MTA: Course Correction with Case Studies

Mahan, Jeffrey H., Barbara B. Troxell, and Carol J. Allen. (MTA) Shared Wisdom: A Guide to Case Study Reflection in Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my Clinical Pastoral Education at Providence Hospital, I learned about pastoral care in an institutional setting. My two classes both had six students and we divided our time between patient visits and classroom activities. These activities included lectures, group projects, sharing autobiographies and genograms, and offering each other feedback. Probably the most feared and most helpful activity involved sharing verbatims that were case studies of patient visits that did not go well.

Introduction

In their book, Shared Wisdom, A Guide to Case Study Reflection, authors Jeffrey Mahan, Barbara Troxell, and Carol Allen (MTA) write:

“This book is offered as an invitation to those involved in ministry—whether in congregations or in specialized settings—to engage in a process of reflection on their practice of ministry.”(12)

The goal of case studies is to equip the presenter to return to ministry with greater insight and confidence in themselves and in God’s provision and protection. (19).

Case studies are most helpful when they assist participants in learning from their mistakes, but, of course, focusing on mistakes requires that one first admit to them. In a world in which politicians and celebrities daily lose their jobs over a single mistake, even in the church it is totally counter-cultural to admit to and talk about mistakes. The need for confidentially is accordingly multifaceted—both those studied and those bringing forth the study need to have the process treated confidentially.

The Case Study

MTA recommend a case composed of five parts:

  1. Background. Usually a case study focuses on a specific event that requires some context be provided.
  2. Description. In describing the event, usual dialogue is given to illustrate what happened and how the presenter responded.
  3. Analysis. “Identify issues and relationships, with special attention to changes and resistance to change.”
  4. Evaluation. The presenter assesses their performance–what worked, what did not work, and why.
  5. Theological Reflection. How does our faith inform this event? (116-117)

A case is about 2 pages single-spaced and the presentation should run about an hour.

In my experience, the choice of events to write up as verbatims is critical in revealing your strengths and weaknesses in ministry. At one point when another student was going through their case study, it became obvious that I had visited the same patient shortly after the presenter—my experience and hers were completely different.[1]

Background and Organization

The authors are all former professors of practical theology. They write in seven chapters:

  1. How Wisdom is Shared Through Case Study
  2. Writing, Presenting, Clarifying
  3. Personal Wisdom
  4. Professional Wisdom
  5. Theological Reflection
  6. Reflection on the Presenter’s Ministry
  7. Futuring (ix)

These chapters were preceded by an introduction and followed by a four-part appendix.

Assessment

Shared Wisdomby Jeffrey Mahan, Barbara Troxell, and Carol Allen is a helpful guide to case studies, particularly as practiced in Clinical Pastoral Education. MTA use sample case studies to illustrate their points. More generally, the use of case studies in ministry is a helpful team building activity that will have the added benefit of deepening the experience of particular staff. In the context of individual ministry, it can’t hurt writing up difficult encounters in aiding spiritual reflection.


[1]My visit is summarized in my memoir, Called Along the Way, because it helped motivate me to focus on Hispanic ministry.

MTA: Course Correction with Case Studies

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some people simply cannot look up. Sunshine and glimmering stars pose no attraction like plain old dirt. Now, I am not talking about farm folks whose relationship with the soil is almost mystical. No, soil is not the same thing as dirt. Dirt is an urban plague more like weeds in a flower garden or the stuff under fingernails. Dirt is a frame of mind—a cynicism that cuts to the core. 

Introduction

In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“Materialism holds that only matter exists [like dirt].Naturalism grants that subjective experiences—thoughts and feelings—are different from matter and cannot be reduced to it, while insisting that they are totally dependent on it.”(83)

Smith likens this philosophical presupposition of modernism and postmodernism as like the man who pulls his window shades down so that he can only see the lawn.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.

Modernity’s Tunnel

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Smith writes:

“It is by now a Sunday-supplement [a newspaper analogy] commonplace that the… modernization of the world is accompanied by a spiritual malaise that has come to be called alienation…At its most fundamental level, the diagnosis of alienation is based on the view that modernization forces upon us a world that, although baptized as real by science, is denuded of all humanly recognizable qualities: beauty and ugliness, love and hate, passion and fulfillment, salvation and damnation.”(2)

Smith has no problem with science as a method of inquiry, but he rails against scientism that attempts to convert the method into a worldview. He sees scientism adding two corollaries to science:

“first, that the scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method; and second, that the things science deals with—material entities—are the most fundamental things that exist.”(59-60)

I am reminded of the story of the drunk who loses his keys one night and only searches in the light around the lamppost supposing that the keys could only be there.

Traditional verses Modern and Postmodern Worldviews

Smith sees five fundamental points of contention between the traditional and modern/postmodern worlds views.

  1. “In the traditional, religious views spirit as fundamental and matter derivative…The scientific worldview turns this picture on its head…
  2. In the religious worldview human beings are the less who have derived from the more [created in the image of God]. Trailing clouds of glory, they carry within themselves traces of their noble origins…Science reverses this etiology, positioning humanity as the more that has derived from the less [grown up germs] …
  3. The traditional worldview points towards a happy ending: the scientific worldview does not…
  4. …the traditional world is meaningful throughout. In scientific worldview, meaning is only skin-deep, ‘skin’ here signifying biological organisms on a single speck in the sidereal universe…
  5. Finally, in the traditional world, people feel at home. They belong to their world, for they are made of the same spirituality sentient stuff that the world is made of…Nothing like this sense of belonging can be derived from the scientific worldview.”(34-38)

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

Since I first read Smith’s book in 2002, I have cited one reference repeatedly—to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem from mathematics. Smith writes:

“From Aristotle to Turing, mathematicians have tried to establish systems that are complete. Gödel smashed that dream. His famous Incompleteness Theorem states that in a formal system satisfying certain precise conditions, there will always be at least one undecidable proposition—that is, a proposition such that neither it nor its negation is provable within the system. Jacques Derrida’s denial of any single meaning in a text sounds like a direct extension of this.”(89)

In practical terms, the human mind is a nearly complete system such that depression is a turning inward on itself and losing the necessary external reference point necessary for stability. This is why the therapy for depression is to break out of the usual routine, which offers such an external reference point.  Other applications of this theorem can be cited in economics, computer science, and other logical fields.

Assessment

Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 2

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

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Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

Huston Smith. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Often the toughest part of any controversy is to ask the right question. Asking good questions requires deep knowledge of the subject, proper timing, and good intuition. In the scientific method,[1]the most challenging step is the first one where a felt need is converted into an hypothesis. Everyone can complain about needs, but it takes knowledge, timing, and intuition to form a working hypothesis.

Introduction

In Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes:

“In different ways, the East and the West are go

ing through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss—the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence with its larger horizons…The world lost its human dimension…” (1)

We are in a spiritual crisis characterized by a lost sense of God’s transcendence. The culprit? Smith writes:

“modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life’s material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check…This is cause of our spiritual crisis.”(4)

While Western civilization could have accepted the benefits of scientific inquiry, but retained its traditions; it did not. Instead, it accepted materialism and shunned metaphysics that strives to explain everything not explainable through empirical observation and testing.

Three Philosophical Periods

Smith (11-22) outlines three philosophical periods—traditional, modern, and postmodern—focused primarily on their metaphysical assumptions and the principal problems that they addressed. The traditional period focused on the religious problem—how do we related to the cosmos? The modern period focused on problem of nature—providing food and shelter. The postmodern period has focused on the social problem—how we get along with one another. 

Smith chief issue with the modern and postmodern periods is that they are metaphysically handicapped. Focusing only on looking down, they have left us unable to find meaning in life and deprived the living of their humanity. Here we discover Smith’s reason for writing:

“I am convinced that whatever transpires in other domains of life—politics, living standards, environmental conditions, interpersonal relationships, the arts—we will be better off if we extricate ourselves from the world view we have unwittingly slipped into and replace it with a more generous and accurate one. That, and that only, is the concern of this book.”(24)

Smith is, of course, commending a traditional worldview with God at the center of our universe. (21-22).

Background and Organization 

Huston Cummings Smith (1919 – 2016)was born in China in a missionary family. He attended Central Methodist University and the University of Chicago. He taught religious studies at a number of schools, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Smith writes in sixteen chapters in two parts:

PART ONE: MODERNITY’s TUNNEL

  1. Who’s Right about Reality: Traditionalists, Modernists, or the Postmoderns?
  2. The Great Outdoors and the Tunnel within It
  3. The Tunnel as Such
  4. The Tunnel’s Floor: Scientism
  5. The Tunnel’s Left Wall: Higher Education
  6. The Tunnel’s Roof: The Media
  7. The Tunnel’s Right Wall: The Law

PART TWO: THE LIGHT AT THE TUNNEL’S END

  • Light
  • Is Light Increasing: Two Scenarios
  • Discerning the Signs of the Times
  • Three Sciences and the Road Ahead
  • Terms for the Détente
  • This Ambiguous World
  • The Big Picture
  • Spiritual Personality Types
  • Spirit

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments, preface, and introduction and followed by an epilogue and Indices.

The tunnel is an analogy to Plato’s cave where prisoners are chained to a wall so that the light at the end of the tunnel casts shadows in front of them that they mistake for reality. After a prisoner escapes, learns that reality does not consist of the shadows as believed and returns to inform his fellow prisoners, they refuse to believe him and murder him, a reference to Socrates.

Assessment

Huston Smith’s Why Religions Matteris a captivating book. Smith is a master story teller with an encyclopedic grasp of world religions, philosophy, and potpourri. My first reading influenced my thinking profoundly; my second reading after seminary proved equally interesting.

In part one of this review I have outlined Smith arguments and the structure of the book. In part two, I will look at his arguments in more detail.



[1]The scientific method consists of a number of steps in problem solving: felt need, hypothesis, data gathering, analysis, decision, implementation responsibility bearing.

Smith: To Plato’s Cave and Back, Part 1

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Jung: Counselor as Secular Priest

Carl G. Jung. 1955. Modern Man in Search of a Soul (Orig Pub 1933). Translated by W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes. New York: Harcourt, Inc.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Back before I started seminary in 2008, I read whatever interested me. My urge to read was seldom random. For months on end, I might read about a particular topic like Perl programming, military history, or binge on a series like Horatio Hornblower novels.

Today, after so many years of reading and an imperfect memory, I am often unable to pinpoint where I got certain ideas until paging through one of the books in my library. Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soulis one such book and it is source of a surprising number of my better ideas.

Problem Statement

In his book, Jung’s chapters read as if they had been composed as independent essays, but they make sense together and build together towards his theme as he writes in the middle of the Great Depression (1930s) from Switzerland:

“Today this eruption of destructive forces [World War One] has already taken place, and man suffers from it in spirit. That is why patients force the psychotherapist into the role of a priest, and expect and demand of him that he shall free them from their distress. That is why we psychotherapists must occupy ourselves with problems which strictly speaking, belong to the theologian.”(Jung 1955, 241)

This analysis suggests that much of the increase in psychiatric problems that we currently stem from inadequate attention to spiritual matters, not some mysterious, psycho mumbo jumbo as is usually argued. In other words, the pastor is correct in saying that many people are looking for love in all the wrong places when they should be addressing God.

Neurosis

Back before psychiatrists cataloged their diagnoses with diagnostic manuals, they talked about the vague notion of neurosis. Jung provides as reasonable an explanation of neuroses as can be found:

“Most of our lapses of the tongue, of the pen, of memory, and the like are traceable to these disturbances, as are likewise all neurotic symptoms. These are nearly always of psychic origin, the exceptions being shock effects from shell explosions [PTSD] and other causes. The mildest forms of neurosis are the ‘lapses’ already referred to—blunders of speech, the sudden forgetting of names and dates, unexpected clumsiness leading to injuries or accidents, misunderstandings of personal motives or of what we have heard or read, and so-called hallucinations of memory which cause us to suppose erroneously that we have said or done this or that.”(Jung 1955, 32)

The biggest problem cited by his patients? “I am stuck.”(Jung 1955, 61) Can you image the traumatic effect in the 1930s of having a large family and you lose your job? Jung’s primary answer to being stuck? Learning how to play like a child again (Jung 1955, 69)

Approach to Psychoanalysis

Jung (1955 30) breaks psychoanalysis into four steps: confession, explanation, education, and transformation. Here we witness the priest at work.

Confession

Jung (1955, 31) writes:

“As soon as man was capable of conceiving the idea of sin, he had recourse to psychic concealment—or, to put it in analytical language, repressions arose. Anything that is concealed is a secret. The maintenance of the secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates their possessor from the community. In small does, this poison may actually be a priceless remedy, even an essential preliminary to the differentiation of the individual.”

That Jung would start with an analysis of the effects of sin is mind-blowing for those who want to scrub the word from our modern and postmodern vocabularies. Ignoring sin as we do is almost to invent new secrets that Jung describes as poison.

Explanation

After the catharsis of confession, a patient must have an explanation to avoid a relapse (Jung 1955, 37). If the catharsis fails, it is because the patient is unable to deal with their shadow-side (subconscious) that is the part of their own personality that they try to hide, even from themselves.

Education

Those unable to deal with their own shadow-side oftentimes have problems with other people’s weaknesses as well. Jung (1955, 43) see the need to education these people in basic social skills.

Transformation

Jung (1955, 52) sees transformation of a patient oftentimes being limited by weaknesses in the psychoanalysts themselves. A good psychoanalyst must be able to walk-the-walk, to be a good example their patients.

Personality Classifications

Jung is best known today for his classification of personality types. Jung (1955, 89-91) distinguished introvert from extrovert, sensation from intuition, thinking from feeling, judging from perceiving. Using these distinctions to classify an individual’s preferred reflective tendencies, sixteen different personality types can be identified. 

One can develop hypotheses about how that each of these types would learn and respond to particular challenges. For example, Myers and Myers (1995, 149) write:

“The five types that favored the stable and secure future were all sensing types. The warmest of the sensing types, ESFJ, characteristically favored service to others. Seven of the eight intuitive types favored either the opportunity to use their special abilities or the change to be creative…” 

Personality types are not predictive in a deterministic sense because people change their classification preferences over time, but they indicate tendency or probability.

Background and Organization

Carl G. Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud. He wrote in eleven chapters:

  1. “Dream Analysis in Its Practical Application
  2. Problems of Modern Psychotherapy
  3. The Aims of Psychotherapy
  4. A Psychological Theory of Types
  5. The Stages of Life
  6. Freud and Jung—Contrasts
  7. Archaic Man
  8. Psychology and Literature
  9. The Basic Postulates of Analytical Psychology
  10. The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man
  11. Psychotherapists or the Clergy.”(Jung 1955, v)

These chapters are preceded by a translator’s preface.

Assessment

Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul is an amazing book.Jung originated a lot of the techniques of analytical psychology and his patient case studies are a window into the mindset in the 1930s. His picture of the psychologist as a secular priest changed my image of the counseling profession forever. This book is of obvious interest to counselors, pastors, and seminary students, but others would likely find it a fascinating read

References

Myers, Isabel Briggs and Peter B. Myers. 1995. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type(Orig Pub 1980). Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing.

Jung: Counselor as Secular Priest

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Blamires: Lost Art of Christian Thinking

Harry Blamires. 2005. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Loneliness is not having anyone who speaks your language. Christian intellectuals (13-14) are probably lonelier than garden variety intellectuals because in addition to being considered eccentric, they may be accused of having a six-foot invisible rabbit for a friend.[1] What do you do when you see the world in technicolor and those around you see only black and white?

Introduction

In his book, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? Harry Blamires writes:

To this Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God… There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly…The purpose of this book is not to judge [people], whatever their religious position, but to clarify a problem by defining states of mind.” (44-45, 144)

In my own writing, I describe this idea by saying that God is my denominator, the measure by which all things are measured. My own Christian frame of reference has been a source of complaint within my family so I have learned to translate my own thoughts into secular concepts. Blamires (70) observes:

“…the modern Christian, a schizophrenic type who hops in and out of his Christian mentality as the topic of conversation changes from the Bible to the day’s newspaper, or the field of action changes from Christian stewardship to commercial advertising, or the environment changes from the vestry to the office.”

The hardest translation in my experience is explaining why gave up a six-figure income working as an economist to go to seminary—instead of referring to my call from God I need to find some excuse like “I wanted to give back”or “I wanted to have more fixable work hours”or some other such silliness. Sadly, my sacrifice in attending seminary has often marked me as a kind of village idiot even with my ordination committee.

Background and Organization

Harry Blamires (1916−2017) graduated from Oxford University, where his tutor was C. S. Lewis, and he was an Anglican theologian, literary critic, and novelist.[2]He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:

PART ONE: The Lack of a Christian Mind

  1. The Surrender to Secularism
  2. Thinking Christianly and Thinking Secularly

PART TWO: The Marks of the Christian Mind

  1. Its Supernatural Orientation
  2. Its Awareness of Evil
  3. Its Conception of Truth
  4. Its Acceptance of Authority
  5. Its Concern for the Person
  6. Its Sacramental Cast (v)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by a postscript.

Let me say a few words about each part.

The Lack of a Christian Mind

Blamires (3,15) believes that modern Christians have conceded the mind to secular thinking in what could be described as the triumph of romanticism. He writes:

“Christianity is emasculated of its intellectual relevance. It remains a vehicle of spirituality and morel guidance at the individual level perhaps; at the communal level it is little more than an expression of sentimentalized togetherness. The mental secularization of Christians means that nowadays (1963) we meet only as worshipping beings and as moral beings, not as thinking beings.” (16)

Writing as he does in the early 1963s, Blamires is commenting primarily on a modern problem of intellectual irrelevance because Billy Graham was still drawing crowds and hosting television interviews well into the 1970s. Still, one wonders whether the Christian intellectual suffers any worse than intellectuals more generally (19) as modernism started to give up the ghost already in the 1950s with severe criticism of the scientific method that started in the immediate aftermath of the World War II.

Blamires’ illustration of the Anglican church’s problem in selecting bishops highlights the problem that even within the church secular values dominated thinking. Unlike the Orthodox church that promotes bishops only from within the ranks of its monks, Anglican bishops are expected to be good administrators—thoroughly worldly individuals (54-59). It is hard to argue with his logic here as church administrators are often the most talented, but also the most cynical and manipulative of people. Blamires concludes:

“Since we refuse to think Christianly even about the office of bishop, it is scarcely surprising that we lose the habit of thinking Christianly about secular matters.” (59)

Blamires is even careful to distinguish Christian thinking from scholarly thinking (51).

The Marks of the Christian Mind

In this second part Blamires inventories areas where the Christian mind differs most dramatically from secular thinking, starting with metaphysics—the physical world is not all there is. 

Supernatural

Because God created heaven and earth, he must stand apart from them. He is eternal; we are not. It sounds quaint to talk about the supernatural only because so many people cannot think beyond the natural world (67).

Good and Evil

If God is good, then the antithesis of good is evil, another topic that moderns typically avoid. Denying evil or discounting it, however, gives it space to grow. Blamires goes on to show how it is considered sophisticated to discount sin in its portrayal in the media (96). He notes that “flowers grow best in manured soil” (97), as we have seen in recent years. He writes:

“Immoral literature is literature which recommends immoral behavior. If a play or a novel wins sympathy for adulterers, sodomites, dope addicts, or nymphomaniacs in the sense of making the audience or the reader feel that such people are right to indulge their vices and aberrations, then it is immoral.” (98-99)

His comments appear dated today as the film industry insists on checking all the boxes above in practically every film.

Truth

The idea of objective truth is grounded in faith in God (108). Measured against the eternal judgment of God, other truths lack appeal or pertinence. Blamires observes: “You cannot construct truth at all; you can only discover it.” (112) His anchoring in the modern era and rationality is clearly evident when he writes:

“Two opinions are rarely better than one. If A thinks rationally on a given matter and B thinks irrationally on the same matter, then neither A nor the world in general will benefit from having A’s view adulterated with B’s.” (113)

In this regard, Blamires seems to equate rationality with Christian thought.

Authority

If the Christian loves and respects God, God’s authority is obviously recognized. But what if the world around us rejects all forms of authority? Does God then become our buddy? Blamires obsevers that: “distaste for authority is unparalleled in history.” (132-133) The respect for the authority of God allows the Christian to in turn respect other authorities—parents, teachers, preachers, police, and government officials—in ways that are hard for secular people to emulate.

Blamires writes:

“For if the Christian faith is true, and the Christian church the authoritative vehicle of salvation in time, then it is the most urgent, inescapable need of the modern [and postmodern] world to adapt itself to the church [not the other way around]” (148) 

Obviously, it all forms of authority are questioned and ignored, then salvation is indeed an unlikely outcome of secular thinking.

Persons

Being created in the image of God confers a high regard for persons in Christian thinking that is only borrowed in secular discourse, which focuses more on material goods and mechanics (156-157). Blamires sees the secular notion of progress as imbedded in the acquisition of things (161) He writes that we are:

“… so engrossed in performing functions in contemporary society that they have neither the time nor the energy left for the business of merely being human.” (164)

He goes on to observe that: “The Christian will think in terms of persons and institutions; but modern secularism thinks in terms of units and mechanisms.” (166) Perhaps the worst of it is that no one actually forces us into this mold more than we ourselves when we get carried away with trying to provide for our families and achieving success.

Sacred

Recognizing the sacredness of God and of life go hand in hand. The loss of the idea of these things is perhaps an example of the slippery slope that we have been on in recent years. Blamires writes: “There is no doubt that commercial interests actively stimulate youthful sexuality and self-indulgence” (173) making money by corrupting our youth.

Assessment

Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? is a thoughtful, assessible, and well-written book on the interface between Christian and modern culture before political correctness. Blamires documents that many of the problems of postmodern culture were already in view in the late modern period (1960s). While it is likely to be perceived by many as a period-piece, I found it helpful in identifying contemporary points where the Christian and secular mindsets deviate.

Footnotes

[1]This is an allusion to a movie called Harvey about a man who sees a six-foot, invisible rabbit and is committed to an insane asylum until others start seeing the rabbit for themselves. Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_(film)).

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Blamires.

Blamires: Lost Art of Christian Thinking

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Chan’s Church: Small is Beautiful

Francis Chan.[1]2018. Letters to the Church. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is accepted wisdom among those who study ecclesiology that churches go through stages as they grow, which trigger a need to change their leadership style. The stages are roughly 0-100 members (small), 101 to 250 members (medium), and 251 members and up (large). 

In small churches, the pastor knows everyone and everyone seems engaged in some type of ministry. Medium sized churches oftentimes loses its sense of intimacy and many of its founding members as the pastor begins to delegate work to staff and committees. In a large church, the senior pastor is a manager of staff and specializes in preaching while the members are mostly consumers of Sunday morning services. Interestingly, even small churches today are bigger than most churches described in the New Testament that often described as house churches.

Introduction

In his book, Letters to the Church,Francis Chan writes:

“While overseas [after leaving the mega-church he founded to travel to Asia], I had gotten to see a glimpse of what the church could be and the power it could have, and I felt like God wanted me to take that vision back…I wrote this book to point out areas where the Church is lacking”(19, 211)

His vision for the church includes three goals:

  1. “I wanted all of us to sing directly to God…
  2. I wanted all of us to really hear the Word of God…
  3. I wanted all of us to live holy lives.”(11-12)

Most of this book provides observations and wisdom that lie between these goals and this vision for the church.

Background and Organization

Francis Chan is a Chinese, American pastor and writer, educated at Master’s College (BA and MDiv). He founded and pastored Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California (founded 1994). He also founded and serves Eternity Bible College.

Chan writes in nine chapters:

  1. “The Departure
  2. Sacred
  3. The Order
  4. The Gang
  5. Servants
  6. Good Shepherds
  7. Crucified
  8. Unleashed
  9. Church Again”(v)

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and followed by an afterword and notes.

Weaknesses of the Mega Church Model

The mega church model evolved out of the perceived needs of both the church and postmodern people. Larges churches have the resource base to offer members high-quality programs and services and to offer staff professional level salaries. Yet, Chan observes:

“When I looked at what went on in Cornerstone, I saw a few other people and me using our gifts, while thousands just came and sat in the sanctuary for an hour and a half and then went home. The way we had structured the church was stunting people’s growth.”(15)

In other words, the perceived problem of discipling members that is talked about extensively today is a direct consequence of the church’s basic structure—one does buy a ticket in a movie theater with the expectation of learning and practicing the profession of an actor or director. While this may sound like a brilliant statement of the obvious, many small group planners have essentially been designed with the expectation of snagging a few movie-goers on the way out of the lobby.

Spaghetti is not Steak

Chan offers several really interesting analogies. For example, Chan writes:

“Imagine you walked into a restaurant and ordered a steak. Twenty minutes later, the waiter comes back and puts a plate of spaghetti in front of you, claiming it’s the best spaghetti you’ll ever try. Would you be happy about it?…this is what we have done with the church. God gave us His ‘order’ for the church…”(45)

Chan later notes that “Paul was more zealous for the salvation of others than any of us.”(49).

Traps of Ministry

Chan observes that “Some of the expectations we place on leaders make their success nearly impossible.”(107) He lists these traps:

  1. “Avoiding Criticism.
  2. Fund-Raising.
  3. Comparison.
  4. Meeting Expectations.
  5. Popularity.
  6. Safety.
  7. Greed.
  8. Demonic Attack.”(107-108)

While his list is not particularly newsworthy, it is interesting seeing all of these issues laid out.

Chan observes that we all have a picture in our minds, thanks to cinema, of what a demonic possessed person looks like but what is our image of someone who is spirit-filled? (121) Chan cites: 

“be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  (Eph 5:18-21)

This is an interesting point because we find evil fascinating—otherwise movie ticket sales of the demonic pictures would be flat—but ignore evidence of God’s goodness in our lives every day. Do we look for or even tolerate a pastor who is truly spirit-filled? Would we be willing to vote for our pastor to spend an hour daily in prayer on the church’s dime?

Five Pillars of the House Church Movement

Chan observes that Jesus asked an awful lot more of his followers than the typical church. Jesus said:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”(Luke 14:26-27)

How many new member’s classes read those verses? Apparently, in China and other parts of the world where it is dangerous to be a Christian, those verses get more attention. Concern the five pillars of the House Church Movement that Chan cites:

“The first one is based on a deep, deep commitment to prayer. The second is commitment to the Word of God…The third was being committed to the sharing of the Gospel…The fourth was a regular expectation of miracles…The fifth pillar was we embraced suffering for glory of Christ.”(135)

The embracing of suffering is perhaps the most startling from the perspective of the American church where the numerous New Testament references to suffering are routinely edited out. 

My personal favorite is Romans 8:36:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom 8:35-37)

Romans 8:36 falls in the middle of two other verses routinely cherished by millions, but how many want to be reminded that we are “as sheep to be slaughtered”? Persecution is not something that Americans identify with; we prefer to be referred to as conquerors.

Assessment

Francis Chan’s Letters to the Churchis a wonderful reflection on the state of the American church. Chan’s language is forever fresh and his observations come across like that hilarious joke that, after laughing out loud, you realize comes very close to home. Who, for example, wants to be reminded that the American church shares a lot in common with the zoo animals in the movie Madagascar? (That is, powerful, but too tame to survive in the wild? 151) Chan is very readable and of obvious interest to church leaders of all stripes.

Footnotes


[1]http://www.crazylove.org.

Chan’s Church: Small is Beautiful

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Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

James W. Thompson. 2011. Moral Formation according to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of Holy God poses a special problem for Christians because of original sin. Sin not only mucks up the workings our lives like molasses poured into a car’s gas tank, it stinks up the place polluting our emotions and minds much like molasses as it burns. We love the wrong things like an addict lusting after drugs and think like criminals avoiding the sunlight that might expose their crimes. In the midst of our fallen state, Christ redeems us and the church aids in our formation as Christians. But how?

Introduction

In his book, Moral Formation according to Paul, James Thompson begins with this goal:

“Although I hope that this book has contemporary relevance, my primary task is not to ask the hermeneutical questions about the many moral questions that now confront us, but to grasp the specific shape and inner logic of Paul’s moral instructions.”(ix)

Thompson observes that Paul never uses the word, ethics, and only once uses the common Greek term, virtue. (2-3, 59, 107) Instead, Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin (Rom 3:10; 155, 208) and focusing on sexual immorality in his vice lists. (17) Unlike the Greeks, he did not advocate that sin could be overcome through human effort. (148) Like other Diaspora Jews (those outside of Israel), Paul turned to the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26) for guidance (133).

Paul Focuses on Formation

Paul’s teaching stands out from most ancient writers. Thomson writes:

“Paul’s major challenge as a missionary and planter of churches was to ensure the moral transformation of his communities. His task was not only to make converts, but to re-socialize them and provide a common ethos and shared practices.”(207)

Rather than emphasize the static view of Rudolf Bultmann (before and after faith), Thompson sees Paul teaches that we stand between conversion and the return of Christ (the end), an emphasis on the journey of faith (1, 61). Thompson writes: “Paul does not speak of ethics as such, but of how to walk, the primary term for ethical conduct.” (61) This suggests that telos, not identity or duty, drives Pauline ethics.

Summary of Paul’s Teaching

Thompson views 1 Thessalonians as a window into the content of Paul’s teaching, which he refers to as catechesis (preparation for baptism). He makes three points:

  1. “This catechesis involved first the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Thes 4:14) …
  2. Second, Paul consistently places the story of Jesus and the readers’ own experience within the narrative of Israel, providing a symbolic world and an identity (e.g. 1 Thes 4:5) …
  3. Third, Paul appeals not only to the story of Jesus to shape the moral conduct of his communities, but also to the Torah. (207-208)

Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin. (Rom 3:10; 208)

Holiness as a Pauline Distinctive

While the Jewish community set itself apart from gentile communities through its dietary laws and Sabbath practices, Pauline communities distinguished themselves through holiness. Thompson writes:

“Having provided the community with an identity as God’s elect and holy people, Paul extends the sphere of holiness from the cult to matters of sexuality, distinguishing the holy people from the gentiles.”(76)

Paul’s use fo the term, saints, and referring to the church as the called out ones (ekkesia) furthermore distinguishes Christians a the holy ones and identifies them with ancient Israel (54-55). 

Background and Organization

James W. Thompson received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University, teaches at at the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and is the author of numerous books. He writes in eight chapters:

  1. “Ethics in Hellenistic Judaism: Maintaining Jewish Identity in the Diaspora.
  2. Shaping an Identity: Moral Instruction and Community Formation.
  3. From Catechesis to Correspondence: Ethos and Ethics in 1 Thessalonians.
  4. Pauline Catechesis and the Lists of Vices and Virtues.
  5. Paul, the Law, and Moral Instruction.
  6. Paul, the Passions, and the Law.
  7. Putting Love into Practice.
  8. Ethics and the Disputed Letters of Paul. (vii)

These chapters are proceeded by a preface, abbreviations, and an introduction. They are followed by a conclusion, works cited, and several indices.

Assessment

James Thompson’s Moral Formation according to Paul is a scholarly assessment of Paul’s ethics. It is well-written and documented resource for pastors, seminary students, and scholars of Paul’s work.

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 2

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1976. Ethics(Orig pub 1955) Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: MacMillan Publishers Company, Inc.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, writing, and death during the era of National Socialism (Nazi) in Germany gave him a uncanny ability to speak to our own postmodern, increasingly tribal, era. 

Why? Nazi Germany is sometimes described as the first postmodern state for two reasons. First, both the Nazis and post-moderns are heavily influenced by the writings of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s “will to power”ideology directly informed the Nazi leadership model (Der Führer) and also informs the deconstructionism (also called the politics of suspicion) recently so prevalent in public discourse. 

Second, with the collapse of faith, people have to believe in something and they frequently turn to “barbaric brotherhoods” like the Nazis and other tribal affiliations to rob non-brothers, something predicted by Nietzsche himself (McGrath 2004, 262). Those that classify Nazism as a modern phenomenon focus on the German obsession with efficiency or technological preeminence rather than its philosophical underpinnings (Roseman).

In part one of my review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Ethics, I described his background, the organization of his book, and opening comments In part two of this review, I will look in more depth at Bonhoeffer’s ethical concepts.

God’s Will

Bonhoeffer has a high view of God’s sovereignty and the special role of Jesus Christ. He (1976, 38) writes:

“The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for that reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.”

Depending on your Christology, this statement is either terribly obvious or comes as criticism. After the attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life failed, Hitler ironically felt a special calling from God in his work.

Ethics

Bonhoeffer’s (1976, 32) focus on God’s will directly impacts his ethics, writing: “the only appropriate conduct of men before God is the doing of His will.” The problem with the Pharisees, from his perspective, was that they knew the will of God (or at least knew how to figure it out), but failed to act on it. Complicating the matter, the Pharisees did the opposite of acting—judging.

Love

Bonhoeffer would have been critical of the current tendency to define God as love, but then to offer a licentious definition of love. He writes (1976, 50-51):

“No one knows God unless he reveals Himself to him. And so no one knows what love is except in the self-revelation of God. Love, then, is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ.”

This definition of love as revelation through Jesus Christ is neither alone a licentious interpretation of love or any other revelation not based on Christology. Obviously, the only way to get a licentious interpretation is through a licentious Christology.

Ethics as Formation

Bonhoeffer’s special understanding of Jesus Christ is again made obvious in his discussion of discipling/formation. He (1976, 84) writes:

“The only formation is formation by and into the form of Jesus Christ. The point of departure for Christian ethics is the body of Christ [the church], the form of Christ in the form of the church, and formation of the Church in conformity with the form of Christ.”

Obviously, Bonhoeffer sees no possibility of seeing “Lone Ranger” Christians, as some envision today

Peril of the Void

When Bono and U2 sing about being stuck in a moment,[1]they could have been citing Bonhoeffer, where he talks about the peril of the void and relating it to the coming last days. He writes (1997, 105-107):

“With the loss of past and future, life fluctuates between the most bestial enjoyment of the moment and an adventurous game of chance. An abrupt end is put to any kind of inner self-development and to any gradual attainment of personal or vocational maturity. There is no personal destiny, and consequently there is no personal dignity.” 

Again, Bonhoeffer was writing from Nazi Germany, which some have referred to as the first postmodern society.

Penultimate

Bonhoeffer (1997, 125) observes that God’s grace is the ultimate word that we receive as believers. Grace is a gift but it is never cheap; faith is required. He describes the path that we come to faith as critique and entirely unique to each individual. He calls this process of coming to faith as the penultimate. Bonhoeffer (1997, 127) writes:

“Everything must go to the judgment. There are only two categories: for Christ and against him. He that is not with me is against me (Matt 12:30). Everything penultimate in human behavior is sin and denial.”

What is interesting about this concept of penultimate is that it only has meaning in view of the ultimate and no one is prepared to make a faith commitment—faith is a gift. Bonhoeffer (1997, 143) therefore concludes:

“But it will be more Christian to claim precisely that man as a Christian who would himself no longer dare to call himself a Christian, and then with much patience to help him to the profession of faith.”

In other words, being a Christian is an identity that we must live into; something that we cannot do on our own.

A similar concept in economics is called a full-employment budget. In order for the economy to grow at full potential, the government must budget as if we have full-employment, even if it is currently demonstrating weakness. To budget for the weakness would invariably make it impossible to obtain full-employment. Consequently, a full-employment budget is almost always aspirational.

And so it is with us before we come to faith.

Innocent Life

Bonhoeffer understands the intrinsic value of life that God gives us in creating us in the divine image (Gen 1:27) and loving us as his children. The value of life does not go up and down with circumstance. Bonhoeffer (1997, 163) writes:

“The right to live is a matter of the essence and not of any values. In the sight of God there is no life that is not worth living; for life itself is valued by God.”

The fact that we are weak, ill, or unborn does not hinder our intrinsic value as human beings in God’s eyes, which is the basis of all human rights as we know them.

Assessment

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics provides a series of essays on ethical topics that he wrote during the last days of his life in Germany during the Second World War. The book is surprisingly well written for a book rendered only in a series of drafts. Ethics offers a foundation for Christian ethics and is a must read for pastors and seminary professors.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Roseman, Mark. 2011. “National Socialism and the End of Modernity”

American Historical Review Vol. 116, No. 3 (June), pp. 688-701.

Footnotes


[1]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sl6j7hiALu0.Songwriters: Adam Clayton / Dave Evans / Larry Mullen / Paul Hewson. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 2

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Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, EthicsDietrich Bonhoeffer. 1976. Ethics (Orig pub 1955) Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: MacMillan Publishers Company, Inc.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Vietnam created tension between my desire to become a career military pilot and my Christian faith. What is a just war? Why was the war in Vietnam unjust? Before I even graduated high school, I developed a passion for ethics.

The problem of war and peace also motivated Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interest in ethics. In the editor’s preface to his book, Ethics, Eberhard Bethge writes:

“The manuscripts which are now before were written between 1940 and 1943 in Berlin, at the monastery of Ettal and at Kieckhow.”(7)

Because Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics was written during the Second World War at the time of Adolf Hitler’s greatest battlefield successes (Metaxas 2010, 363). Although Bonhoeffer never gives a name to his successful man, the context is clear:

“When a successful figure becomes especially prominent and conspicuous, the majority give way to the idolization of success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and untruth, fair play and foul play. They have eyes only for the deed, for the successful result.”(76)

Bonhoeffer’s characterization of Hitler as the “successful man” makes him an archetype whose appeal—even today—would not be limited to fanatics, making Hitler a much scarier figure than villainous caricature usually assigned him.

Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from an aristocratic family and was himself extraordinarily talented. His father was the leading psychiatrist in Germany at the time and his own brother was a noted physicist. Neither were professing Christians and the family did not attend church on a regular basis. His mother was his most significant religious influence. Dietrich declared his intention to become a theologian at age 14 before he had even been confirmed; he received his doctorate at age 21. Metaxas pictures Dietrich becoming a committed Christian, much like John Wesley, only after he was already working as a theologian. After Bonhoeffer had made a visit to New York in 1936, Metaxas asks:  What had happened that Bonhoeffer [the brilliant young theologian] should suddenly take attending church so seriously? (Metaxas 2010, 124)

Neo-Orthodoxy

Bonhoeffer is the author of a number of influential books, especially the Cost of Discipleship, and, along with Swiss theologian Karl Barth (one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration[1]), is credited with starting the neo-orthodox school of thought.  Bonhoeffer laid out important principles of his thinking already in 1928 (age 22) in Barcelona in three points:

  1. …Christianity is not a religion at all, but about the person of Christ…religion was a dead, man-made thing, and at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely—God himself, alive.
  2. He differentiated between Christianity…which attempt but failed to make an ethical way for man to climb to heaven…and following Christ, who demands everything. and
  3. He identified ‘the Greek spirit’ or ‘humanism’ as ‘the most severe enemy that Christianity ever had…dualism, the idea that the body is at war with the soul (Metaxas 2010, 83-85).

In other words, Christians must only follow Christ; we cannot approach God, only God can reveal Himself to us; in our faith heart and mind cannot be separated.

Military Intelligence

Bonhoeffer, the seminary professor and spy, worked with military intelligence (Abwehr). Weeks before the war is over (April 1945), Bonhoeffer is hung for treason, having assisted in the smuggling of Jews out of Germany and assisting those who conspired to assassinate Hitler and bring the war to an end (Metaxas 2010, 423-431). Because Bonhoeffer did not survive the war, his student and confidant, Eberhard Bethge, assembled, edited, and published his notes after the war.

Organization of the Book

Eberhard Bethge organized Bonhoeffer’s Ethicsin two parts composed of twelve chapters:

PART ONE

  1. The Love of God and the Decay of the World
  2. The Church and the World
  3. Ethics as Formation
  4. The Last Things and the Things Before the Last
  5. Christ, Reality and God (Christ, the Church and the World
  6. History and Good
  7. The Ethical and the Christian as a Theme

 PART TWO

  1. The Doctrine of the Primus Usus Legis According to the Lutheran Symbolic Writings
  2. Personal and Real Ethos
  3. State and Church
  4. On the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World
  5. What is Meant by Telling the Truth(3-6)

These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and are followed by a series of indexes. The second preface summarizes where the parts originated and the reasoning behind the current organization of the book.

 Origin of the Ethical Problem

Bonhoeffer begins his study of ethics with a most enigmatic statement:

“The know of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.”(17)

If only God knows good and evil, then ethical knowledge shows separation from God (17-19). Thus, this knowledge is the source of human shame (20). Conscience is no help, being more a measure of the gap among people (24-25).

In the New Testament, the Pharisee becomes an archetype of the man of conscience, which is of no help with the ethical problem—knowing good and evil, but not from God’s perspective—judgment. In reconciling us with God, Jesus allows us to return to know God and God alone. Jesus’ problem with judging (and with Pharisees) is precisely a consequence of original sin—knowledge of good and evil—the original apostacy from God (30-33).

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have introduced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the organization of his book, and the opening of the book. In part two of this review, I will look in more depth at Bonhoeffer’s ethical concepts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics provides a series of essays on ethical topics that he wrote during the last days of his life in Germany during the Second World War. The book is surprisingly well written for a book rendered only in a series of drafts. Ethicsoffers a foundation for Christian ethics and is a must read for pastors and seminary professors.

Footnotes

[1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barmen_Declaration.

References

 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book

Metaxas, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1

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Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

Lewis Vaughn, Writing PhilosophyLewis Vaughn. 2018. Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing Philosophy Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As an author, my eyes are always open for good writing books, especial those addressing the needs of nonfiction writers. I am not alone in this interest in writing books. The single, most popular post on this blog in 2013 and 2014 featured a writing book, How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, of special interest to bloggers.

Introduction

On the back cover of his book, Writing Philosophy, Lewis Vaughn out lines his objectives:

“[This book] is a concise, self-guided manual that covers how to read philosophy and the basics of argumentative essay writing.”

Never having taken a philosophy course, other than philosophy of science as a PhD candidate, I found both objectives instructive. If a philosophy essay is all about the quality of the premises and the conclusions that follow from them, then other departments ought to send their students over to the philosophy department to learn how to write because understanding good argument structure can improve most essays.

Organization

According to Google Books,[1]Lewis Vaughn is an independent author living in Amherst, New York. He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:

PART 1: READING AND WRITING

  1. How to Read Philosophy
  2. How to Read an Argument
  3. Rules of Style and Content for Philosophical Writing
  4. Defending a Thesis in an Argumentative Essay
  5. Avoiding Fallacious Reasoning
  6. Using, Quoting, and Citing Sources

PART 2: REFERENCE GUIDE

  1. Writing Effective Sentences
  2. Choosing the Right Words (v-vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by four appendices.

Three aspects of this book proved most helpful to me: reading philosophy, how to read an argument, and avoiding fallacies. Let me focus on each in turn.

Reading Philosophy

Philosophy means the love of knowledge. Vaughn writes:

“[Philosophy] is concerned with the examination of beliefs of the most fundamental kind—beliefs that structure our lives, shape our worldviews, and underpin all academic disciplines.”(3)

This focus on argumentation is important so Vaughn offers some key definitions:

“In philosophy, an argument is a statement, or claim, coupled with other statements that are meant to support that statement. The statement being supported is the conclusion, and the statements support the conclusions are the premises.”(5)

He goes on to define the divisions of philosophy (6) as: metaphysics (the study of reality), axiology (the study of value, including ethics, which is moral value), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and logic (the study of correct reasoning).

A fundamental skill for philosophers is the ability to summarize or paraphrase an argument, outlining its premises and conclusions. He writes: “A summary must accurately capture a text’s main ideas in just a few words.”(15) This advice may sound trivial, but summarizing my own books often proves to be an anxiety-producing event.

How to Read an Argument

Vaughn notes that a good premise is either true or false, while a conclusion is a belief that you are trying to support (21-22). He notes that certain “indicator words” flag which is which in an argument. Indications of a conclusion are words like: “consequently, thus, therefore, it follows that, as a result, hence, so, which means that.” Indicators of a premise might be: “in view of the fact, because, due to the fact that, the reason being, assuming that, since, for, given that.”(26)

Vaughn offers interesting definitions of deductive and inductive reasoning, two typically confusing ideas. A dedicative argument offers logically conclusive for conclusions, while inductive arguments offer only probable support for conclusions. Because of the difference in the veracity of these arguments, good deductive arguments are considered valid while good inductive arguments are strong. (27-29) True premises make a deductive argument sound while true premises make an inductive argument cogent. (30)

Worth the price of admission is Vaughn’s treatment of valid and invalid argument forms, what we might describe as logical syllogisms. He outlines four valid forms and two invalid forms. (32-33)

VALID FORMS

 Affirming the Antecedents (modus ponens)

 If p, then q     (premise 1)

p                    (premise 2)

Therefore, q. (conclusion)

Denying the Consequent (modus tollens)

If p, then q           (premise 1)

Not q                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

Hypothetical Syllogism

If p, then q                  (premise 1)

If q, then r                   (premise 2)

Therefore, if p, then r. (conclusion)

Reductio Ad Absurdum

 p                         (premise 1)

If p, then q          (premise 2)

Not q                   (premise 3)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

 INVALID FORMS

 Denying the Antecedent

If p, then q          (premise 1)

Not p                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not q. (conclusion)

Affirming the Consequent

If p, then q     (premise 1)

q                    (premise 2)

Therefore, p. (conclusion)

For valid premises, these forms lead to logical conclusions. Consequently, Vaughn advises students to memorize these forms so as to recognize them as they arise in arguments.

Avoiding Fallacies

Vaughn cites two common fallacies that bear repeating: the straw man argument and the ad hominem attack (appeal to the person). The straw man argument is an unfair characterization of an opponent’s argument designed to facilitate criticism while the ad hominem attack is to defeat an argument not by criticizing its weaknesses, but by attacking the person advancing the argument. (89) These fallacies are weak arguments that we hear daily in political discourse and in uncivil discussions.

Other weak arguments that Vaughn (90-98) cites are: appeal to popularity, appeal to tradition, the generic fallacy (attacking the source, not the premises), equivocation (unfair comparisons), appeal to ignorance, false dilemma (comparing two non-exclusive outcomes), begging the question (using a conclusion as a premise to support it), hasty generalizations (generalizing from too small a sample), slippery slope arguments, composition (generalizing from a part of a composite), division (taking a composite to generalize about a part)

Assessment

Lewis Vaughn’s Writing Philosophy is a wonderful writing book that I wish that I had been given years ago. It is concise, helpful, and interesting. Writers in many fields and at many points in their career could benefit from his insights.

Footnotes

[1]https://books.google.com/books/about/Doing_Ethics.html?id=x3P1ugEACAAJ&source=kp_author_description.

References

Clark, Roy Peter. 2013. How To Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

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