Pagans and Christians in the City | Book Review


Christianity was conceived in a Jewish womb but born into a pagan world. For the first four centuries of its existence, Christianity struggled against the polytheism, violence, and sexual immorality of classical culture, eventually displacing paganism as the default faith of the West. That dominance continued through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when conflicts between Catholics and Protestants divided Christendom and set the stage for the rise of Enlightenment secularism. Since then, secularism has slowly displaced Christianity as the West’s go-to ideology.

That’s the standard narrative of Western history, at any rate. Steven D. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City offers a thought-provoking counternarrative inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1939 Cambridge University lecture, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Speaking six months before the start of World War II, Eliot stated his conviction in binary terms: “I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”

At first glance, Eliot’s conviction and Smith’s counternarrative seem implausible. In a 1954 lecture at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis expressed impatience with “those Jeremiahs … who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’” He laughed at the very idea: “It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t.” Why? Because history does not move backward. “The post-Christian” — Lewis’ term for modernity — “is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

Fair enough. We can all have a good laugh with Lewis. But what if he misidentified an incidental feature of paganism (sacrifice) as an essential feature? What exactly ispaganism, after all? Smith describes “the pagan orientation” as “the commitment to the immanent sacred.” This orientation “beatifies and sacralizes the goods of this world.” It teaches that “‘the sacred’ exists…in this world and this life.” By contrast, Smith explains, “the Christian position has never been to deny the goodness of this world, but only to insist that it is not the ultimate good, and that its goodness derives from a more transcendent source.”

This description of paganism throws a clarifying light on the term secular, which derives from the Latin term saeculum, meaning “generation” or “age.” According to Smith, “the secular” comes in three forms. In the “pagan secular,” “this world and this life … are viewed as having a sacred quality.” In the “Christian secular,” “this life has value … because it is a (subordinate) piece of the larger domain of eternity.” Finally, there is “the distinctively modern positivistic secular reflected in the naturalistic worldview associated with modern science.” Like the pagan secular, the positivist secular has no concept of transcendence. Unlike the pagan secular, however, it also has no concept of sacredness — that is, of life’s goodness, value, or meaning.

When, therefore, public intellectuals speak of Christianity being displaced by secularism in the modern world, they need to define their terms more carefully. The positivistic secular exists, but it is a distinctly minority position. The hardest battles in today’s culture wars are fought between the pagan secular and the Christian secular — that is, between immanent and transcendent accounts of goodness, value and meaning. Smith illustrates these battles in the debates over public religious symbols, human sexuality, the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and religious freedom. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego in San Diego, California, and an acknowledged expert on religious freedom and the relationship between law and religion.

What he writes about the debate over religious freedom in particular applies just as well to the other three debates. “One side of the debate favors a conception of religious freedom that is consistent with … a city or a political community that respects and is open to transcendence.” The other side works “to maintain a public square whose commitments are confined to the satisfaction of ‘interests’ and to immanentlysacred values.” At the end of the day, then, what is at stake in all these debates is the kind of community America has been, will be, or should be. Or any other political community where Christianity and paganism clash, for that matter.

As is the case with any book that tackles as large a subject as this one, careful readers will find nits to pick with the author throughout. Whatever those nits may be, however, Pagans and Christians in the City is a real achievement, clarifying the religious nature of the culture wars that have roiled America for the past few decades and showing their deep continuity with the original four-centuries clash between Christians and pagans.

Book Reviewed
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).

P.S. This is a preview of an article appearing in the March/April 2019 edition of Influencemagazine. It is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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

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We | Book Review


Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is not as well known as George Orwell’s 1984, but it served as inspiration for Orwell’s novel. Both concern totalitarian societies ruled by iron-handed leaders. For We, this is “One State” ruled by the “Benefactor.” For 1984, it is “Oceania” ruled by “Big Brother.” In both, the citizen is under the ever-watchful eye of the state. In 1984, this is because of pervasive video technology. In We, it is because all buildings are made of transparent glass. And in both novels, the protagonist becomes momentarily free because of love for a woman, only to be dragged back into line by the state at the end.

Zamyatin was Russian, and he wrote We in the early years of the Soviet Union, though it was first published in England in 1924. In fact, Soviet authorities didn’t allow it to be published there officially until 1988. To an extent, therefore, it can be read as a critique of Soviet totalitarianism. Soviet authorities harassed Zamyatin sufficiently that he requested permission to leave the country and went into exile in 1931. He died in 1935.

And yet, as translator Clarence Brown makes clear in his Introduction, the setting could just as well be England’s industrialized north, where Zamyatin had spent two years building ice-breaker ships during World War I. In both England and the USSR, the time-and-motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor were in vogue. Taylor taught that industrial workers use of time and their bodily movements on the shop floor should be calculated precisely for the most efficient production. In that sense, human workers were just parts in an industrial machine, a theme that pervades We. Indeed, the novel explicitly mentions “Taylorism.” Every activity of the day is rigidly outlined in the “Table of Hours.” The depersonalization of human beings is so thorough that the novel refers to them as “Numbers.” The narrator and protagonist of the story is D-503, for example.

Of course, persons—as opposed to Numbers—are bound by what C. S. Lewis called “the tether and pang of the particular.” They long for love and personal intimacy. They form families. They make babies. Not for nothing, then, marriage is proscribed by OneState. Sexual access to any other Numbers is guaranteed by the state. One simply has to apply for a ticket. Reproduction is carefully controlled. What upsets this control in D-503’s case is his love for I-330, which surprises even him. And he is further surprised by O-90’s love for him, so strong that she desires to have his baby without OneState’s permission. Love, marriage, and family, it seems, are always a threat to totalitarians because it creates an identity and allegiance that supersedes the state’s authority.

Moreover, OneState is opposed to independent thinking by individuals. This is why I-330 is such an intriguing character. She dresses as she wants, plays music that she likes, and leads an organization (“Mephi”) that desires freedom from OneState. This kind of independent thinking is why OneState eventually forces all Numbers to undergo lobotomies to remove their “imagination.”

In the end, OneState wins, at least in D-503’s case, just as Winston Smith returns to—or is returned to—the fold in 1984. While I think 1984 reads better, I enjoyed We too. Or perhaps enjoyed isn’t the right word. I learned from it. The human person is not a machine and cannot be perfected through scientific management by all-powerful experts. The tether and pang of the particular is too strong.

Book Reviewed
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin, 1993).

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

The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words | 2019 Edition


Today is Abraham Lincoln’s 210th birthday, in honor of which, according to the custom of my blog, I re-post this post about Lincoln’s religious beliefs, such as they were. Enjoy!

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In 1920, William E. Barton published The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, a now classic study of the development of Lincoln’s faith. “Lincoln’s religious was an evolution,” Barton wrote, “both in its intellectual and spiritual qualities.”

Lincoln’s religious identity seems to have moved through three stages: (1) a Calvinist Baptist in childhood; (2) a skeptical, freethinker in young adulthood; and (3) and a not-altogether-orthodox Christian in mature adulthood.

“Too much of the effort to prove that Abraham Lincoln was a Christian,” Barton wrote, “has begun and ended in the effort to show that on certain theological opinions he cherished correct opinions.” Lincoln didn’t. For example, he evidently believe in evolution and universal salvation, and he had doubts about Christ’s virgin birth.

“Abraham Lincoln was not a theologian,” Barton went on to say, “and several of his theological opinions may have been incorrect; but there is good reason to believe that he was a true Christian.” By this, Barton meant that Lincoln had “a right attitude toward spiritual realities and practical duties.” (In my opinion, Lincoln was neither an infidel nor an orthodox Christian, but something in between.)

Barton concluded his study with “a series of short quotations [of Lincoln’s] from documents, letters, and addresses, certified authentic and touching directly upon points of Christian doctrine.” He organized these quotations into what he called “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words.”

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday—he was born on February 12, 1809—I’ve posted that creed below, adding footnotes that link individual phrases to their sources in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. This is the online version of Roy P. Bassler’s authoritative series of the same name.

The Creed of Abraham Lincoln in His Own Words[1]

I believe in God, the Almighty Ruler of Nations,[2] our great and good and merciful Maker,[3] our Father in Heaven, who notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads.[4]

I believe in His eternal truth and justice.[5]

I recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blest whose God is the Lord.[6]

I believe that it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.[7]

I believe that it is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father equally in our triumphs and in those sorrows[8] which we may justly fear are a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our reformation.[9]

I believe that the Bible is the best gift which God has ever given to men. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book.[10]

I believe the will of God prevails.[11] Without Him all human reliance is vain.[12] Without the assistance of that Divine Being, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.[13]

Being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, I desire that all my works and acts may be according to His will; and that it may be so, I give thanks to the Almighty, and seek His aid.[14]

I have a solemn oath registered in heaven[15] to finish the work I am in,[16] in full view of my responsibility to my God,[17] with malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives me to see the right.[18] Commending those who love me to His care, as I hope in their prayers they will commend me,[19] I look through the help of God to a joyous meeting with many loved ones gone before.[20]

 

Notes

[1] William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 300. This book is a reprint of the 1920 first edition published by George H. Doran Co. Chapter XXIII is titled, “The Creed of Abraham Lincoln.”

[2] “First Inaugural Address—Final Text,” March 4, 1861.

[3] “To John D. Johnston,” January 12, 1851.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “First Inaugural Address.”

[6] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day,” March 30, 1863.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” July 15, 1863.

[9] “Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day.”

[10] “Reply to Loyal Colored People of Baltimore upon Presentation of a Bible,” September 7, 1864.

[11] “Meditation on the Divine Will,” [September 2, 1862?].

[12] “To the Friends of Union and Liberty,” May 9, 1864.

[13] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois,” February 11, 1861.

[14] “Reply to Eliza P. Gurney,” October 26, 1862.

[15] “First Inaugural Address.”

[16] “Second Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1865.

[17] “Message to Congress,” March 6, 1862.

[18] “Second Inaugural Address.”

[19] “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois.”

[20] “To John D. Johnston.”

Leadershift | Book Review


“Every advance you make as a leader will require a leadershift that changes the way you think, act, and lead,” writes John C. Maxwell in Leadershift. He goes on to enumerate eleven specific changes, which he illustrates with stories from his own leadership journey. He also provides practical advice to help readers make necessary shifts in their own leadership practices.

Maxwell defines leadershifting as “the ability and willingness to make a leadership change that will positively enhance organizational and personal growth.” Here are the specific changes he outlines:

  • focus: from soloist to conductor,
  • personal development: from goals to growth,
  • cost: from perks to price,
  • relational: from pleasing people to challenging people,
  • abundance: from maintaining to creating,
  • reproduction: from ladder climbing to ladder building,
  • communication: from directing to connecting,
  • improvement: from team uniformity to team diversity,
  • influence: from positional authority to moral authority,
  • impact: from trained leaders to transformational leaders, and
  • passion: from career to calling.

Like all of Maxwell’s books, Leadershift offers shrewd advice in simple language. Some readers may find its advice formulaic. Others, myself included, think the formulas make the advice memorable and therefore easier to act on. Having followed Maxwell’s writing for more than 25 years, I can honestly say that anyone who takes his advice to heart will improve as a leader.

Though written for a broad audience, Leadershift contains illustrations and applications directly relevant to church leaders. “If you want to be successful as a leader,” Maxwell writes, “you need to learn to become comfortable with uncertainty and make shifts continually.” His book shows how to do precisely that.

 

Book Reviewed
John C. Maxwell, Leadershift: The 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace (Nashville, TN: HarperCollins Leadership, 2019).

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

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

Help! I’m in Charge | Book Review


The highest compliment I can pay Rod Loy for his leadership is that the better you know him, the better you think of him, both as a person and as a pastor. That’s not always true of Christian leaders, but it’s true of him. I can recommend his new book, Help! I’m in Charge, because I can recommend him as someone to listen to.

Help! I’m in Charge is the fourth book I’ve read by Rod. (The others are 3 Questions, Immediate Obedience, and After the Honeymoon.) According to the subtitle, it examines “stuff leadership excerpts didn’t tell you.” And that’s about right. Most leadership experts discuss mission, vision, and values from a 30,000-foot level, Rod gets into the weeds, talking the nitty-gritty of leadership on the ground.

The book’s chapter titles helpfully identify the practical topics Rod examines:

  1. You’ll Need to Get Comfortable Outside Your Comfort Zone
  2. The One Thing You CanExpect Is the Unexpected
  3. We all Make Monumental Mistakes
  4. Unresolved Conflict Never Solved Anything
  5. Your Ability Won’t Get You Far if People Don’t Like You
  6. A Leader Leads Everybody, Not Just a Select Group
  7. Don’t Go into the Poor Without a Lifeguard
  8. You Can Respond Stupidly or Wisely to Criticism and Correction
  9. Everyone Wants to Be Treated with Respect
  10. Great Leaders Are Willing to Sacrifice Their Rights

Chapter 5 was the most personally challenging for me. So much so, that I’ve written “Your Ability Won’t Get You Far If People Don’t Like You” on a sticky note and affixed it to my computer screen, which—because I’m an editor—I stare at most of my working hours. Leaders need to turn off their screens, get up off their chairs, and grab face-to-face time with others if they want to be effective. At least I do.

Here are some other passages in Help! I’m in Charge that I’ve dogeared: “How to Handle the Unexpected” (pp. ##), “How to Know Which Person Is in the Right” (pp. ##), “How to Become a Secure Leader” (pp. ##), “How to Bring Out the Best in Insecure People” (pp. ##), and “Reasons People Avoid and Resist Accountability” (pp. ##).

Rod is great at epitomizing matters, so there are a lot of helpful lists throughout the book. Chapter 9, “Everyone Wants to Be Treated with Respect,” outlines the differences between exclusive and inclusive leaders, for example. Sometimes, I’ll write that a particular chapter is worth the price of an entire book. For what it’s worth, I thought this entire book was worth the price of the entire book.

As with Rod’s other books, Help! I’m in Chargecombines helpful principles, biblical insights, telling anecdotes, and personal authenticity. For me, this is most evident in the Epilogue, which recounts how Rod and his wife Cindy responded when she was diagnosed with cancer in spring 2017. Cindy is healthy now, but they welcomed that experience as an opportunity to draw closer to God. By sharing it with their church, they invited others to draw closer to Him as well.

A leader who models how to follow God when life is hard is the kind of leader I want to follow, even if only by reading his book, which I think you should.

Book Reviewed
Rod Loy, Help! I’m in Charge: Stuff Leadership Experts Didn’t Tell You (Springfield, MO: Influence Resources, 2018).

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

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with Rod about the book:

The Soul of a Team | Book Review


“What separates the truly great teams from the mediocre ones?” asks Tony Dungy in The Soul of a Team. His answer is “four simple yet highly effective principles — selflessness, ownership, unity, and larger purpose.” The principles form a memorable acronym: S.O.U.L.

Here’s how Dungy defines the principles:

  • Selflessness: Putting individual needs aside for the good of the team.
  • Ownership: Fulfilling your role by learning it thoroughly and by consistently giving 100 percent.
  • Unity: Understanding and rallying around your team’s mission, philosophy, and culture through open communication and positive conflict resolution.
  • Larger Purpose: Contributing to the wider community in a lasting and significant way.

Selflessness, ownership, and unity constitute the what of teamwork, but larger purpose constitutes the why. Teams often find that defining their larger purpose is a difficult task, but once they have done so, writes Dungy, that purpose “guides their decision-making, shapes their relationships, and influences their conduct,” as well as gives a team “a vibrancy and sense of worth it wouldn’t otherwise have.”

To illustrate the S.O.U.L. principles, Dungy narrates the turnaround of a fictional football team, the Orlando Vipers, in desperate need of a winning season. The principles themselves are transferable to any endeavor that requires teamwork, however, including ministry. Throughout the book, Dungy’s leadership advice is rooted in his Christian faith.

The Soul of Leadership is written in the vein of Patrick Lencioni’s “leadership fables.” If you like the format of Lencioni’s books — tell a story, then explain its meaning — you may like this one too.

Book Reviewed
Tony Dungy with Nathan Whitaker, The Soul of a Team: A Modern-Day Fable for Winning Teamwork (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2019).

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

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

Praying Circles Around Your Marriage | Book Review


Some books offer advice about marriage, others about prayer.

Praying Circles Around Your Marriage offers advice about both, under the assumption that couples who pray together stay together.“The richness of your marriage will be determined by how frequently and how fervently God is invited into your relationship,” write Joel and Nina Schmidgall. “Prayer will draw you into unity with God and, as a result, with one another.”

The concept of “praying circles around _____” comes from Mark Batterson’s excellent book, The Circle Maker. The Schmidgalls are in-laws of Batterson and work with him at National Community Church in Washington, D.C., Joel as executive pastor and Nina as direct of family ministry. Their book is an excellent addition to the “Circle Maker” brand.

The Schmidgalls identify seven areas (or “circles”) of marriage that couples need to address prayerfully:

  • developing a shared purpose (Vision Circle),
  • resolving family conflicts (War Circle),
  • cultivating personal intimacy (Romance Circle),
  • balancing marital unity with individual interests (Dance Circle),
  • establishing a peer network (Support Circle),
  • responding to unexpected crises (Storm Circle), and
  • impacting future generations (Legacy Circle).

“Of course, the purpose of prayer is not to get what we want from God for our marriage,” the Schmidgalls write in conclusion. “Its purpose is to commune with God and gain His heart for our marriage.”

Praying Circles Around Your Marriage offers Bible-based, common-sense, experience-tested advice about prayer-filled marriages. It’s suitable for private reading but can also be used in premarital and marriage counseling, as well as in book clubs and small groups.

Book Reviewed
Joel and Nina Schmidgall, Praying Circles Around Your Marriage (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

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

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com. It appeared in the January-February 2019 issueof Influence magazine.

P.P.P.S. I interviewed Joel and Nina for Episode 164 of the Influence Podcast. Take a listen!