Stanton: Creating Constructive Dialogue

Stanton_review_10262014Thomas H. Stanton.  2012.  Why Some Firms Thrive While Others Fail: Governance and Management Lessons from the Crisis.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When my kids were young, I taught them that there are 3 kinds of people in this world:

  • People who never learn;
  • People who learn from their own mistakes; and
  • People who learn from other people’s mistakes.

The point is to become someone capable of learning from other people’s mistakes.  Learning behavior determines personal success; it also determines the success of firms.

Introduction

Thomas Stanton’s book, Why Some Firms Thrive While Others Fail, examines firm learning behavior in the context of financial stress: the Great Recession. He is in a position to know a lot about this subject both because of his long tenure in financial law practice in Washington and because he served as a researcher on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in 2010-2011, a commission established by Congress.  As a researcher, he personally interviewed many of the major players in the financial crisis and the federal regulators.

Stanton is an attorney by trade with the mind of an economist.  He is well-known among Washington insiders, especially in finance, and his book, A State of Risk [1], led Congress to create a new federal agency, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) [2], where I worked during my last 7 years of federal service until I retired at yearend 2010.  Tom and I have known each other since the 1980s when I worked on Farmer Mac legislation and supervision [3].  Tom graciously gave me a copy of this book knowing that I would eagerly read it and write about it.

Organization

Stanton writes Why Some Firms Thrive While Others Fail in 10 chapters, including:

  1. Repairing Our Public and Private Institutions: A National Imperative;
  2. Dynamics of the Financial Crisis;
  3. Coping with the Crisis;
  4. Company Governance and the Financial Crisis;
  5. Risk Management and the Financial Crisis;
  6. Company Organization, Business Models, and the Crisis;
  7. Supervision and Regulation of Financial Firms;
  8. Hyman Minsky: Will It Happen Again?
  9. Governance and Management: Lessons Learned; and
  10. Governance and Management: Beyond the Financial Crisis (v).

These chapters are preceded by a preface and acknowledgments and followed by a Table of Acronyms, Notes, References, and an Index.

Discussion

An important theme in the Great Recession, as reflected in the book, is the need to link and understand intimately highly technical knowledge of financial markets, financial instruments, firm operations, and modeling to firm risk management and business objectives.  The image of a Fortune-500 CEO who wanders the halls having substantive conversations with staff throughout the organization captures this dynamic. Stanton highlights this hands-on, engaging management style in his concept of constructive dialogue.

Stanton writes:

One of the critical distinctive factors between successful and unsuccessful firms in the crisis was their application of what this book calls “constructive dialogue.”  Successful firms managed to create productive and constructive tension between (1) those who wanted to do deals, or offer certain financial products and services, and (2) those in the firm who were responsible for limited risk exposure (10).

The importance of quality dialog within the firm or government agency arises from the simple observation that no single individual, no matter how bright or experienced, could understand the totality of the highly technical financial environment that now exists.  Having an open-minded executive is accordingly insufficient; the firm culture must embrace active learning and open communication.

Stanton’s has an interesting blend of wide scope and technical depth within its subject-matter: governance and management.  Four firms who succeeded received the majority of his attention:  JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and TD Bank.  Stanton makes the case that these firms survived because of operational competence and intelligent discipline (43).  In other words they maintained disciplined risk taking, combined good judgment with good information, and had good communication (54-55).  Failing firms (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear, Lehman, Merrill, Countrywide, WaMu, IndyMac…) failed for different reasons, including focus on short-term growth, ineffective data systems, weak capacity to answer simple questions, and lack of effective communication (57-66).

Assessment

Stanton’s Why Some Firms Thrive While Others Fail should be of keen interest to financial policy makers and bank supervisors who deal with large institutions.  Because the federal agencies have mostly shied away from writing studies of what went wrong in the Great Recession (unlike earlier crises [4]), this book functions as a quasi-official study of the Great Recession.  For the reader interested in enterprise risk management, his contribution consists of a series of case studies of important firms that both succeeded and failed.  For students of organizational behavior this book should be required reading.

Footnotes

[1] A State Of Risk: Will Government Sponsored Enterprises Be The Next Financial Crisis? (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1991)

[2] OFHEO was created by Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act of 1992 and folded into the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) in 2008 by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act.

[3] I studied and wrote about the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation (Farmer Mac) as a researcher in the Economic Research Service, USDA and later took a role in Farmer Mac supervision as a financial economist at the Farm Credit Administration (FCA) responsible for Farmer Mac regulation and supervision.

[4] See, for example, an exhaustive study of the banking crisis of the 1980s by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) at:  https://www.fdic.gov/bank/historical/history/vol1.html.

Stanton: Creating Constructive Dialogue

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Penn Whispers to Speakers

Joanna Penn, Speaking

Joanna Penn.  2014.  Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts.  UK: Creative Penn Limited.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In analyzing the results of the launch of my first book last month, a surprising finding emerged.  While my online sales were frustratingly few, sales during personal appearances were stronger than for typical authors [1].  The question then came up:  should I be speaking more?  And what should such speaking look like?  When I stumbled across Joanna Penn’s book, Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts, I immediately ordered a copy.

Background as Speaker

Mind you, I have been speaking publicly for most of my professional life, both as an economist and as a pastor.  However, economists typically address audiences of other economists and pastors typically address a familiar congregation.  In neither case is the audience wholly unfamiliar; in both cases the audience response is fairly gracious of what is being presented [2].  Public speaking to unfamiliar audience to speak about a book is a bit more out there than I am accustomed to.

Organization of Book

Penn states her writing objective as follows:  In this book, I’ll share everything that I know as a professional speaker and introvert (11).  She breaks this objective down into 4 parts:

  1. The practicalities of speaking;
  2. The psychological aspects of speaking;
  3. The business side; and
  4. Interviews with professional speakers (11).

In other words, this book focuses on things that speakers do and worry about; it does not focus on how to write and deliver good speeches.

The Mix

An important point in my own choice of this book is that Penn straddles 2 worlds:  public speaking and book writing and publishing.  While there is a lot of overlap these days between these 2 worlds—speakers that write (politicians, for example) and writers that speak (best-selling authors that do appearances)—the mechanics of these 2 professional realms are filled with thousands of unwritten rules, details, and networking requirements.  If the subject matter were different, an entirely different set of observations would arise.  Think of the worlds of IT gurus or sports figures or film stars. Penn’s niche and expertise speaks specifically into my space as a writer/publisher.

Audience

Penn drills down into her audience a bit deeper by focusing on the fears and anxieties of “introverts” and “creatives”.  In some sense, she is carving out a niche here with not just authors, but authors focused on creative writing.  Perhaps even more specifically female, creative writers (17-19) [3].

Types of Speaking

Two sections of the book were of special interest to me.  The first focused on 6 types of speaking.  Penn lists those as:

  1. Keynote/Inspirational speaking;
  2. Content speaking;
  3. Workshop presenting/facilitating;
  4. Mc/Event chair;
  5. Chair of panel or panelist; and
  6. Reader/performer of your own work (24-25).

I suppose that an author presenting their own work might fit into most of these types, depending on the work.  One type of speaking on my mind as I read the book is not on the list:  radio interviewing.

Role for Video

The second section of special interest to me was her discussion of using video.  For example, Penn sees 6 uses for video:

  1. Self-improvement tool;
  2. Evidence of speaking ability;
  3. Bonus material for spicing up sessions;
  4. Testimonials;
  5. Marketing; and
  6. Premium product for customers (133-134)

Although I have produced a number of You-Tube videos for Leader and Media Guides [4] to promote my book, video remains a source of anxiety for me [5].  Seeing the scope of use for video helps to reduce anxiety by demonstrating the range and real value of their use.

AIDA Principle

Penn’s background in marketing broke through in her comments on social media.  She cites the AIDA principle:

  1. Attention.  Social media content lets people know you exist and what you do.  Hopefully, your content is interesting and informative
  2. Interest.  Once people know you exist, they have to know how to find you.
  3. Desire.  Once people know that you exist, they need to know that they can trust you.  Are you authentic or simply interested in attention?
  4. Action.  Once people know you, how to find you, and trust you, then when an appropriate occasion arises they may turn to you for advice and products (129-130).

AIDA makes sense not only in social media, pastors effectively use it by practicing a “ministry of presence”. It also works with animals, like horses [6].

Assessment

Joanna Penn’s Public Speaking for Authors, Creatives, and Other Introverts is a real gem.  Over the years I have read a number of books on public speaking—most on preaching—and this is the first book with real value added in terms of what speakers worry about most—the zillions of details where things go wrong or should be prepared for in advance.  Penn is obviously very readable.  Authors should take special note.

Footnotes

[1] Members of my book club reported that the industry average number of sales for a public book signing was 3 books.  My first two appearances resulted in sales of 8 and 10 books.

[2] Economists sometimes talk about the “prisoner’s dilemma”. Prisoners informally agree without consultation not to “rat each other out”, in part, because of the threat of retaliation in kind. Economists may seem to be a tough bunch to present in front of because of all the tough questions, but the informal agreement usually is to limit questions to the topic at hand—no ad hominem (personal) attacks.

[3] Penn lists her Myers Briggs type as INFJ (18).  This is surprising because her book abounds with details—a big selling point for readers and a classic flag for a sensate personality, not intuitive personality—more like an ISFJ.

[4] Check out T2Pneuma.com.

[5] To borrow a phrase from Garrison Keillor, I am particularly shy of video and Skype where my “face made for radio” might be a liability hard to control for.

[6] A film called The Horse Whisperer (1998) staring Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas, employed a ministry of presence to calm frightened horses (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Horse_Whisperer_(film)).

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Edgerton: Write in Your Own Voice

Voice_08252014Les Edgerton.  2003.  Finding Your Voice:  How to Put Personality in Your Writing.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Let me see.  If you did not know the subject of a book called—Finding Your Voice—what possibilities come to mind?  Perhaps, a doctor’s guide to throat surgery recovery? Or, maybe, lost in the opera house, confessions of a prima donna? Or, better, a citizen’s guide to responsive government…?  Clearly, a bit of context is helpful.

Confession time.  Although I am a writer myself, I read Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice:  How to Put Personality in Your Writing, in part, to learn about writing and, in part, to see what he would say about personality.  It is more than a bit ironic that a fiction writer would write about developing an authentic style (voice) in writing.  Much like actors have trouble figuring out who they are—which mask is the real me?—fiction writers must live into the characters they create if readers are going to take them seriously.  It is therefore not surprising that Edgerton finds tension between the authentic style of the writer and the requirements of the story (223).  A chameleon writer might alternatively be considered extremely versatile or simply inauthentic—depending on the amount of experience writing that we are talking about.

Edgerton does not so much promote a particular method as assist the reader in discovering their authentic voice.  This task could be daunting in an age of relativistic morality where the idea of personality—a surface attribute—has been substituted for the older notion of innate character [1].  In a sense, Edgerton deconstructs the wantabe writer like a cook peels an onion—underneath do we find a core personality or just another mask?  Strip away da rules of your English teacher (10); forget about the Critic Nag Dude and beige voice (11); abandon old writing books (15); take reviews (15); go easy on the synonyms (18).  Most interesting is his notion that we must also abandon the voices in our head, so to speak, of favorite writers, previous editors, and cultural stereotypes.  This writer’s exorcism goes on and on (48).  Still, we are encouraged to find a voice that at least conforms to the expectations of the genre that we are writing for.

It is interesting to watch the voice evolve in Edgerton’s own writing.  Early in the book, he assumes an edgy voice—the ex-con, insecurely trying to relate to the reader. By chapter 6 he assumes the more confident voice of a writing instructor.  Later in the book the insecure voice shows up again in the form of name-dropping of other writers and books that might be interesting.  Personally, I preferred the self-confident writing instructor who is not afraid to give me the advice that I need.

What advice did I seek?  Edgerton writes:

Make yourself your intended reader.  By writing to you as your reader, you get closer than at any other time to getting your real voice on the page.  You write naturally (78).

Yes.  Thanks.  That will do fine.

Footnotes

[1] I am borrowing a bit from David F. Wells. 1998.  Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

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Rossi Shares Christ with the Dying

Rossi_09232014Melody Rossi. 2007.  Sharing Christ with the Dying:  Bringing Hope to Those Near the End of Life.  Minneapolis:  Bethany House Publishers.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Death is never convenient.  It is sometimes unexpected.  It is usually awkward.  What do you say to someone when both of you know that it may be your last conversation?

Invariably, the subject of Christ comes up.  Why?  Christianity has the distinction to be the only religion that began in a graveyard.  Only Christ has conquered death.  In her book, Sharing Christ with the Dying, Melody Rossi ventures into this awkward, inconvenient but important space.

Rossi writes:  The purpose of this book is to help you become an instrument through with God can minister to the spiritual needs of a dying person who does not yet know him (19).  Rossi writes from her experience in witnessing to her father, mother, and step-mother none of whom had embraced Christ in life but all of whom came to Him in their final days (18).

Because of her close, intimate relationship with each of them, she had access to them in their dying days in a manner that is frequently not available to anyone else. Even pastors and chaplains are frequently denied such access, in part, because close relatives and attending staff shelter the dying from people outside the immediate family circle.  In secular circles, the needs of the dying for spiritual guidance and care are often treated as sentimental attachments and the spiritual void is filled with sentimental substitutes—flowers, poetry, happy music, and words of comfort—rather than the hope of resurrection.  For this reason, Christians often find themselves the only ones with access to the dying who are able to offer spiritual guidance within their family circles.

Still, the needs for spiritual guidance are real.

In Rossi’s case, her father was a workaholic who owned a chain of nightclubs (50-52).  He divorced her mother to marry one of the topless waitresses from one of his clubs (54-56).  Her mother responded with bitterness (52-54).  Consequently, none of the three were in life practicing Christians and their conversion as they approached death came as a surprise.

Rossi advises us to look for landmarks that indicate an interest in talking about spiritual matters.  Among these landmarks are: mention of God, fear of death, church, desire to talk to clergy, faith of others, and so on (63-64). The key comes in responding to these landmarks, not with answers, but with interest in learning more about what the person is thinking.  Keep the conversation flowing (64-65).

Rossi reports that 3 simple questions come up most frequently:

  • Is there really an afterlife?
  • What is God like?
  • How can I have peace with God?

The answer (as we learned as kids to any question posed by a pastor) is Jesus! (67)  The ticket to being permitted to hear the questions, according to Rossi, is to be willing to serve the needs of the person dying (72) and to develop a support team to permit you to hang in there for the long haul (91).  Rossi’s insights are critical, in my experience, because cancer patients and others with a chronic illness often find themselves isolated from friends and family who are unable to cope with their own demons let allow be available to someone with problems.

Years ago before I attended seminary I went to visit an uncle dying of pancreatic cancer.  He was a very sensitive person and during our visit he arranged so we could put puzzles together.  This allowed us to spend hours at a time together without the awkward need to speak. Still, he did have questions about his faith.  Because his brother is a pastor, I was surprised to hear such questions addressed to me—an economist at the time.  His key need, however, was to say goodbye to close friends and family—which he did most graciously.

Rossi’s book is most helpful. While many people will find her outline of physical signs of the approach of death helpful, what is most helpful is just to talk through the process of walking alongside someone as they approach death.  Fear of death is primarily the fear of the unknown.  Having a roadmap reduces such fear.

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Callan Summarizes Dialog

Callan_review_20210705

James R. Callan.[1] 2015. How to Write Great Dialog. Pennant Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

How many times do you hear a suggestion before accepting and implementing it? I normally spring into action after a couple reminders, assuming a reasonable suggestion. Among world class procrastinators (reminder, what reminder?), I apparently would be cut in the qualifying round.

Introduction

James Callan’s book How to Write Great Dialog is a how-to book that cites these objectives:

  1. Develop characters through dialog
  2. Further the plot with dialog
  3. Establish relationships between characters
  4. Create tension and conflict through dialog
  5. Build a dialog signature for major characters
  6. Handle attributions to improve dialog
  7. Learn the power of internal dialog and the restrictions (back cover).

Callan lists three types of dialog–regular, summary, and internal dialog (2)—which made perfect sense to me, although summary came as an unexpected surprise.  Summary dialog is useful in repeating previous dialog in paraphrase, a way to emphasize points covered without boring the reader. Another surprise was the term, dialog signature, where you give characters a verbal tick—I have done it, but not for all my major characters.

What is dialog? For Callan, it is simply a conversation (1). What does dialog do? It must either further the plot or help to define the characters (5). Unlike natural dialog, novel dialog must be lean and free from superfluous words (20).

Internal Dialog

Callan’s discussion of internal dialog is especially rich. Internal dialog is powerful because it shows the true feelings of the character (35). It allows us to enter into the conflict between the internal and external self of the character, the sinful side of the character that the Apostle refers to when writes: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:19 ESV) Callan sees three caveats to using internal dialog:

  1. It can only come from the point of view character.
  2. It is often overdone.
  3. Expressing two much of the interior life of characters can confuse the reader (38)

Apparently, internal dialog is overlooked by many authors and there is no standard way to illustrate it in text (73).

Assessment

James Callan’s book, How to Write Great Dialog, provides a short, concise reminder of how to write effective dialog. Authors trying to improve their use of dialog will want to take a look.

Footnotes

[1] http://JamesRCallan.com.

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Snyder Explains Screenwriting

Sydner_review_20210626

Blake Snyder. 2005. Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If wanderlust has ever taken you outside your own profession to sojourn with another, you will discover new insights that will enhance both analogous to a year’s study abroad. Each profession has a slightly different focus and jargon to match. Jargon borrowed from one field and used in another can both enlighten and confuse, depending on the quality of the communication that accompanies it.[1] Crossing writing genres is no different.

Introduction

Blake Snyder, in his book—Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need—writes:

“The real inspiration for this book started with one simple desire: I had a whole bunch of snappy rules for screenwriting and I wanted to get credit for coining them…To get to the good part, I had to explain the screenwriting process, from idea to execution, in order for anyone to understand what I was talking about.“ (120)

Over the past several years, I have read and reviewed numerous writing books, but Snyder is the first author to take the time to define the many technical terms that he uses. If you don’t believe me, look up the term, beat—an emotional story transition. Most fiction authors use the term without precise definition. Snyder outlines fifteen such transitions on his beat sheet (70).

Snyder distinguishes his book, saying:

1.    He uses the language and terms actually employed by screenwriters,

2.    He has actually sold scripts,

3.    He has taught the material presented, and

4.    He explains how the business actually works. (xii-xiii).

The title for the book comes from Snyder’s rule that the author must present his protagonist as likeable, like the policeman that climbs up the tree to rescue a cat (xv). Authors who fail to take the time end up with robotic characters that readers/viewers have trouble bonding with.

Background and Organization

Wikipedia describes Blake Snyder (1957-2009) as: “An American screenwriter, consultant, author and educator based in Los Angeles.” He studied English at Georgetown University in Washington DC.[2] He writes Save the Cat in eight chapters:

1.    What is it?

2.    Give me the same thing only different!

3.    It’s about a guy who…

4.    Let’s beat it out!

5.    Building the perfect beast

6.    The immutable laws of screenplay physics

7.    What’s wrong with this picture?

8.    Final fade in (v-vi)

These chapters are preceded by a foreword and introduction, and followed by a glossary.

Sell Me

The one point that stays with you in reading Snyder is the importance of selling a script. In the moneyed world of movies, every conversation is metered like an elevator speech. Being able to communicate the theme, audience, plot, and key characters quickly takes pride of place.

Snyder sees four elements in your pitch: a touch of irony (an intriguing hook), a compelling mental picture, an indication of audience and cost, and a killer title (6-9). A “high concept” film is easy to see and pitches itself in one sentence (the logline; 14-15).  These elements are so important that Snyder starts with the pitch before writing a line.

The Spec Writer

Snyder describes himself repeatedly as a spec writer, a term he neglects to define. My image of a spec writer is the jaded writer who follows a director around always with a typewriter within reach, like the writer in Clint Eastwood’s 1990 film: White Hunter, Black Heart.[3]

The key to being a spec writer is to being able to analyze a story quickly in terms of genre and beats. Snyder gives us ten types of story genre:

1.    Monster in the house

2.    Golden Fleece (the quest)

3.    Out of a bottle (a touch of magic)

4.    Dude with a problem

5.    Rites of passage

6.    Buddy love

7.    Whydunit

8.    The fool triumphant

9.    Institutionalized

10. Superhero (25-40)

What is interesting about this list, it is that it classifies stories by their dominant theme rather than an undefined, literary tagline. This helps the spec writer to classify stories quickly and to detach emotionally so as to be able to change up storylines as needed to strengthen the emotional content. Snyder’s fifteen beats in a story then allows him to peg the key turning points in the plot (70) where such changes might be made. Understanding this framework, the jaded writer morphs into more of an action junkie on a quest to write the ultimate screenplay in the least amount of time.

Assessment

Blake Snyder’s book—Save the Cat—is perhaps the most helpful book that I have ever read on writing fiction. As I read through it, I had repeated ah-ha moments where things that I read elsewhere suddenly made sense. I also found myself memorizing Snyder’s categories and descriptions, knowing that it would be helpful to recall them as I watched movies or read novels that use such devices. If you are a writer or simply a wannabe, you will want to read this book.

Footnotes

[1] During my year in Germany, I heard the term ferkle, which translates as piglet, bantered about in new and interesting ways. At one point, a friend noticed my amusement at the use of ferkle in conversation and explained to me that ferkle did not simply mean a cute little pig, but one that had not yet learned to control its bowels and would defecate everywhere.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blake_Snyder. Also see: www.BlakeSnyder.com.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Hunter_Black_Heart.

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Kreeft Critiques Cultural Decline

Kreeft_review_20210507

Peter J. Kreeft. 2021. How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Hardly a day passes without someone explaining sharing their views about U.S. cultural decline. This morning after my swim a woman in the net lane introduced herself and expounded at great length on why she sent her kids to a Catholic school. At noon, I heard comparisons to the Book of Judges and the Deuteronomic cycle (Deut 30:1-3). More typically, these discussions focus on bad politics and things like rampant drug use or exotic sexual practices. When I heard about Peter Kreeft’s new book on this subject, I immediately ordered a copy.

Introduction

In his book, How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss, Peter Kreeft starts with a brilliant statement of the obvious. To save Western Civilization, start by having children (7). What is ontologically obvious is, however, not obvious to everyone—only a philosopher (or an astute student of the Bible) would be mindful of the priority of ontology.

Kreeft goes on to observe that a third of the pregnancies in North America end in abortion (8). Everyone wants to have sex, far fewer want to raise children—it is the religious people who have the most children; they are the also the happiest and live the longest (11). Thus, while the absence of children is an important indicator of cultural decline, their presence is indicator of cultural and personal advance.[1]

Background and Organization

Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. His doctorate is from Fordham University.

Kreeft must believe that cultural decline is death by a thousand cuts because he treats the subject with eighteen chapter-essays on a number of pertinent topics. These essays stand on their own without obvious connection to one another. They are:

1.    How to destroy Western Civilization.

2.    What can Chicken Little do?

3.    The unmentionable elephant in the living room of the religious liberty debate.

4.    The paradox of poverty.

5.    The logic of liberalism.

6.    The social, moral, and sexual effects of symbolic logic.

7.    Twelve core values.

8.    Traditionalism and progressivism.

9.    C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the culture wars.

10. Heros.

11. What is a liberal?

12. What is the key to a good society?

13. Seventeen freedoms.

14. Four confusions about freedom.

15. Is Agnosticism in religion the default position?

16. A word about Islam and a defense of my controversial book about it.

17. Pity vs. pacifism.

18. Judgment. (v)

The pragmatic, postmodern art is a collage so to describe and rebut problems with it, one might reasonably employ an alternative collage.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Inherent in the observation that our cultural decline is a case of death by a thousand cuts is that small things matter. When we read in Leviticus—be holy because I am holy—we see God as concerned with details. We clearly are not. When Kreeft criticizes a thousand incoherent arguments that lay at the foundation of the postmodern era, it evokes the torture that a thinking person must endure being symbolically chained to an ant hill in the middle of such philosophical chaos. Ants possess no poisonous venom that can kill a person, yet the sum of a thousand ant bites is most certainly life-threatening. Those chained to the hill will no doubt appreciate the incineration of a few ants.

Thus, Peter Kreeft’s How to Destroy Civilization and other Ideas from the Cultural Abysis a delight to read for the reflective soul.

Footnotes

[1] The fact that Hispanics are the only ethic group in the United States where the fertility rate is above 2.1 children per woman, which is necessary for a stable population, may be related to their status as immigrants—they have had the smallest exposure to the negative factors leading to U.S. cultural decline.

Kreeft Critiques Cultural Decline

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Webb: Analyzing Culture

Webb_reviw_20210713William J. Webb.  2001.  Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis.  Colorado Springs:  IVP Academic [1].

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Toxic waste is a term once used in Washington to describe issues that could not be openly discussed without tainting the person discussing them.  High on the list of such issues were race, gender, and sexuality.  Hopefully, it is now possible to engage in reasoned conversation about these issues.  William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals:  Exploring the Hermaneutics of Cultural Analysis clearly attempts to begin that conversation.

Introduction

Webb begins with a question and an answer.  The question is:  So how does a Christian respond to cultural change?  His answer is:  It is necessary for Christians to challenge their culture where it departs from kingdom values;  it is equally necessary for them to identify with their culture on all other matters (22).  The tough part arises in distinguishing:  between kingdom values and cultural values within the biblical text (23).   This is what Webb sees as the interpretative (hermaneutical) task.

Webb applies his hermaneutical framework primarily to 3 issues:  slavery, women, and homosexuality.  He picks slavery because he believes the issue to be settled within today’s church.  Clearly, the role of women and the issue of homosexuality are under active conversation—at least across denominations and, in some cases, within denominations.

Four Views on Women in the Church

Webb (26-28) defines these 4 positions as held on the role of women within the church:

  1. Hard/strong patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with an extensive power differential;
  2. Soft patriarchy—unilateral submission of women with a moderate power differential;
  3. Evangelical egalitarianism—mutual submission with equality of power between male and female; and
  4. Secular egalitarianism—equal rights and no gender-defined roles.

Three Views on Homosexuality in the Church

Webb (28) likewise defines 3 positions within the church on issue of homosexuality:

  1. Marital heterosexuality only—homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle for Christians;
  2. Covenant and equal-partner homosexuality—homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle for Christians provided that the partners are equal-status, consenting adults, and the relationship is one of a monogamous, covenant, and lasting kind; and
  3. Casual adult homosexuality—homosexuality is an appropriate lifestyle for any member of society provided it involves consenting adults.

In laying out these positions, Webb is simply defining the field of inquiry.  He is not at least initially advocating for any one of these positions.  Near the end of the text, however, he identifies himself as an evangelical egalitarian on women’s issues and argues for a marital hetersexuality only position with respect to homosexuality.

Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic

An important contribution of Webb’s work is a concept that he calls as a redemptive-movement hermaneutic.  In defining this concept, he outlines a model:  X=>Y=>Z.  The X stands for the original culture;  the Y stands for scripture; and the Z stands for the ultimate ethic (30-33).  This model permits us to ask 2 important questions.  First, does scripture move beyond the cultures of surrounding nations in addressing an issue? (X=>Y)  Second, does scripture point to an ethic beyond that actually embodied in scripture? (Y=>Z)  These 2 questions allow us to isolate the redemptive movement implied in the text of scripture.  Webb uses this model to examine several scriptural passages that today sound bizarre, but which would have been at least slightly redemptive to the original audience.  One example was the taking of female prisoners as spoils of war:

“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 ESV)

Attitude about Ugly Texts

Webb (32-33) argues that this is clearly an ugly text in today’s culture [2], but in relation to the customs of ancient times was redemptive in its application under the X=>Y criteria.

Today’s application of the text would not follow the exact words prescribed in the text, but rather to observe the redemptive spirit of the text and draft an appropriately redemptive, modern policy dealing with female captives (33).  Webb describes an attempt to apply the exact words of the scriptural text in a new context as a “static” interpretation (36-38).  Ignoring the redemptive spirit of the text leads to wooden or misleading interpretations and may lead to the text being discredited in the eyes of believers and non-believers alike.  Clearly, much more could be said about this redemptive-movement hermaneutic.

Organization

Webb writes his book in 8 chapters preceded by a foreword, acknowledgments, and an introduction and followed by a conclusion, 4 appendices, a bibliography, and a scriptural index.  The chapters are:

  1. Christian and Culture;
  2. A Redemptive-Movement Hermaneutic;
  3. Cultural/Transcultural Analysis:  A Road Map;
  4. Persuative Criteria;
  5. Moderately Persuasive Criteria;
  6. Inconclusive Criteria;
  7. Persuasive Extracriptural Criteria;
  8. What If I Am Wrong; and
  9. Conclusion:  Arriving at a Bottom Line.

The foreword is written by Darrell L. Bock of the Dallas Theological Seminary [3].

Assessment

Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals is a readable and engaging text that focuses on applying scripture rather than simply arguing over it.  It is gutsy for a writer to take on the ugly texts of scripture and to find both redemption and application in them.  Personally, my initial response was to reject cultural analysis because it lies outside the twin authorities of scripture and God’s direct revelation.  However, I realized that I was guilty myself of discounting or skipping over the difficult texts rather than engaging them.  In effect, I was already doing cultural analysis, just not employing a consistent method.  This internal struggle led me to reconsider Webb’s analysis.

I am sure that some readers will simply not be able to engage in conversation about politically incorrect topics, but I would challenge them to stretch their own views a bit for the sake of understanding scripture better.  Webb’s own words are helpful when he says:  I must thank our modern culture for raising the issues addressed in this book.  But our cultural only raises the issues…it does not resolve them (245).

Footnotes

[1] http://www.tyndale.ca/faculty/bill-webb

[2] This exact issue was in the news this past week in the Middle East war in Iraq as ISIS fighters rounded up women hostages to the horror of the onlooking world.

[3] http://www.dts.edu/about/faculty/dbock.

Webb: Analyzing Culture in Scripture and in Life

Also see:

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

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Bonhoeffer: Reframing Christian Community

Dietrick Bonhoeffer, Life TogetherDietrich Bonhoeffer.  1954.  Life Together:  The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (Gemeinsames Leben).  Translated by John W. Doberstein.  New York:  HarperOne.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Gemeinsames Leben was written in 1938, a year after Nachfolge, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught in an underground seminary Pomerania, Germany.  At the time, the Confessing Church, which he helped organize, was floundering under Nazi persecution.  While the last part of Nachfolge dealt with the church and life as a disciple, it was highly theological, not a work in practical ecclesiology.  Gemeinsames Leben appears then to address the question: how then can the church remain a faithful witness under persecution by a high-tech, secular culture?

Introduction

Gemeinsames Leben is short consisting of a mere 5 chapters:

  1. Community;
  2. The Day with Others;
  3. The Day Alone;
  4. Ministry; and
  5. Confession and Communion (5).

The book begins with Psalms and ends with the sacrament of communion.  In some sense, the community of God is framed with the word (scripture) and the sacraments—and so it is with Bonhoeffer.

Community

Bonhoeffer starts with a provocative quotation: Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! (Psalm 133:1) Today, it would be considered political incorrect because the translation is literal (brothers, not brothers and sisters).  For Bonhoeffer, it was provocative because the Old Testament was considered un-German, worse, Jewish, by the Nazi, hence forbidden[1].

Bonhoeffer’s second paragraph is no less provocative. He says:

It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies (17).

The mere existence of Christian community is a political statement and: a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer (19).  Bonhoeffer expands on this thought saying:

The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the Triune God (20).

Bonhoeffer reframes the everyday experience of the Christian into the persecuted world in which he finds himself in Nazi Germany.  This is possible only because: We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ (21). Community is also an antidote to self-centered, pretentious dreaming.  Bonhoeffer writes: God is not a God of the emotions, but the God of truth (27).

The Day with Others

Bonhoeffer commends the keeping of the hours. For example, he states: The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ (41).  The psalms are especially meaningful to Bonhoeffer as a model and mode for personal prayer (45).  Here we learn what prayer means, what to pray, and how to pray in fellowship (47-48).  For Bonhoeffer, Christian worship really never stops with continuous readings (50), hymn singing (57), prayer (71), table fellowship (66), and godly work (69).

The Day Alone

For Bonhoeffer, community is not an escape from loneliness—like the television in the psyche ward which is never turned off. He starts his discussion of time alone by saying: Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone (76).  Bonhoeffer (78) commends silence as the mark of solitude (and speech as the mark of community). He sees 3 reasons to be alone during the day: for scriptural meditation, for prayer, and for intercession (81).

Ministry

For Bonhoeffer, ministry begins with humility and restraint. Evil thoughts should not even be dignified with expression (James 3:2; 91) and this evil begins with the discord over who should be in charge (Luke 9:46; 90).  Bonhoeffer offers 3 services in ministry:  listening (97), active helpfulness (99), and burden bearing (100).  If these 3 services are not properly rendered, proclamation of the word is most perilous (104).  Leadership accordingly depends also on these 3 services (108).

Confession and Communion

Sin isolates us both from God and from community.  Bonhoeffer observes:  Sin wants to remain unknown (112).  He sees 2 dangers in confession of sin: first that the one hearing confessions will be overburdened and second that the confessor will try to elevate sin to “pious work” (baptize the sin into acceptance; 120).  The sole objective of confession is absolution, not acceptance.  Bonhoeffer proposes that confession occur the day prior to communion as a necessary step to participating in communion (121).  For this reason, in part, communion is a joyous celebration because the slate has been wiped clean, so to speak.

Assessment

How then can the church remain a faithful witness under persecution by a high-tech, secular culture?  Bonhoeffer does not answer this question in words.  Rather, he answers it by actions—let the church be the church!  And so we should.

Footnote

[1]Eric Metaxis. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.  Pages 162, 367-368.

Bonhoeffer: Reframing Christian Community

Also see:

Metaxas: Bonhoeffer’s Times and Ours 

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

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Schaeffer Checks the Pulse

Francis A. Schaeffer. 2005.  How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Orig Pub 1976).  Wheaton: Crossway Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a believer in the risen Christ, life sometimes resembles being stuck in a zombie invasion.  Zombies hate living people and desire their destruction.  Conversation with zombies can be challenging. Still, Christians are called to live sacrificially sharing their very lives with zombies on the hope that they too can live.  Jesus said:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:24 ESV)

While we were still zombies, Jesus died on the cross for us [1].

The Watchman

How should we then live?

This question taken from Ezekiel 33:10 where Ezekiel reviews his calling as prophet.  In the original call statement, Ezekiel writes:

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand… (Ezekiel 3:17-18 ESV)

Ezekiel must prophesy exactly as God instructs or his own salvation is at risk.

This watchman motif motivated Francis Schaeffer to write his book—How should we then live? (257-258) He outlines this motif in the final chapter addressed specifically to Christians.  The chapter begins with a warning against dichotomous thinking:  separating values (non-reason) from reason (255) [2].  This dichotomy has its origins in Greek thought (Platonic dualism; Gnosticism) where the mind (reason) was elevated over the body (values).

Greek Dualism

This re-emergence of dichotomous thinking in the modern era is a Christian heresy, in part, because it rejects the divinity of Christ who was bodily resurrected from the grave. The risen Christ is no ghost (spirit only) and no zombie (body without spirit).  Dichotomous thinking (a kind of schizophrenia) leads one to believe that God can only be approached through emotional experiences or, alternatively, only through theology.  By contrast, the New Testament teaches unity of mind and body—faith and action [3].  For example, James writes:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:22-24 ESV)

The splitting of mind and body (or faith from action) robs the Gospel of its power to transform lives and of its moral teaching. By contrast, the resurrection of Christ accredits Jesus’ divinity (Acts 17:31) and lays claim to the whole of us—both our minds and bodies.  Schaeffer especially sees dichotomous thinking leaving us to accept authoritarian rule because it facilitates manipulation (256-257).

Schaeffer’s point about the manipulative potential of dichotomous thinking is like a bad movie re-run.  During the Second World War, for example, economists of the Vienna School justified working for Adolf Hitler through the development of philosophical school called logical positivism.  In this paradigm, politicians set the goals and economists simply find the most efficient way to execute them.  The guard arguing that he was only following orders when gassing prisoners, for example, is applying logical positivism. In this manner, economists (and prison guards) tried to escape moral judgment by making no judgments at all [4].

Organization

Schaeffer’s book is a survey of key philosophical developments in history, politics, and art dating back to ancient Rome.  It is written in 13 chapters:

  1. Ancient Rome;
  2. The Middle Ages;
  3. The Renaissance;
  4. The Reformation;
  5. The Reformation—Continued;
  6. The Enlightenment;
  7. The Rise of Modern Science;
  8. The Breakdown in Philosophy and Science;
  9. Modern Philosophy and Modern Theology;
  10. Modern Art, Music, Literature, and Films;
  11. Our Society;
  12. Manipulation and the New Elite; and
  13. The Alternatives (7).

If you are one of those who think that this is a book written to justify positions of one generation over another, perhaps you should read with particular care.

Reformation’s Influence

For example, the Renaissance and the Reformation occurred at almost the same time—Renaissance thinkers accepted dichotomous thinking while Reformation thinkers refused to (79-81).  Reformation thinkers refused to accept dichotomous thinking and relied on the Bible to discern God’s truth—an absolute standard for ethics.  In some sense, the enlightenment simply revisited this same split.  Dichotomous thinking remains popular today because it supports humanism and relativism [5].

Assessment

In all his writing, Schaeffer covers a lot of ground.  The details of his discussion are fascinating and provide context for understanding the vast changes occurring in our time.  Unless you are a student of Western Civilization, be prepared to be challenged.  How Should We Then Live? is a classic.  Thank you Crossway Books for keeping it in print.

Footnotes

[1] For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person– though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8 ESV)

[2] Schaeffer felt so strongly about this topic of dichotomous thinking that he wrote an entire book on the subject:  Francis Schaeffer.  2006.  Escape from Reason:  A Penetrating Analysis of Trends in Modern Thinking.  Downers Grove:  IVP Press.

[3] An interesting  example of this integrative principle arises in the biblical idea of beauty.  “Our modern images feature surface and finish; Old Testament images present structure and character.  Modern images are narrow and restrictive; theirs were broad and inclusive…For us beauty is primarily visual; their idea of beauty included sensations of light, color, sound, smell, and even taste” Dyrness, William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, page 81.

[4] Hannah Arendt studied this problem at great length.  For example, read her book:   1987.  The Life of the Mind:  The Groundbreaking Investigation of How We Think.  New York:  Harcourt, Inc.

[5] In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians he confronts the problem of false teachers who added the Gospel of Christ other teaching.  Paul writes:   I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7 ESV)  In the Galatian context, the added teaching was over-reliance on the Law of Moses.  In our context, the added teaching is primarily philosophical or social.

Schaeffer Checks the Pulse

Also see:

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

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