Renewal Coaching

Douglas B. Reeves and Elle Allison, Renewal Coaching: Sustainable Change for Individuals and Organizations (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). $29.95, 315 pages.

Every New Year, millions of people resolve to change their lives. I myself resolved (yet again) to eat right, exercise, and improve my spiritual practices. And like millions of people, my resolve failed early and often. I’m still overweight and under-exercised, and I haven’t completed other personal improvement projects I committed myself to.

Organizations, like individuals, set goals and timetables to make changes—whether it’s improving sales, efficiency, or customer satisfaction. And like individuals who resolve to change, organizations lose their nerve and never complete their change projects. Change guru John Kotter estimates that 70% of organizational change initiatives die out.

In Renewal Coaching, Doug Reeves and Elle Allison argue that one of the major reasons for failure is that organizations’ focus on effectiveness and efficiency blinds them to the necessity of the personal renewal of their leaders and employees. Only renewed leaders can lead sustainable change.

What is renewal coaching? It is “a framework for helping people and organizations achieve sustainable change in pursuit of the greater good.” Renewal includes, among other goods, “meaningful work, important relationships, and flawless execution.” It is a solution to boredom, despair, and frustration at work. Coaches help individuals realize these solutions, and improved organizational performance flows from improved individual performance and feeds back into it.

The framework for renewal coaching involves these seven components:

  1. Recognition: finding patterns of toxicity and renewal
  2. Reality: confronting change killers in work and life
  3. Reciprocity: coaching in harmony
  4. Resilience: coaching through pain
  5. Resonance: coaching with emotional intelligence
  6. Relationship: making the process personal
  7. Renewal: creating energy, meaning, and sustainability

The desired outcome of renewal coaching is the seventh component. The previous six components build on and lead into one another. Reeves and Anderson devote a chapter each to these seven components. And each of those chapters concludes with a scored assessment of one’s proficiency in that component, together with a list of open-ended questions for further assessment.

The final three chapters of the book discuss renewal coaching as a passion, profession, and business. They will be interesting mostly to people who are building a career as a professional coach. Such people are also the book’s intended readership. I should make clear that contrary to the subtitle, this book is not primarily about how individuals and organizations can make sustainable change. Rather, it is a book about how people can coach individuals and organizations to make sustainable change. I would add that leaders, managers, and human resources personnel could also benefit from reading this book, since informal coaching is almost always part of their job.

As a minister, I resonated with many of the things Reeves and Allison wrote. There are many analogies between pastoring and renewal coaching. Pastoring, like renewal coaching, is about helping people identify toxicity and renewal, or sin and grace. It is about confronting the realities of actions, attitudes, and emotions that reinforce a failure to change, or repent. It is about working alongside others, both teaching and learning from them. It is about helping parishioners move through times of pain, and doing so with the Spirit of the God who doesn’t break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. The pastoring process is personal; our business objective, as it were, is helping people change. And it is about helping people experience new birth.

The more I saw these analogies between pastoring and renewal coaching, the more alert I became to the spiritual current that underlies this book—spiritual, though not necessarily religious. It seems that renewal coaches are playing a role once reserved for pastors and other religious leaders. Renewal, after all, is the language of revival and spiritual reform. And this makes me wonder whether we are expecting too much of our jobs these days. Still, to the extent that renewal coaching can help humanize the work place, it accomplishes a very important goal.

Renewal Coaching is a good book. I recommend it to coaches, leaders, managers, and HR personnel whose responsibilities include people development. And pastors might take a look at it too for suggestive hints about their own work with parishioners.

Apologetics for a New Generation

Sean McDowell, ed., Apologetics for a New Generation: A Biblical and Culturally Relevant Approach to Talking about God (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2009). $13.99, 246 pages.

How should Christians do apologetics in a postmodern cultural context?

Some Christians claim that we shouldn’t do apologetics at all, for postmoderns are not interested in truth claims. This book’s contributors disagree. Postmoderns are interested in truth claims. But biblical truth claims must be presented in a culturally relevant manner. In the words of Sean McDowell: “Apologetics for a new generation must be about winning people rather than winning arguments.”

Apologetics for a New Generation majors in strategies for winning postmodern people. This does not mean that the book is devoid of apologetic arguments. Several contributors outline arguments they find compelling. But the intended readership is not non-believers or spiritual seekers. Rather, it is pastors, evangelists, and lay Christians who desire better tools for answering the questions postmoderns ask.

Those tools include building relationships, engaging in conversations, utilizing storytelling and the arts, being sensitive to the emotional side of apologetic exchanges, and letting the questions postmoderns ask determine the apologetic agenda. Postmoderns want to know whether God exists, the Bible is historically reliable, and belief in Jesus’ resurrection is rational. But they also want to know whether Christians are racists, homophobes, and misogynists. These are not questions apologetics training courses have traditionally addressed.

Who will profit from reading this book? Pastors and evangelists, first and foremost—especially pastors who work with high school students or college-and-career young adults. But any Christian who reads this will profit from its emphasis on presenting and defending the gospel in a winsome, intelligent, and creative manner.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Own Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009). Forthcoming.

Donald Miller likes “slow literary movies that don’t seem to be about anything and yet are about everything at the same time”—Garden State, for example. I don’t, and that probably explains why I didn’t like Miller’s newest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. It didn’t seem to be about anything, and I wasn’t sure it was even about everything.

Speaking of movies, A Million Miles is partly a memoir of Miller working with a screenwriter and a cinematographer on a movie about his life. The inspiration for this movie was a memoir Miller had published previously. Other than writing several books, Miller hasn’t done much with his life. He’s not married. He doesn’t lead a church or spearhead a reform organization. He writes about himself. And he’s not even forty.

Such a life seems to me to be pretty thin gruel for yet another memoir, let alone for a movie based on his life. I get the feeling Miller feels similarly. He asks: “Who thinks they are so important they need to write books about themselves?” Who, indeed? A Million Miles is a hodgepodge of stories about Miller doing this or thinking that or feeling some other thing. Frankly, it’s boring. Not only that, it doesn’t complete the story arc. We get the beginning and middle of the tale about writing the script for a movie of Miller’s life, but the ending is missing. The screenwriting process just drops out of the story.

The book does have its moments. Miller’s telling of how he went looking for the dad who abandoned him is quite affecting, and even has a sharp, unexpected turn to it. And his tale of falling in love with a girl and proposing to her, only to have the relationship end dredged up personal memories of the demise of my own engagement 13 years ago. (I’m happily married to another woman now.) And there is a smattering of stories about friends and acquaintances who are doing something world-changing: Bob Goff working to reform the legal system in Uganda, Gary Haugen working to end human trafficking, a woman named Catherine teaching inmates real-world business skills. But these aren’t Miller’s stories; they’re the stories of Miller’s friends. And they’re much more interesting than Miller’s stories.

So, I closed this book bored and disappointed.

Fifteen minutes later, I realized three things.

First, the story of my life isn’t any better. Oh sure, I’m married to a beautiful woman and have a wonderful little boy. But my life is mostly about George P. Wood doing this or thinking that or feeling some other thing. It’s one of those literary movies, but without an epiphany, climax, or character transformation.

Second, I could write a better story. That’s one of the recurring themes in Miller’s book. If you don’t like the story of your life, writer a better one. Miller doesn’t bring much God-talk or Bible into this book, but from what he does say, you get the distinct impression that God wants a better story out of our lives too.

And third, to quote Miller’s friend Jordan: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” What do I want? And what am I willing to sacrifice to obtain it? Miller’s story, as I read it, is about an insightful guy who’s lonely and wants a better life: perhaps marriage, definitely meaningfulness. At this point, I have a hard time answering those questions for myself. I’ve got quite a lot, but I want something more out of my life.

Miller’s book—at first boring and disappointing—was an inciting incident in my life, a catalyst to make some changes. Had Miller’s own story been more exciting, I would’ve missed its application to me. And I get the idea that that was Miller’s point all along. No wonder he likes those literary movies.

The Love Revolution

Joyce Meyer, The Love Revolution (New York: Faith Words, 2009). $21.99, 272 pages.

To be perfectly honest, I did not expect to like this book.

Joyce Meyer is a well-known televangelist and advocate of the prosperity gospel. She has been publicly criticized for high living and for lack of financial transparency and accountability in her ministry. Both of these things—the bad theology and the questionable finances—predisposed me to dislike this book before I had even cracked it open.

This predisposition reminds me of the proverb, “Never judge a book by its cover.” Or its author, for that matter. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, learned from it, and was challenged by it. I have a few disagreements with it, which I’ll mention at the end of this review, but I think Meyer’s theme is right on.

The theme, stated at the outset of the book and repeated throughout, is summarized in the Love Revolution Creed: “I take up compassion and surrender my excuses. I stand against injustice and commit to live out simple acts of God’s love. I refuse to do nothing. This is my resolve. I AM THE LOVE REVOLUTION.”

The world would be a much better place if all Christians, especially us prosperous Christians in North America, took this creed to heart and put it into practice. Throughout the book, Meyer cites Scriptures reminding us our duties to help widows, poor, and the oppressed. She offers individual examples of people who are poor and oppressed, then cites statistics to show what a large problem poverty and oppression (specifically, human trafficking are). And she offers suggestions for how Christians can make a difference.

Meyer argues that the basic reason Christians don’t love in the biblical way is selfishness. “In a word,” she writes, “selfishness is the source of all the world’s troubles.” She cites 1 Timothy 6:10 several times as an example of how that selfishness is lived out with regard to money: “The love of money is a root of all evil.” This was very surprising to me, given how much criticism Meyer has taken for her own lifestyle and for the lack of financial accountability in her ministry, but I was glad to see it emphasized in her book nonetheless.

Meyer talks about big issues of global poverty and what individual Christians can do about it, but she also talks about being a loving person in everyday situations. Much of her advice has a How to Win Friends and Influence People feel to it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does significantly change the tone of the book. One minute, she’s talking about caring for an orphan who makes a living at Mumbai’s city dump; the next moment she’s talking about smiling at people and telling them they’re eyes look pretty.

That’s my first critique of the book. At times, it talks about tough issues of poverty, human trafficking, sexual abuse, and other large issues. At other times, it talks about issues that I consider much more trite. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, the focus of the book on issues both large and small makes it lack focus. On the other hand, perhaps love is more than just a focus on big issues. We should always be aware of what Dickens referred to as “telescopic charity,” the quality of loving people around the world at the expense of loving people right next door.

My second critique of the book is its individualism. Individuals must obey the biblical command to love God, neighbor, and self. But when you talk about global poverty, individual action is a beginning, but not the end. We must also talk about changing systems (through political reform) and changing communities (through the church). Ecclesiology and politics are totally absent from Meyer’s book.

Nonetheless, despite my reservations, I thought The Love Revolution was a pretty good book. And, to be perfectly honest, that shocks me, given my feelings about Joyce Meyer (noted above). Maybe that’s the greatest personal learning for me: I haven’t been charitable to her, and her book made me realize exactly how uncharitable I have been.

Atheist Delusions

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale, 2009). $28.00, 253 pages.

Over the past five years, atheists—some of whom grandiosely describe themselves as “Brights”—published a number of screeds against religion that, despite being more rhetorical than rational, nevertheless managed to sell briskly and convince (or confirm the pre-existing convictions of) a few people that unbelief is the way to go when it comes to religion.

Well, maybe. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart admits, “I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general.” He seems especially partial to Friedrich Nietzsche, for example.

Then again, maybe not. Whatever the merits of Nietzsche’s insights, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are no Nietzsches. Of them, Hart writes: “atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.”

I wish I had written that sentence.

One might mistakenly assume, from what I’ve written so far, that Hart’s book is a point-by-point refutation of the Dawkins-Dennett-Harris-Hitchens Axis of Unbelief. One might be wrong, however. Instead, Hart essays this purpose:

My chief ambition in writing is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting; how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power; its ability to create moral community where none had existed before; and its elevation of active charity above all other virtues.

In other words, the birth of Christianity was a revolution: “a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good.”

Negatively, Hart goes on to argue that—contrary to the popular picture of the modern period as an age of liberation from medieval superstitions and oppressions–“the modern age’s grand narrative of itself” is vastly overstated and even dangerous, hiding, as it does, the greatest era of barbarity in human history. The self-described atheist “Brights” may dun “religion” for its Crusades and Inquisitions, but those things hold no candle in sheer killing power to the gulag, laogai, and killing field.

To argue his thesis—in both its positive and negative aspects—Hart takes us on a historical journey of the Patristic Era, when the clash between Christian theism and Greco-Roman paganism first occurred. He shows us the Pauline demystification of the powers and principalities that peppered the pagan universe. He contrasts the tragic pagan spirit with the comic Christian spirit, the former filled with resigned despair at the cruelty of fate, the latter infused with hope in a God who saves. He shows, through a fascinating discussion of early Christian theological debates over Trinity and Incarnation, how the patristic theologians created the modern conception of personhood, and how Christian theology endowed even the lowliest of persons with dignity, unlike pagan ideology. He demonstrates that Christian theology liberated history from a chronicle of endless cycles of rises and falls and imbued human action with moral import and eschatological trajectory. And over and over again, he demonstrates how love animated Christians’ actions in the world, at least in theology, if not always in actual practice.

In a sense, Hart’s book is a historical representation of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, although this time in its defense of that same religion. Nietzsche slammed Christianity for undermining the pagan “Superman” with its insipid love of the low-born, uneducated, sick and needy. He despaired lest the triumph of Christianity leave a post-Christian era of “Last Men” without the wherewithal to traduce Christian values, having become so enslaved to them. Nietzsche knew that one could not dispense with Christian metaphysics and yet retain Christian morals. Hart knows this too. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens don’t. They want to retain the good effects of the Christian revolution without their cause. Hart won’t let them.

If you want Christian morals—a concern for rights, for the poor, for the wellbeing of the weak and innocent—you must have Christian metaphysics. Christianity created the modern concept of human being. A post-Christian world is a post-human one as well.

Atheist Delusions is well-written, even if its sentences can run to several lines. It is historically insightful, even if it wears its historical learning lightly. And it is utterly devastating to the standard atheist claim that the history of Christianity is a history of irrationality and oppression. Christians have, no doubt, had their moments. But the original revolution of Christian theology in the first four centuries of the Common Era lives on, ironically, in the moral aspirations and moralistic critiques of the atheists who don’t understand or are unwilling to take their metaphysics to their logical conclusion.

Somewhere, Nietzsche is rolling over in his grave that he’s stuck with such insipid thinkers as Dawkins et al, while the best advocate of his understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Western culture believes in the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers

There are two kinds of biographies: introductory biographies for a popular audience and advanced biographies for aficionados. Barry Mazor’s Meeting Jimmie Rodgers falls into the latter category, in my opinion.

I had never heard of Jimmie Rodgers before I read this book, and I had heard only one of his songs–“In the Jailhouse Now”–although I didn’t know it was his. Upon reading Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, however, I learned what an influential singer he had been. The subtitle of Mazor’s book gets at his thesis: “How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century.” Rodgers was heir to the music traditions of the South: hillbilly, country, blues, gospel, Vaudeville. And yet, like all artistic originals, he took that tradition and made it a new thing, his own distinctive thing. Much of Rodgers’ distinction was the “blue yodel,” which he did not invent but which he did perfect. Many country and western artists today trace their inspiration to Rodgers.

So, on the one hand, Mazor’s book told me a lot about a man I had never heard of. It also provided me with a discography of original Rodgers’ recordings, as well as recordings of his musical contemporaries and numerous imitators. On the other hand, the book assumed such a thorough knowledge of roots music generally and Jimmie Rodgers particularly that it was hard reading for this non-specialist.

On the whole, then, this is a good book. Had I been more knowledgeable about Jimmie Rodgers at the outset of reading it, I think it would have been a very good book.

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