My greatest temptation is cynicism. My deepest struggle is despair. I envy Christian leaders who possess unabashed confidence in the gospel; I’m personally more prone to bouts of unbridled skepticism. I regularly doubt the Scriptures I preach, the God I worship, the worldview I espouse.

If, like me, you tend toward cynicism, this post is for you.

From the outside, you might assume that the pastoral vocation would encourage and strengthen faith. I’d argue the opposite is often true. Pastors have a front-row seat to the ugliness of human sin and its manifestation in the church. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been lied to, lied about, and slandered. I’ve believed the best about people who (it turned out) believed the worst about me. I’ve watched pastors I trusted abuse their power, betray their calling, walk out on their marriages, and even abandon the faith. And as I write this, I know I’m preaching to the choir. You have your own stories of betrayal and disillusionment. Cynicism is tempting because there are things to be cynical about.

One of God’s most gracious gifts to the cynical person is the gift of honest Christian friends. Recently, as I was processing a spate of cynicism and despair with a trusted friend, he suggested a book I hadn’t heard of: Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes. I read it and found it challenging and helpful. In this post, I want to summarize some of the book’s most valuable insights. 

Seeing Through Cynicism by Dick Keyes (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006)

Dick Keyes is a graduate of Harvard University and Westminster Seminary who has worked with L’Abri Fellowship in Southampton, Massachusetts, since 1979. Now in his 70s, he’s given his life to patient, thoughtful interaction with skeptics of all stripes. This makes his reflections on cynicism mature, measured, and wise.

The title of the book pays homage to C.S. Lewis’s famous observation in The Abolition of Man: “You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever… To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” Keyes adopts this rubric as his baseline definition of cynicism: “Cynicism… has to do with seeing through and unmasking positive appearances to reveal the more basic underlying motivations of greed, power, lust, and selfishness.” Throughout the book, he identifies three targets for cynicism: other people, institutions (government, family, church, marriage), and God.

Cynicism, of course, is the air we breathe. It saturates our political discourse, it inundates social media, it’s the key to modern humor. We live downstream from postmodernism and from three influential philosophers – Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche – who taught us to “see through” economic patterns, psychological biases, and power dynamics. Without dismissing the critical insights of these thinkers, Keyes wants to help us question our cultural assumptions and “suspect our suspicions.”

If, like me, you wrestle deeply with cynicism, this is a book worth reading from start to finish. In this post I merely want to summarize six key insights that were helpful to me in my own struggle with cynicism. I’ll also leave you with a few salient quotes from the book.

SIX INSIGHTS ABOUT CYNICISM

Cynicism operates from a hidden idealism. “Cynicism is usually expressed in innuendoes, passing remarks, moods, cartoons, glancing blows, hints, insinuations, unacknowledged assumptions, and jokes. The full self-confidence of its suspicions, enabling it to unmask all things in its vision, are whispered… The genius of cynicism is that it is a voice in your ear which does not usually hang around long enough to be interviewed.” Every cynic is a closet idealist, assuming the superiority of his vantage point. The power of cynicism is that as it critiques the ideals of others, its own ideals are generally hidden from view.

Cynicism is a claim to know all things. Cynicism is a generalizing and totalizing project: because some people act from self-interest, the cynic concludes that all people are driven by self-interest. By claiming to “see through” the motives of others, the cynic assumes a posture of omniscience. “Cynics see through the illusory truths of others to get down to the ‘real truth’ beneath… Far from losing confidence in truth, cynicism has put enormous trust in a different set of truths – its own tools of cynical inquiry.” Though often cloaked in the language of skepticism, cynicism is in fact a claim to absolute truth and objectivity.

Honest dialogue requires that we “reverse the flow of suspicion.” Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche claimed that all religious belief could be reduced to human projection: “the idea of God [provided] a needed crutch, a smokescreen, or both.” But in the same way, both crutch and smokescreen can be motivations for cynicism. The critique cuts both ways. We need to subject cynicism to its own tools of analysis. As we do, we discover that “there is no neutral, objective, or unbiased place to stand” when asking questions about ultimate reality. “Our ideas about God’s presence, absence, or unknowability are all self-involving ideas… They necessarily implicate us or make claims on us, our priorities, and our futures. A dispassionate neutrality is impossible.” Our existing commitments create an interpretive filter through which we evaluate reality. We need to suspect our suspicions.

Cynicism is attractive because it’s partially true. “Cynicism at its best dares to recognize that things are not as they should be… It is suspicious of spin and plastic smiles… [it] has a refreshing aversion to naivete, sentimentality, hypocrisy and blind optimism.” The problem with cynicism is that it goes too far: “Cynics presume to see through those that they cannot in fact see through at all.” For instance: the postmodern cynic adopts a skeptical view of language; words are merely tools that mask agendas of power and oppression. Is this true? Certainly, in some cases. But it’s also true that “words have also been used to clarify, challenge, and motivate people to overcome prejudice, oppression, and injustice.” (Think, for example, of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.) This is the “yes, but” that a healthy response to cynicism requires. Yes, words can be tools of oppression… but not in every case. In the end, cynicism is too simplistic. It’s overconfident in its suspicions. It claims an omniscience it doesn’t have.

The biblical alternative to cynicism is “qualified, redemptive suspicion.” A qualified suspicion acknowledges that not every silver lining has a cloud: despite the brokenness of the world, people are capable of genuine goodness. A redemptive suspicion “is willing to risk giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.” It dares to hope. In a fallen world, suspicion is warranted; we should not trust every person or believe every story. But biblical suspicion looks inward as well as outward. It is self-critical before it is critical of others. It recognizes the possible errors in my judgment and the possible biases in my viewpoint. With qualified, redemptive suspicion, “we can recognize the brokenness that the cynic sees – but without losing the hope that the cynic rejects. [And] we can recognize the glory in the world that the cynic cannot see – but without the sentimentality that the cynic fears.” God, who sees the human heart more clearly than any of us, is not a cynic about humanity. Neither should his people be.

We see only the back side of the tapestry. God, in his providence, is working out his sovereign purposes in history. “What we can see as finite, dependent creatures, limited in space and time, is only a tiny piece of the back side of a tapestry, with only the crudest inklings of what the front side of the tapestry of God’s providence must look like.”

FIVE THOUGHT-PROVOKING QUOTES

“Cynicism is prudent… Believing in the integrity of another person, the validity of an institution or the goodness of God are all high-risk convictions. They are potential setups for disappointment. If you are concerned first and last for emotional safety and survival, cynicism is going to look quite attractive.” (p. 82)

“All men have a natural fear of making a mistake – by believing too well of a person. However, the error of believing too ill of a person is perhaps not feared, at least not in the same degree as the other.” (p. 80, quote from Soren Kierkegaard)

“The cheap pleasures of cynicism are always in plentiful supply. Abandoning them is like going on a diet or giving up smoking. Hope, in other words, is the thing that takes work.” (p. 211, quote from Michael Kinsley)

“If there is an alternative for cynicism, what is it? …[It is] the lifelong determination to see the world as it really is, as much as we can, with eyes open. This means being suspicious of the deceptive filters of our culture and of our personal experience – filters both sentimental and cynical. I am looking for wisdom expressed in a redemptive suspicion, limited by humility and tempered by love and mercy.” (p. 171)

“As cynicism sees through people to unmask them, love also ‘sees through’ them, but with a very different agenda. When we believe and hope in someone, we are also looking through or beyond them, past their face-value appearance or past track record. We see their potential for growth in goodness, strength, and virtue.” (p. 186)

I’m confident my struggle with cynicism will be a lifelong battle. But I’m thankful to Dick Keyes for helping to map the terrain more clearly, and for providing keen wisdom for the journey.  

What if I am grieved by America’s legacy of racism… but tend to distrust governmental solutions? What if I agree that the American church has been complicit in racism… but tend to see preaching the gospel, rather than “antiracist social action,” as the church’s primary mission? What if I agree that Christians should work for racial justice… yet am wary of the ways that the language of “justice” is being weaponized in our cultural dialogue?

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019)

Readers who can relate to these tensions won’t be greatly helped by Jemar Tisby’s new book The Color of Compromise. Though it offers an excellent historical overview of racism in the church, Tisby’s book falls prey to some key weaknesses that diminish the force of his overall argument.

The Color of Compromise is an important book. It’s a necessary book. It’s a meaningful book. Tisby is a first-rate historian, and he has compiled a thorough and sobering account of racism in America and the church’s sad complicity in it. The book is divided into eleven chapters: an introduction and a conclusion, with nine chapters of historical survey in between. Beginning with the colonial era and ending with Black Lives Matter, Tisby traces the story of race in America. Throughout the journey, he comes back to one central point: “nothing about American racism was inevitable.” The story could have been different. At countless moments in history, Christians could have courageously stepped forward to combat racism and change the narrative. But they didn’t.

Overview

For white Christians specifically, Tisby’s book is important in two regards. First of all, it gives historical context. For years, I personally was ignorant of why certain social and political issues tend to elicit a strong response from my black brothers and sisters in Christ. Many of my white friends share that ignorance. But when we understand key events from the slavery and Jim Crow eras, we gain insight and clarity. For instance, when we remember that Rutherford B. Hayes removed federal troops from the South in 1877, leaving newly freed blacks to fend for themselves, we can make better sense of “ongoing disputes over the role of the federal government in proactively ensuring civil rights” (p. 98). To meaningfully engage issues of race, we must know our history. Tisby’s book is massively helpful in that regard.

Second, Tisby’s book is important for white Christians because it confronts false narratives. For example, chapter 6 addresses the “Lost Cause” mythology that persists throughout the American South to this day. “According to the Lost Cause narrative, the South wanted nothing more than to be left alone… but it was attacked by the aggressive, godless North, who swooped in to disrupt a stable society, calling for emancipation and inviting the intrusion of the federal government into small-town, rural life” (p. 94). Having attended college in the South, I can affirm that this explanation for the Civil War is alive and well. Certainly numerous other issues were bound up in the causes and justifications of the Civil War – but every one of those issues was connected in some way to the institution of slavery. Tisby helps us reckon with the hard truth. He shows how Christian denominations split over the issue of slavery, how theologians and preachers used the Bible to justify slavery, and how Christian leaders failed to act courageously to end slavery. White Christians of all persuasions need to reckon with these facts. As Tisby points out, “American Christians have never had trouble celebrating their victories, but honestly recognizing their failures and inconsistencies, especially when it comes to racism, remains an issue… The Color of Compromise undoes the tendency to skip the hard parts of history and… [challenges] a triumphalist view of American Christianity” (p. 20).

A Work of History & Persuasion

As a historian, Tisby excels. He writes with cogency; he acknowledges complexity; he documents his sources well. Yet he seeks to offer more than just a historical survey. The Color of Compromise is a work of persuasion on two levels. First, Tisby hopes to persuade readers that “the American church has been complicit with racism.” At this level, in my opinion, he succeeds. When Southern preachers used the Bible to defend slavery; when denominations divided over it; and when theologians used the “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9 to justify the subjugation of black people, it’s impossible to argue that the church has NOT been complicit in racism.

Second, Tisby seeks to persuade American Christians to “feel the weight of their collective failure to confront racism in the church… [and take] immediate, fierce action to confess the truth and work for justice” (p. 24) And it’s here that the book fails, in my opinion, for two reasons.

First, Tisby assumes that readers share his vision of what “working for justice” looks like, rather than persuading readers that his particular set of prescriptions are both necessary and just. Second, he gives the impression that anything less than “immediate, fierce action” (action, presumably, that accords with his own set of prescriptions) amounts to ongoing complicity with racism.

At this point, I’ll put all my cards on the table. I’m a white Christian reader who’s willing to be persuaded. I’m grieved by the historic injustices done to black image-bearers of God in this country. I’m willing to acknowledge and repent of the sins of my forefathers. I want to identify any overt or covert racism in my life. And I desire to take meaningful action to heal the racial divides in our churches and our society. As such, I imagine I’m exactly the kind of reader Tisby had in mind when he set out to write this book.

At the same time, I also lean in a politically conservative direction; I have a conviction that personal conversion to Christ is foundational to any meaningful change; I think the main task of the church is to preach the gospel and call people to surrender to Jesus Christ; and I am generally skeptical of some of the ways that the language of “justice” is used in our modern political dialogue.

Call me “willing but wary.” Challenged but critically-minded. I imagine that in this regard, I’m representative of a fair percentage of the American Christians whom Tisby hopes to persuade. But his book displays four key weaknesses that will end up hindering its rhetorical effectiveness among the very audience he seeks to influence.

Weakness #1: dismissive treatment of a mainstream theological conviction.

In chapter 8, titled “Compromising with Racism During the Civil Rights Movement,” Tisby contrasts “two approaches to religion and justice – moderation and activism.” Throughout the chapter, Tisby assumes that his own position – activism – is the obviously correct one. He asserts that Christian moderates “played it safe, refusing to get involved in the civil rights movement” (p. 132).

His example of moderation is Billy Graham; of activism, Martin Luther King Jr. Using Graham’s own words, Tisby explains the convictions behind his “moderate” position:

Graham stated, “I believe the heart of the problem of race is in loving our neighbor.” While few Christians would object that racism is a failure to love one’s neighbor, Graham did not carry that statement any further into the realm of institutional racism. Like many evangelicals, Graham believed race relations would gradually improve – one conversion and one friendship at a time… Ultimately, Graham made it clear that his primary goal was evangelism… Graham never relented from the belief that “the evangelist is not primarily a social reformer, a temperance lecturer or a moralizer. He is simply a keryx, a preacher of the good news” (p. 135 and 149).

Leaving aside the question of Billy Graham’s engagement in the civil rights movement, Graham’s stated conviction that “the evangelist is… simply a preacher of the good news” is one shared by many Christian leaders and activists today – of all races and nationalities. One notable example is the Chinese dissident Wang Yi, who wrote recently upon his imprisonment: “I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime… But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.” Tisby fails to treat this conviction as a serious and cogent expression of Christian obedience and mission. Rather, he writes it off as evidence of “complicity with the status quo of institutional racism” (p. 135) and a “failure… to respond to the evils of segregation and inequality” (p. 143).

If Tisby wishes to assert that “activism” is the only properly Christian option, he needs to make a cogent argument to that end. There remain many Christians who DO care about racial justice, but who share Billy Graham’s conviction that the preaching of the gospel is the primary means to that end. Tisby appears to write such people off as lacking a serious commitment to racial equity. This is a core weakness in his book, and one I hope to see him remedy in future writings.  

Weakness #2: an unclear (and seemingly malleable) definition of racism.

In the first chapter of the book, Tisby puts forward Beverly Daniel Tatum’s definition of racism: “racism is a system of oppression based on race.” He points out that racism includes both “personal bigotry toward someone of a different race” and also “the imposition of bigoted ideas on groups of people.” This is a good, clear, and helpful definition. Historically speaking, it’s quite obvious how deeply entrenched this kind of racism has been in the American story.

But then, toward the end of the book, Tisby seems to expand this definition quite dramatically. He offers these tenuous examples of modern-day racism: “sharing the works of people who practiced slavery without context or criticism; continually hosting panels, conferences, and other events that feature only white men; Christian schools making peace with the presence of buildings named after racists or featuring their statues on campus grounds…” (p. 211).

It’s hard for this reader – and others, I imagine – to see how these modern-day examples reflect “a system of oppression based on race.” Each one certainly could be evidence of such – if we are knowingly avoiding the negative aspects of someone’s history, intentionally excluding minority voices, or proudly celebrating a racist past. (And it’s important to acknowledge that these kinds of things can and do happen). But none of these examples, in and of themselves, amounts to de facto racism. To take each one in turn: If I don’t mention Jonathan Edwards’ slaveholding when I quote him, am I guilty of racism? If my panel or conference features only white men, does that mean it’s racist? Is every Christian school with a building named after George Whitefield guilty of racism?

Some of our white forefathers believed that black people were property, not persons. That’s a grievous, sinful offense against human dignity – and it was part of a system of oppression based on race. I’m not convinced that a bust of Thomas Jefferson in the school library is the same thing.

Weakness #3: unjust prescriptions for “justice.”

In his final chapter, Tisby urges Christian leaders to use their platforms to “call out” racism. In so doing, he violates biblical principles of justice that would make such efforts truly just.

Public offense calls for public opposition. Too many Christian leaders refuse to use their platforms to speak publicly against racism. Those who do tend to speak in generalities. “Racism is wrong,” they say, but they refrain from naming individuals or situations in which racism is at play. Moreover, they use euphemisms like “racial tension” or “racially charged” instead of simply naming words or actions “racist”… If someone has been called out for racism, and they refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they caused – whatever their intent – then that person should not enjoy continued credibility and attention. Refuse to go to their conferences, buy their books, quote them on social media, or share their work.

Note carefully the process this paragraph condones. If someone has been “called out” for racism (which makes the accusation of racism the operative principle)… and if they “refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they caused” (making subjective “harm” the determining factor of guilt or innocence)… they should lose public credibility. An accusation of racism, and anything less than immediate capitulation to that accusation, is grounds for denouncing someone as a racist. This is a dangerous prescription that substitutes shame in the court of public opinion for true justice before God and man.

We’ve seen this script play out time and again on social media and in our cultural dialogue, and it’s unfortunate to see a Christian leader condoning these sorts of “shame storms.” Biblical justice demands more. I understand the importance of (especially white) Christian leaders speaking out boldly about issues of race. But when they do so, it’s imperative that they do so biblically and truthfully. If they follow Tisby’s prescription as stated, they may gain followers on social media… but they will not be acting justly in the eyes of God.

Weakness #4: a lack of gospel distinctiveness in the solutions proposed.

At the beginning of the book, Tisby makes an important point that’s foundational to any thinking about racism:

Skin color is simply a physical trait. It is a feature that has no bearing on one’s intrinsic dignity. As the following chapters show, people invented racial categories. Race and racism are social constructs.

This is exactly right. “Race” is an invented category – a social construct used to divide people from one another.

Therefore, we might expect a Christian treatment of racism to use the Scriptures to critique the very idea of race. A Christian approach might start with a survey of the doctrine of the image of God; fast-forward to Revelation’s vision of “every tribe, tongue, and nation” gathered around the throne of God; and then explore how the gospel of Jesus Christ has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility” and “reconciled us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14-16). Such an approach might show how the gospel critiques the very idea of race (as a category constructed by sinful humans to divide us from one another), and how Christian baptism welcomes us into one new family where identity in Christ and not skin color is our defining feature.

It’s odd, then, that in the final (and prescriptive) chapter of Tisby’s book, he doesn’t mention the gospel at all. His suggestions for addressing racial injustice include: reparations; taking down Confederate monuments; learning from the black church; starting a new seminary; hosting freedom schools and pilgrimages; making Juneteenth a national holiday; participating in the modern-day civil rights movement; publicly denouncing racism; and starting a civil rights movement toward the church.

In his defense, Tisby’s goal is to offer practical advice – things Christians can DO to combat racism. Action steps are good and necessary. But my question is this: if race itself is a social construct, why prescribe remedies that operate within that social construct? Why not show how the gospel dismantles and redeems the whole construct in the first place?

Tisby’s prescriptions aren’t inherently bad (though I expect robust debate on their various merits and demerits); but none of them are distinctly Christian either. Each of them can be pursued without the gospel and without the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that reflects a self-conscious authorial decision; it could be that Tisby was aiming at a common-grace approach to furthering racial justice. But it seems to me that he missed a powerful opportunity to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ gives a totally different set of tools – and a totally different empowering grace – to address racism. If some Christians reject his ideas as “too liberal” – a charge he anticipates in his first chapter – I suspect this is why. It’s not because he’s an unreliable narrator; it’s not because his ideas are unworthy of consideration; it’s not because his audience is importing their own “implicit bias.” It’s because none of his solutions require the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit.

Summary & Conclusion

In summary, The Color of Compromise is an important book. It makes a meaningful contribution to the conversation about race in the church and in our society. I anticipate using it with my own children to help them understand (and lament) the church’s history of racial injustice.

However, it’s not a flawless book. It treats dismissively a well-established theological conviction. It offers a fuzzy description of modern-day racism. It fails to uphold biblical justice in some of its prescriptions for justice. And it misses a chance for clear gospel application. As a result, it fails to be as persuasive as the author hopes.

Jemar Tisby is a young scholar with many years of productive writing and activism ahead of him. I’m thankful for his voice, his influence, and his love for the church. I trust he will choose to address some of these weaknesses in his future work. And even if he disagrees with these critiques, I hope they serve to advance this important and fruitful conversation in the church at large, for the healing of our nation and the glory of God.

Good Pictures, Bad Pictures // Kristen A. Jenson  // Richland, WA: Glen Cove Press, 2016

(note: the original post has been updated to reflect the second edition of this book.)

Back when pornographic magazines were sold behind the gas-station counter, parents could perhaps afford to deal with porn reactively rather than proactively. But in these days of smartphones and ubiquitous wi-fi, a proactive strategy is the only option. Your kids need to hear about porn from you before they encounter it at school or at a friend’s house. And now there’s a great new resource to help you: the book Good Pictures Bad Pictures.

Porn is a $97 billion global industry, and it’s growing rapidly. At the peak of Playboy magazine’s popularity in 1975, it had a circulation of 5.6 million; in 2016, 107 million people in the U.S. visited an adult website every month. One out of every nine internet search requests is for porn. According to Time magazine, the average boy encounters pornography in some form by age 11. But here’s the good news: though 40% of children ages 10-17 have been exposed to online porn, it usually happens accidentally. In other words, your kid isn’t seeking porn. Rather, porn is seeking him. Porn marketers want to push their way into your child’s life early – especially if he is male – so they can hook him as a consumer for life. If you can prepare him for battle with a proactive strategy, you can counteract the negative effects of porn before they wreck your child’s sexual and emotional future.

But how do you talk about porn with young kids? Porn is so dark – so evil – that it’s tough to know how to discuss it without compromising a child’s innocence. Kristen Jenson understands – and she’s given us a resource to help. She’s put together a children’s book that tackles the subject squarely yet sensitively. Using the concept of “bad pictures,” she helps kids understand in a simple but honest way what pornography is. And the book teaches kids neuroscience in the process! The book explores the difference between the “feeling brain” (the limbic system) and the “thinking brain” (the prefrontal cortex), helping kids understand how addiction hijacks the brain’s reward system. After reading this book, your kids won’t just know to say “no” to porn; they’ll understand why porn can initially seem exciting or interesting, and why that can be so dangerous.

In the Introduction (intended for parents), Jenson explains why she wrote the book:

We wrote Good Pictures Bad Pictures as a tool to help parents begin a dialogue about pornography before kids become interested in it and while they still see their parents as a credible source of information. In other words… to get in first and immunize kids against the very real harms of “picture poison…” Internet filters are important, but not enough. When it comes to kids and pornography, ignorance is risk… A child’s brain is more vulnerable to porn because it is designed to imitate what it sees. Additionally, a child’s brain has less ability to control those imitative impulses. Viewing pornography can alter the brain’s neural pathways… Today’s Internet pornography goes way beyond the nude, still photos of men’s magazines. It has metastasized into a hundred thousand variants of degrading violence, including rape, sex with children, group sex, and horrors we won’t describe here… That’s why kids must develop their own internal filters. We call it porn-proofing: empowering kids by teaching them what pornography is, why it’s harmful to their brains, and how they can minimize its impact once they have been exposed.

 Even the book’s art is thoughtful. “When I asked myself the question, ‘How do we illustrate a book for kids about pornography?’” writes Jenson, “I knew I wanted the illustrations to be in watercolor. They needed to be classic and soft to counter the harshness of pornography; and real, not cartoonish – I didn’t want to risk trivializing this serious problem.” The book ends with a five-step plan that’s simple, easy to remember, and empowers kids to reject porn when they encounter it.

Good Pictures Bad Pictures is intended for 7-8 year olds. It will work with kids up to about age 11 or 12, but will likely “miss” with teenage readers, who will prefer a more mature treatment of the issues. If you’re looking to porn-proof your kids early, this book is an absolutely wonderful resource. I earnestly recommend it. Get it. Read it. Pass it along to others. You’ll be glad you did.

Here’s a link to the book’s website, where you can learn more and order a copy.

For years, I’ve been looking for a clear, simple, charitable treatment of the key theological differences between Protestants and Catholics. Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo have finally produced such a book, and it’s a refreshing and insightful read.

The Unfinished Reformation is only 171 pages including endnotes. That means it’s the kind of book you can read in a weekend. And yet, Allison and Castaldo don’t compromise depth for the sake of brevity. They offer plenty of theological rigor, appealing to primary sources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, and Calvin’s Institutes. More importantly, they recognize important intellectual pre-commitments that are in play for readers on both the Protestant and Catholic sides of the table. Their first chapter begins: “Catholic and Protestant teaching frequently suffers from selective quotation without regard to official documents and without taking into consideration how religious ideas influence the faithful.” Amen and amen. Both Protestant and Catholic readers will be pleased with the tone and tenor of this book as it traces key points of agreement and difference.

Allison and Castaldo begin their work by identifying ten areas where Protestants and Catholics stand together. After establishing this common ground, they proceed to outline key areas of difference. They frame each difference as a question (for instance, “What is the Church?” or “How Do the Sacraments Work?”) and then show how each tradition answers that question. The authors write as unashamed Protestants. But Castaldo’s Roman Catholic roots and Allison’s academic integrity motivate them to represent the Catholic point of view cogently, charitably, and accurately. Roman Catholic readers will find no hint of polemic, caricature, or oversimplification; only a clear, nuanced treatment of Catholic theology and practice.

Within Coram Deo Church (and others like it), many worshipers have come to evangelical convictions after being raised in a Roman Catholic heritage. For such people, the ability to winsomely and intelligently discuss areas of agreement and disagreement is crucial. Why might your parents see your evangelical awakening as a decision to leave the faith? Why might your family members react negatively when you don’t baptize your child in the Catholic tradition? The reasons are theological. And understanding each other’s theological convictions can lead to more fruitful, constructive, and charitable conversations.

The danger of a book like this is that it’s bound to leave some readers on both sides of the aisle disappointed. After all, we’ve been arguing about the merits and demerits of the Reformation for five centuries now. It’s impossible to capture 500 years of ecclesial history in 200 pages. So to some, The Unfinished Reformation may seem a little bit… uncomplicated.

But in my opinion, that’s precisely the book’s strength. Without sacrificing theological precision, it keeps things simple and basic. And that’s exactly what many people are seeking: an easy-to-digest, reliable tour guide to the key differences between Protestants and Catholics. This book may not qualify you for a master’s degree in theological studies… but it will certainly help your conversations at Thanksgiving dinner.

Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).

The biggest problem with good Christian books about sex… is the lack of them.

I don’t mean that Christians don’t write about sex. We have, and we do. But our writing tends to be thin and simplistic. Christian writers have mostly failed to engage the significant cultural narratives about sexuality and personhood that frame the context for modern thinking. As Jonathan Grant puts it, something about our cultural moment “makes the Christian vision of sexuality seem naïve and unrealistic at best and downright repressive at worst, even to many young Christians.” And THAT’S the problem the church needs to tackle. Generally speaking, we do provide moral instruction. But that moral instruction is often divorced from a coherent narrative framework that makes it meaningful.

That’s the gap Grant seeks to fill with his excellent book Divine Sex (Brazos Press, 2015). It’s a thoughtful book, a meaningful book, even a compelling book (as its subtitle claims). Why? Because Grant deeply understands both the biblical vision of sexuality and the modern cultural context in which we are seeking to live out that vision.

The basic conviction of this book is that Christian faith and secular culture exist in complex interrelationship. This creates both challenges and opportunities for discipleship. The first part of the book considers the following questions: what is the modern self, and how does it approach sexual relationships? How has our cultural moment shaped what we think and do in this area? Having identified the signs of the times and their influence, the second part will propose an alternative Christian vision of personal identity as the basis for a practical model of formation, one that integrates issues relating to sexuality and relationships (Grant, 25).

In other words, Grant is going to place his discussion of sexuality within the larger category of personhood. Sex is something that persons do, and so our vision of sexuality is integrally bound up with our understanding of the self. Set within that context, it becomes clear that a counter-cultural vision of selfhood is crucial to a Christian sexual ethic.

Part One of Grant’s book, titled “Mapping the Modern Sexual Imaginary,” sets out to name the cultural influences that shape the modern self and therefore the modern vision of sexuality. By drawing heavily upon academic sociological research, Grant makes this part of his book almost unassailable – this is just the way things are, and the studies prove it. He focuses on five features of our cultural landscape that shape our thinking about sex:

  • Individualism: We live in a “culture of authenticity” which encourages us to create our own beliefs and express our own unique identity. Because we are shaped by individualism, we find ourselves caught between intimacy and autonomy, unable to sustain deep commitments for fear that they will keep us from being “true to ourselves.”
  • Freedom: We have been taught to understand freedom as unrestricted, unrestrained personal choice. Because of this (mistaken) thinking, we are caught in the “freedom trap,” desiring total autonomy and self-determination, but cut off from the mentorship and deep friendship that can actually help us grow into full maturity.
  • Consumerism: Modern capitalism trains us to acquire, consume, and move on, with novelty as our guiding impulse. Under the influence of consumerism, people and relationships become commodities. “What we do with things, we will inevitably do with people.”
  • Hypersexuality: Our culture has reduced sexuality to sex. This causes us to use sex as a “happiness technology,” emptying sex of its deeper meaning and losing our ability for relational intimacy. In a porn-ified world, “We become performers and consumers rather than genuine participants.”
  • The Loss of Transcendence: The naturalistic, scientific view of the world as a closed system has undercut our sense of meaning or purpose in the universe. We live with a “low horizon.” Because of this loss of transcendence, we lack a coherent vision for life and for sexuality, and we are left with the narrow utilitarian goal of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. We see relationships as transactional. “Our bodies become pleasure machines.”

This section of the book isn’t exactly encouraging. The mal-formative sexual influences around us are many and powerful, and Grant describes them cogently. After reading his bleak portrayal, readers will be ready to embrace a deeper, more thoughtful, more holistic strategy for Christian discipleship. And that’s what Grant sets out to provide in Part Two: Charting a New Course for Christian Formation. He wants us to think in terms of counter-formation: not just teaching basic doctrine, but shaping a “Christian social imaginary” that envisions a whole different kind of life.

This second section is the brilliance of Grant’s project. Rather than focusing on simple moral instruction, Grant wants Christians to embrace the thick, coherent vision of human personhood that grounds the biblical sexual ethic and gives it meaning and significance. The Bible gives us a new vision, a new story, a new community, and new practices.

  • A New Vision: The biblical sexual ethic is rooted in a comprehensive vision of life which is eschatological (focused on the future kingdom of God), metaphysical (grounded in a vision of ultimate reality that anchors our lives now), and formational (virtue-shaping, not merely rule-following). “The Christian vision of sexuality is less like putting out ‘Do Not Walk on the Grass’ signs and more like marking out the boundaries of a field so that the game of life can be played well and with conviction… Our hearts must be truly captivated by the goodness of the Christian vision of life, so that our whole self is drawn toward it, or our commitment to live in tune with it will be brittle.”
  • A New Story: Modern culture is a powerful storyteller. It offers us a steady diet of “sexual scripts” that reinforce a particular narrative of sexuality. In contrast, Christians need to practice “narrative discipleship” – immersing ourselves in the story of the gospel in a way that counteracts our culture’s sexual scripts. “The single most important thing you can do for your family and church community may be… [to] develop a strong common story.”
  • A New Community: As ground zero for Christian counter-formation, the church needs to be a thick, deep, formative context, not just a weekly social gathering. God’s family needs to nurture its spiritual children – not just by teaching truth, but by shaping virtue and forming identity. Particularly important in this process is the role of exemplars – mature living examples who embody the faith and can provide a pattern for others to follow.
  • New Practices: Evangelical Christianity tends to under-emphasize habits and rituals. Grant quotes Richard Rohr’s quip that we don’t “think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Therefore, we need Christian counter-practices that prepare us for alternative ways of imagining and living. Disciplines such as prayer, personal Bible study, immersion in small-group community, embodied worship, and solitude help to train us for life in the kingdom. Rather than just expecting these practices to happen, the church needs to become a laboratory where these habits can be built and explored together.

As helpful as Grant’s overall vision is, the real genius of this book is in the details. A sentence here or a paragraph there will stop the reader cold and provoke an awakening of new insight. The margins of my copy are filled with scribbled exclamations like “Yes!” and “Finally!” and “This is good.” Here are a few examples:

  • Whereas contemporary culture thinks about sex mainly as an experience, Scripture and Christian tradition have always thought about it in terms of virtue or character. Christian sexuality is primarily something we are becoming rather than something we do.
  • “Chastity” is a deeply misunderstood concept today. We tend to associate it with sexual celibacy, but chastity is a virtue that relates equally to singleness and marriage; it is not directly about sex at all. Chastity is… emotional sincerity or integrity, by which we express our feelings honestly.
  • The way we disciple people within the church… sets out clear moral rules, rather than thinking about how we might become the sort of people who actually live by these convictions. The flaw in this cognitive approach is its assumption that everyone is morally mature and has the power to do whatever he or she chooses to do.

Grant’s theological vision of of singleness is beautiful and compelling. His observations about “social or affective sexuality” are amazingly perceptive. And his nuanced distinction between “desire for sex” and “sexual desire” will fuel fresh hope in those seeking to live with sexual integrity.

Last week, one of my friends went to a youth event where the speaker challenged teens toward sexual purity. It was the standard “save sex for marriage” talk. Such messages, though true and necessary, will have less and less persuasive power in the modern social imaginary – which is why we need the excellent resource Jonathan Grant has given us. If you want to talk meaningfully about sex… if you need to redeem your own thinking about sex… if you long to disciple others into a vision of Christian sexuality that’s beautiful and compelling… you need Jonathan Grant’s book on your shelf.