Article Apr 7, 2015

3 books that influenced my thinking in ethics

When asked to name books that influenced my thinking in ethics, these three came to mind initially:

1. Ethics for a Brave New World by John and Paul Feinberg

Back in the late 90s, SBC Seminary Extension drafted me to write the study guide for their basic ethics course and recommended the Feinberg book, which I hadn’t read. I was happy to pick up on the suggestion and dove right in. I’m still using it in my own ethics classes at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, over 15 years later (now in the 2nd edition).

I didn’t agree with everything I read therein (e.g., I’m not a hierarchicalist, but rather a non-conflicting absolutist), but their care in working out the biblical case on a range of topics was gratifying. Their treatment of divorce and remarriage was particularly helpful because of a trial by fire I’d gone through in my first pastorate.

Fresh out of seminary, I was teaching the January Bible Study theme book that year, 1 Corinthians, which has something in it to offend about everyone. And offend I did, unwittingly. When I got to chapter 7, where Paul addresses the topic, I said that there were weddings I wouldn’t feel free to perform because they weren’t pleasing to God. I think I could have endorsed cannibalism and gotten less flak, for my predecessor was quite easygoing on the subject, and now I’d branded myself as a Shammai Pharisee within a thoroughly Hillel congregation.

Some couples left the church. One deacon wondered out loud how they’d pay my salary. People loaned me books they thought I should read, and read I did, almost desperately, trying to get a fix on what the Bible said. To complicate matters, biblical inerrantists were all over the map. To make a long story short, I settled on a two-exception approach (accommodating the victim of adultery or abandonment by a non-believer). This upset William Barclay fans on the “left” and Bill Gothard fans on the “right.” Still, I found comfort in resonance with John Stott and John MacArthur. But it wasn’t until 15 years later that I read in the Feinbergs’ book that this was the Erasmian position, one that they defended ably, and I was able to rest more firmly in the practice.

2. War: Ends and Means by Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla

By the time I’d read this book, I was already an infantry major, a Vietnam-era ROTC product who never had to face combat. But I had faced gainsayers toward the military, who were plentiful in those days. Some were thoughtful Mennonite friends; many were secularists or “mainliners” marinating in the 60s and early 70s.

I made my just war arguments as best I could, but the other guys had all but monopolized talk of “peace” and “love,” with its affective cachet. Then, I read the following passage on the “victims of peace,” and I felt an easing in the burden of proof. Yes, we need good justification to enter war, but we may just as well need good justification not to take up arms in defense of those being slaughtered in war’s absence.

War is hell. Nobody doubts that. War means death, destruction of families, cold, hunger, and the subjection to harsh authority. So why is so much of mankind at war? One answer is that peace is no picnic. The very evils we associate with war have fallen upon mankind more fully in times and places well removed from battlefields and in conditions conventionally called peace. Especially in this century, the victims of peace outnumber the victims of war.

The authors then ran the tally: “Perhaps 35 million people, of whom 25 million were civilians, have died as a direct consequence of military operations since 1900.” Then came the butcher’s bill from “peace”: “During the same period, however, at least 100 million human beings have been killed by police forces or their equivalent . . .” The methods have ranged from gas chambers to starvation, from shootings to crushings by trucks.

Because the victims could not (while others would not) make war on their own behalf, the killers did their killing in peace. Regardless of whether the victims were Armenians, Jews, Tutsis, Ukrainians, Chinese, or Cambodians, the stories of these historic horrors of peace are very similar.

And so on it has gone with the Zaghawa of Darfur, the Kurds of Northern Iraq, and all the others left to endure “the horrors of peace.”

3. Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior by E. Michael Jones

I’d long-known the maxim, “Ideas have consequences,” but this book led me to suggest that, also, “Consequences have ideas.” It’s an odd expression, but it picks up on Jones’s argument that modernity is “rationalized sexual behavior.”

Jones seeks to demonstrate that the ungodly work of such icons as Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, and the Bloomsbury Group was meant to excuse their sin, albeit with fancy speech. He certainly misfires on some points (as when he, a doctrinaire Catholic, suggests Luther started the Reformation because he was tired of being celibate), but much of what he says rings true, and resonates nicely with Peter Gay’s book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.

So, in sum, the first two didn’t so much change my mind as help secure and advance convictions already in place, and the third gave me a new perspective on the ethics wars in which we find ourselves engaged. All three reminded me of my duty as a writer to “pay it forward” that I might help others as I was helped.