Cut Flower Christianity

The year was 2004. The Olympics were held in Athens, Greece where a total of 10,625 athletes from 201 countries competed in 301 sporting events. NASA successfully landed the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) on Mars. U.S. President George W. Bush beats John Kerry in the elections garnering him a second term. His political platform was built on keeping America safe. This resonated with people and citizens uncritically rallied around him in support of his policies. This public adulation even secured him a spot in Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2000 and 2004, citing him as the most influential person during those two years.

The year was filled with optimism, that is until the very same things that propelled him to hero status fell into disrepute. Fair minded people began questioning the legitimacy of the Iraq war. Remember, this was premised on the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that a pre-emptive strike was justified given the eminent threat. But months of investigation on this turned out to be based on faulty information by intelligence agencies. There apparently were none. It was also the same year CBS uncovers systematic torture of Iraq prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Needless to say, it was a demoralizing chapter in our nation’s history. One easily could see the writing on the wall. Out of nowhere, America found itself challenged over claims of cultural uniqueness which followed a period of self-loathing, resigned in giving up the moral high ground. World leaders such as Putin began to see the missing links in the chainmail that once served as protection against what seemed like an unassailable set of virtues which made the United States a beacon of hope for many. They began jockeying, eager to replace the U.S. as world leader.

It is in this same year that Meic Pearse, an Oxford trained historian, writes a provocative book titled Why The Rest Hates The West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. In it Pearse frames his curiosity by citing four distinctives1 that define the West today:

      1. Western worldview is historically unique.
      2. The West has enjoyed dominance in the last two centuries; but now is in decline.
      3. Globalization is changing the West.
      4. Ongoing cultural debate characterized by what Robert Hughes as a “sterile confrontation between the two PCs—the politically correct and the patriotically correct.”2

Nick Spencer in The Evolution of the West How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values does a masterful job at explicating the first point. Spencer borrows a lot of his ideas from Larry Siedentop, an Oxford academic, who reminds the reader that virtually every virtue (e.g., human dignity, identity, science, law, care for the poor, and other similar first order values) that is significant in contributing to human flourishing has its origins in Christianity.efn_note]Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values [Expanded Edition], (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), Kindle, Loc. 225.[/efn_note]

Spencer agrees with Charles Taylor in A Secular Age when he wrote that the West has always been grounded in a theistic worldview, that a “non-belief in God was close to unthinkable for the vast majority.”3 Spencer adds:

“The past, at least in Europe, was Christian—a statement that has no hidden implications as to whether the present will be. People thought in Christian and spoke in Christian and reasoned in Christian, even as the public square became ever more plural.”4

This is no longer the case and many tout the fact that we are now living in a post-Christianity age. How has historical amnesia become the norm today? If Spencer is correct in his thesis, Christians bear the sole responsibility for Christianity’s backsliding ways. If Taylor is right, believers have continued to lose influence since the 1500s.

I had a conversation with to Os Guinness about these issues several years back. He recounted the event where he was invited to speak before the Chinese politburo about the challenges associated with the idea of modernizing without westernizing. The Chinese, to his surprise, acknowledged the rich heritage the United States possessed and duly noted that the associative link between the rise in preeminence of the West and Christianity. What they do not understand is why the United States today, in their view, is cutting themselves from their roots. Guinness says that we are like cut flowers. The West no longer draws its nourishment from the rich soil in which Christianity was planted. Just like cut flowers, everything that is true, good and beautiful will someday wilt away.

But does this have to be our lot? Is Christianity doomed to irrelevance? The quick answer to this is no. We have the book and we know the ending. The not so quick answer to this is that first we must avoid the temptation of immediatism5, the insistence of immediate action, decision and even perfection right now. Second we must engage in civil discourse about the important things in life. Taylor suggests we start with cross-pressure subjects such as agency, ethics and aesthetics. If we are successful with even the second, coming out of it unscathed, we will have accomplished much.

Finally, we cannot move forward if the saints are not praying. Prayer is the most powerful under utilized weapon Christians posses. I had the privilege of interviewing Peter Kreeft, preeminent philosophy professor at Boston College, several years ago while he was making the rounds speaking at various universities in my area. I asked him why Christianity was losing influence in the West. I’ll never forget his answer and the way he answered it. No sooner was I done asking when he blurted his answer “prayer.” Out of respect, I paused, thinking he would say more profound things. After all, he is a luminary in the philosophy world. He did not plan to until I asked if he could expound on it. In retrospect he probably thought why this was not obvious to me. Then he reminded me that we have a direct line to the omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent God of the universe and if are we not on our knees asking him for help, then nothing else will work.

Stand in the Gap

The scandal of the Evangelical mind, regrettably, is all around us. It is in popular media, social media, the public square, politics, universities and in other accessible spaces. Embarrassingly, we just cannot avoid it. To check my claim, I decided just now as I’m writing this, to turn on the radio and tune in to KKLA (99.5 FM, Los Angeles), “one of America’s most listened to Christian Talk stations.” It says so on their tagline. The mega church pastor who was speaking on the air said in one breath that “…everything you need to know is found in the Bible…” and then followed it up with the verse in Romans 12:1 “…but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He implied that in order to change one’s life, a person must first be transformed by a renewed mind. 

I can give him a pass because I already know what he was trying to communicate to his radio listeners. I have no doubt that he means well and aims to glorify God in all areas of life. However, to an unbeliever’s ear, this message is strange. It might even sound downright silly. Does the Bible really tell us everything there is to know? Will it tell me how much soap to put in the washer; balance my checkbook or prepare an apple cranberry walnut salad? Of course not. But it’s a category mistake to expect the Bible to be something it was not meant to be. Believers who carelessly think this way might be in the grips of biblicism1, which holds to the claim that the Bible is the only source of knowledge. The key word here, of course, is “only.” It is so easy today for a well meaning believers to be exposed as a poor witness simply because they lack the discipline of study. 

But how did this happen when according to Mark Noll, Christians are heirs to a rich intellectual heritage found in Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Pascal and Edwards?2 Mark Noll in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind responds to this conundrum and says:

If what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most openminded advocates of general human learning. Evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learningwholeheartedly is, in other words, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of evangelical faith.3

How did Christianity move from having the mind of Christ4 to a descent in intellectual laziness? Noll thinks the problem started when evangelicals started adopting Enlightenment ideas, specifically the didactic form imported by Scottish thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid and Adam Smith to name a few.5 In a spate of historic irony, the project failed. The very same Enlightenment concepts evangelical thinkers adopted to harmonize the Bible and nature simply could not hold up against the scrutiny of their interlocuters. This is not to say that Christians did not have any good rejoinders. But instead of doing homework, evangelicals retreated to the “fundamentals” of the faith. Regrettably, this was a euphemism for “we walk by faith, not by sight.” This eventually gave rise to new developments in theology such as the Keswick movement, Holiness, pentecostalism and the like which sought a second work of the Holy Spirit after conversion. By this time, experience and feelings became the exclusive new sources of knowledge at the expense of sound reason, the effects of which are still felt today. 

Noll was asked if had to write The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind all over again, what would change? He said that his assessment would remain unchanged but that he would change his tone. He would write with more hope and that is exactly what we find in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. He lists no less than ten positive signs of Evangelical advances in philosophy, science,  publications, universities (e.g., Biola and George Fox) and other areas of scholarship. 

It is high time to answer the clarion call to stand in the gap. Who knows how long the Lord will tarry? Perhaps we are, by God’s grace, given this rare opportunity to help elevate the life of the mind to newer heights in our time. As C.S. Lewis so famously said:

“To be ignorant and simple now–not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground–would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”6

Disenchanted Church

Charles Taylor seems to stand alone in his evaluation of what is wrong in our human condition, more specifically in the West. Once cherished values, which many say are responsible for human flourishing, are no longer held. It is not difficult to point out the cause of moral decay in society: increasing divorce rates, normalization of single-parent homes, alarming rates of suicide among teens1, distrust in political leaders, sharp divisions between the left and the right, gender dysphoria, emergence of the “nones” and many more of the same. 

But if one asks leading Christian leaders (especially pastors) and thinkers today, all of them would strongly claim that a return to Judeo-Christian values is key to reversing the tide of secularism. Then and only then would we return to fullness2. Taylor however, thinks that because of the massive shifts in thought and practices which brought about the various reformations, including the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, a naive, nostalgic return to a former era is not the best way to confront  secularism of the 3rd kind3, a concept he explains and is the primary locus4 of his project in A Secular Age. 

As I am writing this, I have resisted the temptation to summarize his thoughts here. But that is seldom my aim in writing my blogs for this course to begin with. Besides, experts such as James K.A. Smith have already done a wonderful job at this. The reason for this internal angst is because the narrative Taylor and Smith weave appears so prodigious and incredibly nuanced that if I were to pick up on any point I would feel the need to support it, and then the point after that, so on and so forth. And if that happens, I would end up summarizing their ideas, which again, is something I want to avoid here. With that in mind I’m not going to start in the beginning, nor the end, but somewhere in the middle.

One of Taylor’s many theses is that the church after the Middle Ages moved from a default position of belief to unbelief. The notion that God does not exist was unthinkable during the medieval period. Atheism was inconceivable. We have become disenchanted5. The church today, whether we realize this or not, camps in this immanent frame. Our world is closed — nothing comes in or out. It is disconcerting and embarrassing to admit that believers can be naturalistic by default. It’s true. Take for instance the dearth of miracles as perceived by Christians in the West. I’m recalling a story about a Christian leader from the U.S. asking his African counterpart why miracles are not as prevalent as they are in Africa. Apparently miracles such as the dead coming back to life, amputees growing limbs and other inexplicable events are not uncommon in developing nations. The African’s response was insightful. He said people in the U.S, when they encounter an emergency, their first impulse is to dial 911. In Africa, since there is no emergency services like 911, believer’s first impulse is to pray. 

Each time I hear that story told in front of an audience the reaction that follows is one of relief, a kind of comfort and reassurance that God still perform miracles. Of course, God still performs miracles. But how have we developed a take6 on things in which apparently God no longer performs miracles? The believer’s behavior, when it comes to prayer betray their beliefs because prayers are prayed with little expectation that God hears, much less acts. 

This is one example of secularism type 3 permeating everything in the church, its teachings and practices. This kind of secularism is such a lived-in, tacit and unconscious imaginary that the uninitiated is left with little hope of reform. But the situation is not beyond hope. Taylor offers a way out, starting points to engage the secularist. First, keep the conversations going and avoid conversation-stoppers such as the ones many street evangelists employ. There is enough common ground to supply civil conversations even with those whose ideas we disagree; and we need to be proactive and intentional about this. Second, keep pressing subjects on what Taylor calls cross-pressures that appear to grasp at fullness but never settling. He identifies three: Agency, Ethics and Aesthetics7. This is similar to what sociologist Peter Berger calls prototypical human gestures. All human beings, irrespective of culture, race, gender, age, past, present and future posses qualities that make us human. Qualities such as order, play, hope, justice  and humor, according to Berger, signal transcendence. These all eventually point back to God. Lastly, we must find converts who have lived within the immanent frame, succumbed to the cross-pressures and found a way out. Converts such as the Apostle Paul, C.S. Lewis, and more recently Ravi Zacharias, to name a few, who tell a competing story. 

As promised, this is not a summary of Taylor’s ideas. Instead it’s a feeble attempt to scrape together thoughts and ideas for a possible way forward toward human flourishing. The kind of human flourishing that finds its supply in the God of the cosmos.

Goal of Leadership

This week’s reading was brutal. Our cohort had to read, not one, not two, but three books in a matter of days. They weren’t easy ones either. Absorbing the material from Simon Walker’s The Undefended Leader trilogy was like drinking from a leadership fire hydrant. This is not to say that the arduous reading was not enjoyable. In fact out of all the leadership books I’ve read, this one stands out as one I will continually refer back to and will recommend to those aspiring to be better leaders. As I write this, I’m aware this opinion may have an expiration date. With so many books on leadership, I’m beginning to be convinced the academic ideas and concepts on leadership, which is fairly new, are varied, sometimes contradictory and can get far afield from each other. 

For instance, we learn from Brene Brown1 and Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries2 that daring leadership requires empathy, that effective leadership require transparency and self-compassion. Contra Brown, Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve tells us not to engage in empathy. In fact, he devotes a whole chapter decrying the potential pitfalls of this, putting it on the same level as ‘emotional coercion.’3 Then there are the joys of discovering that some of these experts agree, i.e., Kets de Vries’ ‘accepting our shadowy side’ with Simon Walker’s ‘leading out of who you are’ which aptly is the title of the first volume of his 3-part series on The Undefended Leader.

As I’m writing this, I’ve yet to decide exactly what direction to take this since there is so so much to unpack. Do I write about the need for leadership in these turbulent times? Do I pick something more aligned with my dissertation? Or do I wax about the alphabet (PSC, RSC, PSX, etc.) soup of leadership concepts Walker theorizes are the ways we understand leadership? After giving it some thought, I decided to write about what the reading has caused me to reflect  on the most — and it’s this: What is the goal of leadership?

My own understanding of the goals of leadership had always been tied directly to the organization’s mission (ideal) and vision. Purportedly we apply all our skills and resources to accomplish the mission and vision. The mission is grand, once for all, and the vision is what gets us there. While there’s a lot of wisdom in that, I felt, after reading Walker, that perhaps that view was too simplistic and runs the risk of becoming too ethereal for followers to follow. 

Having worked at Biola University for over a quarter of a century (I know, that’s a very long time), I find that most of its employees, to my dismay cannot recall, much less utter the mission statement that is frequently promoted in internal memos, missives, ads, campaigns, etc. Biola is proud of its 111 year heritage and makes every effort to let the world know that our mission statement remains unchanged since its founding. And yet I feel our staff, faculty and students do not mention it nearly enough about this being a reason for belonging to an institution as much as I do. Does this make me a leader—because I care so much about this?

Walker admonishes the leader about feeling trapped in ‘idealism.’ It’s one of the things that drives leaders. In my case, it has become foundational in all I do as a leader and has become indistinguishable from the mission. The danger in this, according to Walker is when a leader looks at the ideal and discovers that the world does not conform to it, a cognitive dissonance develops in the mind which may lead to mental and emotional stress.4

Is the goal of leadership success? Success in accomplishing projects, meeting enrollment goals, staying within budget, etc.? Sure, but these all could be attained by formulas and technique; things delegable. Walker offers something better. He writes “that the only proper goal of leadership is this: to enable people to take responsibility.”5 That’s it. 

Up until this point I had not considered some of the possible ways to frame my understanding of leadership. I had always thought leadership was based on a single dimension of skill, charisma or vision. Walker has provided a way to lay foundations to which I can build my own set of leadership concepts that work in my present context. As I’ve mentioned, there is so much to absorb in these three books that I’m glad this is the last reading of this sort for this semester because I will now have the chance to ruminate on what it means to enable people to take responsibility. 

Stay Curious

As I write this there are no less than seven stories in this morning’s paper lambasting the intemperate excesses of large companies that have resulted in large scale privacy loss, antitrust violations and billions worth of lost capital. Not surprisingly, Facebook, one of the four horsemen in Scott Galloway’s book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google is being investigated by the state of California for its mishandling of the Cambridge Analytica case which compromised data from as many as 87 million of its users. The company is also facing antitrust lawsuits in Europe over the dubious way it acquired WhatsApp in 2014.1

Then there’s SoftBank, a money machine, popular for infusing exorbitant amount of cash to help technology start-ups thrive, with literally nothing but a vision, also on front page (top half) for losing $9 billion in the last quarter.2 How did Masayoshi Son do that? He doubled down on a shaky pre IPO deal with an overpriced workspace sharing company called WeWork and a cash-strapped, ride-hailing company we all know and love, Uber (a possible contender for the Fifth Horseman)3

Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at the New York University School of Business warns us about what big companies, if left unchecked, can do to inflict harm on us, consciously or unconsciously. Take for instance our affinity towards Facebook. Are we willing to trade our privacy for fleeting connections in virtual space?4 Why do we allow these mega corporations to act with impunity? Is Google’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” sufficient to stem the inequities these businesses foster? 

I believe the real reason why we allow these companies to run unabated is our love for their products. Galloway made allusions to Google having god-like characteristics that hold a sort of religious sway over us.5 What he failed to connect is that we have actually become our own gods. This is more befitting of our times. God created us in his image. We decided to return the favor. Their products will help recreate ourselves to be better than our former selves. With the aid of AI we can gene-edit human beings into our own likeness and obtain the materials delivered to us in a week’s time—two days if you’re an Amazon Prime member. Then we snap a photo of our successes, using our iPhones of course, post it on Facebook to broadcast to the whole world that we matter. 

This is the future I’m afraid. But it doesn’t have to be. As an aside, it would not be fair to say that the Four Horsemen have not contributed anything positive toward human flourishing. The benefits of technology are obvious; and Galloway is not naive not to acknowledge that. But since we live in a fallen world, it takes more effort to prevent abuses than to unflinchingly continue toward progress. His tips for thriving in the apocalypse are worth noting. The one that stuck with me is about staying curious.6 “Curiosity is crucial to success” is the short but enduring quip from Galloway. Curiosity can take many forms. It’s true, trying to resist the avalanche of change will drown you. Galloway said “Successful people in the digital age are those who go to work every day, not dreading the next change, but asking, ‘What if we did it this way?’”7

For me that means continued learning—learning how to be a better leader to guide my organization through the challenges and threats these Four Horsemen bring about.

Common Ground Leadership

Reading Manfred F.R. Kets De Vries’ Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership was like embarking on a backpacking trip. One had to slog through the initial rough terrain, enduring steep switchbacks before reaching breathtaking mountain-top vistas. Except I thought this book’s trailhead started in the dumps. I was almost tempted to use my newly acquired skill I learned from Pierre Bayard and talk about a book I haven’t read. But just like backpacking I trudged, one foot in front of the other until I reached familiar footings that gave me time to reflect on important things about leadership.

As I was reflecting on why I was having a tough time connecting with Kets De Vries’ ideas I decided I’d better review his presuppositions to gain proper perspective. The author is not opaque and states them clearly in the beginning. He uses three frameworks in this book: (1) Psychodynamics, (2) Evolutionary Psychology and (3) Neuroscience. Indeed, these are fascinating subjects and as much as I’m tempted to quibble with them, I’m afraid I’d only end up contributing to the “dystopian worries”1 the author warns us about.

However, as I read through the material I began to pick up things I found familiar with my own research. And that is the whole idea of common ground. The idea of ‘common ground,’ at least in Christian Apologetics, purports that there are transcendent basic human values shared among humanity from the beginning of time. In worldview terms, it’s understood as being able to answer five ultimate questions: the question of origins, identity, meaning of life, morality and destiny.

So it was refreshing to discover that Kets De Vries addresses these important issues as part of a developing leader. For instance he connects our goal in leadership to life’s purpose. He says “Many studies have shown that having a purpose is good for our mental health.”2 This idea of adopting a purpose comports well with another expert, Edwin Friedman, in which he analogized a human cell undergoing the process of specialization3 that aids in the function of the organism. To be a good, self-differentiated leader we must answer the fundamental questions in life for ourselves: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life all about? What’s the meaning of my life? Kets De Vries said that if we avoid these questions, life becomes superficial and empty.4

Another exciting discovery for me in reading Kets De Vries is his allusion to what sociologist Peter Berger calls ‘signals of transcendence.’ Again, very much related to the whole idea of common ground (common grace for the Reformed), Berger thinks that there exists timeless, transcendent truths that evoke a sense of soul-searching in a person who unwittingly comes face to face with realities of human experience. I’m guessing Kets De Vries is not a believer. And yet it’s refreshing that he includes concepts in his leadership training that ultimately finds its source in God. Values such as hope5, play6, humor7 and order8 are all what makes us human9. These are the things that connect us deeply with those we are trying to lead. If we are wise, we will seek to establish common ground with those we are trying to influence, whether that be in our own families or in organizations that count on us to lead.

Nuanced Juxtapositions

O wow! Reading Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve was like drinking from a fire hydrant — there’s just so much to assimilate. I found myself highlighting many parts, frequently re-reading sections, trying to comprehend his ideas about leadership. Then there were the familiar concepts we’re told not to emulate, such as empathy and togetherness.1 There was a welcomed subversive theme in his writing, doing away with the old, ineffective ways of dealing with organizational issues that looked to external regressive forces.2 But instead he asserted that the way forward is to look into our “self” and become what he calls a “self-differentiated” leader.

There were also what I call the nuanced juxtapositions of commonly amicable words that made me think harder about them. Side by side words such as peace over progress, flexible or wishy washy, rigid or principled, selfish vs. self-‘ish,’ genius or madness, etc. Not only were they clever, but I found the literary approach helpful to discern more carefully my own attitudes and behavior in situations that trigger my actions. Choosing one over the other makes a big difference in how we become mature.

There are too many good lessons that I’m afraid I can only put to practice some of them. The following are the ones that resonate with me in my present leadership context.

Anxiety. There’s the garden variety kind of anxiety that many of us are familiar with and experience with some regularity. Some of what triggers may be due to unmet goals, missed deadlines, etc. Then there’s the unacknowledged anxiety. This is much harder to deal with because it lies beneath the subconscious. If not dealt with properly, it leads to empathy,3 which then leads to a spiraling regressive triangle4 relationship. Fortunately we have a third member of the triangle who can break in at any point and redeem the broken relationship. That person of course is Jesus. He invites us to come to him, to trade our burdens for his because they are light and he will give us rest.5

Self-Differentiation. Friedman makes it very clear that a good leader is one who is self-differentiated. He describes that person as

“I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”6

Friedman says we never get there but rather it’s a life long process that we must persevere through. I see this person as fully mature, well-balanced and secure. So the key to a successful family or organization is having a leader who is self-differentiated. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s admonition to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought…”7 There is the implication that there is a desirable and expected state of who we are as individuals. A mature person does not think lower or higher than he or she actually is. In the same passages Paul exhorts us to fulfill our calling by exercising our gifts. This parallels Friedman’s idea of “specialization” in which members contribute to the good of the larger society.8

Like I mentioned earlier, there are so many helpful concepts on what it means to be a good leader. These two takeaways are what stuck with me.

History: His Story

Reading this new historical tome by Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads reminded me of my favorite quote which sums up the atrocities in the Middle Ages: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”1 It’s a gruesome picture but in many ways accurate.

Frankopan’s project in this book was to attempt to write world history, not necessarily from the point of view of the winners, the “accepted and lazy history of civilization” but from alternative sources. He does have a point. I admit, my own knowledge of world history came from the “lazy” perspective where 

“Ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”2

I suspect I’m not the only one and many of my friends, from the learned to the simple minded, especially those who grew up in the West, subscribe to this incomplete view of world history. I was intrigued and a part of me couldn’t wait to get to the end. I was patient and managed to read through the conclusion. Did Frankopan succeed in his goal to “rewrite” world history? Was he fair and objective, writing about events as it actually happened? 

I am no history buff, and so anything he wrote I took at face value. To my surprise and delight I thoroughly enjoyed it. Did I agree with everything he wrote? Not necessarily, but that’s neither here nor there. No one agrees 100% with everything anyone says. We all get some things right and some things wrong—no is perfect. The following are some of the highlights I gleaned from the book which I found helpful.

  1. I learned a lot. This is perhaps the thing I am most grateful for. For instance I didn’t realize that Christianity in the 3rd century was being compared to other religions in Persia to see which religion was “superior.”3 Nor did I know that “the barbarians were at the gates” more than once in history. I learned about the “steppes” and the beginnings of the Low Lands. I learned about the etymology of “slaves” and a closely related word in Italian “Ciao.” I leaned about the two shots fired in the summer of 1914 that changed history and divided nations that really did not want to go to war. Much of this has given me a renewed desire to visit these historical sites and actually have something to say about what happened at these places.
  2. Need to be careful about bias. It should not be a shock to anyone to learn that history is written by the winners. That’s obvious. But if what is meant by “history is written by the winners” is that there is a pervading bias, a triumphalist tone in the reporting of history, then that is entirely something else. The important thing to ask is: Is it true? Are the facts being reported comport to the actual events? We all have bias. It’s unavoidable. The important question is: can we admit and set aside our partiality enough so that we can look at things objectively?
  3. God is in charge. Frankopan’s view of world history is more depressing than I think it actually is. He hardly mentions the great Christian movements during the Middle Ages (Dark Ages for the pessimists). There’s almost nothing mentioned about the centrality of Israel in world history, which I find curious. I don’t deny that many horrible things were done in the name of Christianity throughout history. But I don’t find that troubling because we see the same kinds of things reported in Scripture. Humanity, created in God’s image, rebelled against God in the beginning. We’ve needed a savior ever since. God has a strange way of superintending human events. For example, God used Cyrus II, a pagan king to restore Israel in 6th century BC. Or how about God allowing the Israelites to “plunder the Egyptians” centuries before as they escaped their captors. 
  4. Abject humility. Since we don’t have God’s perspective we have to admit our ignorance about how world events shape history. Sure, we have some knowledge about it but we can’t authoritatively claim we know for certain how certain events will turn out. A practical application of this was already pointed out by Frankopan’s work. For example, throughout history, believers were sure the apocalypse was near, but it never happened. Extending this a bit further, it now becomes pointless to argue for a particular view of eschatology. When folks ask me if I’m “pre-trib, premillennial” or “post-trib,” “amill”, etc., I just shake my head and say “I’m optimistic.” Then I get a chuckle. All I know for sure is that Jesus is coming back again. Until then, I’m going to remain curious and humble about world history.

The Provincial Farm Boy

Political theologian William Cavanaugh asks a provocative question: “How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about?”1 That is a stunning way to start a book. Cavanaugh is asking what in human nature compels us to act. It’s an important question once we stop and consciously think about what motivates us to do certain things. Does knowing what and how to do things make you do it? How about we raise the stakes and ask ourselves this: If we know what and how to do important things (i.e., organize personal finances early to minimize stress during tax season), are we more compelled to do it?

The answer to this is at the heart of why many new years resolutions fail. We know the health benefits of diet and exercise. We know how to do it, but we don’t. Then we spend the rest of the year nursing our self-doubt, convincing ourselves that mustering more willpower will yield a better result the following year.

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work makes the case that concentrated  pockets of time devoted to our undivided attention on projects will yield success. Moreover, he concludes that  spending less time performing these ‘deep work’ activities actually produce more output, not less. Newport provides a treasure trove of valuable tips, insights, research and practical suggestions to help the reader unlock her potential. Tools such as ‘stacking,’2 scheduling techniques,3 how to manage e-mails are worthwhile but what stimulated my interest more than anything was the section on willpower, desires and habits.4

With some of these ideas in mind let’s go back to Cavanaugh’s question. What could possibly persuade a provincial farm boy to enlist as a soldier to do things he normally would not, such as killing another human being? On its own merits, it’s difficult to imagine what might persuade “Cavanaugh’s soldier.” Was it a pamphlet or some info session he attended that convinced him? Did he take a class or read a textbook on the philosophy of soldiering to incline his will to enlist? I doubt it. This silly thought experiment exposes the unwitting assumptions we have surrounding our actions. 

Let’s shift a bit and apply this to our faith. Do we fail in our sanctification because we lack enough willpower? Are our desires not strong enough to overcome spiritual malaise? Christian leaders and pastors today bemoan the slow death of Christianity in the West, that is, unless some kind of revival takes place. I suspect what is meant by revival is some supernatural force by the Holy Spirit that transforms an entire generation to Christlikeness. No doubt, God can perform miracles such as this but the problem lies with the church. There exist a ‘monergistic’ relationship between God’s work and ours. Yes, God is responsible for our transformation, but He still expects us to do our part. So we can’t sit idly, pray for the church to be influential in society again, and expect God’s kingdom to move forward. 

James Hunter in his book “To Change the World” points out that Protestants have steadily increased in number, church attendance and participation over the last 175 years.5 But that fact has not stopped the steady decline of Christianity in the West. So if the answer is not in acquiring more knowledge and experience. If it’s not in summoning up more commitment or somehow fan our emotions to make us obedient followers of Christ. Then what?

Perhaps the answer is in the unpopular and uncelebrated notion of practice. Just like a muscle, our bodies must be trained to do things in pre-cognitive ways. Done enough times, it becomes habit. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that educators since the Enlightenment have viewed individuals as primarily thinking beings. We are not just “brains on a stick” according to philosopher James K.A. Smith. He adds that providing people with a Christian worldview is inadequate and that there are other ways of knowing, contra the intellectualist view which assumes that what I do is the outcome of what I think.6

So, not surprisingly, the apostle Paul was spot-on in admonishing us to “work out” our own salvation. The challenge for the church, especially in the West is to start reordering our priorities. We don’t get rid of instruction. We just supplement it with practical application. There is no winning formula. But I imagine we can start with this: For every unit of orthodoxy, there must be an accompanying unit of orthopraxy. I may be way off but hopefully you get the point. 

If we continue in the welcomed challenge of ‘deep work’ required to become more like Christ, then perhaps we may one day be like the provincial farm boy who enlists in the service of God’s kingdom, fully persuaded that all he does is for his glory.

Where is the Hope?

Ross Douthat, writing in 2012, could have waited just a few more years before penning Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics to include forthcoming distressing events, nicely rounding off his jeremiad observation of Christian decline in the United States. In a few  years he could have included on his list the increased reports of shootings (police against citizens and vice versa), the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, the U.S. Supreme court striking down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which eventually led to gay marriage being the law of the land. Add to that the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch on duty who claimed self defense in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen named Trayvon Martin, stoking renewed racial tensions causing several riots in other cities with demands of justice.

Another critical event Douthat could have included in his book had he waited is the rapid decline in sexual mores. In the 1960’s, the idea was to liberate sexual constraints in the name of progress. To simply say that has changed is an understatement. Since the legal adoption of gay marriage in 2015, our culture now entertains issues of transgenderism, gender dysphoria, non-binary, gender reassignments, etc. The language surrounding this particular issue is confusing, even to experts.

Douthat’s observation of culture decay in the U.S. is a sobering reality that ideas do have consequences. However, and I confess, having studied apologetics at a graduate level, most of my conclusions explaining Evangelical drift is from a social context that seeks to define truth in relativistic terms or an outright rejection of the existence of god. i.e., atheism. Douthat on there other hand is keen to discern that this is not always the case:

“The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul.”1

James Davison Hunter in his book To Change The World makes a convincing case that our cultural challenges cannot be mitigated through a simple “change of hearts and minds”2 either. Hunter, I believe, overstates his case because in the end he advocates for a “faithful presence within” mindset which is itself an indication of a changed heart and mind. Other experts chime in with their panacea. Rod Dreher proposes that authentic renewal “will have to happen in families and local church communities,” a grass-roots movements retreat, harkening back to the days of the Benedictines in the 10th century, forming communities that extolled the virtues of order, work, prayer, hospitality and a balanced view of life.3

I had a chance to interview Timothy Muehlhoff, professor of communications and author of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence  in a Post-Christian World. He wrote the book partly in response to Deborah Tannen’s description of our current culture as being the argument culture. Argument culture according to Tannen is a disposition “that urges us to approach the world, and the people in it, in an adversarial frame of mind.”4 I asked him what he thought would be effective in helping turn culture around. He said the solution is for believers to start showing neighborly love and compassion.5 This is easier said than done, but is there any better way? After all this is exactly what the Lord commands of us. In chapter three he expounds specifically what neighborly love and compassion looks like.

Ross Douthat, Os Guinness, Rod Dreher, James Davison Hunter, Vincent Miller and other Evangelical leaders offer timely humble answers to our post-Christian world problems. We may see things get better with the coming generation or not. But we must never lose hope. Even as a self-identified pessimist, Douthat offers great hope:

"In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith”—the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilization. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud. But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterton noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”6

And yet our best hope is Christ.

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."7