Didn’t See It Coming | Book Review

Next year, I turn 50. I am neither the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed twentysomething I used to be, nor the worn-out old man yelling, “Get off my lawn!” that I sometimes fear becoming. Instead, I am in between.

In between is a weird place to be. You’re neither where you started nor where you’re going. You’ve come a long way, but you’ve still got a long way to go. The journey has given you road-tested experience, but that experience has dulled your wariness of what’s just around the corner.

So, when trouble strikes, you don’t see it coming. Carey Nieuwhof didn’t write this book for middle-agers like me, even though he’s middle-aged like me. Nor did he write it solely for pastors or other Christians, even though he’s a Christian pastor. Instead, he wrote Didn’t See It Comingfor anyone who wants to live free of cynicism, moral compromise, disconnection from others, irrelevance to others, pride, burnout, or a general feeling of emptiness. Those are the “7 greatest challenges that no one expects and everyone experiences,” as the book’s subtitle puts it.

If you’re young, this book will help you proactively keep a fresh, hopeful perspective on life, work and ministry. If you didn’t see it coming — itbeing one of those seven horribles — this book will help you recognize where you went wrong and how to get back on the right path. And if you’re in between, like me, it will help you make mid-course corrections so that your experience and hopefulness can be mutually enriching. Throughout the book, Nieuwhof’s advice is biblically grounded, eminently practical and winsomely delivered.

I’ve leave you with this quote, which expresses the key insight of Didn’t See It Coming: “Simply put, self-awareness coupled with a close walk with God will [help you see it coming every time]. When you are intimately in touch with your own emotions and inclinations and deeply knowledgeable about the ways of God, you’ll have a much greater chance of seeing it — whatever itis. Self-aware people have a conscious knowledge of their motives, desires, feelings, and character. They are also in tune with how their actions affect others. The more self-aware you are, the more likely you are to see it coming.”

Book Reviewed
Carey Nieuwhof, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences(Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook, 2018).

P.S. If you find this review helpful, please click the “Helpful” button on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast about the book with Carey Nieuwhof.


The Coddling of the American Mind | Book Review

“This is a book about wisdom and its opposite,” write Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind. “It is a book about three psychological principles and about what happens to young people when parents and educators—acting with the best of intentions—implement policies that are inconsistent with those principles.” In my opinion, it is also a book every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read.

And yes, I am serious about that.

The Coddling of the American Mind grew out of the increased support among college students for censorship of controversial opinions, a trend that Lukianoff began to notice in the fall of 2013. Lukianoff is president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a leading advocate for free speech on college and university campuses. In his experience, until that time, the leading advocates for censorship had been college administrators. What was driving the rapid rise of support for censorship among students?

For much of his life, Lukianoff had suffered clinical depression, even contemplating suicide in late 2007. In 2008, he underwent cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that identifies distorted patterns of thinking that often underlie depression and anxiety, and this helped him tremendously. As Lukianoff interacted with students, he noticed that the way they reasoned about controversial issues often mirrored the same cognitive distortions CBT teaches people to control.

This insight led to a conversation with Haidt, a social psychologist, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. That conversation led to a feature story in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic. The book builds out the article’s core thesis.

Lukianoff and Haidt unfold their argument in three parts: Part I, “Three Bad Ideas,” looks at “three Great Untruths”:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weaker
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life Is a Battled Between Good People and Evil People

Taken together, these untruths result in “a culture of safetyism” on campus, whereby students must be protected from opposing opinions that might “harm” their “safety,” no longer defined as physical safety but now as emotional safety too.

The results of this culture of safetyism, ironically enough, are intimidation and violence on the one hand and witch hunts on the other, as the Lukianoff and Haidt argue in Part II, “Bad Ideas in Action.”

They cite the February 1, 2017, anti-Milo Yiannopoulos riot at the University of California at Berkeley as an example of the former, though there are many such examples scattered throughout the book. But the threats of violence are not merely coming from leftwing Antifa activists on campus. The authors point to alt-right off-campus provocation as well, specifically the neo-Nazi march through the University of Virginia’s campus on August 11, 2017. The confrontation between protesters and counterprotesters the next day resulted in the vehicular murder of Heather Heyer by an alt-right driver.

Lukianoff and Haidt cite several examples of academic witch hunts conducted against professors who utter heterodox ideas, even if they are liberal or leftwing. Prof. Bret Weinstein’s protest of the “Day of Absence” at Evergreen State College in Washington is a leading example of this. The school is quite liberal, as is Weinstein. On its annual Day of Absence, minority faculty students had since the 1970s gone off campus to make their absence, and hence contributions, palpable. But in 2017, organizers of the event asked white faculty and students not to show up. Weinstein thought this went too far and was subjected to vicious protests for saying so.

As these events illustrate, college and university campuses, which are supposed to be beacons of free speech, have instead in many cases become their opposite. There is no one-size-fits-all explanation for why this has happened, but in Part III, “How Did We Get Here?,” Lukianoff and Haidt identify “six interacting explanatory threads”:

“rising political polarization and cross-part animosity; rising levels of teen anxiety and depression; changes in parenting practices; the decline of free play; the growth of campus bureaucracy; and a rising passion for justice in response to major national events, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires.”

This may be the most interesting part of the book, rich in social scientific detail and fair-minded in its analysis. As the parent of three elementary-age children, the chapters on “Paranoid Parenting” and “The Decline of Free Play” were thought-provoking and helpful.

Part IV, “Wising Up,” builds on the analysis of the previous chapters and suggests a way forward for making “Wiser Kids,” “Wiser Universities,” and “Wiser Societies,” as the titles of the three chapters indicate. A table on page 263 summarizes the argument of the entire book, so I’ll reproduce it here:

Young people are antifragile. Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
We are all prone to emotional reasoning and the confirmation bias. Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother. Always trust your feelings.
We are all prone to dichotomous thinking and tribalism. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. Life is battle between good people and evil people.

As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I am serious when I say that every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read The Coddling of the American Mind. It stimulated my thinking as a parent and helped form a better opinion of contemporary events as a concerned citizen. As a person, it provided an accessible introduction to cognitive behavioral therapy, identifying the cognitive distortions that misshape our opinions and hence misguide our actions. And it reminded me that people across the aisle from me—politically and religiously—are also intelligent and public-minded and can have things to say I need to hear.

So, buy this book. Read it. Then share it.

Book Reviewed
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure(New York: Penguin Press, 2018).

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

Sword and Scimitar | Book Review

In his 1996 bestseller, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel P. Huntington argued “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” He went on to describe several civilizational cohorts, but a comment on Islam is germane here: “In the early 1990s, Muslims were engaged in more intergroup violence than were non-Muslims, and two-thirds to three-quarters of intercivilizational wars were between Muslims and non-Muslims.” Then came his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) conclusion: “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

Raymond Ibrahim neither quotes nor cites Huntington in Sword and Scimitar—and of course, Huntington can’t be held responsible for Ibrahim’s scholarship since he’s dead—but I get the impression that Ibrahim would assent to Huntington’s characterization of Islam, then kick it up a notch. Here’s how he describes the book’s thesis in the Preface:

Sword and Scimitar documents how the West and Islam have been mortal enemies since the latter’s birth some fourteen centuries ago. It does this in the context of narrating their military history, with a focus on their most landmark encounters, some of which have had a profound impact on the shaping of the world. However, unlike most military histories—which no matter how fascinating are ultimately academic—this one offers timely correctives: it sets the much distorted historical record between the two civilizations straight and, in so doing, demonstrates once and for all that Muslim hostility for the West is not an aberration but a continuation of Islamic history.”

Islam’s borders have been bloody since its inception, in other words.

Ibrahim argues in favor of this thesis by tracing the causes, fighting, and outcomes of eight key battles between “Islam and the West,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. Four were won by Muslim forces, four by Christian forces. The key battles are, in order, Yarmuk (636), Constantinople (717), Tours (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople again (1453), and Vienna (1683). His narration of those events is riveting, often drawing on contemporary Christian and Muslim sources. Moreover, he shows the relationship of these battles to other practices, especially Islamic slavery and the Christian Crusades.

Obviously, Ibrahim’s is not a politically correct thesis. Essentially, it blames Islam for centuries of violence against what its author variously describes as “the West” or “Christendom.” Specifically, it identifies the source of that violence as the command of Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, as expressed in both the Koran and the most authoritative Hadith. “I have been commanded to wage war against mankind,” Ibrahim quotes the prophet as saying, “until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

It is tempting to dismiss this interpretation of Islam out of hand, but it is an old one. Ibrahim cites both Muslim explanations for and Christian denunciations of the warfare that erupted out of Arabia from the get-go. The Battle of Yarmuk, for example, took place in 636, just four years after the death of Muhammad. In the late fourteenth century, Manuel II Palailogos, heir to the throne of Constantinople, but then a hostage in the court of Turkish Sultan Bayezid, said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword the faith he preached.” Pope Benedict XVI quoted these words in his 2006 speech at Regensburg, and several anti-Christian riots erupted in a few places in the Muslim world, which seemed to some to prove his point.

We often think of the relationship between the West and the Muslim umma as one of colonizer and colonized, respectively. That’s a somewhat accurate way to describe their relationship since the eighteenth century, but until then, it’s just as plausible to reverse the relationships. Until largely Catholic forces under Jan Sobieski defeated Kara Mustafa Pasha before the gates of Vienna on September 12, 1683, the relationship was often the reverse. Successive waves of Muslim colonizers controlled formerly Christian lands, first in the Middle East and Africa, then in parts of southern and eastern Europe. (Ibrahim doesn’t mention the expansion of Islam in other lands). We’re accustomed in this postmodern age to read history from its underside. Ibrahim isn’t a postmodernist by any stretch of the imagination, but much of his narration depends on reminding readers what the defeated Christian populations of the once Christianized Roman empire thought of their new Islamic overlords. It’s definitely an underside perspective.

Still, I have significant reservations about the book. First, Ibrahim positions that book as a history of warfare between “Islam” and the “West.” But by “West,” he really means “Christendom,” which included both western and eastern halves. With the exception of Moorish Spain, it’s the eastern half of Christendom that has been subject to Muslim control the longest. But more problematically, both “Islam” and “Christendom” are complex realities, whose essence is difficult to define. As a Pentecostal, for example, I’m not sure I want to be on the hook for the Crusades, as important as they may have been to medieval Christendom, let alone the cozy Constantinian relationship between Church and State that preceded it. Obviously, I can’t speak for Muslims, but if I were them, I’m not sure I’d buy Ibrahim’s essentialist understanding of Islam as jihadist.

Second, methodologically, by focusing on battles, Ibrahim paints a picture of Christian-Islamic relations that emphasizes warfighting but deemphasizes day-to-day realities. Ibrahim’s subtitle speaks of “fourteen centuries of war between Islam and the West,” but in reality, the battles were not nonstop. They occurred, then things settled down into an equilibrium. We shouldn’t paint too rosy a picture of dhimmi status, of course. Non-Muslim residents of the umma were not treated as the equals of believers, after all. But their lot wasn’t one of constant oppression, either. As Ibrahim himself notes, the brutality often happened in the wake of Muslim losses to Christian forces.

Third, we shouldn’t discount nonreligious, realpolitik, and geopolitical motivations for the warfare that occurred over the centuries. Take the Battle of Vienna, for example, which historians conventionally use to demarcate the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The September 12th battle pitted Catholic forces against Muslim forces, at least those were the dominant religious identities of the two sides. But the forces led by Sobieski included Crimean Tatars (Muslims), and the forces led by Mustafa included French and Transylvanian Catholics, as well as Hungarian Protestants. Each of the minority groups within these coalitions had grievances against their coreligionists that impelled them to join forces with the “other side.” In other words, more was at work than simple religious identity.

Fourth, contemporary Christians who read the justifications for violence blanche at the religious motives at work. When Pope Urban II called for the Crusades, he said, “Rise up and remember the manly deeds of your ancestors, the prowess and greatness of Charlemagne, of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who destroyed pagan kingdoms and planted the holy church in their territories.” No Christian today would argue that the State should plant the Church in heathen lands for the perfectly good reason that that’s not the way of Jesus Christ. Christians in earlier ages had no problems with this kind of Church-sanctioned, State-enforced violence, but we do, and with good cause. Given that contemporary Christians scratch their heads at our ancestors religious justifications for war, perhaps we should extend the same courtesy to Muslims as they read their own foundational texts.

Fifth and finally, even acknowledging that some Muslims—say, the fanatics of the Islamic State—read their foundational texts to license violence against others, the vast majority of Muslims don’t. This is the great failing of Ibrahim’s book, it seems to me. Are Islam’s borders and innards bloody? Perhaps, but the first victims are often Muslims themselves, who suffer at the hands of fanatical coreligionists they do not support but cannot overcome. This calls into question the notion that Islam, at its civilizational essence, is little more than ceaseless jihad against unbelievers.

In conclusion, Sword and Scimitar is an interesting book, especially in its quotation of primary sources, which provide a lens through which to view those battles in their historical contexts. The problem is that if you look at Muslim-Christian interactions only through that lens, you miss out on important aspects of the scene before you.

Book Reviewed
Raymond Ibrahim, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War Between Islam and the West(New York: Da Capo Press, 2018).

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

How to Create a Volunteer-Friendly Culture at Your Church | Influence Podcast

God designed the Church to run on volunteer power. Every member of the congregation is a spiritually gifted individual, after all, called and empowered to do “the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12, ESV). And yet, many churches experience a chronic shortage of volunteers.

What is the cause of this shortage, and what can pastors and other church leaders do about it?

Those are the questions Influence magazine I talk about with Jill Fox in Episode 153 of the Influence Podcast. Fox is ministry initiatives and next gen pastor at Westwood Community Church in Excelsior, Minnesota, and co-author, with Leith Anderson, of two books: The Volunteer Church and Volunteering, both published by Zondervan. (See my review here.)

Depth of Winter | Book Review

Depth of Winteris Craig Johnson’s fourteenth novel featuring lawman Walt Longmire, and to be honest, it is a disappointment. I say this with regret because I am a fan of the Longmire series, having read all thirteen previous novels as well as the two novellas and collection of short stories. My basic rule for fiction is whether it keeps me turning pages. On that account, the novel failed. I had to force myself to keep reading.

This surprised me. The setup of the novel is good. At the end of The Western Star, Longmire’s archnemesis Tomas Bidarte had kidnapped Cady, fled to Mexico, and dared Longmire to come and get her (and him). This sets up Depth of Winteras a suspense novel focused on rescue and revenge.

So why didn’t this setup work for me? Several reasons:

First, the novel is set in the badlands of Mexico, doesn’t include the usual cast of characters (e.g., Henry, Vic), and introduces other characters that won’t appear in any future Longmire capers. Plus, some of those characters—the legless, blind hunchback; the doctor/intelligence officer/anti-cartel vigilante; the mute Indian sniper—are caricatures, too overdrawn even for Longmire’s admittedly eccentric social network.

Second, what makes fiction work is the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. The overdrawn characters made me pay more attention to how unrealistic the setup is. Longmire is going to the heart of Mexican cartel country in order to rescue his daughter and kill his enemy. Alone? At his age?

Longmire graduated from USC and served in Vietnam. He was in country during the Tet Offensive, which took place in 1968. At minimum, that means he’s 22 in 1968, which means he was born in 1946. (One estimate I saw online estimates his birthyear as 1943.) If the events of Depth of Winterare contemporary, that means Longmire is in his early to mid-70s. And he takes the hardships and beatings in this story as well as he does? I don’t thinks so.

Third, Johnson’s previous novels in this series have been mysteries. There’s a crime, and Longmire solves it. Suspense novels work somewhat differently. There’s a complex problem that needs to be solved, but the question is whether the protagonist will solve it in time. Obviously, readers know that Longmire will at minimum get his daughter back and live, so the question is how tight his escapes will be, how just-in-time he’ll solve the problem. Unfortunately, given the problems I mentioned in my first two points, the tightness and just-in-timeness factors weren’t believable.

As I said at the outset, I’ve been a fan of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, so I regret to file such a poor review of it. I’ll give Johnson one more novel in this series to recapture my interest, but at this point, absent a great follow-up novel to this one, I think it’s time for the sheriff to retire.

Book Review
Craig Johnson, Depth of Winter(New York: Viking, 2018).

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

To Heal the World? | Book Review

Tikkun olamis Hebrew for “to heal the world.” It has become a popular catchphrase among leftwing American Jewish rabbis and social activists. According to them, it is an ancient teaching of Judaism, and therefore a religious foundation for their politics.

The only problem is that it isn’t. At least that’s what Jonathan Neumann concludes in To Heal the World. He argues that tikkun olamprovides a religious covering for a political ideology that has been arrived at via nonreligious means. And that political ideology is “social justice.”

Here’s how Neumann defines that political ideology:

“Social justice is a political philosophy that advocates the redistribution of income—and sometimes even wealth and other property—in order to achieve economic egalitarianism…. In more recent decades, social justice has also come to include an agenda of permissive social policies that leave lifestyle questions to the discretion of the individual and promote gender diversity; an approach to foreign and defense policy that emphasizes multilateral diplomacy over military strength; a preference for comprehensive alternatives to the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy for the sake of the environment; and other attitudes and policies associated predominantly with today’s left-wing political parties…. Over the past several years, campus radicals have tried to impose even more extreme conceptions of social justice on their universities through protests over safe spaces and microaggressions, and increasingly perceive social justice through the prism of intersectionality, which portrays society as the Manichean struggle for justice by powerless victims against oppressive power-holders.”

Neumann rightly thinks this definition is noncontroversial: “your own experience ought to confirm it: just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘social justice,’ and which politicians you think are more likely to refer to it.”

To Heal the Worlddoesn’t offer a comprehensive critique of social-justice policies, although Neumann clearly sails on the starboard side of the political ship. Instead, the book deconstructs the notion that tikkun-olam-as-social-justice bears any necessary relationship to Judaism. Indeed, it argues that the social justice scheme promulgated by the Jewish left “corrupts Judaism and endangers Israel,” in the lapidary words of the subtitle.

Here’s how Neumann’s argument unfolds: After defining the problem in the book’s Introduction, chapters 1 and 2 describe, respectively, the emergence of the Jewish Left out of Reform Judaism and the increasing use of tikkun olamto describe its agenda. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European Jews began to experience increasing freedom from the legal restraints and social prejudices that had hitherto been placed on their communities by Christian states. In consequence, some of them began to shed the particularistic rituals of traditional Judaism and emphasize Judaism’s universalistic ethics, which looked surprisingly Kantian. In postwar America, this commitment to universalistic ethics came to be expressed as tikkun olam. The takeaway from Neumann’s historical narrative is twofold: First, Reform Judaism’s relationship to traditional Judaism was critical from the beginning. It sought at its inception to distance itself from Judaism as it had been practiced historically. Second, its universalizing mode rendered Jewish particularism highly problematic, including its longings for Zion.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Reform Judaism rethought both these points, and sought to root its thinking in Tanakh (the Hebrew acronym for what Christians call the Old Testament), as well as to give qualified support to the nascent Jewish state. Chapters 3 through 7 examine the progressive Jewish use of the biblical narratives of creation, Abraham, Joseph, Exodus, and the prophets to underwrite their political ideology. In each case, Neumann shows that the tikkun olam/social justice readings of the relevant passages are problematic, both because they are bad textual readings (“eisegesis” rather than “exegesis”) and because they bear so little relationship to traditional Jewish interpretation. Whatever else they are, Neumann contends, they are problematic as Jewishreadings of the text.

Indeed, chapter 8 argues that the Jewish Left’s use of tikkun olamitself is problematic. The phrase is taken from the Aleynu, a prayer offered in Judaism’s three daily services. Tikkun olamdoesn’t appear in the Bible, its use in the Talmud and Midrash is rare and suggests something far less totalizing than social justice, and its appearance in the Kabbalah takes the concept in a different direction than where the Jewish Left goes with it. Recognizing these deficiencies, some progressive Jews have stopped using tikkun olamas an organizing concept altogether. The first paragraph of chapter 9 summarizes Neumann’s case against the Jewish Left to this point: “What the Bible says and what the Jewish social justice movement thinks it says diverge…. And tikkun olam itself has never meant what American Jews now understand the term to mean.”

That tension between social justice and traditional Judaism is the subject of chapter 10, “Social Justice vs. Israel.” Historically, Judaism is a particularistic religion, a “Chosen People” with a “Promised Land.” Given the Jewish Left’s historical roots in Reform Judaism, and given Reform Judaism’s tendency to universalism rather than particularism, it was almost inevitable that there would be a clash between the demands of “social justice” and the hopes for a renewed Jewish nation in Israel. After the Holocaust, that tension was tamped down for a time, but one doesn’t have to look too hard today to find leftwing Jewish critics of the entire Zionist project.

Indeed, the assumptions of tikkun olam/social justice Judaism problematizes the very existence of a Jewish identity, as chapter 11 makes clear. If the essence of Judaism is universalistic ethics, then why be Jewish at all? Judaism as such—its history, traditions, rituals, etc.—provide nothing more than illustrations of moral themes that can be derived from sources other than the Bible. And if the State of Israel itself constitutes an existential social-justice problem, why be a Jew at all?

For Neumann, tikkun olamundermines Jewish Peoplehood and forecasts the redundancy of the Jews: “Social justice has no need for Jews: by its logic, they need not concern themselves with perpetuating their people, need not limit themselves to Jewish partners, and need not raise their children to be Jewish. They need only work to repair the world—a pursuit that eventually involves their very dissolution into the rest of humanity.”

In chapter 12, Neumann suggests an alternative: “Jews can reimagine the possibility that their ancient heritage has something unique to say—something greater than a mere echo of the political and cultural fads of our time.” This is particularism for the sake of universalism, and it finds precedent deep in the Bible and Jewish tradition: “through your [i.e., Abraham’s] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me” (Genesis 22:18).

As a Gentile and a Christian, I’m not sure what to make of Neumann’s final proposal. What fascinates me about To Heal the Worldis the parallel that leftwing Judaism and tikkun olamhas with liberal Protestantism and the “Social Gospel.” Neumann makes this parallel explicit, arguing that Reform Judaism drew a part of its inspiration from the Social Gospel movement. If so, that raises the question in my mind whether the relationship between the Social Gospel and traditional Christianity is as biblically and theologically problematic as the relationship between tikkun olamand traditional Judaism.

But that’s a question for another day and another book.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Neumann, To Heal the World: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel(New York: All Points Books, 2018).

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

On Reading Well | Book Review

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. My father was a pastor and my mother was a teacher, so there were always books around the house — preeminently the Bible, but also works of fiction and nonfiction. I never caught flak for reading as such, but my mom would sometimes look askance at me when I told her I was reading fiction.

Fiction is weird. Pablo Picasso wrote, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” Leland Ryken, my college English professor, said the same thing about fiction particularly. It is “the lie that tells the truth.” That’s what makes fiction weird. It describes the human condition without narrating a historical occurrence.

Some Christians trip over this paradox. I vividly remember a conversation with an older minister who insisted that Jesus’ parables weren’t made-up stories. They actually happened. If they were made up, he reasoned, then Jesus lied. Since Jesus didn’t lie, His parables took place in real life. The minister simply couldn’t see how a made-up story could tell the truth.

Other Christians trip over fiction’s literary form. They are so concerned for fiction to tell “The Truth” that they write and/or read novels that are thinly veiled Sunday school lessons. I think this is why so much “Christian fiction” is so badly reviewed. Literary art gets sacrificed on the altar of making a point.

On Reading Wellby Karen Swallow Prior avoids both of these errors. It shows how the best fiction uses literary art to display virtue or its opposite. That’s not all fiction does, of course. It delights, intrigues, inspires, enrages, entertains, and a thousand other things, too. But good fiction preaches without being preachy. It moralizes without becoming moralistic. As Prior writes:

“Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue.”

After an Introduction that explores the connection between literature and virtue, Prior divides her book into three parts grouped around a particular set of virtues, with each chapter pairing a particular virtue with a particular story.

Part One focuses on the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice and courage. The word cardinalderives from the Latin word for hinge. According to both classical philosophers and early Christian theologians, all other virtues pivot around these four. That’s why they’re cardinal. Prior explores these virtues through careful readings of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundingby Henry Fielding (prudence); The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (temperance); A Tale of Two Citiesby Charles Dickens (justice): and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (courage).

Part Two examines the theological virtues: faith, hope and love. “In contrast to the other virtues,” Prior writes, “these virtues can be attained only when granted to us by God through his supernatural grace.” That is why they’re theological. The books Prior studies in these chapters are Silenceby Shusaku Endo (faith), The Roadby Cormac McCarthy (hope), and The Death of Ivan Ilychby Leo Tolstoy (love). For me, the chapters on faith and hope were the most challenging in the book, given the apostasy that lies at the heart of Endo’s tale and the hopelessness of McCarthy’s. Most challenging, but also most rewarding.

Finally, Part Three explores the heavenly virtues, which are the counterparts to the seven deadly sins. They are charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. Since Swallow discussed charity and temperance in preceding parts of the book, she skips them here, focusing on the last five. The works she discusses are Ethan Fromeby Edith Wharton (chastity); Pilgrim’s Progressby John Bunyan (diligence); Persuasionby Jane Austen; “The Tenth of December” by George Saunders; and two short stories by Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

I have nothing but praise for this book. It exemplifies how to read well, both in the sense of reading closely and of reading through the lens of moral analysis. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the book is that when I turned its last page, I wanted to read (or re-read) the works of fiction it studied.

The Puritan divine Richard Baxter wrote, “Good books are a very great mercy to the world.” They are, and Karen Swallow Prior’s book shows why. Fiction, at least the best of it, offers us a window onto life and into ourselves that can alter our perceptions and lead to metanoia, a change of mind, being and action. Given that we are not as virtuous as we could be, let alone as we should be, that change is necessary. And if “the lie that tells the truth” aids us in making that change, then let us read it well.

Book Reviewed
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Brooks(Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018).

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

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