public library preaching

public library preaching

This past week, I preached – and I spent chunk of my Sunday sermon prep time in our local public library. One motive was mercenary: It’s summertime, the kids are home, and Teddy had been asking to go there.

Normally, I’d be doing that work in my university office, surrounded by commentaries and a trove of books I own and draw from regularly. I’m comfortable there, and the university library has even more commentaries just a few steps from my office.

But increasingly, I’ve wondered if that routine isn’t hurting my preaching.

One danger for speakers is that our illustrations start to come from all same places, over and over, for years on end, until we die or stop talking—which is basically the same thing. I’m guilty of that as much as anyone.

But last week, sitting there near the kids area during library story time, I sensed several benefits of what one might call “public library sermon prep.”

First, the folks seated around me came from a wider range of demographics than I would encounter in my usual prep spaces. And writing my sermon in their presence was a reminder to include them as my intended audience: the elderly couple reading the morning paper, the ESL group learning English, the kids and moms at story time, the homeless man by the magazines, a group of firemen and city employees meeting in the conference room, the grad student huddled over the DSM 5, and even the suspicious teenager googling “how to build a pipe bomb” on the library computer. If the bane of many sermons is that we speak to only one or two types of people, maybe crafting messages in such a diverse setting could help that. (On a related point, see here.)

Second, the library has a trove of magazines and periodicals that speak to our cultural moment—even if I wouldn’t want (and couldn’t afford) to subscribe to them myself. What’s more, these sources come from a variety of perspectives and biases—so you’re less prone to fall into the echo chamber of your choice. This is particularly important in a day and age in which it quickly becomes apparent which “silo” into which your preacher has algorithmically fallen.

Third, walking through the stacks filled with different genres and perspectives made me feel more creative—and it gave me ideas I wouldn’t have had before. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a steady diet of C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright (two of my favorites), but this week I also ended up with quotes or stories from Molly Shannon (yep, that Molly Shannon), Atul Gawande, and Paul Kalanthi.

All that to say, I’ve decided to take a big step in my vocation as a longtime academic / preacher: I’m getting a public library card. Teddy says I can’t use his anymore.


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psychic numbness

psychic numbness

This summer I slogged through the 25th anniversary edition of Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

The work was recommended by my brother-in-law, and was made more relevant by renewed concern over nuclear war after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s easy to see why Rhodes won accolades, though the 800+ pages contained more scientific minutia than this theologian could digest.

One of the more thought-provoking passages includes an observation on how civilized and ostensibly Christian allied powers got to the point of indiscriminately fire-bombing enemy cities—and eventually dropping atomic bombs on civilians.

After harrowing first-person accounts of the Feuersturm in Hamburg, where at least 45,000 people (mostly old people, women, and children) were killed in a single night, Rhodes writes:

“Civilians had the misfortune to be the only victims left available. […] No great philosophical effort was required to discover acceptable rationales. War begot psychic numbing in combatants and civilians alike; psychic numbing prepared the way for increasing escalation” (475; emphasis added).

Summation: War begets numbness. Numbness abets escalation.

My point here is not to say anything about the bombing campaigns of WW2. I’m well aware of the complexities that surrounded those decisions—and of the calculus of possible lives saved by avoiding invasion of the Japanese home islands. None of that is my direct concern.

Instead, Rhodes’ claim strikes me as insightful insofar as it may apply to other “escalations”— beyond firestorms, incendiary bombs, and even nuclear war.

His point is that cultures don’t transgress certain self-imposed / ethical “red lines” because smart people devise sufficient rational arguments. To the extent that such arguments exist they are more likely post facto rationalizations. In times of “war” (read: trauma, fear, and intense conflict), drivers of human behavior are more concussive than cerebral. And in this way, they are exacerbated by “psychic numbing.”

In both Old and New Testaments, the language of no longer having “ears to hear” and “hands to feel” sounds a bit like anesthetic state described by Rhodes. Thus, when Walter Brueggemann describes the function of prophetic witness, he often sets it in contrast not merely with error or idolatry, but with a kind of apathetic numbness.

In this sense, prophetic speech is not primarily concerned with making people feel badly—but with helping people feel rightly—in the midst of a culture that has numbed them to that which should strike them as unhealthy and destructive. “Worldliness,” in the words of my old professor, David Wells, “is anything that makes sin seem normal and righteousness seem strange.”

If that’s true, then one of the chief goals of preaching is not simply to point people to Jesus or to make valid observations about Scripture; it is also to break through “psychic numbness.”


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On ditching Facebook and reinvesting in this blog

On ditching Facebook and reinvesting in this blog

Uvalde did it.

I’ve felt for awhile that I’d be wise to step away from social media. But of course, I have excuses. For instance:

I write books. And publishers care about your online following. Will they still grant me contracts if I ditch socials?

What about my friends who live far away? How will I keep up with them?

And most germanely, what if I miss the world’s greatest meme?

But in the wake of so much political and cultural bickering, I’ve finally reached a tipping point—at least for the foreseeable future.

In the inimitable words of Alan Jacobs:

“I left Twitter because I watched people who spent a lot of time on there get stupider and stupider, and it finally occurred to me that I was probably getting stupider too. So after some reflection, I decided that I couldn’t afford to get any stupider.”

Same—but Facebook.

The danger in that comment is it may sound self-righteous—as if everyone doing the thing I stopped doing five seconds ago is foolish and immoral. I don’t feel that way. And this post isn’t a legalistic humble brag.

As I said, the digital aftermath of Uvalde (and a dozen other issues) pushed me to a breaking point. As a dad with four small kids in public school, my nation’s bi-monthly mass casualty events hit differently. It feels sometimes like it’s just a matter of time before I get a text—like the one I received a few years back—that reads: “Active shooter on campus. Shelter in place; this is not a drill!” Thankfully, that potential gunman was arrested before he made it to the school where I work. But the security alert remains as a reminder.

THE ENCORE

If the real-life tragedies are not enough, there are the invariable (and entirely predictable) “encores” on social media: laments, followed by outrage, followed by hot takes, followed by arguments, followed by memes. Repeat that process over a thousand contentious topics and you can sell a lot of ad revenue, mine a lot of data, and change nothing but your anxiety level.

ON KURT COBAIN AS ELEVATOR MUSIC

That’s why Uvalde did it.

If it were five years ago, I would have (1) thought about it for a day or two, (2) crafted a blog post, (3) had Brianna read it to ensure I wouldn’t get fired, and then (4) shared the post on social media. If my writing happened to be punchy or provocative enough, dozens of people would share it, a few thousand might read it, and if everything went just right I might have the privilege of adding to the very social media firestorm I’ve come to loathe.

When that happens—and it’s happened a few times for me—you realize what Kurt Cobain must have felt like to stand inside an elevator and hear an instrumental version of Smells like Teen Spirit wafting through the tiny speakers–played by Kenny G. It’s the sense that your work has been co-opted to contribute to the very thing it tried to demolish.

Hence, if you haven’t noticed, I don’t do that much anymore.

ON THE FUTURE OF THIS BLOG

I’ve been wondering, in fact, if I should shut down the blog. Or perhaps just write on topics that are less combustible—like books that only a tiny fraction of society will care about. But recently, I’ve considered another possibility:

What if I dedicated a year to rebuilding the blog and simply got off Facebook?

Because I like writing. I just hate “the encore” on social media.

(I won’t pretend that this approach is perfect. Maybe it’s no different from Cobain selling songs to Kenny G and then refusing to ride elevators.)

In any case, I’ve been off Facebook for about a month and I feel better.

There are a few hundred of you out there who subscribe to these posts and receive them via email. I appreciate that little group, and I wonder if I could develop it apart from the digital hellscape that is Zuckerberg’s outrage-boosting algorithm.

At some level, I need to write—for the simple reason that I need to think.

On that point, I relate to Saint Augustine who remarked later in life that people would never understand how much he changed his mind by writing. Composition doesn’t just convey one’s thoughts, it crystalizes and confounds them. Something emerges in the process. Writing is thinking. And thinking is sorely needed in an age that has become—in the words of Jonathan Haidt—uniquely stupid.

So here’s what I’m thinking:
• I’m ditching Facebook for the foreseeable future.
• I’m going to try to invest regularly in this blog.
• My posts will likely be shorter and less polished (not that they were ever particularly long and shiny), partly because I have two books in the works—and they take precedence.
• If you enjoy these posts, I invite you to subscribe by way of that green button on the homepage.
• They’re all free, and worth every penny.

Peace, ~Josh


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The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 1)

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: A Review (pt. 1)

How’d we get here?

That’s the question Carl Trueman tries to answer in his new book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Crossway, 2020).

The project’s origins involve Trueman’s curiosity over a now-common phrase which he claims would have baffled people like his late grandfather: “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.” How did we arrive at a point where this statement now seems not only common but–in some settings–impervious to criticism at the risk of punishment?

Since I just finished Trueman’s book, I thought I’d craft a quick review of it, noting both what I appreciated and where I might differ. (See guys, I do still have a blog! All it took was me catching COVID to write a new post!) This first installment is merely an overview of Trueman’s work. If you want my “hot takes” you’ll have to wait till part two.

THE BIG IDEA

The key claim of Rise and Triumph is that one cannot understand the modern revolution regarding sexuality without going deeper—to talk about the transformation of the modern view of “selfhood.”

While sex used to be something one did, it is now considered constitutive of identity in a way that is novel throughout human history. It is about who you are at your most primal level. Thus, the evolution of selfhood, not sexuality, is at the heart of Trueman’s historical survey.

Helpfully, Trueman simplifies his entire historical narrative with a three-step progression.

“The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must [finally] be politicized” (221).

The first move is traced through Rousseau and the Romantic poets. The second involves Freud with an assist from the authority of scientific verbiage after Darwin. And the third involves a look at Nietzsche, Marx, and their (post)modern inheritors.

I’m obviously skipping rather quickly past several hundred pages, but before I turn to my own takeaways (part two), a bit more context is in order.

TRUEMAN’S HELPERS

Trueman credits three philosophers for helping him to diagnose the pathologies inherent in the modern view of selfhood: Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, and Alasdair MacIntyre. The contributions of these thinkers are too complex to summarize in a brief post, but others are certainly correct to note that one of Trueman’s accomplishments is to distil and simplify key facets from these thinkers for an audience that may not have read them.

One of his central takeaways involves the triumph of the therapeutic impulse. This includes the mentality that inner psychological well-being (i.e., how a person feels) is every bit as important as damage done to a person’s physical body or property. Thus, Trueman:

“While earlier generations might have seen damage to body or property as the most serious categories of crime, a highly psychologized era will accord increasing importance to words as a means of oppression. And this represents a serious challenge to one of the foundations of liberal democracy: freedom of speech.”

“Once harm and oppression are regarded as being primarily psychological categories, freedom of speech then becomes part of the problem, not the solution, because words become potential weapons.”

This is just one insight that Trueman draws from his three philosophical helpers.

CONTEMPORARY CASE STUDIES

Lastly, Trueman seeks to root his history of ideas in some contemporary case studies that include the world of art (surrealism), the Supreme Court, pornography, pop music, and the addition of the “T” into the fragile alliance between feminism the LGBT+ movement. All this serves to keep the book from becoming too focused on key thinkers without any “bridges” (Trueman’s word) to popular culture.

CONCLUSION

It’s all too much to summarize here, but one last point now bears repeating: Trueman’s stated aim (regardless of whether he actually achieves it) is that the book be neither a lament nor a polemic—though it is abundantly clear that he has much to criticize. As he writes in the Introduction,

” … giving an accurate account of one’s opponents’ views, however obnoxious one may consider them to be, is vital, and never more so than in our age of cheap Twitter insults and casual slanders” (31).

His goal and tone are therefore somewhat different from the many popular level treatments of these subjects from so-called evangelical thought-leaders. (Most of those texts have some version of the word “woke” in the title.) As Trueman notes, a necessary precursor to engaging in these increasingly-polarized discussions is to understand a bit about the question that began this post:

How’d we get here?

(In part two I’ll share my own thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of Trueman’s history.)


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“Go, little book…!”

“Go, little book…!”

It’s a weird feeling to launch a book.

On the one hand, you’re afraid no one will read it. On the other, you’re afraid they will.

Unlike my prior books, which have focused exclusively on either Bible or theology, this one crosses boundaries. It is academic–but not heavily. It marries fiction with theology and cultural critique. It even lodges a qualified endorsement of a term that functions as a shame word in the academy: “speculation”–or what I call “faith seeking imagination.”

It is starkly critical of many currents within American evangelicalism; yet it also stubbornly refuses to defect from historic Christianity because of sheer embarrassment.

In other words, some will like it; others won’t.

That is as it should be. I hope it finds the audience that needs it. And specifically, I hope it finds those exhausted and disillusioned souls (like the “Eliza” character within the book) whose faith is hanging by a thread.

As I put it in the Introduction:

“The importance of what I define as ‘faith seeking imagination’ increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism. Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the ‘resounding gong[s]’ (1 Cor 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say ‘perhaps’.”

I’ll blog a bit more about the book in weeks to come, but for now I’ll end with the words of Robert Southey,

Go, little Book! From this my solitude
I cast thee on the Waters,–go thy ways:
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
The World will find thee after many days.
Be it with thee according to thy worth:
Go, little Book; in faith I send thee forth.

See here to purchase a copy of Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.

Or see here for the audio version (*not read by me…).

To learn more, here’s an old blog post that became the basis for Perhaps, several years ago.


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Raised for our justification

Raised for our justification

The cross stands near the center of Christian treatments of atonement—and rightly so.

Paul famously proclaims that he resolved to know nothing when he came preaching to the Corinthians except Christ, “and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

But the cross is hardly the only aspect of God’s saving work; thus Paul writes in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was

delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

Romans 4:25 NIV

In this short post, I want to focus on the last part of the verse.

RESURRECTING JUSTIFICATION

By definition, justification involves the declaration that one has been officially granted the status of “righteous” with regard to God’s covenant. In lay terms, it’s a bit like the pronouncement of “Not guilty!” handed down in court.

Unfortunately, while evangelicals often have some answer for how the cross connects to justification (usually involving some notion of penalty-bearing on our behalf), many accounts of how the resurrection fits in are either unsatisfying or missing altogether.

For this reason, N. T. Wright claims that

There seems to be something about the joining together of resurrection and justification which some of our Western traditions have failed to grasp.

Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 219

It’s not that evangelicals think the resurrection is unnecessary. We hear each Easter how if Christ had not been raised, we would still be stuck in our sins and to-be pitied for our misspent faith (1 Cor 15:17-18). It’s just that we rarely get around to addressing what exactly it means to say that Christ was raised “for our justification.”

GOOD ANSWERS TO DIFFERENT QUESTIONS

Instead of answering that question, accounts of the resurrection tend to run as follows:

Christ’s resurrection guarantees our own future resurrection.

True enough (1 Cor 15:20). But this doesn’t offer any explanation of how Jesus rising from the dead is connected to the declaration of us being righteous in the eyes of God.

Christ’s resurrection must be true, or our faith is based on a lie.

Also true. But if your only understanding of justification is that “Jesus paid it all,” then it isn’t clear why his resurrection is required.

After all, if someone paid my student loan debt by writing me into their will, it wouldn’t follow that their resurrection was also needed for my bill to be paid. In this scenario, a death is necessary, but resurrection isn’t.

So too in some evangelical treatments of atonement.

Christ’s resurrection is the vindication (or proof) that he is who he claimed to be, and that his work on the cross was effective.

Yep. But this point confuses the corroboration of atonement with the idea that the resurrection itself is necessary for our justification.

To use an imperfect analogy, that’s like assuming that the corroborating answers in the back of a math textbook are required for 2+2 to equal 4, or for your work in the front of the book to be accurate. (To be clear, I did need those answers—which is why I’m a theologian and not an engineer.)

If Paul had meant merely to highlight that resurrection vindicates Christ’s prior justifying work on our behalf, then he should have written Romans 4:25 differently.

In summary, each one of these answers is true. But each one also fails to explain how Christ was “raised for our justification.”

What is a better answer?

THE STATE OF OUR UNION

In a word, it has to do with “union” or “participation.”

For Paul, Christians have been raised up with Christ, and seated with him in heavenly realms (Eph 2:6) because we have been united with him in his death (Gal 2:20; Rom 6:5). Salvation therefore comes about by being “in Christ” by virtue of faith, as symbolized by baptism, and as brought about the uniting work of the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament highlights this saving union through a variety of metaphors—one of which is marriage. In this legal bond, the two become “one flesh” (Gen 2:24) so that what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine. “But I am talking,” Paul says to the Ephesians, “about Christ and the church” (5:32). Insofar as we have been bound-together by faith with Christ’s broken body, his death is our own death to sin (Rom 8:3; Gal 2:20), and his resurrection is itself our justification. The logic here, however foreign to modern individualists (see here), is that of union.

Sadly, if all we understand about atonement is a sort of penalty-exchange, then we will never know what to do with Romans 4:25, and we will never understand the importance of the resurrection.

(To be clear, I spent just shy of a hundred pages in The Mosaic of Atonement arguing for a particular version of the idea that Christ justly bears the penalty for human sin on our behalf. So I can’t be accused of rejecting that biblical reality.)

But thankfully, there is more to Jesus’ saving work than penalty-bearing.

In the view of Michael Bird, Christ’s resurrection is his “justification”—not because Christ was a sinner in need of saving—but because it is the official declaration that he is, in fact, righteous.

Likewise, Constantine Campbell is right to say that

Believers share in the vindication of Christ’s resurrection by dying and rising with him; they are declared righteous by virtue of their participation in these events.

The Hope of Glory, 338

Union with Christ provides the foundation on which the language of justification and penalty-bearing make sense.

And it explains why Paul can say that Christ was not only “delivered over to death for our sins,” but also “raised to life for our justification.”


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New book alert!

New book alert!

Big news!

I haven’t written about this on the blog yet, but my next book now has its own page, and its first endorsement on the IVP website (here).

I was honored to receive these words from Matthew Bates:

“Perhaps a meadow exists between dogmatism and skepticism, a fruitful space for cultivating beautiful truth. Perhaps Origen, Augustine, and Edwards can converse there with Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps instead of rehearsing or debunking information, we can foster theological imagination. Perhaps Joshua McNall’s wit and wisdom has pointed the church toward a better future. Perhaps we should listen.”

Matthew W. Bates, author of Gospel Allegiance and associate professor of theology at Quincy University

Matt’s endorsement captures well the spirit my project.

In so many ways, our culture feels held hostage by the fringes: the shrillest voices on the Left and Right. And as we turn to questions of faith, that same polarization leaves many driven toward one of two extremes: On one side stands a yawning chasm of secular doubt, and on the other sits an increasingly angry religious dogmatism.

I’m not the first person to note this trend, but I hope my book sparks something of a renewed (and more gracious) theological imagination between pervasive skepticism and abrasive certainty. That’s what Perhaps is about.

It’s a strange book, because its fuses disciplines that are normally kept safely separate: It’s part fiction, part theology, part apologetics, and part cultural analysis.

Still, the big idea is summed up in this line from N. T. Wright:

To believe in providence often means saying “perhaps.”

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Here’s a brief snapshot from my Introduction:

The importance of what I define as “faith seeking imagination” increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism.

Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the “resounding gong[s]” (1 Cor 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say “perhaps.”

From the Preface

I’ll have much more to say about the book in weeks to come, but if you’re interested, here’s a few things you can do to help as I approach the September launch date:

  • Pre-order. You can pre-order the book on Amazon (here), or on the InterVarsity Press site (here).
  • Join my newsletter (here): Full disclosure… I’ve been terrible at keeping up this newsletter, so if you signed up and wondered if something went wrong, it did: I got too busy. That said… I’ll be offering some special perks through that email list to interested readers. Thanks!
  • Pray. Pray that this book blesses the church and is used by God to speak not only to academics (it is lightly academic) but to college students and churchgoers who feel spiritually homeless.

Oh, and one more thing: The unsung hero of Perhaps is a seven-hundred-pound Galápagos tortoise, named Wilbur. He’s important for the plot, but he’s also dedicated to my 3 yr old son, Teddy Brian.

How’s that for a teaser?

Grace and peace.


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My Favorite Books of 2020

My Favorite Books of 2020

If there was a bright side of 2020, it was some extra time for reading amidst the homebound months of the pandemic.

Here are my favorites from the past year.

BIBLICAL STUDIES

Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020).

Who wouldn’t want a whole book on ancient Jewish views on genital discharges, corpses, and eczema-related skin conditions?

While the topic of ritual impurity may sound odd to some lay readers, Thiessen’s careful work sheds fresh light on Jesus’ ministry by showing how he upholds the Jewish Law and aligns himself against the forces of Death. In so doing, Jesus functions as a kind of “holy contagion” that removes impurity by healing its source.

See my prior blog post on the book (here), and look for my Outpost Theology interview with Matt to be released in January, 2021 (here).

THEOLOGY

Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Fortress, 2020).

My favorite theological works are rarely the ones I agree with most fully. And in this case, it’s not even a book I find intelligible at every turn.

In some places, understanding Sonderegger’s poetic prose and elusive argumentation is like trying to construct an elaborate piece of IKEA furniture by using a copy of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland as directions.

“Just so.”

Nonetheless, this book remains the most interesting piece of theology I’ve read this year. Sonderegger crafts beautiful, opaque, surprising, and biblically-attuned reflections that cut against long-held assumptions about where we should to look to find the Mystery of the Trinity. Surprisingly, she finds pointers toward the triune processions in the Old Testament, through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the sacrificial rituals of Israel.

FICTION

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (Random House, 1985).

Quite obviously, this book wasn’t written in 2020. But McCarthy’s dark, apocalyptic brooding fits well amidst the tone and tenor of this year. (Even if I technically started it in 2019 [see here].) Despite all the attention he rightfully receives for The Road, I think Blood Meridian is the work of greater genius.

McCarthy explores the rough edges of human depravity by mining (and expanding) violent events that actually transpired near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. Alongside shimmering descriptions of the desert landscape, the high point of the novel is the way McCarthy’s villain (the Judge) becomes a rumination on what Scripture calls “the Satan.”

Someday, when I am allowed to teach a combination literature and theology course on “atheist prophets,” this book will make the syllabus.

SCIENCE AND MEDICINE

Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it Changed the World (Hachette, 2017).

If you want some perspective on our present pandemic, try going back a hundred years via Spinney’s treatment of the Spanish Flu. As I’ve noted previously (here), Spinney’s work in scientific history reminds us that pandemics are social phenomena as well as medical ones, and while history doesn’t technically repeat itself (Thank God), it does rhyme in all sorts of interesting ways.

BIOGRAPHY

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2005).

I’m tempted to feel embarrassed by this one: First, because I’m late to the party; and second, because I read it after watching the musical more times than I can count with my four young children. (Don’t criticize my parenting.)

Still, Hamilton’s story is so improbable, and so well told by Chernow, that it stands on its own merits, even amid all the hype of the musical.

Especially in 2020, when America’s political fortunes lurched daily toward the abyss, Hamilton reminds us why the Experiment is worth protecting. This book made me care about our beautiful and broken country, though the daily news cycle often made me feel ashamed.

HISTORY

S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010).

Despite residing in Oklahoma, I’ve been mostly ignorant of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, and one of the more remarkable figures in the American West. Until this book.

Born to a famous White captive (Cynthia Ann Parker), Quanah bridges the gap both genetically and temporally between the old world of Comanche warriors, and the new world that was coming. (In some ways, this history book was the real-world doppelgänger of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but with the Native American narrative taking precedence.)

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the way it refused to fall into either of the two simplistic tropes regarding Native American warriors. The Comanches are detailed both in their nobility and bravery, and in terms of their horrific brutality, displayed especially in their attacks upon other Native American tribes across centuries.

If you haven’t read this one, pick it up.

CHURCH AND CULTURE

Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic, 2020).

This year saw a number of books on racial justice shoot up the bestseller lists. And rightfully so. But McCaulley’s text is different in several ways.

Reading While Black is not a “Dear White people” book that attempts to explain the African American experience to outsiders. It is more a love letter to the Bible that has sustained the Black community through years of injustice, even while that same Holy Book was often used against Black Christians.

McCaulley reveals a tradition of African American exegesis that refuses to be weaponized or tokenized by EITHER White Conservatism or White Liberalism—and in that way, it has a prophetic word for all of us.

Listen to my interview with Esau (here) and pick up the book.

PREMODERN, PRIMARY SOURCES

Origen, On First Principles, A Reader’s Edition, trans. John Behr (Oxford, 2019).

Premodern texts often get left out of these lists. My favorite for the year is John Behr’s fantastic new translation of Origen’s On First Principles (Even if I couldn’t afford the two-volume critical edition).

The translation reads far easier than many other treatises from the period, and while Origen has often been derided and dismissed by orthodox theologians, a careful reading of On First Principles reveals a mind that is enraptured with Scripture, with God’s loving justice, and with questions that still plague us today–even if not all his conclusions are to be followed.

(Look for a section on Origen in my forthcoming book on the place of imaginative speculation in theology.)

Here’s hoping 2021 has even more time to read, but for different reasons.


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Pale Rider

Pale Rider

“Wars and plagues are remembered differently.”

That’s one of the closing insights from Laura Spinney’s book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.

I read it recently to gain some perspective on COVID-19, and the upheaval that has accompanied it in 2020. (Quick note: Since Spinney’s book was published in 2017, it cannot be accused of rewriting history to provide commentary on our present crisis.)

Without a doubt, the two outbreaks—separated by a hundred years—are different. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people. And its occurrence on the heels of World War I made it a perfect storm of death and dissolution. In some cases, the flu finished off victims who were malnourished, riddled with tuberculosis, and without what we think of now as modern medicine.

The Spanish Flu also had a terrible “W-shaped” mortality curve, whereby it killed not only the very old and very young, but also a startling number of healthy young adults (28 years old was the peak of this curve, which may have something to do with the first flu virus these individuals were exposed to as children).

Undoubtedly, the two pandemics are not the same.

But there is something to be learned from the way history sometimes rhymes.

  1. Pandemics are social phenomena as much as medical ones

What Spinney means by this point is that the tumult caused by a plague goes far beyond the disease itself. Our ideologies show symptoms too.

And conspiracy theories spread as fast as the virus (see here).

In 1918, the Plandemic brain-worm took the form of a rumor that the Spanish Flu was manufactured by the German drug company Bayer—and distributed to Allied nations by way of aspirin packets.

In Washington D.C., newspapers printed the claim of Lieutenant Philip S. Dane, head of health and sanitation, when he asserted that the Germans had deliberately sown the flu in America to defeat us.

This was false, in part, because the leading theory now is that the Spanish Flu started near Fort Riley, Kansas. Patient zero was a corn-fed farm kid named Albert Gitchell who may have contracted the pestilence when it jumped from a duck, to a pig, to a human.

a God-fearing boy who had grown up on a farm and known no other life, unwittingly carried the virus into the American war machine, whence it was exported to the rest of the world (164).

  1. Masks and kids and empty stadiums

Like today, there was some controversy over use of masks in 1918.

In select cities, mask use probably cut the death toll in half. But the mayor of San Francisco faced a PR nightmare in 1918 when he was caught on camera with his mask dangling from one ear while watching an Armistice parade.

Some Christian ministers, like Father Bandeaux of New Orleans, protested the closing of churches in 1918. And in one case, packed worship services were held wherein dozens of parishioners were invited to come forward and kiss a single holy relic—the kiss of death, in some cases.

Footballers played to empty stadiums. And there was a bitter debate over whether children should return to school. New York’s health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, was lambasted for allowing public education to continue, only to be vindicated when the flu was practically absent from the city’s school-age children that fall.

  1. Presidents, the poor, and pieces of a lung

In an echo of 2020, President Woodrow Wilson came down with a severe case of the flu while negotiating what became the treaty of Versailles. He raved with delirium and was, by some accounts, never the same after surviving it.

The president’s illness may have contributed to the disastrously harsh nature of the treaty. Apparently, Wilson’s sickness rendered him unable to fight for a more merciful arrangement (which he wanted), and which might have prevented the bitter rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like in 2020, the poor were hit hardest. The death rate was lowest in developed countries like the United States and Australia. It was worst amongst populations that lacked proper sanitation, housing, water, and healthy food supplies.

In India alone, around 15 million people died.

Ninety percent of folks who got the Spanish flu experienced nothing worse than a bout of seasonal influenza—but in poor regions, and especially amongst indigenous populations like the Inuit of Alaska, the result was much worse. Entire villages were wiped out.

In one of these Alaskan mass graves, a San Francisco doctor embarked, in the 1990s, upon a controversial mission. He exhumed a body of a flu victim from the permafrost, packaged up her mostly frozen lung tissue, and shipped it off to researchers. Scientists then combined its genetic information with a lung sample from British soldier to resurrect the Spanish Flu.

After almost a century of lying frozen and dormant, the Spanish Flu is now alive and well in the CDC’s Level Four lab in Atlanta, Georgia.

CONCLUSION

What is the point of reading histories like Spinney’s Pale Rider?

One benefit is perspective. In the age of social media and Cable News myopia, we are beset by “presentism”—that’s Alan Jacobs’ word for what it means to drown in a deluge of constantly breaking information. Because there is SO MUCH information, many people commit an act of intellectual triage whereby we accept only those stories that confirm our pre-existing biases.

We are thus left in our silos of tribalism, anxiety, and the prison of the present tense.

History can’t solve all those problems, but it can grant perspective.

Wars and plagues are remembered differently.

So while six times as many Britons died of the Spanish Flu than in the trenches—we are only now beginning to read books like Pale Rider.


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Watching from the corner

Watching from the corner

Liberty University needs a new Board, not just a new President.

Despite appearances, this is NOT a post about the allegations of what Jerry Falwell did to witness and participate in a sordid affair between his wife and a former pool boy.

Instead, this is a post about what the Liberty board of trustees did for years in the face of Falwell’s other disqualifying actions.

Because those actions (Jerry’s and the board’s) are actually much the same.

The board at Liberty (or at least some members) did exactly what Jerry Jr. is now accused of doing: They sat and watched—for years—from the corner of the room, and they participated in sinful and degrading behavior by their acquiescent presence.

The Liberty board has long had a front row seat to Falwell’s racist comments, rude behavior, shameful tweets, authoritarian leadership, political partisanship, late night clubbing, and shady business dealings–long before the latest bombshell.

The board watched for years as the reputations of Christ and their university were ravaged many times before this week. And while some board members surely had misgivings, the board as a whole did nothing definitive to stop it.

They watched.

So their sin is not unlike Falwell’s; it’s just less titillating.

For that reason, it’s not just Falwell that should go.

A NEW BOARD, NOT JUST A NEW PRESIDENT

As a professor in Christian higher education, I realize the relationship between a board and a university can be complicated. It is not the job of the trustees to micromanage an institution. And no single board member can oust a president—especially one as powerful and nepotisticly-connected as Jerry Falwell Jr.

Still, at what point during years of bad behavior should the Liberty board have stepped in?

At what point should the board have gotten out of their collective “corner” to stop a pattern that was happening in public long before Jerry posed and posted a photo with his pants unzipped?

Perhaps some tried. I know for a fact there are excellent people at Liberty University, especially amongst the faculty, staff, and students. Unfortunately, those people have had no power to change the university’s president. That authority resides only with the board.

WHEN WATCHING IS PARTICIPATING

This point brings up a broader problem that is relevant for all of us. It has to do with how sin, power, and the idol of “proximity” often collude in broken institutions.

Humans crave influence. And we tend to see that influence as magnified by our proximity to power. So when Christian leaders show themselves to be corrupt and un-Christlike, those called to hold them accountable face a difficult choice.

If they speak up, they could lose “proximity” and “influence.” Hence, the easy path is to rationalize one’s silent “watching” as if that does not make one part of the whole sordid affair.

CONCLUSION

That’s why a new president won’t fix Liberty. Only God can do that–and that same God can even redeem the Falwells. No one is beyond hope.

But for Liberty University, a crucial further step is this: Every board member that did not speak up against Falwell’s other disqualifying actions should also be replaced. And their replacements should come from the ranks of those who were brave enough to speak truth to power long before this week.

If Falwell’s latest scandal teaches anything, it’s that silently watching from the corner can itself be a form of complicit participation.


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