Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Robert Wicks, AvailabilityRobert Wicks. 2000. Availability: The Spiritual Joy of Helping Others. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the more interesting definitions of the soul is that it encompasses who we are and who we are in relationship with, including God. This definition differs significantly from the Greek division of the person into body and spirit or, body, mind, and spirit. It also differs from the Freudian division into id, ego, and superego. When we talk about the three movements of the spirit, popularized recently by Henri Nouwen (1975), into polarities within, with God, and with others, we converge on this ancient notion of soul. Loneliness can accordingly be accurately described as an affliction of the soul, while frankly psychologists have really no conceptual basis for even describing it because it is relational, not part of the person.

Introduction

In his book, Availability: The Spiritual Joy of Helping Others, Robert Wicks describes his book’s theme in these words:

“…the more we can remove the blocks to an appreciation of who we are and who we are becoming, the truer we can be in our response to the Gospel call to serve others and God. We must be available then to ourselves so that our relationships can flow out of a healthy attitude and a clear awareness of our motivations.”(3)

While Wicks cites many passages of scripture, the one that comes to mind for me in reflecting on this book, the story of Bartimaeus, he does not cite. It reads:

“And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside … And Jesus stopped and said, Call him … And Jesus said to him, What do you want me to do for you?”(Mark 10:46-52 ESV)

What celebrity stops for a random person in a crowd, one of the invisible people? Yet, time and time again, Jesus made himself radically available to strangers.

Being Available to Ourselves

If loneliness is an affliction of the soul, availability enlarges and heals the soul; it is a gift (1). Wicks writes:

“Availability to ourselves increases along with availability to God and others because there is a unity in being true to oneself, others, and God.”(39)

Wicks clearly believes that being available to ourselves is the key to unlocking this gift. Note that in writing his book in eight chapters, four are devoted to being available to ourselves (half the book) while only two chapters are devoted to being available to others and two to God (v).

Wicks focuses on being available to ourselves in terms of recognizing our uniqueness and limits, being willing to forgive ourselves in failure, cultivating self-awareness, and developing emotional and mental clarity, avoiding defensiveness.

Being Available to Others

Being available to others can be easily described, but it is an area fraught with confusion. Wicks writes:

“Being available to others is not just giving time, money, and effort. It is also not endlessly worrying about others so that our personal tension rises to the point that we are overloaded and have no energy to care about anything or anyone anymore.” (40)

Obviously, burnout is a real possibility. I have seen pastors experiencing anxiety attacks, running around trying to do everything, and being subject to temptations that would not normally afflict them, had they honored their own limits.

Being Available to God

In his discussion of being available to God, Wicks makes an important observation:

“When we play at prayer, rather than open ourselves up to listen, it is we who are truly not available to God.”(95)

When you pray, do you do all the talking? God answers prayer, sometimes quite quickly, but we need to be listening. He goes on:

“…if there is a key to understanding the problems of availability and appreciating it as a gift, this key is contained in our seeking unity within and without by placing ourselves continually in the presence of God: to relax, to sit, to learn, to work, to contemplate, to do everything in the presences of God.”(102)

When I am restless or distracted in prayer, I find it helpful to pray a centering prayer. For me, Psalm 8 centers me and helps me to separate myself from my own busyness. My own restlessness often makes continuous prayer during the day hard.

Assessment

Robert Wicks’ Availability: The Spiritual Joy of Helping Othersis short and easily read—a seminarian’s delight. Its brevity is disarming and masks the profound influence that this book had on my thinking early in seminary. After reading Wicks, I meditated on the story of Bartimaeus and Psalm 8 for years. Perhaps, you will too.

References

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

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. (Goto part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Anyone who works in Washington DC quickly learns that when something is broken, it is seldom an accident; someone typically benefits from the brokenness. In the case of the Hebrew heart found everywhere in the New Testament, it naturally leads one to take a holistic view of life and ministry. If thinking, emotions, action, and character formation are all intimately tied to one another, discipleship requires personal mentoring over years that cannot be reduced to a seasonal program or delegated to strangers. Church programs are event-driven or tackle one issue independent of the others without the holistic integration required for discipleship.[1]

The Future is Always Present

In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith offers an interesting ethical insight—an instrument (or person) is good when it is used with its purpose in view. He asks how one would evaluate a flute used to roast marshmallows over a fire—we would never say that a flute used this way was a bad flute. Why? The measure of a flute is how it is used to play music, not roast marshmallows. Smith observes:

“…virtue is bound up with a sense of excellence: a virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made.”(89)

Because of original sin, we are not inclined to love virtues and to practice them. Being created in the image of God implies that are on a mission in worship to develop the virtues through ritual and sacrament that match God’s intent for our lives (88).

This sense of worship explains why Revelation draws many illusions from the creation accounts in Genesis and paints many pictures of worship in heaven. Our collective objective as Christians is to live into our vision of heaven (our eschatology) where we reflect and commune with the God that we worship. Our end (ultimate story) is always in view and it informs how we should live and worship.

How are we to live into our collective future if we love the wrong things today?

Sacred and Secular Liturgies

Smith spends a lot of time discussing liturgies. He writes:

“Liturgy, as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”(46)

The Apostle’s Creed is, for example, both a ritual and a story that explains who Jesus is, who we are and what we are for. Repeating the creed until you can recite it in your sleep implies that it has become a ritual and a part of your identity.

Holy music goes a step further to bury it in your heart. Having work with Alzheimer’s patients, I can tell you that songs like the Doxology are the last thing you forget before getting lost in the mist—I have seen patients lost, unable to speak, brought back to themselves when you sing such songs with them. This is what Smith means by a sacred ritual.

The problem is that our society has its own liturgies. He spends a great deal of effort, for example, analyzing and dissecting the liturgies of the shopping mall. When you are upset, do you go to chapel and pray (think of the film Home Alone[2]) or do you call a friend and go shopping? Why shop? The liturgy of the mall suggests that individual find empowerment in purchasing things that they probably don’t need. The problem with this secular liturgy is that inherent in purchasing things to make us feel good about ourselves is we are broken, need things to fulfill ourselves, and don’t measure up to others with more stuff. Worse, the feel-good benefit quickly wears off because it is a lie (47-53).

Clearly a lot more could be said about this book. Part one of this review gives an overview of Smith’s work.

Assessment

James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habitis a deeply theological reflection on the formative aspects of Christian ritual and worship. Those familiar with prior work on spirituality and worship will find his analysis compelling and better integrated for a topic often offering divergent pieces and perspectives. Those unfamiliar may find reason to attend a more liturgically-oriented church respectful of the bells and smells. In any case, Smith is an engaging author and his writing is cogent and accessible.

Footnotes

[1]Discipleship is much more doable in a rural, small village setting where everyone knows everyone else and families spend large amounts of time together. In the Gospels, we see this sort of mentoring (a kind of pastoral care) in the stories of Jesus with the woman at the well (John 4) and his visit with Nicodemus (John 3) and in Paul’s pastoral letters. In today’s urban setting, lots more intentionality is required to achieve the same result and often only active youth volunteers in the church receive this sort of attention. Not surprisingly, such youth frequently enter mission work or attend seminary.

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_Alone. In the story, church is where eight-year old, Kevin McCallister meets Old Man Marley and finds out that he is not scary, but a nice man. The two become friends and help each other resolve their problems.

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2

Also see:

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter:  http://bit.ly/2018_Ascension

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Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.(Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The wholly confusion that dominates the church today is rooted the Greek dualism that pervades western thought. While Greeks distinguished mind and body, Hebrews did not. The Hebrew mindset saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) and decidedly not simply emotions that come and go. Stroking emotions and teaching the head neglect the heart that responds principally to ritual. Neglected hearts see no reason to become disciples or attend church. The church then finds itself full of confused thinkers and traumatized emoters who ridicule and neglect ritual leading to even more neglected hearts. Wholly confusion naturally leads then to holy confusion.

Introduction

In his book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith opens his preface with an enigmatic statement:

“This book articulates a spirituality for culture-makers, showing (I hope) why discipleship needs to be centered in and fueled by our immersion in the body of Christ.”(xi)

The word, spirituality, signals an interest in applied (or practical) theology; the word culture signals a long-term focus moving from the church to society; and the phrase,“immersion in the body of Christ”,signals an interest in worship, particularly the sacramental aspects of worship where God is the principal actor and the rituals date to the first century church.

Work of Christ

For a Christian theologian, unpacking this agenda requires an interpretation of the work of Christ (the metaphysical question) that shows up immediately:

“Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His ‘teaching’ doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who ‘penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit’; he ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Heb 4:12)” (1)

Hebrew Anthropology

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” (5) If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith to observe: “What if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire?[the heart] (7) If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek and unfamiliar in American culture.

Background

James K. A. Smith[1]teaches philosophy at Calvin College and writes for Comment magazine. His doctorate is from Villanova. He is the author of many books, including Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, that I reviewed previously. Smith grew up in Ontario Canada.

Smith writes in seven chapters:

  1. You Are What You Love: To Worship is Human
  2. You Might Not Love What You Think: Learning to Read ‘Secular’ Liturgies
  3. The Spirit Meets You Where You Are: Historic World for a Postmodern Age
  4. What Story are You in? The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship
  5. Guard Your Heart: The Liturgies of Home
  6. Teach Your Children Well: Learning by Heart
  7. You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies(ix)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by a benediction, suggested readings, acknowledgments, notes, and an index.

Part one of this review gives an overview of Smith’s work; part two will go into his arguments in more detail.

Assessment

James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habitis a deeply theological reflection on the formative aspects of Christian ritual and worship. Those familiar with prior work on spirituality and worship will find his analysis compelling and better integrated for a topic often offering divergent pieces and perspectives. Those unfamiliar may find reason to attend a more liturgically-oriented church respectful of the bells and smells. In any case, Smith is an engaging author and his writing is cogent and accessible.

References

Smith, James K. A.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (review)

[1] http://jameskasmith.com. https://calvin.edu/directory/people/james-k-a-smith.

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 1

Also see:

Smith Engages the Hebrew Heart, Part 2 

Smith: Speak Postmodern to Postmodern People, Part 1 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

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Schultz Clarifies Biblical Context and Use

Review of Richard Schultz's Out of ContextRichard L. Schultz. 2012. Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Although most Christians discount the importance of hermeneutics (the study of interpretation), hermeneutic concerns defined Christian denominations historically and lie at the heart of numerous controversies today. The mere observation that seminarians require intense training in the languages of the Bible (principally Hebrew and Greek) speaks to the subtly of scripture and the need to understand those subtleties. Less frequently noted, however, are hermeneutical keys given in the Bible itself. For example, after God gives Moses the Ten Commandments (the second time), he describes who he is:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod 34:6-7 ESV)

God’s character is critical in interpreting the commandments wherever a question arises.[1]The phrase, What Would Jesus Do?(WWJD), is a similar interpretive key, just not one directly focused on scripture itself.

Introduction

In his book,Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible,Richard Schultz describes his objectives with these words:

“The purpose of this present book, similar to the one Augustine wrote at the end of the fourth century, is to correct the common misuse of the Bible by presenting the ABCs of proper biblical interpretation.” (137)

This focus on biblical interpretation is important because the Christian faith fundamentally rests on the teachings of the Bible, an important principle (solo scriptura—Latin for only scripture) reiterated in the Reformation.

Context is Important

As suggested by his title, Schultz view taking scripture out of context as the single, most important misuse of scripture (41). Context, according to Schultz, “refers to the flow of thought in a passage, for example, how a specific sentence is related to the sentences that precede and follow it.” (40) He cites four types of biblical context:

  1. Literary context—the “text surrounding an individual verse or passage”(41).
  2. Historical-Cultural Context—“biblical authors wrote with a particular readership in mind, who share a common knowledge of key events in Israelite History, religious practices and core theological beliefs…”(45)
  3. Salvation-Historical Context—the Bible “offers one extensive ‘story’ (today sometimes called ‘macronarrative’), which stretches from the creation to the consummation of human history, as we know it, climaxing in the creation of a new heaven and new earth.”(49)
  4. Theological-Thematic Context—“when studying a text, it is helpful to identify its dominant themes…” (52).

The tendency among those who misuse scripture is to ignore the context of the passage being cited and to substitute their own context, which may or may not correspond to the original context in scripture.

Who is Schultz?

Richard Schultz is the Blanchard Professor of Old Testament in the Graduate School at Wheaton College in Chicago, Illinois. His masters of divinity is from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and doctorate is in Old Testament studies from Yale University. Interestingly, he taught for a decade at the Freie Theologische Hochschule in Giessen, Germany.[2] Schultz is widely published.

Organization

Schultz writes in seven chapters:

  1. The ‘Jabez Prayer’ Phenomenon: Flunking Biblical Interpretation 101.
  2. The Roots of Faulty Interpretation: Examining Our Convictions about Scripture.
  3. The Consequence of Ignoring Context.
  4. Divine Truth Expressed in Human Words: Challenges with Language.
  5. Understanding the Literary Menu: How Genre Influences Meaning.
  6. Caution—Prooftexting in Progress: Avoiding Pitfalls in Applications.
  7. What’s So Bad about ‘Textjacking’. (5)

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by chapter endnotes.

Proper Use of Scripture

While I found Schultz’s critique of popular twists (such as the Jabez prayer) on scripture fascinating, his advice on how to avoid misuse of scripture is more instructive. He offers seven specific suggestions:

  1. Care about understanding.
  2. Catch nuance.
  3. Clarify context.
  4. Check terms.
  5. Consider genre.
  6. Consult expert [texts].
  7. Correlate application [with text]. (139-140).

Schultz’s first point is instructive. In seminary I found studying scripture in the original languages to be an eye-opener, in part, because the texts were too familiar—I thought that I knew what the text was saying, but often missed the details and main point of a pericope.[3]Reading in Greek or Hebrew forced me to slow down and consider each word. Scripture is laconic in having a minimum of words so each word is there for a reason.

Assessment

Richard Schultz’s Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible is a helpful, accessible, and interesting read. Seminarians and pastors are the obvious audience for this book, but anyone serious about studying scripture will benefit.

[1]The Gospel of Matthew offers another interpretative key in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-19). More commonly cited is the admonition on how to use scripture(2 Tim 3:16-17)

[2]https://www.wheaton.edu/academics/faculty/profile/?expert=richard.schultzphd.For those unacquainted, German biblical scholars are unparalleled in the Christian world in spite of the secularization of German society. My own year in Göttingen, Germany as an exchange student proved unexpectedly helpful in my seminary studies.

[3]A pericope is a self-contained unit of scripture, such as a story or parable. Usually, a pericope is more than a couple verses but less than a chapter.

Schultz Clarifies Biblical Context and Use

Also see:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

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Bly Writes to Sell, Part 2

Robert Bly, The Copywriter's HandbookRobert W. Bly. 2005. The Copywriter’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Copy that Sells. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. (Goto part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In advertising books online, commercial ads often are sold in an auction framework where the advertiser pays the going rate for clicks on the ad. Clicking on the ad typically transfers one to a product page on an online retailer where the book cover is displayed along with details about the book and an opportunity to purchase it. The click through rate measures the ratio of views of the ad to clicks on the link and the conversion rate measures the number clicks required to yield a purchase. A high click through rate suggests a high-performance ad, while a high conversion rate suggest a well-written product page. Both are ads, but they have separate objectives.

Introduction

In part one of this review, I gave an overview of Robert W. Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook. Here in part two, I will look in more depth at Bly’s approach to writing ads.

In his book, The Copywriter’s Handbook, Robert W. Bly describes two philosophies among copywriters—those that focus on the creative element and those (like Bly) that focus on the sell. He goes on to say that copy that sells needs to accomplish three things:

  1. Get attention
  2. Communicate
  3. Persuade (7).

This basic charge has not changed with the introduction of the internet because people have been inundated with advertising and have become more conscience of promotion and manipulation. The result is that consumers expect advertisers to get to the point quickly and provide actionable product information which raises the interest and value in good copywriting (9-10).

Getting Attention

Advertisers use headlines to get your attention (13). According to Bly, the headline can perform four tasks:

  1. Get attention
  2. Select the audience
  3. Deliver a complete message
  4. Draw attention to the body of the ad (16)

Words that get attention include: “new, discover, introducing, announcing, now, it’s here, at last, and just arrived” but the word—free—is in a class by itself (17). Other words include: “how to, why, sale, quick, easy, bargain, last chance, guarantee, results, proven, and save.” (18) Bly advises us: to “avoid headlines and concepts that are cute, clever, and titillating, but irrelevant.” (19) We have all seen ads that seem to feature all these words, but Bly’s philosophy is that the words also have to inform or, in other words, be true.

Bly advises copywriters to write headlines that satisfy the 4 U’s: urgent, unique, ultra-specific, and useful. (29)

Select the Audience

In advertising books, audiences are selected by focusing on keyword categories and names of authors of competing books. Recently, for example, my book, Spiritual Trilogy, used two keywords on BookBub.com—Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis—that might also fall in the categories of devotionals and Christian spirituality. While my books might conceivably sell to readers of romance and thriller novels, the click through rates and conversion rates would likely be rather low.

Bly makes the point that: “If you are selling life insurance to people over 65, there is no point in writing an ad that generates inquiries from young people.” (19)

Communicate

Bly writes: “advertising is most effective when it is easy to understand.” (38) He gives eleven pointers on writing clearly:

  1. Put the reader first
  2. Carefully organize your selling points
  3. Break the writing into short sections
  4. Use short sentences
  5. Use simple words
  6. Avoid technical jargon
  7. Be concise
  8. Be specific
  9. Go straight to the point
  10. Write in a friendly, conversational style
  11. Avoid sexist language. (38-55)

Much of what he writes could be found in any business writing text, but the advice for advertisers is even more emphatic because it must not only communicate but also has to motivate the buyer to buy.

Persuade

Bly begins his discuss of writing to sell by making a distinction between features and benefits. He writes:

“A feature is a descriptive fact about a product or service. It’s what the product is or has. A benefit is what the product does.” (64)

This distinction is important because it highlights the need to understand your customer. One category of customer may benefit from one feature while another category benefits primarily from an entirely different feature. Bly tells the story of a water purification system that sold to two primary categories of customers: marine customers who focused on reliability and light weight, and chemical industry buyers who cared only about technical features. (86)  Clearly, these systems either needed two sets of ads because the one customer category focused on an entirely different set of benefits than the other or a comprehensive ad that outlined both sets of benefits.

Bly provides lots of advice on understanding customer needs and product benefits. I will mention only one that goes by the acronym AIDA: attention, interest, desire, and action. Bly writes:

“copy must first get the reader’s attention, then create an interest in the product, then turn that interest into a strong desire to own the product, and finally ask the reader to buy the product…” (67)

Do you get the idea that the ad must tell a story? He makes the point that “Copywriters, like lawyers, are advocates for the client.” (67)

For those interested in learning about how to write advertisements that sell, Bly’s book provides a clear and complete guide. This book fascinated me—you may be too.

Bly Writes to Sell, Part 2

Also see:

Bly Writes to Sell, Part 1

Scott Writes Pro Email Newsletters

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Holy_Week_2018

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Bly Writes to Sell, Part 1

Robert Bly, The Copywriter's HandbookRobert W. Bly. 2005. The Copywriter’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Copy that Sells. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. (Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

At the heart of the Gospel is a tough sell: give up your sinful desires and surrender your life to God. In my work at T2Pneuma Publishers LLC, I summarize the Gospel with this catch phrase: Hear the words; Follow the steps; Experience the joy! Only the Holy Spirit can close the deal, but the pitch must be made. The trouble is that most Christians, myself included, are terrible at sales.

Introduction

In his book, The Copywriter’s Handbook, Robert W. Bly sets out with a clear objective:

“This book is written to give you guidelines and advice that can teach you to write effective copy—that is, copy that gets attention, gets its message across, and convinces the customer to buy the product.” (xv)

He defines copywriters as “salespeople whose job is to convince people to buy products” (xvi) and should not be confused with the process of registering a copyright for a book with the Library of Congress.

Bly’s Writing Philosophy

For those you who associate copywriting with those catchy ads placed during the Super Bowl, Bly’s focus on ads that communicate and sell may come as a surprise. But ask yourself a simple question, do you remember what products those Super Bowl ads were intending to sell? If not, then the ads may have caught your attention, but for the wrong reasons. Because advertising is expensive, it is important to focus on the informational and sales objectives in creating an ad.

Christians may get squeamish at this point and respond, as I have, that they are not salespeople. Maybe. But why does Charlie Brown feel compelled to ask: “What is the true meaning of Christmas?” If the message is unclear; it will not be heard. Because with the Gospel the stakes are high, we need to communicate clearly.

Organization

Bly is a professional copywriter who specializes in B2B, high tech, and direct-response advertising and is a prolific author.[1] Outside of front matter and numerous appendices, he writes in fifteen chapters:

  1. An Introduction to Copywriting
  2. Writing to Get Attention: The Headline
  3. Writing to Communicate
  4. Writing to Sell
  5. Getting Ready to Write
  6. Writing Print Advertisements
  7. Writing Direct Mail
  8. Writing Brochures, Catalogs, and Other Sales Materials
  9. Writing Public Relations Materials
  10. Writing Commercials and Multimedia Presentations
  11. Writing for the Web
  12. Writing E-Mail Marketing
  13. How to Get a Job as a Copywriter
  14. How to Hire and Work with Copywriters
  15. Graphic Design for Copywriters (xii)

While I started out thinking that I only really had an interest in the first couple chapters here, as I read on I discovered that Bly addressed a much wider set of my business writing activities than I had envisioned. Other than the chapters on working as and hiring copywriters, each of the chapters offered helpful advice on diverse aspects of my publishing business—much more than any of the numerous writing books that I have read—from issuing press releases to writing a newsletter.

Example

For example, Bly reports that copywriters write two types of emails: the “solo email” and the “e-zine” The solo email is written to a distribution list promoting a single product (think direct marketing campaign, the online equivalent of junk mail) while the e-zine is an online newsletter (286). While this distinction may seem obvious, most independent writers focus exclusively on their personal newsletter, while a business-driven minority use product giveaways to launch automated email promotion campaigns. Bly is the first author that I have read who discusses the quality points of both alternatives.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I have given an overview of Robert W. Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook. In part two, I will look in more depth at Bly’s approach to writing ads. For those interested in learning about how to write advertisements that sell, Bly’s book provides a clear and complete guide.

[1] B2B is short for business to business. http://www.Bly.com.

Bly Writes to Sell, Part 1

Also see:

Scott Writes Pro Email Newsletters

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Heifetz and Linsky Lead from Technical to Adaptive Change

Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky.  2002.  Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The March for Life in Washington on March 24 is a call for action to prevent gun violence. While this march represents a felt need, it has not proceeded to the next step in defining the problem. There are, of course, calls for new legislation to reduce gun availability, but past efforts at legislation have failed to alleviate the problem. What then should be done?

Introduction

In their book, Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky assert:

we believe you can “walk the line,” [citing Johnny Cash] step forward, make a difference, take the heat, and survive to delight in the fruits of your labor.

In fact, they see leadership providing meaning to life itself in spite of obvious dangers and discouragements (3, 11-12).

Technical versus Adaptive Change

A key insight in Heifetz and Linsky’s work is to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.  In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem (14).  A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget (or a change in legislation, a kind of symbolic action) while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach—we must change how we define ourselves, not some budget or any other easy fix (18).

Technical Change

Heifetz and Linsky cite the example of a car that breaks down.  If your car breaks down, then you can take it to a mechanic and get it fixed.  However, if your car breaks down because of how the family drives it, then the problem is likely to come up over and over until the family changes how the car is driven.  The mechanic can fix the first problem (car breaks down), but only the family itself can fix the second problem (repeated break downs; 19). The rub arises because:  Habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity.  To change the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves (27). As a consequence, adaptive problems are inherently more difficult and costly to deal with.

Importance of Adaptive Change

Because current leaders were promoted to bring organizations to the point they find themselves in today, part of the challenge of adaptive change arises in dealing with dealing with those with a vested interest in the way things are.  Heifetz and Linsky observe that resistance to change often comes from unexpected places and people.  They see the 4 principal dangers to leaders being marginalization, diversion, attack, and seduction (31).  Marginalization can take the form of tokenism, neglect, or professional pigeon-holing (32-37).  Diversion results in a loss of focus—taking on too many issues or being promoted off-line (38-40).  Attacks may focus on your ideas, character, competence, family, or physical existence (42) [2]. Seduction arises as constituents for change insist on taking the issue too far and the leader then fails chasing the dream rather than accomplishing real, doable change (45-48).

Fog of War

Emotions rage and helpful information is often absent during periods of change.  In the military, this is called the fog of war.  Heifetz and Linsky accordingly observe the need to maintain the capacity for reflection—to observe more clearly what is really going on (52).  During movies of the 1930s and 1940s, during dance or dinner party scenes characters frequently retreated to a balcony to talk (or have a smoke) where they figured out their strategies. On the balcony, Heifetz and Linsky see 4 useful activities:

  1. Distinguish technical from adaptive changes;
  2. Find out where people are at;
  3. Listen to the song beneath the words (do not accept things at face value); and/or
  4. Read the behavior of authority figures for clues (55).

A Christian might substitute the expression—Sabbath rest—for balcony here as we lead our families through the stresses and struggles of life.

Organization

Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line is written in 11 chapters divided into 3 parts:  The Challenge, the Response, and Body and Soul.  The chapters are:

  1. The Heart of Danger;
  2. The Faces of Danger;
  3. Get on the Balcony;
  4. Think Politically;
  5. Orchestrate the Conflict;
  6. Give the Work Back;
  7. Hold Steady;
  8. Manage Your Hungers;
  9. Anchor Yourself;
  10. What’s On the Line? And
  11. Sacred Heart (vii).

These chapters include an introduction and notes, an index, and write-up about the authors in the pages that follow.

Example of Adaptive Change Challenge

Heifetz and Linsky’s distinction between technical and adaptive changes is most useful.  I cannot tell you how many meetings that I attended in the government where a focus on “low hanging fruit”—technical changes which really did not address the issue but gave managers an opportunity to pretend to do something—pushed aside attempts at adaptive change.

Conversion as Adaptive Change

Conversion to Christ is an adaptive change; it is not the low hanging fruit that people want to grab which leaves them feeling “in control” of their lives. Christians become leaders the moment they respond to God’s call on their lives because they reject technical change for the transformational change which Christ offers. The Apostle Paul writes:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)

Gun Violence Prevention

So what does this imply about the effort to reduce gun violence?

The distinction between technical and adaptive chance is critical to solving the problem of gun violence. A technical solution, like banning all assault weapons, may feel like progress is being made, but it neglects the underlying causes of the violence. Angry people can articulate their anger with other instruments.

The adaptive solution to gun violence focuses on the anger, not the instruments. Possible solutions might include things like reducing violence in video games, banning media attention for murderers, and programs that target hopeless young men and offer them hope for a better life. Coming to the realization that the problem goes beyond the guns is a first step in any adaptive solution. The fact that this problem has built up over years of inattention to underlying social problems suggests that years of effort will be required in any real solution.

Assessment

Heifetz and Linsky offer a style of leadership which is an allegory for the Christian life [3].  Christianity is a holistic approach to life—all of life’s challenges and adventures are taken into account, from birth to death. Leadership on the Line highlights the adaptive changes that are required to live life to its fullest, as God intended.

Footnotes

[1] My paraphrase of Heifetz and Linsky’s challenges of leadership on pages 1-5.

[2] In the recent Veteran’s Administration scandal, for example, no one questioned the administrator’s competence, but media attention forced him to resign. In effect, the appetite to solving the problem remains weak—it was easier to personalize the problem and make it go away by assigning blame—a villain story.

[3] www.youtube.com/user/FaithandLeadership.

Heifetz and Linsky Lead from Technical to Adaptive Change

Also see:

Plueddemann Demystified Leadership Across Culture 

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Stanton Explains the Risk in Government Sponsored Enterprises

Thomsas Stanton, A State or Risk Thomas H. Stanton.[1] 1991. A State of Risk: Will Government-Sponsored Enterprises Be the Next Financial Crisis? New York: HarperBusiness.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Historical Context

Shortly after this book was published in 1991, Congress authorized the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) to supervise Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (The Enterprises). Later during the Great Recession in 2008, Congress merged OFHEO with the 12 Federal Housing Finance Banks to form the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). I joined OFHEO in 2004 and worked on safety and soundness issues pertaining to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae until retiring from federal service at yearend 2010.
Many of the issues that Stanton raised in 1991 continue to be unresolved concerns even as the Enterprises retain technically in conservatorship. The reason is fairly simple. The Enterprises and the Federal Reserve acquired many of the non-performing loans held on the books of private banks during the Great Recession so that the banking system could again be solvent and continue to lend. This action on part of the federal government averted the Great Recession becoming a more protracted depression, but it left the Enterprises defacto agencies of the federal government. The funds necessary to reconstitute the Enterprises as CGE were never allocated because the numbers involved were simply too big.

Organization of Book

The book is organized into these chapters:

1. Introduction: GSEs and Thrift Institutions.
2. The Hidden Costs and Public Benefits of GSEs.
3. How GSEs work.
4. Enterprises in the Marketplace.
5. The Politics of Enterprise Lending.
6. Enterprises as Private Financial Institutions.
7. The Implicit Federal Guarantee as a Source of Risk Exposure.
8. Supervising Enterprise Safety and Soundness.
9. Enterprise Accountability.

Appendices: Law, Cases, and Other Legal Sources on GSEs.

Assessment

“A GSE is a privately owned, federally chartered financial institution with nationwide scope and specialized lending powers that benefits from an implicit federal guarantee to enhance its ability to borrow money” (17). Stanton clarifies this definition with two insights: (1) “An enterprise raises money the way the federal government does but it lends that money as a private institution…” and (2) “An enterprise is a privately owned and controlled institution with a public purpose” (39). These insights sound simple, but in practice many analysts have trouble understanding the business function of the GSEs.

[1] http://thomas-stanton.com/

 

Stanton Explains the Risk in Government Sponsored Enterprises

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Stanton: Creating Constructive Dialogue is the Key Management Skill

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Firoozeh: FOBs from the Far Side

Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in FarsiFiroozeh Dumas. 2003. Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. New York: Random House.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a graduate student at Michigan State University, I quickly learned several things about Iranian women. They distinguished themselves as the most intelligent and fashionable women on campus. What’s more, they generally could cook and managed money well. When I found one from Ahwaz willing to laugh at my jokes, I knew that I had found the woman of my dreams.

Introduction

In her memoir, Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas gives us an inside picture of the life of an Iranian immigrant. Dumas writes:

“To him [her father, Kazem], America was a place where anyone, no matter how humble his background, could become an important person. It was a kind and orderly nation full of clean bathrooms, a land where traffic laws were obeyed and where whales jumped through hoops. It was the promised land. For me, it was where I could buy more outfits for Barbie.” (3-4).

Dumas can’t help herself, every sentence in her book includes a twist! In the cited paragraph, she juxtaposes her father’s expression of the American dream (a classic Horatio Alger rages-to-riches story) with a child’s rendering of the dream—a place where a Barbie outfits can be easily and cheaply acquired. Dumas is not your typical FOB (fresh off the boat) Iranian because she clearly knows what an Horatio Alger story is—her twists reveal a highly sophisticated humor palette.

Tidbits

As someone who has vicariously enjoyed the Iranian-American experience, this book had me repeatedly laughing out loud. Dumas writes of her future husband:

“François was of normal weight—although he did outweigh me, which fulfilled one of my two requirements for dating a guy. The other requirement was a total lack of interest in watching sports on television.” (143)

At one point, I met both conditions and on weekends I have repeatedly heard my wife, Maryam, muttering a little breath prayer—“Thank you, Lord, that Stephen does not watch football.”

When it comes to sports, Dumas writes about a new Olympic category:

“If worrying were an Olympic sport, my parent’s faces would have graced the Wheaties box a long time ago.” (155)

I don’t know how many trips to the doctor’s office that implies, but in our house my mother-in-law could easily have qualified for a volume discount.

Assessment

Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America is a delightful read chronicling her experience growing up in Southern California having immigrated with her family from Iran at the age of seven. While a lighthearted memoir, its inviting picture of Iranian culture comes at a time of continuing political dramas between the U.S. and Iran over issues far removed from daily life, a point quietly underscored in a blurb written by former President Jimmy Carter.[1] Anyone interested in the Iran-American experience will find this memoir fascinating.

 

[1] “A humorous and introspective chronicle of a life filled with love—of family, country, and heritage.” Jimmy Carter. The Carter endorsement is particularly poignant because his presidency was forever changed by the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 and a failed hostage rescue attempt (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_hostage_crisis).

Firoozeh: FOBs from the Far Side

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Moore Engages Secular Culture, Part 2

Russell Moore, OnwardRussell Moore. 2015. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In writing about culture, we never leave it and it has changed more rapidly in the past generation than in any previous historical period. For most of human history, people have lived primarily in small, rural communities where everyone knew each other. Boomers were the first generation to grow up primarily in urban areas while many of our parents grew up on a farm or came from a small town. Other than technological changes of recent years, our cultural context is remarkably similar to that of the first century Roman empire.

In part 1 of this review, I give an overview of Moore’s book. In part 2, I will drill down into three of his arguments: the end of cultural Christianity, the attitude about human dignity, and the focus on family stability.

Bible Belt No More

Moore grew up in Biloxi, Alabama and, as a pastor, was well aware of the cultural ways of the Bible Belt. He observes:

“…cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing American than a declawed cat released into the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.” (24)

Here Moore is taking aim at residents of the Bible Belt, presumably conservative Evangelical Christians, but this natural selection process appears equally to weed out the sons and daughters of mainline denominations, as membership numbers attest.

But Moore’s highlights the moral turpitude of cultural Christians in a story about the two groups of kids in his church’s young group. The first group were the “churched” kids who knew “how to get drunk, have sex and smoke marijuana without their parents ever knowing about it.” (71) The second group were “mostly fatherless boys and girls, some of whom [were] gang members, all of them completely unfamiliar with the culture of the church.” and did not even try to hide their sinful activities. (70)

What attracted the attention of this later group was not the materials produced by the denomination to relate to them—they laughed at them. What attracted their attention was the gospel itself. One kid asked: “So, like, you really believe this dead guy came back to life?” (71) The fact that the gospel resonates better with the unchurched kids than the churched kids led Moore to abandon hope for cultural Christianity and the Bible Belt so closely associated with it.

Human Dignity

One the great ironies of the postmodern era is the pervasive campaign against human dignity veiled in language suggesting something quite different. Moore writes

“Abortion, torture, euthanasia, unjust war, racial injustice, the harassment of immigrants, these things aren’t simply ‘mean’ (although they are that too). They are part of an ongoing guerilla insurgency against the image of God himself, as summed up in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus identified himself with humanity—in all of our weakness and fragility.” (120)

Abortion, for example, has limited the supply of labor in the United States and motivated immigration—teenagers used to do most of the work now done by Hispanic workers. Many immigrants are killed or raped in coming to the United States from Central America to escape economic hardship and abuse by drug gangs. Those persecuted elsewhere have also been given priority in the granting of green cards and citizenship, but Central American immigrants have been legally discriminated against and treated badly day to day in spite of being hardworking and practicing Christians. Such treatment is out of step with our American heritage and is an assault on human dignity.

Moore talks about the “culture of death” today in United States and focuses on the unborn as being the image of God most dramatically abused in America today. Unable to defend themselves, the unborn are disposed of like trash for no other reason than that they are inconvenient. When we separate humanity from nature and body from soul (121), the question of convenience increasingly motivates many assaults on human dignity affecting the weak, the infirm, and the disadvantaged.

Family Stability

Moore’s comments on sexuality are probably his most controversial, but his logic is unmistakably biblical. He writes:

“Throughout the cannon of Scripture, there’s a close tie between family breakdown and spiritual breakdown. That’s why idolatry and immorality are linked repeatedly in the Old Testament. The mystery of the Christ/church pattern itself was revealed, it should be remembered, to a congregation in the shadow of a fertility goddess (Acts 19:21-41)…sexual immorality has profound spiritual consequences (1 Cor 6:17-20)…the body is a temple, set apart to be a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.” (170)

Sexual immorality, veiled in the language of liberation and personal freedom, has actually led to a culture where women are denigrated and abused, putting them under the subjugation, not of husbands and fathers, but of strangers and men in power. If abortion on demand is always available, women, not men, assume responsibility for reproduction. Moore sees the postmodern sexual ethic not as something new, but a resurgence of good old fashion paganism.

It is indeed ironic that the #MeToo movement shows the depth of this problem in that the women stepping forward as having been harassed and abused are not the poor and the defenseless, but the celebrities and powerful, who have been the primary beneficiaries of the women’s movement and who already had access to the courts and had the resources to pursue legal action.

Assessment

Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel challenges us to distinguish the gospel of Jesus Christ from different manifestations of Christendom in American culture. Moore advocates engaging the culture, not simply criticizing it, to expose aspects of the culture that present opportunities for Christian witness. His narrative style facilitates this engagement and makes his writing both entertaining and accessible.

Moore Engages Secular Culture, Part 2

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