Category Archives: The Prophetic

Quick Review: Braving the Wilderness

It’s been a month or two since I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I’ve delayed writing something up on it because I’ve had mixed feelings about it. It’s both the book of hers I’ve liked least, but it’s also the most intriguing related to some of my areas of research and study.

A lot of the book is similar to her other works – shame, worthiness, and vulnerability. I recently reviewed Rising Strong and there’s some overlap. It’s good stuff and there’s several stories and anecdotes from other books. However, there’s also a lot that is new and there is a different emphasis on this book. This focus, as I would describe it, is the connection between identity and belonging in a reactionary and tribalistic society.

What I liked was that at the core of this book, it really is a tackling of identity between individuality and community. Essentially, Brown is unpacking what family systems theorists call self-differentiation, the grounded identity that is both connected and separate even in the midst of an anxious and reactive society.  I kept thinking of one of my favorite authors, Edwin Friedman and his book Failure of Nerve as I read this. If you want to take a look see my post linking to a couple summaries here and also here.  It is one of my top 5 books of all time and has profoundly impacted my views on leadership and leadership formation.

Anyway – back to the wilderness. Braving the Wilderness is really a metaphor for self-differentiation. It’s living in between the polar extremes of reactivity and anxiety. Friedman calls one extreme emotional fusion. Christian psychologist PaulTripp calls this immersion. Harvard negotiation expert Daniel Shapiro calls this defaulting to affiliation.  It’s the surrendering of individual identity to the group out of fear of rejection, judgment, or shame. It’s compromising the integrity of personhood to belong – belonging becomes being part of a tribe.

Friedman calls the other extreme cutting off. Tripp calls it isolation. Shapiro calls it defaulting to autonomy for the sake of identity.  It’s surrendering community and relationship to preserve personhood. It’s to some degree distancing from those that provide a threat or challenge to be able to feel secure again in one’s self.

Brown is unpacking these dynamics. I think initially I was irritated because it felt like it was being unpacked as new data or phenomena, but these concepts have been out there getting discussed in a lot of places. But I like that she connected shame and vulnerability what can lead people towards surrendering their identity for either reactive extreme. People feeling anxiety and shame tend to seek security and certainty and if they cannot stand on their own and hold their ground for their higher values and their integrity – the emotional forces of society will bounce them around.  Thus Brown is directly addressing in this book how to foster civility and empathy in a society that is looking to dehumanize others and where everyone is trying to strengthen their tribe at the expense of the other.

Worthiness is at the heart of Brown’s books – that people who feel and act worthy and like the belong, actually believe that they belong.  The elephant in the room is the question, “Where does that worthiness come from?” I do not believe Brown offers an answer for this, but to describe that we need to do our best to be civil and understanding and do our part to help extend hospitality across difference.   Added to this though, Brown also discusses a lot about curiosity and civility as key to fostering civil discourse and belonging across difference.

Brown is advocating for people to connect as humans, fighting the tendency of people to dehumanize for the sake of certainty and tribal belonging. As I read this, it’s a perfect apologetic for the Christian worldview as the image of God, loving your neighbor, and the call to grace and truth are core foundational pieces. It’s a shame that Christians tend to be just as tribal, if not more, than others. It’s a sign that the gospel has not taken root. But Brown is pointing to a question that is theological in nature. Can we achieve our own worthiness? Or do we have to receive it from someone else?  Can we get it from other people or does it have to come from a higher authority?

So there’ s a lot that I like and it’s the most I’ve thought about any of her books so it’s a sign that it maybe it ranks higher than I initially thought. But there are things that are hard. I understand why some reviews complain about her being too political, but I didn’t think it was that bad – but an example of tribalism in the reviews.  There’s also a stronger tone of anger and “screw you, I gotta keep it real” to this book that wasn’t as evident in her other books.  On one level – I get it – I think Brown has to have some of that edge to play the role she is playing.

However, I’ve seen too many applications of her work where people are rejecting shame and community accountability to defend their positions (an ironic example of what Brown is speaking against). People can find justification through some of the concepts to defend their personal choices.  Not all shame is bad – when people reject the voice of community completely to “keep it real” they then run the risk of cutting off and getting lost in a myopic view of life. This connects to a series I did many moons ago called “Prophets vs. Posers.”

All in all – it’s a good book and I’m still thinking about a lot of it. But it is a clear reminder that there are deep solutions to questions of shame and belonging and vulnerability. Will people humble themselves to really find those solutions outside of themselves and receive the dignity, belonging, security, and love that can anchor one firmly in that identity so they can freely love and serve others across difference?  This is the Christian life.  Now more than ever, followers of Christ need to embody this self-differentiation in Christ so they can brave the wilderness where is increasingly anxious, hostile, reactionary, and tribal.

So I recommend it, but I recommend Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve even more.

Quick Review: The Myth of Equality

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to go through Ken Wytsma’s The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege and want to pass on highest recommendation if you are in the Northern American context.

Last year I read Wytsma’s book Pursuing Justice and it was a good complement to this book. But The Myth of Equality is a needed book that seeks to lay out theological, historical, sociological context for both historical racism as well as contemporary racism in its various forms. I won’t give a comprehensive summary but will hit the highlights.

First, he did good Biblical and theological work, building on some of his work in Pursuing Justice. It informs the reader, especially if there’s not much Biblical or theological background, on the spiritual backdrop of the discussion.  He’s working to give the average lay church member, especially white lay church member, a context for the discussion outside of attacks and emotions. Most important to this is the question of who God is and what does God care about.

Second, he does a great job unpacking a “history of racism” that is very insightful and informative in terms of political and social develops several hundred years ago.  However, the unpacking and analysis of racism in the U.S. including slavery and then through the various post-Civil War legislation and government efforts through the 20th century is downright piercing. Even for someone who has read or studied much of what was covered in other places, to go through this history is deeply disturbing and generates a flood of emotions. But the reader is brought into the sacred space of just how much suffering has been driven by the systematic oppression and marginalization of ethnic minority groups in the U.S.

My heart started pumping midway through in an excited way because Wytsma goes into Walter Brueggeman’s work in The Prophetic Imagination to discuss the dynamics of power, leadership, change, and theology.  This book was one of the fundamental influences on me in terms of how I view leadership overall and the church’s role in the world.  To get a chapter about the “royal consciousness” was a delight. However, to do a deep analysis today on themes of racism and privilege through that lens continues to be sobering.

One of my big takeaways related to the discussion on privilege was a section where he discussed “creation stories” as a metaphor for each person’s story. Many are “birthed” into stories where they only know possibilities and freedom. Others are birthed into stories that have origins in shame, invisibility, closed doors, and a host of other atrocities. While it’s true that God can redeem every story, this was a helpful new window into understanding how people come at these discussions from very different lenses and perspectives. It’s simply very hard to connect and form relationships of equality and dignity without an awareness into how these starting points in a society impact identity.

I personally liked Wytsma’s approach to the language.  I think there is more to write on terms like privilege and white supremacy and other core terms of the modern discussion. I think Wytsma handled them well without resorting to a single story approach.  My struggles with these words over the years have primarily involved a pragmatic struggle with how hard it is to explain them to people prior to being able to have a meaningful conversation when there are so many landmines of meaning and interpretation around them that escalate emotion in often unhelpful ways. But Wytsma I think does a really good job explaining how these terms fit in the contemporary discussion and why they are appropriate even though there are all sorts of semantic and meaning issues connected to them in the journey of common understanding.

This is an important book for the church because more and more in the church want to be a part of a different story, but so many do not know the history and the reality that is often hidden from them if they’ve not leaned into cross-cultural relationships and issues of social injustice.

This is a 2017 book so it might be new to you, but I’d encourage you to go through it with some people you do life with.

 

Merry Disturbing Christmas!

Nine years ago I wrote a post entitled Herod & Jerusalem based on some reflection on Matthew 2:1-4. I came back across that passage this Christmas season and wanted to offer some new and refined possible responses to the question, “Why was Herod and all of Jerusalem troubled when hearing about Jesus?”  Here’s the text:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.“ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

This version uses the phrase “troubled,” but others use “disturbed” to describe the emotional response by Herod the Great and all of Jerusalem.  Have you ever thought of what all of Jerusalem means?  Does that mean every single person? Does it mean the rich? The religious? The powerful? The educated?  Or does it mean all? I don’t know definitively what all means here as there was no internet or newspaper service, but I would assume it includes at least the rich and powerful who had a vested interest in the politics and leadership of the day. AKA – the rich, powerful, religious, and educated.

And what does it mean that they were troubled or disturbed? Weren’t the Jews waiting in expectation for a Messiah, a deliverer, a King that would restore them to glory?  Why were these Jewish leaders disturbed rather than curious or hopeful?  And what does that matter for us today?  Here are some of my theories….

Here are some of my theories….

1.  Maybe the news of a newborn prophesied King of the Jews disturbed the elite because they feared the disruption of the social order.  The leaders of Jerusalem had established some measure of stability through Herod’s relationship with Caeser Augustus and the fear of Roman intervention. And in any system, there those who benefit from a political administration and those who may not. Maybe all of Jerusalem means those who found a pretty good life under Herod were more worried about losing their status in the face of local rebellion or Roman retaliation than about Biblical prophecies? Word of a new and promised king would mean a challenge to the political order of the day with potential vast ramifications for those with status in that order.

2.  Maybe Herod and all of Jerusalem were more disturbed than hopeful because they could not see God’s way of providing for His people.  Maybe, as people often do, they fell into patterns of belief and thought that God’s promised King would only come through “Kingly” lineage as viewed through the lens of the day. Of course, Jesus does have Kingship in his bloodlines as Matthew’s genealogy attests, but so did a lot of other people. Maybe people were blinded by their own elitism and expectations about where great leaders come from? Maybe the new King should be born a King and the thought that a baby born in Bethlehem could be a King was ridiculous. As such, this child again becomes a threat to the political and social order because he could not possibly be from the right stock.

3.  Maybe the educated and religious elite stopped expecting the Messiah because they liked their religious system they had developed and the control and status they gained from enforcing it? Maybe the news of a newborn Messianic King was disturbing because they were focused on policy rather the story of Israel? Maybe they feared the loss of their tight religious system if Rome got involved in a power struggle?

4.  But maybe there’s a deeper level of disruption involved? While Herod was disturbed no doubt because of the threat to his power and position, maybe all of Jerusalem was disturbed with him because the presence of two Kings brings the question of allegiance to the forefront. The news that a promised “King of the Jews” has come from outside the current royal line means a challenge to current authority. And for all those “around,” it means there will be a day of reckoning, a time to choose.  Who will they give their allegiance too?  In such a time, everyone has to choose. It’s only a matter of time.

Maybe it’s some parts of all of the above. Comfort, status, control, and safety seem to be factors for why all of Jerusalem began to get disturbed and anxious. But at the core, I believe all of this gets at the anxiety of allegiance. When allegiance is secure, these other things are not disturbing even in the face of risk and danger.

All of Jerusalem seemed to be feeling the anxiety of allegiance, even if they couldn’t put a name to it.  And unless we have addressed our own allegiance once and for all, we should be disturbed by Christmas as well.  But is so, is your anxiety because you fear losing power, status, comfort, or control?

This is what makes the incarnation amazing – the promised King came with no earthly power, status, comfort, and with total vulnerability. The foolish things of the world have shamed the wise.

 

Quick Review: 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness

Over the past year I have, as the opportunities have allowed, have worked my way through Eric Metaxas’ book 7 Men and The Secret of Their Greatness.  I took this book slow and when I was in the mood for a brief biography this was a great go to book, especially via the audiobook version.  Each biography is about 50-60 minutes on the audio book, basically the length of my commute to and from work.

The book includes 7 biographies of men of faith that have had a significant impact on others and society.  The list includes George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Chuck Colson.

Many of thus are well-known figures, some with movies documenting parts of their stories or journeys. Amazing Grace came out on William Wilberforce, Chariots of Fire on Eric Liddell, and most recently 42 on Jackie Robinson. I recommend all of them.

I personally learned new and significant things about each man that I didn’t know before even though I have been quite familiar with many of these men.  I enjoyed all of the brief biographies, but I was particularly encouraged from my learning on the lives of Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson, who I did not know as much about. These men are quite different in their personalities, gifts, and historical and social contexts. But the faith and integrity demonstrated that showed up tangibly in service to others is quite the powerful common thread to their impact.

I am not typically a “biography” guy, but this was a great way to expose myself further to the lives and examples of these men and leaders, each in contexts that carried such great challenges.  I recommend the audiobook, which is my preferred mode to do biographies. It was a great antidote for traffic and long commutes.

 

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.

 

Quick Review: A Farewell to Mars

I’m excited to share this quick review as A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd was one of the best and most compelling and challenging books I’ve read in some time.  The book in general is a treatment of how the gospel gets coopted by culture to serve national interests – usually through the rationalization or justification of violence as the means to achieve “peace.”

There’s much I can relate to in the journey of the author as generationally I’ve experienced some of the key events that he describes as being critical to his journey at a similar life stage to him.  The challenge of this book is to explore deeply all the ways in which we have actively or passively endorse a path of violence while believing the lie that such violence is “righteous” and that God is on our side.  This can be reflected in our attitudes towards war, politics, international policy, and even action movies!

This is one of the books that I anticipate will be one of the most recommended books to others.  But let me share a couple of the highlights for me in the book.  First, the book has 2 chapters that rank among my favorite of any book I’ve read.  The first was entitled, “Jesus Versus the Crowd” and goes into some of the best treatment of the scapegoating dynamic that fuels violence in community.  This area is an area of great passion for me as a result of my exploration into family and congregational systems theory, but Zahnd gives a phenomenal treatment of it as it relates to violence and society with a great treatment of the Biblical text in the book of John.

The other chapter that really stood out centered on the nature of freedom, which is a critical issue for us to understand since violence and freedom are often presented as hand in hand when we celebrate our national histories.  This was an excellent treatment of freedom, again with the theme of peace versus violence as the greater context.

I think the majority of Christians, especially evangelicals, would find this greatly convicting and it’s why all should read it.  Christians are often portrayed as a violent people in western society today – not always because they are perpetuating physical violence, but because the way Christians engage society or deal with difficult or sensitive issues often tends to reflect language and attitudes that are violent in nature.  Christians need to reclaim the identity as peacemakers that we are called to be and I am grateful for the challenge that A Farewell to Mars brought me.  Can’t recommend it enough to you.

 

 

 

Quick Review: Jesus, The Middle Eastern Storyteller

I recently finished another book in Gary Burge’s Ancient Context, Ancient Faith series.  This one was called Jesus, The Middle Eastern Storyteller with the focus being many of the parables that Jesus taught in the gospels.

I really have enjoyed this series because of the cultural insight into the ancient near east and the time of Jesus.  This edition of the series added helpful insight to the ways in which Jesus captivated people through stories.  The book is grouped into topical storytelling themes that illustrate some of how Jesus tried to convey powerful teaching into contextualized stories.

The chapters focus on the banquet and excuses, hospitality and honor related to prayer (Luke 11), compassion, forgiveness, materialism and inheritance, the lost and general storytelling in the culture.

My favorite chapters related to prayer (Luke 11), excuses and the Kingdom of God (Luke 14), and forgiveness (Matthew 18).  All three of these chapters brought such great cultural insight into the text that provided a deeper and more robust interpretation and reading that have stayed with me over the past week since reading them and will shape my spiritual formation and understanding of these areas of faith.  I had not read Luke 14 with the honor and shame categories before and applied to the literary context of prayer.  It really has built my confidence in prayer.

If you want to go deeper into some of the parables from a cultural and literary standpoint, it’s worth checking it out.  I’m really enjoying the series.

 

Quick Review: The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty

A couple of weeks ago I read Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty:  How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.  The book is loaded with research and stories that illustrate the ways humans consistently rationalize dishonest activity.  And consistency was a key word – I was fascinating at how the research consistently showed people being dishonest to a similar threshold.

The main takeaway from the book is that people lie or engage in dishonest behavior up to the point where they can still rationalize themselves as being a good person.  So it suggests that there is some kind of unwritten cheater code that we humans like to live by – where we can seek to gain an advantage for ourselves and also fully believe that we are good people.

What was most interesting to me was that the research indicated that religion and the reminder of a greater power and spiritual moral code had a significant influence on dishonesty in a positive sense.  People simple were more honest and demonstrated more integrity when they had recently been reminded of this higher power and moral code.

However – the author dismisses this arena from the book because of the impracticality of mobilizing humanity to embrace a common religious solution.  He abruptly dismisses the discussion about the depths to which religion might be the best solution and instead seeks a more pragmatic or secular solution that would not be controversial.  On one hand, I understand that much of the research focuses on specific behavior.  But it is disappointing that the religious sphere had such a powerful impact in the research, but did not get explored in depth.

There’s a lot of practical application here as well as areas worth reflecting on- as it relates to leadership development, culture shaping, and ministry activities like discipleship and spiritual formation.  The question is how we can foster integrity in communities and in leaders when research shows that dishonesty is rampant, subtle, and mostly hidden by rationalization.

One particular example stood out to me as a professor.  We have various things that often require students signing an honor code or pledge of honor that they did something they said they did.  Research shows that it’s almost useless to have people sign at the end of the document verifying that everything prior was true.

Research shows the rationalization or dishonesty has already happened and been justified.  But if you have people read and sign a pledge of honesty of some sort before they fill out a document or take a test, then the results are outstanding that dishonesty will be much more minimal.  I am changing all such documents I use for my classes to account for some of these learnings. I can help them be honest through how I design various documents and through what and when I remind them of related to a higher standard or authority.  You can obviously use this information in heavy handed ways, but if used appropriately it can just make honesty easier for everyone.  That was really interesting to think about.

There were other great anecdotes including one about how just being under a “set of eyes” has on cheating or dishonesty behavior.  Even a symbol of “eyes” looking on someone in situations where temptation is high resulted in more honest behavior.

So there’s a lot of fascinating research that gives a lot of windows into people’s self-understanding and inner workings.  It’s fully worth reading this because you’ll learn things that will help you in whatever walk of life you are in.

I want to grow in my awareness of how I rationalize and justify dishonest behavior and I want to help others do the same. This book provides some practical helps for regulating behavior, but does not offer any ultimate solutions because it avoids the spiritual realm. What it does do – is illustrate how people think and behave and how deep down there is an almost pathological drive to preserve a sense of being “good” all the while looking for every self-serving advantage we can get away with.

This points us to the need for the gospel.  We need it to be reminded of a better and holy way. We need it because we are deeply fallen and yet we desire to be good though we can’t seem to rid ourselves of the duplicity and the falseness.  Sometimes it helps to look in a mirror as to how we tend to deceive ourselves and even though there weren’t great answers, this book provided me with the questions I want to be asking of myself and others.

 

Triumphalism: The Lost Art of Honesty

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

As I continue posting this series on some of my multi-ethnic learnings, this post focuses on positivity gone wrong.

It took only a year or two in this context to understand that perhaps nothing hinders the empowerment of ethnic minority ministry, ethnic leaders, and movement towards great systemic change like militant positivity and the inability to have and navigate honest communication.

happy-button

In ethnic ministry as well as cross-cultural situations, there are emotional realities and perspectives often kept quiet and silenced because of leadership tendencies to want to keep things orderly, structured, and “clean.” Failure to cultivate honesty, even with all its rawness in cross-cultural contexts, is to assure the preservation of the status quo.

Change cannot happen without the ability to navigate honesty.

Triumphalism I’ll describe here as the over-celebration of what Jesus has done and maybe the overconfidence that comes when we primarily focus on the positive and celebration and to the neglect of seeking out and facing with integrity those things that still need to die, be grieved, or be named as part of reality. This is very subtle but can be very deep. Before redemptive conflict can take place that can move us forward in healthy directions for all, different stories and painful feedback must be allowed into the conversation without it being ignored, silenced, spun, or hi-jacked by majority narratives.

Triumphalistic leadership positivity in this sense usually flows from anxiety.  It could be personal anxiety driven by fear. It could be insecurity or even a sense of inadequacy trying to lead or manage tension or conflict. Whatever it is – unchecked anxiety leads to control behavior and self-preservation.  That posture is a conversation killer, a door closer, a silencer of voice. Positive people are great. What we’re talking about are people I would call “Hopemongers.” They’re so desperate for a happy ending, they subvert the process that can produce redemptive fruit.

The picture above comes from the kids movie, Horton Hears a Who. The Mayor of Whoville speaks the truth to a community fearful of what new knowledge will do and they press “the happy button” for self-preservation.  We’re all tempted to press the happy button, but real conversation requires entering relationships and responding appropriately to pain.

If you’re interested in diving in on this one and you would like a more scholarly or theological resource than Horton Hears a Who 🙂  I would recommend Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. It does not specifically relate to cross-cultural ministry, but he presents a theology of power and voice that is worth really engaging. I’m very grateful I came across this resource when I was beginning to immerse myself in ethnic minority leadership development and ministry.