Year in Review – 5 books I found most helpful/interesting/challenging

For most of my life reading was a purely mental exercise. What I mean by that is, I would read a book and learn a bunch of new things, but those new learnings rarely translated into new practices. The ideas learned were simply fodder to be used in conversations/discussion/debates to make me look well read and intelligent. What they didn’t do was shift how I thought, and more importantly, how I acted.

Let me add, this was also my approach to the Bible. I don’t think I am alone here. I believe this to be a massive problem within American Christianity. We live at a time where information is in excess. You can get your hands on books, commentaries, sermons, lectures, or studies easier than any other time in history. And yet for all the information that is available, there is little to show for how that information has impacted American Christians to live more obedient lives to Christ.

In effort to change my practice of learning, I am spending some brief time reflecting the five books that impacted me the most this year.

To Change the World – James Davison Hunter

There is a mandate on Christians to have an impact on the world around us. This mandate was instituted in the beginning when God breathed life into the man and woman, who were created int he image of the Creator God, saying to them, “Work in the garden and take care of it.” While not identical, in our work to fulfill this mandate we mirror God’s creative act.

Since the fall, this work has taken on a restorative or redemptive nature, again, to mirror God’s restorative and redemptive actions in the world. In other words, we work to make this a better place to live as God redeems and restores. This work has direct impact on culture. Hunter goes into detail about the differing views on what culture is. For some, culture is the sum total of the values that are held in the hearts and minds of people. For others, culture is what is produced by society in artifacts, art, music and the likes. His explanations, critiques and proposals on thinking about culture were extremely helpful.

The second part of the book moves into how those on the theological and political right and left, along with the Anabaptist approach their efforts to influence culture. He highlights how both the right and the left utilize power and authority to legislate for their particular morality, and how the Anabaptist choose to withdraw from the greater culture in lieu of using authority or power.

But perhaps the most intriguing idea put forth by Hunter was his idea of a faithful presence in the world. After highlighting the shortcomings of each of the aforementioned approaches, he draws upon the incarnation as a model to approach culture calling it, “the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it.” Hunter’s theology of faithful presence calls Christians to “attend to the people and places that they experience directly…[it] gives priority to right in front of us – the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted.”

I think Hunter’s work is profoundly important as we continue to live in a society and culture that is markedly post-Christian.

A Failure of Nerve – Edwin Friedman

Friedman had my attention on page two when he wrote, “[this book] is for leaders who have questioned the widespread triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility.” That statement says a lot about the state of leading in our society. Friedman contends that throughout America there is a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try and remain a calm presence in the midst of a toxically reactive system. Rather than seeking emotional mature leadership, we have become a culture longing for quick fixes and band-aids that make us feel like a calm has been brought to the storm, but have done little to actually calming the storm.

This book challenged many of the assumptions I had about leadership, especially leadership in the church. To see such a challenge see my blog post here

The most challenging aspect to this book is that it will not give you easy solutions or techniques to make you a better leader. To become a better leader, one must better oneself. Leadership begins with who you are. If you are emotionally reactive, you can expect the system you lead to be emotionally reactive. As Will Mancini said, “You produce who you are.” A Failure of Nerve requires the reader to constantly look at self as they move through the content, and fight the urge to “fix” those they are leading.

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times – Peter Steinke

I don’t think I have ever met a pastor who did not have a story about a congregation becoming anxious at some point. These stories are filled with other stories about frustrating, hurtful, obnoxious, and even sinful things people do in the midst of anxiety. Steinke actually says that according to his experience, four out of ten churches will face a moderate to serious conflict in any five year period. This book helps the reader understand anxiety and how it manifests itself within the system. This allows the leader to think systems as the move through and manage conflict. Steinke provides very practical suggestions in how to ones own anxiety as they seek to resolve conflict, as well as ways in which to minimize the negative effects of anxiety on the system.

My biggest take away from this book was two-fold: thinking systems when it comes to conflict management, and understanding that anxiety is not necessarily bad. Anxiety just is. Anxiety alone doesn’t hurt the system or organization. How the anxiety is managed, or not managed determines the effect of anxiety.

The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Brueggemann

For anyone who has imagined a world that is not broken, but is as it should be, this book will fan that imaginative spark. Brueggemann looks at Moses and the Old Testament prophets efforts at creating a counter-community to what they experience in the world around them. We speak often of this in church. A world where status and ledgers don’t determine worth, but rather worth is determined by the intrinsic value of being a image bearer that all people have. We dream of a world where materialism and oppression don’t numb us to the world around, but we dream of a world where the imagination for something holy other inspires us to new living. Brueggemann encourage us to ask not whether “it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.”

I found the following quote to be especially challenging.

“The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger.”

You Can Change – Tim Chester

I despise, and I am not sure it is for good reason or not, books and teaching that are systematic. If something “7 steps to…,” or “5 sure-fire practices…” or “11 things to do…” I will most likely never pick that book up. That is why Tim Chester’s You Can Change was so refreshing. This is not a “how-to” or a “Step-by-step” book. This is simply looking at the truths of the gospel and living into them in new ways to experience transformation in an area of our life that has yet to be obedient to Jesus. That’s it. Every chapter ends with thoughtful questions to help the reader engage an area of their life where they would like to see change. And these aren’t your typical study questions. These are real questions that, if taken seriously, will help people experience the gospel of Jesus to a deeper degree.

Those are my top five books of the year. What are yours?

Lady Gaga, irrationality, and leadership

A friend once gave me some great leadership advice. Leaders need to spend time trying to understand how the world occurs to a person in order to make sense of their actions. Why? Because no one ever wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves, “Today I am going to act in a way everyone else would think was irrational.” Rather, people act in a manner that is completely rational to how they view the world. If leaders understand how others view the world, then they can understand their actions.

I think this is great advice. Its insight is brilliant because of it’s simplicity. But it has me wondering…is there a singular rational way to live?

We live in culture that loves irrationality. Chance, collage, anarchy and deconstruction are things we adore. These are so ingrained in us as a culture we have no problems swimming in the incongruity enabled by them. For example, Lady GaGa could easily be considered the poster-child for post-modernity and irrationality. She crosses gender, sexuality and race boundaries seamlessly. The art of her performances seeks to display the role culture plays in constructing our identities. At the same time she sings, “I was born this way…” This seems completely irrational and paradoxical. How can one claim that gender, for example, is a social constructed label while singing that the way one is established at the time of birth long before society has a chance to construct something?

Back to my friend’s statement.

How do people view the world? If they see the world as paradoxical in nature and devoid of any absolutes then perhaps, the irrationality makes complete sense. Who is to say whether we are socially constructed or if we are born a certain way? What if it is a combination of the two? Perhaps it just arises out of living in a world that seems full of contradiction and irrationality. We live in a world that is beautiful and ugly, complex and simple, full and empty, hopeful and despairing, blessed and tragic. A world where at times all events seemed to be threaded together by a single narrative, and other times is seemingly individual events occurring in chaotic randomness. Surrounded by all that, how does one keep themselves from becoming irrational?

In light of this, I believe the advice my friend gave me is spot on. Admittedly, I often judge the behavior of others to be irrational. But it irrational to me.  Which is simply to say that based on how I perceive the world I have determined there to be a singularly rational way to operate irregardless of the circumstances and forces impacting another persons perception of the world.

As a leader, taking time to listen and understand why they do what they do provides many opportunities to lead.  Listening communicates a concern for the person and builds relational capital.  It allows the leader to learn and gain a broader understanding of the world and how it impacts those around them.  Finally,  it provides a place for the leader to facilitate greater change.  If a leader can understand how one acts based on how the perceive the world, they can help change, not only the action, but the perception of the world.  Which is absolutely transformational.  It is the type of change that affects the whole life of the person.  It changes how they think, how they act, their attitudes, and their relationships.

And as a leader, it changes me.

Postmodernism, value, and a diamond encrusted skull

I recently read an article by Edward Docx entitled, “Postmodernism is dead” where he argued that the deconstruction occurring through postmodern thought removed previous criteria of determining if something was of value.  So beauty, aesthetics, skill went out the window as criteria used to judge the worth of work, art, music, literature, philosophy and so forth.  The resulting vacuum quickly needed to be filled with some metric to determine value.  Why?  Because we as humans are wired to ascribe worth to something (this idea is based upon the Christian belief that we will worship something.  Worship is nothing more than ascribing worth to something).  So what became the determining criteria of worth?  Money.  Docx says:

In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.

Postmodern thought left us with only money and the market to determine the value of something.  “How much is it worth?  How much did it make?” are the questions hovering over art, literature and music.  The quality of music is no longer determined by the richness of its lyrics, or the use of melody, harmony and subtlety, rather it is esteemed on its ability to appeal to masses of people and bring in millions of dollars.  This valuation by earning power stems from a ubiquitous confusion as to who can assign value.  Postmodernism undermined any privilege a dominant discourse might have previously had in assigning value.  It also became politically wrong to claim the ability to assign value.  Thus, profits became the final arbitrator.

I can’t help but reflect on the financial meltdown of 2008.  After watching the documentary Inside Job, I felt sick to my stomach and wondered how anyone could be so greedy as to willfully risk company, economy and name in effort to make a quick dollar.  But it makes sense.  If money is the only thing of value, then pursing it is the highest good.  Integrity, concern for others, ethics, and reputation hold no value.  Thanks to postmodernist deconstruction, they are worthless.  Who give them value?  The individual can’t assign value because that would be conflict of interest.  Others might value ethics over reputation or vice versa.  How does one know?  They don’t.  They can’t.  And so value is evidenced by the bank account.

Perhaps the most insidious outcome of this removal of value is what it does to the person. If art, literature, music and philosophies have no criteria other than money to judge their value, then what about the person?  Can a person have intrinsic value?  How do they know their worth?  Who determines who is worth what?  Or is a person’s value tied to money, or the ability to earn money?  I fear we are becoming a culture so impacted by postmodernism’s devaluation of anything but money has crept in to how we treat one another.

To see the truth of this, one has to look no further than how we view the poor.  Many view the poor as the 50% who “have no skin in the game” in terms of paying taxes.  They are labeled as moochers, free riders, and lazy.  Why?  They contribute nothing to the economic system.  They would be more valuable if they paid taxes, if they contributed.  Value has been divorced from humanity and married to bank account.  A day after I initially wrote this, I came across this article “The New Resentment of the Poor.

Docx gives hope at the end of his article.

We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinizing, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. . . . If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

The Christian hope is that humans are valued because they are made in the Creator’s image.  Humanity, with all its flaws, short-comings, and brokenness has value because the “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  The incarnation cries out to the universe that humanity has value.  That there is intrinsic worth.  And that worth is not tied to bank accounts, or buying power, or contribution, but worth is derived in being image bearer’s of God.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about this idea: there need not be any confusion about who assigns value.  For it is not determined by other humans, but is assigned by the very one who created them.  Our worth comes from the one who is supremely worthy.