Stuck in the Present

BEST BOOKS OF 2021

In past years I have recommended a long list of my best reads of the year. This year, I decided to recommend only three books. There are many others I could recommend, but I thought it best to reduce my favorite reads to three so as not overwhelm you with possibilities for Christmas gifts!

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom

We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy

Why We are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment

My interview with the authors can be found here:

Why We Are Restless

 

WHAT ABOUT BIDEN?

Since several friends have asked (and more of you may want to!) why my criticisms are mainly directed towards Trump, it is easy and straightforward to answer.

My teaching and writing are mainly to Christians. 

When I am speaking to someone who hates Trump and his policies, I am quite comfortable saying that I find the progressive left terribly lost. And I have a long list to offer!

But here is my concern…

I don’t hear many Christians talking about our own need for landscaping (see my previous post from Nov. 16. 

Sadly, I mainly hear (and many are glad to bend my ear about it) about how “bad our American culture has become” and little said about personal sin, or the various sins of American Christians. I am grateful for my friends who put their sins on the front burner of their complaints. It reminds me of a conversation with a pastor friend years ago during our lunch. I asked him: “What is your biggest challenge as a pastor?” He said, “Oh that’s easy Dave. My biggest problem is me.”

DO CHRISTIANS STILL BELIEVE IN FREE SPEECH?

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith

I have become skeptical whether many of us self-professed Christians believe in free speech…even in our interactions with one another!

Conservatives, whether that is of a political or theological stripe, like to criticize liberals (a word that I am using in its popular not historic sense) lack of commitment to free speech. We like to crow about the illiberalism of liberalism. I am afraid, however, that we are blind to our own hypocrisy. We are like the owners of a landscape company who lack credibility because our own backyards are full of weeds.

So, I am skeptical whether many of us self-professing Christians truly believe in free speech. You may be skeptical about my skepticism, so let me offer a few examples.

Do Not Discuss Trump!

Christians have told me they have lost friendships with fellow believers because of differences over President Trump. Others have told me that there is a well understood rule to not speak about controversial issues (again, Trump was the dominant reason given) both with friends and family members. Thanksgiving meals got even more challenging these past five years! Consider these alarming words from an eminent historian at Wheaton College:

“A 2017 poll found that one in six respondents had even cut off communication with a family member because of disagreement over the 2016 election…A survey shortly before the 2020 election found that fully two-fifths of respondents didn’t personally know a single individual who planned to vote for the candidate they themselves opposed.”

(Robert Tracy McKenzie, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy, p. 7, emphasis his)

[Doreen and I had a candid conversation with two of our closest friends this past weekend about our deep differences over Trump. We walked away with greater respect and our friendship solidly intact. I am sad to say our experience is rare.]

We are deeply divided yet remain content to hunker down in the silos that protect us from seriously considering opposing views. Interacting with those outside our own tribe is viewed as a sign of weakness, a dangerous step towards waffling on the orthodoxies of our group. The “inner ring” that C.S. Lewis wrote about can be an unforgiving place to plop your tent. There is a way out of the parochial or provincial thinking of such echo chambers, but it is a road as one famous book title described, “less traveled.” Alan Jacobs writes:

“But there are healthier kinds of group affiliation, and one of the primary ways we can tell the difference between an unhealthy Inner Ring and a healthy community is by their attitudes toward thinking. The Inner Ring discourages, mocks, and ruthlessly excludes those who ask uncomfortable questions.”

(Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, pp. 58-59, emphasis his)

I have been present in many Sunday-school classes, small group Bible studies, and other Christian gatherings where an honest question was brushed aside. I have also found that thinly veiled mockery is not just the province of non-Christian gatherings. Believe it or not, I heard professors in both seminaries I attended mock students. I was also once the target of such mockery. This particular professor realized that he was wrong about the facts, so he apologized in his office, but the mockery took place in front of eighty of my classmates.

It seems that the brushing aside or mockery of a legitimate question are due to two main reasons: it is perceived as a threat to the cohesion of the group and/or those doing the brushing aside do not have a satisfactory answer. They do not want to be exposed on a subject they really should know something about.

Is Christian Education Still Available?

Jacques Ellul famously said that propaganda is effective because most of us do not want to consider the far-reaching implications of the truth. The truth stings before it heals. The truth corrects and who is excited about being corrected? It is one reason the ancient Greeks had two words to describe true education: mathein pathein or “to learn is to suffer.” It is painful to learn that you are wrong.

I taught part-time at a rigorous prep school. I taught juniors and seniors. I was encouraged to stoke debate since this was the time in the classical trivium where debate is welcomed. This so-called rhetoric phase is the culmination of the classical model.

I loved teaching and my students appreciated my candor. It is a wealthy school. I broached their socio-economic assumptions about life in both my Bible and apologetics classes. I found out to no surprise whatsoever that this was a ticklish issue to speak about openly. I did not let that influence what I believed was proper wrestling with a critical issue. As time wore on it became painfully clear that there were other important topics that were not allowed to be debated. In no small measure, it was one of the big reasons I left.

I have been doing several interviews on my recent book, Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. In one of the first interviews, I was asked a question that included a popular Christian trope: The world “out there” is not interested in the study of history or in being thoughtful. The interviewer then said that this makes it nearly impossible for us Christians to have any reasonable conversation with those who do not know Christ. Lack of thoughtfulness was assumed to be only “out there.” I gently corrected the interviewer by saying that the lack of thoughtfulness is also a big problem among us professing Christians. To his credit, the interviewer retracted his comments.

Whether it is in stifling serious questions or believing that only outsiders lack a desire to think well, we Christians must ponder our own less than stellar example. Do we professing Christians believe in free speech? Some honest reflection about that question seems warranted.

David George Moore is the author of Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. https://www.amazon.com/Stuck-Present-History-Frees-Christians/dp/168426460X

THE MAKING OF BIBLICAL WOMANHOOD

Along with the book, Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, these books raise a number of concerns about the biblical basis for the so-called complementarian position of men and women.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood does a good job of raising questions about how the social mores of one’s time influence the way one reads the Bible. Barr provides some interesting examples, especially from her area of expertise: the Medieval period.

All of us must wrestle honestly with how much our views are influenced by the socio-historic context (our own and previous periods) in assessing whether our views are consistent with the biblical record. This is a life-long process and one all of us will receive plenty of correction on in the next life! If Paul saw through a “mirror dimly” then we ought to be more circumspect about how clearly we see, especially with respect to the issues that thoughtful Christians disagree on.

This book does not purport to be a work of exegesis. As the good scholar that she is, Barr knows well that her main lane is history. That certainly does not mean that she has nothing of value to offer about the Scriptures. That is patently not the case.

I am in that small group of “left-leaning” complementarians (though I do not like the baggage that comes with the word complementarian). By that descriptor you will know that I didn’t find all of Barr’s arguments persuasive, but I am glad for the things that did make me think afresh about this issue. My own position is that women can teach both men and women as long as it is clear that they are under the authority of the church…something I wish was taken more seriously for men as well! Having heard many men who had no business preaching and teaching, I wish churches would be careful in vetting everyone.

WE THE FALLEN PEOPLE: THE FOUNDERS AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY

I just finished We the Fallen People. Truly amazing. If I could wave a wand every American would have to read it as part of their citizenship.

Years ago, I developed “Moore’s Law of Worthwhile Reading.” I take the number of pages in a book and divide it by two. If my marginalia exceeds that number it was a worthwhile read. Some books that make the cut are ones I disagree with, but not this one. For this one, I made 321 marginal notes. These can be anything from an exclamation point to a few sentences. I never put one question mark in the margins which is rare.

In any case, I am going to be recommending this book far and wide!

My interview with Tracy will be coming soon…

MARK UP YOUR BOOKS!

I am regularly delighted to find people I respect who diligently mark up what they are reading. Here is another example I found today: J.I. Packer! Though having a top-flight education he still saw marking up his reading as the only proper engagement with a book!

And here is a smart friend by the name of Dave McCoy. Dave has a PhD in chemistry, but does not let that get in the way of him marking up his books. Check out his copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake!

And by all means make sure to mark up your Bibles! You are leaving spiritual bread crumbs for your children and children’s children. One of my Bibles followed by one of Doreen’s. We put the same notes in two study Bibles so our sons and their families can have a record of our journey with Christ.

 

EDEN’S OUTCASTS

I am writing a book on Ralph Waldo Emerson so I am very interested in his cadre of friends. Bronson Alcott and his more famous daughter Louisa are numbered among the stellar group.

Matteston’s book is fast-paced, well-written, and does a great job in describing two of the indispensable figures of nineteenth century America.

Highly recommended!

HOW CAN YOU PROTEST?

Christians have a solid basis for saying something may be legal, but remain immoral.  Abortion is a good example.
Atheists don’t have a good basis for saying is immoral even if it’s illegal.  Think of the scandals brought to the fore by the MeToo movement.
On what basis can someone protest when they don’t believe in God?

AFGHANISTAN: WHEN “REALISTIC” LOSES ITS PERSUASIVE POWER

Note to readers: This post does not address who is to blame for the debacle we are witnessing in Afghanistan. If that is your interest, you have ample things to read elsewhere.

“Let’s be realistic…” Three words that remind us that we have set our expectations too high. Three words that remind us that the real world is full of pain and suffering, so we better adjust our assumptions accordingly about how life really works.

But realistic can also be a cheap dodge from moral responsibility. Invoking the need to be “realistic” can protect us from the critical obligations of a moral life. And this moral life is messy and difficult whether we are looking to address our own life or the life of a country like Afghanistan.

It seems utterly irrational to hang onto a plane when it is taking off, but we Westerners make our judgments far too hastily. When King David numbered his troops and the non-military men, he fell under the discipline of the Lord. God gave David three possible options for his punishment. Let David’s response sink in deeply: “…I am in great distress. Let us now fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” Like the terrified Afghans, David knew full well how ruthless people can be.

From the comforts of our homes, it is understandable why we Americans feel helpless in offering anything of lasting benefit to the Afghans. I know the feeling. I wonder what I as a sixty-three-year-old man living in the safety of the American suburbs can do. It seems crazy to think I can do anything of consequence. Yes, I am terribly sad over the ghastly images I witnessed of those desperate people in Afghanistan, but then my inability to do anything screams with a clarity that seems undeniable. And inability eventually leads to a cold logic that says I have no real responsibility. It is a brutal calculus, but it permits me to go to go to bed with a clean conscience.

Realpolitik is a fancy word that describes geopolitical decisions being made based on pragmatic realities instead of allowing our moral outrage or ideological commitments to set the agenda. For example, our government (and this is true of both sides of the political aisle) understands that calling the Chinese to task for their abuse of the Uyghurs is impractical because it would hurt our economic interests. Our government can certainly offer some periodic outrage over the Uyghurs, but everyone knows, including the Chinese, that we are simply grandstanding for a hollow sound bite.

Realpolitik reminds us that America cannot be the police force for the rest of the world. It is a terrible thing to admit, but in our big and complicated world it is hard to gainsay. We Americans must simply nod in sad resignation that this is the way things are and carry on with our own lives.

During my days of college ministry, I recall hearing about a study that explained why people get more animated with lesser causes like saving the whales. Nothing wrong of course with wanting to save whales. The author of the study said people get exercised with lesser causes because the more important ones seem impossible to address. The lesser causes give us a sense that we are making some difference in the world.

It’s understandable why we are tempted to pass on bigger problems, but perhaps the crisis in Afghanistan is one we can do something about. Perhaps we are too easily invoking “Let’s be realistic about Afghanistan…” to escape things we can do.

What are those things? More than the stifling “Let’s be realistic…” will allow. Fresh brainstorming among those who know and love the Afghan people ought to be encouraged. “Let’s be realistic…” will hardly provoke the kind of creative, out of the box thinking about the issues that most vex us. “Let’s be realistic…” may also be a bogus excuse to do little to nothing when other possibilities exist, the kinds of things that only come into view when one is committed to thinking with moral clarity.