Thinking Out Loud

June 22, 2022

Understanding Our Diminishing Attention Span

A mini-review of Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

It wasn’t even my copy of the book. And my intention was to just read the first few chapters. But I was hooked. In a world where people have trouble concentrating, the author certainly had my attention.

For regular readers here, this isn’t my usual type of review, which normally concerns books in national release by Christian publishers. Nobody received a review copy, and I don’t have to write this at all. But I feel compelled to recommend this title to anyone who interacts with technology to any degree — hint: you’re reading this on my blog — or anyone who has children, or anyone who simply breathes the air on planet Earth.

Why can’t we pay attention? Why does our mind seem to wander more than it once did? Why does the world suddenly seem filled with a million distractions? I haven’t done a whole lot of reading this on this topic, but my suspicion is that Stolen Focus has got to be one of the more comprehensive books on the subject.

Not content to do phone interviews, Johann Hari spends as much as half the year traveling the world doing research, spending time with the top experts in various branches of education, psychology, the environment, and many other disciplines. (Audio of those interviews is available on a related website.)

There are so many things we could do to re-order our lifestyle to mitigate against where technology has taken us, but ultimately, at the end of the book, he names three. (Sorry, no spoilers.) And no, the problem isn’t Facebook; at least the problem isn’t just Facebook; but when it comes to putting your money where your mouth is, the author does just that, shutting himself off entirely from the internet for three months. The experience changes him dramatically.

That ‘field trip’ also makes the book so much more engaging, as it’s as much about the author’s personal journey with this subject as it is a thoroughly-researched piece of journalism.

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari is available in North America in 344-page hardcover from Crown Publishing.

For regular readers here, I suspect there might be some overlap between this book and a Christian title I really wanted to review but simply couldn’t arrange: The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer. Other recommended Christian books along these lines include The Truth About Us by Brant Hansen, and Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck.

June 9, 2022

3 Kinds of Book People: 3 Axioms

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:17 am

For purposes of these simple statements, the word “logic” refers to the entire operating paradigm, including the type of products with which there is interaction, and the needs of the people being served.

For purposes of these simple statements “used bookstores” may also refer to the book departments in thrift stores.

The three statements:

Trade bookstores do not understand the logic of used bookstores and libraries.

Libraries don’t understand the logic of trade bookstores and used bookstores.

Used bookstores don’t understand the logic of libraries and trade bookstores.

Why it matters:

While each one of us may interact with all three types of “book handlers” in any given time period, the entities themselves have entirely different points of access to books and entirely different reasons for existing. We can’t expect one to fully understand the modus operandi of the others, or expect one type of institution to do something for us which is best suited to one of the others.

Allies or competitors:

The proprietors of all three types of book people are all true bibliophiles. They share a love of reading. The store manager or owner wants you to buy books. The librarian wants you to borrow books. The thrift store or used bookstore wants you to help find books a second home.

There’s a “competition for eyeballs” and leisure time for reading is limited, but eventually, it comes down to a love for the printed page. Quite often, in any given city or town, on any given day, the same book may be accessed by readers in all three types of locations.

I would argue that these are more allies than competitors, but unless given the opportunity to work for a week in the environment of each of the others, they might regard those others as a distraction from what is they do.

 

 

June 1, 2022

Guys: The Book We Need

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:36 am

A Review of The Men We Need by Brant Hansen

Only once or twice a year do I receive books unsolicited, and this is one I specifically asked for and wanted to share with my sons and have as part of my personal library. This is also the fourth time (see below) I’ve reviewed one of Brant Hansen’s four books. Am I a little biased toward this writer? Absolutely. A little greedy to ask for a fourth review copy by the same author? No doubt.

By writing The Men We Need: God’s Purpose for the Manly Man, the Avid Indoorsman, or Any Man Willing to Show Up (Baker Books, 2022), one could argue that Brant has limited his potential audience by 50%, but he states early on that this is a book that women might find beneficial as well. (I’m reminded that the first time I picked up a copy of The Five Love Languages, I thought it was a book about the expectations of my spouse, only to find it’s more about my own expectations. Sometimes books work in reverse!)

One woman noted in her review, “As a woman, this book has caused me to more fully notice and appreciate when the men in my life are living this out.” Furthermore, to state the obvious, many women are raising sons. If Dobson can write Bringing Up Boys, you could read this as ‘Bringing up Men.’

The book is arranged around six ‘decisions’ or what I would say are ‘determinations’ men need to make. In each section there are four to six very short chapters — this was written for guys after all, and guys usually lose their focus after three to five pages — which relate to the broader topic. Honestly, though; I didn’t see the organization of the book that way. I simply enjoyed each short chapter as a stand-alone, and thought that some offered prescriptions that were every bit as weighty as the six key statements which were singled out.

Part of the appeal of this book is its inclusivity of people who aren’t the typical, macho men. The type of person who fears a paper cut if they read one of John Eldredge’s titles. But just because Hansen describes himself as a flute player who was the head of his state’s high school library association doesn’t mean this is a book for wimps.

That myth is shattered somewhat in his descriptions of projects he has carried out overseas as part of his work with CURE, a medical mission; or taking church youth groups to build houses in Mexico. The guy who was scouted by the NFL in high school and never drives anything other than his Ford F150 (always black, always wearing a baseball cap) is not going think the book has nothing to speak to his life and situation.

Brant goes out of his way to include single guys. The whole tone of the book is similar to the book of Proverbs; something you might want to give as a graduation present for either high school or college. But there are great insights for married men here, not to mention married with children. While we’re making gift suggestions, this would be a great Father’s Day gift.

Like his others, this book is conversational in style, and points toward a God who is equally relatable; a God who has given us the keys to the garden and told us, ‘Take good care of the place.’ Whatever your personal garden you’ll find points of resonance here.

 


January, 2017 — Review of Unoffendable
November, 2017 – Review of Blessed are the Misfits
April, 2020 – Review of The Truth About Us

Link to BrantHansen.com

Link to book’s page at Baker Books

Thanks to Graf-Martin, a Canadian publicity agency who handle, among other things, promotion and publicity for Baker Books in Canada, for a review copy of this great resource.

April 23, 2022

Rethinking Our Strengths

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 11:22 am

by Sheldon Bungay

We often understand our strengths as those things that we are good at doing or in which we exhibit a high level of competency.

We often understand our weaknesses as those things that we are not very good at or in which we exhibit a lower level of competency.

But what if you are really good at a certain task or great at a certain type of performance but absolutely detest doing it, is it really a strength? What if I love playing a certain sport, love writing poetry, or love to sing and these things bring me great joy, yet I am not considered to be a great player, or great writer, or talented singer? Are they really weaknesses?

What if we defined strengths as those things that actually strengthen us and build us up, and our weaknesses as those things that weaken us and suck the energy out of us?

What if we defined the strengths of our business, organization, church, or program as those elements or activities that strengthen the whole and lift morale?

What if we actually stopped doing certain things even if they have some benefit, but they leave us feeling drained, exhausted, unmotivated, and less enthusiastic about our vocation, workplace, or present reality?

I don’t know about you, but I think that there is much that would be changed or impacted if we redefined our understanding of strengths and weaknesses.


Sheldon Bungay is a Salvation Army officer in Newfoundland, Canada whose strengths include insightful writing. Used by permission.

April 7, 2022

Lessons (Hopefully) Learned from Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel

Living in what the people of Chicagoland call “the northwest suburbs” theologian Scot McKnight and his daughter, teacher Laura Barringer had a front row seat when things began unraveling at Harvest Bible Chapel and Willow Creek Community Church, and furthermore were acquainted with many of the people who became a part of our daily Twitter and blog feeds about both stories.

For this writer, the allegations about James MacDonald were hardly surprising, but I was more deeply invested in Bill Hybels, so there I found the greatest shock and disappointment. That the actions of these leaders were both shielded from the parishioners and the general public, and/or softened for public consumption meant that other leaders were culpable as the accusations intensified.

As I pointed out in this article, by the end of 2020, the damage done to the lives and legacies of various church leaders — not just pastors — was devastating and in no way limited to Harvest and Willow. So in writing A Church Called TOV: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (Tyndale House, 2020) McKnight and Barringer were not afraid to name names.

This serves as an example of the truth and transparency that they see as just one of the seven marks of what they call “the circle of TOV,” which ought to be a mantra for every church wishing to have a healthy internal governance culture. Before getting there however, the first 80-or-so pages define the problem, and only then do they embark on what I consider the redemptive properties of the book, though they do not, by any means leave the naming of names behind, but continue to address situations that are relevant to each of the seven healthy characteristics they are defining.

It is at that point that some more positive anecdotal content is presented, including some very moving accounts from the late Calvin Miller. And the scriptures. In some chapters, especially the scriptures. (I ran a very brief excerpt from the book at Christianity 201 a few days ago as an example.)

If you get a copy, you need to copy and print an enlargement of their “circle of TOV” and hang it in whatever room your church board/elders meets. It should guide every aspect of the decision-making processes.

So why review a 2020 book now? In publishing marketing and publicity, this isn’t done, but reading Jesus and John Wayne (reviewed here) and The Making of Biblical Womanhood (briefly reviewed here), I simply had to include this one in my personal reading, especially knowing how much it has impacted many church leaders since its release.

(Unfortunately, Tyndale House doesn’t have representation in Canada, so I had to use a borrowed copy, but by mentioning the book here and now for my U.S. readers, I am trying to practice in this situation my own culture of grace and goodness.)

The book also begs the question, ‘Should megachurches even exist?’ Or to say it differently, ‘Was the modern megachurch ever part of God’s plan?” If you’re reading this, and in the middle of a search for a church home (a new church, or you’re looking for the first time) I would strongly suggest looking at churches with 200-500 in attendance (or 100-300 in Canada) as your best options.

With the passage of time since the book’s release, our emphasis now, rather than focusing on what went wrong, should be to look to the future with a vision of local church communities which promote the good, just as God, when he saw all that he had made, said that it was very good.

 

March 31, 2022

Patriarchy’s Historical Roots

I originally thought that The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr was a book that needed to be read either in tandem or serially with Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes DuMez. I’m now of the opinion that at least the first third of A Church Called Tov by Scott McKnight and Laura Barringer should be thrown into the mix.

So I hope you don’t mind if I discuss the book in comparative terms with the other which I reviewed here about a month ago.

It took me a long time to finish this — I read J&JW in the middle of the process — and also due to various interruptions, and complicated by the fact that due to certain deficiencies in my high school education, I have problems processing things related to history. (It’s a long story.) Beth Allison Barr is a historian, and she takes a historical approach, not a theological approach. Her concern with today’s popular patriarchy, which is best expressed by organizations such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), is understanding how we got to this place, something that she contends did not happen overnight, though its meteoric rise to a default doctrine in Evangelicalism is relatively recent.

I’m continuously drawn back to a quotation I can no longer source where it was said that the purveyors and propagators of today’s patriarchal culture, and the pastors and authors which helped promote it, these people never dreamed they would be the object of historical or sociological study, they never imagined that they would be the focus of academic or scholarly research. They never expected their motivation and actions to be dissected and analyzed. They didn’t foresee books like TMBW and J&JW becoming part of the conversation.

Barr’s book goes back much further than DuMez’ however, back into medieval Times, to show both that some of this thinking did not emerge yesterday, and yet at the same time to show that historically women have occupied a much larger and more active place in the history of Christianity. In the most general sense, the current situation does not have strong historical precedent, even if there are glimpses of that attitude.

Beth Allison Barr also makes this story personal, inserting places where studying the historical timeline has intersected her own story. It genuinely puts a face on what might otherwise be a dry academic research paper. It matters. It matters to her. It matters to the women who have been completely marginalized by patriarchy in the church, and more than a few men who have suffered trying to defend them.

Because I’m late getting to this review, I’ll keep it short, except to reiterate that I really think it and J&JW really do need to be read together, perhaps along with others that are yet to be written, as those of us with a different understanding of scripture try to compassionately and gracefully put an end to misogyny within the church, including conditions with which many of us were raised.


The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr (Brazos Press, 2020, paperback 2021); page at Baker Publishing Group.

March 30, 2022

Cats in the Bible

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 4:56 pm

As some of you know, my wife is working on her Masters degree in theology, and we thought you might like to have a peek at the first page of her current essay project. You may even have suggestions. I’m wondering about her getting this published when the course ends. The photograph is not part of her thesis.

by Ruth Wilkinson

Part One – Genesis

There are no cats in Genesis.

Within the creation account of Genesis 1, we read of “beasts” (chay•yay), a general term that must include all warm-blooded animals, within which may have been the primitive precursor of felis catus (or the common house cat). The nature of that relationship and its evolutionary implications have not been satisfactorily studied by theologians.

Part Two – Exodus

There are no cats in Exodus.

Despite the theory found in popular archaeology that “the ancient Egyptians worshipped the cat,” this potentially important theological statement is not supported by the text. Scripture indicates no presence of cats either curled up on Moses’ lap, or as one of the great plagues. Some suggest that the parting of the Reed Sea may have been prompted by the reluctance of Miriam’s moggie to step into the water, but most consider this apocryphal.

Part Three – Leviticus

There are no cats in Leviticus.

Despite the detailed household and animal related laws and ordinances found in the Levitical law, cats are remarkable in their lack of mention. Some suggest that this is due to their absence in the camp of Israel. However, as seen above, their presence could reasonably be inferred after the nation’s departure from Egypt.  These interpretations point to laws about touching dead animals, some of which could be cats, and some of which could be dead mice left at the front door. It seems more likely that they simply didn’t make it as far as Sinai (see Herding Cats and Hebraicism by N. O. T. Wright et al).

 

March 14, 2022

On the Ignoring and Smothering of Church Visitors

Once upon a time, evangelical church services, usually during the announcements, would include the question, “Are there any first-time visitors, today?”

Some folks would sheepishly stand and then (horror of horrors) be asked to say their name, and perhaps where they were from.

Given the stress people might feel getting up to speak in a room full of strangers, and in the name of being “seeker sensitive,” this practice was scrapped in the 1980s, along with the practice of making them wear a sticker that said “VISITOR” as you might in a hospital or a factory. (Going public wasn’t entirely without its blessings however; given the right church you might get a gift bag with a church coffee mug and a copy of the pastor’s latest book.)

Instead today, we have the practice where visitors can attend our churches with complete anonymity, but then, in churches of over 300 adults in attendance, they leave not having had anyone speak to them at all, for the simple reason that in today’s larger churches everyone figures that someone they don’t recognize is simply someone who has been there before — which is sometimes true — but they simply haven’t met or noticed them before. (Interesting that it moves from not wanting to embarrass visitors to longtime church members not wanting to embarrass themselves.)

After hanging around for five to ten minutes, and perhaps even taking a self-guided tour, many first time visitors eventually give up.

So tell me… how is this an improvement over the way things were?

Many times I’ve heard people say, “I visited that church and nobody spoke to me.” Or the one that really got to me, “The three of us went for three weeks and afterwards stood in a spot by the wall in the lobby smiling, just to see who would be friendly and initiate conversation, and for three weeks, nobody said a word.”

They moved on, as they should have.

Part of this is simply a liability of larger churches. Note that I said “over 300 adults in attendance.” It wouldn’t happen in a church of 50. I can’t see it taking place in a church of 100 adults. I still think it’s remote in a church of 150.

Conclusion: Even as the evangelical megachurch dominates the conversation, there’s something to be said for the smaller church communities (under 100 adults regularly attending) which before the pandemic made up over 25% of U.S. churches and nearly half of Canadian churches. Furthermore, I’d propose that maybe the fallout effects of the pandemic won’t be entirely all bad.

March 12, 2022

Some Evangelicals Never Thought They’d Be Under the Mircoscope

In May of 2011, I posted the following picture in an article titled, “Christians Everywhere, Meet Your Spokesmen.”

For the record, that’s Harold Camping, Terry Jones and Fred Phelps

The point that day had more to do with men in gray suits. Others would quickly want to add Pat Robertson or Jack Van Impe. Non-Reformers aren’t too impressed with John Piper, either.

In 2018, I wrote that “as each of these exits the world stage, as we all will do, it seems disappointing when new ones step up to replace them. Some don’t really fit the suit — and these are invariably males — but the effect is the same. Others are so young, but are already on a clear trajectory for crazy uncle status… Others are so called “watchdogs” like the self-righteous, Pharisaical Chris Rosbrough. Others, like Ed Stetzer enjoy a measure of acceptability within a large denomination such that people miss how totally obnoxious and self-absorbed they truly are.

I went on to mention John MacArthur sidekick Phil Johnson, and “the snarky, sarcastic, caustic, infantile attitudes of the guys on the Happy Rant Podcast.” And I didn’t forget J.D. Hall.

Fast forward to 2022, and Robertson is in semi-retirement, and many wish MacArthur would follow suit. But Piper still pops in and out of our Twitter feed, directly or indirectly.

Alongside this we have this interesting phenomenon where books like Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes DuMez, and The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr are part of everyday conversations by rank and file church parishioners, at the same time as church abuse survivor stories find a greater audience and are received as having greater credibility.

It was in reference to the two above-mentioned books that I read something online that I wish I could provide the reference for; but I need to forge ahead and repeat it here as best I can. The gist of was that many Evangelical church leaders never dreamed that their actions would be the object of academic and scholarly study. To say it differently, they never considered that things they did one or more decades ago would be placed under the microscope and closely examined by so many for so long.

Regardless of how they viewed their actions, church historians and sociologists and journalists are now casting their gaze back over years and years of trends in Evangelical thought and saying, ‘Here is what was actually happening.’ Yes, they have the benefit of hindsight, but that is exactly a key aspect to the historical method.

There’s a news radio station in a nearby city that had a tag line, “Read it tomorrow, see it tonight, hear about it now.” The reference was to sourcing our news through newspapers, television news, and radio. Going the other direction on the spectrum, we find the weekly news magazines like Time, the year-in-review publications, and finally, at the farthest end, the history books.

Many of the things that Evangelical leaders have said and done were probably, in their own minds, things which would be on the minds of people today, tonight and tomorrow. And no longer. Politicians have known for years how people tend to forget. But the radio station tag line might reached back to “Consider it next week,” and ultimately, “Analyze it in ten to twenty years.”

Which is where we find ourselves. The men in suits — maybe not just the ones in the picture above, but the ones in the books I mentioned (and many other books) — did not realize they were shaping a greater movement (or sub-movement) within the Church and the true nature of the legacy they were leaving.

To some extent, many of us went along with it. We bought the Focus on the Family resources and found them helpful in raising our children, never considering the possibility that the jury, which seemed to be out for a long time, might return a different verdict on the impacts of purity balls and homeschooling in general. We adored the charismatic nature and speaking ability of pastors like James MacDonald and bought our tickets never realizing where the ride was taking us, and him. We bought the Left Behind books and watched the movies without a thought that the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine is absolutely nowhere to be found in Christian writing prior to 1870, because we found great comfort in an eschatology that gets us the heck out of here.

But the time for reflection and analysis is here.

…Don’t beat yourself up over any peripheral involvement you may have had with days of Evangelical zeal. Don’t imagine yourself going back to tell your 30-years-younger self something, because that version of you would not have understood what you were saying. Or recognized you as you.

At the same time though, realize that one thing did, as the proverb says, lead to another, and if you can still reflect on those ‘glory days’ fondly, without any regrets, then you have missed out on the blessing of being a thinking Christian, of being self-aware of where you stand (as we all do) at the intersection of faith and culture.

 

February 28, 2022

You Say You Want a Revolution

Review: The Jesus Revolution: How God Transformed an Unlikely Generation and How He Can Do It Again Today by Greg Laurie and Ellen Vaughn (Baker Books, 2018)

You know you’re getting older when the people, places and events which were part of your spiritual formation become the object of historical retrospectives. Having watched The Jesus Music movie before Christmas, and then recently completed Jesus and John Wayne, it seemed fitting that the next book in my stack was The Jesus Revolution which actually isn’t a new book, but was released four years ago before inspiring a curriculum study exactly one year ago. I guess it completed a trilogy of reminiscence.

I spent a few blocks of time in southern California between 1979 and 1988 and was privileged to have access to some of the major creators of what, by that time, was becoming less known as Jesus Music and more known as Contemporary Christian Music or CCM. (I was once interviewed for the job of Assistant Editor for the magazine of the same name. When you’re from Canada in the early 1980s, you should never agree to a lunch interview in a Mexican restaurant.)

This book is really three things. First it’s the story of what was going on the world, especially the United States, in the 1960s and ’70s. There is much detail provided, and at times I wondered how much was truly necessary to the two other elements of the book named below, but for those who didn’t live it, it does provide a broad picture of the cultural and political climate that shaped teens and twenty-somethings growing up in those years.

Second, and more importantly, it’s the story of The Jesus People, albeit the American, Southern California version as similar cultural forces were transpiring in the UK as well as other parts of the U.S. Orange County, California was indeed the epicenter; ground zero of a movement that the author places in a line of revivals in American church history going back to the 1800s,

Finally, it is the story of Greg Laurie, the evangelist and founder of Harvest Church in Riverside, California, which begat the Harvest Crusades. With two authors carrying this story, I wondered if it would work, but the two voices speaking this story seem to weave in and out seamlessly. If the book’s subtitle implies that God used “an unlikely generation,” then certainly he used “an unlikely candidate” to reach a literally untold number of people with a straight forward evangelistic challenge.

The story is set in the past, but with the perspective of today’s developments and hindsight. The current spiritual and cultural climate break in to the story at odd times to wake the reader to the impact today of what happened then. To that end, the book is somewhat didactic when appropriate such as in this instance toward the end of the book,

God grants revival. He grants it to those who are humble enough to know they need it, those who have a certain desperate hunger for Him. Only out of self-despair — a helpless understanding of the reality of sin and one’s absolute inability to cure it — does anyone ever turn wholeheartedly to God. That desperation is sometimes hard to come by in American, because it is the opposite of self-sufficiency. In the U.S., many of live under the illusion that our needs are already met, that maybe God is an add-on to our already comfortable existence… People don’t seek God when they are comfortable. (pp 232-3)

I love that analysis and the observation that those long-haired hippies were desperate for God. This is key to the book’s short epilogue, which questions as to whether we will see a youth movement like the Jesus Revolution again.

One can surely hope.


Harvest Church continues to this day and is in no way related to Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago.

 

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