Fukuyama Understands Identity

Fukuyama_review_20191025Francis Fukuyama. 2018. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Macmillan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The issue of identity is on everyone’s lips today. In the absence of the unity provided by Christian faith, American lives are shrinking into ever-smaller communities of self-interest facilitated by media-friendly cell-phones and social media. As day-to-day, face-to-face interactions, our kids’ social skills leave them ill-prepared to deal with the normal ups and downs of life that threaten their self-worth. Without a solid identity, they are anxious and often leave adolescence with more pills than their grandparents. When I found out that Francis Fukuyama had a book on this subject, I snapped it up.

Introduction

In Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment Francis Fukuyama writes:

“In this book, I will be using identity in a specific sense that helps us understand why it is so important to contemporary politics. Identity, in the first place, out of a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.”(9-10)

In a world where the poorest of the poor anywhere on earth can turn on a television and see how the rich live anywhere else, the sense of what’s fair and what’s not becomes immediately obvious to everyone. Those disrespected through circumstances, law, or persons no longer can be told that that is just the way things are. Dislocation, war, and conflicting demands make it even hard to realize a stable identity and sense of dignity. Fukuyama concludes that the “Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unified much of what is going on in world politics today.” (xv)

Origin and Organization

Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama (1952-) is an American political scientist, political economist, and writer. He is best known for his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which argued that the spread of liberal democracies and free-market capitalism of the West could end sociocultural evolution. Fukuyama earned his BA at Cornell University, studied at Yale University, and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is currently on the faculty at Stanford University.[1] Fukuyama writes in fourteen chapters:

  1. The Politics of Dignity
  2. The Third Part of the Soul
  3. Inside and Outside
  4. From Dignity to Democracy
  5. Revolutions of Dignity
  6. Expressive Individualism
  7. Nationalism and Religion
  8. The Wrong Address
  9. Invisible Man
  10. The Democratization of Dignity
  11. From Identity to Identities
  12. We the People
  13. Stories of Peoplehood
  14. What is to be Don? (vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by notes, a bibliography, and an index.

The Dignity Problem

The visibility of inequities has become more obvious. Fukuyama writes:

“Between 1970 and 2008, the world’s output of goods and services quadrupled and growth extended to virtually all regions of the world, while the number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries dropped from 42 percent of the total population in 1993 to 17 percent in 211. The percentage of children dying before their fifty birthdays declined from 22 percent in 1960 to less than 5 percent by 2016. This liberal world order did not, however, benefit everyone. In many countries around the world, and particularly in developed democracies, inequity increased dramatically, such that many of the benefits flowed primarily to an elite defined primarily by education.” (4)

Economists talk about the law of one price—with free trade, the price of a good or service should be the same everyone, adjusting for shipment, storage, and other costs.

Fukuyama notes the tension created, writing:

“Huge new middle classes arose in countries such as China and India, but the work they did replaced work that had been done by older middle classes in the developing world…women were displacing men in an increasingly service dominated new economy and low-skilled workers were being replaced by smart machines.” (4)

Inequities create indignities because no one enjoys change and we have seen massive changes. Fukuyama notes: “economic grievances become much more acute when they are attached to feelings of indignity and disrespect.” (11) He sees issues like the #MeToo movement and gay marriage as being driven by the desire, not for economic equality, but the desire for equal respect (19).

The Identity Connection

Fukuyama develops his concept of identity writing:

“The modern concept of identity unites three different phenomena. The first is thymos, a universal aspect of human personality that craves recognition. The second is the distinction between inner and outer self, and the raising of the moral valuation of the inner self over outer society. This emerged only in early modern Europe. The third is an evolving concept of dignity, in which recognition is due not just to a narrow class of people [like soldiers and first responders], but to everyone.” (37)

He sees this question of equal dignity motivating the French Revolution and resent uprisings, like the Arab Spring. He tells a story:

“On December 17, 2010, police confiscated the produce from a vegetable cart of a Tunisian street vendor name Mohamed Bouazizi, ostensibly because he did not have a permit. According to his family, he was publicly slapped by a policewoman, Faida Hamdi, who confiscated his electronic scales as well and spat in his face…Bouazizi went to the governor’s office to complain and to get his scales back, but the governor refused to see him. Bouazizi then doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire, shouting, ‘How do you expect me to make a living.’” (42)

Bouazizi was not a protester or political prisoner, but had been abused and his story set off an uprising—The Arab Spring—that spread across several continents. The problem of indignities of this sort struck a nerve.

Assessment

Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment pictures our current political climate with rare clarity. He writes with philosophical and historical precision and tells a good story. I enjoyed this book; perhaps you will too.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Fukuyama.

Fukuyama Understands Identity

Also see:

Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

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O’Donovan Splits Ethics into Faith and Action

ODonovan_review_20191022Oliver O’Donovan. 2001. Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics. Leicester, England: Apollos.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I prepared to defend my doctoral dissertation, I got it all wrong. I practiced the detailed mathematical proofs, thinking that I would be tested on the depth of my understanding of economics. My committee examined me the economic fundamentals. Throughout my career since then, I have come to understand the wisdom of returning to the basics. Ethics works the same way.

In the prologue to Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, Oliver O’Donovan outlines his book with several important definitions:

“The principal orientations of the book are sketched out in the first part. Purposeful action is determined by what is true about the world into which we act; this can be called the ‘realist’ principal. That truth is constituted by what God has done for his world and mankind in Jesus Christ; this is the ‘evangelical’ principle. The act of God which liberates our action is focused on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which restored and fulfilled the intelligible order of creation; this we can call the ‘Easter’ principal. Each of these contentions has been challenged, or in some way qualified, in the recent literature in Christian ethics. They offer us, a grid on which to register some of the most important alternatives to the account of Christian ethics which this book advocates.” (ix)

Much of his book is devoted to explaining more fully what these definitions mean and imply with special emphasis on one fundamental truth: “Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (11)

Origin and Organization

Oliver O’Donovan (1945-) is an Anglican priest and scholar focused on Christian ethics educated at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.[1] He writes in twelve chapters divided into three parts:

  1. The gospel and Christian ethics

Part One: The objective reality

  1. Created order
  2. Eschatology and history
  3. Knowledge in Christ

Part Two: The subjective reality

  1. Freedom and reality
  2. Authority
  3. The authority of Christ
  4. The freedom of the church and the believer

Part Three: The form of the moral life

  1. The moral field
  2. The moral subject
  3. The double aspect of the moral life
  4. The end of the moral life (v)

These chapter is preceded by a preface and prologue, and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Two-Level Ethics

Although O’Donovan reviews creation ethics (natural law) at great length in part one on objective reality, he does not stop there. Redemptive history—creation, fall, and redemption—reduces to the dualist notion of “’from’ and ‘towards’, in which all the traditional language of good and evil is reinterpreted.” (63)

This two level of moral evaluation is not a novelty. O’Donovan writes: “There are conceived to be two levels at which moral thought proceeds: a fundamental level of intention—the will, in Kant—which makes a simple moral decision in favour of duty and the universal moral law, and a secondary level of empirical discernment which, as it were, merely administers that decision concretely.”(262)

O’Donovan articulates a similar two-level moral framework in Christian ethics. He writes:

“The ultimate and simple decision is not found in the books of human deeds, but in the book of life, where it is a question of Yes or No: either a name is there, or it is not.” (264)

In other words, the most important ethical decision is the intention to follow Jesus Christ. After that comes all other ethical decisions.

Assessment

Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics provides a deep dive into Christian ethics beginning with a thorough review of creation ethics. This is a fascinating read for seminary students and pastors. I learned a lot. Perhaps, you will too.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_O%27Donovan

O’Donovan Splits Ethics into Faith and Actio

Also See:

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1 

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Dawn Widens Worship

Dawn_review_20191003Marva J. Dawn.[1] 1999. “A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time: The Splendor of Worshipping God and Being Church for the World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the great disappointments in seminary arose when I took my only worship class and the professor insisted on studying the worship requirements outlined in the Book of Order (the denomination governance manual). It was like taking a class in oil painting only to be given a canvas outlined in a paint-by-numbers schema. Nothing quenches the spirit (1 Thes 5:19) quicker than a programmatic church.

Introduction

In her book, A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time, Marva Dawn writes:

“Surely one of the greatest problems of our times is that we have become so nonchalant about the Lord of the cosmos. Certainly, if we were more immersed in God’s splendor we would find ourselves thoroughly lost in wonder, love, and praise.” (7)

In theological terms, we have lost our sense of God’s transcendence and prefer a “buddy god” that we can hang with on Sunday morning and forget about the rest of the week—my paraphrase. Dawn goes on to say:

“My primary concern in various churches’ and denominations’ struggles over worship is that so many decisions are being based on criteria other than the most essential—namely that God be the Subject and Object, the Infinite Center, of our worship.” (8)

Having lost its center, Dawn observes:

“Church has been turned into a place, a building, a duty, an hour on Sunday mornings, rather than what we are as ‘those called out’ (ekklesia) by Christ into a way of being in the world to the glory of God for the sake of others.” (9)

When the church’s center is God, the musical forms, the liturgy, and the mode of dress simply recede in importance.

Background and Organization

Marva Dawn received her doctorate in Christian ethics at University of Notre Dame. At the time she wrote this book, she was a seminary professor and the author of numerous books. She has since retired. Dawn writes in six parts:

  1. For the World: Culture
  2. Worshiping God: The Splendor of Our Infinite Center
  3. Being Church: Building Community
  4. Being Church: Forming Character
  5. Being Church: Choices
  6. For the World: Challenges (vii-viii)

Each part begins with a sermon, accept for the introduction where the theme sermon follows the introduction. This sermonic focus loosens the integration of the book, giving it an eclectic form and feel.

Wasting Time

Dawn’s thematic sermon takes Colossians 3:12-17 as its text. A key phrase in this reading is: And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col 3:15 ESV). Dawn applies this text seriously when she reminds us:

“And it [worship] is a royal waste of time because we have to die to ourselves and our egos, our purposes and accomplishments to live now in God’s kingdom.” (14)

For Dawn, wasting time in worship is, in other words, sacrificial, our way of participating in Christ’s crucifixion. This is much like the Apostle Peter’s observation: He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:24 ESV)

In my own view, I see worship as a way of participating in the divine rest in creation. We are where God intends us to be, something often hard to achieve in this life.

Assessment

Marva J. Dawn’s A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time left a lasting impression on me in seminary as I came to see worship differently. In worship, we come to praise and adore God that we might become acquainted with the image we were created to reflect. True worship is more than the musical selections and their performance. Seminary students and pastors are best positioned to understand her detailed examination of contemporary worship controversies.

Footnotes

[1] http://MarvaDawn.org/about_Marva

Dawn Widens Worshi

Also See:

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1 

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Boyle Brings Homies Home

Boyle_review_20190905Gregory Boyle. 2011. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. New York: Free Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The subject of teenage street gangs—weaponized teenagers—is dear to my heart because I came to Christ at the age of 13 in response to the testimony of a Puerto Rican gang member, Nicki Cruz, in New York City. When I went to a showing of The Cross and the Switchblade, even though my neighborhood did not have formalized gangs, violence was a daily part of life

Introduction

In Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle writes about his experiences working with gangs in Los Angeles and founding Homeboy Industries that offers jobs to kids seeking to leave the gang life. He writes:

“I celebrate Catholic services, on a rotating basis, in twenty-five detention institutions in Los Angeles County—juvenile halls, probation camps, jails, and state youth authority facilities. After Mass, in the gym or chapel or classroom, I hand out my card. The infomercial is always the same: Call me when you get out. I’ll hook you up with a job—take off your tattoos—line ya up with a counselor. I won’t know where you are, but with this card, you’ll know where I am.” (187)

This book is about the kids that actually show up at his desk. He goes on:

“Clearly, the themes that bind the stories are things that matter to me. As a Jesuit for thirty-seven years and a priest for twenty-five years, it would not be possible for me to present these stories apart from God, Jesus, compassion, kinship, redemption, mercy, and our common call to delight in one another.” (xii-xiii)

While this book is not a memoir or chronology, it is accurate to describe it as narrative nonfiction.

Homeboy Industries

Homeboy Industries started in 1992 with the opening of a bakery that only employed former gang members (7). Boyle writes:

“Members from more than eight hundred gangs from all over the county now came seeking employment, tattoo removal, mental health counseling, and legal services…Homeboy Industries is not for those who need help, only for those who want it. In this sense, we are gang-rehabilitation center.” (8)

Seven years later, the bakery burned to the ground, apparently because of an electrical short (10-11). Because of their obvious success, they rebuilt and expanded.

Organization

Boyle writes in nine chapters preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by acknowledgments:

  1. God, I Guess
  2. Dis-Grace
  3. Compassion
  4. Water, Oil, Flame
  5. Slow Work
  6. Jurisdiction
  7. Gladness
  8. Success Kinship (vii)

We learn a few things about Boyle along the way, like he has a master’s in English, grew up in California, was the youngest priest in his dioceses, and began his ministry in Bolivia, but for the most part he tells stories about gang members that advance the themes that his writes about.

God’s Attributes

Boyle tells the story of his spiritual advisor whose father is dying of cancer. He would read to his father, hoping that we would fall asleep, but his father would just pretend to sleep while watching his son read. He writes:

“Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn’t take his eyes off his kid. How much more so God?” (20)

Later he introduces us to Willy, who loves to brag but is a marginal gang member that does not really get into his “exploits” and who has serious problem with charming people out of their money. So Boyle drives him to the ATM and leaves him in the car, telling him to pray. When he gets back to the car with twenty bucks, Willy is noticeably quiet.

“You prayed, didn’t you?”

Without looking at him he responds: “Yes, I did.”

So what did God say to you?

“Well, first He said, Shut up and listen.” Then He said: “Heart full, eyes overflowing. “God … thinks … I’m … firme [Spanish].”

To the homies, firme means, “could not be one bit better.” (22-24) We all call God father, but Boyle gives a concise picture of what that looks like.

Assessment

Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart that left me sorry when it ended. I just wanted to hear more. It personalized my image of a Hispanic gang member to the point that I could see their humanity, got angry at their poverty and isolation, and cheered their successes in finding a way out of the projects. I suspect that you will too.

Boyle Brings Homies Hom

Also See:

Value Of Life

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Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part Two

Mitchell_review_20190919Ben Mitchell.[1] 2013. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton: Crossway.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A key insight in my personal study of ethics is simple. Because everyone interprets an event through their own lens, ethics focuses on interpretation. Whose interpretation has the most merit and why?

Introduction

In his book, Ethics and Moral Reasoning, Ben Mitchell writes:

“Although every person may pursue the human telos, Christians enjoy the aid of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who motivates them both to will and to do God’s God pleasure as they follow the path of the Lord Jesus.” (97)

If Jesus is my measure of everything in life—Jesus is my denominator—then with the help of the Holy Spirit I am better able to navigate our shark-infested world than by adopting any ethical school of thought, no matter how sophisticated.

In part one of this review, I give a general outline of Mitchell’s work. In part two, I will summarize his views on biblical, enlightenment, and Evangelical ethical thinking.

Biblical Ethics

Biblical ethics is important enough to Mitchell that he about a third of his book to it written in two chapters. In his chapter on the Old Testament, Mitchell starts by surveying a number of hot-button issues, including:

  • Marriage and family
  • Labor and vocation
  • Sanctity and dignity of human life
  • Infanticide and abortion
  • Gladiatorial brutality
  • Gender equality
  • Racial equality (32-38).

Many of these issues were axiomatic until the demise of Christendom within the last generation. In the absence of consensus on basic issues, church teaching on these issues cannot be assumed. Pastors find themselves triaging fundamental church doctrines against an increasingly more limited attention span of their congregations and frequently open hostility to many traditional interpretations of scripture.

After surveying these issues, Mitchell moves to examining each of Ten Commandments (38-52). Mitchell offers these general insights into the Commandments:

  • The law expresses general principles, not case law.
  • The law is given by God himself.
  • Any offense against the law is an offense against the law giver.
  • Biblical law is the foundation for Western jurisprudence (38-39).

This last point is important. Questions about biblical law’s applicability have the potential to cascade through the rest of Western jurisprudence.

In his discussion of the New Testament, Michell focuses on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and initiates a discussion of natural law. He writes:

“To claim that there is a natural law is to claim that there is a normative moral order governed by that law, not by mere convention or mutual agree.” (61)

This is no small point. In putting forward new teaching on homosexuality in the church, denominations offering this teaching are disputing the doctrine of natural law (and the divine inspiration of scripture) that binds us irrespective of public opinion or the ruling of church leaders.

Enlightenment Ethics

Concerning the Enlightenment, Mitchell writes:

“Can we be good without God and his revelations? Many thinkers of the Enlightenment thought so. The religious wars in Europe from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries did not leave people flush with confidence that agreement on faith, ethics, and politics was possible. The Enlightenment or age of reason was in many ways a response to this dilemma.” (65)

The idea that truth could be discovered independent of theological assumptions, while novel, proved impossible to validate philosophically. Secularism has proven to be a Christian heresy, quite unworkable when separated from its Christian foundations because other foundations cannot be found or are typically arbitrarily inserted. If this is unclear, ask yourself what justification exists for human rights, absent being created in the image of God and being loved by God.

Evangelical Ethics

For Mitchell, evangelical ethics stems from God and scripture. He writes:

“The Bible is the norming norm or revealed basis for evangelical reflections about the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is against the canon (rule) of Scripture that evangelical seek to compare and contrast all moral teaching.” (77)

Citing Kyle Fedler, Mitchell outlines these guidelines for interpreting scripture:

  • No single method for the use of scripture is adequate.
  • Whenever possible, the Bible should be read in its historical and cultural context.
  • Not all scripture carries the same normative weight.
  • Although Scripture is primary, normative, and authoritative, it is not our only source of guidance and wisdom. (93-95)

The evangelical rule, in so many words, is: the Bible says it, that settles it. However, scholars like Fedler suggest that in practice this rule is hard to apply rigorously.

Assessment

Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide is a gem. It provides a short, concise statement of a Christian ethical perspective.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.uu.edu/programs/stm/faculty/ben-mitchell.html

Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part Two

Also See:

Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part One

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1 

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part One

Mitchell_review_20190919Ben Mitchell.[1] 2013. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton: Crossway.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My interest in ethics dates back to when as a young man I faced the Vietnam war and the draft without a clear understanding of what I was dealing with. What does God require of us here and now, in this situation, and why? Questions of life and death tend to grab you by the throat and refuse to let you go.

Introduction

In the preface to his book, Ethics and Moral Reasoning, Ben Mitchell writes:  

“Few people need to be convinced of the importance of ethics. We live in a tragically flawed world where we are confronted daily with moral failures…This book is a guide to thinking about the good.” (15-17)

He goes on to write:

“Jesus described a trinity of moral relationships—to God, to others, and to self. These three relationships were to be ordered by the virtue of love. Importantly, when one of these relationships becomes disordered, the others are affected.” (19)

Nouwen (1975, 20) refers to these three relationships as movements of the spirit, suggesting that what we believe and what we do are closely related. Much of what we do arises, especially in a professional sense, arises out of our identities.

As Christians, our identity naturally flows from our understanding of who Jesus is. Mitchell’s commitment to a Christian ethical understanding is summarized as:

“Although every person may pursue the human telos, Christians enjoy the aid of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who motivates them both to will and to do God’s God pleasure as they follow the path of the Lord Jesus.” (97)

In his final paragraph he asks: “What does it mean to be truly human?” (98) The answer to this question often given by Christians is that we more closely reflect the image in which we were created (Gen 1:27).

Background and Organization

Ben Mitchell has a doctorate from University of Tennessee, a masters of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a grade of Mississippi State University. He is currently on the faculty at Union University in Tennessee. His focus is bioethics and he is widely published.

Mitchell writes in six chapters:

  1. “The Challenges of a Relativist World
  2. The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 1
  3. The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 2
  4. Enlightenment Ethics
  5. Evangelical Ethics
  6. Using the Bible in Moral Decision Making” (9)

These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and acknowledgments and followed by conclusions, an appendix, questions for reflection, a timeline, glossary, resources for further study, and two indices. In his scriptural index, the vast majority of citations are from Genesis (creation), Exodus (Ten Commandments), and Matthew (Sermon on the Mount).

Confronting Relativism

Concerning the pervasive influence of relativism, Mitchell observes:

“relativism is morally crippling because relegates ethical discussions to the personal, private, and subjective, and to the realm of mere preference.” (34)

He terms this view normative ethical relativism because it suggests not only what is, but what should be. Citing Louis Pojman, it stands on two premises: the diversity thesis, that “right and wrong differ from person to person and from culture to culture”. And the dependency thesis, that “morality depends on human nature, the human condition, or specific sociocultural circumstances, or a combination of all three.” (24-25) The diversity thesis is not normative, but simply observes that ethical practices differ between cultures. Mitchell devotes more attention to the dependency thesis.

Mitchell outlines five weaknesses of the dependency thesis that we care about:

  1. Majority opinion can be wrong. For most of human history, the majority of people supported the institution of slavery.
  2. Moral error is not possible, if the dependency thesis is true. Child sexual abuses is always wrong, irrespective of cultural context.
  3. Moral reform makes no sense if relativism is true. Abraham Lincoln had no basis for criticizing slavery or Nelson Mandela for criticizing racial segregation, if relativism is true.
  4. What is does not imply that it should be. Just because some Islamic and African nations practice female genital mutilation does not imply that is should be.
  5. Relativism confuses moral practices and their underlying values. Signs of disrespect differ by culture, yet every culture honors respect. (27-29)

Citing James Q. Wilson, Mitchell observes that “every culture shares the values of sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty” (30) suggesting that we share common moral values even if they are expressed differently among cultures.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I give a general outline of Mitchell’s work. In part two, I will summarize his views on biblical, enlightenment, and Evangelical ethical thinking.

Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide is a gem. It provides a short, concise statement of a Christian ethical perspective.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.uu.edu/programs/stm/faculty/ben-mitchell.html.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part On

Also See:

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1 

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Run_2019

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Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

Vance_review_20190903J.D. Vance.[1]2018. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the middle of the Second World War in 1944 a group of world leaders met in Breton Woods, New Hampshire to craft a monetary agreement that would come into effect after the war. In the agreement, the United States pegged the dollar to gold at a price of $26 per ounce. That agreement came to an end in 1971 when the United States announced that it could no longer defend the value of the dollar with gold. From that point forward, the rock-solid U.S. economy has been in transition.

Many people that took the opportunity to educate themselves and invest their money wisely during those prosperous years after the war pulled themselves out of poverty; others did not. In this latter case, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy sees “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Ironically, he sees his own struggle with dysfunctionality paralleling that of other minority groups in America that have not moved ahead in spite of ample opportunity.

Introduction

Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir of one man who defied a legacy of isolation, poverty, and a dysfunctional family culture to become educated and gainfully employed. Of his background, Vance writes:

“I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree … Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”(3)

In his description, Vance goes on to cite social isolation:

“Our religion has changed—built around churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well. Many of us have dropped out of the labor force or have chosen not to relocate for better opportunities. Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.”(4-5)

Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the changes that churches have undergone to reinforce this dysfunctional culture. He does, however, emphasize the oasis offered by his grandparents—in spite of their own obvious dysfunctions—that allowed him to graduate from high school and the encouragement they gave to his higher education (e.g. 253).

Detailed Dysfunction

Vance calls his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw, terminology used exclusively by his hillbilly community (23). Mamaw and Papaw grew up in Jackson, Kentucky but moved to Middletown, Ohio for fairly sketchy reasons—Bonnie was 16 and pregnant and James feared that her family would shoot him. Ohio offered the opportunity to find industrial work at Armco and join the middle class. Ironically, the pregnancy that prompted the move died in infancy (26-27).

Vance‘s mother was a nurse whose life was torn between an addiction and a never-ending rotation of men. Once he realized early in high school that the instability in his home life would never change, he moved in with his grandmother. He writes:

“Mamaw [a pistol-packing hillbilly] would kill anyone who tried to keep me from her. This worked for us because Mamaw was a lunatic and our entire family feared her.”(243)

Protected by his lunatic grandmother, Vance found stability in his high school years that allowed him to focus on his studies. He later joined the Marines which “taught me how to live like an adult”and enabled him to apply for Ohio State (174-77).

Ironically, he kept his relationship with his grandmother a secret, even from his close friends, because child protective services would not have honored this relationship and would probably have placed him in foster-care. He writes:

“Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine—and for many black and Hispanic families—grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role.”(243)

This outsize role arises because even in dysfunctional families there is often someone willing to look out for a child at risk and function as a surrogate parent.

Assessment

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a young man who grew up in hillbilly family and found his way to Ohio State University and Yale Law school despite all odds against him. The craziness of his life and family make this an interesting read. At the time of publication in 2016 the media made this book a cult classic because it seemed—quite unfairly—to epitomize the typical Donald Trump voter in a manner like “Joe Six-pack”or the “Silent Majority”used to describe poor white voters, forgotten by the media and mainstream politicians between elections. Nevertheless, Hillbilly Elegyis likely to become and remain a classic study of cultural dysfunction.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._D._Vance.

Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

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Brooks Introduces the Bobos

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Chesterton Mystifies and Alludes

Chesterton ReviewGilbert K. Chesterton. 2018. The Man Who Was Thursday (Orig Pub: 1908). Overland Park, KS: Digireads.com Publisher

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

No one understands life’s minutiae like a novelist. It is one thing to experience a trifle; it is another to describe it and the emotions conveyed therein with a minimum of words. The reader thus inherits the author’s inner life’s ruminations and is then free to explore another. The more spirited the writer, the greater the inheritance.

Introduction

Gilbert K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday sets the stage for his tale with a curious mixture of personal and grandiose observations:

“A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather, year, sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together. Science announced nonentity and art admired decay; The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay [happy].”(1)

This odd description appears either primordial or simple gibberish. If primordial, our minds run to the creation account:The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” (Gen 1:2 ESV) Yet, the object being described is not the earth, but the “minds of men”and we are immediately told that the world is old, not new, as might be true during creation. What is new is that “we were boys together.” Enigmatically, science shows no interest and art is only interested in decay. But “you and I”read on happily perhaps more out of curiosity than out of comprehension.

Still, we soon catch an allusion—“Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind believed”—to Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas (John 20:29) that comes across as a promise to readers that we will soon understand what it all means.

Poetic Duel

The second scene sprints from one end of creation to the other:

“This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be remembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like the end of the world.” (5)

In this strange end time saga, we are introduced to two poets:

“For a long time the red-haired revolutionary had reigned without a rival; it was upon the night of the sunset that his solitude suddenly ended. The new poet, who introduced himself by the name of Gabriel Syme was a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair. But an impression grew that he was less meek than he looked. He signaled his entrance by differing with the established poet. Geogory, upon the whole nature of poetry. He said that he (Syme) was a poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said, he was a poet of respectability. So all the Saffron Parkers looked at him as if he had that moment fallen out of that impossible sky. In fact, Mr. Lucian Gregory, the anarchic poet, connected the two events.”(6)

The two poets now contend for supremacy, one representing chaos while the other order, suggesting tension between the primordial muck and the created order introduced by God (Gen 1:1-2). Syme pokes fun at Lucian, describing his anarchy as dull, vomitus, and revolting (7). Lucian is irritated and invites Syme to visit his lair, scene three, where he proves himself to be a real anarchist, not just an angry poet. Further on we learn that his name, Lucian, is aptly chosen.

Assessment

Gilbert K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is on the surface a quick, page-turning mystery novella set in early twentieth-century London, but on deeper inquiry proves to be a metaphysical allegory filled with biblical allusions. It got me thinking; you might also find it fascinating.

Chesterton Mystifies and Alludes

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Schaefer’s Shane: Best Western Yet

Schaefer's Shane: Best Western YetJack Schaefer. 2013. Shane (Orig Pub 1948). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I grew up loving films and books about the old West. In the 1960s shows like the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers enjoyed a dedicated following because they embodied the ideals of self-sufficiency, development of character, and manhood that most boys aspired to. Often these stories featured corporate villains whose greed and corrupting influence on local police needed to be exposed by individuals with unwavering character and a steady draw.

Introduction

Jack Schaefer’s western novella, Shane,starts simply with a touch of mystery: “He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89.” (1) We immediately ask: who is this “he,” where is “our valley,” and, by the way, what century are we talking about?

This first, declarative sentence accordingly has the flavor of a series of questions prompting interest. The second sentence introduces the narrator who introduces himself as a kid and indirectly describes himself in the first person as between four and five feet tall: “barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuckwagon.” We know from this description that this story takes place in 1889, not 1989, when horses and chuckwagons were more common.

The second paragraph talks about “clear Wyoming air” that places this story on the frontier when many adult men were veterans of the Civil War and shortly after most Indian wars were over. The third paragraph shows our horseman taking a fork in the road choosing between a road leading to “Luke Fletcher’s big spread”and one leading to where “homesteaders”had staked their claims. Choosing the latter foreshadows later tension between the two.

Fastidiousness

The remainder of the first scene introduces our horseman, Shane, to our narrator, Robert MacPherson Starrett (Bob) and to his parents Joe and Marian Starrett (6-7). Along the way, we learn that Shane and the Starretts share the common virtue of fastidiousness about all that they do, which we learn from the dialogue offering introductions:

My name’s Starrett, said father. Joe Starrett. This here, waving at me, is Robert MacPherson Starrett. Too much name for a boy. I make it Bob.  

The stranger nodded again. Call me Shane, he said. Then to me: Bob it is, You were watching me for quite a spell coming up the road.  

It was not a question. It was a simple statement. Yes… I stammered. Yes. I was.  

Right, he said. I like that. A man who watches what’s going on around him will make his mark.

This fastidious watchfulness sets each of our characters apart from everyone else around them and instinctively draws them together. This watchfulness is like in the story of Gideon who selects an elite team of soldiers based how they drink water from a stream—like a dog lapping it up—so that they would remain aware of their surroundings (Judg 6:5-7).

Tension

Shane is drawn to the Starretts because of their common fastidiousness and willingness to take him on as a hand even though he claims no expertise in farming.

Schaefer introduces inner tension into our understanding of Shane in sharing his relationship with his gun. Bob observes that unlike other men who considered a gun a token of virility: “Share carried no gun.” Yet, Shane owns a beautiful, well-balanced, “single-action Colt” with an ivory grip that he keeps wrapped up in his saddle-roll (52-53). Shane never displays his gun, even in the face of obvious threats.

Bob’s discovery of the gun hints at Shane’s background as a gunfighter and foreshadows later tension between farmer Joe Starrett and rancher Luke Fletcher, but for now we are left to wonder why Shane is so evasive about his past and so thankful for Joe’s willingness to teach him farming. Is Shane ashamed of his past?

Christ Figure

Shane’s inner tension gets pressed several times when he is goaded into fights that he wins through seer tenacity. When he breaks the arm of young man Chris, one Fletcher’s men, in a fight, he is truly sorry and tells one of the townsmen:

“Take good care of him. He has the makings of a good man.” (87)

Later in confronting a gunfighter hired by Fletcher, Shane takes up his gun, seeks him out, and shoots him and Fletcher both, a fight not his own that leaves him wounded and forced, in his mind, to leave town. His sacrifice, not unlike the American self-image during the Second World War, gives this reluctant gunslinger the appearance of a Christ figure, something seldom seen in more recent fiction.

Assessment

As a young man, I remember watching a movie, Shane (1953), drawn from Jack Schaefer’s 1948 book, Shane. The movie won a number of awards and nominations.[1]Unlike most of today’s police shows and space adventures that feature adult themes, Schaefer wrote targeting adolescent boys who today are mostly forgotten in the effort to sexualize youth and be inclusive. I loved reading Shane and found it a reminder of all that is good and decent about America, something we seemed to have forgotten or no longer believe.

Footnotes

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shane_(film).

Schaefer’s Shane: Best Western Yet

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Worden Explains Grief

Worden reviewWilliam Worden.[1]2009. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner.New York: Springer.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The problem of unresolved grief could reasonably be described as posing a silent healthcare crisis. When I worked as a chaplain intern at Providence Hospital about half of the patients that I visited had presenting diagnoses brought about or complicated by resolved grief. This outcome is no doubt related to the unwillingness of American culture generally to respect the grieving process and of many people to participate in organized religion where they might better share their grief with a support group. Unresolved grief may lead to anxiety and depression or simply be confused with both.

Introduction

In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, William Worden writes:

“In this book I am using the term ‘mourning’ to indicate the process that occurs after a loss, while ‘grief’ refers to the personal experience of the loss.”(37)

He further explains:

“I make a distinction between grief counseling and grief therapy. Counseling involves helping people facilitate uncomplicated, or normal, grief to a healthy adaptation to the tasks of mourning within a reasonable time frame. I reserve the term, grief therapy, for those specialized techniques, described in chapter 6, that are used to help people with abnormal or complicated grief reactions.”(83)

Worden spends the first half of the book explaining the process of mourning and dealing with uncomplicated grief. The second half of the book focuses on complicated grief and special situations that arise.

The Mourning Process

Worden (39-50) divides the process of mourning into four tasks:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss,
  • Working through the pain,
  • Adjusting to a world without the deceased, and
  • Finding connection with the deceased while moving on.

The first task is to get beyond denial—a funeral with an open casket helps mourners get over the denial. The second task has to deal with the pain that may be accompanied by anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, and loneliness. The third task is to account for all the activities that the deceased shared with you and to find alternative arrangements. The fourth task is the re-evaluate your relationship with the deceased while moving on.

Challenging Grief Situations

Getting stuck in any one of these four tasks may flag a case of complicated grief. Generally, complicated grief is a consequence of having a complicated relationship with the deceased. Complications might include unfinished business, broken relationships, co-dependencies, or psychiatric issues. Factors inducing guilt or shame normally complicates the mourning process.

Special circumstances arise when the grieving person is prevented from participating the normal mourning process, such as suicide, physical absence, death from AIDS, or death of someone involved in an affair. Sudden death or multiple deaths pose other special circumstances.

Background and Organization

William Worden has most recently been a professor of Psychology, Rosemead Graduate School of Professional Psychology, California. He has taught and practiced psychiatrics at a number of institutions. His doctorate and final post-doctoral work were at Boston University. He also has a seminary degree.

Worden writes in ten chapters:

  1. Attachment, Loss, and the Experience of Grief
  2. Understanding the Mourning Process
  3. The Mourning Process: Mediators of Mourning
  4. Grief Counseling: Facilitating Uncomplicated Grief
  5. Abnormal Grief Reactions: Complicated Mourning
  6. Grief Therapy: Resolving Complicated Mourning
  7. Grieving Special Types of Losses
  8. Grief and Family Systems
  9. The Counselor’s Own Grief
  10. Training for Grief Counseling(ix-xi)

These chapters are proceeded by a preface and introduction and followed by an appendix, bibliography, and index. In view of the media handling of mass shootings and other disasters in recent years, I wish that Worden had also written a chapter on secondary trauma, a kind of vicarious loss.

Assessment

William Worden’s Grief Counseling and Grief Therapyoffers a thorough understanding of mourning and complicated grief. Since 2011, Worden’s advice and counsel has informed my pastoral approach to grieving people and I frequently go back to refer to the chapters. Although Worden writes to professional counselors in an academic context, his writing is accessible and understandable.

Footnotes

[1]http://media1.biola.edu/talbot/faculty/cvs/william_worden_1.pdf.

Worden Explains Grief

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