Category Archives: Theology

Quick Review: Feelings and Faith

I recently read Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions in the Christian Life by Brian S. Borgman. There’s so many that ride the extremes of emotion – either being driven completely by emotion or rejecting emotion out of hand. Feelings and Faith is a theology of emotions for people who want to understand emotions through the grand story of creation, fall, and redemption.

A good amount of the book is focused on unpacking from Scripture what it has to say about emotions and what that means for the character of God and what it means to be human. Borgman challenges various false perspectives about feelings that plague Christians and non-believers alike. He anchors his theology of emotions with a solid foundation that is easy to understand and follow even though it still is challenging.

He continues to tackle Biblical perspectives on various emotions such as anger, fear, and depression among others. He does a good job in this section helping the reader understand the intersection of the physical person and spirituality. In the world today much is treated as exclusively physical – but there are helpful discussions about spirituality, Scripture, and sin as they impact feelings and emotions.

He dives into various areas such as worship, preaching, Christian community, and reading Scripture among others to explore the importance of holistic experience as part of God’s design of revealing Himself.

This is a very solid book. I have read so much on some of these areas that I did not find much of the book revolutionary. But if I had read this in college or in my twenties I would have really benefitted from it. But I continue to be struck by one of the main points of the book – that our emotional life is subject to the Lordship of Christ just like any other area. This isn’t a popular notion as emotions still tend to get filtered by what’s culturally appropriate, but there are emotions God wants us to experience and emotions that He wants us to have control over.  That’s a radical idea to many.

So if you find yourself blown around in the wind too often or detached from any source of meaning and connection, I’d suggest reading Faith and Feelings.

 

Quick Review: The Fire Next Time

I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time over the weekend and found it really powerful. I had wanted to read it for a while and have heard many people compare Te-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I found really powerful a few months ago. That increased my drive to prioritize this book and I’m really glad I did, despite being late to the party as it were.

As a book that was written in 1963 in the heart of the civil rights struggle, it struck me just how many of the themes are similar. As I was reading the book I saw the recent news that home ownership for African-Americans was assessed as having made no progress in the past 50 years, since the time The Fire Next Time was written. That bit of info powerfully shaped my reading and experience of what was written in 1963 with such power, art, and conviction.

One of the fascinating dimensions of the book was Baldwin’s critique of the nation of Islam’s approach to peace and justice as he found them to be ideologically on the same ground as white supremacists. But he provides a first-hand account of conversations and interactions I could never experience or observe in person and I found myself riveted in hearing the raw passion and anger and desire for justice. I was also disturbed by the unfiltered hate for whites by some. At this point in my own journey, such realities do not generate as much fear in me as they once may have. Instead, they generate deep sadness and anger of my own. It is true that much has changed for the better in the last 50 years, but it’s also uncomfortable just how much continues to reflect the same patterns of sin and injustice.  It’s these realities that make this book important for today as well.

Baldwin gives a strong critique of religion in this book through the lenses of oppression, corruption, and hypocrisy. He offers helpful perspective on how the church – both the black and white churches of the time contributed to the cycles of hatred, violence, and systemic injustice of the time. He clearly turns away from the church as a result, but there’s a lot about his experiences and insights that merit self-reflection for the modern church – especially the way religion and religious institutions can get enslaved by culture and the ideology of the time.

At the core of it, I heard through Baldwin’s anger and contempt for some of these institutions a deep longing for the church to truly be what it should be in the context of such blatant hatred, evil, and injustice. It’s a reality that when the church fails to have anything to say or do that engages meaningfully in matters of injustice and that fails to point to a tangibly different possibility instead of pie in the sky theology, the Church loses its credibility. And Baldwin, stirred with passion and anger, still resists the temptation of ethnic hatred and retaliation in favor of love and sacrifice.

This won’t be the last time I read this book because there’s so much in here that you just can’t absorb or take in one time through.

 

Quick Review: Narrative Mediation – A New Approach to Conflict Resolution

I finished this week John Winslade and Gerald Monk’s Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution.  This book is grounded in social constructionist theory and postmodern philosophical assumptions. I’ll share a few thoughts on what was helpful and where I found some problems.

The approach is fundamentally influenced by the assumptions that behavior and meaning are shaped by discourse and socially constructed narratives. Conflict is not something that is intrinsic or caused by who someone is per se but driven by discourse and the socially shaped meanings as they act and are acted upon.

A big part of the approach is “externalizing the conflict,” which basically can be summarized as avoiding judgment and making the conflict itself “the bad guy.” The goal is to eliminate all guilt and shame so a positive alternative story can be discovered and developed.

Some strengths of this approach – one is that it can help in scenarios where people feel significantly attacked or threatened as a mediator seeks to restore a sense of safety and trust. There are some great components of the approach with different types of questions that can approach a conflict a bit more indirectly or in ways that allow really defensive people to find their way back. Another strength is there are some great methodological categories for finding your way through a conflict towards an alternative story. There are some things I really found interesting and helpful from a tactical and strategic standpoint.

But it was fascinating to read a book in which there was 250 pages of mediation yet there was not even a whisper or allusion to the concepts of forgiveness, confession, apologies, repentance, or reconciliation. This isn’t a surprise given the underlying philosophical assumptions, but that’s the giant and glaring weakness to this approach. It does not get at the heart. This approach more guides people how to manage conflict and get out of it and move on with your lives and hopefully with a chance at restoring the relationship. However, there is no attention to heart issues and the kind of sin and character elements that drive and perpetuate conflict.

That being said, I found a lot of the tools in the book helpful from a tactical or strategic standpoint in different potential situations, but I just don’t share the fundamental assumptions of the authors and some of their broad philosophical commitments to their process.  But the idea of helping people develop a better story together that is characterized by peace is great. Worldview is a big piece here and this is why having a metanarrative to me is the most important component for a narrative approach to mediation – because it points to the grand story and that includes themes that ultimately lead to better stories like forgiveness, sacrifice, and love.  To try to form better stories without connection to that bigger story leaves conflict resolution and mediation with limited possibilities where some of the deepest forms of transformation are neglected.

But – I think there is a lot tactically here that could be of help mediating in multi-ethnic situations or in indirect cultures because the strategies and tools are designed to save face for everybody at all times. That’s part of the problem, but there are areas of training  embedded in this that would help someone doing this outside the West.

 

Quick Review: Cross-Cultural Conflict

This past weekend I read Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry. There doesn’t seem to be a kindle version of the book, which would be a shame. The book has some great stuff and in some ways is a forerunner to the recent honor-shame “movement” in missions and Christian scholarship.

This book offers some basic primers on cross-cultural relationships, especially honor-shame dynamics in collectivist cultures such as in Asia and Africa. The focus is still on helping Western missionaries think more cross-culturally and contextually in terms of relationships, conflict, and ministry so there is a lot here designed to help Westerners self-reflect about their own cultural biases.

There’s actually a lot of common ground between this book and Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures by Jayson Georges, which I shared some thoughts on last week. That book has benefitted from a couple decades of additional scholarship, but Elmer’s book includes some fantastic insights on collectivist culture and dynamics.

There are several chapters that deal with indirect approaches to dealing with conflict but goes much more in-depth than Georges does in his relationships chapter in his book. In addition to discussing patron-client dynamics in a chapter on the one-down position, Elmer also offers some great stuff on storytelling as an indirect strategy for resolving issues in honor-shame contexts. Of great help to me at a time where I am studying mediation was Elmer’s chapter on mediation and the mediator with an honor-shame culture in view. The role of a mediator is really interesting as expressed in different cultures. Each culture celebrates some forms of mediation and rejects others it seems. Mediation in Asia from what I’ve experienced tends to function very differently than mediation in the United States.

Elmer also unpacks a great negotiation, honor-shame conflict case study from Joshua 22. I’ve heard some helpful things on this case study before, but I enjoyed Elmer’s treatment of it.

One additional benefit of Elmer’s book here is that there were numerous examples drawn from the Philippines, where I currently live and serve, which I found actually really helpful. There’s a lot here that I can draw from for my current context.

So while there is a lot of commonality with Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, this book goes a bit more deeply into the arena of conflict especially as the title suggests.  I’m really glad I read it.  I was fascinated by the reviews – some of which are highly positive and some are negative. It’s clear that some people really have a hard time looking at conflict, relationships, and the Scriptures through an honor-shame lens.  There’s so much to be gained.

 

Quick Review: Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures

I’ve read sections of Jayson Georges’ Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures since it came out about a year ago but didn’t finish it in its entirety until last week. This is a book I highly recommend even if you don’t serve or work in an honor-shame context and I’ll explain why.

First – this was a great primer on life and ministry in honor-shame contexts. This is the context I have been in especially the last five years in Manila, but even the five years prior in Asian-American ministry this was the primary cultural framework in which ministry took place. This simply should be required reading for anyone going to do any kind of ministry in the majority world, especially Asia. It would have been immensely helpful my first year in Asia.

The book covers theological and Biblical foundations through an honor and shame lens as well as really helpful discussions on how honor and shame impact areas like relationships, community, ethics, conversion, leadership, and other areas.  The chapter on relationships I believe is still free as a download on his website honorshame.com and was one of the resources I used for a recent seminar I did on honor, shame, and conflict. There may be some follow-up posts here as I’ve been reflecting a lot on his sections on community and ethics.

But here is why I think all people should read this – it simply is a fantastic way to help people expand their minds to understand the limits of their own theological and cultural systems. Part of why there is so much polarization theologically and otherwise is a lack of understanding and imagination as to how big the world is and how culture impacts everything and impacts deeply.

This book would add some humility to people, but I think in general most would be surprised at how much an honor-shame lens of areas like evangelism and ethics would really help people in the West as well.  This isn’t a book “for Asia” or the East. This is a book to help everybody expand their knowledge of Scripture, the Gospel, Community and Church, and Mission.

There’s no doubt this will be one of my top 5 books of 2018 so I’d highly encourage you to read it no matter where you are if you are a follower of Jesus.

 

Quick Review: The Sacred Enneagram

I continued some of my exploration through the enneagram reading my third enneagram book in as many months. This one was The Sacred Enneagram by Christopher L. Heuertz. 

I’ve shared on the enneagram before with The Road Back to You and Self to Lose, Self to Find so I’ll just add a few elements of what makes this unique. This was by far the most contemplative of the three books, which for some is good and motivating, while for others that’s a more challenging feature of the book.

The book by far, from what I’ve read, goes into a lot of deeper theory on the enneagram and getting into the “science” of it. So there’s some really interesting stuff in there illuminating certain components. However, there really wasn’t as much content and insight into the enneagram as I was hoping because there were large sections of the book more dedicated to contemplative prayer and spirituality in general and as a foundation for the enneagram.  I wasn’t really looking for that in the book and it’s a large part of it. A solid spiritual base is important for any tool like this, but I was looking for more wisdom and practical insight.

The book is an authentic and solid representation of contemplative spirituality, but that’s not really the world I run in so some of the language at times didn’t resonate with me. But I appreciated the fundamental treatment of how each individual must battle certain fundamental sin patterns to find their life fully in Christ.

This book had the strongest section on the background and history and development of the enneagram so I did enjoy that . I found it very interesting. It also had some of the most accurate depictions the type I identify with so that was helpful as well.

I’m not sure I would recommend this unless someone really was into the contemplative spirituality scene given some of the other resources out there, but I did learn things that I did not in the previous two books. So – maybe it depends on your own personality and how you approach life with God.

 

Quick Review – Dignity: The Essential Role in Resolving Conflict

This month I read Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays In Resolving Conflict by Donna Hicks.  It relates to some of my current coursework, had high ratings on Amazon, and the forward was written by Desmond Tutu so I figured it was worth reading. I don’t give this book the 5-star rating many on Amazon do.  I don’t even give it the 4-star rating, but I’ll unpack the highs and lows of this book below to me.

First, there’s a lot of great stuff here in the book from a research standpoint. I will be using this as a resource to find different relevant research to the world of conflict resolution, negotiation, or mediation. There’s a lot of helpful research cited.

Second, the author writes many times how she has developed a “model” of dignity – “The Dignity Model” of conflict resolution. However, it’s nothing remotely resembling a model. It’s just a list really of behaviors that can increase dignity or diminish dignity in others and ourselves.  In some ways it’s a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for treating people with dignity. But it’s not a model and I thought it was strange how often the author referred to it as such. It’s like calling the 10 commandments or even the book “everything I needed in life I learned in Kindergarten” a model.  There isn’t any conceptual framework in the model – just descriptions of how to treat people with a view towards increasing dignity.

Third, the whole approach is based heavily on evolutionary psychology and 19th-century psychologist William James. I don’t share the same fundamental worldview assumptions as the author so that’s a factor here, but I can still see value in unpacking things with a socio-historical perspective.  What’s hard for me is when the cavemen come out and we start talking about evil behavior and violence as “outdated survival strategies.” That’s just so empty to me and left me very unsatisfied.

This book goes beyond conflict resolution to really try to frame a human rights argument that at one point the author refers to as “God-given.” And in so doing, there has to be some effort to tackle the problem of evil and human darkness or “sin.” The worldview here attempts to build a case for dignity as a human right while also building a case for how fallenness in humanity is a result of a loss of dignity and the impact of these “outdated survival strategies” on an interpersonal, communal, or societal level.

This really is a secular humanist effort to build a theology of dignity without God.  It is a secular attempt at a theology of “the image of God” in humanity based on evolutionary principles and contemporary attitudes.  But the reality is the overwhelming majority of the book in its principles and its model would be obvious extensions of the Christian doctrine of Imago Dei and reflects really blatantly at times a New Testament ethic – just without reference to God.  So that’s the elephant in the room with this book – it represents a longing to treat people in light of innate God-given value and unpack what that looks like. But it tries to build that ethic on a foundation of evolutionary principles.  If there had been an attempt to acknowledge and integrate that these “ideas” were not “new,” but reflected in human history in other belief systems I would have done a lot better with the book. But there was a component of academic snobbery in asserting the “newness” of this approach when in fact – there wasn’t much new about it all.

Another criticism is the framing of “Dignity.” I think the word is good attempt to capture a governing principle here, but it’s a bit sloppy in its usage. The author uses the word dignity as a general concept that overlaps with dimensions of honor and shame, concepts of intrinsic worth, identity, and how Christians think about the “image of God.” There were points where the language of dignity as used ran into problems. There was also so many more opportunities to explore the dynamics of honor and shame, but they were treated with minimal effort.

So it may sound like I’m very critical – and in the ways I am I believe the book deserves the criticism because it really pretends as if whole bodies of knowledge and insight out there don’t exist. That to me is not good scholarship. However, the author and I probably share a lot of common values and perspectives. We just have a very different foundation.

It does bother me how many 5-star reviews there are, which reflects that people are highly interested in this topic and looking for solutions to the heart issues that plague mankind. But there are better paradigms that address the human heart and the human condition – but it takes the humility of faith to explore them. It seems like the fundamental effort of the book is trying to preserve “God-given” value by distancing fallenness and any concept of “sin.” The Christian worldview allows for both intrinsic value and completely sinful depravity – it just requires needing something outside of ourselves for redemption.  The tragedy is how Christian doctrine has been corrupted and abused for depraved purposes and power agendas – the merits of theology has lost credibility through leaders and societies seeking personal advantage.  But the theology is still there to be engaged and it’s foolishness for people to reject where such ideas are unpacked in favor of trying to “re-create” something similar on their own.

There’s tons of value here though and conversations and illustrations of how to treat people with dignity and what tends to lead to breakdowns in relationships and conversations. So it’s a worthy resource if you want to go deeper into the conversation about what is required to create environments in which human identity and worth is valued, respected, and preserved, then this can help challenge and refine some of your thinking.

 

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: TrueFaced

This past spring I read TrueFaced by John Lynch, Bruce McNicol, and Bill Thrall and I just re-read it again this past week.  I was interested in this book because I was impacted a lot by the book Ascent of a Leader by the same authors a long while ago. I owned this book but just never got around to reading it.

The book is really about authentic leadership as compared to performing or “false” leadership. It is not an attempt to do a deep dive on new self, false-self theology. However, there is a good basic foundation of theology in this book for how identity impacts character, behavior, and leadership. The book explores how performance mindsets and approaches to dealing with vulnerability, limitations, and especially sin can lead to false faces – or masks.

The mask metaphor has grown quite common in the last couple decades since this book came out. The reality has always been true – that leaders develop a false face or imposter identity that is aimed at pleasing others or performing for God and end up creating culture and environments that replicate that kind of falseness and allergy to the truth and authentic vulnerability. The authors here specifically attack the ways a Christian approach to orienting life around “pleasing God” leads to a spiral of inauthentic ways of relating to others. This is a book for sinners and legalists – which is all of us so I recommend it!

The authors talk about 3 groups of masks – one is the “doing fine” folks who hide behind shallowness and avoidance of intimacy; another is the “fixers” who go hunting from one technique to the next to solve what they sense is wrong or not working; and the third they call the “pedigreed masks” which are masks anchored in self-righteousness or performance.

Then they dive into chapters specifically on Grace, Love, Repentance, Forgiveness, and Maturity.  The strength of the book I think is some of the unpacking of what grace is and what it is not and how that impacts love, repentance, and forgiveness.   There are great discussions on how grace based love impacts others, what authentic grace based reptentance looks like, and what forgiveness is and is not.

Fundamentally, they argue that our motive to please God must be submitted to our calling to trust God with who we are and what He has done for us. This could be a topic for some healthy debate, but I tend to agree with them.  The Scripture points us to the truth that without faith it’s impossible to please God. So if we try to please without trusting God with ALL of who we are, then we are entering false-self territory.

At the core, I believe one of the great many reasons why the Christian church in the West and elsewhere has lost a lot of its credibility and its voice in the culture is because the focus of “church” has been pleasing as opposing to trusting and resting in God’s grace. Pleasing leads to self-righteousness and condescension. Trusting in the identity God has given us leads us to a freedom in our limitations and with the limitations of others. That would have significant impact.

There are a lot of versions of this book out there and it may be hard to get the original version of this book, but there are some versions available. If you want to read the full original book you may need to find a used book online.