Dead Man’s Faith: A Review

25 October 2022

Back in 2019, John Niemela of Message of Life Ministries wrote an article-length review of my Dead Man’s Faith. John sent me a draft of the review before it was published, but I’ve never been able to link to it because the review was behind a paywall.

It is now in the open. The article begins on page 71 of this file.

I’m deeply grateful for his kind words and thoughtful review. I still plan to rework the material into a popular-level book at some point, and when I do, I’ll be taking his perspective into account. In the meantime, if you want the Cliff-notes version of my book, John’s review is a great overview of the high points and I highly recommend it to you.


2018 Books in Review

31 December 2018

I set goals every year, and I always include a reading goal. This year was a little different for goal-setting, but I still set a reading goal to finish 30 books. I read 40. Over drinks a couple nights ago, a friend asked me to name the top five, and after some thought, here they are.

Spirit of the Rainforest: a Yanomamo Shaman’s Story by Mark Andrew Ritchie

This was the hardest book I read this year. Replete with rape, murder, torture, sickness, and death, it is also a stunning tale of beauty and redemption. We in the modern West like to keep spiritual and physical as separate categories; in these pages, you’ll see spiritual and physical as a single, complex world–the way they really are.

Here, through the eyes of a shaman who calls himself Jungleman, you will find the unvarnished truth of Yanomamo life before they ever made contact with modern culture, and how things changed across the decades as they made (often traumatic) contact with traders, missionaries, anthropologists, soldiers, and other outsiders. The author chose to tell the story as Jungleman told it to him, in Jungleman’s words (as nearly as translation allows), but he also worked hard to verify the events described from multiple sources where possible. For this, he has been excoriated by missionaries, anthropologists, and other modern folk for telling the unvarnished truth about them all. Some folks apparently want the freedom to opine about all things Yanomamo, but don’t want the Yanomamo to have the same freedom to comment on them back–and especially don’t want the folks at home to hear how they behave in the field. Colonialism dies hard, I guess.

Despite not being a “theology book” as such, this is the best theological book I read this year, by far.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of my Life by Scott Adams

Books about success are largely written by successful people, about their big successes. That approach delivers what people want to read (and the story a successful person wants to tell), Adams says, but it leaves out crucial parts of the story. In this book, Adams–himself an indisputable success–takes us on a guided tour of his lifelong string of failures, and shows how they contributed, over time, to his success. (And in concrete, imitable ways, not just “building character.”) More importantly, he shows you how you can do the same: choose projects and partners and set processes in motion so that even when you fail, you get something out of it, and increase the odds of future success.

Adams’ conversational style and self-effacing manner make this an easy, fun read, and it is brimming with clear, immediately actionable advice.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

Healthy cultures have certain elements in common, whether you’re talking about a military unit, a sports team, or a restaurant staff. In Culture Code, Daniel Coyle profiles successful cultures: the physical practices, beliefs, and emotional landscape that separate stimulating, rewarding, effective cultures from the rest of the pack. Liberally illustrated with examples both good and bad, Culture Code is not just illuminating, it’s applicable. Coyle concludes with an epilogue describing how he put his insights to work in his own life, coaching a team of young writers, with excellent results.

This one is a must-read for church leaders. If your organizational culture does not reflect the profile Coyle is describing–which tracks pretty tightly with how the Body of Christ is supposed to work–it would be worth your while to ask why. And fix it.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Slow Regard is an odd little book, and it might not be for you. It’s a week in the life of a singular character named Auri, who lives a life of self-imposed exile in, and under, the world of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle. You need to read book 1, The Name of the Wind, before this one to get necessary context, but that’s not going to be a chore. (This one’s labeled #2.5 in the series, but you can read it after #1; there’s no spoilers.) TNOTW is a stunning achievement in fantasy fiction, and if Rothfuss can deliver the finish that the first two main volumes promise, he will be deservedly mentioned in the same breath with the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert. I wouldn’t take anything away from the achievement of the series as a whole…but Slow Regard is important.

In Slow Regard, Rothfuss takes us inside Auri’s head. She’s beautiful, whimsical, deeply intelligent, powerful, and absolutely broken. She sees the world in a unique way, a way that might be totally delusional. Then again, it might be uncommonly perceptive. Or maybe a bit of both; you’ll have to decide for yourself.

And then you’ll have to decide how that maps from her world into ours. It might be one of the more important decisions of your life, because, you see, there are real people like Auri. You can write them off and be the poorer for it. Or you can learn to love them, to dance with the oddness, to profit from the things they see that you cannot. There is so little space in the world for such people; if some corner of your life can hold space for an Auri, that’ll be a kindness well worth doing in itself, and both of you will be richer for it.

If you can stand to, read this book. Whatever you do, don’t skip the author’s foreword.

Internal Body Mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi: The Key to High-Quality Internal Structure and Movement by Ken Gullette

Despite the title, this one is not just for martial artists. If you’re a massage therapist, an athlete, or you just want to learn to use your body in an attentive, aware way, there’s a lot here for you.

The standard disclaimer applies: there’s no substitute for personal instruction from a qualified teacher, etc. But you learn martial arts by practicing, and there’s a lot here to inform your practice and make it more fruitful.

When it comes to “chi,” Ken Gullette is an uncompromising materialist: for him, there is no non-physical energy, just a very sound–if uncommon–set of body mechanics. Being a Christian, I don’t think the world is quite that simple, but Gullette’s line of inquiry here is undeniably productive. Whatever the truth about chi, there are physical mechanics at work.

Selecting a series of six key mechanics–groundpath, peng jing (which I’m not going to try to explain here), whole-body involvement, silk-reeling (spiral) movement, dantien (pelvic, kinda) rotation, and proper use of the kua (hip hinge)–Gullette walks us through key exercises and practices to develop each one. Start practicing even a couple of these together, and you’ll instantly understand why so much of Tai Chi practice is done slowly.

Gullette has been teaching for many years, and I’ve benefited from some of his and Mike Sigman’s earlier efforts. (Thanks, guys!) This book shows the results of a lot of trial and error to find the best words and exercises to convey these key concepts. The explanations are crystal clear and the photos are shot from useful angles (which is a lot harder than it sounds, y’all.) I’ll be spending a lot of time with these practices as I work to refine my own movement–as a martial artist, as a massage therapist, and as a structurally healthy human being.


So that’s my top five of a lot of good stuff–a total of 40 books and 8,389 pages, according to Goodreads, which is kind enough to track all this for me (and sell my data to the highest bidder, no doubt, but who isn’t, these days?)

As with any goal-setting exercise, I review my reading list periodically to make course corrections. A few things stand out to me about this year’s reading list:

  • It’s low on classics and poetry.  Be good to re-read some Shakespeare, Bacon, and Frost, just for the joy of the language.
  • I have some quality theological work on my shelf that I want to read, and didn’t quite get to. I want to do more of that this year.
  • I set the goal low on purpose, knowing that this was going to be a demanding year in other ways, and I might not have time for a lot of reading. And then I way overshot the goal without really trying. I expect this year to be equally demanding, but I should probably raise the goal a bit.

Also with any goal-setting exercise, it’s important to celebrate what went well. My standout items are…

  • I read 40/30 books!
  • I had fun! By setting a number goal, with just a few must-read items, it didn’t ever feel like something I had to do. I was just having a good time reading about whatever interested me. That’s ideal; I retain a lot less if it becomes a chore.
  • I finished The Unshakeable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person. That doesn’t sound impressive, but I’ve been chewing slowly away on that book for three years. (It’s not that long, but it was meaty. I’d read a few pages, and then have to go think about it for a week. So it took a while. I got most of the considerable benefit from it in the first year, but this year I finally finished, which feels like a significant accomplishment.

A Reading Milestone

17 November 2017

Every year I set a reading goal. This year, it was only 25 books, split between the professionally relevant, the devotional, and fun. For me, that’s a remarkably unambitious goal, and it reflects the fact that I spent the year finishing school and launching a business, which left me precious little time for reading. But I hit my goal last night, finishing the 25th book with 6 weeks to spare. So I’ll probably hit 30 before the end of the year.

Which was my favorite? That’s a complicated question. How do you compare a spirituality of midlife change to a romp through a fictional, Manhattan landscape featuring parkour and dragons, or either of them to a careful appraisal of C. S. Lewis’ philosophical differences with his longtime friend Owen Barfield?

You can’t, on any but wildly subjective criteria.

So let me speak subjectively: overall, for sheer joy of reading, my favorite was probably Owen Barfield’s Worlds Apart, a fictional discussion between a wide variety of specialists meditating together on the nature of reality and human consciousness. If it sounds heady, it was — but I’m a geek to the bone. Reading Worlds Apart was like being in a room with a bunch of people brighter than me, and just barely managing to keep up with their discussion. It was a great deal of fun, even if I did have to read some parts a few times to catch up. I read a good deal by (and about) Barfield in the past year, including a number of his essays and introductions to others’ works, but this one was my favorite. He’ll be changing my thought for many years to come.

More sensible comparisions would be within major categories of books: spiritual, healing, martial arts, philosophy, and so on. So here’s some of that.

Among the spiritual works, the clear standout was Hierotheos Vlachos’ magisterial work Orthodox Psychotherapy. Entertaining it ain’t, but when I was able to carve out the time to read a decent chunk at once, I found a depth and breadth of spiritual insight and compassionate understanding of the human condition that is rare in any tradition. It was helpful to me, and it will be helpful again when I read it next year–which I certainly will.

Among the healing works, Agnes Sanford’s The Healing Light was a clear standout. It’s a classic for a reason. And I have to make mention of Cyndi Dale’s Subtle Energy Techniques. While I widely disagree with Dale in spots, her reflections on her life’s work are well worth reading, and she is a master of her craft.

Among the martial works, I’ve gotta say, Maija Soderholm’s The Liar, The Cheat, and the Thief is a classic. I will read it again. And again. Her subject is sword duelling, which is only of peripheral interest to me, but her insights into the human condition along the way make it valuable for anybody — and again, she is a master of her craft.

Steven Pressfield’s wonderfully readable Turning Pro and Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t changed the way I practice my profession for the better, as did Sam Altman’s Startup Playbook. Reading Greg Gutfeld and Vox Day on rhetoric and political strategy may have made me a little spicier, not that I needed any help in that department.

I read fiction by Lee Child, Kel McDonald, Dan Millman, Tony Hillerman, Doug Wilson, and others — and if you have’t read Wilson’s Flags Out Front, you’re missing out — but for sheer entertainment value, Seanan McGuire’s Midnight Blue-Light Special was the most fun.

I’m still in process on a handful of books — when am I not? — but that’s the lineup for most of this year.

Another Book Salad

12 May 2013

I just finished Leading Kingdom Movements by Mike Breen. It’s worth reviewing for sure, but this is also a good occasion to look back over Breen’s output in the last few years. The man has written four books since 2009, which is an accomplishment all on its own, and the four taken together are his team’s distilled experience in a ministry self-consciously modeled on Jesus and Paul to a degree that’s unusual in the modern Christian world. I started reading these books in 2011, and read all four in order, so this will also be autobiographical to some extent.

I want to commend all four of these books to your attention, even if you aren’t even remotely interested in taking the sort of approach to ministry that Breen and company advocate. It’s working really well in some settings. Doesn’t mean God’s calling you to try to replicate it in yours. However, in my experience, there is great value in studying the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s Church — learning how God is pleased to work, what He is presently doing, and so on. Great value. These four books taken together will give you a good look at a fascinating slice of the Spirit’s work in the contemporary church.


For me, the journey began with Building a Discipling Culture. This is an outstanding book. Organized around a series of shapes, it seems at first kind of hokey and overproduced. In a way, it is exactly that. Breen’s target market for this resource is American megachurches who have lost their way when it comes to really making disciples, so the hokey slickness is contextualization. This is a resource on disciple-making that you might get a purpose-driven church to buy and implement. It’s slick, it teaches easily, and it’s memorable, easy to keep track of all the material. Mentally walk through the shapes — circle, semicircle, triangle, square, and so on up to octagon — and you’ve got it all. Most importantly, once you get past the packaging, the content is deeply biblical.

But that is most definitely not all. Accompanying the book is the social model, called a huddle, that helps to inculcate real discipleship. See, if you come from a teaching-heavy tradition, it’s easy to degenerate into teaching yet another “discipleship” curriculum, from which your congregants depart with full notebooks and empty lives. Huddle is not another “discipleship group,” exactly. It is a group of 3-8 people who are presently in leadership somewhere (at least in a family leadership role), and it provides the opportunity for some formal teaching and debrief time. Huddle is not discipleship by itself. It is one component; the other key component is access to the leader’s life. participants will be invited to join the leader doing this or that — and not just ministry stuff. You are as likely to be invited out for a beer as you are to be invited to help clean up after the youth group’s annual movie-and-silly-string night. When Jesus went to a party, after all, He took His disciples. Why shouldn’t we?

I’m here to tell you, being huddled and working my way through the material in Building a Discipling Culture in that context was life-altering. I’m a teacher by gifting and calling, and I’ll never see teaching the same way again. I recommend it highly — but in a proper context. Don’t just rush out and buy the book. Even if you have to do it by distance (which is how the guy who huddled me had to do it) find your way into a huddle and go through it that way.


Breen’s second book in the series is Launching Missional Communities: A Field Guide. I’m just going to admit at the outset that of the four books, I’ve found this one to be the least helpful. Full to the brim with practical nuts-and-bolts advice, warnings, and how-tos, the book is designed to be very helpful, but in a particular context. The target audience is a large church seeking to “go missional.” Now, the way that Breen and company mean it, I’m a fan of missional, so that’s not my problem. My problem is that I’m not at the helm of a large church. Or a medium-sized church. Or even a small church, really. I’m a shepherd-at-large in the One Church in Englewood, doing a variety of things that may ultimately result in a church plant, but haven’t so far, may never, and if they don’t, that’s okay. So as advice, the book is pretty useless to me, and it’s too thin to be a good doorstop.

I don’t say this just out of a general sense that I haven’t got the resources to pursue the plan Launching Missional Communities recommends. I say that because we did actually try to follow the model laid out in the book as closely as we could, and in our context it failed spectacularly. I hasten to add that I know of other people right here in Denver who are applying the same model with roaring success. I’m not at all blaming Breen and company for our failure. Different contexts call for different approaches.

However, I commend the book to you whether you’re in a context that’s amenable to its approach or not. It provides critical nuts-and-bolts insight into the advice that Breen and his crew are giving, and you may find, as I have, that while you can’t follow the track laid out in the book, you might be able to reverse-engineer some pieces — same truths, different approach — to your great benefit.

Autobiographically, I want to add that as I was grappling with all this, and griping to my mentor that “the 3DM model” doesn’t work all that well in our situation, he crisply informed me that there is no such thing as “the 3DM model.” 3DM’s staff of mentors and disciplers, right up to Mike Breen himself, was unanimous on the point. I pushed back pretty hard on the grounds that what they were selling in the field guide and the seminars certainly was a model. I was right — it was. We were disassembling that model and making use of the spare parts anywhere we could, in the context of entirely different social vehicles and a different model of ministry. But my mentor was right as well, as we shall see.


Multiplying Missional Leasers is the third book in the series, and focuses on recognizing, training and launching out leaders who will go and make more leaders — from “little” leaders who will never lead more than three or four people at a time to “big” leaders who will lead thousands. Breen shows a rare grasp of the nuance involved in the task. Most leadership development material focuses on the “big” leaders, and tries to teach prospective leaders how to develop (or mimic) the charisma and organizational talent that characterizes high-capacity leaders.
Breen doesn’t go that route. Leaders can have any sort of gifting, Breen says. He proceeds to devote a considerable portion of the book to unpacking what leadership looks like in people with different kinds of gifts. It proved a valuable addition to my own understanding of how to be a leader within the bounds of the gifts God gave me.


Leading Kingdom Movements is the latest in the series, and conceptually the most important of the lot. In this book, Breen finally gives away the core truths we had been forced to discover somewhat earlier: it was never really about missional communities, or huddles, or any of the social vehicles. The model of moving a large church into a culture of disciple-making where people were empowered to launch and maintain missional communities — that model was just a means to an end. In many contexts, it’s a useful means, but still just a means.

The end, the telos of it all, is the big-C Church taking on the character of an extended family on mission. The rhythms and relationships that characterize an extended family with a mission beyond itself create an extraordinarily effective culture for gospel witness and disciple-making. Getting there has always been the real point. The social models of huddle and missional community were really about bringing people into familial relationships with one another, and immersing them in rhythms of life that follow the examples set for us by Jesus and the apostles.

Explaining those rhythms and relationships through an extended treatment of the life of Paul takes up the latter half of the book, and it’s excellent reading. There is some necessary conjecture along the way — filling in the gaps with what we know from the history and culture of the time — but nothing extravagant. Breen’s treatment is sound on the essential points, and well worth your time.


I have said throughout this review that there are four key books, and as far as the how-to part of Breen’s oeuvre is concerned, that is true. There is, however, a fifth book. Written very early on, Covenant and Kingdom is a brief treatment of the story of the whole Bible, told around the two key themes in the title. Covenant and kingdom, relationship and responsibility, family and mission, being and doing. If you break out in hives at the very mention of the word “missional,” if you are a traditional-church person to the very core and intend to have no truck with anything like what Breen and 3DM are up to, if you are not going to invest in any of the four books I mentioned above — this book is still for you.

There are other themes worth expounding through the Story, other strands that you can trace through the Bible from end to end. This is not the only way to tell the tale. But it is a way to tell the tale, and a very good one, too. For many of you reading this review, I guarantee that as you read Covenant and Kingdom, the Bible will ‘click’ together as a whole story in ways that it never has before. The way it will click together, you won’t just see the Story in the Bible — you’ll see the Story going on in your own life, too, and in ways you never noticed before.

If you get nothing else by Breen, get this one.


I will close this review with one final note. Print editions of the 3DM books run on the slightly expensive side. This is partly because the physical books are designed to take a pretty good beating, so they’re a bit higher quality than your average mass paperback. It’s probably also partly because the 3DM team is supporting themselves, in part, by selling books. However, all the above books are also available as e-books for much less than you’d pay for paper, so if money is an issue, you might look into that option.

Illustrations do play an important part in these books, so effective reading sometimes calls for monkeying with the enlargement settings on the smaller e-readers (like the Nook Simple Touch, for example), but it can be done. I myself read two of the above books on my Simple Touch.

Book Salad

3 February 2013

It has been a while since I put up any book reviews, and I have been reading all along. I don’t intend to start writing detailed reviews at this point — too much else to do. But I’ve been reading some real beauties, and I want to share. So with no further ado, Gentle Reader, I present you with a tasty salad of good books on a variety of topics.


James K. A. Smith’s Thinking in Tongues is a treat.

The basic insight is a version of lex orandi, lex credendi: “The law of prayer is the law of belief.” This ancient Christian principle means, in essence, that the liturgy, prayers and songs of the ancient church can be used to infer the beliefs of the church, even on matters (or in times and places) where they left behind no specific dogmatic writings.

Likewise, Smith is using the religious life of the Christian church generally, and specifically the pentecostal/charismatic churches, to infer a particular take on various areas of philosophy: what’s real, how we know, how we understand language, and so on. I’m not even going to try to summarize Smith’s thought as he pushes the implicit theology of pentecostal thought out into the corners — you can, and should, read it for yourself.

If you’re charismatic yourself, this is an important book, and you should read it. If you’re not, you might think you can just pass this one by, but I would encourage you to think again. In critical ways, many of us have simply not stuck to our guns as Christians engaging ‘secular’ fields like sociology, psychology, or philosophy. This is a chance to see someone doing it well, and even if philosophy is not your field, you might benefit from seeing an example of hardheaded Christianity in practice.


Doug Wilson’s novel Evangellyfish serves up a large helping of brutal truth about evangelical church culture. While being a work of fiction — and, to the extent possible in today’s evangelical culture, something of a satire — it is unflinchingly faithful to reality. I’ve met these characters, far more than once.

Some readers will find Evangellyfish dark and painful, but it is also absolutely hilarious. Some critic aptly described it as a cross between Flannery O’Connor and P. G. Wodehouse. Although the book is a respectable 228 pages, it’s a fast read, unless you need to take breaks because the satire is hurting too much. I read it in a day — Christmas Day, actually. It was a much-needed rest and respite from the hurly-burly of the holiday season.

Obviously, I didn’t find it particularly painful to read, myself. But that’s because I’m so far outside mainstream megachurch evangelicalism that the satire made me laugh far more than it made me wince. And I did laugh — I howled, all day long. My wife later told me that’s the most she’s heard me laugh in years.


The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero covers vampire lore through literary history. However, instead of writing a survey, which would inevitably skim the surface and bore at the same time, author Susannah Clements gives us a detailed study of five samples: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, contained in the Southern Vampire Mystery books and the TV series True Blood, and Stephanie Myers’ Twilight saga. If you feel like this sample set skews heavily toward the modern, you’re right, but there’s a good reason for that. The vampire was a powerful metaphor for evil, sin and temptation in a predominantly Christian culture for a very long time. Recently, the significance of the vampire has shifted, hence the preponderance of modern samples.

The samples are well-chosen, and show how the vampire motif has shifted as modern authors employ it to address a variety of less theological themes. The closing three chapters bring it all together in a coherent thematic treatment of vampire sinners and saviors, drawing on a number of additional examples, and finishing with a challenge for Christians to renew their acquaintance with the genre. The current vampire fiction craze will pass, to be sure, but the vampire is also one of the enduring motifs of Western literature. The genre is ripe for a robust Christian treatment that will re-introduce the classic vampire fiction themes of temptation, sin, evil and grace.


I have started Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. So far, it’s wonderful. This book was the inevitable fallout from Leithart’s earlier (and really outstanding) Defending Constantine. A sober treatment of Constantine’s life and what he meant to the Christian faith, the book raised a number of issues and questions that simply couldn’t be addressed without doubling the size of the book. Between Babel and Beast is in a sense a book-length footnote to the earlier book, but it stands alone.

Leithart’s thesis is that — contra nearly everybody — there is no such thing as examining “empire” in a biblical light. It’s necessary to talk in terms of “empires,” plural. There are two chief reasons for this: first, God begins His own counter-imperium with Abraham, and will culminate it in the New Jerusalem. It’s just irresponsible to talk as though empire is an evil in itself. Even within the boundaries of the “city of man,” though, the Bible speaks of different types of empire, with the main differentiating factor being how the imperial government relates to God’s people.

For a delightfully contrarian, throoughly optimistic take on political philosophy, I commend Babel and Beast to you. And Defending Constantine. And Against Christianity. But that’s another blog post.


Just a couple weeks ago, on the recommendation of a teacher of mine, I got Sanford and Sanford’s massive Deliverance and Inner Healing. I’ve not had time to read very much of it yet, but I studied the chapter on praying over specific places in some detail, and it has already paid off. More about this later, maybe — but it has already proven a worthwhile book.


So that’s the fun stuff I’ve been up to. Anybody have a recommendation for me?

Speaker for the Dead

15 April 2012

I’m going to hear about this one, I’m sure, so let me just get the scary bits out in the open right away.  This is a book review of sorts–a very favorable one–of a science fiction novel.  It was written by a Mormon.  It takes evolution for granted.  The Christian characters in the book are all Roman Catholic, and some of them are portrayed quite sympathetically.  Adultery and domestic violence are major plot elements, although the action is implied, not described.  Author Orson Scott Card does his utmost to help the reader sympathize with both the physically abusive husband and his unfaithful wife, an emotionally abusive and neglectful mother — and Card knows what he’s doing.  If your heart’s not carved of granite, you’ll sympathize.  Pietists who don’t know how to read stories will find the experience traumatic and probably ought to steer clear.  Or then again, maybe not.  Not all trauma is bad; a knifing and a surgery are both traumatic, but they sew you up at the end of the surgery.

Ahem.  Anyway, the book is Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card.  It’s the second in a cycle of four stories (in order: Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind), but it stands alone well enough.  You can read Ender’s Game first if you want to, but you don’t really have to.  Late in the cycle, the peculiarities of Card’s LDS theology really come out into the limelight in some infelicitous ways, but Speaker is mostly free of that.  You ought to read it.

Moreover, you ought to read it for its epistemology.

The epistemology is personal, powerful, and simple enough: a person you don’t love is a person you don’t know, and can’t know.  As with most philosophical concepts, it is far easier to grasp fleshed out in story form than it would be in abstract discussion.  If it turns out that you don’t like the epistemology after all, it’s still a very good story.  You won’t have wasted your time.

If you want the abstract discussion, N. T. Wright’s Christian Hope in a Postmodern World makes the same epistemological point pretty concisely.  If you want it fleshed out philosophically and attended by (lots and lots of) footnotes, you can read Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology by Esther Lightcap Meeks.  Wright’s presentation is personable and accessible; Meeks is tougher to handle because she’s writing to fellow philosophers, but she’s very good at what she does.  But Speaker for the Dead is cheaper, and a lot more fun.  Just sayin’.

As Others See Us

15 August 2010

In the final stanza of his memorable poem “To a Mouse,” Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us
An’ ev’n Devotion

Kevin Roose, nineteen-year-old journalist and author of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, has given conservative evangelical Christians a rare gift.  Through his eyes–his raised-Quaker, somewhat left-of-center, normal American eyes–we have the opportunity to see ourselves as we appear to people who have never known a real, live evangelical Christian.

Roose was assisting his boss, author A. J. Jacobs, on a research trip to Thomas Road Baptist Church when he first encountered a group of Liberty University students. The interaction quickly took a turn for the strange…but I’ll let him tell you:

When A. J. left to take notes on another part of the church, I chatted up a group of Thomas Roaders I found in the lobby, two girls and a guy who looked to be around my age.  I introduced myself, told them why I was visiting, and asked how long they’d been coming to Thomas Road.

“We come here every week,” they said.  “We go to Liberty.”

I wasn’t sure whether “go to Liberty” was some sort of coded religious language, like “walk the path” or “seek the kingdom,” so I asked.  I had to chuckle when they told me that “Liberty” meant Liberty University, a Christian liberal arts college founded and presided over by  Rev. Falwell.  I mean, come on.  A liberal arts college run by Jerry Falwell?  How about an etiquette workshop run by Courtenay Love?

But I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, so I asked them to tell me more about their school.

“Oh, I love Liberty!” said one of the girls, an effusive blonde in a green sundress.  She spent five minutes making an enthusiastic pitch, which included statistics about Liberty’s recently opened law school, its top-ranked debate team, and its Division I athletic program.  She told me that Liberty has grown at a rate–from 154 students in 1971 to nearly 25,000 in 2007 (including more than 15,000 taking courses via the Internet)–that few colleges, secular or religious, have ever achieved.

It was impressive stuff, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to know.

“So, what do you guys do for fun?” I asked.

They looked at each other quizzically, then back at me.  The blonde stammered, “I mean, we do different…things.  I don’t really know what you’re asking.”

This wasn’t getting off on the right foot.  Maybe I needed to break the ice.

“Any good parties around here?”

But I got no chuckles, only blank stares.  The guy, a long, lean boy-band type with jutting platinum hair, squinted and peered down his nose.

“Do you know Christ?”

I was new to evangelical argot, so I didn’t know that if a Liberty student has to ask this question, he probably knows the answer already.  The way I saw it, I could (a) tell him I did know Christ, which might not go so well if he decided to follow up, (b) try to deflect with sarcasm again, something like, “Yeah, he’s a friend of a friend.  We really don’t hang out much,” or (c) admit that I was a foreigner.

Too scared for (a) or (b), I chose (c).  I told him I didn’t know Christ, and after he spent five minutes explaining why I should consider meeting him, I said, as gently as I could, that I wasn’t interested in converting.

“Please don’t be offended,” I said.  “It’s just not my thing.”

They glanced at each other, all three a little mystified.  Not my thing?  How could it not be my thing?  They didn’t browbeat me, but I had definitely made them uneasy.  We made a little more small talk, and then, since church was starting, we parted ways with nods and hesitant half-waves.

The weirdness of the encounter stayed with him, and at a time when his fellow students at Brown were weighing the merits of cross-cultural study abroad in Munich or Barcelona, Kevin Roose found himself contemplating a semester at Liberty University.  The idea grew on him, much to the dismay of his nominally Quaker parents, gay-activist aunts, and generally left-leaning family.  While he did ultimately win their assent, the ongoing tension between Roose’s arch-conservative Liberty surroundings and his liberal family remains one of the central conflicts of the book.

Recalling the awkwardness of the Thomas Road conversation after he admitted to being an outsider, Roose decided to try to pass for an evangelical Christian, and after a weekend crash course administered by a sympathetic ex-evangelical friend, he packs his car and sets off to school.  This decision sparks the second major conflict of the book, the ever-present ethical dilemmas of an undercover participant-observer.  If his struggling seems at times a bit sophomoric, we would do well to remember that he was, in fact, a sophomore, and that these are the dilemmas of a fundamentally decent guy who can’t do his job without lying, and doesn’t like lying to his friends.

And he does make friends.  From the rebellious Jersey Joey to newly-converted football player Paul to future youth pastor Zipper, Roose introduces us to the kaleidoscopic array of students that he comes to know and love, and we with him.  Most of them are denizens of Dorm 22, the men’s dorm where he lives, but we also meet Aimee, a bubbly socialite, (and clearly not Roose’s type),  and Anna, the smart, sassy girl he dates for a while and then avoids, afraid that she’ll uncover the truth about him.  Rounding out the cast are professors, pastoral staff members, and of course, Jerry Falwell himself–“a complicated guy,” as Roose finally puts it to his dad.

We’re with him every step of the way for four months: learning to pray, perfectly chaste dates, men’s dorm hijinks,  creation science classes, a missions trip to Daytona Beach at the height of spring break, prayer meetings,  discipleship sessions where a concerned pastor helps him stop masturbating, singing in the choir at Thomas Road, his interview with Jerry Falwell for the campus newspaper…Roose chronicles it all.  Along with a deftly written record of what happened, we get a running commentary on how it all looked and felt to an outsider.

Roose is sensitive and clear-headed throughout, and not at all demeaning.  I highly recommend this book, particularly to folks who live in the “Christian cocoon.”  It’s easy to forget what you look like to an outsider, and if it hurts sometimes, well…”The kisses of an enemy are deceitful, but faithful are the wounds of a friend.”  Roose is not a believer, and politically not an ally–but he is a friend, and we ought to listen.

I’ll let you discover the many  joys and lessons of the book for yourself, but there’s one I want to point out here.  Roose finds himself regularly put off by the raging homophobia that he encounters in his environment.  He is responding, in part, to the simple and eminently biblical idea that homosexuality is a sin, and this is not something that we can avoid or apologize for.  But he is also responding to his roommate’s bone-deep, violent hatred of gay people, the use of “fag” or “gay” as all-purpose insults, and the blind fear of cloistered Christian kids who’ve never taken the time to get to know a real, live homosexual.  As a result, the whole thing comes off to him as simple bigotry and intolerance, and his effort to deal with the internal conflict this spawns in him forms one of the major themes in the book.  Roose is repeatedly rattled by the dissonance between the loving, caring, fundamentally moral character of his friends and (what he sees as) their bigotry on this one issue.

Which is to say that as a whole, the evangelical world is failing to make its case.  We are not successfully articulating a coherent, comprehensive vision of human life in the image of God, and our view of homosexuality as a coherent part of that.*  If we were, then our condemnation of homosexuality would be visibly of a piece with our whole life-affirming, biblical ethic, instead of striking a sympathetic observer as an arbitrary fly in the ointment.  Part of the reason we are failing is that most evangelicals don’t have a coherent, comprehensive view of life.  Another part of the reason is that within the mainstream Evangelical community, it has been socially safe to hate homosexuals, in the same way that it was once socially safe in white Evangelical circles to hate black people.  Some of the perceived bigotry, in other words, is actual bigotry. We need to clean up our own house on this point, and sooner rather than later.

For those willing to give a sympathetic observer a fair hearing, there are many more observations and lessons to be had…but I’ll let you read the book for yourself.

*If you’re looking for a place to start, try this article.

A Serrated Edge, Part II

30 June 2010

Some while ago I recommended Doug Wilson’s fine little volume A Serrated Edge. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, it is a sterling defense of mockery and sarcasm as biblically appropriate means of communication…at times.  Must reading in our lily-livered age of Precious Moments figurines and sappy politically correct fears of hurting anyone’s feelings.

I once again commend the book to you heartily.  Buy it and read it — you won’t be sorry.

But some of you aren’t going to buy the book.  It would be nice if you could — for free — get your hands on a good chunk of related material, just to get your feet wet, as it were.  And for those of you who’ve read it…I know you want more.

Well, here’s your chance.  A little while ago I ran across John Frame’s detailed review of A Serrated Edge.  To which Doug Wilson published a detailed response.  Both of these items are available for free online at the links above.  Whether you’ve read the book or not, you will profit from reading this interchange. (The more astute observers will notice that I’m about 3 years late with the notice on this one. What can I say? Wilson writes faster than I can keep up with; I haven’t begun to conquer his backlist, especially if we’re counting online stuff.)

And a hint for the folks at Canon: Whenever you get round to reprinting the book, throw these two in as an appendix. The book will be much better for it.

How to Criticize Popular Fiction

24 March 2010

1998 saw the publication of the first Harry Potter book, and a firestorm of Christian criticism followed.  Christian parents who months before had lovingly read the Chronicles of Narnia to their children at bedtime banished Harry Potter because there were witches in it.  Some Christians, sensing the tension, banned Narnia as well.

In all the yowling, Christians paid very little attention to the fact that J. K. Rowling singlehandedly created an entire generation of children that wanted to read.  Christian critics paid even less attention to the fact that although the shelves of their local Christian bookstore groaned under heaps of schlocky Christian fiction, children could apparently tell the difference between lousy stories and well-written ones, and preferred the latter, in droves.  Embarrassing, that.  How come the Christians weren’t producing any good stories?  Our last runaway pop-culture hit was…what?  The Chronicles of Narnia?  Been a while…

In addition to being hugely unaware of the log in its own eye, the criticism was, for the most part, just bad.  Shrill.  Embarrassing.  Obviously written by people who hadn’t an ounce of sense about how to write, or how stories work, or how to read them. Philistines and yahoos, to put it bluntly. Hacks.

Of late the guns of Christian literary criticism — if it can be called that — have been aimed at the Twilight phenomenon, and the overall tone is not a whit improved.  It therefore gives me enormous pleasure to point to a bright spot on the horizon: a Christian literary critic who is Doing It Right.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is how literary criticism ought to be done.  I am referring to Douglas Wilson’s ongoing review of Twilight, the most recent installment of which went up Monday. You can find the reviews, which proceed chapter by chapter, on the Credenda website. If you’re a skip-the-book-and-see-the-movie type, there’s even a (brief) video version, available at Canon Wired. (Update: there’s a part two to the video.)

But read the reviews.  Seriously.

Carbonated Holiness

23 August 2009

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.  She’s an amazing writer.  We don’t agree on a whole lot, theologically or politically, but the whole book is worth this beautiful sentence:

“Laughter is carbonated holiness.”


In just about any subfamily of the church, there are people who practice this, and practicing it, they recognize each other despite denominational and sectarian boundaries.  For these people, “An Episcopalian, a Methodist and a Baptist walked into a pub” is not a joke, it’s fellowship, and it’s a common occurrence.  Their common fellowship with the God who rejoices leads to a laughing life, and they recognize Him in each other.

And in every subfamily of the church, you will also find people who don’t practice this, don’t understand it, and are deeply suspicious of the whole thing.  They gravitate toward positions of influence and authority, because they’re sure that anywhere someone is laughing, there’s danger, and more control is required.  They don’t want the sort of control that comes of inspiring others through the overflow of their own lives and ministries; they want the sort of control that allows them to regulate and contain other people’s lives and ministries.  And because the laughing people are generally not interested in that sort of control, the squinty-eyed folks often succeed in getting their hands on it, more’s the pity.

And anywhere they do, they do their utmost to choke the life out of the church.  The organization thus infected may, and often does, dwindle away to nothing…but not always.  Sometimes a spiritually dead organization grows in numbers.  “Woe to you!” Jesus said to one such group, “for you travel land and sea to make one convert, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”  The test is not numbers, but whether they turn their converts into sons of hell.