The New Odyssey (Kingsley)

The New Odyssey

Patrick Kingsley, The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis 

New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017

Reviewed by Dale Pauls

Sometimes a book comes along that indelibly captures one of the great issues of our time. So it is with Patrick Kingsley’s The New Odyssey. Kingsley is the inaugural migration correspondent for the cutting-edge British newspaper, The Guardian. As he writes he consciously conjures up the ghost of Virgil creating his Aeneid. No, it’s not epic poetry, but it is a heartfelt, soulful account of the epic journey of millions of refugees today crossing the same wine-dark sea.

The Gist 

In this brilliantly constructed book, Kingsley covers the 2012 – 2015 odyssey of a former Syrian civil servant, Hashem al-Souki, as he and his family flee Assad’s dystopian Syria, find themselves adrift in Egypt (as one regime replaces another), and end up at the cold mercy of mercenary smugglers with the vast Mediterranean seemingly their only escape from the chaotic Middle East. Hashem, facing such danger, must leave his wife and three young sons behind, risk drowning himself at sea on boats beyond overcrowded, and then heroically limp his way across Europe in hope against all odds of some kind of asylum and family reunification in Sweden. Sweden? Well, yes, in 2015 Sweden is one of the few humanitarian nations left in Europe or for that matter in the world. But on his unlikely arrival, a right-wing opposition party forces the government to reconsider its commitments to refugees. And once again all bets are off.

Hashem’s story is riveting. But that’s half the book. In fact, it’s every other chapter. In the chapters in between, Kingsley broadens our perspective to see the plight of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Sudan, West Africa, northern Nigeria and the darkly despotic little nation of Eritrea. We follow them as paid smugglers extort, exploit, and maybe escort them across the deadly Sahara or as they flee the Taliban on foot and then sometimes walk across the deserts, mountains, and plains of Iran and then Turkey until they find inflatables to risk it all again in dark night passage to some Greek isle. (Who can forget the iconic image of Alan Kurdi’s little body washed up on a Turkish shore?) And then the European travails begin, strangers on foot, often penniless, their fate entrusted to strangers, at constant risk from border guards and bandits, desperately seeking safety, wives often pregnant, toddlers on their father’s shoulders, even grandparents in wheel chairs. And you realize something. You realize none of these people would be out there if they knew of any other options left for survival.

What Stuck

Most readers will have no idea how truly dreadful life is in so many places on our little planet. Take Eritrea on the Horn of Africa whose monstrous president, Isaias Afwerki, has consigned most of his nation to serfdom for life. In fact, the main reasons for the refugee crisis are the wars and dictators who drive people from their homes. And those who continue to arm the warring factions in these troubled lands are complicit; they fuel wars that left to their own would have come to a natural end some time ago. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria.

And always for these refugees there are these complex life-and-death choices for which they’re completely unprepared. How does it feel to be Hashem risking it all every day on uncertain morsels of information, on rumor and gossip, never really knowing whether the decisions he is making are right – always knowing that with his next move he might just blow it all?

But what sticks most is that the refugees will keep coming. Their desperation will prove stronger than our momentary feelings of ill ease and anxiety. Build a wall. They’ll find another crossing. In days. And one day we may see that the only real way to keep them out is to mow them down but then of course it will be our own humanity we have lost.

Representative Quote(s)

Some of the screams are in Arabic, some not. There are people from across Africa here, others from across the Middle East. There are Palestinians, Sudanese and Somalian. And Syrian, like Hashem. They want to get to northern Europe: Sweden, Germany or anywhere that offers them a better future than their collapsed homelands. For that distant hope they are risking this boat trip to the Italian coast. All being well, they should reach Italy in five or six days. But, for now, Hashem doesn’t know if he’ll survive the night. Or if anyone will.

An hour passes. They reach a second boat, a bigger one, and then a third, bigger still. At each new vessel, the smugglers toss them over the side like bags of potatoes. Now they have a bit more space, but they’re soaked. They had to wade through the waves to get to the dinghy, and the second boat was full of water. Their clothes drenched, they shiver. And they retch. The person squeezed to his left pukes all over Hashem. Then Hashem pays the favor forward, spewing all over the person to his right. He looks up, and realizes everyone’s at it; everyone’s clothes are caked in other people’s vomit. Each has paid more than $2000 to spew over fellow refugees. (3-4, how the book begins)

Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators on the one hand, and on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice. (72)

This man’s own story is instructive of why people trust the sea more than the lands they’re coming from. He’s a former army officer from Syria who fled to Egypt in the early days of the 2011 uprising, after he refused to kill unarmed protesters. Because of this, he’s still a wanted man; assassins tried to kill him in Cairo not long after he arrived. Back at home, the Syrian state won’t give his mother the cancer treatment she needs – all because he’s her son. As a result, he’s asked to be identified here only by the nickname of Abu Jana, which means “Jana’s dad”. .. Abu Jana is now at risk of being deported to his death. “Why do we keep going by sea?” Abu Jana asks me. “Because we trust God’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.” (127-128)

Tibor Varga [a priest in northern Serbia who helps refugees] has an interesting take on this irony. … Europe, he says, is frightened that an influx of foreigners will erode European values. But what values will there be to uphold if we abandon our duty to protect those less fortunate than ourselves? (230)


When Kingsley turns to solutions to this crisis, he of course invites debate. Though on this he’s right: It will take coordinated trans-national approaches. The world cannot leave this to Germany and Sweden.

So if the bookshelf is a preacher’s, this book belongs. Or on the night table of anyone who seeks to follow Jesus today. Thus we have made the world. In the words of the British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire (cited by Kingsley)

You have to understand,

That no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land. (“Home”)

The human story is the story of movement. And as climate change intensifies, millions more, ever more desperate, will move. The sooner we realize the inevitable, the sooner we can organize to save. This is the issue of our times. And how our hearts and minds respond to this – do they open or close? – determines not only the fate of millions but our own fate as well. To spare ourselves this “inconvenience,” to keep our lives tidy, we’ll do the darndest, darkest things ourselves. And maybe lose our souls.


Faithful Presence (Fitch)

Faithful Presence

David E. Fitch, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission

Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press 2016

Back in graduate school I had a heated debate with a friend in a class on ecclesiology (a class on the church) about the responsibility of the church to the outside world. Like any graduate school debate neither of us actually knew what we were talking about, but I took the position that the church needs to focus on getting its own life together in order to be of any real value to the world (Ostensibly my friend argued the opposite of that position). According to David E. Fitch’s book Faithful Presence, it turns out I was right! Except he actually knows what he’s talking about.

The Gist

Faithful Presence is a book about the church and how it can be “the church” in meaningful, practical, contextual ways. Fitch sees the same world we all see: dwindling congregations, fragmented sense of community, isolated and inauthentic discipleship. His response is embodied in his operative concept: “Faithful Presence.” For Fitch, the presence of people participates in, mediates, and reveals the presence of God. The church can be “the church” when it learns to be present with God and one another.

Fitch provides a helpful model for thinking about how this works. He thinks of the church as existing simultaneously in three kinds of circles: a close(d) circle, a dotted circle, and a half circle. The close(d) circle represents the communal, insider life of the local church constituted by Christians who have committed themselves to Christ. The dotted circle is porous (hence the dots) and represents the common life among Christians outside of the church that may (or should) include others in a participatory sort of way. The half circle represents the common, public world in which Christians live and work and play alongside everyone else. In this last circle Christians witness to Christ as a guest who listens, receives, learns, and reveals, often through the nature of their receptive and humble presence alone, the God who lives and moves among us. The movement of these circles is from establishing the basis of our life together in the church, concretizing and living it out in practical ways outside of the church, and extending that life as a witness to God in every other circumstance.

The book lays out this big picture perspective on “faithful presence” in the first two chapters and then continues with a meaty seven chapter section outlining seven disciplines, drawn from Jesus’s life and teachings, that place presence at the center of Christian life. Fitch also helpfully outlines how each discipline looks within these three circles.

What Stuck

There are a couple of operative convictions I see at work in this book. The first is the sincere conviction that God is at work in the world in a redemptive mode. The world is not what it is supposed to be, and the meaning of the salvation at stake in Jesus Christ is the realization of the created order as the Kingdom of justice and peace and joy. If you think that Christianity is simply a group of people who agree on a minimal set of doctrines and whose task is to get other people to agree with them, then you won’t understand this book. For Fitch, church at its best is that community in which God’s presence is seen and discerned. The presence Fitch speaks of, however, is not simply a sign of God’s approval or sanction; it is the manifestation of redemptive love that transforms us into people who truly reflect his image and likeness. So for God to be present in the church and in the lives of Christians and in the social worlds beyond is for God to be at the work of redemptive transformation—and a call for us to get on the same page.

The second conviction is that presence is absolutely central to genuine and faithful Christian community. This is not just a response to an age of increasing isolation, fueled by technology and hyper individualism. It is a sacramental view of human beings, and the material reality of our bodies. Something sacred happens when we are physically present with one another. While we might not entirely discount digital forms of community like social media, we cannot deny the deeper level of communication and relationship found in the actual presence of others. Presence is holy. If God is present with us, then our presence with others radiates God’s presence.

Representative Quote(s)

Does the church have anything to offer a world full of injustice? Can the church reach out to the worlds around me in a way that doesn’t judge them, alienate them, or ask them in some way to come to us? Can the church engage the hurting, the poor, and the broken with something more than just handouts? We have seen the programs, the missional church, the justice teams, the church in a coffee house or a bar, and nothing seems to change. Can’t we do all of this better without the church?

In this book I propose to answer these questions with the phrase, faithful presence.

Faithful presence names the reality that God is present in the world and that he uses a people faithful to his presence to make himself concrete and real amid the world’s struggles and pain. (10)

There is a danger in thinking about the church as the number that meets only at the Sunday gathering. When we separate what happens in the close-circle gathering from the rest of life, we inevitably focus on doing the disciplines correctly, smoothly, professionally, and conveniently. We focus on maintaining and growing the close circle. In the process we get cut off from engaging the surrounding neighborhoods of God’s presence. (41)


This is a book about the church. But along the way it is also about the church’s witness to the world; its evangelism. As someone a little unenthusiastic about traditional evangelism, this book is both encouraging and challenging. It is encouraging to think with Fitch about what it might mean to extend the embodiment of God in our own bodies to others. There is hope in that thought for a more authentic and meaningful life among one another, not to mention an outreach to people and the local community. Fitch challenges us, at the same time, to own the reality of God’s kingdom. The theological world we enact in our close circle at church is the same world we witness to in our homes and communities and beyond. This is a kingdom of hope and promise, of justice and peace, of healing and reconciliation; or at the very least that is headed in that direction. That is something worth discerning in everyone’s lives regardless of whether they attend our church—that is the practice of faithful presence.

The Great Spiritual Migration (McLaren)

Spiritual Migration

Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion Is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian

New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2016


Dale Pauls is the Minister Emeritus at the Stamford Church of Christ and will be a regular co-author at this blog. He not only brings a fresh voice and perspective, but also many new and different books that are on his shelf that aren’t (yet) on mine!


Brian McLaren is one of my favorite Christian thinkers and writers. For years his A New Kind of Christian trilogy has shaped my theology and ministry. But with his The Great Spiritual Migration McLaren’s vision attains new clarity. He describes a worldwide church in historic spiritual transition. It may in some ways seem like decline, but the Spirit of God is once again moving over the deep calling us to a deeper aliveness, yes, breaking down imprisoning forms but only so as to release a worldwide movement that in the spirit of Christ will work for the common good of all. It’s a good book. It’s a readable book suitable for all ages from late teens on. And it’s good all the way through its appendices and endnotes. Its endnotes, in fact, are filled with bibliographic treasures of contemporary spirituality.

The Gist

So here’s what’s happening, McLaren observes a global movement within Christianity focused now on a way of life more than a system of beliefs, inspired by a nonviolent God of liberation rather than a violent God of domination, and turning away from organized religion to organizing religion, religion organizing not for purposes of self-preservation but so that people everywhere might live more sustainable, flourishing lives.

In charting this migration (a word that well captures the human experience for so many in our times) McLaren covers a lot of ground. He challenges sacrifice-appeasement understandings of faith. He shares his own personal sojourn toward LGBT inclusion. He tracks the too often genocidal history of white Christian nations, radically rejecting dominating supremacy in all its forms. He maps out our developing conceptions of God from the most elementary to the most expansive, reminding us that a religion of the “exclusive we” must for the sake of world survival mature into a religion of the “inclusive we.” He shows us the difference between literal and literary readings of Scripture and how our quest for meaning is advanced best through such literary readings. And in tracing this he explains clearly Paul Ricoeur’s notion of a second naïveté, of how it is that we grow in both faith and knowledge as we move from precritical to critical to postcritical readings of Scripture. This all may seem highly theological, but it’s not far removed from Jesus’ “Unless you change and become like little children.” And so McLaren illuminates how it is that God emerges through the multiplicity of biblical voices as an ever luminous, life-giving, healing, liberating Presence.

McLaren covers all this and more. He spotlights theologians from around the world who are contributing to this transformative understanding of God and faith. He gives us a valuable primer in social movement theory. He challenges our destructive, suicidal economy. But through it all he’s directing us to something unbelievably simple.

What Stuck

Not too far into the book McLaren tells of leaving ministry for full-time teaching and writing. And he found it an interesting experience just sitting in a pew listening. He found that what he needed as a member was different than what had preoccupied him as a pastor, that he didn’t need clever sermons or a certain style of music. He didn’t need a church that was “cool” or contemporary, or big or small. And he certainly didn’t need a church whose primary goal was to police his belief system. Instead what he needed was a church that would help him live a life of love. That’s it. And the more he thought about it the more sure he was that’s what Jesus had been teaching all along. And he began to wonder what would happen if everyone knew that certain churches were just that – schools where love is learned and where theology, liturgy, curriculum and mission are dedicated to this end.

Just imagine, McLaren asks, what it would be like if people knew of churches that help people live a life of love. That’s what they do. And they don’t say or do anything that draws them away from doing this. So the question becomes, “What do we do in this place?’ and the answer is, “We learn to live a life of love.” Or the question comes, “What is your church like?” and the answer is, “It’s a place that helps us live a life of love.”

So many people are giving up on organized religion, but what might they do if found religion organizing around this simple idea – learning to live a life of love?

Representative Quote(s)

These skills include common courtesies, gratitude, admitting weaknesses and failures, self-reporting emotions, expressing hurt or disappointment, confronting and forgiving, asking for help, differing graciously, surfacing and negotiating competing desires, taking the first step to resolve conflicts, upholding wise boundaries, saying yes and no, winning and losing graciously, creating win-win outcomes, speaking truth in love, speaking truth to power, asking good questions, requesting feedback, expressing affection, opening one’s heart, giving gifts, and seeking wise counsel. (58)

Church leaders developing love curricula will ask questions like these: What does a loving person look like in today’s world? How does love manifest differently in different personality types, different cultures, different economies, different political systems, and at different stages in life? How do parents teach their children the habits, skills, and practices of love? What love lessons are appropriate for toddlers, young children, preteens, teenagers, young adults, engaged couples, married couples, young parents, parents of teens, parents of adults, grandparents, widows and widowers? … What music, rituals, prayers, creeds, and daily contemplative and other spiritual practices would contribute to the development of loving people? When people wander from the ways of love, how do we most effectively bring them back? (242)


It’s not often that you read a book that cuts through the clashing paradigms of one’s life to one undeniable simple truth, but McLaren does it here with the statement: Churches must be places where we together learn how to live a life of love. And everything we do from theology to liturgy to curriculum to mission to fellowship should be directed to churches as studios, dojos, schools of love, churches as schools where in light of God as revealed through Jesus love is learned.

Image the possibilities.

– Dale Pauls




Uncommon Prayer (Plekon)

Uncommon Prayer

Michael Plekon, Uncommon Prayer: Prayer in Everyday Experience

Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2016.

I grew up in a tradition that emphasized the need for impromptu prayers “from the heart.” That’s a nice way of putting it. The only prayer that counted was closing your eyes and talking to God with the predictable bookend formula “Dear God…in Jesus’s name, amen.” That’s what we meant. This made it particularly difficult to make sense of the phrase, “pray always/pray continuously” (1 Thess. 5:16). Our ship ran aground on a phrase like that. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of pouring one’s heart out to God, but to also think of prayer beyond the one-sided reverent conversation I send out from my head and ‘heart’ into oblivion. Michael Plekon’s book Uncommon Prayer seeks to make sense of prayer beyond the explicit traditional forms we are accustomed to in private or done in public worship.

The Gist

I’ve always enjoyed reading what Michael Plekon writes. Earlier, I reviewed book of his called Hidden Holiness which is worth checking out. It seems to me that the common theme that runs throughout his books is to ground the romantic notions of faith, and present ideas like ‘holiness’ ‘sainthood’ and ‘prayer’ in the ordinary way in which they lived and experienced even by the best of us. Uncommon Prayer follows that theme by looking at prayer from a wide array of different perspectives from theologians, poets, preachers, and even his own pastoral experience as something that extends beyond formal addresses to God.

The book is really a mosaic of persons and places and actions that help us to think about how prayer is something that we live, not just something done at particular moments. The logic of the book is that prayer done in its formal and traditional manner begins to infiltrate our lives and embody what is done in ordinary lived experience. So things like education, recalling a person and their needs, and even a church community coming together to make pierogi for a bake sale can become manifestations of prayer. Without jettisoning the need for quieting our souls in private and public worship, conversing with God with and without words, Plekon reminds us that prayer constitutes the daily activities of our lives as we live them out oriented to God.

What Stuck

One powerful image Plekon employs is an old tattered prayer card littered with names of people who he has pledged to pray for over the years. The card is not just a register of prayers successful and unsuccessful, but of our own inherent interconnectedness with one another through God. Prayer becomes a means of seeing ourselves as part of one another, and as a part of a history of people; a tradition that remains alive and united through prayer.

In another vein, I think this book is an innovative way to think about hagiography. Hagiography is an older genre of recording the lives of saints, telling about all the amazing miracles they performed and generally making their lives out to be more than they necessarily were. Plekon here explodes that genre first by focusing on a number of persons rather than just one. Instead of an individual saint, we have a community of saints all teaching us a similar lesson about prayer. He continually recalls figures he wrote about or will write about in future chapters as partners in this project of uncommon prayer. We hear about the lives of saints and what they taught about prayer, but we hear about them as a mosaic, or perhaps a chorus of voices all singing different parts but in harmony with one another about the life lived as prayer. He explodes the genre a second way by not romanticizing the lives of these figures. Prayer becomes an expression of flawed, imperfect humanity striving to live in and through this imperfection toward God.

Representative Quote(s)

All the best approaches to prayer likewise tell us that prayer cannot be just the sound of our own consciousness, the stream of our insecurities, hurts, joys, and plans. Prayer is of necessity about ourselves sand about the important other people in our lives. But prayer is more. (7)

Prayer is remembering. Prayer constantly shows me that I am never alone, always part of a community, a communion of saints in the church and in my life. I am reminded to think about their situations and needs, not just my own. I am also shown that, while time with them may have passed, we all live in an eternal now, with God. (111)

The experience of connection, of communion with God and each other is what we have been listening to throughout. God is not up or out there but here, in and with us. Our prayer is more than words: it is our lives. We incarnate God over and over again. We become what we pray. (253)


A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Peterson)


Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society

Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1980 [2010].

The famous atheist and critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, once wrote,

“The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is. . . . that there should be a long obedience in the same direction.”

This quote is the epitaph of the book and gives it its title. Not every classic of Christian literature can boast a title from one of its fiercest opponents. Eugene Peterson suggests that Nietzsche may have been more correct than he understood. It may be a scandalous thing to say in this day and age, but becoming something is not a matter of anything that can be accomplished quickly or by simply saying so. I can say I am a great basketball player all day long; I can even put on the correct apparel, dribble and shoot the ball in the direction of the net without too much time spent, but anyone with any familiarity with basketball who watches me play will not mistake me for anything that even resembles such a proclamation. Eugene Peterson’s title suggests that this logic is also true of faith.

The Gist

The organizing principle of this book is the psalms of ascent (Pss. 120-134). In each of these psalms Peterson finds a theme of discipleship: repentance, worship, service, happiness, humility, etc. So each chapter is a kind of homily, a short 10 pages or so on each topic using the psalm as the baseline for the reflection.

The book works on two levels corresponding to the title and subtitle. At the ground level this book is a handbook on discipleship like many others available organized around a clever theme (the psalms of ascent) and accessible due to Peterson’s simple writing style, deep insight, and brevity. It is a book on “discipleship (in an instant society)” rather than a sustained analysis on the idea of “a long obedience in the same direction.” This book is about discipleship themes, not a theory of spiritual formation (at least directly).

From a higher level, Peterson’s overarching theme in reflecting on the individual themes of discipleship is this “long obedience.” By trying to place these themes outside of the immediacy- and self-centered context of modern society, Peterson produces a view of the Christian life that rings with authenticity even when it is not necessarily appealing. For instance, he writes on worship:

We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship. (54)

What Stuck

I think this book, like many of Peterson’s books, will be something of a classic, or at least endure longer than your average book on discipleship, if only because Peterson has real insight here. Only a handful of pages don’t have some profound observation highlighted or otherwise marked. So in some respects, what “sticks” about this book is the way it is a sound orientation to the Christian faith.

The other thing that stuck is Peterson’s appeals to the psalms. Admittedly, the psalms of ascent have not always been my favorite, and it has been in hard in past readings to identify with them deeply. Peterson deftly brings out the wisdom of these psalms, and encourages us not only to learn from them, but to learn how to pray them. I think Peterson would want that from his reader: for his reflections to lead us to pray these psalms perhaps for the first time, or at least with renewed interest in how these psalms convey the deeper truths of our world.

Representative Quote(s)

There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. (16)


There are many things about Christianity that are scandalous. This ancient, largely universal piece of wisdom that Christianity defends is one of them: to become something involves a long, consistent, obedience. The inner life is not nearly as interesting as the enthusiasm for spirituality in our day and age suggests. Or perhaps it is fun to talk about and explore, but not nearly as much fun to practice. Perhaps this is why the notion of reading books, and especially books of greater intellectual difficulty, is out of fashion among Christians (and folks in general I suspect). A book can be interesting based on its title and summary—we like the idea of reading books maybe, or having the authority that comes from having read them—but after the first 10 or 20 pages we lose motivation, put the books down, and move on to more interesting tasks. And is this not a microcosm of our faith?

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Noll)


Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994

‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore; Let angel minds inquire no more.

Charles Wesley, who must be counted among the fathers of evangelicalism, wrote this line to one of his more famous hymns. This sentiment would prove representative, influential, and prophetic about the community of faith he would help to form—evangelicals—especially in the United States. The verse communicates that sense in which what matters is obedience, worship, and trust; not thought. A pursuit of religious understanding may even represent a matter of pride or develop into a corruption of faith. There is some validity to that argument and to Charles Wesley’s hymn, but the overstatement of this argument has had dire consequences on the state of faith among modern “evangelicals” and Christendom in general.

The Gist

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of a mind,” Noll writes in his opening sentence. That is a controversial umbrella statement, of course, but the evidence is there. Written in 1994, Noll provides ample evidence at the outset of his book that the “life of the mind” is not a prized virtue among modern North American evangelicals (broadly defined). Those of us who have spent time with this particularly broad group of Christians probably already know this. Noll’s book asks why this is the state of things.

Noll’s answer involves tracing out the historical and theological development of North American evangelicalism from its roots in European movements such as pietism and Puritanism, to its developments in the ‘First’ and ‘Second Great Awakening’, through its development in Pentecostal and Charismatic dispensationalist revivals and finally the fundamentalist movement in the first half of the 20th century. This is a story of the degeneration of the intellectual aspect of evangelical Christianity. The culprit, Noll suggests, is the very theological (i.e., intellectual) foundations that the early evangelicals used to defend and spread their movements. Over time one theological development after the next continued to downplay and marginalize the role that the understanding plays in the religious life among evangelicals until we get to where we are today. Noll concludes the book, however, with a hopeful note, asking how evangelicalism might begin to correct the problem not from without, but from within.

What Stuck

The primary thing is that Noll nails it. His description of the way in which modern evangelicals tend to ‘think’ and value thinking confirms my experience. Granted I’m a part of a pseudo-evangelical tradition (Churches of Christ; see below), my education, to many, is a source of suspicion rather than authority. There is an extraordinary level of goodness and godliness among those I minister with at the churches I’ve served. One does not need an advanced degree to serve the poor. That is the genius of the theological foundations of evangelicalism. But that same anti-intellectual sentiment has produced a lot of bad fruit as well—mean-spirited, legalistic, self-righteous religious controversies, reformulations of various heresies that have stunted spiritual growth, and corrupted, hierarchical power-systems that have produced emotional, spiritual, psychological, and even physical and sexual abuses, to name a few. Bad beliefs have consequences, and a rejection of the intellectual heart of Christianity is the fertile ground in which these beliefs can take root.

Representative Quote(s)

The most general of these argument suggests that from at least the mid-eighteenth century, American evangelicalism has existed primarily as an affectional and organizational movement. The very character of the revival that made evangelical religion into a potent force in North America weakened its intellectual power. (24)

In these terms, the problem of fundamentalism was that the worst features of the nineteenth-century intellectual situation became the methodological keystones for mental activity in the twentieth century. (130)


Mark Noll is one of America’s greatest historians for good reason. He has his finger on the pulse of a vital problem. He analyzes it with precision and provides the vision of a historian for how such a problem might be addressed. This book was written over 20 years ago, however, and the problems seemed to have only worsened. I recommend this book without hesitation, but I want to conclude with just a couple of non-critical quibbles.

First, I wonder if the real issue behind the scandalous lack of an evangelical mind is not a more simple and insidious one. I wonder if the problem might simply come down to a broader cultural educational deficiency, a capitulation to materialism and power that might be challenged by good theology, a deep-seated Nietzschean Ressentiment against those who have invested the time and discipline into education (and a corollary power-hungry elitism among the intelligentsia), or simply a fear of calling into question many beliefs that one has sanctimoniously held to and defended over the course of a lifetime. I’m not saying that Noll’s historical-theological analysis is wrong by any stretch, but I wonder if it is the product, not the producer, of these particular vices. Or maybe it’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue—both sides playing into each other.

Second, I come from a group of non-mainline Protestants called “Churches of Christ,” which have a complicated relationship to the label “Evangelical.” Noll uses a broad umbrella, which is fine for his purposes, including Churches of Christ in the groups he evaluates. And in many cases his descriptions stick. But in many other cases they don’t. Although in some respects I think Church of Christ folks have fallen prey to the same scandal as our evangelical cousins, I think we got there by a different way; there are different dynamics that fuel our anti-intellectualism, and we have a different version of this lack of a mind than what might be found amongst our non-denominational, Baptist, and Methodist brothers and sisters. I await the book or article that would attempt to address this same problem from the particularities of the Churches of Christ. Any takers?

Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)


Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton

New York: Penguin Books, 2004

Growing up I would read fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings because that pseudo-medieval world intrigued me. It felt interesting and fascinating in a way that my own world was not. I had never much been interested in American history in general. It just seemed, on the whole, ugly and crude and glorifying at all the wrong moments. Then I listened to the Hamilton (the musical) soundtrack, and like the rest of you who listened to it (at least the ones with human souls and a pulse) I was captivated by the world of the American Revolution. This old world and its iconic personalities and dramatic events drew me in, except in this case it had some more direct bearing on my world at present. So I picked up this 731 page monstrosity and spent the last several months leisurely reading about the life of the now-ascended Alexander Hamilton.

The Gist

This book is the biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the musical that everyone loves—or should love. Chernow attempts an exhaustive biography, going into detail not only on Hamilton himself, but on the places, events, and people in his life. It seems funny to say this, but it is also the work of a (modern) historian who substantiates his claims and, at times, quibbles with previous biographies and other speculations about Hamilton’s life.

What emerges from this biography is an incredible story about a person of an exceptional and unique intellect whose life itself is equally as exceptional and inimitable. It’s a little played out at this point, but he was very much an immigrant that bought hard into the nascent American identity and experiment, and whose genius, rather than leadership qualities, qualifies him more than any other on those terms as a “founding father.”

What Stuck

The first thing worth saying, which I think might be the appeal of many who read this book, is its relation to Hamilton the musical. I was inspired by the musical to know more about Alexander Hamilton, and throughout reading this book I would compare it to the version of Hamilton’s life from the musical. As is expected, the musical leaves a good bit out, and also changes things around for the sake of storytelling—and that is all well and good. There’s nothing particularly disappointing or shocking about understanding the real circumstances of Hamilton’s life, it’s just interesting. The only one it really affects negatively is one’s spouse who must endure the constant “Actually, what really happened…” chorus that now occurs every time we listen to the Hamilton soundtrack.

The second thing that I thought was particularly interesting was Hamilton’s religious beliefs. As a young child who endured horrific tragedies, Hamilton consumed the works of Alexander Pope and his first publication was an ode to one of Pope’s works. During the substantive portion of Hamilton’s life he was only nominally a Christian, viewing religion—like most others of his day—as something essential and expedient to good government and national stability. But he did not conceive of its practice beyond the instantiation of a general morality. But in his later years, especially following the death of his son Philip, Hamilton became more religious in both his writings and in his habits. The remarkable thing to note is that while most of the other founding fathers were Deists, Hamilton spurned this view several times (probably because his nemesis, Jefferson, was the chief among the deists…) and maintained an adherence to conventional Christian beliefs. So there’s that.

The third thing was the picture Chernow paints of the bickering and politicking of the Revolutionary period. The Hamilton Mixtape has a song called “No John Trumbull” that explains that these serene paintings made by Trumbull of a united group of founders was, at best, momentary. There was debate and fighting and harassment and conspiratorial accusations before, during, and after the Revolutionary war. The heated rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson was particularly vehement. As a biography on Hamilton, of course the reader (and author) are more sympathetic to Hamilton, without ignoring his own faults and flaws.

Finally, the last thing worth mentioning is the overall picture of Hamilton that the biography paints. He was a person of genius intellect and almost indefatigable work ethic, which combined with a good bit of luck and patronage allowed him to do some incredible things. Yet he was also deeply flawed. There are points which make the reader think that he began to believe the legends that began to arise about himself. He had an affair which lasted the better part of a year. Even in his later, more sober years, he died in a duel which was unnecessary and could have been avoided many times. His downfalls were more a product of his own vices and lack of judgment than anything his enemies did or could do to him. Hamilton seemed to have one volume and a particular dislike for nuance, prudence, or compromise. I think that makes him a perfect analogue for our own age, for better and worse—and perhaps why so many are drawn to the way the musical brings that intensity to life.

Representative Quote(s)

Hamilton’s besetting fear was that American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populist shibboleths to conceal their despotism. (220-221)

A captive of his emotions, he revealed an irrepressible need to respond to attacks. Whenever he tried to suppress these emotions, they burst out and overwhelmed him. . . . Again and again in his career, Hamilton committed the same political error: he never knew when to stop, and the resulting excesses led him into irremediable indiscretions. (405)


Anyone who even reads the Wikipedia entry on Hamilton will be able to see why he is such a dynamic figure for our age. He is an immigrant with an otherworldly ability to work. His mind is incisive and combative and views compromise as capitulation. Most importantly, the better portion of his legislative work (e.g., the electoral college) was directed against populism and the slimy politicians it produces: “demagogues” who could sway the masses through fear and charisma, but had no moral character, political insight, or any intellect to speak of. He is like a more realistic superhero—someone with extraordinary gifts and abilities who fought against the more deadly vices of society, which happen to the vices of our age as well.

Yet his story is also a moral story as well. For all his virtues he had many vices. And while it is unrealistic to think that one could possess every virtue and lack any vice—to have Hamilton’s genius and drive and somehow couple that with a personal serenity and wisdom that would seem to blunt the full exercise of his gifts—we would do well to try. We could do worse to try and be like Hamilton, even if we don’t have his passion and intelligence, but we should also try to do better where he failed. To be more prudent, to be less combative, to be open to compromise and to assume that our “enemies” might not be the villains we assume them to be. It seems to be the great virtue of this biography that Chernow strips away any idealistic picture of Hamilton that was not justified by his actual character—so that the reader can come away with a more sober, but realistic understanding of both Hamilton, and of ourselves as we navigate how Hamilton will affect our lives.

Divided By Faith (Emerson & Smith)


Michael O. Emerson & Christian Smith, Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

New York: Oxford University Press, 2001

This post was written by my friend, Jared Poole. Jared is a PhD student studying organizational behavior at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. His work focuses on issues related to personal, professional, occupational, and organizational identities in the workplace. He also has an interest in organizational inequality. His goal is for his research and teaching to help us make businesses and non-profits more fulfilling, enjoyable, and equitable.

In a previous post on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, Brandon made an observation about controversy that I’ll presently plagiarize: “I consider it a rule that when a controversial belief persists…its controversial status is due to either (or both) 1) it’s not being sufficiently understood; and 2) the challenge it poses to the system that produced it.” He rightly points out that when it comes to race and justice “we do not understand one another.” Christian Smith and Michael Emerson’s book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, aims to build this understanding that we so desperately lack. Some may find certain of its evidence and conclusions surprising, but open-minded readers will come away with a better understanding of the national debate, as well as the Church’s place in that debate.

The Gist

Emerson and Smith are sociologists at Rice University and Notre Dame, respectively. In Divided by Faith, they set out to document and explain the racial divisions that exist within American evangelical denominations. Their focus is on black-white race relations. They begin by briefly chronicling the history of race relations in evangelical Christianity. Of course, this must begin with the sad history of slavery. Before, during, and after the Civil War, evangelicals were divided on the question of race. By the 1990’s, however, many leaders in the tradition became convinced that reconciliation was part of the Church’s mission. This conviction was often met with skepticism, apathy, or even resistance by a large swath of churchgoers, putting a damper on some of the ambitions these leaders had.

It is these skeptical or antagonistic attitudes of churchgoers that Emerson and Smith are most interested in. They conducted hundreds of interviews and surveys of evangelical Christians to get their thoughts on relationships between race, racial inequality, and religion. They report white and black evangelicals differed markedly from one another. In general, their white interviewees didn’t see racial inequality as a major problem. It may be exaggerated by people in the media out to boost ratings or by leaders in the black community out to make a career off racial animosity. Some white evangelicals expressed disappointment that blacks, unable to put resentment behind them, would cling to old anger and sabotage attempts to be included in white society. Overall, the authors find that the Evangelicals they interviewed tended to explain racism in individualistic, rather than structural, terms. That is, they focused on what a hypothetical individual working-class or impoverished African American might have done to get into (or fail to get out of) that situation. Thus, explanations centered upon “black culture” and lack of motivation, with history, welfare, discrimination, and education also playing a role.

Primary solutions offered by white Evangelicals were to spread Christianity and develop friendships across racial boundaries. In contrast, their research found that black evangelicals were highly concerned with racial inequality, and motivated to find solutions. Black evangelicals also differed from their peers by being more focused on structural remedies to inequality. These solutions entail more holistic racial reconciliation and controlling systemic injustice by reforming social institutions that limit opportunity based on race.

What Stuck

The reason why I am intrigued by this book is the explanation for white evangelicals’ attitudes about racial inequality. Emerson and Smith argue that evangelical theologies are typically characterized by a belief system that they call “accountable freewill individualism.” White Evangelicals tend to endorse the beliefs that (a) equal opportunity exists in the United States, and (b) individuals are equally created by God, endowed with the ability to make choices that they are then responsible for. With these beliefs in place, evangelicals feel inclined to center explanations for economic and social misfortunes on the mistaken choices that individual human beings have made. We live in a free, prosperous country that gives us the liberty to choose. We’re responsible for the outcome of those choices, for better or for worse.

Emerson and Smith offer another explanation for the racial division in evangelical Churches. This explanation centers on an economic interpretation of religion in the United States. Essentially, there’s a religious “market” in the United States. People can go about and “select” the religion that matches their “preferences.” This differs from the way religion is practiced in other parts of the world (and for centuries before the present), where religion is practically inherited like DNA, and individuals don’t have much choice over how they worship. But in religious markets, churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues must “compete” for believers. This means giving the people what they want.

As it turns out, we tend to want to be around people who are similar to us—people who look, talk, dress, and act like us. This also means being around people who belong to the same racial or ethnic group as we do. Of course, we tend to become more like the people we spend time with, which contributes to the differences between black and white evangelical attitudes that they document. I think there are some problems with this interpretation (for instance, I wish they had given more attention to the unique historical context of religion in the US). And I must confess I’m generally not a fan of imposing economic models on every part of our lives. Nonetheless, the argument is fascinating and it certainly stimulates my thinking. I was particularly persuaded to reconsider some consumerist tendencies I’ve allowed to creep into my own faith journey.

Representative Quote(s)

Although some individuals may be prejudiced, [white Evangelicals] think, America is not racialized. We have tried to show why they hold these beliefs. In the process, we moved beyond the simplistic explanation that white evangelicals, to protect their advantages, simply lie or distort the truth…Instead, we have argued, the cultural tools and intergroup isolation of evangelicals lead them to construct reality so as to individualize and minimize the problem. They do so honestly and with good intentions, if somewhat one-sidedly. (p. 88-89).

Two factors are most striking about evangelical solutions to racial problems. First, they are profoundly individualistic and interpersonal: become a Christian, love your individual neighbors, establish a cross-race friendship, give individuals the right to pursue jobs and individual justice without discrimination by other individuals, and ask forgiveness of individuals one has wronged. Second, although several evangelicals discuss the personal sacrifice necessary to form friendships across race, their solutions do not require financial or cultural sacrifice. (p. 130).


I’d like to give away the ending to a famous psychology experiment. It’s a parable, really.

Imagine a researcher wheels a TV into a room you’ve been waiting in.

She begins, “I’m about to show you a video in which two groups of people identified by red and blue jerseys, respectively, are passing two basketballs with each other. Red to red. Blue to blue. I’d like you to count the number of times both basketballs get passed. I must warn you, it’s harder than it sounds. They will be moving quickly, weaving among each other, shoveling and bouncing the ball here and there. But I know you can do well, even get them all, if you try your best!”

The lights lower, and the TV flickers to life. Sure enough, you see these teams in action, and you get to work. Within short order, the people themselves fade into vague crimson and navy swatches shuffling here and there as you’re laser-focused on the two basketballs. After thirty seconds, the TV cuts to black. The lights come up. You feel confident.

“Okay,” the researcher begins, “how many passes did you count?”

You give some number in the range of twenty to thirty.

“Very good! You hit the nail on the head!” You smile. “Now could you tell me about the gorilla?”

You frown. You’re dumbfounded. You might inquire, “Gorilla?”

“Yes, the gorilla. Did you see him come onto the screen? What was he up to?”

If you’re like most of the participants who were unfortunate enough to be selected for this study, you would be at a loss as to how to respond. That’s because most people never noticed that a person dressed in a gorilla costume wandered onto the basketball court approximately 15 seconds into the video, ambled about, did something typical of gorillas such as scratch his side in a cartoonish way, and then scurry off the opposite side of the court, out of view of the camera.

The point of the study is to show how narrow our attention can be when we’re focused on what’s “in front of us.” When we have a task that requires effort but that we feel relatively confident about and shouldn’t surprise us too much, our horizon shrinks. Our vision becomes limited to what we’ve already taken for granted and seems important. For all we know, a gorilla can come and go, and we’d be none the wiser.

I submit that churches face a similar situation when it comes to race relations. We’re all staring at the same screen. We’ve got the same “information.” We read the same Bible; we have access to the same crime reports, police shooting data, and employment figures; we watch the same press briefings; we read similar newspapers and watch similar news programs (although this is becoming less the case than it used to be); we’re friends with each other on Facebook. But we’re seeing different things. A gorilla has ambled across our field of vision, but not everyone caught a glimpse of it. If the body of social science research is accurate, the United States has a problem with racial inequality, and this is the gorilla that many Evangelical Christians have missed.

This story is also instructive because it implies a way forward. The answer probably isn’t to accuse one another of being “racists” or “race baiters.” If the problem we have is akin to a problem of perception, then that strategy of accusatory name calling makes no sense. If someone in your church seems a little too “woke” on issues of race, it’s more likely that they just caught a glimpse of something that you haven’t yet than that they’ve been indoctrinated by their choice of news media. And it seems odd to berate a sister or brother for not cooperating in a game that they didn’t know existed, just as one doesn’t blame the participant in a psychology experiment for not acting in accordance with instructions they were never privy to. This is a thought-provoking book, not a license to anger or arrogance. If you let it into your life, I know it will spark some great discussion and helpful self-evaluation.

A Radical Jew (Boyarin)


Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Sometime in the 70’s people began to suspect that Paul was a Jew. Scholars like E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, and James D. G. Dunn have since championed a particular way of understanding what Paul has to say principally in reference to his Jewish upbringing, context, and interlocutors. The strange thing is that it does not appear that modern day Jews took this very seriously. If he was a Jew, then he was a very marginal and disloyal one. This silence is perhaps what makes Daniel Boyarin’s book, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity such an interesting and fresh way of looking at Paul. For Boyarin, Paul is not a marginal Jew, he is a radical Jew.

The Gist

Daniel Boyarin is not a biblical scholar, at least not by training. But he is a scholar of religions whose work centers around the ancient world that surrounded Paul. But Daniel Boyarin is a Jew who studies the Jewish parts of that world. So it is intriguing for someone of Boyarin’s position to “reclaim Pauline studies as an important, even integral part of the study of Judaism in the Roman period and late antiquity” (1-2). It is intriguing first because Boyarin is not committed to the canonicity of Paul, and therefore is perhaps able to critique him in ways that us pious Christians would not think of (or dare). It is intriguing second because Boyarin is a sympathetic scholar who does not privilege ancient or modern Judaism in his studies, and who considers Paul to be one of the more outstanding Jewish writers of his day.

The book itself centers around Paul’s famous slogan from Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Boyarin focuses on this text in particular and the book of Galatians in general, but gives attention to the broader accepted Pauline corpus as it becomes necessary or helpful. Thus this book in one sense functions as a kind of fragmentary commentary on Galatians, but also a unique commentary focusing, as it does, on this particular verse in Galatians as the Archimedean point of Pauline thought.

What Stuck

For Boyarin, Paul champions a progressively unfolding vision of equality and liberation whose premise is “sameness” rather than unity in diversity. This focus on sameness is both laudable in the way it equalizes and liberates, but also deeply flawed and ends up undermining the equality that Gal. 3:28 seems to idealize. Thus the later chapters on questions of gender and sexuality do not shy away from the conventional misogyny and prejudice of classic Pauline texts on gender (1 Tim 2; 1 Cor 14) and homosexuality (Romans 1). In fact, Boyarin tries to make the case that these texts fit comfortably in Paul’s broader thought with a text like Galatians 3:28. For Paul, Boyarin suggests, there are fundamental differences between the body (or the corporal world) and the spirit; and these two worlds operate on different functions of practical wisdom. Thus it consistent for Paul to maintain rigid, hierarchical distinctions between men’s and women’s “roles” precisely because he privileged the corporal world which these traditional roles upheld. Paul may have supposed that these relationships were temporary and “passing away,” but in the mean time they were important in a practical sense.

Representative Quote

Jewish difference does not mean only permitting Jews to keep kosher or circumcise within Christian communities; it means recognizing the centrality and value of such practices for Jews as well as their “right” to remain unconvinced by the gospel. This does not, however, constitute an accusation of intolerance on the part of Paul. Paul’s gospel was one of tolerance. I claim rather that tolerance itself is flawed—in Paul, as it is today. Its opposite—by which I do not mean intolerance but insistence on the special value of particularity—is equally flawed. The theme of this book is that the claims of difference and the desire for universality are both—contradictorily—necessary; both are also equally problematic. (10)


Boyarin’s book is nothing if not fascinating and refreshing. It is hard to see how a Christian scholar of any stripe could come up with such a perspective. Where Boyarin is not wholly convincing he at the very least illuminates aspects of Paul’s writings and reveals perspectives and arguments that enhance the way we understand Paul and his thought. If you want to understand Paul as a Jew from the perspective of a Jewish scholar, or are just bored with Pauline studies and need something to break out of the traditional debates, then I recommend this book.

The New Jim Crow (Alexander)


Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness

New York: The New Press, [2010] 2012

I consider it a rule that when a controversial belief persists in the minds of a large and diverse enough population, that its controversial status is due to either (or both) 1) it’s not being sufficiently understood; and 2) the challenge it poses to the system that produced it. Given the intractable and often mean-spirited public discourse swirling around issues of race and justice, I think it is fair to say that we do not understand one another. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow offers a starting point for understanding the roots of our present day conflict from a Black perspective. And those who are brave enough, or perhaps I should say Christ-like enough, to give it a charitable and open-minded reading will have a chance to become the peacemakers that Christ has called blessed.

The Gist

The New Jim Crow rests on the back of a few depressing statistics. First, the U.S. has the world’s highest rate of incarceration. Second, the vast majority of these incarcerations are for drug related offenses. Third, the vast majority of those incarcerated for drug-related offenses are racial and ethnic minorities. Fourth, and finally, people of all races use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates—in fact, white youths are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.

What do we do with the story these statistics seem to tell? Alexander offers a study that is part history, part sociology, and presented in an accessible journalistic fashion; a story of the factors that have created this state of affairs and the impact that these social realities have on Blacks and other minorities as they experience such a world.

Alexander sets out to tell a counter-narrative, or rather another perspective on American social and legal history that demonstrates the effects that long-standing racial discrimination has had on Black persons and the communities that they comprise. Racism and discrimination and implicit bias are not necessarily everywhere. These things are, however, located in specific domains of our social world, places that the aforementioned statistics reveal: our prisons and the legal practices that feed into them.

What Stuck

The most significant thing that stuck was the inside look Alexander provides of the devastation that even minor criminal offenses can have on individual lives and the cumulative effect that this devastation has on communities in particular and the Black consciousness in general. Alexander illustrates how the justice system has managed to act on the basis of prejudicial bias to create a state of affairs where Blacks and other minorities have been imprisoned at a rate that exceeds their white counterpart drug offenders. I don’t know if  I fully agree with Alexander’s position that these policies were aimed directly and intentionally to exploit minorities for political and social gain (I think it occurs on a far less organized discriminatory and selfish basis), but regardless of the nature of the motivation, the effect has been the same.


Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable. The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged. (21)

More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education as perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, and adaptation to the needs and demand so the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born. (58)


Medieval Scholastics had a particular way of debating that I sometimes wish was revived. Before someone could offer a rebuttal of their opponents position they had to give an account of their opponents position that their opponent found satisfactory. So many of the arguments (mostly Facebook, I admit) I see on these issues begin with the fact that people do not actually understand the argument of those who disagree with them—and the “dialogue” (if it can be called that) disintegrates predictably.

Polarizing conflict is useless. If I find myself utterly opposed to an idea or movement or group of people, then odds are I don’t understand them rightly. Those who find themselves offended at the protests, and kneeling, and movements proclaiming Black lives do, in fact, matter, need to figure out why these kinds of things are happening first before the condemnation begins. If you want to understand why so many people are outraged, and be a part of a constructive solution, rather than breed anger and contempt that destroys the souls of both parties, then may I suggest you start with Michelle Alexander’s book.

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