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Tim Challies

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9 years 4 months ago
I often wonder if my Canadian perspective keeps me from really understanding race relationships as they exist in the United States. Things are different here. I live in a city where over half of the population was born outside of this nation. A trip to any public location (or even a walk around the average neighborhood) will show an incredible variety of races and backgrounds and this seems to have been Canada’s historical pattern. To be Canadian is to be diverse. Canada never embraced slavery and never had shockingly unjust Jim Crow laws to overcome. We had no Martin Luther King Jr. and, in a sense, never had as great a need for one. Racism was never systematized here as it was just a few miles south. So when I read about racial issues I read about something that comes from outside of the context I know best.

Reconciliation Blues is, according to the subtitle, “A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity.” The author, Edward Gilbreath, editor at large for Christianity Today, has written this book to give a glimpse of what it means to be both black and evangelical. “My hope,” he writes, “is that this inside perspective on what I regrettably call ‘white Christianity’ can help both blacks and whites get a better sense of the condition of our racial reconciliation and the distance we need to travel to make it something more authentic and true.”

This book weaves together several elements: Gilbreath’s memoir, particularly as it pertains to his race, biographies of prominent black reconcilers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, philosophical musings on what reconciliation means to the church and whether it is even still necessary, and discussions of elements as diverse as music, politics, and the “whiteness” of evangelical institutions. It is, in a sense, a series of essays in which the author wrestles with the desire to embrace both his race and his evangelical beliefs. It is a book that celebrates the successes that have come, but laments the fact that much work remains.

And that, in essence, is what this book is about—the loneliness of being “the only black,” and the frustration of being expected to represent your race but still being stifled when you try, the hidden pain of being invited to the table but shut out from meaningful decisions about that table’s future. These “reconciliation blues” are about the despair of knowing that it’s still business as usual, even in the friendly context of Christian fellowship and ministry.

I found Reconciliation Blues most valuable as a perspective on the experience of one man as he comes to terms with both his race and his religion—what it is like to be a black evangelical in the church today and to want to embrace both of those aspects of his identity. It surprises me to hear that this is more difficult than it may appear. The book gave me much to think about, and especially how about I, as a white Christian, may well not even realize how much my “whiteness” affects my faith. It is interesting food for thought to consider how much of the white evangelical experience is a product of being white and how much is directly biblical. Take this quote, for example:

The first thing I learned in Sunday school was that black is the color of our hearts without Jesus, red is the color of Jesus’ redeeming blood, and white is the color of our cleansed hearts after we accept Jesus as our “Lord and Savior.” There were even visual aids, construction paper cut-outs, that demonstrated the red blood washing away the black sin to reveal a brand-new white heart.

Have we ever considered the potential ramifications of portraying black as evil and white as pure and good? Is this portrayal a cultural preference or divine fiat? Is there a better or more sensitive way of expressing good theology but in using word pictures that do not offend as this one might? And if the evangelical outworking of the Christian faith really is to at least some extent a product of our “whiteness,” what do we stand to gain by embracing more diversity?

The book can be provocative at times. For example, speaking of Jesse Jackson (and man who, according to Gilbreath, captures both the good and bad aspects of racial reconciliation in America) he writes, “In general, the African American Christian community has been more forgiving of its fallen members. Though few whites will admit it aloud, this is one of the things that sustains the fissures between black and white believers—the impression that blacks are lax morally, that they too easily excuse sin or fail to take responsibility for their behavior.” This is more food for thought, an example of where white Christians may harbor subtle beliefs that influence the way they think of their black brothers and sisters in Christ.

Reconciliation Blues is a book that deals more with questions than answers, more with describing the current state than providing concrete suggestions for the way forward. Gilbreath is clear in stating that he believes racial reconciliation needs to remain a priority for the church. I trust that this book will at least cause people to think and to consider how they may have, however inadvertently, contributed to the problem and how they can now work towards a solution.

9 years 4 months ago
The Secret is a phenomenon. Since the book debuted late in 2006 it has sold over four million copies with some thirty other translations now available or underway. It is likely to become one of the best-selling self-help books of all time and is being constantly praised and endorsed by celebrities. Venture into your local bookstore or look around you while waiting at an airport, and you’re bound to see people reading it and absorbing it. They will not just be people who consult astrologers and who listen to Tony Robbins tapes, but normal, average people like the ones who live next door to you. There are almost 1400 reviews of the book printed at Amazon with an average rating of 3.5 out of 5. The breakdown of those scores is interesting: fifty-two percent of them are 5-star, thirteen percent are 4-star and twenty-one percent are 1-star (Amazon does not allow a 0 rating). This means that the majority of people, the great majority even, believe in at least some aspects of the book’s premise and teaching. They believe in the law of attraction.

The Secret began as a DVD. Rhonda Byrne had faced a particularly difficult time in life and came out of it only after she learned The Secret, which is her term for what is commonly known as the law of attraction. In gratitude she created a DVD presentation to share this knowledge and, having seen the remarkable success of this DVD (which has sold in excess of 1.5 million copies), she created a book by the same name. The claims are lofty: “There isn’t a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want.” Imagine that: the power to get absolutely anything. Who can resist that claim?

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. This gives people direct control over their lives. A person’s thoughts (whether conscious or unconscious) and feelings bring about corresponding positive or negative manifestations. Positive thoughts bring about positive manifestations while negative thoughts bring about negative manifestations. The theory is very simple. Because it is an absolute law, the law of attraction will always respond to your thoughts no matter what they are. Thus your thoughts become things. You are the most powerful power in the universe simply because whatever you think about will come to be. You shape the world that exists around you. You shape your own life and destiny through the power of your mind.

The steps to utilizing this law in life are simple and supposedly founded upon the wisdom of Jesus as we read it in Matthew 21:22. “Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” The law of attraction demands only this:

  1. Know what you want and ask the universe for it.
  2. Feel and behave as if the object of your desire is on its way.
  3. Be open to receiving it.

There are aspects of this law that are clearly attractive to the human heart. We all like to think that we have ultimate control over our lives and that we can have anything we want. We all want to control our destinies and to feel that the universe is at our beck and call—that it is a friendly force working with and not against us. This is, I am convinced, what draws people to the law of attraction.

But there are many areas in which The Secret has nothing to offer—in which the law of attraction as the most powerful law in the universe is simply an incomplete, irrational and even depressing answer. Allow me to suggest a few.

First, The Secret has no real ability to respond to the problem of human evil—surely the greatest problem anyone can face. Byrne admits that people’s first thoughts, when they hear of the law, is to think of times where masses of people lost their lives. According to the law of attraction, these people were necessarily on the same frequency as the event that took their lives. They may not have had thoughts of the event, but somehow their negative thoughts drew them into it. But this simply does not prove a satisfying answer to the world’s problems. Does this not mean that the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust were ultimately responsible for thinking negative thoughts that summoned this even to them? Does it not force us to believe that the people who died when the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11 were responsible for calling this negative situation to themselves? Does it not mean that a young girl is ultimately responsible for the years of sexual abuse her father imposed upon her? The Secret offers nothing to these people but the understanding that their suffering is somehow their own fault. When we look at The Secret as the law that can bring you anything you want it has a clear attraction; when we look at it from the perspective of one who has suffered, it is clearly flawed.

Second, the law works itself out in ways that are breathtaking for their selfishness. For example, Byrne warns against listening to people speak about their illnesses or problems lest you begin to think negative thoughts and begin to manifest the negative consequences in your own life. She warns against sacrifice, either financial or personal, saying that sacrifice makes you prove your belief in lack rather than in abundance. She tells you to always place yourself first and to always look out for your own interests ahead of anyone else’s. She puts you in the place of God, as the one who stands at the center of the universe. The law of attraction continues in logical progression until it arrives at the inevitable end result of ascribing divinity to humanity.

The earth turns on its orbit for You. The oceans ebb and flow for You. The birds sing for You. The sun rises and it sets for You. The stars come out for You. Every beautiful thing you see, every wondrous thing you experience, is all there, for You. Take a look around. None of it can exist, without You. No matter who you thought you were, now you know the Truth of Who You Really Are. You are the master of the Universe. You are the heir to the kingdom. You are the perfection of Life. And now you know The Secret.

She goes on: “You are God in physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You. You are a cosmic being. You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. You are magnificence. You are the creator, and you are creating the creation of You on this planet.” The law offers no higher power than yourself. This makes me wonder: what would the world look like if everyone followed The Secret and devoted themselves primarily to their own interests, forsaking compassion and sacrifice and other “negative” elements of life?

Third, the law, at least insofar as it is described in this book, makes no allowance for what happens when desires clash. What happens when two people set their thoughts on the same thing? While I understand that the universe offers infinite opportunities, can two people equally have the same thing? What happens when what one person wants is harmful to another person? What if one person’s pleasure is another person’s pain? If the law of attraction is the highest law in the universe, it must be that there is nothing to govern such cases.

Finally, the law also works in ways that defy both common sense and human experience. For example, when considering weight loss Byrne makes the unbelievable claim that food can only make you fat if you think it can make you fat. If you determine that food is unable to make you gain weight, you can eat as much as you want and never gain wait or suffer any ill effects. When considering health she suggests that we can heal ourselves of any affliction simply through the power of our minds. Interestingly, The Secret has been championed by Oprah Winfrey who offers her own life as testimony to the power of the law of attraction. The week after Oprah’s endorsement sales of The Secret jumped from 18,000 to 101,000. The week after a second endorsement sales rose to 190,000. Winfrey has since had to soften her enthusiasm as people were following the book’s advice to the extent that they were forgoing medical treatment, believing in the power of their thoughts to heal themselves. Doctors were unimpressed, as were the diseases and disorders which did not respond to the mind’s attempts to destroy them. Byrne even says that the law of attraction can grant immortality. Yet the people who teach this law seem to be aging at the same rate as the rest of us.

As I read The Secret it occurred to me that if the Bible were a product of human minds it would undoubtedly resemble something like this: a celebration of humanity, a portrayal of humans as divine, and probably the most idolatrous thing I’ve ever read. Within the Bible, in the first chapter of the book of Romans, God addresses this desperate desire to rid ourselves of God’s claim to our lives. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts…because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” And amen. The Secret claims to be able to give us everything we could ever want. Yet it can’t even address the fundamental problems of human nature. It represents only the latest in a long line of attempts to revoke God that has continued since the first man turned his back on His Creator. There’s nothing new here but the fancy, twenty-first century packaging.

9 years 6 months ago
I recently began reading Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, a book I am really only reading because of the final three words of the title. That young women are pursuing sex and delaying love is common knowledge, but it’s rare to find someone who is willing to declare that this causes women to lose at both. While I am not yet at that stage of the book, I am looking forward to her conclusions.

In the first section she discusses what young people mean by the oft-used phrase “hooking up” and seeks to figure out why girls are so quick to hook up and so slow to commit to significant relationships. She shares a conversation that took place between a college-aged girl named Shaida and her friend.

Girlfriend: and we layed [sic] in bed and talked for like four hours and like had sex during the whole thing; it was really like a moment; like he held me sooo tight for the rest of the night; i woke up really close to him; and i felt something…

Shaida: that’s incredible intimacy…do you love him?

Girlfriend: i am scared of loving him

Shaida: because of what being in love will do to you

Girlfriend: because of what does that say about me….i’m just a weepy girl who relies on someone….i want to be independent and i think that it is important for women of our generation but by saying i love someone and need him it’s like contradictory…hypocritical…but i also don’t want to give into love because i am scared he won’t call me…and I will be heartbroken and then feel like a stupid girl that should have known better.


Though she doesn’t say it awfully well and relies on the kind of IM-based lingo that makes English teachers weep, I think she says something important. I’ve often wondered how it is that girls can be so easily convinced that hooking up is both good and natural and this really helped me understand at least one dimension of it. Girls in our society are raised to be independent and to greatly value their independence. Many girls, as with this example, see love as a sign of weakness simply because it gives men the ability to break their hearts. It makes them vulnerable. Any kind of emotional need is seen as weakness. Love becomes something that proves incompatible with independence and empowerment. And so they act like men, giving and taking physically while believing that they are holding back their hearts. Yet it is not that easy. The heart is a tricky thing and can very easily and inadvertently become battered and bruised. And, from what I’ve observed, more and more young women are becoming older, more mature women whose hearts are hardened and, as I believe this author is going to suggest, whose find that they have given away their bodies and have lost their best chance at love. Feminism has encouraged women to act as they do today and, as I’ve said before, the real victims of feminism are women. But we all suffer the consequences.

9 years 8 months ago
I assume that Pauline Chen’s experience is quite typical of doctors. She began medical school dreaming of being a hero and of saving lives but had little idea of just how big a role death would play in her chosen profession. It did not take long for her to learn that death would be a regular occurrence and one for which she was largely unprepared. She found that her vocation, which is premised on caring for those who are ill, also systematically depersonalizes dying. Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, another book I found on the New York Times list of bestsellers, represents her attempt to come to terms with this brutal truth of the medical profession.
In a profession made attractive by the power to cure, it is rare to find the young medical student who dreams of caring for terminal patients. But in a society where more than 90 percent of us will die for a prolonged illness, physicians have become the final guardians of life, charged with shepherding the terminally ill and their families through the intricacies of the end. Most patients and their families fully expect physicians to be able to comfort and provide that support. For doctors, this care at the end of life is, as this book’s title implies, our final exam.

Chen’s next words are revealing. “Unfortunately, few doctors are up to the task.” The problem is that most doctors quickly learn to suspend or suppress any shared human feeling for dying patients, as if this is the key to being a successful physician. Chen found that these lessons in denial and depersonalization began as early as her first encounter with death in the gross anatomy dissection lab where she spent weeks dissecting a cadaver, and that they continued through her residency and practice.

The structure of the book is such that it is divided into three sections. The first, “Principles,” focuses on the early lessons she learned about death while a medical student. She discusses the early terrifying experiences of dissecting a corpse, of seeing death up close for the first time, and of emotionally distancing herself from what she was doing and seeing. The second part, “Practice,” goes to the heart of clinical work, revealing how “professional responses not only manifest but perpetuate themselves.” The final section, “Reappraisal,” briefly explores how change is possible and how there have been some hopeful transformations in end-of-life care.

The real heart of the book is the section dealing with “Practice.” It is here that the author wrestles with difficult issues and shows how most doctors are unable to cope with end-of-life care. She shows that they will often avoid being fully honest with their patients and their patients’ families. They will even do what seems inhumane and even cruel—avoiding difficult conversations with their patients or increasing treatment and providing hope even when the situation is hopeless. While fear of litigation certainly provides some impetus (more than a few doctors have been sued for suggesting there is no hope and then being proven wrong), the most common driving force is fear. Doctors are simply fearful and unequipped to help their patients face death with dignity. On one hand doctors need to distance themselves from their patients lest they become too emotionally involved and become paralyzed or traumatized. And yet when they distance themselves they are apt to view patients as something less than fully human and worthy of human dignity.

Because the book is written from a secular perspective it stops well short of a biblical position and solution. And yet the author’s reflections on mortality are fascinating and gave me much food for thought. In an age where medicine has the ability to prolong life far beyond what would sometimes seem natural, Christians have many issues to wrestle with when it comes to end-of-life or palliative care. We need to affirm the value and dignity of life and cannot stoop to arguments used by those who promote agendas of euthanasia. But in our fight to preserve life it seems we could also err in irrationally prolonging life when all hope is gone; we could err in telling less than the truth and in promoting difficult and painful treatments that are known to be useless. We must not be people who fear death, but instead we must be people who trust in God’s sovereignty.

Death has always been an important issue to Christians, but is likely to move to the forefront of critical issues in the coming years. Not only are medical abilities increasing so people can be kept alive for longer, but society’s morals are crumbling and more people believe in the right of patients to take their own lives. Issues surrounding how we allow people to die, when we allow people to die, and just what constitutes death are ones that Christians can no longer ignore. Final Exam gives a physician’s perspective and numerous examples of the intricacies involved in this discussion. Even if Chen does not wrestle with the ultimate issues, she does provide a valuable perspective and one that can lead into useful, biblical discussion.

9 years 9 months ago
People looked at me in a strange way when I told them I was reading a 300-page book about the iPod. “No, seriously. It’s a whole book about the iPod!” Steven Levy, author of The Perfect Thing is senior editor and chief technology correspondent for Newsweek magazine and the author of five previous books. Levy is a technophile and over the course of his career has seen many products, many technologies, come and go. But I doubt any new product has aroused his interest like the iPod. Levy is absolutely in love with the iPod and with Steve Jobs, the man responsible for overseeing its creation. This book often reads like a hagiography of the man and his little technological marvel.

Interestingly, the book is “shuffled” so that different copies of the book will have the chapters in different order. While this is a neat idea, and a unique one that fits well with one of the iPod’s most popular features, it means that there is no flow from chapter-to-chapter and also that there is some repetition. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare this represented for those who had to edit and proof the book!

In some ways it seems silly to write a biography of the iPod since it is, after all, only five years old (having released on October 23, 2001). It seems akin to writing a biography of an actress like Dakota Fanning. Sure she’s a fantastic little actress, is highly sought after in Hollywood, and has already made her mark in Tinseltown (and we loved her in Charlotte’s Web), but the fact remains that she is only twelve and her career is only beginning. Surely it would be too easy to write her biography. And surely it is too early to write seriously about the iPod. Then again, the iPod is not going anywhere soon and seems to be gaining both acceptance and prominence so perhaps a book is in order.

Despite displaying more than a little bias (how is this for hyperbole?: “The iPod nano was so beautiful that it seemed to have dropped down from some vastly advanced alien civilization. It had the breathtaking compactness of a lustrous Oriental artifact. It wasn’t really much bigger than a large mint left on your pillow at a fine hotel.”) this is an interesting and even an important book. The iPod is a significant device that has been accepted and embraced by countless millions of people. It may well come to define a whole generation. And if not that, it will surely speak volumes about a generation. It also represents a technology that Christians would do well to consider. After all, when we listen to our iPods we tend to tune out the world around us. In some ways I think the iPod is representative of the self-centered, individualistic culture we live in. By parking the little white buds in our ears, we can enter a little world all our own. We can turn off and tune in. We can listen to what we want to hear while ignoring everything around us. We can easily allow this good invention to become destructive to our relationships and even to our faith.

I was disappointed that the author spent the vast majority of the book looking at the past and the present with very little time dedicated to looking to the future and attempting to understand what the iPod’s long term effects will be. Maybe a philosopher or historian or sociologist would be more qualified to attempt to predict how the iPod will be remembered ten or a hundred years from now. Is it a piece of technology that will be lost to history or will it be remembered as groundbreaking and as a product that changed the world? In the absence of such analysis, the most interesting chapters are those dealing with the history and development of the iPod. Ones dealing with identity, coolness and the personal nature of the iPod are also well worth reading.

One awfully tedious chapter deals with the “shuffle” feature and whether or not it is truly random (the answer being yes and no - no because computers cannot be truly random because they need to have some kind of a starting point, but yes because the songs are chosen as randomly as is possible). Levy decides, and this is true, I’m sure, that the human mind just doesn’t cope well with randomness. Thus when our iPods seem to favor a particular song or artist, it is really just our minds playing tricks on us (which, of course, rings hollow when we hear a song for the third or fourth time in a day!).

Despite a few less-than-stellar chapters which seemed to be little more than filler, this was a valuable read as I sought to understand the iPod generation. The Perfect Thing is far from a perfect book (you probably saw that line coming!). Still, it is interesting enough for the most part and raises some interesting questions and concerns. At the very least it helped me understand the incredible, growing phenomenon that is the iPod.

9 years 11 months ago
Rocky McElveen is the kind of man, the kind of “real man,” who puts desk jockeys like myself to shame. While I spend nearly endless hours sitting at my desk in Canada’s suburban sprawl, McElveen leads parties of bedraggled hunters through the wide open spaces of untamed Alaska. Though he was trained and educated at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and is an ordained Presbyterian minister, he was drawn back to Alaska, the land of his youth and the land where his father served as a missionary. On almost a whim he began a career as an Alaskan fishing guide. “With help from some dear friends, I began my quest. I had professional-looking brochures printed, conjured up a business name, and made big plans.” That was several decades ago and today McElveen continues to guide hunters and fishermen into the Alaskan wilderness. He boasts an impressive client list, including President George Bush Sr., Chuck Yeager, Dave Dravecky, Chuck Swindoll and many others.

Wild Men, Wild Alaska is not exactly an autobiography, though in many ways it reads like one. McElveen writes well and in a down-to-earth style that is both appealing and fun. Each of the book’s chapters relates one of the adventures he has either enjoyed or suffered through during the length of his rather uncouth career. He writes about the strange difficulties inherent in serving as guide for the President (which gave him opportunity to learn that drawing a knife to cut the President’s fishing line is not a great idea) and the challenge of helping a one-armed man fire a rifle. He writes about coming face-to-face with grizzlies (and living to tell the story) and spending a couple of nights in the company of wolves. He describes the trials that faced wilderness guides like himself when the skies were closed to all manner of air travel in the days following September 11. All-in-all, it makes for a fascinating read and for a book I just didn’t want to put down.

Woven through McElveen’s adventures are spiritual lessons, dropped often subtley into the text. While he shares some interesting and important spiritual insights, these are often seem just a little bit forced. They do not detract from the tale, but neither do they add a whole lot to it. For example, at the end of a chapter in which McElveen faces down a grizzly, he writes, “When the grizzly arrived and I faced him head-on, it was he who became afraid and submissive, not I. Why? I believe it was God. He enables us to face what we greatly fear and will give us the strength to overcome that which intimidates us the most. That certainly has proven true for me.” The lessons are there and are generally sound (though I was sorry to see a brief nod in the text towards John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, even though there are few real comparisons between the books.), but they are clearly secondary to the stories he tells. While it may attempt to be something else, this is really a book of entertaining short stories and one that will likely appeal to both Christians and unbelievers (and may offer just enough opportunity for reflection that it may be a book to consider buying for a unbelieving friend or relative).

The book is written with a dry wit that offers many opportunities to chuckle. Here is a fairly typical example in which McElveen writes about Roscoe, an enormous moose he has seen and often hunted but has never been able to shoot. “I excitedly told the famous evangelist Franklin Graham, son of the even more famous evangelist Billy Graham, about Roscoe. Franklin wanted a chance to match his wit with the moose’s and win himself a trophy rack like no other. Franklin is a great friend of mine, so I told him where Roscoe was, some tips on how to hunt him, and where he could try to land. I also cautioned him that Roscoe was a hardened reprobate, had little use for preachers, and would resist any invitation to Franklin’s table.”

As much as I enjoyed Wild Men, Wild Alaska it made me realize that I am in the right line of work and live in the right part of the continent. I am content to leave the adventuring, encounters with grizzlies and plane crashes to others, though admittedly these stories make for a far more exciting book than would even the wildest tales arising from the web design business.

While not the most spiritually-edifying book I’ve read this year, Wild Men, Wild Alaska served as great entertainment for an afternoon or two and I’m glad to recommend it to others.

10 years 5 months ago

Tuesday May 30, 2006

Emergent: Steve Camp chimes in on the Mark Driscoll controversy. His comments and critiques are measured and biblical.

LiveBlog: Carolyn McCulley is doing a great job of liveblogging the New Attitude Conference. She is apparently learning a new respect for the art of live-blogging.

Quote: “Advice is like castor oil, easy enough to give but dreadful uneasy to take.” (Josh Billings)

Outrageous: A high school in Texas, after deciding to use a picture of a nickel on the yearbook cover, removed the words “In God We Trust,” lest it prove offensive to any unbelievers. FoxNews reports. “The intention, according to a school spokesman, was to ‘make sure all faiths were respected.’”

10 years 5 months ago
When I was younger, I had a friend who seemed to live somewhere in a grey area between reality and fantasy. He was able to deal with reality for periods, but would always slip back into strange little fantasies where he was a ninja or an elf warrior or something else equally strange. He and I would go to the park to practice golfing, but inevitably the golf club in his hand would become a sword and he would want to begin sword-fighting with me. He developed a near-obsession with fantasy books and games, science fiction and the like. The cover of every book he owned featured either a picture of spaceship or a warrior holding some ridiculously large weapon. As I read An Army of Davids I continued to conjure up memories of this friend.

Glenn Reynolds is best known as being the “Instapundit.” His blog makes just about every other blog in the world look miniscule in comparison. His site gets more readers in a day than many blogs get in a decade. Just about every blogger dreams of someday having the audience and influence of the Instapundit. Most never will.

In some ways, Reynolds is the ultimate “little guy.” Or that is how he started out, in any case. He represents a new breed of reporter who has arisen to challenge the mainstream media. With little more than a web site built upon free software and a desire to share what his interest in current events, he has become extraordinarily widely-read and influential. It was no great surprise, then, to learn that he had written a book that would seek to explain “how markets and technology empower ordinary people to beat big media, big government and other Goliaths.” There are few people more qualified to join this discussion.

I was expecting a book about blogging and the power of new media. The marketing material I received along with this book promised that I would “learn how new technology has empowered the little guy.” Specifically, it suggested it would explain “how bloggers brought down Trent Lott, Dan Rather, John Kerry and New York Times editor Howell Raines.” Here is the section of the book dealing with John Kerry: “Another example involved Democratic candidate John Kerry’s claim to have been in Cambodia on Christian Day 1968, which turned out not to be the case either” (91). So clearly the marketing material had it wrong, for this hardly explains how bloggers brought down John Kerry! Many other triumphs and challenges of the blogosphere received just as little attention.

So what is this book about? The thesis of the book seems to be captured in the words I have italicized within the following quote from the book’s introduction. “I’ll look at the way this change [big to small] is playing out in the worlds of business, media, the arts, and even national security. I’ll look at the downside of empowering individuals: if amateur musicians or bloggers are empowered by technology, so in a different way are terrorists. Overall, I consider the trend to be a positive one. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, the existence of this empowerment is undeniable and irreversible. Love it or hate it, it’s worth close consideration” (10).

There were some very good sections in this book. The section dealing with blogging did provide a challenge that the Goliaths of the world ought to consider. The section on horizontal knowledge did a good job of showing how information is increasingly moving horizontally, between groups of loosely-coordinated people, rather than vertically as in the past. Reynolds does prove, to some degree at least, that because of new technologies, the little guy is empowered in a way that was impossible in the past. And, as he says, “As the big guys get better at being big, it’s actually easier for the little guys to stay small” (27). After all, if Wal-Mart and Kinko’s, through their massive size, can reduce the cost of consumer goods, it makes it easier for small business to begin and thrive. There is an important synergy between the big guys and the little guys.

Right in the middle, just as the book is beginning to come together, it takes a strange turn and it began to evoke memories of my childhood friend. Reynolds leaves behind media and blogging and begins to fantasize about nanotechnology and life in space. You have to read it to believe it, but there is a long, detailed section of the book discussing the future colonization of Mars and a 4,000 ton Chinese spacecraft powered by nuclear explosions (not to be confused with a nuclear reactor). He even provides a primer on how we can prepare ourselves to deal with a terrorist attack. There are a couple of half-hearted attempts to somehow make this relevant to the thesis of the book, but it simply cannot be done convincingly (unless we are to believe that China, the most-populated nation on earth, is a “David” who is tackling the American “Goliath” in the space race). The final chapter introduces the concept of “singularity,” which describes “the point at which technological change has become so great that it’s hard for people to predict what would come next” (237). I think it is the point where robots take over the world and use as as their fuel source and those who remain develop superpowers (and yes, Reynolds does discuss the possibilities of humans with super strength, x-ray vision and underwater breathing).

Throughout the text Reynolds uses the pejorative word “Luddites” as often as the average Christian-market bestseller uses the words “Mother Teresa.” He uses the word to describe any person who expresses fear or concern about technology. He often uses it without justification and without allowing legitimate concerns to be expressed and discussed.

The book concludes with these words: “The Army of Davids is coming. Let the Goliaths beware” (268). By the time I had waded through this book, it seemed to me that the previous 268 pages, or the previous 134 at any rate, were really just filler and did not do a whole lot to support this conclusion. I know what Reynolds was hoping to say: that small is the new big and that we are coming into an era where the little guy, David, will have ever-greater influence over the big guy, Goliath. The problem is that too much of the book did not even attempt to support this thesis, and several of the bits that tried fell flat.

I guess I could summarize by saying that I felt this book did not receive good editing. Half of the book could have been left on the editing-room floor and probably should have. Instead, An Army of Davids rambles on through topic after topic which seem to be related to each other only as Reynolds’ personal interests. The book often seems to forget just what it is supposed to be about. I can’t help but believe that Reynolds could have done better.

10 years 5 months ago
The Bible has long been the world’s best-selling book. While it does not appear on the bestseller lists, year after year, generation after generation, it continues to sell more copies than any other book. While the Bible continues to sell, it does not appear that many more people are reading it now than in previous generations. Rather, knowledge of the Bible is reaching what is surely the lowest point since the years following the Reformation when it first became widely available. Even many who profess to be Christians know the Bible only moderately better than their unbelieving friends and neighbors.

Within our society there is a growing belief that the Bible is a book of intolerance. People regard the Bible as a book of moral lessons that are relevant only within particular situations and often fixed within a particular cultural context. The Bible is regarded as a book that is increasingly irrelevant.

It is with this mindset in view that Amy Orr-Ewing wrote Is The Bible Intolerant?. The cover of the book asks, “Is the Bible intolerant? Sexist? Oppressive? Homophobic? Outdated? Irrelevant?” These are all charges that almost any Christian has heard leveled against Scripture at one time or another. Orr-Ewing is convinced that these are legitimate questions and that a Christian should not be afraid to search the Bible and to seek out answers that will satisfy. “That is what this book is all about…I have taken the ten questions about the Bible that have been asked most frequently in my experience and have attempted to look for some answers” (12).

Is The Bible Intolerant? begins with an examination of our cultural context which goes so far as to deny that we can know what happened in history and which scoffs at our ability to know and understand the Scriptures. From there the author moves to particular issues regarding the manuscripts of the Bible and criteria for canonicity. The last few chapters deal with particular issues that cause unbelievers and skeptics to struggle with Christianity. The questions the author addresses are as follows: Isn’t it all a matter of interpretation?; Can we know anything about history?; Are the biblical manuscripts reliable?; What about the canon?; What about the other holy books?; Isn’t the Bible sexist?; What about all the wars?; Isn’t the Bible out of date on sex?; How can I know?.

This book is an intellectually-stimulating (and intellectually-satisfying) examination of each of these ten questions. It is easy to see the influence of the thought and ministry of Dr. Ravi Zacharias within this book and, in fact, Orr-Ewing oversees the apologetics training program for the Zacharias Trust. The one unfortunate exception is the chapter dealing with sexism. While the other chapters are all quite consistent with Scripture, this one bypasses the clear teaching of the Bible regarding the role of women in ministry and makes the common error of arguing from the lesser to the greater. While paying only scant attention to Paul’s teaching in the epistles, she focuses on Priscilla, Phoebe and Junias, attempting to prove from these examples that women had equal spiritual leadership in the church as men. Having examined the role of various women in the New Testament, she concludes “The apostle Paul, who is often demonized as being sexist, in fact freely ministered alongside women, and the two passages in his writings which are sometimes taken as a blanket denial of female ministry need to be seen in this broader perspective” (93). While Christians should not discount the fact that Paul did minister alongside women, it is important that we begin with what Scripture teaches plainly and allow this to shape and form our perspective. I was disappointed to see the author tacitly suggest that people suggest that Paul teaches “a blanket denial of female ministry” as this is, in my experience, simply not true. Most Christians affirm that there are many avenues of ministry open to women. The author should have clarified that the issue is not ministry in general, but those specific ministries that would require a woman to teach and exercise authority over a man.

Orr-Ewing is not completely clear in suggesting the intended audience for her book. Still, it seems that she is hoping that this book will be read by skeptics, for she concludes with a heartfelt plea that the reader will hear God’s voice and open the door to Him (Revelation 3:20). And so I was faced with the question of whether or not I would hand this book to an unbelieving friend. Based on nine of the chapters I would gladly do so. Unfortunately, the chapter on sexism is so poor that I would hesitate to recommend the book since doing so would require a caveat that might only add to the confusion of one who was seeking to know more about Scripture. And it is a shame, for apart from that significant mis-step, this is a good book. It is one that may prove beneficial to a discerning believer, but I would not recommend it for wider use than that.

10 years 6 months ago
I elected to read Freakonomics as part of my ongoing effort to engage with books that have become fixtures on the New York Times list of bestsellers. This title has spent many weeks on that list and has sold millions of copies. This is a bit surprising for a book dealing with the decidedly unsexy discipline of economics. Still, the subtitle, “A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” hints at a level of fun, interest and accessibility that might not be found in an economics textbook.

The rogue economist in question is Steven Levitt, who has apparently been awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, which is awarded every two years to the best American economist under forty. That means little to me but it does sound impressive. Levitt, the economist, colaborated with Stephen Dubner, a writer, to create Freakonomics. Levitt, it seems, is a particularly brilliant man and one who approaches the field in an unorthodox way. Dubner reflects on his early impressions of the man: “He seemed to look at things not so much as an academic but as a very smart and curious explorer—a documentary filmmaker, perhaps, or a foreign investigator or a bookie whose markets ranged from sports to crime to pop culture. He professed little interest in the sort of monetary issues that come to mind when most people think about economics.” Levitt’s underlying belief is this: “That the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and—if the right questions are asked—is even more intruiging than we think. All it takes is a new way of looking.”

As we might expect, Freakonomics introduces many of these new ways of looking at the world. The authors warn in advance that there is not really a unifying theme to the book. In some ways, each chapter stands on its own. The authors do not state a thesis and attempt to build towards proving it as they move from point-to-point. Having said that, there is a common thread that runs throughout. The theme is simple: It is little more than thinking sensibly about how people behave in the real world. The book deals primarily with causes as the authors attempt to help the reader look beyond the obvious to what may be less apparent but more satisfying.

And so they ask, “what do schoolteachers have in common with sumo wrestlers?” The answer, it seems, at least in the case of the Chicago Public School teachers, is that they cheat. Having found that cheating and corruption are widespread, they ask whether this should cause us to believe tha mankind is innately and universally corrupt. This is an interesting application for a book dealing with economics. But it seems that there is some overlap between economics and morality. “[M]orality represents the way we would like the world to work and economics represents how it actually does work,” they claim. Economics would seem to show that the great majority of people are generally moral.

The book continues to answer questions that no one but Levitt has ever asked. “How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents?” “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” “Where have all the criminals gone?” This questions receives what is no doubt the most notorious answer in this book. Hoping to understand why crime rates, which had climbed for almost two decades, suddenly fell in the 1990’s, Levitt came to a startling conclusion. He traced this decline to the advent of legalized abortion, suggesting (and, at least to some extent, proving) that Roe vs Wade had ensured that millions of unwanted children, the very children most likely to grow up to become criminals, were never born. “[T]he very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives.” He does not comment on the morality of this, though he does suggest that the data proves that the “trade-off between higher abortion and lower crime is, by an economist’s reckoning, terribly inefficient.” Yet he also makes a particularly horrifying statement. “What the link between abortion and crime does say is this: when the government gives a woman the opportunity to make her own decision about abortion, she generally does a good job of figuring out if she is in a position to raise the baby well. If she decides she can’t, she often chooses the abortion.” The closing chapters ask, “What makes a good parent” and then examines whether a person who has a distinctly black name suffers an economic disadvantage.

While Freakonomics contained plenty of interesting data and anecdotes, I found the overall experience somewhat disappointing. The value of the book was more in isolated pockets of information than in the central claims of the book. While Levitt and Dubner have given some food for thought and may help their readers to look beyond obvious causes, I don’t know that there is a lot of benefit in reading this book. Perhaps its greatest value is in challenging us, especially those of us who profess to be Christians, to ensure that our morality, which is how we would like the world to work, is consistent with our economics, which is the way the world really does work. In this way, economics and morality are two sides of the same coin.