club. We read and discussed The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. The setting for the book is Chicago in the late 19th c., just at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair.

1893fair-29courtIn terms of writing style, it is an interesting juxtaposition of two stories. The first story is the World’s Fair and all of the drama that went into Chicago’s bid for the Fair and the issues the architects and others faced in pulling it off. They had less than two years, I believe, to transform the city, and this was at a time when Chicago was widely known for its slaughterhouses and considered an inadequate venue (contrasted with New York) for something like this. That part of the book alone is fascinating. I was only vaguely familiar with that history, and it was interesting to see the relationships and dynamics that went into that story. Both civic and national pride figured into all of that, particularly as France had hosted the last Fair at which the Eiffel Tower had been introduced on the world’s stage. I added a picture on the right that captures some of what was accomplished in transforming the city of Chicago into the White City (including the use of electric street lights and the use of white stucco on many of the buildings–note the classical architecture). The theme was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. I was reminded of a philosophy of aesthetics course I took from Nicholas Wolterstorff back at Calvin College. We read and discussed city planning and the role of architecture in shaping a person’s experience of the environment/city. Probably what was most interesting to me about this section of the book were just the historical people in town (Mark Twain, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and Disney, just to name a few).

The other events had to do with Herman Webster Mudgett (best known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes)–the nation’s “first serial killer”–and his “Murder Castle,” the building to which he brought/lured his victims. The Murder Castle was elaborate and gruesome (as depicted in the image here), complete with a gas chamber, dissection table, and cremation oven.  murdercastle1, cred 3This story was handled well with few attempts to dramatize any further what was already quite remarkable. The details toward the end of the book were difficult for some of our discussion group. We discussed a Christian view of evil, whether evil is “out there” or within us, the lack of a moral “chip” (Steinbeck) in a sociopath, what it means to not have a moral conscience, as well as what it means to be involved/engaged as Christians. We also discussed whether architecture/buildings are neutral or if they can reflect evil.

Publisher’s Weekly offers the following synopsis:

Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett) dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city’s finest moment, the World’s Fair of 1893. Larson’s breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac’s Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes’s relentless, ghastly activities. The passages about Holmes are compelling and aptly claustrophobic; readers will be glad for the frequent escapes to the relative sanity of Holmes’s co-star, architect and fair overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed the thousands of workers and engineers who pulled the sprawling fair together 0n an astonishingly tight two-year schedule. A natural charlatan, Holmes exploited the inability of authorities to coordinate, creating a small commercial empire entirely on unpaid debts and constructing a personal cadaver-disposal system. This is, in effect, the nonfiction Alienist, or a sort of companion, which might be called Homicide, to Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. However, rather than anomie, Larson is most interested in industriousness and the new opportunities for mayhem afforded by the advent of widespread public anonymity. This book is everything popular history should be, meticulously recreating a rich, pre-automobile America on the cusp of modernity, in which the sale of “articulated” corpses was a semi-respectable trade and serial killers could go well-nigh unnoticed.

What was most interesting to me, then, was the juxtaposition of human accomplishment at the World’s Fair with the moral depravity of Mudgett’s Murder Castle. I suppose the book could be have been further strengthened by more of a psychological autopsy of Mudgett; I think that could have been worthwhile. But overall it was a thought-provoking book. One of our discussants offered the opening reflection on the book, quoting Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That about sums it up.

 

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The NALT Christians Project

This is going to be interesting. Dan Savage, who created the It Gets Better Campaign has announced The NALT Project. The NALT Project refers to when Christians would come up to him after a talk in which Savage would be critical of Christians and say, “We are not all like that.” The language of “not all like that” is what NALT stands for.

What is interesting about this is that many Christians will want to distance themselves from some of the conservative Christian voices that are often presented (and present themselves) as though the represent the Christian community to the broader culture. The voices are often experienced as harsh and unkind, and their views are often cited as contributing to violence against sexual minorities in the U.S. and in other countries.  Others will not want to stand in the way of civil rights or equal protection under the law (but they might hold to differing views regarding sexual ethics), as noted in the video.Still others will want to be “gay affirming” (language also used in the video), which is a broader category that is open to some interpretation.

In the context of the culture wars, we are often left with the choice between being “pro-” gay or “anti-” gay and that can be defined differently by different interest groups. It will be interesting to see how much complexity will be present in The NALT Project.

There are always Christians you can point to and say, “I’m not like that” with reference to these debates. How many Christians can say that they are “not like” the Westboro Baptist Church? I hope many Christians can say that. But not being like more extreme voices does not necessarily equate to being what others want you to be. So we will see how this project develops and what it comes to represent to those who launched it and to those who participate.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Book Reviews, Audio & Video

 

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