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Tim Challies

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3 days 20 hours ago

Habits are tricky things. We are more than our habits, but certainly not less. We live so much of our lives according to our habits, but still remain responsible for what we do and what we do not do. Some habits emerge without any thought and through mindless, repetitive actions, while others are formed only through deliberate effort. As Christians we work to build godly habits and put aside ungodly habits, but learn not to depend on habits for our salvation or lean too heavily upon them for sanctification.

Habits are the subject of the bestselling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. It is a fascinating book, and especially so when it focuses in on the habits that make our lives what they are.

We are creatures of habit, and I have to assume that God designed us this way. He designed us so we form neurological pathways that condition us to do certain things in a kind of routine. “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

Here we see both the beauty and the horror of habits, the beauty of habits as they would exist in a perfect world and the horror of habits as they exist in a sin-stained world. Habits allow behavior to unfold automatically and without thinking, so that once we set them in motion, they unfold along established pathways. “The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.” Both virtue and vice can be packaged within habits so that, to some degree, both positive and negative actions can be done on a near-subconscious level.

This is why we teach ourselves to form habits like reading the Bible at the very beginning of the day or to have family worship immediately after dinner—once the habit is established, we will obey its summons to do those things that are so important to our lives. And this is why we have such trouble battling those long-established habits of sin—once the habit is established, we will battle to disobey its summons to do those things that are so destructive. It seems like it should be so easy to stop looking at pornography, to stop drinking to excess, or to stop gorging ourselves on food, but our habits drive and cajole us into old patterns.

At heart, habits are quite simple. “This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.” The craving is the key: The things we crave are the things that power our habits. If we are to form good habits, we need to crave the right things, and if we are to break bad habits, we need to learn to control the bad cravings. Duhigg says, “Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.”

Duhigg looks at habits from a decidedly non-Christian and evolutionary perspective, but still offers a great deal of wisdom that will be of great interest to Christians. I was especially interested to see Duhigg enforce the importance of community in overcoming negative habits. “The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.” This sounds completely consistent with a Christian ethic which calls upon Christians to confess their sin to one another, to pray for one another, and to bear one another’s burdens. This is never more important than when trying to overcome old and sinful patterns of behavior.

When Paul told us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (see Romans 12:2), I am sure he was referring not only to thoughts, but also to habits because habits, too, emerge from the mind. Duhigg shows us the power of habits, but also the importance of overcoming and replacing bad habits. After all, “once you know a [bad] habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it.” As Christians acknowledging the existence of God, we have a heightened responsibility to use the power of habit with the greatest care and the greatest wisdom.

You can buy The Power of Habit at Amazon.

1 month 1 day ago

Life is complicated. Life is full of responsibilities and opportunities, planned duties and serendipitous possibilities. There is so much we could do, but so little we can do. Many of us battle our whole lives to focus on those few, significant items that we should do must do, and yet so few of us ever feel like we are even nearly succeeding.

Help is here in the form of Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism. While it is not a perfect book, and while it benefits tremendously from adding a good dose of Christian thinking, it is one of the most helpful I’ve read on that constant battle to focus my time and energy on the right things.

McKeown believes in what he calls Essentialism and describes the basic value proposition in this way: “only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.” The Essentialist pursues fewer but better opportunities and is rigidly disciplined in rejecting the many to devote himself to the few. It is “not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done.”

The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

Now that sounds good! That sounds like what we all want—a clear design to our lives that simplifies decision-making and amplifies each of the opportunities we pursue.

McKeown leads the reader to Essentialism in four parts:

  1. Essence. He begins by looking to the essence of Essentialism and the realities that make Essentialism a necessary but difficult practice today.
  2. Explore. Here he describes the way an Essentialist needs to think so he can pursue the highest possible contribution toward the best goals.
  3. Eliminate. Having determined the best goals, the Essentialist now needs to begin eliminating anything that will compete with the pursuit of those goals. “It’s not enough to simply determine which activities and efforts don’t make the highest possible contribution; you still have to actively eliminate those that do not.”
  4. Execute. And then comes the heart of it all—living in such a way that you now execute on those few goals, and continuing to follow the discipline of it.

McKeown promises his book “will teach you a method for being more efficient, productive, and effective in both personal and professional realms. It will teach you a systematic way to discern what is important, eliminate what is not, and make doing the essential as effortless as possible. In short, it will teach you how to apply the disciplined pursuit of less to every area of your life.”

And I think it can do that. It is chock-full of excellent insights and quoteable phrases. It is the kind of book you can use to implement systems in your life, or the kind of book you can plunder for its big and important ideas.

Yet the Christian reader will want to read it with some discernment. This is a book that benefits from an infusion of the biblical ethos. As the book reaches its end, McKeown expands Essentialism to all of life and here he stops quoting business gurus and begins quoting religious gurus; the last chapter is easily the weakest and one that can be skipped without any great loss.

Reading the book through a Christian lens improves it significantly. McKeown writes about people who always say “yes” and are afraid to say “no.” That sounds like a classic diagnosis of fear of man, a person so motivated by the praise of man that he takes on too much and says no to too little so he can win the praise of other people.

Not only that, but God has a way of diverting us from what we believe are our most important tasks. He diverts us to tasks he determines are even more important, and a too-rigid adherence to Essentialism may keep a Christian from allowing and embracing those divine interruptions. Read the gospels and the book of Acts and you will see how Jesus and the Apostles were extremely focused, but also very willing to depart from their plans. Implementing Essentialism too rigidly may just lead to a self-centered life rather than a life of service to others.

Reading through that Christian lens also allows us to see that Essentialism can be a means through which we honor and glorify God. It propels us to consider where God has specially gifted and equipped us to serve him and his people. Again, “Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.” The principles of Essentialism, read and applied through the Bible, will help us understand how we are uniquely created and burdened by God to meet specific needs. And, equally helpfully, it will steer us away from those areas where we cannot contribute nearly as well.

I heartily recommend the book, provided you read with Essentialism in one hand, and the Bible in the other.

Let me close with a few of my favorite quotes:

  • In many cases we can learn to make one-time decisions that make a thousand future decisions so we don’t exhaust ourselves asking the same questions again and again.
  • If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
  • We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.
  • There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both.”
  • If … people are too busy to think, then they’re too busy, period.
  • Making our criteria both selective and explicit affords us a systematic tool for discerning what is essential and filtering out the things that are not.
  • Motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose.
  • Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.
  • “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’ ”
9 months 6 days ago

For quite some time now, Malcolm Gladwell has been one of my favorite authors. He is a skilled wordsmith to be certain, but what compels me even more is the way he draws connections between facts and statistics that otherwise seem to have nothing in common. His great strength is finding significance and even fascination in the mundane. The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers were all fascinating books (and, incidentally, they are currently all just $3.99 on Kindle).

Gladwell’s latest is David and Goliath and here he challenges how we tend to think about obstacles and disadvantages. Where we do all we can to avoid obstacles and disadvantages, and where we consider them necessarily negative, Gladwell believes they can actually make us better and stronger. “David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants. By ‘giants,’ I mean powerful opponents of all kinds—from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression.” Each of the chapters tells the story of a different person who has faced a great challenge and been forced to respond to it.

Through the book he explores two big ideas:

The first is that much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate…

He begins with the biblical story of David and Goliath in the valley of Aijalon, saying that where we tend to think of Goliath as having all the advantages over David, in actual fact it was David who had the advantage. While his interpretation of the story borders on the fanciful and ignores the obvious divine empowerment behind David and the shadow of a much greater David, his point stands. From there he writes about little league basketball, the battle against cancer, the quality of university graduates, Northern Ireland’s Troubles, civil rights leaders, and much else. Each of the stories highlights an apparent disadvantage and how it was actually anything but.

While I enjoyed reading David and Goliath, I found it more enjoyable on the descriptive than prescriptive level. In one much-discussed chapter Gladwell shows how having dyslexia may actually offer advantages to some who have it. Though he makes a compelling case, I don’t know what that does for me or how I can apply that knowledge to my life. Not only that, but he does not speak to the many people for whom dyslexia has only ever proven a disadvantage. One or two men who have risen to fame despite the condition hardly prove that it is an advantage. The book suffers from a confirmation bias and from too little interaction with dissenting views.

Gladwell wants us to believe that people succeed because of their difficulties rather than despite them. But in many cases I don’t think we can so easily determine this. We are unique individuals, a conglomeration of strengths and weaknesses, so that one man’s advantage may be another man’s disadvantage. But this would hardly make a compelling book.

This is the first of Gladwell’s books I’ve needed to push myself to finish. My interest waned. Where I usually finish his books in a day or two, this one hung around for a week. That may say as much about me as it says about the book, but I find it noteworthy. In the end I just wasn’t convinced and I wasn’t all that interested. There is plenty of human interest in this book, but not a lot that I will apply to my life.

11 months 1 week ago

This book is going to be big, a near-lock for the bestseller lists. First Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard teamed up to write a book about Killing Lincoln and it sold more than a million copies. They followed it up with Killing Kennedy and it sold briskly as well. And now they turn their attention to their greatest subject: Jesus of Nazareth. Killing Jesus: A History is a short biography of Jesus, focusing on the events leading to his death.

From the outset, the authors make it clear that though they are Roman Catholics, they are not writing a religious book. Rather, they are writing a historical account of a historical figure “and are interested primarily in telling the truth about important people, not converting anyone to a spiritual cause.” They necessarily rely on the four gospels for their source material and often tell their story by directly quoting the Bible.

They begin, though, by setting Jesus firmly in his historical context and skillfully telling about the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the subsequent ascension of Caesar Augustus. They introduce a cast characters who each make an appearance in the pages of the Bible: King Herod who would hear of a potential challenger to his throne and order the slaughter of innocent children, Herod Antipas who would behead John the Baptist and later refuse to deal fairly with Jesus, and Pontius Pilate, who would cave to pressure and order the execution of an innocent man. Each of these men becomes a living and breathing character in the narrative.

As the authors begin to tell about the life of Jesus, they follow the biblical accounts quite closely. They tell his life skillfully and with all the narrative tension and interest they used to tell their compelling accounts of Lincoln and Kennedy. The reader is left with no doubt that Jesus’ whole life was leading to a cross and that Jesus knew he would end up there. The reader sees that the claims Jesus made about himself put him at odds with both the Jews and the Romans.

As they approach Jesus’ death, the authors slow the pace a little, showing the injustice of the trial, the torment of crucifixion, and the necessary conclusion that Jesus really and truly died.

They take some license along the way, of course. The gospel writers were selective when they wrote about the life of Jesus and any author must at times fill in or at least imagine certain details. But even then, O’Reilly and Dugard have done their homework and refrain from taking large or irrational leaps from their source material. And because they tell the account using the Bible as their source, they are able to tell the story as if it is true and as if they believe it. They do not say, “he supposedly did this” or is “reputed to have done this.” They simply tell it as the Bible tells it.

As a historical account of the life of Jesus, the story, though selective, is well told, well written, and very, very interesting. This is especially true when it comes to the historical and cultural contexts, details the biblical writers were able to assume and, therefore, not describe in great detail. I am no expert on this period of history, but spotted no major missteps and felt the authors were attempting to do justice to the historical facts the Bible presents. Their list of secondary sources is quite strong, leaning more toward conservative than liberal authors.

However, Jesus’ life is not mere history. Yes, he was a real man who lived a real life and died a real death, but that is not all he was and all he did. He also claimed to be God’s Son and his followers claimed that in his life and death he had done something unique and, literally, world-changing. The same Bible that describes Jesus’ life, also interprets and explains it. And this is the story the authors do not tell.

Any author who writes a narrative account of Jesus’ life will find it difficult to do justice to both his humanity and his divinity (and we saw, for example, in Anne Rice’s series on Jesus). These authors err far to the side of his humanity. It becomes quickly apparent they will not focus on Jesus’ miracles. While they mention a few of the wonders he performed, and especially the ones involving healings, they do not commit all the way and tend to present these as events Jesus’ followers believed had happened as much as events that had actually taken place.

The authors primarily portray Jesus as a rebel against Rome who threatened to destabilize the region and who, therefore, suffered the inevitable wrath of the empire. They show that through his life Jesus believed he was the Son of God and even suggest this must mean he was either a liar, a lunatic, or that he really was who he said he was. As the book comes to a close they state that Jesus’ followers soon claimed he had been raised from the dead and that his followers believed this to such an extent that they willingly gave up their own lives to his cause.

But O’Reilly and Dugard do not ever explain what happened there at the cross between Jesus and God the Father. Of all Jesus said on the cross, each word laden with meaning and significance, they mention only two. They do not explain the cross as substitution, where Jesus went to the cross in place of people he loved; they do not explain the cross as justice, where Jesus was punished as a law-breaker; they do not explain the cross as propitiation, where Jesus faced and emptied the Father’s wrath against sin; they do not explain the cross as redemption, where we now need only put our faith in Jesus in order to receive all the benefits of what he accomplished.

Killing Jesus is not a bad book as much as it is an incomplete book. As history it is compelling, but of all historical events, none has greater spiritual significance than the life and death of Jesus Christ. And this is the story they miss.

A brief aside before I wrap up: If you have read Killing Kennedy you may remember that the authors seem have a strange obsession with kinky sexuality. Both Kennedy and the Roman rulers give them a lot to work with in that regard, and in this account they are sure to point to the ugly sexual deviancies that marked the Roman rulers of that day. While they do not go into lurid detail and do not mean to excite lust, neither do they exercise a lot of discretion, making this a book you would probably not want to hand to a child.

As O’Reilly and Dugard begin this book they claim the story of Jesus’ life and death “has never fully been told. Until now.” That’s very dramatic but also ridiculous. This story has been told repeatedly over the past two millennia and it will be told again and again in the millennia to come. Killing Jesus is another account that will be here for a while and then disappear and be forgotten. In the meantime, it will take Jesus out of the realm of fantasy and place him squarely in history, but even as it does that, it will neglect to tell why his life, his crucifixion, his resurrection are of eternal significance, a matter of his life and death and our own.

2 years 1 month ago
Have you ever read one of those books that is so strange, so unbelievable, that you are just waiting for the author to admit that she has just been making it all up? On more than one occasion I found myself waiting for that kind of a punchline while reading The Devil in Pew Number Seven. A recent addition to the New York Times list of non-fiction bestsellers, the book tells the sad, tragic and yet remarkably stirring story of Robert Nichols, a old-fashioned revival preacher who moved to Sellerstown, North Carolina, to serve as pastor.

I hesitate to say too much about the story because, well, the Devil (in Pew Number Seven) is in the detail. To say too much, would be to give it all away. Let me stick with the publisher’s carefully-chosen description:

Rebecca never felt safe as a child. In 1969, her father, Robert Nichols, moved to Sellerstown, North Carolina, to serve as a pastor. There he found a small community eager to welcome him—with one exception. Glaring at him from pew number seven was a man obsessed with controlling the church. Determined to get rid of anyone who stood in his way, he unleashed a plan of terror that was more devastating and violent than the Nichols family could have ever imagined. Refusing to be driven away by acts of intimidation, Rebecca’s father stood his ground until one night when an armed man walked into the family’s kitchen … And Rebecca’s life was shattered. If anyone had a reason to harbor hatred and seek personal revenge, it would be Rebecca. Yet The Devil in Pew Number Seven tells a different story. It is the amazing true saga of relentless persecution, one family’s faith and courage in the face of it, and a daughter whose parents taught her the power of forgiveness.

That is detailed enough to give a sense of the book’s content, yet vague enough not reveal the strange twists and turns. At heart the book describes a real-life fight of good versus evil and it is never certain who will triumph and how victory will come. Even now it is hard to say.

Let me share just a few favorite quotes that typify its subject and theme:

  • “One side does its fighting with terrorist tactics—dynamite, letting air out of tires, cutting phone lines and shooting out lights. The other side answers with preaching, prayer, patience and the sheriff.”
  • “Violence typifies the spirit of the opposition,” Daddy said, dismissing the notion of fighting fire with fire. “They are not Christian people. I know who they are. I know they are violent, mean-spirited people. I will only leave this church if it is the Lord’s will. And if it is the enemy’s will for us to leave, then it is God’s will for us to stay.”
  • “When the Lord gets ready for me to leave this church, He won’t send the message by the devil.”

The Devil in Pew Number Seven will draw you in, shock you, and probably bring a tear to your eye. I sat down with it one summer afternoon and barely looked up until I had finished the last word. It is not a particularly deep read, but it is certainly engaging and awfully surprising—just the kind of book to read on vacation. However, one thing you may want to consider is skipping the Epilogue; it is the weakest part of the book and clashes with the rest in both theme and tone. It is a better book without it.

3 years 1 month ago
Whatever David Platt is selling, people are buying it. At last count 750,000 copies of Radical were in print and it had been on the New York Times list of bestsellers (paperback advice) for 52 weeks. That is no small achievement! To be frank, it is the kind of achievement every author dreams of.

Radical is a book about escaping the doldrums of the American dream. The American dream (which is a dream shared by pretty much all of the western, developed world and, hence, equally applicable to this Canadian) calls us to complacency, to a life of comfort and ease. We live in big houses and drive nice cars and worship in multi-million dollar churches custom built around all of our favorite programs. We give away a bit of our wealth—the kind of wealth that much of the world can only dream of—but largely live in great comfort. Occasionally we are stirred my images of starving children or by tales of God’s work in foreign lands. But quickly we forget and we go on with our lives, growing our portfolios and filling our homes with stuff.

It’s all very boring. We are born into wealth (at least when compared to the rest of the world), we live wealthy lives, and then die, leaving our wealth to another generation.

Against this backdrop it is not too hard to get us stirred, to get Christians to want to wake up and to do something better, something that seems to count for more. Something radical, even. This is where David Platt comes in and this is where hundreds of thousands are eagerly drinking in his message.

Before I began reading Radical I assumed it was just another of a long list of books that would build upon a shaky theological foundation. I was delighted to find that one of Radical’s great strengths is that it is firmly grounded in the gospel. Platt spends a good bit of time discussing the gospel, the real gospel, and calling the reader to embrace it and live as if it is true. And then, on the basis of that gospel, he calls the reader to do what is radical, to let go of the American dream, a dream that is as alive within the church as it is outside of it. It’s a powerful message that falls on eager ears.

Throughout the book Platt seeks to show how Christians have been drawn in by that American dream and how that dream has influenced our theology and practice. “We have in many areas blindly and unknowingly embraced values and ideas that are common in our culture but are antithetical to the gospel [Jesus] taught.” He admits that he has more questions than answers and that he sees many disconnects in his own life, a humility that serves him well. It is not lost on the author or the reader that Platt is a megachurch pastor who lives in the same comparative luxury that most of us enjoy.

By the time you finish Radical you’ll be charged up. You’ll be ready to sell your home, to give up your car, to move across the world, to ditch the American dream in favor of moving across the world to do mission work. But here’s the thing: You’d better do it quickly because a couple of weeks later you’ll probably be back to normal, back to ordinary.

Platt will get you all fired up. That’s a good thing. At least it can be. But in the midst of all the excitement I worry about excitement fatigue. After all, Radical is far from the only book of this kind—the kind of book that seeks to shake up the western church, to get the church to do something more, something, well, radical. Read Do Hard Things and Crazy Love and Radical and all the rest and you’ll get worked up every time. But the reality is that for the vast majority of us, our lives will not look much different 2 weeks or 2 months or 2 years later.

It’s not that the books are bad as much as they give us little to work with as we move from fantasy to reality, from abstract to personal. In the middle of reading a book it is easy enough to say, “I am going to give it all away.” But then you realize that your wife hasn’t read the book and isn’t quite as eager. And then you realize that you have children and hauling them halfway around the world would have a profound effect upon them. And then you realize that it’s been 6 months and you still haven’t done anything. In fact, the excitement has passed and you realize that life isn’t so bad. There may be some lingering guilt, but you’ve realized that is just isn’t so easy to extract yourself from all of this. Neither does the conviction remain that it’s actually necessary.

So I guess I have several concerns with the book—concerns that stem from the fact that it is well-written and built upon a gospel foundation and very compelling and exciting. These aren’t the kinds of concerns that equal “Don’t read it!” but the kinds that make me wonder if we enjoy reading these books more than we like applying them.

First, I think our attempts to live radically can ignore the Bible’s concern that we be radically godly in character. There is no doubt that I am called by God to live sacrificially and generously. My first calling, though, is to know God, to be shaped by him and on that basis to preach the gospel and to live as if it is true. I am called to do all of this right where the Lord has placed me. This means that there is great dignity and great value in doing whatever it is that I want to do, like to do, and can honor God doing. We do not all need to be foreign missionaries and evangelists; we do not all need to move to faraway lands. We can (and must!) primarily honor God in whatever it is he has given us to do. I am concerned that it is difficult to read this book and believe its message and not feel that normal life is dishonoring to God. Maybe we need to recover a better doctrine of vocation before we are ready for the radical message. Maybe we need to learn to be faithful in our own neighborhoods before believing we will be faithful in other things.

Second, I think we would do well to wrestle through some of the difficult questions of economics. This is one of the great tensions of living in this place in this world. A $300 car payment sounds shameful when you consider that for many people that is as much money as they live off for an entire year. But it’s also just reality—we need cars and that is just what they cost in our context. We may feel evil for spending $20,000 on a car; but that is just what cars cost. The simple solution is to drive beat-up cars and send as much money as we can to foreign missions. But it’s not that simple. Third world countries do not need money; they need economic infrastructure that can generate wealth. Helping the poor is not as simple as giving them money—something to keep in mind when approached on the street by a panhandler. These are the kinds of things I find myself wrestling with.

Maybe this is why Platt says that he has more questions than answers. At the end of it all, I did too. I love the call for radical living and think the western church would do well to be shaken up. I’m just not convinced that this book and the others like it are helping us answer the more difficult questions. But then again, I think that’s okay. I love a book that makes me grapple with difficult questions, even if the answers are hard to come by.

There is genuine value in reading Radical, I’m sure of it. But maybe it’s best not to read it if you’ve already read several other books in a similar vein. Maybe it would be best to go back to some of those books and ask, “What have I actually done about it?” Sooner or later we either have to take action or figure out if maybe we need to go about being radical in a whole different way. If your big takeaway from Radical is a short-lived excitement followed by long-term guilt or apathy, either the message is wrong or your application of it is wrong.


 

3 years 11 months ago
Let’s start with a trick question. If I were to ask you what connects Lance Armstrong to Arnold Schwarzenegger, how would you respond? If you mumbled something witty about steroids,” I’m afraid you’d be wrong. According to Rhonda Byrne, what connects these two men is that they both harnessed the law of attraction in order to bring about their wildest dreams. They wanted money and fame and success, and wanted it so much that the universe delivered it to them (and not in the shape of a syringe, apparently).

In June of 2007 I wrote a review of Byrne’s The Secret and posted it at this blog. Three years later it remains one of the most-viewed pages, still racking up thousands of page views per month. The book has sold millions of copies and has been translated into 46 languages. It is a worldwide bestseller and one that has spawned many imitators.

The Secret is an introduction to the law of attraction. The law of attraction, which Byrne says is the most powerful law in the universe, states that people experience the logical manifestations of their predominant thoughts, feelings, and words. The law says that your thoughts become things so that your thoughts shape the world around you. You shape your own life and destiny through the power of your mind. The positive things in your life appear through your positive thoughts and feelings and the negative things in your life appear through your negative thoughts and feelings.

The Power is the just-released 2010 follow-up and one that immediately raced to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers. The problems with the book are too many to catalog in a short review. It is almost mind-boggling how much unsubstantiated and blatantly contradictory nonsense Byrne manages to pack into just 250 pages, many of which contain little more than pictures and out-of-context quotes (from people as diverse as Gandhi and Jesus, Albert Einstein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

The book apparently began with a great discovery. Byrne’s great discovery was that in order to receive everything you want, you need to feel love for it. Hence love is the theme of this book. The power behind the law of attraction, it seems, is love. The logic here is a little bit opaque but I think Byrne means to say that the law of attraction is the most powerful law in the universe and love is the most powerful force since it is the force that motivates attraction. When you love something, you draw it to yourself through a kind of universal magnetism. Hence she can say, “Everything you want to be, do, or have comes from love … The positive force of love can create anything good, increase the good things, and change anything negative in your life.”

Did you catch that, young Skywalker? It’s pretty simple—we are all magnets and we draw to ourselves whatever matches our thoughts and feelings. The things we love most are irresistibly drawn to us through a universal law of attraction. It may sound fishy, but it’s been championed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres before their audiences of millions. And people are lapping this stuff up.

So how does this law and the power of love manifest itself in a life? The challenge of a good life is to get yourself to the point where 51% of your feelings are good and are marked by love. At this point things will cascade and all the good that must come your way will soon overwhelm the negative. So “to change your life, all you have to do is tip the scales by giving 51 percent love through your good thoughts and good feelings. Once you reach the tipping point of giving more love than negativity, the love that comes back to you then multiplies itself.” Want some examples of how this works out? Well, if you help someone who dropped an object in the street, you may then find a parking spot right outside the supermarket door (page 51) or you may do a favor for a friend and then find that your boss gives you complimentary tickets to a sports game (page 51).

Much of the book is dedicated to giving instruction on how you can have everything you’ve ever wanted (which we all know is crucial to true joy and fulfillment, right?). The key is to imagine, to feel and then to receive. First you imagine what it is you want. Whatever it is—a new life, a new wife, never-ending perfect health, an awesome bowler hat—you need to first imagine having it, doing something great with it. Then you are to feel the love for what you’re imagining. “You must imagine and feel being with your desire,” doing things with it, having it, owning it. At this point the force of love will work through the law of attraction and bring it to you. It has to! Your job is just to receive it as it comes to you. “Whatever you desire you must want it with all your heart. Desire is love, and unless you have a burning desire in your heart, you will not have enough power to harness the force of love.”

Awesome, eh? Want it, love it, get it. It couldn’t be easier. And she provides lots of stories (and not a shred of evidence) to prove her case.

Not surprisingly, Byrne spends a good bit of the book discussing the three things people want most: money, love and health. In every case, you can have it all as long as you believe it and love it enough.”The only difference between the wealthy people and everyone else is that the wealthy people give more good feelings about money than they do bad feelings. It’s as simple as that.” Uh huh. Tell that to the child born into poverty or to the person whose wealth was annihilated in a bank failure. “You just don’t love money enough. It’s your fault, don’t you know? The love of money is the root of all sorts of joy and peace.”

There is a large sense in which all of this talk about love and attraction is inherently materialistic, in which it is inherently envious. If I can set my eye upon something and love it, Byrne promises that I will receive it. The universe has decreed that it will be so. And so my task in life becomes looking at all the world has to offer and setting my mind upon those things that I want. I cannot just want it one time, but I must dedicate myself to wanting it until I want it so much that the universe responds. I must live much of my life focusing on those things I feel that I need in order to be happy, those things I feel I must have in order to find significance. Some life.

Of course feeling is not enough; I need to actually begin to live like what I want is already mine. So if I want to find myself a new wife (which I don’t, by the way), Byrne counsels me to live as if she is already mine. I need to sleep on one side of the bed, not in the middle, I need to leave half the dresser empty so there is room for her clothes, I need to set the table for two (Truly! She actually says this.). Because as I live like it is true, it will come to me. And who cares if I look like the utter fool I am for doing it? She even says that a good way of looking for a job may be to not look at all—just act like you’ve already got one and one will come your way. I dare you to try that at the unemployment office. “Yeah, I stopped looking and started acting like I have one. Rhonda says it’s better this way.”

The section on health is downright comical. Or is it tragic? Is there such thing as a tragicomedy? “Do you have more good feelings about health than you have negative feelings about disease? Do you believe in lifelong health more than you believe in the inevitability of disease? If you believe that your body will deteriorate with age and that disease is inevitable, you are giving out that belief, and the law of attraction must return it to you clothed as the circumstances and state of your body and health.” Did you know that you can live forever if only you can generate enough love, if only you convince yourself that you’re not getting older? She honestly says this. I couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s that vapid, that stupid. I couldn’t even parody it; it’s a parody of itself.

This whole book is premised on complete selfishness. According to Byrne I am to go through life constantly generating good feelings about myself so that I can have everything I ever wanted. Whatever makes me happy can be mine if only I feel good about it. How does that leave me living on behalf of others? “When I see a person who seems to have a particular need, someone who can’t afford to buy something they want, for instance, I send them thoughts of abundance of money.” Isn’t that kind? “Here, have some good feelings about being full; that should help ease your hunger. And good luck with all of your hopes and dreams.” Didn’t Jesus have something to say about that kind of a person?

Where the law of attraction is most sickening is how it plays out in times of grief. What happens when bad things come? We have nowhere to go but introspection; no one to blame but ourselves. We have to look inward and find negativity there. I read recently of the systemic rape in an African nation—thousands of women raped, many of them repeatedly, as soldiers march through their land, are chased out, and return again. It’s horrifying and nauseating. And the law of attraction can explain it only by saying that these women brought about their own rape by thinking negative thoughts. They were afraid of rape and therefore they were raped. When the armies of drugged-out, terrorized young boys came marching through their land, these women felt fear and negativity and brought rape upon themselves. Do you really want to believe this? Unbelievably, Byrne even quotes the book of Job as she goes. Job! Didn’t she read to the end? How on earth could an honest reading of Job do anything but convince people of the folly of her brand of reasoning.

Needless to say, The Power is a bad book. A really bad book. It’s so utterly stupid, so unbelievably vapid, that it boggles my mind that anyone could read it and believe it. If you could package foolishness, if you could slap stupidity between two covers, you’d end up with The Power. Read it if you must, but as you do it, you’d better generate some good feelings toward brain cells; you’ll need to attract a few to yourself if you’re replace all the ones that are sure to die as you give hours of your life to all of this drivel.

4 years 9 months ago
I kind of like Sarah Palin. I did, really, from the moment she burst onto the international scene as John McCain’s running mate. Of course I live in Canada so she would never have been my Vice President but still, I found in her qualities that I admired. Mostly I appreciated her common sense approach to politics and her aw shucks, hockey mom persona. It was attractive mostly by virtue of how approachable it made her, how normal she seemed. She compares very favorably in this way to the many career politicians who seem completely out-of-touch with the rest of us—men and women who have lived their whole lives in the upper tier of society and who can’t imagine life on the other side of the Forbe’s lists.

With an initial print run of 2.5 million copies, Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue is a guaranteed bestseller. It is interesting to note that it is selling faster than Hillary Clinton’s memoir did in the days after its release and only moderately slower than Bill Clinton’s. Going Rogue has dominated the Amazon sales charts and remains today at #1. Clearly I am not the only one who likes Palin and neither am I the only one who is interested in learning more about her. Not by a long shot.

This is not a memoir written by a politician in the twilight of her career, one who is reflecting on a long life in the public eye (as, for example, Ted Kennedy did very recently). Instead this is a memoir written by a woman who hopes that the best is yet to come. Because of this, the book often reads as an attempt to drum up support and to put to rest the tired old rumors and innuendo. We all know that she will be a front runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 (though she obviously never says anything about it in the book) and it is clear that the book is part of a carefully-crafted advance campaign. She has the difficult task of attempting to win over the American people. She needs to tread carefully, drawing in the all-important evangelical vote but without alienating herself from others. She needs to be the all-American mom but without leaving the impression that all she can be is a mom.

Palin positions herself as the anti-Obama, the anti-Democrat. Yet she also distances herself from much of the Republican party. She writes about her fiercely independent Alaskan spirit and her evangelical faith. She provides abundant examples of her leadership skills and her constant battles against corruption. She writes about the delight she finds in being both a mother and a career woman and defends her ability to do both with excellence. She does not quite seek to be all things to all men, but still she seeks to be the every-woman, or perhaps the any-woman. She portrays herself as a completely normal person who has been given remarkable opportunities. She writes often about her faith, though she is sure to mix in the occasional caveat (yes I believe in creation but don’t worry, I believe in evolution too) and the occasional “ass” or “hell” just to show that she isn’t one of those fundies. While she will discuss her faith, she says little of church or denomination or anything that might indicate that her faith is something more than personal. It is, all-in-all, a very carefully-crafted book that must have been vetted by long lines of politicos.

Along the way Palin answers many of the charges against her. She writes about Troopergate (or Tasergate depending on the side you take), about her daughter’s pregnancy, about the firing of one of her subordinates, about her infamous and ill-advised interview with Katie Couric, about the birth of her son Trig and the ridiculous assertions that he was not her son at all. The bulk of the book is given to her weeks in the international spotlight as she joined the McCain campaign trail. There are some very interesting inside looks at life in that spotlight. She tells about having press releases dealing with her family released in her name even though she had not signed off on them. She talks about the campaign completely abandoning her the very moment the election was over. She writes about the constant and vicious attacks against her that she had to defend with her own money and how she spent over a half million of her own dollars simply to head off the worst of these. We see how some people will stop at nothing (nothing!) to implicate her in something (anything!) that will discredit her. The level of corruption in the American political system is both sickening and infuriating.

Palin inadvertently raises some interesting issues for the Christian. Predominantly, Christians will need to consider the implications of having the most powerful woman in the world be a career woman who holds such a job despite having young children. While Christians will be pleased to be able to support a woman who is strongly pro-life, pro-family and pro-constitution, they will also wrestle with the fact that she will want to lead the country even as the mother of several young children. And Christians may wonder what she really believes and how strongly she believes it. She is anxious to win over evangelicals but in the end she offers little of spiritual substance beyond what we might expect from any American politician. After all, no President has yet denied being a Christian.

Going Rogue is well-written and flows very nicely. I suspect that those who hate Sarah Palin will hate her even more by the time they read the last page, and I suspect that those who love her will love her all the more. Already the book has several hundred reviews on Amazon and, judging by the ratio of positive to negative reviews, they show the expected partisan spirit.

Having finished this book I still like Sarah Palin. In my mind I have a difficult time picturing her as President of the United States of America, but I can’t deny that it would be awfully refreshing to see her bring just a little bit of common sense to the White House. Of course 2012 is still a long, long way away and a lot can change between now and then. But still, if half of what she says about herself is true and if she does half the things she claims she would do if given the opportunity to lead, well, we may all be a little bit better for it.

Buy this one. I think you’ll enjoy it.

 
4 years 10 months ago
I did not ever read Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that has been described as “The bestselling memoir of all time.” I find that claim a little difficult to believe, but I suppose that the eleven million copies in print may prove it correct. From the pen of that same author, Mitch Albom, now comes Have a Little Faith, a book that shot straight to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers within days of its release. Like its predecessor, this book is probably best-termed a memoir, a book that describes the impact of a pair of clergymen on the life of the author.

The book begins with a request. An eighty-two year-old rabbi from Albom’s hometown asks if he will deliver his eulogy. This leads Albom on a quest to learn enough about the man that he can deliver an effective eulogy. This in turn draws him back to a consideration of the Jewish faith he had walked away from as a young adult. At the same time, near his new home in Detroit, he encounters a pastor who, despite a past in which he was a drug dealer and convict, is leading a ministry that serves the poor and destitute. The book alternates between these two worlds, between these two faiths and Albom’s attempts to get to know both of the men.

Have a Little Faith is a well-written and interesting book that has already been widely praised. The endorsements on the book’s cover range from Bob Dole to Bishop T.D. Jakes; from Rabbi Harold Kushner to Coach Tony Dungy. The book reflects the diversity of the endorsers, seeking to emphasize what unites these faiths and all others. It is a defense of the kind of faith that is so popular today-a type of religious belief that de-emphasizes distinctives and plays up the importance of unity. It is a book about religion, about faith in general, more than it is a book about the Christian faith. Unfortunately but undoubtedly, it is a book that could easily comfort a person in a faith that excludes Jesus Christ. And in that way it is a book that misrepresents the Bible, for the Scriptures will not allow for such a faith. The Bible demands exclusivity, it demands that we understand that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father.

So I guess the irony in Have a Little Faith is that the unity Albom purports to find between all faiths is a unity that comes at the expense of at least one of those faiths. It is a unity that cannot be sustained or supported by one who holds fast to the Bible. This is a book that makes for a quick and enjoyable read, but in its moral, its great theme, it falls tragically flat. It tickles the ear of those who read it, but does not strike straight to the great truths of the Christian faith.

4 years 10 months ago
It has been a couple of years since Richard Dawkins’ last major work, The God Delusion (my review). That book was a long-time fixture on the bestseller lists and served to establish Dawkins as the foremost spokesman for the New Atheists. Dawkins has long had two related emphases in his writing and speaking: the non-existence of God and the evidence in nature that evolution is responsible for all that exists. Where The God Delusion emphasized the former, his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, emphasizes the latter. It is primarily a counter-attack to advocates of Intelligent Design, and represents Dawkins’ attempt to provide natural evidence for evolution. He says simply, “Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it.”

It will not surprise you to hear that I was not convinced by Dawkins’ evidences for evolution. I will not provide a rebuttal of those evidences here since I know that others who are more qualified than I am will do just that. Instead, in just a few paragraphs, let me share a few of my thoughts on this book and what I consider its more prominent flaws.

Overall, there is a thread of arrogance in many of Dawkins’ arguments. On the one hand Dawkins wants to show how science continues to make vast and important discoveries; he wants to show that science is living and always advancing, disproving old theses in favor of new ones. On the other hand he wants to act as if all we know about evolution we know for certain. So when we see that the retina in the human eye has the appearance of being installed backwards, we can therefore state with certainty that this is the case and that it is the result of a mutation that was overcome by fortuitous adaptations in the human brain. In other words, the human eye is a mistake. But how are we to know that an advance in science, two years from now, will not show that this is no accident but is just that way it has to be—or, to borrow from the world of software, that it is a feature instead of a bug. He relies on science to prove what is absolutely true or false, never pointing out how often science has been wrong in the past and how often a new advance overshadows or disproves an old one. The history of science gives me little confidence that, in the end, he will be proven correct even with an issue as simple as the human eye.

Dawkins holds up the invariability of DNA code across all living creatures as evidence of shared ancestry (since the genetic code is shared across all living things—it is what is written in the code, not the code itself, that distinguishes one creature from another). But when I look at the same thing, I see that it points in the opposite direction. I see it, quite obviously, as evidence of a common artist. If I look at two paintings and see that they bear a great degree of similarity to one another, that they feature similar scenes and a similar brand of realism or abstraction, I do not assume that one painting evolved from the other or that together they evolved from a common ancestor; instead, I assume that they have come from the hand, the brush, of the same artist. I can grant that there is a sense in which man is related to ape and aardvark—we share a common designer. The fact that my DNA resembles that of any other living creature simply reinforces this fact. Believing in Creation does not demand that we suppose God did not reuse any parts or that every creature has to be entirely different from every other creature. One who believes in God as Creator can affirm that he is the designer and that he based all living things on common elements.

One thing I noted often in the pages of The Greatest Show on Earth is that it is often difficult to know where fact ends and speculation begins. When Dawkins says that a kind of beetle has, over evolutionary time, evolved to resemble the ant it preys upon, do we know this is the case, or is Dawkins simply filling in what he considers a logical hole? Can he prove that this beetle began looking like something other than it is now using the same scientific rigor he demands of Creationists? Or is this just speculation? In this book he rarely distinguishes between the two. Needless to say, this leads to a fair bit of potential confusion.

There is a deep and obvious irony in Dawkins’ constant use of words of agency. In his worldview there is, at least in nature and in the universe, no planning, no design, no invention, no creation, no purpose. Everything has come to be through a long process of chance. Yet throughout the book he constantly softens this harsh reality by borrowing the words of agency and purpose. Why? Could it be that the world just too hard to contemplate without injecting some kind of higher purpose into it? But there is more. Very often he turns to examples or metaphors to explain what he is trying to communicate and, again, almost invariably these examples depend on some kind of agency. So, for example, he will discuss how there came to be so many varied breeds of dog, each descended from the wolf. This may be an evidence of evolution, but if so, it evidences a designer who made the decisions about which breed would have long legs and which would have short ones, which would have big ears and which would have small ones. It was human agency that shaped each of these breeds of dog! How can this then stand as an example of the agent-less, impersonal forces of nature? Again and again he falls into this trap.

All this caused me to reflect on how cold, how stark the world would be without some kind of agency. A scientist can conjure up in his mind ways of describing the world without God, but he has a lot more trouble explaining it. Design seems to scream for a designer, elegance for agency. Even Dawkins cannot deny that the world gives the appearance of design; so his task is to prove that the most obvious explanation is not the correct one. I would challenge Dawkins in his future books not to use this cop out, not to say photosynthesis was “invented” by bacteria more than a million years ago. This is an unfair condescension that perhaps just proves that he cannot maintain his line of reasoning with any kind of consistency. Always he denies a designer, yet so often he perhaps-inadvertently invokes one.

In this book I see the importance of what we can call worldview—the way each of us understands the world, the way each of us interprets all of life. Dawkins’ worldview demands that there is no God and that everything came to be without the assistance or oversight of a designer. Not surprisingly, then, everywhere he looks he sees evidence to support his presuppositions, just as a Creationist looks to Creation and sees evidence of God. If I go out hunting for bigfoot, convinced of his existence, I will inevitably find evidence to support my theory. I will find vague footprints and half-eaten meals, each of which will prove to me that I am hot on bigfoot’s trail. My presuppositions shape my conclusions. So this book shows me again that it is impossible, or near-impossible, to overcome our worldviews.

This book shows that Dawkins is still angry, still shocked that anyone could be so hopelessly confused as to believe in God and to doubt naturalistic evolution. In fact, he refers to such people as “history-deniers,” people who see the evidence, spit on it, and turn instead to their comfortable old deities. “No reputable scientist disputes it,” he says, but of course he would use circular logic to define a reputable scientist. He would never admit that a scientist could be reputable and deny evolution. Here we have the same old Dawkins. Sure he tries a new approach, but ultimately it is more of the same.

Is there value in reading The Greatest Show on Earth?. I am inclined to think that there is, at least for some people. I find it useful to read books written from an opposing viewpoint since they provide a very natural “check” for me. They help me wrestle with not only what I believe but how I express what I believe. This book gave me a lot to think about in that regard. And, though Dawkins insisted that the unbiased reader will close the book convinced of the validity of evolution, this was not the case for me. Then again, does the unbiased reader even exist? We’ve already shown that Dawkins is far from unbiased himself.

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