How Do We Think? (A Book Review)

We’re always being told what to think, but not how to think- enter Alan Jacobs.

how to think coverPolarization is the mark of our current social, political, and religious environments. I don’t know if there’s another time where so many people are on opposite extremes of so many different issues- from healthcare, to gun control, to climate change, to foreign policy, and many more. It is into this extreme environment that Alan Jacobs speaks a word of calmness, clarity and, yes, even grace through his newest book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.

Jacob’s book is, both, timely and important because he does what the title of the book says- he advises the reader on how to think, not what to think. Through a book that is both well researched, and in a style that is deep and engaging, Jacobs invites the reader to examine the influences and prejudices inherent in our thinking.

My main takeaway from the book is two-fold. First, is the realization that we believe that the things we think, and the positions we take are true, or else we would not be holding those ideas. And because we believe them to be true, we naturally listen to others who confirm what we hold to be true. Even if we are truly not sure what we think about an issue, we will gravitate toward others who are unsure and hold those with a defined position as suspicious. What Jacobs rightly notes is that when we are faced with another idea, although we may find that idea repulsive, instead of labeling only the idea repulsive, we label the one who holds the idea as repulsive- or what Jacobs borrows from Susan Harding and calls the “repugnant cultural other.” Jacobs’ main goal in the book is to show that the “RCO” is indeed a human being and realize that we might, under different circumstances, hold the same view that we find repulsive.

Second, there is a deceptive argument that promotes eliminating emotions, both positive and negative, collectively called biases and, instead, use pure reason. Jacobs notes, however, that reason alone is an “insufficient guide” because our biases actually help us navigate through life because without them “the cognitive demands of having to assess every single situation would be so great as to paralyze us” (86). Feelings and biases actually help us make quick decisions when we cannot stop and rationally assess every situation or decision on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis. He warns, however, that we want our biases to be the right biases and that begins by “learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst” (87).

These are my top two takeaways but there are many other things that I could note that are interesting. Overall Jacobs writes a fascinating book and it may be one that I routinely give away to graduating seniors and college students. My most telling endorsement is that when I finished the book, I was glad I read it.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.

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Heavy on “What” but Light on “How”

9781601429537I was immediately drawn into this book. In the preface, Erwin McManus reveals that while he was writing The Last Arrow: Save Nothing For the Next Life, he had cancer but did not know it. He admits that writing a book about living without fear and regret became a prophetic word to himself as he edited the book under the cloud of his diagnosis.

In the body of the book, McManus uses the story of Elisha and King Joash in 2 Kings 13:14-19 and the image of striking arrows as the jumping off point to talk about we can live a life where we hold nothing back. McManus rightfully reminds us, “You have one life to use everything you have been entrusted with, so you might as well save nothing for the next life” (30).

In the subsequent chapters McManus speaks to ideas like letting go of the past, recognizing that other people depend on your life and knowing what we want out of life. He speaks to these ideas with the familiar interlacing of personal stories and biblical illustrations.

One of the issues I have with “pop” Christian books, and The Last Arrow falls into this category, is that it is hard for the reader to relate to many of the personal stories of the author. I’ve never had a conversation with a billionaire. I’ve never been to war-torn Syria. I’ve never been disinvited to speak at a large conference. It’s not to say that the reader cannot gain insights from the life experience of the author but that life experience has to be translatable to the life experience of the reader and at times McManus’ life experience doesn’t translate well.

That brings me to the one main critique I have of The Last Arrow: it is heavy on the “what” but light on the “how.” I think the main ideas McManus presents are right and true but in order to engage more readers and move those readers to a lasting change in the way they live their lives, it would be helpful if McManus spent more time explaining how we find great people with which to surround ourselves. Or how do we discover who we are? Or how do we know what parts of our pasts we need to set on fire, like Elisha did? Readers that see this weakness can fill in the gaps themselves as they work through the book’s ideas and their implications.

Overall, however, the book was an engaging read and one that if you’ve read other of McManus’ books, I think you’ll appreciate. I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

A Missing Defining Event

This week is the sixteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I was a sophomore in high school in 2001 and while it will probably be the defining moment in my lifetime (I pray nothing worse takes its place) this is the first year that my oldest child really learned about the attacks (he’s in third grade). So Monday night my wife and I were telling our third grader a little about what we remember of that day.

My thoughts went from 9/11 to the other defining events in my life (so far). The first real world events I remember are Operation Desert Storm and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. I remember seeing video of explosions lighting up the night sky as the air portion of Desert Storm began. I also remember the sci-fi looking F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber.

I thought about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. I remember the way the building looked and the heartbreaking picture of the firefighter holding a lifeless baby pulled from the rubble.

Columbine was also a defining event. I was in junior high in 1999. I remember the news coverage and the images of SWAT teams escorting students from the building with their hands on top of the their heads.

Now that I sit here, I think about the first World Trade Center bombing, the bombing at the Atlanta olympics, and the Boston Marathon bombing.

And I wonder, are there any positive defining moments in my lifetime? Are there any events that stand out that cause me to say, “I’m proud that happened during my lifetime?”

Sure there are proud moments in response to these tragedies, as people come together to help one another, but I’m not sure there is a positive defining event.

At least not yet. But I am hopeful. Maybe it’s naive but I believe there is still time- I’m only 31 after all. I don’t believe that my lifetime has to be defined by bombings, shootings, terrorist attacks, and wars. My lifetime can be defined by something more; it can be defined by something positive; it can be defined by something God-inspired.

Jesus said in John 14:12-14 that followers of Jesus will be able to do even greater things (greater works) than Jesus because Jesus will have accomplished his mission and sent the Holy Spirit to live within us. Jesus was one man who taught twelve, who taught thousands, who taught millions, who taught billions. Estimates are that there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world.

With 2.2 billion Christians, how is there not a defining God-inspired event in my lifetime? God is moving in the world. There are stories of how God is moving in China and in the Middle East. There was the rise in the worship movements and Pentecostalism in South America. But there hasn’t been a “Pentecost” in my lifetime. There hasn’t been a “Great Awakening” in my lifetime. There hasn’t been a “Jesus Movement” in my lifetime.

Why?

Maybe we are the plants growing in the shallow rocky soil or growing up amidst the choking thorns of worry, riches, and pleasures of life. Maybe it’s because we Christians can’t seem to stop fighting among ourselves as we keep calling out “heretics” for their specks while ignoring our own logs. Maybe it’s because we are lazy. Maybe it’s because God desires us to be desperate but we are too content with our iPhones and Netflix. Maybe it’s because we keep looking for someone else to do something when God is calling each one of us.

I’ve been wary of the term revival, as it’s used now, because it’s been equated with a return to a religio-social-cultural-political ideal that never really existed. There can be no return to a reality that never was.

What we need are people and churches who are inspired to do God-inspired things. We don’t need to look into the past but gaze into the future and have God inspire us to do a greater work.

Maybe then in 30, 40, or 50 years the defining moment in my lifetime will be a God-movement or a God-event and not more of the same.

 

Jesus and the Illusion of Control

Nature has a funny way of reminding us that we aren’t in control as much as we think we are. We love the idea of control. We live in a world where we can control the thermostat in our house, the lights in our house, even the ice maker in the refrigerator in our house all from our smartphone. Through social media we can control the narrative of our lives that we project to the world. Some people take great control of what they eat and put into their bodies. Some people put in guardrails so that they remain in control their time. I don’t think any of us like the feeling of being out of control- either emotionally, physically, or financially. But what happens is that we build an illusion of control and we find it shocking when that illusion comes crashing down.

Nature has a tendency to be that thing that causes our illusions of control to come crashing down. Control didn’t matter when water from Hurricane Harvey starting rising. Right now Hurricane Irma is making it’s way across the Caribbean and where the storm goes and what damage it produces is outside of our control. We have to bend to the wind, not the other way around. We have to respect the ocean, and the rivers, and the mountains, they don’t have to respect us.

Unless you’re Jesus.

On multiple occasions Jesus took control over nature. He calmed storms. He silenced winds. He walked on water. He caused the fruitless tree to wither.

Why did he do those things? I think Jesus wanted to show us that he can control the things we can’t control. Jesus can control nature. Jesus can control disease. Jesus can control limited resources- like taking five loaves of bread and two fish and feeding 10,000+ people. Jesus can even control death.

Whatever is in your life that you can’t control, Jesus can. I know that sounds trivial. Especially to people who are dealing with the aftermath of those uncontrollable things, whether natural disaster, or addiction, or anger, or a disease. But it’s those weary people that Jesus promises to give rest. We just have to seek that rest in Jesus.

We all walk with our illusions of control but what do we do when they fall? Where do we turn?  If your life is out of control, if you are weary, Jesus is in control. There is nothing that stands outside of Jesus’ control. We can rest in that.

“Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?” Luke 8:25

Book Review: “How We Love”

9780735290174In a couple of weeks our church will begin a sermon series on marriage and relationships. To get ready, I’ve been reading several books on Christian marriage. One of those is How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage by Milan and Kay Yerkovich.

In the book, the authors’ main idea is that the way we express love comes from the impressions and imprints of love we received through our childhood (6). As the joke (or perhaps the truth) of counseling goes: It’s all your parent’s fault. They propose that the way we learn to express love, beginning as children, starts as we remember how we were comforted. It’s our memory of how we were comforted by our parents or caregiver that lays the foundation for how we love when we get older.

They go on to outline four different love styles: Avoider, Pleaser, Vacillator and Chaotic. These were actually fairly helpful and I could see my love style and that of my spouse fairly easily. They follow the introduction of the love styles with several chapters on what dynamics tend to occur when different styles marry one another. What are the dynamics, for example, when a Vacillator marries an Avoider?

The final section of the book is devoted to being able to understand the love style of yourself and your spouse and how to get behind the barriers that have been built up and love in a fuller and more intimate way. Two themes that dominate this section are being able to understand your emotions and being able to openly communicate.

One of the positives of the book is that the love styles that Milan and Kay describe are helpful. It’s pretty easy to see which style you most identify with. One of the negatives however, is that most people fit into multiple categories. I understand that there are infinite combinations of how these love styles can be manifested and while they do address that problem it would be helpful if they spent a little more time on it.

One other negative is that in the final section, I think some of the couple emotion and communication exercises they suggest might be a bit more than the average couple would feel doing solely based on what they read in a book. I know part of what the authors want is for couples to move past the awkwardness and into better intimacy. But for the 99% of us who aren’t marriage and family therapists and who don’t have years of experience in these situations, perhaps there is a danger in doing them wrong. I can easily see how couples would be intimidated by some of their suggested exercises.

Overall, I think the book is helpful and provides talking points for couples- even if some of the exercises might be a little too clinical or advanced. It is also helpful that the authors approach marriage from a Christian background. My take is, like with any book, dissect what you read and apply what is helpful for you and your relationship.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Time To Change Lanes?

It’s been really hard for me to blog these last few months. Part of it has to do to a new schedule of life and work as I’ve adjusted to the rhythm of pastoring over the last year (I still feel blogging is important and I want to fit it back into my weekly routine). Another reason why it’s been hard to write recently is because everything seems to devolve into politics- including posts that I’ve begun writing.

This blog has never been a political blog. Even though every Christian needs to decide how their politics and faith mesh- I don’t feel like that is my lane. Other bloggers can speak to those issues.

So what is my lane? Do I need to keep writing about what I’ve been writing about or does this blog need to grow and evolve?

I guess that’s the question at the moment. Hopefully I’ll be able to gain a direction and be back writing and engaging with issues and topics related to God, the Bible and life soon.

As a reader, what kinds of things would you be interested in reading about? Add your thoughts in the comment section.

Review: Good but falls short sometimes

9781601429513Some parts I agree, some parts I disagree.

That is a good summary of my reaction after reading Brian Zahnd’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. The title of the book is, of course, a play on the famous sermon given by Jonathan Edwards preach in 1741, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Zahnd is correct in pressing the reader to rediscover God as a God of love who showed us his full nature in the person and work of Jesus. He writes, “God couldn’t say all he wanted to day in the form of a book, so he said it in the form of a human life. Jesus is what God has to say!” (50).

Zahnd is right in his acknowledgement that God’s anger and God’s wrath have become a point of morbid fascination with some denominations and sects of Christianity- especially within the United States. And while there are obviously biblical passages that speak of God’s wrath, it is appropriate to allow Jesus to have the final word on points where there appear to be tension. That is the major idea presented in the first three chapters of the book and an idea that I fully agree with. I also enjoyed his interpretation of Revelation found in the closing four chapters of the book.

However, it is the middle three chapters that caused me to pause and caused me to really consider how to judge Zahnd’s work. Two chapters deal with atonement theology and the third deals with hell. In the chapters on atonement, Zahnd essentially takes a view of atonement traditionally called the moral influence theory. Moral influence theory sees Jesus’s death as a great demonstration of God’s love that causes “a change in [the] sinners’ heart so that they are drawn to God” (Olsen, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 258-259). Zahnd says something similar: “Jesus was faithful to embody God’s will even to the point of shedding his blood as he forgave sinners. Jesus did not shed his blood to pay off God in the form of a ritual sacrifice…Jesus shed his blood in faithful obedience to his Father’s will, demonstrating divine forgiveness even as he was crucified!” (105). For Zahnd, Jesus’ death was an example of love and an example of forgiveness.

What Zahnd fails to confront are the multitude of verses and illusions that see Jesus’s death through the lens of sacrifice. He doesn’t mention Paul’s argument in Romans or the  use of “propitiation,” for example. I’m not saying that all of Zahnd’s interpretation of Jesus’s death is wrong, however, it is incomplete. For a full discussion of atonement theology, read N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright begins at the same staring point as Zahnd: Is it theologically correct to say that Jesus’s death was a punishment for sin?, however Wright is able to explore that question to much greater depths.

The third chapter that gave me pause is Zahnd’s treatment of hell. He begins the chapter by pondering if Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel is in hell. He then goes on to wonder about Anne Frank and the other victims of the Holocaust or the devote Muslim woman who shows charity and worships the best she knows how. He is right in noting that the “simplistic equation…Christians go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal bliss, while everyone else goes to hell, where they suffer eternal torment” (119-120) is more of a populist notion rather than a biblical idea. However, his main ally is C.S. Lewis who is known lean toward universalism.

I admit we get into trouble when we begin pronouncing eternal judgment on people when that judgment solely belongs to God. But Zahnd’s conclusion that hell represents “refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God” (137) again isn’t wrong it is just incomplete. He equates hell to the realm of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who refuses to come inside for the party. Which is true, but he doesn’t address passages that speak of God’s judgment. Zahnd doesn’t throw out the reality of hell but he redefines hell in a way that might make people uncomfortable because he doesn’t address some of those other biblical passages.

Overall, Zahnd writes a thought-provoking book that challenges the reader to take a fresh look at what it means when the Bible says “God is love.”

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.