Quick Review: Strong and Weak

One of the richest and most practically helpful book I’ve read this year is Andy Crouch’s Strong and Weak.  It’s the third book I’ve read by Crouch this year and all three form together what I would describe to be a trilogy related to a theology and practice of image bearing. You can see some of my thoughts on the 1st of these books Culture Making here or the more recent Playing God here.

Strong and Weak is roughly an extension of Playing God.  Playing God  is a more in depth look at power and privilege. Strong and Weak continues that, but Crouch introduces a framework for understanding social ethics, relationships, and authority among other things.  This allows for a really clear conceptual understanding of much of what he unpacks in Playing God.

Crouch builds his book around a 2 x 2 chart. The X axis is represented by the concept of vulnerability, while the Y axis is represented by the concept of authority. Crouch draws from the first couple chapters of Genesis these two significant aspects of what it means to be an image bearer. Having the authority and ability to take meaningful action on one hand, and having the posture of vulnerability and risk on the other.

In the chart there are 4 quadrants, which Crouch describes as flourishing (high authority, high vulnerability), suffering or poverty (low authority, high vulnerability), withdrawal or apathy (low authority, low vulnerability) and exploitation (high authority, low vulnerability).  The book is organized around these quadrants and their implications for relationships, community, and even leadership as well.

The simple 2 x 2 chart provides a really helpful framework to understand some really complex dynamics as well as the powerful and countercultural implications of gospel action through people in different quadrants.  It provides a helpful way of understanding servant leadership, empowerment, social responsibility, and community development all in one.

This book is about 150 pages or so, very readable. I highly recommend you read this – it has something for everyone and it serves as an incredible teaching tool to help people understand how to look at the importance of both authority and vulnerability – which cover a surprising amount of the issues leaders have in negotiating the social realities of their contexts.

This is an important and helpful resource that should help people think more theologically and responsibly about the dynamic relationship between authority and human relationships.  I really encourage you to find time to read it.

 

Pre-School Theology: Game 7 Prayers

My daughter, who is in kindergarten now, believes she helped the Cubs win Game 7 of this year’s world series and thus, their first world series since 1908.

While stuck in typical Manila traffic last week on the way home from the kid’s school, she started this conversation.

“Dad. After that other team tied the game, I prayed that the Cubs would win. And then God answered my prayer and the Cubs won.”

My favorite part of this was that we really had had no Cubs related conversation or interaction in the previous week. It was something she wanted me to know.

I would love to know what her motivation was for praying for the Cubs and for letting me know God answered her prayer. Did she do it because she saw her father in an unusually vulnerable and rabid moment and it worried her?  Was it because she knew it was a big deal and important to at least her father and brother?  Something in her wanted a happy ending for the people she cares about so she prayed.

I loved the moment and it was fun to connect over the Cubs. But a great reminder that we need to ground our prayer life on solid theological footing.

Putting aside the fact that God is in fact a Cubs fan 😛 , I decided not to bring up the high likelihood that she had a 6-year-old counterpart in Cleveland praying the exact same thing for the Cleveland Indians.  What about her?

During the World Series I heard a record amount of animistic language from people on all sorts of teams praying to ancestors, former players, God, and who knows what else – attributing everything from good luck to timeline rainfall to the goodwill of long lost relatives and God’s partiality.   I was shocked at how much animism was alive and well in the western sporting domain!

But for now – I’m glad my daughter feels like she had a part in a great moment for me and our family.  In time, we’ll have to break the news that God probably doesn’t care much about our sports teams.

Though if God did care about sports teams, I’m still pretty sure He would care most about the Cubs.   😛

 

Quick Review: Playing God

This month I worked my way through Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  Really this year I’ve worked through what is a trilogy essentially from Andy Crouch with three books that all revolve around the central theme of what it means to be human as God intended, as God’s image bearer. The first book in this thematic series is Culture Making, which I reviewed a few months back and I’ll review the third book Strong and Weak, which was released this year, sometime next week.

All three of these books are highly worth reading and I recommend reading them sequentially and together because of the continuity of ideas, language, and frameworks offered.

While Culture Making focused on the themes of creating and cultivating as image bearers, Playing God focuses more specifically on the theme of power and authority – related to its original design and intentions and to its abuse.

In a refreshing statement, Crouch begins the book with a clear thesis that power is a gift. It has purposes for people and communities that glorify God and that are meant to serve and honor other people.  But we all know the world is full of people who use power for their own gains, so the gift of power gets corrupted into something much worse. Actually we all use power for our own gain – that’s the power of sin in our lives. We all need to learn how God wants to redeem power for his purposes.

Crouch makes mention in several books of the importance of developing a theology of image bearing around the whole of Scripture – with special attention to Gen 1-2 and Rev 21-22. He argues that these 4 chapters guard against the dualistic theology prevalent for so many generations – where the only concern is trying to save souls from sin (Gen 3 – Rev).  I think it’s a helpful reminder to really think deeply about the whole Biblical narrative and its implications for all of life.  That’s the power of developing a theology of image bearing, whether it involves creativity or power. A solid theology of image bearing should inform all of life – relationships, power and authority, calling, and community.  This is what I appreciate about what Crouch attempts to do in his books.

Some of the sections that I think Crouch really did a great job with are his treatment of the themes of idolatry related to power. The chapters on idolatry and icons are really helpful and I’ve already gone back to a couple of those chapters.  There are some very helpful sections that help someone evaluate their hearts as the source of their behavior and what they worship in practice.

Another strength of the book is a framing and his effort to articulate the dynamics and even provide some measure of a theology of privilege. Privilege is often used pejoratively as a label. I’ve seen it misused more often than not, which is why Crouch’s efforts are really valuable.  While there are problems and limitations with the word “privilege,” no one can deny that this points to a reality which is very much true. It’s not an American thing either. Privilege exists as a social reality across the world that impacts identity and communities. Crouch offers one of the more balanced efforts to explain the blessings (opportunities) and

Crouch offers one of the more balanced efforts to explain the blessings (opportunities) and the dark side of privilege in its impact on relationships and society. These are realities we must help people understand through a more complete theological lens – not just through the lenses of social activism and social justice. These issues point us back to a more comprehensive vision of shalom, of what human life and community is meant to be.   For much of the last century and beyond, t

For much of the last century and beyond, there has been a theological gap in bias and practice between social justice and evangelistic mission.  There continues to be a divide today, albeit with different influences and forces driving some of those divides and reactions. Crouch attempts to bridge some of this gap through a theology of image bearing and power.  It is not the focus of the book to provide a comprehensive theology of the church as it relates to social action, but nonetheless there are very helpful sections to help inform how we think about the church’s role in society as part of a Great Commission vision.

Much of his work in Playing God gets elaborated on in Strong and Weak, in which he provides a helpful conceptual framework to illustrate how image bearing and power in community goes wrong….and right sometimes.

This book has very wide relevance and application so if you have not read it, I recommend getting all three of these books onto your reading list soon.

 

 

 

Butt Friction

Matako ghawi ghaleka cha ku kwenthana

(Two buttocks cannot avoid friction)

—Malawian Proverb

Niyi Gbade and John Becker start off their article “Buttocks, Bridges, and Kola Nuts”with this Malawian proverb in the most recent Missio Nexus Anthology (Vol 4 No 2 October 2016) on Conflict.

It is now my favorite African proverb.

My first take on this was that the proverb is prophetically or tongue in cheek using the metaphor of butt cheeks to connote how people in conflict can be, pardon my language, asses. But that is not the emphasis of this saying. Gbade and Becker reinforce that this speaks to the dynamics that proximity leads to inevitable conflict. Closeness leads to tension, to friction.

I’ve never thought about this reality through the metaphor of friction producing buttocks, but it’s hard for me to imagine a more memorable metaphor that normalizes conflict in relationships.

The article also includes the following Nigerian proverb as well:

In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges
and the foolish build dams.

In my PhD cohort I have the privilege to study with a couple others from Nigeria and there’s an abundance of storytelling and these types of sayings that provide such a grounded way of thinking about social wisdom.

If you have access to Missio Nexus I recommend checking out the latest Anthology on Conflict as there are great cross-cultural and north-south intercultural insights for conflict resolution and partnership.

But what’s most important now is that as you go about your day taking stride after stride, you now can reflect deeply about conflict through the gentle reminder of your own butt friction.

Quick Review: Blink

In the last week, my quality time in the car battling jeepneys and tricycles on the streets of Manila allowed me to listen to the entirety of Malcom Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Because of the popularity of Gladwell’s books, detailed summaries can be googled and found easily, but here’s a few of my thoughts on the book.

First, again I immensely enjoyed the book because Gladwell’s books are as easily consumed as audiobooks as anything because it is so story driven and there are so many things that are utterly fascinating.  Second, the book popularizes some of the things in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow which I’ll post on at some point because I read it a few months ago.

Gladwell is  unpacking the positives and negatives of rapid cognition, the way the brain “thin slices” decisions in situations.  Thin slicing is when our minds make decisions or draw conclusions based on a small sample of knowledge available. He cites the example of how experts, who get so familiar with their areas of expertise that they can make accurate decisions instinctively even when tons of data or analysis goes the other direction.  It may not always hold true – but it surfaces the limits of objective analysis sometimes.

There’s a great section that he calls the “Warren Harding error” in which he details how one of the worst Presidents ever came to power because other people thin sliced who would make a good President – tall, good looking, and other appealing qualities. There’s a lot that translates to leadership in general – people get thin sliced all the time with negative consequences because they don’t look good enough, aren’t tall enough, or lack certain outward personality characteristics. In fact – Gladwell illustrates how short people get discriminated against for executive positions in the business world just as much as ethnic minorities and women. That’s the Warren Harding error and illustrates how we have some hardwired assumptions that impact our unconscious processing of situations and our feelings about different people or decisions. Thin slicing can help us in some

Thin slicing can help us in some situations but can hurt us in others when we have socialized or subconscious prejudices that affect decisions – even that conflict with our conscious values and beliefs! That’s a big realization – that while we can have clear values and beliefs, we are still impacted by socialization and society at a subconscious level.

Of most interest to me was the content that impacted subconscious racism or prejudice – either in the business world or in other contexts. Looking at the way the brain works is helpful and should inform how we approach training and development in these areas.  Too often when people respond a certain way or make a decision that betrays that there is a bias towards the majority culture, it’s low hanging fruit for many to cry out (or lash out more appropriately) that those people are racists or misogynists. Sometimes they are – but it’s not a generous response when all people are influenced by society in these ways, some of which in key moments that require fast processing and quick decisions that surface conflicts between your clearly held values and beliefs and subtle and subconscious biases. Gladwell is hoping to surface these dimensions to provide hope for training and development so that we do not have to be

Too often when people respond a certain way or make a decision that betrays that there is a bias towards the majority culture, it’s low hanging fruit for many to cry out (or lash out more appropriately) that those people are racists or misogynists. Sometimes they are – but it’s not a generous response when all people are influenced by society in these ways, some of which in key moments that require fast processing and quick decisions that surface conflicts between your clearly held values and beliefs and subtle and subconscious biases. Gladwell is hoping to surface these dimensions to provide hope for training and development so that we do not have to be ruled or dominated by our subconscious biases informed by history and society (even though that will always be the case to some degree).

A case in point applies to one of Gladwell’s case studies, a police shooting of an unarmed black male in New York by 4 white police officers.  Gladwell takes us through the situation. In the wake of Trayvon Martin and recent history, these are volatile and charged situations that are tragic all the way around. There is no doubt that the shooting covered in the book was wrong and unjustified – but today we as a society immediately go the racist label. Gladwell illustrates that it’s not so simple – and again, we need to be more generous before labeling people with such labels. Were the cops racist?

Despite the evidence, maybe they are not. On another level, Gladwell shows that they were influenced by subconscious influences that in the heat of the moment and stress of the situation betrayed them in a critical moment. This is how much of life goes. There are plenty of racists out there intentionally doing harm. But there’s also a lot of people who are not racist, but the stress of a fight or flight situation may surface influences that impact decision making that have racist or discriminatory impact.

Gladwell argues that these thinking patterns can be intentionally developed and trained. In a world where we so quickly want to label people as either bad or good, these are some things that may provide hope for new ways of thinking and new ways of training and development that nurture ethical and just assessments of one another – even under stress. It’s a reminder that when we jump as a society to want to scapegoat, punish, or shame someone that has done wrong doing – we may be missing key parts of the equation and forgetting that different sets of circumstances could expose different areas of subconscious bias in us as well. It’s a reminder we need to cultivate safe spaces for learning and awareness instead of environments of graceless

In a world where we so quickly want to label people as either bad or good, these are some things that may provide hope for new ways of thinking and new ways of training and development that nurture ethical and just assessments of one another – even under stress. It’s a reminder that when we jump as a society to want to scapegoat, punish, or shame someone that has done wrong doing – we may be missing key parts of the equation and forgetting that different sets of circumstances could expose different areas of subconscious bias in us as well. It’s a reminder we need to cultivate safe spaces for learning and awareness instead of environments of graceless judgement and accusation.

So there’s a lot of helpful thinks to think about here. There are sections on marketing involving the soda wars I remember early on and why people freaked out when Coke introduced “new coke” and then had to bring back classic coke. it was fascinating how packaging impacts the perception of experience and preference – all things equal. There’s a lot of different ways in which the dynamics of rapid cognition impacts behavior and decision making, but the applications with the greatest social significance to me is that which applies to the dynamics of racism and discrimination as well as who makes for a good leader.

 

Quick Review: Community – The Structure of Belonging

I finished Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging last week and want to share some of his thoughts if it interests you. This book essentially is about community development and transformation. Block’s style is often theoretical and heady in its content and tone, yet there is a real commitment to organizing work and life around the dignity of human beings and the impact of relationships and organizing efforts on that dignity. This is one of the things I like about Block in his books.

What is helpful about this book is that it steers conversations in the process of community building away from victimization and learned helplessness and paternalism.  His focus is on building what he calls the social fabric – the quality of relating within a community.  He unpacks the ideas and patterns of modern society that are undermining true empowerment in society at large and argues for methods and community processes that both lead to the goal while also being the goal themselves.

Many want to build communities and build the social fabric, but they focus on the end result and meanwhile their methods and processes undermine the very relating and social fabric they want to achieve.  Block proposes a set of commitments and processes to help communities begin relating in empowering and accountable ways that increase the consistency and quality of the social fabric. He argues that the small group is the unit of transformation.

There’s a lot here – and it’s a big that needs a lot of reflection to make connections for the sake of integration and application. But Block does a great job building a process around question asking and safe spaces.  He argues that community transformation is driven by well-crafted questions that create the kind of anxiety and tension that drives people to get involved and commit.  He offers sets of questions for key conversations around ownership, dissent, gifts, and other key areas.  What is unique about Block is the methodology that seeks to bring the goal into the process.  This is some of how I’ve tried to teach strategic planning – that leaders don’t lead towards a goal or vision, but they must live out that vision through the whole process from day one. That affects actions and relationships.

He offers sets of questions for key conversations around ownership, dissent, gifts, and other key areas.  What is unique about Block is the methodology that seeks to bring the goal into the process.  This is some of how I’ve tried to teach strategic planning – that leaders don’t lead towards a goal or vision, but they must live out that vision through the whole process from day one. That affects actions and relationships.

In today’s society, you have many groups in many places blaming other groups for their situation and looking externally for solutions.  Block offers a methodology and community building approach that challenges all of us to take ownership of our communities and commit to something new together instead of engaging in the toxic cycles of blame and dependence.  It’s easier said than done, but there’s a lot here to inform how we try to bridge differences today in a culture that is often very divided.

 

Quick Review: Smiling Tiger Hidden Dragon

I’ve read Dr. John Ng’s book on conflict management Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon over the past month and want to share some thoughts on it.  I also had the opportunity to do a couple day training with Dr. Ng covering the ideas in the book.

Over the last decade, as I’ve been in mostly Asian ministry contexts, the topic of conflict resolution for Asians has been a very challenging and difficult one  – in part because of honor/shame dynamics, saving face, and indirect communication preferences.  Most Asian believers I know readily admit that this is a difficult area of discipleship and skill for them because of the ways conflict can challenge cultural norms and behaviors. It’s also readily clear that many approaches to conflict resolution are blatantly western in assumptions and prescriptions, thus creating significant tension for Asian believers when so much out there on this topic challenges culture (which is not always a bad thing either).

Dr. Ng was educated in the West (Northwestern) and is currently in Singapore and works as a mediator and consultant throughout Asia. This book primarily focuses on describing the things that undermine healthy relationships in the Asian context and provides ideas and strategies for managing that conflict. So he dives into themes like saving face among other things to illustrate how conflict can start and escalate. The book is full of Asian anecdotes and examples which is helpful as a Westerner to just get a feel on a broad level how conflict escalates among Asians in different ways and for different reasons contextually.

He provides a lot of strategies for managing conflict, some based on a conflict style assessment tool he developed for Asia. He highlights about 12 different conflict styles that can lead to escalating conflict including the title, “smiling tiger, hidden dragon.” This was helpful just to really look at a wide range of conflict approaches (negative ones) that do not always get treatment in other books or resources on conflict.

He also highlights a lot of ideas for just managing conflict and keeping yourself in a good emotional space to have a constructive conversation.  He draws from the HeartMath institute. I read The Heartmath Solution as part of a book club way back in the day and you see a brief review here, but he gives a lot of attention to breathing exercises and efforts to keep the heart rate under 100. That’s helpful and in the past I’ve utilized that in some mediation situations and it has helped me maintain mental sharpness.  Dr. Ng also is passionate about the dynamics of the brain and the amygdala as I have often written about from the family and congregational systems theorists and practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke. The big takeaway – we have to be mindful of what’s going on in our bodies or else we may lost control of the situation and start escalating and reacting.

An additional area is the area of bidding.  Dr. Ng studied under John Gottman who introduced the notion of relational bidding as a key for understanding the health and future of marriage relationships. Basically – relationships need a 5 to 1 positive to negative bidding ratio or problems and eventual separation are likely to occur. Dr. Ng uses this idea really well in the context of general conflict management to keep the relationship the central focus and not the issues.

The areas that are weaker in the book are those relating to forgiveness and reconciliation. The forgiveness aspect is viewed as important – but follows some of current psychology trends in reinforcing that forgiveness is about us releasing and letting go. There really is not much attention to reconciliation.   The book is written with a secular packaging, yet the treatment of forgiveness and reconciliation was still light if not non-existent at points.  However, if the book is seen and experienced as a focus on the catalysts for conflict in Asian contexts and tools for having the conflict conversations – there’s some great ideas and tools. But there is not much here that will paint a vision or picture of what relationships will look like after conflict management to get a sense of what reconciliation in relationship looks like.

There are several ideas in the books I want to pursue more and explore, concepts that are very Asian, but even so – the book is relevant far beyond the Asian context.  They key thing that feels Asian besides the metaphors, illustrations, and marketing is that the focus is on preserving relationship which is a high value for Asians.  That’s something westerners can really benefit from as they think about conflict.

 

Quick Review: The Tipping Point

A few weeks ago I finished reading Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little things Can Make a Big Difference.   I fully enjoy Gladwell’s books as they often popularize more complex ideas out there. His books are also ideal audiobooks for driving in traffic given how story oriented they tend to be.

More detailed reviews and summaries can be found out there, but I enjoyed the book because of its blatant relevance for leadership, ministry, and the sharing of ideas. Gladwell is focused on the phenomena of what makes some ideas really take off while others do not.

Gladwell is focused on the phenomena of what makes some ideas really take off while others do not. He structures the book around “The Law of the Few”, “The Stickiness Factor”, and “The Power of Context.”

The law of the few suggests that there unique types of people that drive the spreading of ideas. He calls them connectors, mavens, and salesmen.  Some people have unique gifts in connecting other people, some have unique talents and passions to be informed on all of what is going on, and some have the charisma and gifts that can bring alignment to ideas or products effortlessly.  I enjoyed the illustration about Paul Revere being an example of an individual who was a couple of these – why is Revere so remembered in the events of the opening of the Revolutionary War when there was another man who equally shared the same task?

“The Stickiness Factor” is the sense of memorability (if that’s a word) or ease at which people can lock into a concept, product, or idea.  This is what marketing strives for and what much of educational theory is working to master.

“The Power of Context” is looking at the systemic impact of the environment on change phenomena. I was intrigued most by the example of the “Broken windows theory” that was at the heart of change efforts in New York’s dramatic crime reduction over a decade ago. After analyzing a host of variables – the idea that small symbols of neglect can lead to widespread invitations for crime. By quickly cleaning up graffiti and making other quick improvements to fix things and keep things in shape among other minor changes, there was radical changes in crime for the better.

These are quick and hasty summaries, but this book is a great stimulator of ideas and creative energy if you are thinking about how to spread ideas or lead change in a particular context. All such efforts will involve the need to shape thinking, relationships, and behavior. This book touches on all three of these areas and thus, a great resource.

 

Quick Review: The Gifts of Imperfection

After reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly a few weeks back, I decided to read her book The Gifts of Imperfection as well.  This was the foundation of her initial TED talk that went viral and brought Brown into the public idea and her research on shame and vulnerability.

I wanted to read this book because she referenced a few sections of it in Daring Greatly that intrigued me and because Brown’s book’s are fantastic Manila traffic audiobook experiences. They are interesting and carry depth, but they aren’t so complicated or theory oriented that I have to rewind and backtrack on things. Both of these books are great and provide much more context and perspective to supplement the TED talks.

The Gifts of Imperfection was actually more personally significant for me than Daring Greatly. Perhaps this is because of my past and current manifestations of perfectionism and overly serious temperament most of the time. There were several sections that I found to provide such great insight into dynamics, fears, and pressures that have been part of my life and journey at various points.

Perhaps most helpful, this book came at a timely point in time where I have been experiencing increased pressure and expectations – some from others and some from within. I cannot do all the things I am needing to do.  Correction.  I cannot do all the things I am needing to do as well as I want.  That distinction is revealing about my struggles and this book reminded me of the futility and danger of trying to control my environments or please others or deliver high-quality results in every area of life. It’s a life-giving book and there’s much that echoes what the Scriptures say about living by faith in the vulnerability of life.

There is an excellent section on parenting that is different from some of the parenting content in Daring Greatly but that was really helpful for us as we now have our oldest child in middle school. There’s also great content on the role of faith (though some of the spirituality content was ambiguous and at times feel a little new age in its language). But the content from a research perspective of the correlation between authentic faith and living wholeheartedly was interesting to me.

I haven’t read Brown’s more recent books, but the treatment of vulnerability and shame is really good and is highly relevant to every walk of life because it’s part of the stuff of life. I can help but think through these themes through Genesis 1 – 2 because they echo the big story of Scripture.

Anyway – I highly recommend The Gifts of Imperfection. I see myself coming back to it from time to time because I resonated so much with different sections.

 

 

Leadership Formation & Development Within Systems and Organizations