Them | Book Review


Ben Sasse opens Them with a long epigraph from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” Those associations were voluntary and pursued any number of ends, “religious, moral serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive,” among many others.

This tendency to associate was, according to Tocqueville, the genius of the American nation: “From that moment they [i.e., Americans] are no longer isolated men, but a power seen from afar.” Over the past few decades, however, this tendency has declined, leaving an epidemic of loneliness in its wake.

Part 1 of Sasse’s book details “the collapse of the local tribes that give us true, meaningful identity—family, workplace, and neighborhood.” Because people are social beings, they seek out connections with others. If no good options are available, they may turn to bad ones.

Part 2 examines the rise of what Sasse calls “anti-tribes,” in which “people are finding a perverse bond in at least sharing a common enemy.” These anti-tribes are characterized more by patterns of “news consumption” than by “political activism.” Expressed as an equation, Sasse’s argument is:

Loneliness + news cycle and social media = the mess we are in.

In Part 3, outlines a proposal for cleaning up our mess. Sasse is a conservative Republican senator from Nebraska, but his book is not about policy. It is, instead, about the habits of the heart needed to restore the healthy communities that give individual lives meaning. “Our world is nudging us toward rootlessness, when only a recovery of rootedness can heal us.”

In a time where politicians thrive on galvanizing the “base” to destroy the “other side,” Sasse’s call for less divisiveness and more unity is a welcome relief. To quote the final sentence of that Tocqueville epigraph: “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve.” Count Them as a step toward growth and improvement.

Book Reviewed
Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

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Science and the Good | Book Review


Can science be the foundation of morality?

That is the question James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky ask in Science and the Good. Their book traces the history of affirmative responses from the early modern period to the present day, focusing on the “new synthesis” that is comprised of four elements: “(1) a Humean mind-focused sentimentalism, (2) a Darwinian account of why the mind has the traits it does, (3) a human interested-based utilitarianism about morality, all embedded within (4) a strident naturalism committed to empirical study of the world.”

Anyone familiar with philosophy knows that sentimentalism, utilitarianism, and naturalism are contested theories. The question facing advocates of the new synthesis, then, is whether science tilts the playing field in favor of those theories. More specifically, does science provide “empirically observable” evidence in their favor? If not, it’s not clear precisely how science contributes to building the foundation of morality.

Hunter and Nedelisky point out that science might contribute to morality at three different levels: (1) “demonstrate with empirical confidence what, in fact, is good and bad, right and wrong, or how we should live”: (2) “give evidence for or against some moral claim or theory”; and/or (3) “provide scientifically based descriptions of, say, the origins of morality, or the specific way our capacity for moral judgment is physically embodied in our neural architecture, or whether human beings tend to behave in ways we consider moral.” Surveying the arguments new-synthesis advocates make, Hunter and Nedelisky conclude that “nearly all of the actual science attempting to deal with morality lands at Level Three findings.” This is a far cry from providing a foundation for morality, let alone of disposing of rival moral theories.

Worse, advocates of the new synthesis have moved the goal posts. Given its commitment to what Hunter and Nedelisky called “disenchanted naturalism,” the new synthesis no longer thinks of morality in terms of “moral realism,” i.e., that distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, virtuous and vicious, refer to real, objective distinctions. Instead, those distinctions reflect individual preference or social consensus. The authors elaborate:

The quest [for a scientific foundation of morality] has been fundamentally redirected. The science of morality is no longer about discovering how we ought to live—though it is still often presented as such. Rather, it is now concerned with exploiting scientific and technological know-how in order to achieve practical goals grounded in whatever social consensus we can justify. The science of morality, then has evolved into an engineering project rooted in morally arbitrary goals.

The authors describe this as “moral nihilism,” which seems like an accurate description.

Science and the Good is a deeply researched, well-written book, and I have only scratched the surface of its argument against the new synthesis, which is detailed and complex. So, if science cannot provide a foundation of morality, what can? The authors eschew theological and natural-law arguments. Historically speaking, they argue, it was the failure of those types of arguments to prevent the European Wars of Religion in the post-Reformation Era that catalyzed the search for scientific arguments in the first place.

(I would like to register a demurral at this point. I think theological and natural-law arguments are stronger than Hunter and Nedelisky do. So, I’m not as convinced as the authors are that appeals to such arguments represents a dead end. Moreover, it’s not clear to me that the Wars of Religion were religious failures as much as they were a political failures. They resulted not so much from differences in religion but from desires for sovereignty. But those are arguments for another day.)

Instead of appealing to religion or natural law, Hunter and Nedelisky challenge the premise of the quest to provide a single foundation for morality in the first place—religious or scientific. “In both cases,” they write, “the effort represented different ways of achieving a foundation for a just and humane social order by denying, avoiding, or transcending the knotty, seemingly irreducible problem of difference.” That being the case, the way forward is “to find a common moral understanding throughour particularities—through our differences—and not in spite of them. Surely there are goods we can all affirm and corruptions we can all repudiate, despite coming from different perspectives.”

Hunter and Nedelisky voice this plaintive cry in the last five pages of the book. It is a hoped-for rather than an argued-for position, so not much can be said against it since not much was said for it in the first place. Regardless, in a pluralistic society, perhaps this plaintive cry is the most practical way forward. After all, we can agree that something is right or wrong even if we cannot agree on why it is so. But we can only find that agreement if we talk to one another across the divides—religious, ideological, partisan, etc.—that separate us.

Book Reviewed
James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Christians in the Age of Outrage | Influence Podcast


America is angry. Turn on TV news, tune into talk radio, check your timeline on social media, and chances are good you’ll see someone angry—outraged!—about something. Some commentators even worry that our nation is on the verge of a civil war.

It would be nice to say that Christians in America are tamping down the fires of outrage, but unfortunately, that’s not always true. Instead, some Christians are fanning the flames. They’re kicking outrage up to 11.

One Christian leader who’s trying to turn the outrage down is Ed Stetzer. He thinks outrage is unbiblical and anti-Great Commission. In his new book, Christians in the Age of Outrage, he explains why Americans are mad, why that’s bad, and what Christians should do about it.

Ed is Billy Graham Distinguished Professor of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College; dean of its School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership’ and executive director of the Billy Graham Center. He’s also my guest for Episode 159 of the Influence Podcast. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, and your host.

P.S. You can read my review of Ed Stetzer’s book here. If you like my review, please click “Helpful.”

Past Tense | Book Review


Midnight Line, Lee Child’s previous Jack Reacher novel, was a page-turner, but it left me wondering whether Reacher was getting a bit old for all the action Child put him through. I gave it a four-star review, but to be honest, I promised myself I would give Child only one more chance to keep my interest in Reacher. Past Tense kept my interest.

The novel has three storylines. One, Reacher finds himself in Laconia, New Hampshire, where his dad was born and raised. The only problem? There’s little trace of Stan Reacher there. Two, while searching for records of his dad, Reacher beats up a man bullying a woman. Unfortunately, the man is connected to bad actors who come to Laconia looking to settle a score. Three, a Canadian couple find themselves stranded at a remote motel where the owner and his business partners act more than a little strange. The owner’s last name? Reacher.

As always, Child brings these storylines together in an explosive conclusion that kept me turning pages, which is the primary way I evaluate suspense novels. (I read the novel in two long sittings.)

This isn’t the best of the Reacher novels. However, it’s good enough to keep me interested through next year when, come fall, I’m sure Child will publish Reacher’s next adventure. I hope it’s set in San Diego. That’s where Reacher is heading, and lots of interesting happens in San Diego, or could happen, if Reacher were there.

Book Reviewed
Lee Child, Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel (New York: Delacorte Press, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon.com review page.

Dark Sacred Night | Book Review


Michael Connelly’s Dark Sacred Night picks up where his two previous novels, The Late Show and Two Kinds of Truth, left off. Renée Ballard continues to work the late shift for Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Division. Harry Bosch continues to work cold cases for the San Fernando Police Department.

They meet by happenstance when Ballard finds Bosch snooping through Hollywood’s case files in search of information about the murder of Daisy Clayton, whose mother, Elizabeth, Bosch rescued at the end of Two Kinds of Truth. They strike a bargain and investigate the case together. Along the way, Ballard and Bosch investigate other cases on the side, but it’s the Daisy Clayton murder that drives the plot forward.

As per usual with Connelly’s novels, this one is a page-turner. I started reading it after dinner and finished it before I went to bed. It held my interest throughout. Even the side plots kept my interest. What I love about Connelly’s novels is the way he moves the plot forward by means of good detective work, rather than an investigator’s flashes of insight. You see Ballard and Bosch working the evidence, piecing the story together bit by bit. This approach keeps you hooked, because you want to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Additionally, I love the fact that unlike other serial novelists that I love to read—I’m looking at you, Lee Child and Craig Johnson—Michael Connelly is smart enough to realize that Bosch is getting older and simply can’t sustain the pace, the intensity, or the beatings he endured (or gave out) in previous novels. With this novel, Connelly seems to be moving his focus toward Ballard and transitioning Bosch into a lesser role. That’s great, as far as I’m concerned, both because Ballard is an intriguing character and because I still enjoy Bosch.

I’m not giving Dark Sacred Night a five-star review, however. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend reading it, but it’s not at the top of Connelly heap. I have two reasons for this: First, the side cases. One of the side cases is designed solely to introduce a character. Ballard’s side cases (an accidental death, an art theft, and a gruesome murder) are solved too perfunctorily. Bosch’s main side case is more interesting, but it’s difficult to tell whether how it ends is designed to set up a transition in Bosch’s life or to introduce a problem for a future novel. Second, a moment of intimacy between Bosch and another character seems way out of character for him. You’ll know what I mean when you read the novel.

Despite this, I’m happy with Dark Sacred Night, and I look forward to whatever Connelly cooks up next year. My guess is that Renée Ballard will play the leading role and Harry Bosch a supporting one. And that’s okay with me. They’re both great characters.

Book Reviewed
Michael Connelly, Dark Sacred Night: A Ballard and Bosch Novel (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon.com review page.

Leading Healthy, High-Performance Teams | Influence Podcast


It’s been said that teamwork makes the dream work. That’s true for any organization, but it’s especially true for churches. After all, the business of Church isrelationship — with God and with others.

Unfortunately, many churches experience relational dysfunction in the leadership team, the congregation as a whole, or both. They also often fail to realize the vision for the Church laid out by Christ in the Great Commission. In High Impact Teams, Lance Witt explains why churches don’t have to choose between relationships and results. He then shows how to bring those two things together for greater effectiveness in ministry.

Witt is founder of Replenish, a ministry with two goals: (1) to help individuals live and lead from a healthy soul and (2) to help teams and organizations become healthy and high-performing. Before launching Replenish, he served 20 years as a senior pastor and six years as an executive and teaching pastor for Rick Warren at Saddleback Church.

He’s my guest on Episode 157 of the Influence Podcast.

 

P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com.

P.P.S. Here’s my brief recommendation of the book from the November-December 2018 issue of Influence:

Ministry is a team sport. Too often, however, ministry teams don’t play to their full potential. “The best teams are both healthy and high performing,” writes Lance Witt. “They focus on relationship and results.” To help ministry teams achieve their potential, Witt outlines a Christian approach to ownership, self-leadership, productivity, relationship, conflict resolution, and culture. If you’ve played on a high-impact ministry team, this book will explain why that team worked well. If you haven’t played on such a team, it will explain how to up your team’s game. Either way, High Impact Teams is insightful and practical.

Book Reviewed
Lance Witt, High Impact Teams: Where Healthy Meets High Performance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon.com review page.

Moana Fashion Kit | Amazon Review


Making Moana-themed wooden-bangle bracelets with my young daughters is an hour of my life that I will never get back. I’m an older dad–nearly 50, while my girls are 6.5 and 5 years old–and not particularly crafty. But, while my wife was out of town over the weekend, my girls begged me to do this with them. So, I did.

They had a blast! They painted the bangles. It took about an hour for the paint to dry. Then they each picked a sticker. My biggest complaint about this kit is that the sticker edges don’t lay flat on the founded edges of the bangle. Then we strung beads on the hemp cords, which sounds easy, but I finally had to use a pin to push the easily unthreaded hemp through the bead hole. I tied those threaded beads around the bangle. Then we used glue to fasten flowers, jewels, and shells. All these items are included in the kit.

Like I said, it’s an hour that I won’t get back. Then again, the joy in my girls’ eyes and the creativity they displayed as they created their individual bracelets made it more than worthwhile.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.