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Tim Challies

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culture

8 years 8 months ago
Classical music was once almost exclusively the preserve of white men. It was believed that women could simply not play as well as men, for they did not have the strength, attitude or resilience for many pieces of music. Over the past few decades, though, classical music has undergone a transformation. Musicians, rather than facing auditions held in the dressing room of a conductor, now audition in front of selection committees. Perhaps the greatest change, though, is that they now audition from behind a screen. Since these screens went up, thirty years ago now, a strange thing has happened: the number of women in the most celebrated American orchestras has increased fivefold. The world of classical music came to realize “that what they had thought was a pure and powerful first impression—listening to someone play—was in fact hopelessly corrupted. ‘Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture…other people look awful when they play but sound great.” The fact is that the first impression of seeing a person, even if for only a brief moment, colors how the mind enjoys and understands the music another person makes. A man only sounds better than a woman of equivalent talent when a person has first seen that the person playing is male. All of this is not to say that the world of classical music was terribly corrupt and chauvinistic. A woman playing the french horn really did sound worse than a man playing the same instrument. This was only true, though, because of the mind of the listener. Seeing a woman settling in to place to play a piece on the french horn would so color his perception that his mind would register an inferior performance.

This brief example shows the power of the first impression. Blink is a book dedicated to that first impression—the first two seconds of looking at someone or something. Gladwell argues, quite convincingly, that we need to have greater confidence in our first instincts. Our society tells us that the best decision is one that is labored over. When faced with a medical condition, a doctor will order test after test after test. A patient will consult another physician and seek a second opinion. Only when we have gathered an immense amount of data do we feel confident in moving forward. Yet so often it was our instincts, those first two seconds, that were correct all along. “The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

But this “blink,” this first two seconds can also be deceptive, so Gladwell devotes some effort to understanding those moments when instincts betray us. The infamous New Coke provides just such an example. Dismayed to see that participants in blind taste tests were consistently choosing Pepsi over Coke, Coke executives decided to retire their product in favor of a new version that tasted much more like Pepsi. We all know how well it worked. Coke drinkers rebelled and immediately demanded the return of the former product. It was quickly reintroduced as Coca-Cola Classic. Where did Coke go wrong? They based too much on the “blink.” While Pepsi continues to be rated as tasting better in a single sip, this is not how people drink a can of soda—people drink it a can, glass or bottle at a time. Some find that Pepsi’s sweeter taste becomes nauseating with a larger quantity. Some people simply prefer Coke because they have always enjoyed it. The fact that Pepsi may taste slightly better does not mean they will switch drinks. Coke was led astray by the blink.

What Gladwell seeks to show is that those who have succeeded at becoming great decision makers are those who have mastered the art of “thin-slicing.” These people seek out and filter a very small number of important factors, ignoring a large quantity of other seemingly-important variables. He provides examples of firefighters and soldiers, doctors and marriage therapists, all of whom have found ways of cutting through the clutter and extracting only the most important information. This leaves us with a psychologist who can predict with great accuracy, based upon only a few minutes of observation, whether or not a marriage will last. It leaves us with a tennis coach who can predict almost perfectly whether a player will double-fault before the ball has even made contact with the racket.

This decision-making ability is not necessarily inherent in a person. Thin-slicing, Gladwell tells us, can be educated and controlled. A person who is intimately acquainted with his particular area of expertise, whether it be commanding a squad of soldiers or selecting members of an orchestra, will be more able to make successful split-second decisions.

While Blink is absolutely fascinating, the area where I would suggest Gladwell does not do so well is in forming a unified theory. He gathers a large amount of fascinating information and puts all of this within the two covers of a single book, but the reader may be left wondering how it all fits together. At times Gladwell presses forward with little proof. Too often he relies on a single study to create a theory that is wide-ranging in its scope and meaning. At one point he discusses an autistic man and from that theorizes that even people without mental handicaps can suffer temporary autism during moments of high stress. Yet this is not premised on hard evidence. So perhaps Gladwell stretches himself a little thin at times. Perhaps he attempts to take his theories just a little too far, venturing from what is factual into what is merely possible. The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s previous book, was, in my view, more complete and reached a more satisfying, holistic conclusion.

Despite this criticism, this is a very interesting book and one that, despite the complexity of the topic, is quite easy to read and understand. Despite dwelling on the psychological rather than the spiritual, I found there were some interesting applications a Christian could make, especially in regards to decision-making and even discernment, a topic that is of great interest to me. As Christians, we are prone to make decision-making a far more difficult procedure than it needs to be. I have often felt that we would do well to place greater confidence in our sanctified reasoning and in those first impressions—those “blinks.” I was also led to praise God for the immense and mind-bending power of the brain, an instrument whose depths humans will never fully understand, and yet an instrument that is far less powerful than the mind of the One who created it.

8 years 9 months ago
Malcolm Gladwell needs a haircut. This was one of the first things I noticed about The Tipping Point: the photo of Gladwell and his Yancey-like hair. It’s hard to take a guy with hair like that too seriously, but I’m glad that I did, as The Tipping Point is a fascinating book. The Tipping Point is a phrase used to describe that “magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” While this book studies particular trends and fads, it is primarily a study of human behavior and what it is in people that makes them accept and champion particular causes or products. My interest in this book was twofold: I had a personal interest as the book had been recommended to me and I had seen it many times on the bestseller shelf. I was also interested in seeing how many of Gladwell’s ideas were similar to or the same as what is advocated by Church Growth experts.

Gladwell draws liberally from the concept of epidemics and viral marketing, showing that in many ways ideas spread like epidemics: they are contagious; little causes can have big effects; and change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment. These principles are as accurate a description of the way measles moves through a grade-school classroom as they are of the way that Hush Puppies became a fashion phenomenon. The book is structured around three rules of epidemics, each of which receives a lengthy treatment in this 280-page book.

The first principle is The Law of the Few which states, quite simply, that “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” These three types of people he calls Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. Connectors are those people with an extraordinary ability to make friends and acquaintances. These persons, heavily connected to others through social contact, stand as the connection between diverse groups of people. Much of their value lies in the fact that they do not only know a large number of people, but that they know many different types of people. The closer an idea comes to a Connector, or even to multiple Connectors, the more power and opportunity it has, and in turn the greater the chance that this idea will tip. Mavens are, quite simply, people who accumulate knowledge and are also known as “price vigilantes” or “market mavens.” These people are obsessed with knowing and understanding a particular product or market. They do not only accumulate knowledge about getting deals, but are also driven to help others get a deal. “To be a Maven is to be a teacher. But it is also, even more emphatically, to be a student. Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know.” The final group are the Salesmen, who have “the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.” If you put your mind to it, you will probably be able to think of examples in your own experience that would include each of these three divisions. The Law of the Few, then, says that there are exceptional people out there who are capable of beginning epidemics, if only they can be found.

The second principle is The Stickness Factor. In a fascinating chapter that compares and contrasts Sesame Street with Blue’s Clues, Gladwell attempts to explain why some ideas stick and others do not. He ultimately concludes that “there is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistable. All you have to do is find it.” It seems that the line between acceptance and hostility towards a particular product or trend is often very narrow. In other words, an idea that catches on may only be moderately different than one that does not.

The third principle is The Power of Context. This rule is premised on the understanding that epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur. Once again, this is as true of a disease as it is of a cultural phenomenon. We are very sensitive to context, but the changes that are capable of tipping an epidemic are probably not what we might guess. Our external environment plays an exceedingly important role in how we behave and who we are. Very subtle changes can have a profound effect.

The book concludes with a pair of case studies and, in the paperback edition I read, an afterword from the author where he discusses the impact the book has had since its initial release several years ago.

I was not surprised to see that Church Growth has, in many ways, arrived at similar conclusions to The Tipping Point. One of Gladwell’s quotes particularly caught my attention: “There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistable. All you have to do is find it.” Now note the following quote by Church Growth superhero Rick Warren: “It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the felt needs to his or her heart. That key to each person’s heart is unique so it is sometimes difficult to discover. It may take some time to identify it.” Church Growth, like the marketing efforts of the business world, is premised on the belief that a person can be manipulated to believe or accept anything if only the marketer finds the right button to push. Yet this concept is foreign to the Bible which teaches us that only those can believe in whom the Holy Spirit has begun a prior work. Church Growth ignores the spiritual dimension to conversion. It is simple enough to convince a person to attend a church and call himself a Christian. But no one can force the hand of God and it is ultimately only He who can change a heart.

In many ways, The Tipping Point could be a Church Growth textbook. Nothing Gladwell writes is founded upon Scriptural principles of course, but this just emphasizes that the same is true, by and large, of the Church Growth Movement. Interestingly enough, Gladwell has also noted the connection and has written an article dealing with none other than Rick Warren.

I found much within this book that challenged the way I look at the world. I was able to see just how predictible we are as human beings, for marketing can only work where people act in a particular way! I was fascinated by the concepts of Connector, Maven and Salesmen and wonder what lesson, if any, the church can learn from this these extraordinary people. And I learned a lot about the power and importance of groups. Many of the changes that lead an epidemic to tip are based on groups, as groups play a crucial role in social epidemics. But, Gladwell teaches, groups can only rise to a certain level before they begin to lose effectiveness. It seems to be a global truth that groups begin to lose their power when they rise above 150 members. Anyone who has been in a church should be able to relate that a change came to the body as it grew above this number. If this is hardwired human behavior (one Gladwell attributes to evolution but which, if true, Christians would see as being placed in us by God), there may be a lesson that we can learn from this.

The Tipping Point was fascinating from cover-to-cover. It makes sense of some phenomena that really seem to make very little sense (after all, Hush Puppies are not the most attractive or practical shoes in the world!). It makes complex theories clear and shows just how simple it is to make human beings do things that may surprise even them.

8 years 11 months ago
Damage Control makes for a good half-book. Were we to skim a little from the early pages and cut a few chapters from the back it would really be quite good. Somewhat unfortunately, the book is 170 pages rather than 80 or 90.

Damage Control is a book that seeks to help Christians stop making Jesus look bad. And surely we can all learn to be more effective, consistent witnesses of His power and grace. Christians seem to excel at making Jesus look bad. But it is not all bad news. Thankfully there are also many occasions when we bring great honor to His name. The author, Dean Merrill says, “In this book I want to look at both sides. I don’t plan only to criticize and critique. While I will honestly examine the ways we hurt God’s cause without realizing it, I also want to showcase the good things being done by today’s ambassadors… I hope that, as a result, we can all become more of the solution and less of the problem.”

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, “God’s Shaky Plan,” Merrill teaches that we are God’s “plan A” for representing Him now that He has left the earth. There is no “plan B.” We are His ambassadors, charged with honestly and carefully representing Him. He writes about the “Christian brand” and how important it is that all Christians remain consistent in their representation of Christ so that unbelievers will see that Christ-followers are the same whether they are Canadian, American or African. He writes about the inevitable offense of the gospel but warns that the offense is to be in the message rather than the messenger. “If someone wishes to reject Jesus because he claimed to be the only way to God, so be it. But let them never reject Jesus because his truth was garbled or poorly demonstrated by a human spokesperson.”

In the second section, “Unintended Hindrances,” Merrill discusses some of the things that can serve as hindrances in our times spent sharing the gospel. He writes about communication and warns that we need to understand that words matter. We need to avoid words that mystify (assuming, for example, that unbelievers know what AWANA is or what the King James Version is), words that overwhelm (rejoicing in the face of a disaster that may allow inroads into a particular area or culture), words that antagonize (a bumper sticker that reads only “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) or words that manipulate (which are often used by televangelists to enrich themselves while promising spiritual blessings). He encourages Christians to major in the majors and not to allow petty doctrinal disputes to prove divisive. Finally, he begs for consistency in the way Christians live and act. This section was incisive and challenging and I very much enjoyed it.

In the final section, “Envoys of Heaven,” the author suggests ways in which Christians can take action to help God’s cause in the world. He presents a mixed bag of good and bad. For example, he presses the importance of “peace on the inside,” showing how often Jesus escaped to the wilderness for time alone. Unfortunately he encourages the reader to follow the example of Henri Nouwen, whose contemplative silence was far different from what Jesus experienced or practiced. He presents Mother Teresa as the example to follow in living what we believe (Note to authors: it’s time to get over her). He quotes Phillip Yancey, Tony Campolo and other authors of dubious spiritual distinction. This section, the climax of the book, was quite a disappointment.

While I generally agree with Merrill in his assessment of the problem, I am far less taken with his proposed cure. Will this book help Christians stop making Jesus look bad? I suspect that on the whole it will. Yet some of the solutions he proposes will introduce new and difficult problems. Are we to emulate Mother Teresa in forsaking doctrine and embracing other religions? Are we to follow Henri Nouwen in his contemplative prayer or only in enjoying times of solitude? I wish Merrill had done a better job of pointing people back to the Scriptures rather than pointing them to the easy and far-too-typical Christian and pseudo-Christian examples.

Despite those problems I did enjoy the book and am confident I benefitted from it. It gave me much to think about and I would have little trouble with recommending it to discerning readers. It will be available at retail outlets late next month.

9 years 1 month ago
“Throughout the book, I have recorded and reported speech in the words of the individuals interviewed. I have chosen to use the individuals’ slang, graphic descriptions, and vulgar language because they accurately reflect the way in which people think about and discuss pornography. The use of sexually explicit and crude language is part of the story of how pornography is changing our lives; to avoid such language in Pornified would give less than a full picture.” Indeed, the language and examples used in Pornified are sometimes shocking, even for a person like myself who is not easily startled. Author Pamela Paul, in what is really an extension to an article she wrote for Time Magazine, seeks to show in this book that pornography is transforming the way we live our lives. Her approach is not academic or sociological, but rather journalistic. The book is bound together by scores of interviews with pornography users and sometimes their families as well as well as a poll conducted by Harris Interactive and sponsored by Pornified. The language can be harsh and the descriptions graphic.

Pornography use is wide-spread - far more so than the average person might think. “Take a look to your left and your right. Only one of you will be sitting here in two months.” Did you ever have one of those classes in university where the professor attempted to scare the students into realizing just how difficult the course was going to be? These days the statistics seem to prove that if you sit on the train or on the bus or in the lecture hall and take a look to your left and your right, you’ll know that at least one of you has an addiction to pornography or at least regularly indulges in pornography. It truly is that prevalent. Some seventy percent of 18-24 year-old men now visit a pornographic web site in a given month. Men in their twenties and thirties fare little better, with two out of every three of them admitting the same. Pornography has even made major inroads into the lives of women so more and more women are purchasing pornography, sometimes to please a husband or boyfriend and other times simply for their own pleasure. Children are being introduced to it at ever-younger ages and are often addicted long before they are even capable of understanding sexuality.

The affordability, accessibility and anonymity of Internet pornography has proved a boon to the industry and the growth of pornography has skyrocketed so that it is now a multi-billion dollar industry. At the same time pornography has become mainstream. Porn stars play themselves on popular television programs and make constant appearances in the videos of popular musicians. The biographies of porn stars become bestsellers. What was once shameful is now mainstream and the punchline of far too many jokes. It has gotten, as Paul says, to the point that “it is easier to get pornography than it is to avoid it. We have protected the rights of those who wish to live in a pornified culture while altogether ignoring the interests of those who do not.”

Of course the prevalence of pornography makes perfect sense. Pornography, as you may know, is progressive both to the individual and society. “Men and women who came of age during the sixties, seventies, or eighties, or whose experience with pornography dates to those eras, think of pornography in terms of gauzy centerfolds, outre sexuality, women’s liberation, and the Hugh Hefner lifestyle. Back then, the lines between softcore and hardcore pornography were clear and distinguishable…Today, pornography is so seamlessly integrated into popular culture that embarrassment or surreptitiousness is no longer part of the equation.” Our society has so-integrated pornography that what was once shocking and was cause for outrage is barely even noticed. The pornography of thirty years ago is today merely a topic for monthly discussion in teen and tween magazines.

The progressive nature of pornography in society is mirrored in the lives of the individuals who use it. While most men are introduced to “girlie pictures” and initially are interested in little more than pictures of naked women, soon those who continue to dabble in pornography find that what was once exciting becomes mundane. Men seek out more graphic and perverse acts of sexuality involving violence, degradation and humiliation. They may eventually turn to acts so disgusting that surely they fall under the Apostle Paul’s admonition that they are too shameful even to speak of. Such examples are plentiful in the interviews the author conducts. While many people continue to believe that the consumption of pornography can be neatly separated from “real life,” the truth is that it begins to impact every area of life. “Pornography has a corrosive effect on men’s relationships with women and a negative impact on male sexual performance and satisfaction. It plays a rising role in intimacy disorders. More than ever, it aids and abets sexually compulsive behavior in ways that can become seriously disruptive and psychologically damaging.” Pamela Paul seems not to be a Christian and thus largely ignores the spiritual dimension, but surely believers suffer a great harm when they allow pornography in their lives and they struggle with the inevitable feelings of separation from God as they continually give in to their sinful habits.

Contrary to what society would have us believe, “Pornography is not just naked women and it is not sex. The sexual acts depicted in pornography are more about shame, humiliation, solitude, coldness and degradation than they are about pleasure, intimacy and love…Pornography is, at its core, the commercialization of women, turning men into consumers and women into a product to be used and discarded. If pornography were truly just about sex and naked bodies, there would be nothing to get upset over, but those who know better, those who bother to think while they gaze or who stop averting their eyes for a moment and address what’s on-screen in the cubicle behind them, should - and can - no longer be ignored.”

While she does not do so until the end of the book, Paul makes a useful comparison between the pornography industry and the tobacco industry. “For years another industry insisted their products did no harm. Corporate owners, employees and consumers scoffed at studies showing tobacco’s links to cancer and emphysema. Industry leaders stood in front of Congress and testified that tobacco was not addictive. All Americans, they said, should be allowed to choose to smoke. Nothing should stand in the way of that freedom. Cigarettes, they explained, were harmless.” Of course it was not long before it was proven that smoking is harmful and that people should be educated about the possible harmful effects. This industry, Paul feels, could just as well be pornography. Pornographers continue to insist, even today, that pornography is harmless to individuals, to families and to societies. Yet the evidence is increasingly proving this to be a false assumption. A possible and obvious solution, according to the author, is to put similar warnings and restrictions in place as there are for cigarettes. Why is it that a child has to prove he is old enough to purchase cigarettes but when asked to prove his age before encountering Internet pornography it is considered a violation of the First Amendment? In fact, pornographers have gone to great lengths to link pornography with civil liberties, arguing that the use of pornography is a strike against the hypocritical reactionaries who would like to see its prevalence curtailed. “They’ve managed to equate the use of pornography with a defense of the Bill of Rights, convincing an entire generation that pornography is not only okay, it’s the American citizen’s right.”

And the strategy has worked. “In today’s polarized cultural debates, supporting pornography has become the default liberal, moderate, and civil libertarian position. Speaking out against pornography has become a reactionary cause rather than a progressive one - even though acceptance or approval of pornography shouldn’t be any more an indication of one’s liberal bona fides than denouncing it should be of proving one’s conservatism.” Later the author writes, “most people don’t talk about whether they’re ‘for’ or ‘against’ pornography anymore; the cultural consensus seems to consider the matter beyond debate. Through complacency and carelessness, the majority of Americans shrug or laugh off the issue as inconsequential and irrelevant to their lives.”

While the bulk of the book deals with diagnosing and proving the problem, Paul does not end without suggesting a solution. “What we need is a mind-set shift, one that moves us from viewing porn as hip and fun and sexy to one that recognizes pornography as harmful, pathetic, and decidedly unsexy.” Her proposed solution is not one of censorship, but of standards. Just as people are required to prove their age before they can purchase cigarettes or alcohol, and just as people are required to show a library card before they can borrow a book, in the same way people should have to prove their identities before viewing pornography.

Pornified is an eye-opening book that deals with a subject of increasing importance. I am sure that any divorce lawyer or family counselor could share story after story of the harmful effects of pornography addiction. Sadly, pornography poses as big a challenge within the church as without. Leaders of churches and families need to be educated about pornography and its harmful effects so they can protect their own purity and that of their children.

Do be aware if you choose to read this book that it includes crude language and sometimes graphic descriptions of the type of behavior condoned in or inspired by pornography. It is definitely not a book for children or teenagers to read. The author chose to leave the language in place for a legitimate reason - she sought to show how pornography leads to degradation not only through people’s actions, but also through their words and perceptions. She chose to discuss the difficult and sometimes stomach-turning topics to show how far people just like me and just like you can fall when they allow themselves to be ruled by their addictions. This is a provocative book and one I hope will make many people think twice before they do that next Google search.

9 years 6 months ago

Having read The Fallacy Detective, written by Hans and Nathaniel Bluedorn, I turned immediately to the second title in the Christian Logic series. The Thinking Toolbox is “like a toolbox - full of all kinds of tools you can use for different thinking tasks” (from the back cover). Like its predecessor, it is self-teaching and is written to appeal to both teenagers and adults.

While the format of this book is much the same as The Fallacy Detective, it is in many ways better-written and better-formatted. While the format of the book is much the same, featuring thirty-five lessons, each followed by questions of application, the illustrations were superior and more appealing. It continued to feature the humorous touches that made the previous book such a joy to read, even though it dealt with weighty subject matter.

The Thinking Toolbox teaches reasoning skills. It begins with introducing the differences between a discussion, a disagreement, an argument and a fight and guides the reader to understand how to discern premises and conclusions. It progresses to providing tools to understand and deal with opposing viewpoints, before wrapping up with tools for science. These include observation, brainstorming, hyposthesizing, analysis and so on. There are even a few projects and games added to the end of the book to provide further opportunities for application.

The only complaint I might have about this book is that the questions following each lesson did not repeat as often or as deliberately as they did in The Fallacy Detective, which provides fewer opportunities for review.

This is another helpful title that will no-doubt be helpful in guiding students to use and improve their God-given reasoning abilities. I would suggest that this title has less-appeal to adults than its predessor, but equal appeal to teenagers. It would be a very useful tool for summer-reading or as part of a homeschooling cirriculum. I unreservedly recommend it.

9 years 6 months ago

The Fallacy Detective, written by Hans and Nathaniel Bluedorn, is a book designed for teens or adults that teaches how to spot common errors in reasoning. The goals for this book are clearly laid out in the introduction. When the reader has completed this book he should be able to put a high value on good reasoning, know how to spot many forms of bad reasoning and know how to avoid using many fallacies in his own reasoning.

The authors provide a vision of Christian logic in which they appeal to the need for Christians to strive for a higher standard of reasoning, in order to attain greater ability in discernment. Logic is an important foundation for the science of discernment. Thus they seek to define good reasoning in a biblical way. “Logic is the science of thinking the way God thinks - the way Jesus taught us to think” (page 14).

The book contains thirty-six lessons which progress from the most common and basic fallacies, to statistical fallacies and even propaganda. All those terms I have not heard since my university Critical Thinking courses are present as well as some that are commonly used and misused: red herring, ad hominem, tu quoque, appeal to the people, part-to-whole, whole-to-part and so on. Each lesson is followed by several questions which allow the reader to apply what he has just learned. I was glad to see that the questions are cumulative, meaning that what has been taught in previous lessons is continually reviewed in the application questions for subsequent chapters.

The authors write in a style that will appeal to teens and young people. The text is interspersed with comics (such as Calvin & Hobbes, Peanunts and Dilbert) and anecdotes. It is also a funny book, as there are many places where the authors turn to humor to make the book enjoyable. A typical lesson may begin similar to this one, which discusses weak analogies: “Let’s say…you are a budding scientist wanting to write your graduate thesis on the long term effects of Pop-Tarts on humans. The only problem is, you can’t find enough people who are willing to eat thirty-four Pop-Tarts a day for one year” (page 131).

Can learning logic be fun? With The Fallacy Detective it appears that it can be. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who wants to improve his reasoning skills. While its primary usefulness will be for teenagers, adults will also enjoy it and benefit from the lessons. If you homeschool your children, this may be a useful title. You can read more about it at christianlogic.com.

9 years 7 months ago

I am amazingly (and perhaps blessedly) naive when it comes to certain aspects of the spiritual battle that wages all around us. We know from Scripture that there is a constant spiritual battle being fought in this world, with human beings the bounty. We know that there is more to the world than what we can see - that angels and demons are real and are present. We do not clearly understand how they operate or even where they are, yet they exist. The Light That Was Dark brings home the importance of being aware of this spiritual conflict and guarding ourselves against ignoring it.

Warren Smith is a social worker and author who was formerly involved in the New Age movement. This book chronicles his journey from the New Age to his conversion to Christianity. Smith’s journey to the occult began with a psychic reading which convinced him that he was spiritually underdeveloped. He agreed with this assessment and resolved to remedy this. He began to search for something to fill this void. He tells of sitting on his rooftop one evening and calling out to heavens “All you on the other side, I want your help in my life. I want to become more spiritual, I want to grow” (page 22). The spirits seemed to answer him. Through a series of “coincidences” he became a dedicated follower of Indian master Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a guide who led him deeply into eastern religion and meditation. Rajneesh seemed to have a supernatural hold on Smith and on his other followers.

Despite that hold, Smith eventually grew tired of Rajneesh and began to investigate other leaders. Soon he was studying A Course in Miracles and dabbling in other occult and New Age practices, even resolving to become a channel for “The Source.” But the further he progressed in his spiritual development, the more he began to experience shocking spiritual oppression. The stories of being attacked in the night by spirits, spirits he could not see, but could feel - spirits that would suck the very energy out of him or his wife - are chilling and haunting. The spiritual realm quickly became real to the author.

But one day, in the Metaphysical section of a bookstore of all places, he found a copy of The Beautiful Side of Evil by Johanna Michaelsen, an author, speaker and former New Ager who had become a Christian. This author’s biography was very similar to that of Smith’s wife, and so he spent several hours studying the book. Within those pages he learned what the Bible says about rebuking demons and the forces of darkness. The next time he was oppressed, he cried out to Jesus and immediately the evil departed. This proved true time and again. Smith began to see that the beauty of the New Age was false and that there were dark, demonic forces involved. He came to understand the truth of Scripture and he and his wife were saved by the power of Jesus Christ. They came to faith not through church leadership or programs of evangelism, but by diligent study of the Scriptures.

The book concludes with two pages that outline the author’s concern with the inroads the New Age is making into Christianity. This has been further detailed in his book Deceived on Purpose which I have reviewed here and highly recommend.

The Light That Was Dark is an important book and one I hope will be read by many Christians. Smith shows beyond any doubt that the New Age, or New Spirituality, is inexorably linked with the occult. Yet this occultic movement is making surprising inroads into Christianity. The lines between Christianity and the New Spirituality are becoming increasingly blurred. Authors like Smith provide a clarion call the church would be foolish to ignore.

9 years 7 months ago

I can’t deny that was a little apprehensive about this book before I began it, even though I had not read any detailed reviews and had little idea of the content. Just a few days before I began reading I had seem an interview with the author, Donald Miller, in “The Door Magazine” in which he had been terribly sarcastic and quite crude (judging by the number of words that had to be “blanked” out). It left me with an impression of the author that was not altogether favorable.

Despite my misgivings, I found that I enjoyed this book more than I thought I might. That is not to say it is without its problems, and without some serious problems at that. But I enjoyed the rambling, conversational tone of the book, even if it is a little difficult to follow at times. In fact, there are times where it is downright irritating as the author launches into tirades about Republicans or traditional Christianity. He subtly applauds Bill Clinton while denigrating George Bush. He sneers at traditional churches, but affirms his enjoyment of the Catholic Mass and the Greek Orthodox Church. And all the while he makes self-deprecating comments and expresses himself in words that are generally considered inappropriate for a Christian book (“kick in the butt,” “pissed-off,” “crap,” etc).

So what did I like about the book? Blue Like Jazz is built around a sound premise - that the Christian faith continues to be relevant even in a postmodern culture. Miller writes, “I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel” (page 111). I agree entirely that the church can only be relevant to the culture if it maintains the centrality of the gospel and remains unashamed of that simple message. Unfortunately that gospel message becomes somewhat blurred in this book. “[The central message of Christ] is that man sinned against God and God gave the world over to man, and that if somebody wanted to be rescued out of that, if somebody for instance finds it all very empty, that Christ will rescue them if they want…” (page 124). The Bible, however, teaches that no person wants to be rescued. God needs to begin a prior work in order to draw people to Himself. Miller, on the other hand, teaches that there is something within us that draws God to us. “I realized, after reading those Gospels, that Jesus didn’t just love me out of principle; He didn’t just love me because it was the right thing to do. Rather, there was something inside me that caused Him to love me” (page 238). When we acknowledge that there is something inside of us that draws God to us, we deny that it is His grace alone that saves us, for grace is, by definition, unmerited favor. There is nothing in us that makes us worthy of God. He loves us because of something inside of Himself, not inside of us.

I also enjoyed other aspects of the book. The reverse confession booth makes for great reading, as do many of Miller’s other stories. Despite some poor theology, he gave me a lot to think about, especially in regards to taking theology beyond the doors of the church and really turning it into practice.

I believe, though, that the great failing of this book is the author’s belief that Christianity is a feeling, and is not something that can be rationally explained or understood. Early in the book, on page 54, Miller writes that God does not make any sense. Just a few pages later he writes that Christian Spirituality is something that cannot be explained, but is something that can only be felt. “It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true. It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul” (page 57). Later he writes, “At the end of the day, when I am lying in bed and I know the chances of any of our theology being exactly right are a million to one, I need to know that God has things figured out, that if my math is wrong we are still going to be okay. And wonder is that feeling we get when we let go of our silly answers, our mapped out rules that we want God to follow. I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder” (page 206).

This irrational, feelings-based approach to Christianity is consistent with postmodern thought, where experience rather than an objective standard is the arbiter of truth. Miller rarely returns to the Scripture, and instead opts to explain his beliefs through the lens of his own experience. He seems to trust in experience instead of having a rational faith in a rational God who is truly sovereign. In fact, I do not recall any specific references from the Scripture – an oddity considering that the book claims to be thoughts on Christian Spirituality. But perhaps “nonreligious” thoughts preclude the use of Scripture proof-texting.

It is strange, that having come to the end of this review I am far less enthusiastic about the book than I was in reading it and in reflecting on it afterwards. While I can say that I did receive some benefit from reading it, I would be hesitant to recommend it to others. There is some value to be found, but one has to dig deep beneath layers of rambling untruth and poor theology to find them. There are many other books that contain far more treasure than this.

9 years 8 months ago

Dining With the Devil is an interesting read, especially in light of the fact that the author, Os Guinness, is describing the very difficulties the church is facing today, even though this book was written over twelve years ago. It is difficult to know if his voice was prophetic or if very little has changed since the early nineties. I suspect both are true.

The book is subtitled “The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity.” We hear much more about postmodernity today than modernity, but this does not seem to detract from the book. Guinness warns that the Megachurch movement, which gained prominence in the eighties and nineties and continues to gain steam today, may be borrowing as much from the devil as from the Lord. And as Peter Berger warns, “He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.” Guinness assesses the movement and warns that much of the foundation for the Megachurch Movement, which can be understood to be synonymous with the Church Growth Movement, is incompatible with Scripture. Some examples he provides are the uncritical use of marketing tools and management theories to induce growth in attendance. “When all is said and done,” the author states, “the church growth movement will stand or fall by one question. In implementing its vision of church growth, is the church of Christ primarily guided and shaped by its own character and calling - or by considerations and circumstances alien to itself” (page 35). The heart of this question is one of authority - what will the church submit to as the ultimate authority? Will it be Scripture or will it be the ever-changing, ever-fickle demands of the culture? Is the audience sovereign, or is the message?

This book is short on names and specifics of individuals or churches, but long on analysis and warnings. The names Bill Hybel and Rick Warren do not appear at all. And thankfully this book is better-referenced than many of Guinness’ other books, in which I have found his lax committment to footnotes exceedingly frustrating.

My only disappointment with this book is that much of it was repeated in Guinness’ more recent book, Prophetic Untimeliness, which I found more timely and ultimately more helpful. If I had to recommend purchasing only one, I would recommend Prophetic Untimeliness. However, Dining With the Devil still makes for an interesting and challenging read, and one that at only 109 pages, can be accomplished in a short while. I recommend it.

9 years 9 months ago

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing through my pastor’s library and remarking on the number of people who lay claim to “the next Reformation.” Over twenty years ago, Robert Schuller told us it would be a Reformation of self-esteem and more recently his protégé Rick Warren that it will be one of purpose. Other books tell us the next Reformation will involve breaking the church body into small groups, essentially giving the church back to the people in the same way that the first Reformation gave the theology back to the people. And now Hugh Hewitt has entered the fray with his latest book Blog, predicting that the next Reformation will be blogging. The book is subtitled “Understanding the information Reformation that’s changing your world” and the front cover adds, “Why you must know how the blogosphere is smashing the old media monopoly and giving individuals power in the marketplace of ideas.” This is a book about the power and importance of blogging. If you are looking for a “how-to” guide to get you started or a book that will explain the pros and cons of commenting or tell you what a trackback ping is, you will have to look elsewhere.

Blog is divided into four sections and I will briefly outline each of them. In the first, Hewitt shows the power of “blog swarms” and provides a historical parallel for this new Reformation. To illustrate the power of blogs, Hewitt traces four of the blogosphere’s greatest success stories: the toppling of Trent Lott; Catching the New York Times and reporter Jayson Blair in a lie; John Kerry lying about Christmas in Cambodia; and the Rathergate scandal that toppled Dan Rather. He outlines how these stories broke and how the MSM was usually far behind the blogosphere. In fact, had it not been for bloggers, it is likely that none of these stories would ever have broken in the way they did. And there is no doubt that these are only the first of many similar stories.

Following this, Hewitt risks what some Protestants would consider near-blasphemy by drawing direct comparisons between the first and (supposedly) impending Reformations. It is a twelve page “Coles Notes” summary of the Reformation and critical role played by the newly invented printing press. To summarize, without the movable type printing press, there would have been no Reformation simply because it was a popular movement that was championed by the common man who was provided information via this new medium.

In the second part of the book, Hewitt sets out to prove that Mainstream Media (MSM) is facing impending doom and that the blogosphere will be the benefactor in MSM’s long-overdue demise. He believes that the overbearing issue in the dissemination of information is trust, and our society is rapidly losing trust in MSM. “The key to keep in mind is that trust drives everything. To build and maintain trust is a tremendously difficult thing, requiring patient attention to detail and discipline over long periods of time … In a world changing as rapidly as ours is, only those who have earned and continue to earn trust will be in a position to influence the choices of third parties. Blogs can earn that most valuable commodity. Which is why you have to get started. Your competitors already have” (page 155). The blogosphere offers readers a wide variety of authors to choose from and provides ample opportunity to regain the trust that is so lacking in MSM. This section (and, in fact, the whole book) is firmly slanted to the right (as one might expect if they read Hewitt’s blog or listen to his radio program) and Hewitt takes every opportunity to criticize the Democratic Party and every media outlet other than FOX. I suspect this will hinder the potential impact of this book, as it alienates much of its potential audience. If you can see through this slant, you’ll find that it is worth your while to keep reading.

I understand that the MSM is declining in so far as people no longer watch the nightly news and buy newspapers as they once did. However, what Hewitt does not do, is trace the number of readers at sites such as cnn.com or cbsnews.com. Is it possible that MSM is merely evolving in the media it uses to present its information? I would suggest that as fewer people tune in to CNN on their television, growing numbers are visiting cnn.com. Thus it seems that Hewitt may be missing the point. Could it be that blogging is merely a symptom of the change that we are seeing as people gravitate towards Internet-based media? Blogging is clearly one of the most exciting and most important aspects of this, but I would suggest that it is merely one aspect of a wider change.

I also wonder how plausible it is that MSM will die off. After all, bloggers do not usually create the news. Instead, they interpret the news that the MSM has already reported. Without the MSM, what will bloggers use for source material? What upper level organization will gather the news to disseminate it to the blogosphere so that it can be examined by the growing numbers of pundits? These are questions Hewitt does not adequately address.

The third section of the book suggests ways that blogging can be beneficial to individuals and organizations. The author suggests that every CEO should begin a blog to champion his company and his employees and that every hobbyist should be blogging about his hobby. Every major organization needs to secure blog-related domain names, so, for example, General Motors needs to acquire gmblog.com and use it to market their products. And on the whole I agree. Blogging has tremendous potential in a wide variety of applications.

The book concludes with two lengthy appendices that comprise almost 30 percent of the book. Appendix A is a disjointed collection of some of Hewitt’s early writings on blogging and Appendix B is an assortment of emails sent to him from his readers which describe their blog-reading habits. Some of this is interesting, but most adds no significant value to the book.

As I read Blog, I was continually struck by how self-serving the book seemed. It struck me as being almost like the biography of a proud, self-made billionaire, except with site traffic and recognition in place of dollars and European models. If you do not know how many visits Hugh has to his blog in an average day, a busy day or an election day, you will before you have finished the book. You will know how many blogs have been started because of his influence and just how useful a link from his blog to yours can be. I came to realize, though, that in a sense the blogosphere is built on just this sort of self-importance. Bloggers succeed by driving visitors to their sites by whatever means possible. The most important person in the blogosphere is the one with the greatest readership, just like the most important person in my hometown is the one with the most money. And lest I sound hypocritical, I will admit that I have a blog of my own and that I have no right to cast the first stone.

Another reviewer commented that, “The book reads like it was cranked out over a few long weekends.” I suspect that may be the case. Reviews of this book were posted on Amazon as early as December 28 of 2004 and some high-traffic bloggers reported receiving copies as early as December 24, yet the book discusses Hewitt’s site traffic during the Presidential elections of that same year, which took place on November 2 (only seven weeks earlier). Some have suggested that the frantic pace of the book owes to the frantic pace of technology in general and the blogosphere in particular. I would suggest that the frantic pace comes from a frantic writing and publishing schedule. Several of the chapters, especially near the end of the book, are so short (several are less than two pages) that it almost seems like the author just never got around to finishing them.

I have long since grown tired and skeptical of people claiming to have discovered the next Reformation. I don’t believe blogging represents the next Reformation any more than did self-esteem. At the same time, there are some interesting and undeniable parallels between the availability of information at the time of the rise of the Reformers and our time where we are witnessing the rise of the bloggers. Blogging is already going mainstream and, especially in a fast-paced society like our own, it is never good to be left behind.

This book has much to say that is valuable, especially in regards to the importance of trust and the application of blogging to corporations and organizations. Unfortunately, I found it frantically-written and poorly-organized. I wanted to love it, but in the end just could not. Yet I still do give recommend it, especially to those in positions of leadership. Its alarmist tone may convince some of the value of blogging, but I suspect just as many others will be put-off. I agree with Hewitt that the blogosphere is giving individuals power in the marketplace of ideas and agree that this is generally a good thing. I think there is great future for the blogosphere.

In the end, Blog is a 155-page book, padded with appendices to 220 pages, but one that to treat the topic properly needs to be about 300 pages (with no appendices!). It is, no doubt, a valuable contribution to our understanding of the power and importance of blogging, but it is incomplete. I know Hugh Hewitt has the knowledge to do justice to the subject matter – it just seems that perhaps he was not given the time.

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